Regulation by Definition: CFPB Broadens Definition of “Unfairness” to Rein in Discrimination

In a significant move, the CFPB announced on March 16 a revision to its supervisory operations to address discrimination outside of the traditional fair lending context, with future plans to scrutinize discriminatory conduct that violates the federal prohibition against “unfair” practices in such areas as advertising, pricing, and other areas to ensure that companies are appropriately testing for and eliminating illegal discrimination. Specifically, the CFPB updated its Exam Manual for Unfair, Deceptive, or Abusive Acts or Practices (UDAAPs) noting that discrimination may meet the criteria for “unfairness” by causing substantial harm to consumers that they cannot reasonably avoid.

With this update, the CFPB intends to target discriminatory practices beyond its use of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) – a fair lending law which covers extensions of credit – and plans to also enforce the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA), which prohibits UDAAPs in connection with any transaction for, or offer of, a consumer financial product or service. To that end, future examinations will focus on policies or practices that, for example, exclude individuals from products and services, such as “not allowing African-American consumers to open deposit accounts, or subjecting African-American consumers to different requirements to open deposit accounts” that may be an unfair practice where the ECOA may not apply to this particular situation.

The CFPB notes that, among other things, examinations will (i) focus on discrimination in all consumer finance markets; (ii) require supervised companies to include documentation of customer demographics and the impact of products and fees on different demographic groups; and (iii) look at how companies test and monitor their decision-making processes for unfair discrimination, as well as discrimination under ECOA.

In a statement accompanying this announcement, CFPB Director Chopra stated that “[w]hen a person is denied access to a bank account because of their religion or race, this is unambiguously unfair . . . [w]e will be expanding our anti-discrimination efforts to combat discriminatory practices across the board in consumer finance.”

Putting it Into Practice: This announcement expands the CFPB’s examination footprint beyond discrimination in the fair lending context and makes it likely that examiners will assess a company’s anti-discrimination programs as applied to all aspects of all consumer financial products or services, regardless of whether that company extends any credit. By framing discrimination also as an UDAAP issue, the CFPB appears ready to address bias in connection with other kinds of financial products and services. In particular, the CFPB intends to closely examine advertising and marketing activities targeted to consumers based on machine learning models and any potential discriminatory outcomes.

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