The list of hazards faced by first responders to the Sept 11th terror attacks is a long one. In addition to cancer, respiratory disease, and post-traumatic stress, the perils include financial scammers out to raid their medical compensation benefits.
In a federal lawsuit filed earlier this month, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the New York Attorney General’s Office accuse a New Jersey company, RD Legal, of targeting firefighters, paramedics and police officers who rushed into the rubble of the World Trade Center.
“We allege that this company and its owner lined their pockets with funds intended to cover medical care and other critical expenses for people who are sick and sidelined,” Consumer Bureau Director Richard Cordray said.
RD Legal’s modus operandi, according to the CFPB’s complaint, was to “swoop in” after victims had been awarded compensation but before they received it. The company would offer to “convert your settled cases into immediate cash,” and then charge illegally high interest on top of fees buried in the fine print of a long contract; some of its loans ended up costing the equivalent of 250% annual interest, the two agencies allege.
The Consumer Bureau was created after the 2008 financial crisis to do a simple job: get banks and lenders to treat people fairly. One way it does this is through enforcement actions which have so far deliverednearly $12 billion in refunds and relief to some 17 million Americans cheated by financial companies large and small.
In the RD Legal case, the Bureau is seeking to end the scam, impose monetary penalties, and force the company to return what could be millions of dollars to affected consumers. One of the potential beneficiaries is Elmer Santiago, a NYC police officer who was living in his jeep when he agreed to borrow $355,000. Eighteen months later, RD Legal handed him a bill for $860,000.
The company also pitched its services to former football players entitled to compensation from the NFL for neurological diseases such as CTE, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Contracts labeled “assignments and sale agreements” did not disclose interest rates because, RD Legal claimed, “the transaction is not a loan.”
Some people may have been seduced by the company’s promises to “cut through the red tape” and speed up their compensation. In fact, RD Legal provided no such help, according to the lawsuit.
RD Legal is a hedge fund and a player in what is known as the litigation finance industry, using wealthy investors to bankroll cash advances for lawsuits and settlements.The owner and founder of RD Legal, Roni Dersovitz, was named in the action, along with two affiliate entities. Dersovitz was previously sued by the SEC for defrauding investors and exploiting Beirut bombing victims.
Lobbyists for big Wall Street banks and predatory lenders are pushing the Trump Administration to fire CFPB Director Richard Cordray, and they’re telling reporters it’s a done deal. They’re hoping their spin will make it so.
They don’t want the Trump team to think before they act. And that’s understandable, because firing Cordray would be a terrible idea, as well as an unlawful one. Here are five reasons why:
#1 The CFPB has done a world of good for consumers. Since it got up and running less than six years ago, this agency has been bringing basic rules of fair play to the financial marketplace. Through its enforcement actions and complaint system, the Consumer Bureau has delivered some $12 billion in financial relief to more than 29 million Americans cheated by financial companies large and small.
#2 Students, servicemembers, veterans, and seniors would raise hell. The CFPB has been steadfastly in the corner of our nation’s service members and veterans, working with the Defense Department to close loopholes and make sure that the 36 percent APR limit on consumer loans to servicemembers and their dependents actually works, while taking enforcement actions against a succession of financial fraudsters who specialize in exploiting military families. The Bureau has also stood up for student loan borrowers with actions such as its recent lawsuit against Navient, charging the nation’s largest servicer of student loans with an array of deceptive practices. And it has been aggressive in combating the growing problem of financial exploitation of the elderly.
#3 The CFPB is hugely popular. By refusing to be cowed by the payday lenders, the big banks, and their Congressional buddies, Cordray and his agency have made quite a few powerful enemies. But they have also a vast number of devoted friends. Across party lines, voters have an overwhelmingly favorable view of the CFPB and its work. Trump voters are no different: by a margin of 55 to 28 percent, they oppose efforts to weaken or eliminate this agency.
# 4 The White House would have a vexingly hard time explaining a move to fire the CFPB’s Director. Many people voted for Donald Trump in part because of his countless promises to stand up to the power of Wall Street. Attempting to remove Director Cordray would be an obvious cave-in to the financial industry. It would not go unnoticed.
