Articles Posted in RESPA Marketing Agreements

October Research has scheduled a webinar for Tuesday, November 18, 2014 from 2:00-3:30 PM EST in which Marx Sterbcow of the Sterbcow Law Group; Charles Cain who is the Senior Vice President Midwest Agency Manager of WFG National Title Insurance Company; and Phil Schulman who is a Partner with K&L Gates, will discuss the latest developments involving the use of Marketing Services Agreements (MSAs).

The webinar will provide insights into the latest Consumer Financial Protection Bureau CFPB enforcement action involving Lighthouse Title, HUD Audit of Cornerstone Mortgage, and litigation cases revolving around the use of MSAs. A review of RESPA Sections 8(a) and 8(c)(2) and HUD’s 2010 RESPA Interpretive Rule, language terminology Do’s & Don’ts for MSAs, and the likelihood of additional CFPB investigations and enforcement activity will be addressed in this 90 minute webinar.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced today, September 30, 2014, that they had entered into a Consent Order with Lighthouse Title, a Michigan title insurance agency, for entering into Marketing Service Agreements (MSAs) with various real estate brokers with the understanding that the companies would refer mortgage closing and title insurance business to Lighthouse Title.

The CFPB found that Lighthouse Title violated the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) which prohibits providing something of value to any person with an agreement or understanding that the person will refer real estate settlement services.

The CFPB noted that Lighthouse’s MSA agreements made it appear as if the payments would be based on marketing services the companies were supposed to provide to Lighthouse Title. “Lighthouse actually set the fees it would pay under the MSAs, in part, by considering the number of referrals it received or expected to receive from each company.” The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s investigation found that the companies on average referred significantly more business to Lighthouse Title when they entered into MSAs than when they did not enter into them.

The CFPB issued a civil money penalty against Lighthouse Title in the amount of $200,000.00; prohibited Lighthouse Title from entering into any Marketing Service Agreements in the future; ordered Lighthouse to terminate all existing MSAs; and Lighthouse must document for a period of five years all exchanges of things of value worth $5.00 or more with persons in a position to refer business.
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The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau often provides subtle clues as to where they may be headed on the enforcement front and on November 6, 2013 they addressed the topic on their website about online Lead Generation and consumer safety involving payday loans. The topic “Is applying for a payday loan online safe?

The CFPB stated that anytime a consumer gives out sensitive personal and financial information on the Internet there are risks involved to the consumer. They warned consumers that if a consumer applies online for a payday loan online, the consumer could be increasing their risk significantly. The CFPB stated the reason for this is because many websites that advertise payday loans are not lenders. They are businesses known as “lead generators” which make money primarily by finding customers for lenders.

The Bureau expressed concern that the online application or form that consumers filled out could be sold to a lender who offers to make the consumer a loan. The Bureau also indicated they have concerns as well that multiple lenders or other service providers could pay for this information causing the them to contact or email the consumer.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation entered into a consent order with New Frontier Bank in St. Charles, Missouri on May 5, 2014 which was recently made public. (FDIC-14-0084b and FDIC-13-151k) The FDIC ordered New Frontier Bank to cease and desist from the violating the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act “RESPA” Section 8, 12 U.S.C. §2607 and its implementing regulation, Regulation X, 12 C.F.R. §1024.14, which is the prohibition against kickbacks and unearned fees.

The FDIC’s consent order did not mention the facts surrounding this consent order only that “the Bank shall cease all acts or practices in violation of RESPA and take all necessary steps to effect and maintain future compliance with RESPA.”

The consent agreement also ordered New Frontier Bank to reimburse all consumers who were affected by the undisclosed RESPA violations to pay an amount not less than $400 per consumer as restitution for the RESPA violations the FDIC said New Frontier Bank may have violated. The consent agreement did not state how many consumers may have been impacted. In addition to the consumer restitution New Frontier Bank was ordered to pay a $70,000 dollar penalty to the Treasury of the United States.

