RESPA CONSUMER CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT FILED AGAINST REALOGY, PHH CORP, TRG, NRT, AND OTHERS SURROUNDING THEIR AFFILIATED BUSINESS ARRANGEMENTS

A consumer class action RESPA lawsuit was filed on November 25, 2015 by Timothy L. Strader Sr., against PHH Corporation, REALOGY Holdings Corp., PHH Mortgage Corporation, PHH Home Loans LLC, RMR Financial LLC, NE Moves Mortgage LLC, PHH Broker Partner Corporation, REALOGY GROUP LLC, REALOGY Intermediate Holdings, Title Resources Group LLC, West Coast Escrow Company, TRG Services Escrow Inc., NRT LLC, REALOGY Services Group LLC, and REALOGY Services Venture Partner LLC in United States District Court for the Central District of California. (Case No. 8:15-CV-1973).

The allegations in this consumer class action lawsuit largely surround issues involving violations of Section 8(a) and Section 8(c)(4) of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act of 1974, as amended, 12 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et seq (“RESPA”), and its implementing regulations, 12 C.F.R. §§ 1024.1 et seq. (“Regulation X”). RESPA – and, in particular, the prohibition on referral fees and kickbacks in 12 U.S.C. § 2607 – was explicitly designed to protect consumers “from unnecessarily high settlement charges caused by certain abusive practices,” such as those described in this Complaint. 12 U.S.C. § 2601(a). As such, 12 U.S.C. § 2607(a) prohibits the giving or accepting of any “fee,” “kickback,” or “thing of value” in exchange for business incident to or part of a “settlement service” (as those terms are defined in RESPA and Regulation X) involving a federally related mortgage loan.

The complaints states the Defendants violated RESPA and distorted the market for title insurance and other settlement services in at least two different manners:

First, PHH and Realogy created an affiliated business arrangement called PHH Home Loans, which the Plaintiffs contend was a sham joint venture carefully engineered to facilitate and disguise the payment of unlawful referral fees and kickbacks in exchange for the referral of title insurance and other settlement services to Realogy’s subsidiary, Title Resource Group (“TRG”). The allegations further state that prior to October 21, 2015, PHH was bound under a Strategic Relationship Agreement to refer all title insurance and settlement services to TRG. The consumers referred by PHH Home Loans paid approximately $1650 to TRG for title insurance and other settlement services. If this allegation is accurate it would violate Section 8(c)(4) under RESPA* which prohibits the “Required Use” of an affiliate if the consumer paid for those services.

Pursuant to the Strategic Relationship Agreement, PHH Home Loans is the exclusively recommended mortgage lender for Realogy’s real estate brokerage network, which is operated by NRT, LLC (which operates such brands as Coldwell Banker, Sotheby’s International Realty, ZipRealty, The Corcoran Group, and Citi Habitats.

The Plaintiffs also state that PHH receives a right of first refusal for the purchase of the mortgage servicing rights for PHH Home Loans originated mortgages, which permit PHH Home Loans to sell the servicing rights to PHH “on terms no less favorable” than those that could be obtained from an independent third party and that PHH owns a disproportionate share of the servicing rights for those mortgages relative to PHH’s overall market share of residential mortgage servicing. The complaints states that the details of this relationship have not been publicly disclosed to consumers.

Second, the Plaintiffs allege that under a related Private Label Solutions (“PLS”) model–in which PHH manages all aspects of the mortgage process for various large banking institutions that PHH directs the PLS Partners to refer title insurance and other settlement services to TRG without disclosing to consumers the existence of PHH’s affiliation with TRG, nor the fact that PHH was required to cause the PLS Partners to refer title insurance and other settlement services to TRG under the terms of the Strategic Relationship Agreement.

The complaint further states that the undisclosed mandatory referral arrangement existed for over 10 years until October 21, 2015, when PHH and Realogy amended the Strategic Relationship Agreement to delete the mandatory referral provision. PHH filed their latest Form 10-Q with the SEC on November 5, 2015 and based on the exhibits it did not include the mandatory referral provision language. The Plaintiffs contend the reason that PHH deleted this provision is due to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. PHH Corporation enforcement action where the CFPB fined PHH $109 million dollars for its relationship with Atrium Reinsurance Corporation, an affiliate of PHH.

This is a RESPA class action case worth monitoring given the allegations, parties involved, and the CFPB’s related case against Atrium now pending in Federal District Court. Judge Fernando M. Olguin is presiding over the case.

If you have any questions about how your company’s affiliated businesses are structured please contact us to set up a consultation.

*Section 8(c)(4) states that nothing shall be construed as prohibiting affiliated business arrangements so long as:

(A) a disclosure is made of the existence of such an arrangement to the person being referred and, in connection with such referral, such person is provided a written estimate of the charge or range of charges generally made by the provider to which the person is referred (i) in the case of a face-to-face referral or a referral made in writing or by electronic media, at or before the time of the referral (and compliance with this requirement in such case may be evidenced by a notation in a written, electronic, or similar system of records maintained in the regular course of business); (ii) in the case of a referral made by telephone, within 3 business days after the referral by telephone,[1] (and in such case an abbreviated verbal disclosure of the existence of the arrangement and the fact that a written disclosure will be provided within 3 business days shall be made to the person being referred during the telephone referral); or (iii) in the case of a referral by a lender (including a referral by a lender to an affiliated lender), at the time the estimates required under section 2604(c) of this title are provided (notwithstanding clause (i) or (ii)); and any required written receipt of such disclosure (without regard to the manner of the disclosure under clause (i), (ii), or (iii)) may be obtained at the closing or settlement (except that a person making a face-to-face referral who provides the written disclosure at or before the time of the referral shall attempt to obtain any required written receipt of such disclosure at such time and if the person being referred chooses not to acknowledge the receipt of the disclosure at that time, that fact shall be noted in the written, electronic, or similar system of records maintained in the regular course of business by the person making the referral),

(B) such person is not required to use any particular provider of settlement services, and

(C) the only thing of value that is received from the arrangement, other than the payments permitted under this subsection, is a return on the ownership interest or franchise relationship, or (5) such other payments or classes of payments or other transfers as are specified in regulations prescribed by the Bureau, after consultation with the Attorney General, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, and the Secretary of Agriculture.

For purposes of the preceding sentence, the following shall not be considered a violation of clause (4)(B): (i) any arrangement that requires a buyer, borrower, or seller to pay for the services of an attorney, credit reporting agency, or real estate appraiser chosen by the lender to represent the lender’s interest in a real estate transaction, or (ii) any arrangement where an attorney or law firm represents a client in a real estate transaction and issues or arranges for the issuance of a policy of title insurance in the transaction directly as agent or through a separate corporate title insurance agency that may be established by that attorney or law firm and operated as an adjunct to his or its law practice.

Andrea Golby the Editor of The Legal Description wrote an excellent article on this case which also can be view here.