The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau “CFPB” announced another Consent Order with NewDay Financial, LLC on February 10, 2015 where they agreed to settle allegations that NewDay engaged in deceptive acts or practices by failing to disclose payments to a veteran’s organization that endorsed NewDay for reasons other than for NewDay’s consumer service. The CFPB also said NewDay made payments to third parties in connection with the marketing of home loans that constituted illegal payments for referrals of mortgage origination business under section 1053 and 1055 of the Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010 (CFPA).
This CFPB Consent Order opens up new compliance territory with respect to consumer disclosure involving agreements between settlement service providers because it expands UDAAP into RESPA for the first time. However, this consent order is not the model of clarity that we were hoping for because it raises a number of new compliance issues outside of this particular arrangement.
The CFPB alleged that NewDay contracted with a third party marketing and lead generation company (i.e. “broker company”) whose business services included licensing the use of a Veterans’ Organization mailing list, logo, and other proprietary marks and managed the relationship between NewDay and the Veteran’s Organization. The members of the Veterans’ Organization learned about NewDay because of its contractual relationship with the marketing and lead generation company and Veterans’ Organization. NewDay purchased the Veterans’ Organization mailing list via the broker company and sent advertisements to the members of the Veterans’ Organization who in turn contacted NewDay for mortgage products.
NewDay according to the Consent Order is a mortgage lender who is in the business of originating refinance home loans through a program where the VA guarantees a portion of home loans taken out by service members, veterans, and eligible surviving spouses. NewDay also originated government insured reverse mortgage products to seniors.
The CFPB said NewDay advertised its mortgage products to consumers primarily through direct mail campaigns. NewDay sent over 50 million solicitations by postal and electronic mail to consumers offering reverse and forward mortgages. These advertising communications were typically sent to a pre-screened list of consumers, generally veterans and older Americans, selected due to various characteristics that NewDay believed made them more likely to be potential customers for NewDay’s offerings. Consumer members who were interested in learning more were invited by these mailings to call NewDay’s call center, during which calls NewDay’s Account Executives would answer questions, provide information, and take applications.
NewDay’s relationship with the Veterans’ Organization was arranged and coordinated by marketing and lead generation company, which contracted directly with NewDay on behalf of Veterans’ Organization and which paid Veterans’ Organization a portion of the fees it received from NewDay. Pursuant to agreements and understandings between and among NewDay, Veterans’ Organization, and the marketing and lead generation company, NewDay was designated as the exclusive lender of Veterans’ Organization, and NewDay drafted and sent advertising communications by postal and electronic mail to Veterans’ Organization members, with Veterans’ Organization’s approval, that were identified as being from Veterans’ Organization. These advertising communications promoted the relationship between NewDay and Veterans’ Organization, and encouraged and recommended the use of NewDay’s mortgage products to Veterans’ Organization members.
The fees paid pursuant to agreements and understandings between and among NewDay, Veterans’ Organization, and the marketing and lead generation company included:
(1) NewDay paid marketing and lead generation company a monthly “licensing fee” of $15,000;
(2) For each referred consumer member who contacted NewDay to inquire about a reverse mortgage and who completed mandatory counseling, NewDay paid Veterans’ Organization $75 as a “lead generation fee” and NewDay paid the marketing and lead generation company $100 as a “lead generation fee.”
(3) For each referred consumer member who contacted NewDay to inquire about a 100% loan-to-value (LTV) mortgage refinancing and had his/her credit report pulled, NewDay paid Veterans’ Organization $15 as a “lead generation fee” and NewDay paid the marketing and lead generation company $20 as a “lead generation fee.”
The CFPB stated that at no point were the Veterans’ Organization members made aware of the payments by NewDay to Veterans’ Organization and the marketing and lead generation company nor has this information been available publically.
Section 1036(a)(1)(B) of the CFPA prohibits “unfair, deceptive, or abusive” acts or practices. 12 U.S.C. § 5536(a)(1)(B). A practice is “deceptive” when there is a representation or omission of information that is likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances, and that information is material to consumers.
“NewDay mailed advertising communications to Veterans’ Organization members, with Veterans’ Organization’s approval and that were identified as being from Veterans’ Organization, endorsing NewDay’s products. These advertising communications articulated reasons why Veterans’ Organization selected NewDay as its lender-of-choice. NewDay also made similar statements to Veterans’ Organization members during phone conversations. The affirmative reasons offered to members created the impression that there were no other connections between NewDay and Veteran’s Organization, when, in fact, NewDay was making regular undisclosed payments, both directly and indirectly, for these endorsements.”
The paid endorsements included language such as:
1. “Veterans’ Organization chose NewDay to be our exclusive Reverse Mortgage provider after spending significant time with the company’s management team and watching its loan professionals in action.”
