Violations of Law and Consumer Harm

ffiec_logo (1)

The Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) issued a notice and request for comment regarding the Uniform Interagency Consumer Compliance Rating System (CC Rating System). My comment letter reads as follows:

The Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) issued a notice and request for comment regarding the Uniform Interagency Consumer Compliance Rating System (CC Rating System). The FFIEC is seeking to revise the CC Rating System “to reflect the regulatory, examination (supervisory), technological, and market changes that have occurred in the years since the current rating system was established.”  81 F.R. 26553.  It is a positive development that the federal government is seeking to implement a consistent approach to consumer protection across a broad swath of the financial services industry.  Nonetheless, the proposed CC Ratings System can be refined to further improve consumer protection in the financial services industry.

One of the CC Rating System’s categories is Violations of Law and Consumer Harm.  The request for comment notes that over the last few decades, the financial services industry has become more complex, and the broad array of risks in the market that can cause consumer harm has become increasingly clear.  Violations of various laws – including the Fair Housing Act and other fair lending laws, for example – may cause significant consumer harm that should raise supervisory concerns.  Recognizing this broad array of risks, the proposed revisions directs examiners to consider all violations of consumer laws based on the root cause, severity, duration, and pervasiveness.  This approach emphasizes the importance of various consumer protection laws, and is intended to reflect the broader array of risks and potential harm caused by consumer protection violations.  81 F.R. 26556.

This is all to the good.  Prior to the Subprime Crisis, a big part of the problem was that financial services companies used regulatory arbitrage to avoid scrutiny.  Lots of mortgage lending migrated to nonbanks that did not need to worry about unwanted attention from the regulators that scrutinized banks and other heavily regulated mortgage lenders.  (To be clear, Alan Greenspan and other federal regulators did not do a good job of scrutinizing the banks. But let’s leave that for another day.)  With the CFPB now regulating many nonbanks and with an updated CC Rating System in place, we should expect that regulatory arbitrage will decrease in the face of this coordinated regulatory action.

I would note, however, an ambiguity in the “Violations of Law and Consumer Harm” category, an ambiguity that should be cleared up in favor of additional consumer protections.  The category title, “Violations of Law and Consumer Harm,” implies that there are some types of consumer harm that are distinct from violations of law and that is obviously true. The discussion of the category emphasizes this by stating that it encompasses “the broad range of violations of consumer protection laws and evidence of consumer harm.” 81 F.R. 26556 (emphasis added).  And the text of the guidance itself states this as well, indicating that the category’s assessment factors “evaluate the dimensions of any identified violation or consumer harm.”  81 F.R. 26558 (emphasis added).

But the remainder of the discussion of this category only focuses on violations of law and pays little attention to “the broad array of risks in the market that can cause consumer harm” that are not also violations of law.  81 F.R. 26556.  Indeed, the four assessment factors for this category are all premises on causes of identified “violations of law.”  This is a significant failing for the CC Rating System because of the many types of consumer harm that are not clear violations of law.  As proposed, the “Violations of Law and Consumer Harm” category appears to be as much about protecting the bank from legal liability from lawsuits brought on behalf of consumers as it is about addressing the legitimate interests of the consumers of financial services.

As we sort out the after-effects of the Subprime Crisis, we have seen many situations where there was no clear violation of law but homeowners suffered from outrageous industry practices.  For instance, many borrowers are suffering needlessly at the hands of their mortgage servicers.  Some servicers are under-resourced, intentionally or not, and continue to treat their borrowers with a maddening disregard.  In some cases, this outrageous behavior does not amount to a clear violation of law, but is behavior that reflects most badly on the parties engaged in it.  The CC Rating System should both acknowledge this type of harm and address it to maximize the benefits that can flow from this forthcoming revision to it.

The Sloppy State of the Mortgage Market

photo by Badagnani

I published a short article in the California Real Property Law Reporter, Sloppy, Sloppy, Sloppy: The State of the Mortgage Market, as part of a broader discussion of Foreclosures Following Problematic Securitizations.  The other contributors were Roger Bernhardt, who organized the discussion,  as well as Dale Whitman, Steven Bender, April Charney and Joseph Forte.  My article opens,

Much of the discussion about the recent California Supreme Court case Yvanova v New Century Mortgage Corp. (2016) 62 C4th 919  has focused on the scope of the Court’s narrow holding, “a borrower who has suffered a nonjudicial foreclosure [in California] does not lack standing to sue for wrongful foreclosure based on an allegedly void assignment merely because he or she was in default on the loan and was not a party to the challenged assignment.” 62 C4th at 924. This is an important question, no doubt, but I want to spend a little time contemplating the types of sloppy behavior at issue in the case and what consequences should result from that behavior.

Sloppy Practices All Over

The lender in Yvanova was the infamous New Century Mortgage Corporation, once the second-largest subprime lender in the nation.  New Century was so infamous that it even had a cameo role in the recently released movie, The Big Short, in which its 2007 bankruptcy filing marked the turning point in the market’s understanding of the fundamentally diseased condition of the subprime market.

New Century was infamous for its “brazen” behavior.  The Final Report of the National Commission on the Causes of the Financial and Economic Crisis in the United States (Jan. 2011) (Report) labeled it so because of its aggressive origination practices.  See Report at page 186. It noted that New Century “ignored early warnings that its own loan quality was deteriorating and stripped power from two risk-control departments that had noted the evidence.” Report at p 157. And it quotes a former New Century fraud specialist as saying, “[t]he definition of a good loan changed from ‘one that pays’ to ‘one that could be sold.”  Report at p 105.

This type of brazen behavior was endemic throughout the mortgage industry during the subprime boom in the early 2000s.  As Brad Borden and I have documented, Wall Street firms flagrantly disregarded the real estate mortgage investment conduit (REMIC) rules and regulations that must be complied with to receive favorable tax treatment for a mortgage-backed security, although the IRS has let them dodge this particular bullet.  Borden & Reiss, REMIC Tax Enforcement as Financial-Market Regulator, 16 U Penn J Bus L 663 (Spring 2014).

The sloppy practices were not limited to the origination of mortgages. They were prevalent in the servicing of them as well. The National Mortgage Settlement entered into in February 2012, by 49 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government, on the one hand, and the country’s five largest mortgage servicers, on the other, provided for over $50 billion in relief for distressed borrowers and in payments to the government entities. While this settlement was a significant hit for the industry, industry sloppy practices were not ended by it. For information about the Settlement, see Joint State-Federal National Mortgage Servicing Settlements and the State of California Department of Justice, Office of the Attorney General, Mortgage Settlements: Homeowners.

As the subprime crisis devolved into the foreclosure crisis, we have seen those sloppy practices have persisted through the lifecycle of the subprime mortgage, with case after case revealing horrifically awful behavior on the part of lenders and servicers in foreclosure proceedings.  I have written about many of these Kafka-esque cases on  One typical case describes how borrowers have “been through hell” in dealing with their mortgage servicer. U.S. Bank v Sawyer (2014) 95 A3d 608, 612 n5.  Another typical case found that a servicer committed the tort of outrage because its “conduct, if proven, is beyond the bounds of decency and utterly intolerable in our community.” Lucero v Cenlar, FSB (WD Wash 2014) 2014 WL 4925489, *7.  And Yvanova alleges more of the same.