# 5He would almost certainly not get away with it. The CFPB is by law an independent agency, and not part of the Administration. Director Cordray’s term runs through July 2018, and the law says he can be removed only “for inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.” Despite their feverish efforts, hostile lawmakers have been unable to come up with any charge that would pass the laugh test, and no president has ever yet succeeded in removing an appointee for cause.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney, Donald Trump’s choice to oversee the federal budget, said he hears only complaints about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). That could be because he is listening to the financial services lobby, not the ordinary Americans the agency has helped.
The South Carolina Republican, whom Trump has nominated to head the Office of Management and Budget, went on a tirade during his confirmation hearing this week, calling the CFPB “the very worst kind of government entity.”
That was a surprise to South Carolinians who actually like the idea that there’s an agency in Washington fighting to make financial companies follow the law and treat people fairly.
The CFPB recently sued Navient, the nation’s largest student loan servicer, alleging that the company handled borrowers so unfairly that they ended up paying far more than was necessary. Having an ally against a big company, it turns out, is comforting to some South Carolinians.
Amanda Green of Rock Hill, South Carolina, said Mulvaney’s comment proves he’s “disconnected” from what worries people like her, a client of Navient.
“I am currently repaying my student loans to Navient, and having learned of the CFPB’s action against them, am comforted in knowing this happened.”
Standrick Jamarr Rhodes of Lancaster, South Carolina, has struggled to repay student loans as an elementary school teacher. He’d never heard of the CFPB until they sued Navient.
“To learn that I may have been cheated in that process and that there is an agency looking out for me is a relief,” he said. “Our representatives are not only wrong with comments attacking the consumer agency, but are the prime reason why I often feel government doesn’t work for people. This agency clearly does.”
The CFPB works. Rep. Mulvaney is wrong. #DefendCFPB and reject the #SwampCabinet
Steven Mnuchin is an emblematic beneficiary of a rigged system, who has made an extraordinary amount of money by virtue of insider advantage and willingness to use it to take advantage of vulnerable people.
Mnuchin’s early years were spent following a path paved by his father, from Yale to Goldman Sachs.
At Goldman Sachs, he helped build the market for risky mortgage products from the ruins of the S&L crisis of the 80’s.
He spent his years at Goldman earning how to “profit from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s by buying the assets of capsized banks on the cheap,” trading the very products that would cause the massive foreclosure crisis from which he would later profit.
He was “front and center for the advent of instruments like collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and credit default swaps (CDSs).”, which he described as ‘an extremely positive development.’
Mnuchin left Goldman with $46mm to try as a hedge fund manager to capitalize on the new financial markets he’d spent his career building.
After leaving Goldman, he leveraged relationships with wealthy friends to float through some cushy jobs.
Mnuchin’s time at his own hedge fund – Dune Capital Management – had all the hallmarks of the boom years:
Becoming entangled with Bernie Madoff’s notoriousponzi scheme – and getting out with millions in allegedly ill-gotten profits shortly before its collapse.
Flirting with some of the most unsavory crisis-era financial products such as the macabre Life Settlement contracts, which made bets on the life insurance policies of the elderly.
Dune and Mnuchin were embroiled in scandal through their web of relationships with the bankrupt and currently-under-investigation entertainment company Relativity Media.
Dune invested millions in the Hollywood media firm Relativity Media, and Mnuchin served as co-chairmain of its board. During Mnuchin’s tenure, Relativity also borrowed heavily from Mnuchin’sOneWest Bank. Relativity ran into serious financial trouble, ultimately filing for Bankruptcy protection in 2015. Just months earlier, Mnuchin abruptly resigned from the board, and shortly afterward OneWest swept millions from Relativity’s bank accounts. Relativity was accused by creditors, who lost millions, of essentially being a Ponzi scheme, and is currently the subject of an FBI Investigation.
When the financial crisis hit in 2008, Mnuchin was sought to capitalize on the unfolding disaster.
Armed with a cadre of billionaire friends and an intricate knowledge of exotic financial instruments, Mnuchin struck a deal that would quickly make him the Foreclosure King.
IndyMac, the large west-coast mortgage lender that specialized in the the most toxic kinds of loans, had failed and was taken over by the FDIC, which was desperately seeking a buyer to take on the hundreds of thousands of mortgage loans in its portfolio.Mnuchin swooped in and in 2009, his group purchased most of IndyMac’s $23.5 billion of assets and re-named it OneWest Bank in a deal that kept the FDIC on the hook for billions in losses.
