CFPB proposes to publicly disclose consumer complaint narratives

by Ballard Spahr LLP
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The CFPB is proposing to expand the complaint data that it publicly discloses in its Consumer Complaint Database to include consumer complaint narratives.

Currently, the CFPB’s Disclosure of Consumer Complaint Policy Statement provides that the complaint data fields the CFPB discloses in the database are limited to non-narrative fields such as the name of the company that is the subject of the complaint, the date the complaint was submitted to the CFPB and the date it was submitted to the company, the consumer’s zip code, the product type, the issue the consumer is complaining about by category, and whether or not the company provided relief.

The CFPB’s proposed policy statement, which would supplement the current Policy Statement, would add the consumer’s narrative, meaning the portion of the CFPB’s complaint submission that asks the consumer to describe what happened. Under the proposal, the CFPB would not publish a complaint narrative unless the consumer has provided consent by checking a consent box to give the CFPB permission to publish the narrative. (The press release, but not the proposal, indicates that “at least initially, only narratives submitted online would be eligible for the opt-in.”) Consumers would have the ability to withdraw their consent at any time and have their narratives removed from the database.

The proposal also contemplates that the CFPB would “apply to all publicly-disclosed narratives, a robust personal information scrubbing standard and methodology” to remove personal information to minimize the risk of someone being able to identify the consumer. (We note that the CFPB does not mention removing inflammatory or offensive statements or identifying information pertaining to company employees.)

The proposal would allow companies to submit a narrative response that would appear next to the consumer’s narrative. In his prepared remarks about the proposal to be delivered at the CFPB’s field hearing today on consumer complaints, Director Cordray observes that complaints are not entered into the public database until after a company responds or has had the complaint for 15 calendar days without responding. He states that because of such timing “where the person has opted to have the complaint narrative published, both the narrative and any response that the company decides to submit would be listed simultaneously.” However, the CFPB’s press release states that “in most cases, [the company's] response would appear at the same time as the consumer’s narrative so that reviewers can see both sides concurrently.” We hope industry will weigh in on whether and how, should the CFPB’s proposal to disclose narratives be adopted, existing timetables for responding to complaints will need to be modified to allow companies sufficient time to produce responsive narratives and have such narratives appear simultaneously with consumers’ narratives. 

Despite its conclusion that the proposed policy statement “constitutes an agency statement of general policy exempt from notice and public comment pursuant to [the Administrative Procedure Act],” the CFPB is providing a 30-day comment period (running from when the proposal is published in the Federal Register.) 

From the time the CFPB initially announced its plans to publicly disclose complaint data, we have joined with industry in expressing our concerns about disclosing unverified data. The inclusion of consumer narratives will only serve to increase the reputational risks inherent in such disclosures. It seems like the CFPB has unfortunately decided to allow the database to become a gripe site.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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