On May 26, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB or Bureau) announced that federal anti-discrimination law requires companies to explain to applicants the specific reasons for denying an application for credit or taking other adverse actions, even if the creditor is relying on credit models using complex algorithms.

In a corresponding Consumer Financial Protection Circular published the same day, the CFPB started with the question, “When creditors make credit decisions … do these creditors need to comply with the Equal Credit Opportunity Act’s (ECOA) requirement to provide a statement of specific reasons to applicants against whom adverse action is taken?”

Yes, the CFPB confirmed. Per the Bureau’s analysis, both ECOA and Regulation B require creditors to provide statements of specific reasons to applicants when adverse action is taken. The CFPB is especially concerned with something called “black-box” models — decisions based on outputs from complex algorithms that may make it difficult to accurately identify the specific reasons for denying credit or taking other adverse actions.

This most recent circular asserts that federal consumer financial protection laws and adverse action requirements should be enforced, regardless of the technology used by creditors, and that creditors cannot justify noncompliance with ECOA based on the mere fact that the technology they use to evaluate credit applications is “too complicated,” “too opaque in its decision-making,” or “too new.”

The Bureau’s statements are hardly novel. Regulation B requires adverse action notices and does not have an exception for machine learning models, or any other kind of underwriting decision-making for that matter. It’s difficult to understand why the Bureau thought it was necessary to restate such a basic principle, but what is even more difficult to understand is why the Bureau has not provided any guidance on the appropriate method for deriving adverse action reasons for machine learning models. The official commentary to Regulation B provides specific adverse action logic applicable to logistic regression models, but the Bureau noted in a July 2020 blog post that there was uncertainty about the most appropriate method to do so with a machine learning model. That same blog post even stated that the Bureau would consider resolving this uncertainty by amending Regulation B or its official commentary. A few months later, the Bureau hosted a Tech Sprint on adverse action notices during which methods for deriving adverse action reasons from machine learning models were specifically presented to the Bureau. Now, a year and half later, the Bureau has still declined to provide any such guidance, and the May 26 announcement simply emphasizes — and perpetuates — the same uncertainty that the Bureau itself recognized in 2020, without offering any guidance or solution whatsoever. It is disappointing, to say the least.

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Photo of Chris Willis Chris Willis

Chris is the co-leader of the Consumer Financial Services Regulatory practice at the firm. He advises financial services institutions facing state and federal government investigations and examinations, counseling them on compliance issues including UDAP/UDAAP, credit reporting, debt collection, and fair lending, and defending…

Chris is the co-leader of the Consumer Financial Services Regulatory practice at the firm. He advises financial services institutions facing state and federal government investigations and examinations, counseling them on compliance issues including UDAP/UDAAP, credit reporting, debt collection, and fair lending, and defending them in individual and class action lawsuits brought by consumers and enforcement actions brought by government agencies.

Chris also leverages insights from his litigation and enforcement experience to help clients design new products and processes, including machine learning marketing, fraud prevention and underwriting models, product structure, advertising, online application flows, underwriting, and collection and loss mitigation strategies.

Chris brings a highly practical focus to his legal advice, informed by balancing a deep understanding of the business of consumer finance and the practical priorities of federal and state regulatory agencies.

Chris speaks frequently at conferences across the country on consumer financial services law and has been featured in numerous articles in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington PostAmerican BankerNational Law JournalBNA Bloomberg, and Bank Safety and Soundness Advisor.

Photo of Stefanie Jackman Stefanie Jackman

Stefanie devotes her practice to assisting financial services institutions facing state and federal government investigations and examinations, counseling them on complex compliance issues, as well as defending them in individual and class action lawsuits. Stefanie represents clients across the financial services industry, including…

Stefanie devotes her practice to assisting financial services institutions facing state and federal government investigations and examinations, counseling them on complex compliance issues, as well as defending them in individual and class action lawsuits. Stefanie represents clients across the financial services industry, including banks and nonbanks, mortgage banking lenders and servicers, debt collectors and buyers, third-party service providers, health care and medical revenue cycle service providers, credit and prepaid card companies, auto lenders, and fintechs. She regularly advises her clients on issues arising under an array of federal and state consumer financial laws, including UDAP/UDAAP statutes, the FDCPA, FCRA, TCPA, EFTA, SCRA, and TILA.

In addition to her litigation and government investigations work, Stefanie focuses a significant portion of her practice on providing compliance-related advice to her clients. She regularly counsels clients on conducting compliance assessments relating to their debt collection, credit reporting and dispute resolution processes, fair lending and underwriting, and vendor oversight, as well as the functionality of their overall compliance management system. Stefanie also brings her litigation and enforcement experience to bear in assisting clients in designing new products and processes, including product structuring, advertising, online application flows, underwriting, and servicing-related strategies.

Photo of Mark Furletti Mark Furletti

Mark is the co-leader of the Consumer Financial Services Regulatory practice at the firm. He focuses on federal and state consumer and small business lending and payments laws, including those that apply to payment cards, buy-now-pay-later transactions, vehicle-secured loans, lines of credit, unsecured…

Mark is the co-leader of the Consumer Financial Services Regulatory practice at the firm. He focuses on federal and state consumer and small business lending and payments laws, including those that apply to payment cards, buy-now-pay-later transactions, vehicle-secured loans, lines of credit, unsecured loans, and deposit products. He counsels providers of consumer and small business financial services, including banks, on regulatory compliance, and defends them in class action litigation and government supervisory and enforcement matters. He also counsels purchasers of merchant receivables, companies that specialize in online small business lending, and companies that interact with their customers electronically or that set up recurring billing arrangements with their customers.

Mark regularly provides guidance on electronic payments and payment network rules, electronic contracting and mobile commerce, online banking, retail installment sales, preparing for examinations by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), responding to CFPB supervisory requests (including so-called PARR letters), Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code, lease-purchase transactions and consumer protection laws, such as the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), Truth in Lending Act (TILA), Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA), Electronic Funds Transfer Act (EFTA), Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (E-SIGN), and statutes prohibiting unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts and practices.

He is the co-chair of the American Bar Association’s (ABA’s) National Institute on Consumer Financial Services Basics. He previously served as co-chair of the Electronic Financial Services Subcommittee of the ABA’s Consumer Financial Services Committee.

Previously, Mark worked for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia for several years, during which he wrote more than 15 articles on consumer credit and payments topics and advised those crafting regulations on consumer credit and consumer payments issues. One article, “The Debate Over the National Bank Act and the Preemption of State Efforts to Regulate Credit Cards,” 77 Temple L. Rev. 425 (2004), was named best student article by the American College of Consumer Financial Services Lawyers. Other published articles include “Credit Card Pricing Developments and Their Disclosure,” 13 J. of Fin. Transformation 5 (2005).

Mark also worked as a business consultant, assisting the nation’s largest retail banks and credit card lenders with customer strategy issues, and as a manager at one of the largest credit card issuers in the United States.

Photo of Lori Sommerfield Lori Sommerfield

With over two decades of consumer financial services experience in federal government, in-house, and private practice settings, and a specialty in fair lending regulatory compliance, Lori counsels clients in supervisory issues, examinations, investigations, and enforcement actions.

Photo of David N. Anthony David N. Anthony

David is an experienced trial attorney with a concentration in litigating financial services and business disputes, including class actions related to the FCRA, FDCPA, TCPA and other consumer protection statutes.