As the foreclosure crisis deepened across the country, OneWest got to work trying to maximize the profit from IndyMac’s books, which included the thousands of residential mortgages. It dedicated most of its resources to- and derived most of its profit from – pushing IndyMac’s base of troubled homeowners into foreclosure, exacerbating the foreclosure crisis in the process.
Although the loss-sharing deal crafted with the FDIC was meant to encourage loan modifications and payment plans that could keep homeowners in their homes, OneWest found it more profitable to foreclose on more than 50,000 homeowners, often aggressively and even illegally.
Mnuchin foreclosed on thousands, becoming known as the Foreclosure King
While foreclosing on tens of thousands of homeowners, OneWest earned a reputation for widespread malfeasance:
OneWest was at the center of the Robosigning scandal, which revealed how OneWest rushed homes through the foreclosure process by using fraudulent documents and doctored paperwork
The California department of Justice found evidence of widespread misconduct, including fraud, tax evasion, and violation of other state laws
Mnuchin’s foreclosure practices also targeted vulnerable communities:
The Elderly – OneWest preyed on the elderly through their Reverse Mortgage unit, which foreclosed on over 16,000 elderly homeowners in California alone, accounting for 40% of all CA reverse mortgage foreclosures.
Communities of Color Targeted communities of color, with ⅔ of their foreclosures occurring in these neighborhoods in addition to evidence of redlining throughout their districts.
Servicemembers Nearly a quarter of the $8.5 million federal authorities ordered OneWest to pay in compensation for thousands of cases of foreclosure misconduct went to Servicemembers, who has been illegally foreclosed on in violation of specific laws protecting them from abuse.
Hurricane Sandy VictimsOneWest blocked the release of millions in aid due to the victims of Hurricane Sandy, and was found to be one of the worst offenders in an investigation by New York State authorities
Foreclosure was the first choice not the last resort for OneWest bank:
Despite federal programs to incentivize loan modifications and keep struggling families in their homes, OneWest only completed modifications for 23,000 – they evicted more than twice as many people as they completed modifications for.
There is, however, one example of a loan Mnuchin was willing to modify in the face of borrower financial distress: Donald Trump, who sued Dune in 2008 to modify a loan he’d received for Trump Tower in Chicago.
Mnuchin Cashed out of OneWest, and sets sights on loftier goals.
In 2015 – after paying themselves $1.5bn in dividends – Mnuchin and the investors sold OneWest to CIT Group for $3.4bn.Mnuchin personally made hundreds of millions on the deal. The sale faced strenuous opposition from community groups, and scores of OneWest foreclosure victims shared stories of the terrible impact of the bank’s abuse and misconduct.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)’s first enforcement action of 2017 will return more than $17 million to consumers who were deceived into purchasing unneeded credit reporting products. On January 3, 2017, the CFPB issued a consent order against TransUnion, LLC (TransUnion) and Equifax Inc. (Equifax) and their respective subsidiaries and affiliates for making false claims about the usefulness and actual cost of the companies’ credit score services.
TransUnion and Equifax are two of the nation’s three largest credit reporting agencies. They collect consumers’ credit information in order to generate credit reports and scores to be used by businesses to determine whether to extend credit. These companies also sell their own products directly to consumers, including credit scores, credit reports, and credit monitoring.
According to the order, TransUnion and Equifax told consumers that they would receive the same score typically used by lenders to determine their creditworthiness. But that claim was false: in fact, the scores they sold to consumers were rarely used by lenders. Since at least 2011, TransUnion has been using a credit score model from VantageScore Solutions, LLC (VantageScore) — a model not used by the vast majority of lenders and landlords to assess consumers’ credit. Similarly, between July 2011 and March 2014, Equifax used its own proprietary credit score model, the Equifax Credit Score, which was in the form of “education credit scores” and thus intended for consumers’ educational use and rarely used by lenders. In fact, the most widely used scores in lending are FICO scores.
TransUnion and Equifax also falsely advertised the price of their services. They told consumers that their credit scores and credit-related products were free, or in the case of TransUnion, cost only “$1.” In reality, the companies required consumers to sign up for either a seven-day or 30 day free trial period of credit monitoring, which then automatically turned into a monthly subscription costing $16 or more per month, unless the consumer had cancelled by the end of the free trial. This payment structure, called “negative option billing,” was not adequately disclosed in the companies’ ads.
