Action Plan to Implement the New Dodd-Frank Preemption Rules
The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank)1 rolls back the clock on preemption for national banks to a time before broad preemption regulations were promulgated by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) in 2004. Dodd-Frank also subjects federal savings banks to the same preemption rules applicable to national banks. Beginning in July 2011, national banks and federal savings banks will have to adhere to more limited preemption of state laws in accordance with the 1996 Supreme Court holding in Barnett Bank v. Nelson.2 With less than 10 months before the new preemption rules become effective, national banks and federal savings banks must immediately begin work implementing the new rules to ensure that their products, services and operations comply with state laws that have been preempted in the past. This Special Alert is provided to help national banks and federal savings implement the new preemption rules.
A. Current Preemption Standard
There has been a vast expansion of the doctrine of federal preemption of state law in the consumer financial services sector in the last two decades. In its regulations and legal opinions, the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS) has interpreted the Home Owners’ Loan Act (HOLA) as occupying the entire field of regulation for consumer financial products and services offered by federal savings banks and their operating subsidiaries, and the courts have for the most part agreed. Field preemption has allowed federal savings banks and their operating subsidiaries to offer products and services without regard to state laws purporting to regulate or otherwise affect such products and services, except in very limited circumstances.3
Over the same period, national banks have benefited from a significant expansion of preemption supported both by the OCC and courts. This trend picked up in 1996 when the U.S. Supreme Court in Barnett held that Section 92 of the National Bank Act (NBA), authorizing insurance agent activities for national banks in small towns, preempted Florida insurance laws that would otherwise prohibit a national bank from selling insurance in a small town.4 In Barnett, the Court set an important standard for determining preemption for national banks: A state law that “prevents or significantly interferes” with a national bank’s exercise of its powers is preempted.5
Barnett provided the OCC with the basis for a broader interpretation of state law preemption under the NBA. In 2004, the OCC issued a preemption regulation providing that national banks and their operating subsidiaries were not subject to state laws that “obstruct, impair or condition” their exercise of federally-authorized powers, including making loans and taking deposits.6 The OCC regulations provide illustrative lists of the types of state laws that are preempted, which are virtually identical to those in OTS regulations.7
The OCC’s 2004 preemption regulation has led to a six-year run in which national banks and their operating subsidiaries have enjoyed what many consider de facto field preemption.
B. New Preemption Rules
The new preemption standard goes into effect on July 21, 2011 and will apply to both national banks and federal savings banks. The new standard is essentially the old preemption standard from Barnett with a number of new, important considerations. Before turning to a discussion of the new standard, the scope of its coverage is first explored.
- Definition of State Consumer Financial Law
The preemption provisions of Dodd-Frank divide state laws into two categories: (1) state consumer financial laws, and (2) state laws that are not state consumer financial laws. Dodd-Frank changes the preemption standard for the former, but not the latter. As a result, every preemption analysis under the NBA and HOLA will soon begin with the threshold question: Is the state law a state consumer financial law?
Dodd-Frank defines state consumer financial law as “a State law that does not directly or indirectly discriminate against national banks and that directly and specifically regulates the manner, content, or terms and conditions of any financial transaction . . . or any account related thereto, with respect to a consumer.”8 As a result, aside from the non-discrimination requirement, a state law must have three elements to be a state consumer financial law:
- the state law must regulate the manner, content, or terms and conditions of a financial transaction or account;
- the state law must do so “directly and specifically;” and
- the financial transaction or account regulated by the law must be “with respect to a consumer.”
The qualifications in the first two elements narrow the definition of “state consumer financial law” and provide ammunition for arguments that certain state laws are not state consumer financial laws. For example, an argument can be made that certain state advertising laws are not state consumer financial laws as they regulate the ways in which a bank may communicate about its products and services and do not regulate the manner, content, or terms and conditions of the transaction or account. In addition, an argument can be made that certain state unfair and deceptive acts or practices laws with broad coverage not specific to lenders and other providers of financial products and services are not covered for failure of the “directly and specifically” element.