2. “NewDay USA is [Veterans’ Organization’s] exclusive provider of home loan programs based on their high standards for service and the excellent value of their programs. If you need money, we recommend you give them a call at 1-800-995-4193. Even easier, click here and find out more!”
3. “NewDay is the EXCLUSIVE lender for [Veterans’ Organization]. We earned this because of our focus on helping veteran’s [sic] payoff their debt, lower their interest rates and payments, or get additional cash out as well.”
The CFPB consent order state the failure to disclose material connections between NewDay and Veterans’ Organization while making affirmative statements concerning a substantive basis for the endorsements likely would have been material to consumers evaluating the weight or credibility of Veterans’ Organization’s endorsement and whether to obtain a mortgage loan from NewDay, and likely would have been misleading to reasonable consumers. Thus, these communications constitute deceptive acts or practices in violation of sections 1031(a) and 1036(a)(1)(B) of the CFPA, 12 U.S.C. §§ 5531(a), 5536(a)(1)(B).
The Bureau alleged that the paid endorsements or recommendations violated the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act “RESPA”, 12 USC. 2607(a) which provides that no person shall give and no person shall accept any fee, kickback, or thing of value pursuant to any agreements and understandings, oral or otherwise, that business incident to or a part of a real estate settlement service involving a federally related mortgage loan shall be referred to any person.
The CFPB said there was an agreement and understanding between and among NewDay, Veterans’ Organization, and the marketing and lead generation company, NewDay mailed advertising communications to individual members of Veterans’ Organization, with Veterans’ Organization’s approval, that were identified as being from Veterans’ Organization which was in violation of RESPA. These communications typically were sent to pre-screened members of Veterans’ Organization and referred recipients to NewDay by encouraging and recommending that members use NewDay for mortgage lending services.
The consent order say the agreements and understandings between and among NewDay, Veterans’ Organization, and the marketing and lead generation company, consumer members who called Veterans’ Organization’s call center for information on mortgage products were referred to NewDay. The CFPB also pointed out that the marketing and lead generation company (i.e. the “Broker Company”) maintained a website for Veterans’ Organization members (the marketing and lead generation website) which were linked to from the Veterans’ Organization website and that was identified as being part of the Veterans’ Organization website. Consumer Members who visited the marketing and lead generation website were referred to NewDay by text “recommend[ing]” NewDay as a source for home loans, along with hyperlinks to NewDay’s website and the phone number for the Veterans’ Organization’s call center.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau stated they found more than 3,900 payments to the Veterans’ Organization and the marketing and lead generation company (in the form of both monthly payments and “lead generation fees”) for these referral activities. The referral mechanism set up resulted in close to 400 loans being originated.
The CFPB’s consent order prohibits NewDay from engaging any payment schemes where part of the compensation is for an endorsement. The CFPB also ordered NewDay to cease entering into any business relationship that would involve third party endorsements which might be inconsistent with the Federal Trade Commission’s guidance on endorsements which can be found in 16 C.F.R. part 255. NewDay is also prohibited from violating any aspect of Section 8 of RESPA and must submit a Compliance Plan to the CFPB.
NewDay was fined $2,000,000.00 for participating in this arrangement.
Our takeaways from this Consent Order are as follows:
It appears as if the CFPB may be taking a position that all joint advertising and joint marketing be disclosed to consumers otherwise you could risk a UDAAP violation. Joint marketing and/or advertising agreements (including Marketing Service Agreements) were not required under RESPA to be disclosed to consumers (although some state laws do require disclosure) so the CFPB has taken the position that while not required under RESPA they will require consumer disclosure under UDAAP.
The CFPB was unclear as to when these marketing agreement consumer disclosures should be made, the language they want in the disclosures, font size, etc. so hopefully they will provide some clarity in the near future as to the timing and content of what they want in these consumer disclosures where co-advertising or co-marketing agreements are used.
Also unclear in this consent order was the issue of whether or not the marketing and lead generation company whom they deemed to be the “broker company” was properly licensed as a mortgage broker or lender. If they were properly licensed why didn’t the CFPB bring an enforcement action against them too for their participation in this arrangement.
The consent order also shines light on the CFPB’s thinking towards intermediary marketing companies that some companies in various segments of the real estate settlement services industry have set up to use as a buffer to facilitate illegal activities under RESPA and UDAAP. This consent order should be a wake up call for those companies utilizing those types of marketing arrangements right now.
Last takeaway is that any real estate agent, real estate broker, or other settlement service provider who designates a company as their recommended, preferred, or other type of endorsement language will be considered a violation of Section 8(a) if there is an agreement in place even if this type of behavior specifically excluded or prohibited in the agreement’s language.