Credit reporting agencies are required by law to provide a free credit report once every 12 months. They are not allowed to advertise add-on services until “after the consumer has obtained his or her annual file disclosure.” The CFPB found that Equifax violated that requirement.
The CFPB has ordered TransUnion to pay more than $13.9 million in restitution to affected consumers, and Equifax to pay almost $3.8 million, in addition to fines of $3 million and $2.5 million respectively. The companies have also been directed to truthfully and clearly describe the usefulness of their credit score products, and to obtain consumer consent before enrolling anyone in automatic billing.
Consumers who want access to their credit reports for free should go to the official source: www.annualcreditreport.com. They can stagger their requests by ordering one report from each of the Big Three credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) every four months, essentially obtaining “credit monitoring for free.” In addition, many consumers can now get a FICO score for free through the FICO Open Access program from participating credit card companies or nonprofit credit counselors.
This month the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) took action against three reverse mortgage companies for promising seniors a financial product that was too good to be true. The CFPB’s investigation determined that several of the claims the companies made in TV and print ads were not true. All three companies “tricked consumers into believing they could not lose their homes” with a reverse mortgage, CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a statement accompanying the Bureau’s announcement of the settlements it has reached with Reverse Mortgage Solutions, Aegean Financial, and American Advisors Group, which is the largest reverse mortgage lender in the United States.
A reverse mortgage is a special type of home loan for homeowners who are 62 or older, that converts a portion of the equity that has been built up over years of paying a mortgage, into cash. Homeowners do not have to repay the loan until they pass away, sell, or move out of the house, or fail to meet the obligations of the mortgage. These three companies promised consumers that their reverse mortgages would eliminate debt without any monthly payment obligation. In fact, a reverse mortgage is itself a debt and consumers are required to make regular payments related to the home, including for property taxes, insurance and home maintenance. Consumers can default on a reverse mortgage and lose their home if they fail to comply with the terms of the loan, including making such payments.
The CFPB settlement requires the three companies to make clear and prominent disclosures of the possible dangers of reverse mortgages in their future adds, and to pay a combined $800,000 in penalties
The CFPB provides information for consumers about reverse mortgages on its website.
— Veronica Meffe
 Consent Order in the Matter of American Advisors Group, No. 2016-CFPB-0026 (Filed Dec. 7, 2016), at 6 (“American Advisors Group Consent Order”). Id., at 11. Id., at 9.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) filed a lawsuit against Access Funding, LLC (Access Funding) for operating an illegal scheme that took advantage of victims of lead-paint poisoning. “Many of these struggling consumers were victimized first by toxic lead, and second by a company that saw them as little more than income streams to be courted and harvested,” the CFPB said.
Access Funding is a structured-settlement factory company that purchases payment streams from personal-injury settlement recipients in exchange for an immediate lump sum that is usually much lower that the long-term payout. Forty-nine states have enacted laws, known as Structured Settlement Protection Acts (SSPAs), which require judicial approval to protect injured people from scams.
According to the CFPB’s November 21 lawsuit, Access Funding and its partners aggressively pressured consumers to accept up-front payment amounting to about 30 percent of the present value of the money due to them, and lied to them by saying that once they had received a cash advance they were legally obligated to proceed with the transaction. Knowing that many of the consumers in this case had suffered cognitive impairments from lead poisoning, the CFPB’s complaint alleges that the companies exploited their “lack of understanding” in order to lock them into these arrangements.
About 70 percent of Access Funding’s deals were done in Maryland, where it was headquartered. Many SSPAs, including Maryland’s, require consumers to consult with an independent professional advisor (IPA) before a court can approve such a deal. According to the lawsuit, Access Funding steered almost all its Maryland consumers to a single attorney, Charles Smith, who purported to act as the IPA, while having both personal and professional ties to Access Funding and its partners. Smith, who was paid directly by Access Funding, gave virtually no advice to the consumers.
The lawsuit charges Access Funding with violating the federal prohibition on unfair, abusive, and deceptive acts in consumer financial transactions. Reliance Funding, a successor company to Access Funding, was also named in the action, along with Michael Borkowski, CEO of Access Funding; Raffi Boghosian, Chief Operating Officer of Access Funding; Lee Jundanian, former CEO of Access Funding; and Charles Smith, the attorney who facilitated the scam. The CFPB is seeking to end the company’s unlawful practices and obtain compensation for victims, as well as a civil penalty against both companies and their partners. — Veronica Meffe
 Complaint at 7, CFPB v. Access Funding, LLC, No. 1:16-cv-03759-JFM (D. Md. Filed Nov. 21, 2016) (“Complaint”).  Press Release, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, CFPB Sues Access Funding for Scamming Lead-Paint Poisoning Victims Out of Settlement Money (Nov. 21, 2016) (“Press Release”).  Complaint at 8-9.  Press Release.
