On December 6, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB or Bureau) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to coordinate enforcement of the federal fair lending laws, including the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA). Simultaneously, the CFPB issued its first annual Fair Lending Report to Congress as required by the Dodd-Frank Act, which describes the Bureau's efforts to build its Office of Fair Lending and Equal Opportunity and reviews its fair lending accomplishments. Together, these initiatives demonstrate that the CFPB and DOJ are continuing to work together closely to aggressively enforce the federal fair lending laws.
Memorandum of Understanding Regarding Fair Lending Coordination
The new MOU supplements an existing Information Sharing Agreement Regarding Fair Lending Investigations among the DOJ, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Federal Trade Commission, which allows these fair lending enforcement agencies to share confidential information related to fair lending investigations, screening procedures, and investigative techniques. It also follows a general cooperation MOU that the DOJ and CFPB entered into earlier this year.
The new MOU focuses on information sharing and referral of matters alleging ECOA violations, but also governs the agencies' referral processes for other fair lending-related laws and joint fair lending investigations.
Referral of ECOA Violations to DOJ: The MOU explains the circumstances under which the CFPB will refer potential ECOA violations to the DOJ for further investigation or prosecution. Consistent with the established practice of the prudential federal bank regulators, the MOU requires the CFPB to refer to the DOJ all matters where it has "reason to believe" that one or more creditors has engaged in a pattern or practice of lending discrimination. The CFPB may also refer to DOJ any violation of Section 701(a) of ECOA, including a recommendation that a civil action be commenced if the CFPB cannot obtain compliance from the financial institution.
Following referral, the DOJ has 60 days to determine whether to proceed with its own investigation. Within that period, the CFPB may not unilaterally commence its own action with regard to the referred violation(s). Even if exigent circumstances arise during the 60-day review period, the CFPB must first consult with the DOJ before taking independent action.
The CFPB may also refer to the DOJ possible violations of fair lending-related laws for which the CFPB has no statutory examination or enforcement authority, but for which the DOJ possesses enforcement authority, including the Fair Housing Act and the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. Despite its lack of statutory authority to enforce these laws, the CFPB's Supervision & Examination Manual provides resources to identify such potential violations for purposes of referrals to another federal agency.
Joint Investigations: With regard to joint investigations, the MOU provides only that "[w]hen appropriate, the DOJ and the CFPB will seek to collaborate on investigations, and conduct joint investigations of entities allowing the Agencies to leverage resources and expertise." The agreement calls for quarterly meetings to discuss investigative activity, but allows each agency to retain "independent authority to proceed in the manner that it determines is appropriate."
Information Sharing: The MOU describes how the parties have agreed to designate, share, use, and protect as non-public, certain information related to investigations of potential ECOA violations, including confidential supervisory information collected by the CFPB under its supervision and examination authority. The MOU allows for additional case- or investigation-specific information sharing agreements as appropriate, based on a form agreement provided as an attachment to the MOU. Section 7 of the form agreement indicates that "sharing of any confidential information [between the CFPB and DOJ] under this Agreement does not constitute a waiver of, or otherwise affect, any privilege any agency or person may claim with respect to such information under federal law." This provision appears to mirror the treatment of confidential information under 12 U.S.C. § 1828(x) that applies to the prudential bank regulatory agencies.
CFPB's First Annual Fair Lending Report to Congress
The First Annual Fair Lending Report of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau describes the CFPB's efforts to build its Office of Fair Lending and Equal Opportunity and reviews that office's accomplishments from July 21, 2011 through July 20, 2012. The CFPB includes among those accomplishments the issuance of "Bulletin 2012-04 on Discrimination in Lending" and the commencement of a number of non-public fair lending investigations, which are ongoing. The Report states that the Bureau continues to develop tools that allow it to identify areas of heightened fair lending risk and to promote efficiency in its supervisory and enforcement efforts. Earlier this year, in its strategic plan, the CFPB explained that it intends to base its fair lending-related performance on, among other indicators, the number of fair lending supervision activities opened during the fiscal year and the percentage of fair lending cases filed that were "successfully resolved" through litigation, settlement, or default judgment.
The Report states that federal regulators referred 12 ECOA-related matters to the DOJ from July 21, 2011 through December 31, 2011 and provides a summary of the most frequently cited Regulation B violations found by the federal regulators during examinations of financial institutions. The Report also provides a summary of a study and report by the CFPB to Congress on use of cohort default rates in private education lending, and provides a general status on rulemakings required by the Dodd-Frank Act. The CFPB describes the rulemaking to expand the scope of the data that must be collected and submitted under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) as being in the "pre-rule stage," and the Bureau has begun the planning process for new rules concerning data collection and reporting of small, minority- and women-owned business loan data by gathering information from stakeholders.
BuckleySandler LLP is a national leader in fair lending enforcement, litigation, and compliance. Attorneys in our Fair and Responsible Banking Team and CFPB Team defend institutions facing fair lending enforcement actions brought by the DOJ, CFPB and other federal agencies, and the firm regularly counsels an array of financial institutions seeking to comply with the full range of federal fair lending laws.