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.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau “CFPB” issued a Consent Order against Fidelity Mortgage Corporation “FFMC” and Mark Figert on January 16, 2014 for engaging in illegal business practices which violated Section 8 of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act, 12 U.S.C. §2607 “RESPA”. The CFPB stated that Fidelity Financial Mortgage Corporation, which is based in St. Louis, Missouri, entered into a office-rental agreement with the Bank of Sullivan.

The CFPB described the illegal office space lease agreement between FFMC and Bank of Sullivan as a rental arrangement based the volume of successful mortgage transactions that FFMC would originate out of the Bank of Sullivan’s office. The parties discussed anticipated loan volume and a pipeline of referrals under this office space rental agreement. The parties negotiated a daily rental rate of $200.00 and the lease agreement contained an exclusivity clause which required the Bank of Sullivan to only promote FFMC and FFMC could only promote the Bank of Sullivan.

The office space consisted of an interior office surrounded by bank personnel. FFMC also did not exclusively use the bank’s office to meet bank related borrowers. The CFPB stated that FFMC met Bank of Sullivan borrowers at a variety of locations, including coffee shops. The office rental agreement between March 2012 and November of 2012 showed that Fidelity had originated approximately 20 loans resulting an average monthly rental amount of $1,350.00 per month. The monthly office space rental amount fluctuated each month (from $800 to $2000 per month). The CFPB conducted a investigation into what the prevailing monthly rental rate was in the market place for office of similar stature and the found a monthly amount ranging from $600 to $900 a month which was substantially lower than the average monthly amount Fidelity had paid the Bank of Sullivan under this office space rental agreement. The rental agreement the CFPB violated RESPA Section 8(a) which prohibits giving a fee, kickback or thing of value in exchange for a referral of business related to a real estate settlement service.

The United States District Court for the District of Maryland, Northern Division certified a Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act “RESPA” class action lawsuit on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014 involving marketing agreements between a “Team” of real estate agents “and Lakeview Title Company, Inc. The Creig Northrop Team, PC (a/k/a The Northrop Team) is a team of independent contractor real estate agents who work for Long & Foster Real Estate, Inc.. The class action lawsuit arises out of an alleged scheme for a team of real estate agents to receive over half million dollars in illegal kickbacks from a title insurance company for referrals over a period of 13 years.

Patrick Baehr, et al., v. The Creig Northrop Team, P.C., et al. (Civil No: 1:2013cv00933). Judge William D. Quarles is the presiding judge in this case.

The allegations specifically state that the defendants “used a ‘sham employment arrangement and a sham marketing agreement’ ‘to generate unearned fees and kickbacks.'” The employment agreement allegation involves Carla Northrop who was a full-time employee of the Northrop Team but secretly received payments from Lakeview Title under an employment agreement, even though Ms. Northrop allegedly did not perform any services or actual work for Lakeview Title nor was she provided an office, telephone number, or email address showing she was working for Lakeview Title. The employment agreement was not disclosed to the plaintiffs in this case. These allegations if proven would likely violate 12 U.S.C. §2607 of RESPA which is the prohibition against kickbacks and unearned fees section.

The Dodd-Frank Update and The Legal Description legal publications at October Research, LLC have teamed up to host a 90-minute federal regulatory outlook webinar for mortgage, title insurance and settlement services professionals. This in-depth training features two top compliance attorneys who will educate participants on significant regulations impacting the industry in 2014. The webinar will be held on Tuesday, December 10, 2013 from 2:00-3:30 PM EST.

Speakers Mitch Kider, of Weiner Brodsky Kider PC, and Marx Sterbcow, of The Sterbcow Law Group, will define significant regulations, what companies should be doing now to prepare and what the regulatory landscape will look like as we move into yet another year of complying with thousands of pages of new and existing regulations. Topics will include:

•CFPB enforcement actions: Who’s at risk and what to expect;