MFY Legal Services, an organization whose services include providing free legal assistance to New York City residents, has appealed the CFPB’s decision to withhold mortgage complaint narratives it requested pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). MFY is represented in the appeal by the American Civil Liberties Union.
According to MFY’s appeal letter, the FOIA request sought complaints filed with the CFPB concerning mortgage products, loan modifications, collection or foreclosure between December 1, 2011 and April 5, 2013. While the CFPB provided certain complaint data in response to the request, it declined to provide the complaint narratives and indicated it was withholding the narratives pursuant to the Privacy Act which prohibits the disclosure of information about individuals that is subject to a FOIA exemption.
Relying on FOIA Exemption 6, which prohibits the disclosure of certain information that would constitute “a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” the CFPB stated that, in addition to information that is clearly personally identifiable information, the narratives could also contain such information that the CFPB cannot discern as such. MFY’s letter indicates that the CFPB refused to release even “seemingly innocuous” portions of narratives until its study determined it could reliably recognize and redact all personally identifiable information.
When it released its final policy statement on the public release of consumer complaint data in March 2013, the CFPB indicated that it would not publish narrative data “until such time as the privacy risks of doing so have been carefully and fully addressed.” The CFPB stated that it would assess the feasibility of redacting personally identifiable information and “narrative information that could be used for re-identification” and consider whether there are ways to give consumers submitting complaints a meaningful choice of narrative disclosure options. Industry has been strongly opposed to the CFPB’s public release of complaint narratives.
MFY argues in its appeal that FOIA Exemption 6 does not give the CFPB a basis to completely withhold complaint narratives and it must therefore produce the narratives with names, account numbers, loan numbers, and other directly identifying information redacted.