CFPB and DOJ Coordinate on Fair Lending

On December 6, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB or Bureau) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to coordinate enforcement of the federal fair lending laws, including the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA). Simultaneously, the CFPB issued its first annual Fair Lending Report to Congress as required by the Dodd-Frank Act, which describes the Bureau’s efforts to build its Office of Fair Lending and Equal Opportunity and reviews its fair lending accomplishments. Together, these initiatives demonstrate that the CFPB and DOJ are continuing to work together closely to aggressively enforce the federal fair lending laws.

Memorandum of Understanding Regarding Fair Lending Coordination

The new MOU supplements an existing Information Sharing Agreement Regarding Fair Lending Investigations among the DOJ, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Federal Trade Commission, which allows these fair lending enforcement agencies to share confidential information related to fair lending investigations, screening procedures, and investigative techniques. It also follows a general cooperation MOU that the DOJ and CFPB entered into earlier this year.

The new MOU focuses on information sharing and referral of matters alleging ECOA violations, but also governs the agencies’ referral processes for other fair lending-related laws and joint fair lending investigations.

Referral of ECOA Violations to DOJ: The MOU explains the circumstances under which the CFPB will refer potential ECOA violations to the DOJ for further investigation or prosecution. Consistent with the established practice of the prudential federal bank regulators, the MOU requires the CFPB to refer to the DOJ all matters where it has “reason to believe” that one or more creditors has engaged in a pattern or practice of lending discrimination. The CFPB may also refer to DOJ any violation of Section 701(a) of ECOA, including a recommendation that a civil action be commenced if the CFPB cannot obtain compliance from the financial institution.

Following referral, the DOJ has 60 days to determine whether to proceed with its own investigation. Within that period, the CFPB may not unilaterally commence its own action with regard to the referred violation(s). Even if exigent circumstances arise during the 60-day review period, the CFPB must first consult with the DOJ before taking independent action.

The CFPB may also refer to the DOJ possible violations of fair lending-related laws for which the CFPB has no statutory examination or enforcement authority, but for which the DOJ possesses enforcement authority, including the Fair Housing Act and the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. Despite its lack of statutory authority to enforce these laws, the CFPB’s Supervision & Examination Manual provides resources to identify such potential violations for purposes of referrals to another federal agency.

Joint Investigations: With regard to joint investigations, the MOU provides only that “[w]hen appropriate, the DOJ and the CFPB will seek to collaborate on investigations, and conduct joint investigations of entities allowing the Agencies to leverage resources and expertise.” The agreement calls for quarterly meetings to discuss investigative activity, but allows each agency to retain “independent authority to proceed in the manner that it determines is appropriate.”

Information Sharing: The MOU describes how the parties have agreed to designate, share, use, and protect as non-public, certain information related to investigations of potential ECOA violations, including confidential supervisory information collected by the CFPB under its supervision and examination authority. The MOU allows for additional case- or investigation-specific information sharing agreements as appropriate, based on a form agreement provided as an attachment to the MOU. Section 7 of the form agreement indicates that “sharing of any confidential information [between the CFPB and DOJ] under this Agreement does not constitute a waiver of, or otherwise affect, any privilege any agency or person may claim with respect to such information under federal law.”