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CFPB Solicits Whistleblowers to Strengthen Enforcement of Consumer Financial Protection Laws

In its revamped whistleblower webpage, the CFPB is enlisting the help of whistleblowers to provide tips about the following issues:

  • Any discrimination related to consumer financial products or services or small businesses
  • Any use of artificial intelligence/machine learning models that is based on flawed or incomplete data sets, that uses proxies for race, gender, or other group characteristics, or that impacts particular groups or classes of people more than others;
  • Misleading or deceptive advertising of consumer financial products or services, including mortgages
  • Failure to collect, maintain, and report accurate mortgage loan application and origination data
  • Failure to provide or use accurate consumer reporting information
  • Failure to review mortgage borrowers’ loss mitigation applications in a timely manner
  • Any unfair, deceptive, or abusive act or practice with respect to any consumer financial product or service.

The CFPB has also announced that it seeks tips to help it combat the role of Artificial Intelligence in enabling intentional and unintentional discrimination in decision-making systems.  For example, a recent study of algorithmic mortgage underwriting revealed that Black and Hispanic families have been more likely to be denied a mortgage compared to similarly situated white families.

Proposed CFPB Whistleblower Reward Program

Currently, there is no whistleblower reward program at the CFPB and sanctions collected in CFPB enforcement actions do not qualify for SEC related action whistleblower awards.  In light of the success of the SEC’s Whistleblower Program as an effective tool to protect investors and strengthen capital markets, the CFPB requested that Congress establish a rewards program to strengthen the CFPB’s enforcement of consumer financial protection laws.

In September 2021, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto introduced the Financial Compensation for Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Whistleblowers Act (S. 2775), which would establish a whistleblowers rewards program at the CFPB similar to the SEC Whistleblower Program.  It would authorize the CFPB to reward whistleblowers between 10% to 30% of collected monetary sanctions in a successful enforcement action where the penalty exceeds $1 million.  And in cases involving monetary penalties of less than $1 million, the CFPB would be able to award any single whistleblower 10% of the amount collected or $50,000, whichever is greater.

The Financial Compensation for CFPB Whistleblowers Act is cosponsored by Chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee Senator Sherrod Brown and Senators Dick Durbin, Elizabeth Warren, Jeff Merkley, Richard Blumenthal, and Tina Smith. In the House, Representative Al Green introduced a companion bill (H.R. 5484).

A whistleblower reward program at the CFPB could significantly augment enforcement of consumer financial protection laws, including laws barring unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts and practices.  The CFPB has authority over a broad array of consumer financial products and services, including mortgages, deposit taking, credit cards, loan servicing, check guaranteeing, collection of consumer report data, debt collection associated with consumer financial products and services, real estate settlement, money transmitting, and financial data processing.  In addition, the CFPB is the primary consumer compliance supervisory, enforcement, and rulemaking authority over depository institutions with more than $10 billion in assets.

Hopefully, Congress will act swiftly to enact the Financial Compensation for CFPB Whistleblowers Act.

Protection for CFPB Whistleblowers

Although Congress did not establish a whistleblower reward program when it created the CFPB, it included a strong whistleblower protection provision in the Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010 (CFPA).  The anti-retaliation provision of the Consumer Financial Protection Act provides a cause of action for corporate whistleblowers who suffer retaliation for raising concerns about potential violations of rules or regulations of the CFPC.

Workers Protected by the CFPA Anti-Retaliation Law

The term “covered employee” means “any individual performing tasks related to the offering or provision of a consumer financial product or service.”  The CFPA defines a “consumer financial product or service” to include “a wide variety of financial products or services offered or provided for use by consumers primarily for personal, family, or household purposes, and certain financial products or services that are delivered, offered, or provided in connection with a consumer financial product or service . . . Examples of these include . .. residential mortgage origination, lending, brokerage and servicing, and related products and services such as mortgage loan modification and foreclosure relief; student loans; payday loans; and other financial services such as debt collection, credit reporting, credit cards and related activities, money transmitting, check cashing and related activities, prepaid cards, and debt relief services.”