2. New Preemption Standard
Dodd-Frank amends the NBA and HOLA to preempt a state consumer financial law only in three circumstances:
- “application of a State consumer financial law would have a discriminatory effect on national banks [or federal savings banks], in comparison with the effect of the law on a bank chartered by that State;
- in accordance with the legal standard for preemption in the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in [Barnett Bank v. Nelson], the State consumer financial law prevents or significantly interferes with the exercise by the national bank [or federal savings bank] of its powers; or
- the State consumer financial law is preempted by a provision of Federal law other than this title.”9
The third circumstance preserves the preemption provisions in federal laws other than the NBA and HOLA, such as the Truth in Lending Act. And because very few state laws discriminate against national banks and federal savings banks, most preemption analyses will focus on the second circumstance, which adopts the Barnett standard. As a result, the dispositive question will likely be: Does the state consumer financial law prevent or significantly interfere with the exercise of power by a national bank or federal savings bank?
Since 2004, the preemption analyses for national banks have focused on interpreting the OCC’s broad preemption rules. Barnett and court decisions interpreting Barnett were rarely, if ever, considered. Barnett and its progeny also were not considered in preemption analyses for federal savings banks, which, instead, have centered on the OTS’ even broader field preemption rules promulgated in 1996. Because the Barnett standard will soon apply to both national banks and federal savings banks, federally-chartered banks must now become thoroughly familiar with the case law interpreting Barnett.
This body of case law is extensive. Recently, a Shepherd’s report for Barnett identified 62 court decisions that examined or significantly discussed Barnett, and approximately another 188 decisions that cited and involved Barnett apparently to a lesser extent. Although, on balance, the case law is favorable for national banks, by no means have national banks won every case. As a result, lawyers for national banks and federal savings banks must review this case law with an eye towards developing an analytical framework to be used in determining which state consumer financial laws are preempted.
Contracts entered into on or before July 21, 2010 are grandfathered so that current preemption standards continue to apply. Dodd-Frank provides that it does not affect any preemption regulations or interpretations issued by the OCC or OTS with respect to contracts entered into on or before the date of enactment of Dodd-Frank (July 21, 2010). This timing formulation raises a question regarding the status of contracts entered into after July 21, 2010, and before the new preemption rules become effective on July 21st of next year. It appears that the most reasonable view is to also grandfather contracts entered into after July 21, 2010 and before July 21, 2011.
C. Operating Subsidiaries and Agents
Dodd-Frank also provides that, as of July 21, 2011, preemption does not extend to operating subsidiaries and agents of national banks and federal savings banks.
In Watters v. Wachovia, the Supreme Court held that the NBA preempted a Michigan law requiring operating subsidiaries of national banks engaged in mortgage lending to register as mortgage lenders.10 The broad reasoning of the decision strongly suggested that the Supreme Court holding would also extend to other substantive state law limitations, such as, for example, limitations on loan terms and lending practices.11
Dodd-Frank repeals Watters by providing that it does not preempt the application of any state law to subsidiaries or affiliates of a national bank and extends this limitation to subsidiaries and affiliates of federal savings banks.12 As a result, national banks and federal savings banks have two options for their operating subsidiaries. One is to roll the operating subsidiary up into the parent bank to take advantage of what remains of preemption. The other is to have the operating subsidiary comply with applicable state law.
