Articles Posted in RESPA LITIGATION

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.
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The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued their 24 page Opinion today, August 24, 2015, in the Denise P. Edwards versus The First American Corporation; First American Title Insurance Company class action lawsuit. No. 13-55542 D.C. No. 2:07-cv-03796-SJO-FFM.

The Edwards v. First American class action lawsuit was originally filed on June 12, 2007 and has spent over 8 years bouncing from federal court to federal court.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in part and vacated in part the United States District Court for the Central District of California’s order denying class certification in a case where the Plaintiffs alleged that First American Title engaged in a national scheme of paying title agencies things of value in exchange for the title agencies’ agreement to refer future title insurance business to First American in violation of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act “RESPA”.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau “CFPB” announced today they will delay “enforcement” of the new Truth In Lending-RESPA Integrated Disclosure “TRID” rule for an undefined period of time. Over two hundred members of Congress were pushing for an enforcement delay until December 31, 2015 but the CFPB did not place a definitive time frame for compliance thus leaving the date that CFPB enforcement starts very murky.

The CFPB also said they will apply a standard of “sensitivity” in their TRID enforcement oversight with companies who provide “good-faith efforts” to comply with TRID. However, the Bureau failed to define what “sensitivity” or “good-faith efforts” actually mean and how they will be applied.

The enforcement delay is certainly a good step because the CFPB clearly heard from the industry that a number software companies were unable to get their lending customers ready in time. The American Bankers Association recently conducted a study which said that 8 out of 10 bank members couldn’t verify when their software system would be ready or were informed their software system wouldn’t be ready before June. The Loan Originator System “LOS” troubles were discussed in a blog post we did in January.

The TILA-RESPA Integrated Disclosure Rule’s implementation date is beginning to cause heightened concern and worry for those involved in the residential lending industry. One reason is the emerging news that a number of the 3rd party vendors engaged to write the loan originator system “LOS” software may not be able to do so until April, May, June, or even worse that some of the LOS systems that are rolled out may not be in compliance when the residential lender implements the LOS into their system. One reason for the delay by these vendors is that they were busy designing and creating other software to address the Qualified Mortgage “QM” rule that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2014 and only now are the turning to the TILA-RESPA integration.

Kate Larson, Regulatory Counsel, with the Consumer Bankers Association wrote an article for InformationWeek on the “2015 Banking Regulatory Outlook” on Jan. 7, 2015 in which she stated “Despite their diligent efforts, many of our members are concerned their systems will not be ready by the August 2015 deadline because of the limited number of vendors in the market.”

The downstream impact of a delayed LOS system integration is causing many banks and mortgage bankers to have to reassess their risks associated with their third party vendor management compliance obligations with respect to the TILA-RESPA Rule. Many banks and mortgage bankers to whom we have spoken will only be utilizing one title vendor because they are concerned about the integration timeline and do not want to be left shut down in whole or in part on or after August 1st, 2015 as a result of spreading their compliance across to many vendors.

There are simply to many lenders, banks, credit unions, mortgage brokers, and others who are relying on the limited number of mortgage software companies to integrate the new TILA-RESPA LOS system. Several of the TILA-RESPA disclosure task force groups we serve on are sensing real concern by the various trade associations.

On the title side of the business, many of the title software companies have finished or are finalizing their software systems to address the compliance of their title vendors. However, finalization of these systems depend on the mortgage LOS systems integration, testing that integration, and educating the employees of both the lenders and title vendors.

The CFPB has been adamant that they will not delay the implementation date of this rule and even if by some miracle the CFPB suspends enforcement for 6 months (similar to what HUD did with the 2010 RESPA Reform Rule) this will not provide sufficient safeguards because the secondary market may not purchase loans that are not in compliance with new TILA-RESPA Rule. In sum, if something is out of compliance then the lenders face claims by investors that they have violated the reps. and warrants under their repurchase agreements, thus leaving them exposed to future mortgage buy-back claims.

We are hearing that a few of the biggest banks will be completely ready by the end of Feb. 2015 as they went in-house and designed their LOS systems due to concerns about meeting the implementation rule deadline. However, let’s hope the 3rd party LOS software companies can get their systems in place, integrated & tested with their title vendor(s), and all the staff trained well in advance of August 1st, 2015.
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Wells Fargo announced that effective August 1, 2015 it will control the generation and delivery of the borrower’s Closing Disclosure form in anticipation of the TILA-RESPA Integrated Disclosure Rule. The new Closing Disclosure is a mix of the existing Truth-in-Lending (TIL) disclosure and the Settlement Statement (HUD-1). Wells Fargo stated in the Wells Fargo Settlement Agent Communications newsletter on September 24, 2014 they will be taking over this process in order to meet internal compliance and governmental regulator compliance expectations on the bank.

Wells Fargo said the reason they will be delivering the Closing Disclosure Form is because they want to maintain evidence the borrower received the disclosure at least three days prior to the closing since this is a critical compliance requirement they must meet. The bank disclosed that having readily accessible data for internal and external compliance audits was another major reason for this decision.

Wells Fargo disclosed that their view under the new rules is “…that the settlement agent continues to be responsible for the Seller’s information and will prepare and deliver the Seller’s Closing Disclosure. A copy must be provided [by the Settlement Agent] to Wells Fargo for our loan file in order to comply with the final rules.”

New Orleans, LA (PR Newswire) August 29, 2014 – Martindale-Hubbell® has confirmed that attorney Marx David Sterbcow has been given an AV Preeminent Rating, Martindale-Hubbell’s highest possible rating for both ethical standards and legal ability.