A lawsuit filed by the CFPB earlier this month underscores the importance of its efforts to take on the abuses of the debt-collection industry, both by enforcing the law, and through a rulemaking process that is already underway.
The lawsuit – against two debt-collection magnates operating out of Buffalo, N.Y. – involves a nationwide operation that is said to have engaged in outrageous practices, causing massive harm to millions of people. In its filing, the Consumer Bureau describes the two men, Douglas MacKinnon and Mark Gray, as the “ringleaders” of a network of companies that “harassed, threatened, and deceived” consumers, making tens of millions of dollars a year in the process. Since 2009, the action charges, McKinnon, Gray and their companies have been buying up payday loans and other defaulted debt for pennies on the dollar, routinely adding $200 to each acquired debt (regardless of whether the law allows that), and using a variety of illegal practices to collect. Some consumers have reportedly been pressured to pay as much as six times more money than they really owed.
Employees of MacKinnon’s and Gray’s companies, the lawsuit charges, impersonated law-enforcement officials (sometimes using “call-spoofing” programs to create the impression that they were phoning from government offices) and threatened legal action they had neither the power nor the intent to actually take – arresting a consumer for “check fraud,” for example.
According to the suit, MacKinnon and Gray manage three Buffalo-based debt collection companies – Northern resolution Group, LLC (NRG), Enhanced Acquisitions, LLC (Enhanced), and Delray Capital, LLC (Delray), and have set up a network of at least 60 firms “to collect on the debt portfolios that NRG, Enhanced, and Delray purchased.” The defendants directed and encouraged these illegal acts, and profited significantly from them, the lawsuit holds, adding that “tens of millions of dollars annually” were “funneled back to MacKinnon, his relatives, and Gray through payments to various sham companies controlled by them.
The lawsuit charges MacKinnon and Gray with violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Acts, which prohibit unfair and deceptive acts or practices in the consumer financial marketplace. The Bureau is seeking to shut down their operation and secure compensation for victims as well as a civil penalty against the companies and its partners. “[T]his suit sends the message that debt collectors that employ abusive tactics will be held accountable,” New York Attorney General Schneiderman said in a joint announcement of the action. — Veronica Meffe
Wall Street will set still another record for political spending this election cycle.
So far in 2015 and 2016, banks and financial interests have put more than $1.4 billion into efforts to elect and influence holders of national political office, according to Wall Street Money in Washington, a new report released this week by Americans for Financial Reform based on data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
That spending total works out to more than $2.3 million a day!
Financial sector companies, employees, and trade associations have reported making nearly $800 million in campaign contributions since the start of 2015, more than twice the spending level of any other specific business sector in the Center for Responsive Politics database.
Some of the financial industry’s biggest donors have been hedge funds, with James Simons’ Renaissance Technologies and Paul Singer’s Elliot Management leading the way at $37.5 million and $20.2 million respectively. Of the campaign contributions that can be clearly linked to one political party or the other, 61 percent have gone to Republicans and 39 percent to Democrats.
The financial industry’s expenditures – about $667 million through the second quarter of 2016 – place the sector in third place, behind a category of “Miscellaneous Business” companies and trade associations at $780 million and health-related companies at $775 million.
These figures do not count much of the so-called “dark money” contributed to nonprofits that engage in political advocacy or the money spent on lobbying-related research and support activities. Nor do they include spending by “Miscellaneous Business” entities like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a national business group that lobbies extensively on financial issues.
Wall Street political spending has increased sharply since 2009 and 2010, when industry forces were trying to blunt or defeat the reform legislation that came to be known as Dodd-Frank. The legislation was eventually enacted over industry objections in 2010, but that just marked the end of one chapter and the beginning of another.
Since Dodd-Frank’s passage, big banks and other financial interests have been working nonstop to block, delay, and weaken important elements of that law – as well as the agencies responsible for carrying it out. At the same time, they’ve also been working to stymy efforts in Congress to move forward on the next steps needed to make sure Wall Street serves Main Street, instead of continuing to put us all at risk.