In 2004, the OTS issued a legal opinion to State Farm Bank (State Farm Letter) concluding that certain exclusive agents of the bank were not subject to state licensing requirements.13 The State Farm Letter has been upheld by the courts.14 The OCC has not issued an analogous legal opinion, but a number of courts have held that the NBA preempts state laws otherwise applicable to agents of national banks in certain circumstances.15
Dodd-Frank sets aside the State Farm Letter and case law extending preemption to agents of national banks and federal savings banks by adding provisions to the NBA and HOLA which provide that no provision of these statutes will preempt the application of any state law to agents of a national bank or federal savings bank.16
D. Interest Exportation
Dodd-Frank preserves interest exportation authority for national banks and federal savings banks. Dodd-Frank provides that none of its provisions affect the authority of a national bank to charge interest at the rate permitted for the most favored lender in the state where the national bank is located.17 Dodd-Frank amends HOLA to incorporate the preemption provisions inserted in the NBA, which presumably would include this interest exportation preservation provision as well.18
E. Action Plan
National banks and federal savings banks relying on federal preemption in their current interstate activities directly or through operating subsidiaries or agents must have an action plan in place to implement Dodd-Frank’s new preemption rules. Any plan should include the following elements:
- Identify the states in which consumer financial transactions and accounts are offered, and then identify which laws of those states purport to apply to the transactions and accounts offered by national banks or federal savings banks.
- Determine whether those state laws identified are “state consumer financial laws” as defined by Dodd-Frank.
- Determine whether the bank is currently complying with each state consumer financial law or taking advantage of federal preemption.
- If the bank is taking advantage of federal preemption, determine if the state consumer financial law has a discriminatory effect on the bank.
- If the bank is taking advantage of federal preemption and there is no discriminatory effect, determine if preemption is provided by a provision of a federal law other than the NBA or HOLA.
- If the bank is taking advantage of federal preemption and there is no discriminatory effect or preemption is not available under a different federal law, then analyze the state consumer financial law under the Barnett prong of the Dodd-Frank preemption standard.
- If the state law is not preempted under the Barnett standard, products, services and operations must be brought into compliance with the state consumer financial law by July 21, 2011.
- If operating subsidiaries of the bank are taking advantage of federal preemption, either roll the subsidiary up into the parent bank or bring the subsidiary into compliance with applicable state law. If agents are used to distribute products and services, recognize that agents are no longer sheltered into the bank’s preemption. Conduct due diligence of agents to determine whether or not they are complying with applicable state law by July 21, 2011.
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1 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, Pub. L. No. 111-203, 124 Stat. 1376 (2010).
2 Barnett Bank of Marion County, N.A. v. Nelson, 517 U.S. 25 (1996).
3 See, e.g., 12 C.F.R. §§ 559.3(h)(1), 560.2.
4 Barnett Bank, 517 U.S. at 32.
5 Id. at 33.
6 12 C.F.R §§ 7.4006, 7.4007, 7.4008, 7.4009, 34.4.
8 Section 1044 of Dodd-Frank.
9 Sections 1044 and 1046 of Dodd-Frank. Section 1044 adds the new preemption standard to the NBA by amendment, and Section 1046 amends HOLA to provide that preemption under HOLA is governed by “the laws and legal standards applicable to national banks regarding the preemption of State law.”
10 Watters v. Wachovia, N.A., 550 U.S. 1 (2007).
11 Watters, 550 U.S. at 20-21.
12 Section 1045 of Dodd-Frank; supra, footnote 9.
13 OTS Chief Counsel Op. (Oct. 25, 2004) (authority of a federal savings association to perform banking activities through agents without regard to state licensing requirements).
14 State Farm Bank, F.S.B. v. Burke, 445 F. Supp 2d 207 (D. Conn. 2006); State Farm Bank, F.S.B v. Reardon, 539 F.3d (6th Cir. 2008).
15 See, e.g., Pacific Capital bank, N.A. v. Blumenthal, 542 F.3d 341 (2nd Cir. 2008); SPGGC, LLC v. Ayotte, 488 F.3d 535 (1st Cir. 2007); SPGGC, LLC v. Blumenthal, 505 F.3d 183 (2nd Cir. 2007).
16 Section 1045 of Dodd-Frank; supra, footnote 9.
17 Section 1044 of Dodd-Frank.
18 Supra, footnote 9.