Scope of Protected Whistleblowing About Consumer Financial Protection Violations

The CFPA protects disclosures made to an employer, to the CFPB or any State, local, or Federal, government authority or law enforcement agency concerning any act or omission that the employee reasonably believes to be a violation of any CFPB regulation or any other consumer financial protection law that the Bureau enforces. This includes several federal laws regulating “unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices . . . related to the provision of consumer financial products or services.”

Some of the matters the CFPB regulates include:

  • kickbacks paid to mortgage issuers or insurers;
  • deceptive advertising;
  • discriminatory lending practices, including a violation of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (“ECOA”);
  • excessive fees;
  • any false, deceptive, or misleading representation or means in connection with the collection of any debt; and
  • debt collection activities that violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA).

Some of the consumer financial protection laws that the CFPB enforces include:

  • Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act;
  • Home Mortgage Disclosure Act;
  • Equal Credit Opportunity Act;
  • Truth in Lending Act;
  • Truth in Savings Act;
  • Fair Credit Billing Act;
  • Fair Credit Reporting Act;
  • Electronic Fund Transfer Act;
  • Consumer Leasing Act;
  • Fair Debt Collection Practices Act;
  • Home Owners Protection Act; and
  • Secure and Fair Enforcement for Mortgage Licensing Act

Reasonable Belief Standard in Banking Whistleblower Retaliation Cases

The CFPA whistleblower protection law employs a reasonable belief standard.  As long as the plaintiff’s belief is reasonable, the whistleblower is protected, even if the whistleblower makes a mistake of law or fact about the underlying violation of a law or regulation under the CFPB’s jurisdiction.

Prohibited Retaliation

The CFPA anti-retaliation law proscribes a broad range of adverse employment actions, including terminating, “intimidating, threatening, restraining, coercing, blacklisting or disciplining, any covered employee or any authorized representative of covered employees” because of the employee’s protected whistleblowing.

Proving CFPA Whistleblower Retaliation

To prevail in a CFPA whistleblower retaliation claim, the whistleblower need only prove that his or her protected conduct was a contributing factor in the adverse employment action, i.e., that the protected activity, alone or in combination with other factors, affected in some way the outcome of the employer’s decision.

Where the employer takes the adverse employment action “shortly after” learning about the protected activity, courts may infer a causal connection between the two.  Van Asdale v. Int’l Game Tech., 577 F.3d 989, 1001 (9th Cir. 2009).

Filing a CFPA Financial Whistleblower Retaliation Claim

CFPA complaints are filed with OSHA, and the statute of limitations is 180 days from the date when the alleged violation occurs, which is the date on which the retaliatory decision has been both made and communicated to the whistleblower.

The complaint need not be in any particular form and can be filed orally with OSHA. A CFPA complaint need not meet the stringent pleading requirements that apply in federal court, and instead the administrative complaint “simply alerts OSHA to the existence of the alleged retaliation and the complainant’s desire that OSHA investigate the complaint.” If the complaint alleges each element of a CFPA whistleblower retaliation claim and the employer does not show by clear and convincing that it would have taken the same action in the absence of the alleged protected activity, OSHA will conduct an investigation.

OSHA investigates CFPA complaints to determine whether there is reasonable cause to believe that protected activity was a contributing factor in the alleged adverse action.  If OSHA finds a violation, it can order reinstatement of the whistleblower and other relief.

CFPA Whistleblower Retaliation Damages

Jason Zuckerman, Principal of Zuckerman Law, litigates whistleblower retaliation, qui tam, wrongful discharge, and other employment-related claims. He is rated 10 out of 10 by Avvo, was recognized by Washingtonian magazine as a “Top Whistleblower Lawyer” in 2015 and selected by his peers to be included in The Best Lawyers in America® and in SuperLawyers.