Another new AFR report, Where They Stand on Financial Reform: Votes Cast in the 114th Congress, details many of the financial industry’s latest efforts to avoid needed reform. Wall Street has enjoyed some real success in this lower-visibility phase of the battle, using a “must pass” 2014 budget bill, for example, to repeal an important provision of Dodd-Frank and let big banks go back to using insured deposits and other taxpayer subsidies to gamble on the riskiest of financial derivatives.
Since 2010, Wall Street-backed deregulation proposals have continuously clogged the legislative pipeline. In the current Congress alone, lawmakers friendly to Wall Street have introduced 10 separate legislative proposals to limit the authority or political independence of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Meanwhile, despite polls that show lopsided majorities of Republicans as well as Democrats and Independents favoring tougher Wall Street regulation, Congress has yet to vote on a single bill that would move things in that direction.
The $2.3 million a day Wall Street executives are spending on politics certainly rates as a lot of money. But measured against the many special privileges that the financial industry and its execs continue to enjoy, that expenditure amounts to a smart investment – for Wall Street.
Recently, House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) suggested that it took the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) too long to find out about the bank’s misconduct. Yet Chairman Hensarling’s Financial CHOICE Act includes provisions that would make it harder for the CFPB to learn about future abuses by banks and lenders.
The Financial CHOICE Act would preserve the financial industry’s use of forced arbitration, a relatively new phenomenon designed to allow corporations to keep misconduct out of public view, evade the law, and escape accountability. Buried in the fine print, “ripoff clauses” force consumer and worker claims into arbitration – a secretive, rigged system where the corporation gets to pick the arbitration provider and which rules will apply – and bars people harmed in similar ways from joining together in class actions to challenge systemic abuses.
Because agencies have limited resources, individual and class action lawsuits brought by consumers and workers often act as the canary in the coal mine to alert agencies to fraud and abuse. The CFPB is in the midst of a rulemaking that would restore consumers’ right to join together to hold banks accountable for predatory behavior like the Wells Fargo scandal. Since May, more than 100,000 individual consumers and 281 consumer, civil rights, labor, and small business groups wrote in to support the proposed rule.
The CHOICE act would bar CFPB from restoring consumers’ rights to take banks to court –preserving the secrecy and lack of accountability that allowed Wells Fargo to get away with this misconduct for so long.
Background on the Wells Fargo Scandal
At least 3,500 Wells Fargo employees opened approximately 1.5 million bank accounts and approximately 565,000 credit cards without the consent of their customers. According to the CFPB, its “investigation found that since at least 2011, thousands of Wells Fargo employees took part in these illegal acts to enrich themselves by enrolling consumers in a variety of products and services without their knowledge or consent.” In February 2012, Wells Fargo started using forced arbitration clauses in all of its customer checking and savings account agreements, shortly after evidence began emerging that it was defrauding its customers.
Customers have been trying to sue Wells Fargo over fraudulent accounts since at least 2013. However, the bank forced those customers into secret, binding arbitration by invoking fine print in consumers’ legitimate account agreements to block them from suing over fake accounts. This practice helped keep Wells Fargo’s massive fraud out of the spotlight for so long.
Shariar Jabbari & Kaylee Heffelfinger et al. v. Wells Fargo (U.S. District Court, N.D. Cal.)
Consumers filed a lawsuit against Wells Fargo claiming that the bank unlawfully opened a series of accounts in their names and then charged fees in connection with those unauthorized accounts. The lawsuit specifically alleged the existence of a corporate policy compensating employees based on the number of accounts opened.
Since this practice was so widespread, the consumers filed their suit on behalf of all consumers subjected to this conduct. In 2015, Wells Fargo vigorously denied the allegations, describing its culture as “focused on the best interests of its customers and creating a supportive, caring, and ethical environment for our team members.”
Shariar Jabbari opened two accounts in January 2011. By April 2011, two additional accounts were opened in his name, with $100 transferred to each from his savings account. By June 2011, five more accounts were opened for Jabbari without his knowledge or consent.