The AV Preeminent rating is an objective indicator designed to help buyers of legal services identify, evaluate and select the most appropriate lawyer. The reviews are based on evaluations of lawyers by other members of the bar and the judiciary in North America. AV Preeminent® (4.5-5 out of 5) is a significant rating accomplishment – a testament to the fact that a lawyer’s peers rank him or her at the highest level of professional excellence.

Mr. Sterbcow and his firm have had an extensive real estate and financial services law practice since the firm was founded in 2004. He represented the National Association of Mortgage Brokers in its suit against the Federal Reserve Board and has litigated matters involving RESPA, mortgage fraud, and antitrust in several federal jurisdictions. Mr. Sterbcow is also listed to Superlawyers and New Orleans Magazine’s Top Lawyers.

Sterbcow Law Group’s Marx Sterbcow was quoted in a New York Times article titled “Cracking Down on Illegal Mortgage Referrals” written by NY Times Mortgage Columnist Lisa Prevost. The article published June 5, 2014, discusses the recent RESPA regulatory enforcement actions by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) against mortgage, title, real estate brokerages. The CFPB has now been involved in 12 RESPA enforcement actions since taking over from HUD in July of 2011.

Mr. Sterbcow was quoted in his description of the RealtySouth consent order: “That’s Respa 101 of what not to do,” said Marx David Sterbcow, a New Orleans lawyer specializing in Respa issues. “You don’t write it into the contracts and basically steer customers to your affiliated company.”

“Respa is intended to protect consumers from having to pay inflated costs for mortgage and closing services. In looking for violators, the bureau has shown that “they don’t care how big your company is,” Mr. Sterbcow said. “Nor do they care how small your company is.” ”

The RealtySouth consent order was an enforcement action which was triggered against RealtySouth because it inserted into it’s pre-printed contract sale form that consumers were required to use TitleSouth (RealtySouth’s affiliated title company). The language in the pre-printed contract which was only in operation for a year stated in Paragraph 5, “Title Insurance. Seller agrees to furnish Buyer a standard form owner’s title insurance policy issued by TitleSouth, LLC in the amount of the purchase price.”

This was the crux of the RESPA enforcement action although the CFPB also added a seemingly trivial charge against RealtySouth’s for not strictly adhering to the exact font and language specifications required in an affiliated business disclosure form. The CFPB argued the disclosure was modified because fonts, word capitalization requirements, and marketing slogans were either not allowed or out of compliance and deviated from the required format.

While CFPB did not identify how many consumers actually opted out of that provision in the pre-printed contract and used a third party title company it didn’t matter as the language spoke for itself which is why the RealtySouth action was commenced by federal regulators.
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The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced today another consent order involving violations of Section 8 of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act “RESPA”. Administrative Proceeding File No. 2014-CFPB-0006 “In the Matter of Stonebridge Title Services, Inc.” The CFPB reviewed the business practices of Stonebridge Title Services, Inc. of Parsippany, New Jersey and its two owners Bruce Dostal and Cesare Stefanelli operated the title agency to determine if Stonebridge Title was violating RESPA Section 8(a) “illegal kickbacks” and 8(b) “unearned fees”. Stonebridge Title is an appointed title agent for several national title insurance underwriters who paid referral commissions of up to 40% of the title insurance premiums they received from consumers to Independent Salespeople for the referral of title insurance work to Stonebridge Title.

The CFPB stated the Independent Salespeople had or developed relationships with entities, typically law firms, and referred these entities to Stonebridge for title insurance and related services on behalf of consumers. The commission agreements Stonebridge utilized with the Independent Salespeople were structured in a way that commissions were paid on each title order placed by a firm that the Independent Sales person referred to Stonebridge. The commission payment amounts for title insurance orders were determined solely based on the value of the title insurance premiums multiplied by a previously agreed-to commission percentage according to the CFPB consent order.

The Independent Salespeople did not perform any title services for the consumers who paid the title insurance premiums to Stonebridge. The Independent Salespeople did not provide any non-referral services for Stonebridge for which they were to receive compensation according to the order.

A RESPA class action lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruled that overnight delivery fees constituted settlement services under the Real Estate Settlement and Procedures Act “RESPA”. The case Henson v. Fidelity National Financial Inc., 2014 WL 1246222 (C.D. Cal. March 21, 2014) alleges that Fidelity has agreements with various overnight delivery companies (i.e. UPS, Federal Express, and OnTrac) which violate RESPA when Fidelity receives “marketing” fees in exchange for referring overnight delivery business to the overnight carriers through Fidelity’s escrow subsidiaries.

The lawsuit states that Fidelity is the controlling parent of various escrow subsidiaries and these escrow subsidiaries use UPS, Federal Express, and OnTrac (the “delivery companies”) to handle overnight deliveries in connection with processing and closing federally related mortgage loans. Fidelities subsidiaries then charge escrow customers for these delivery services in the customers real estate transactions. The lawsuit alleges that Fidelity has separate, written “master” agreements with each of the delivery companies through a subsidiary of Fidelity called EC Purchasing in which EC receives a split of the charges received by the delivery carriers and kickbacks in exchange for referring delivery services to the overnight delivery companies.

The lawsuit also states that because Fidelity exercises substantial control over their subsidiaries that no “marketing” services were actually performed nor did Fidelity put in place mechanisms to ensure they were performed under the master agreement. The payments were alleged to be based on the volume of business referred. The defendants argued that overnight delivery fees or express services were not in the real estate business and thus RESPA and Regulation X did not apply. The Court held that the term “settlement service” as used in Regulation X included overnight delivery services and stated the congress did not explicitly provide an exemption in RESPA for overnight delivery services and because Congress did not provide for an exemption neither should the Court.