Wells Fargo invoked its newly-added arbitration clause to dismiss the complaint, arguing that disputes, including any dispute over whether the clauses applied at all, must be decided by a private arbitrator hired by the bank. The bank claimed that these customers “agreed” to arbitrate everything because the fake accounts “could not have been opened had [the customer] not opened the legitimate accounts which he admits to opening.” Therefore, even completely unauthorized accounts could not escape the “expansive terms of the arbitration agreements.”
Another customer in the class action, Kaylee Heffelfinger, claimed that Wells Fargo opened two accounts in her name in January 2012, weeks before she opened legitimate accounts in March 2012. Wells Fargo argued that “it is at least plausible that [its] employees generated the unauthorized accounts in January 2012 after Heffelfinger initiated a relationship with, and provided information to, the Wells Fargo branch where her legitimate accounts were opened” and thus even those claims should be forced into arbitration.
Incredibly, the federal district court granted Wells Fargo’s demand for individual arbitration on each of these claims. The customers appealed, and on September 8, 2016 – the day the CFPB announced its enforcement action – Wells Fargo settled with the customers on the condition they not disclose the details of their case.
David Douglas v. Wells Fargo (Superior Ct of Los Angeles, CA)
A customer named David Douglas tried to sue Wells Fargo on his own after he learned that three of the local employees at his Wells Fargo branch used his personal information to open at least eight accounts under his name without his permission, charging him fees for those accounts. More than three years ago, Douglas alleged that Wells Fargo “routinely use[d] the account information, date of birth, and Social Security and taxpayer identification numbers…and existing bank customers’ money to open additional accounts.”
Wells Fargo moved to compel forced arbitration over the disputed accounts, suggesting that “[s]ince the information allegedly misused was provided in connection with the original account, by definition any such claim of misuse arises out of or relates to the original account.” The bank similarly claimed that Douglas’ allegation that Wells Fargo transferred money into these fake accounts without his permission “is the most routine kind of claim covered by the Arbitration Agreement that one can imagine.”
Douglas opposed these arguments, adding that he never could have signed a forced arbitration agreement for those unauthorized accounts because they were opened without his knowledge. Incredibly, the court granted Wells Fargo’s demand for arbitration, relying on the arbitration clause from his original, non-fraudulent account with Wells Fargo which claimed to cover “all disputes” between him and the bank.
By pushing these cases into secret arbitration, Wells Fargo was able to keep this scandal out of public view for years and continue profiting from massive fraud. This culture of secrecy was pervasive. As CFPB Director Richard Cordray described at the Senate Banking Committee hearing on September 20, when the Los Angeles City Attorney brought an action against the bank, “one of the first things Wells Fargo did…was aggressively seek a protective order to keep the proceedings as much as possible from public view.” These actions, along with forced arbitration, allowed the bank to evade accountability and transparency for at least five years.
Senate Banking Committee Hearing on September 20
At the Senate Banking Committee hearing, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) asked Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf if the bank would continue to argue in court that mandatory arbitration clauses covering real accounts should apply to fake accounts, forcing defrauded consumers into arbitration. Stumpf was non-committal, replying that he would “have to talk to my legal team, and we can get back to you on that.”
During the second panel, Senator Brown asked Director Cordray, how the agency’s proposed rule to restrict forced arbitration in consumer financial contracts would have helped customers that sued the bank over fraudulent accounts. Cordray replied that Wells Fargo’s arbitration clause might defeat a class action, noting that “as happened here, when there’s massive wrongdoing on a wide scale, but small amounts of harm to individual consumers, it will be very difficult to get any relief other than through a class action.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) then asked Director Cordray if he thought that “forced arbitration clauses make it easier for big banks to cover up patterns of abusive conduct, including the years of misconduct by Wells Fargo in this case.” Cordray answered, “I do think so, yes.”
Senator Warren went on to note that the CFPB has “proposed strong new rules that would ban forced arbitration clauses that prevent consumers from joining together to bring a public action in court,” and “[i]f we had class actions on this back in 2010, 2009, 2008, then the problem never would have gotten so out of hand.”
House Financial Services Committee Hearing on September 29
At the House Financial Services Committee Hearing, Representative Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) asked Stumpf if he would continue to invoke ripoff clauses to deprive consumers of their day in court in light of this scandal. Stumpf refused to end this practice.
This blog is maintained by AFR as a forum for ongoing news and commentary about the fight for effective financial reform. Blog posts represent the opinions of their authors / posters, and do not necessarily represent the views of the AFR coalition or coalition members.