regulation-9-21-16.pngThere have been two changes in bank regulatory enforcement that should be interesting to all directors. Recently, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency released a new examination handbook applicable to institutions of all asset sizes and changed a corresponding handbook for directors, guiding examiners in assessing an institution’s risk strategy and control environment and heightening the responsibilities of bank board directors. The guidance requires directors to be in a position to pose “credible challenges to management” and states a director’s prime duty is to “ensure the bank operates in a safe and sound manner,” altering a director’s previous duty of “protecting the bank.”

Also, recent rulemaking has intensified the sting of civil money penalties (CMPs). Effective August 1, 2016, the list of violations has been augmented and fines have materially increased. CMPs will increase for directors, institutional affiliated parties (IAPs), banks, thrifts, and other financial institutions. CMP statutes that carry three-tiered penalties geared to levels of severity and intent generally have risen 80 percent to 90 percent to $9,468, $47,340 and $1,893,610. Note that regulators forbid banks from making indemnification payments to a director or IAP assessed a CMP.

The changes in the handbooks, coupled with the enhanced CMPs, signal “regulatory creep,” suggesting strongly that less complex institutions will be held to standards expected of complex institutions. This supervisory approach should be noted by a bank and its board. If a federal banking agency decides to proceed with an enforcement action, the target (either the institution or the IAP) will be notified in writing and provided 15 days to explain why a CMP is unwarranted. Additionally, an IAP target will be required to update personal financial statements.

The bank’s response to the agency requires a deep dive into the record of the supervisory communication between the bank and the agency. A thorough legal analysis of the evidence, counsel’s opinion regarding the likelihood of a violation being upheld on appeal, and advice regarding the potential penalty range is critical. The penalty could range from an informal (supervisory) penalty to a public monetary penalty and industry ban. This is the time the target, along with experienced counsel, should meet with the relevant agency officials to seek to resolve the principal supervisory concerns, so the exposure is contained. It’s a good idea to address the possibility of agency referrals for criminal charges. The process of personal interaction with agency officials, and submission of the legal analysis with focused strategic dialog, is paramount.

While it is typically useful that bank management and directors present a unified front, because the federal banking agencies apply different standards and penalties to directors than bank management, a bank must appreciate the potential for conflicts of interest between directors and bank management. It may be necessary to engage independent legal counsel for the board. To the extent there is a uniformity of interests between management and directors, a joint defense agreement can be fashioned. Most bank board protection plans will cover legal fees and costs associated with independent counsel, although, again, the payment of an assessed CMP cannot be indemnified by the bank.

If alleged violations cannot be resolved by settlement, the CMP assessment or other sanctions will be made public. The sanctioned person may request a hearing before an administrative law judge. After the hearing occurs and submissions from counsel are received, the administrative law judge issues an opinion and recommendation to the agency. The administrative law judge’s opinion can be appealed to the agency head. A similar process then occurs before the agency head, and final agency action is rendered. Final agency action may be appealed to the relevant federal court of appeals. The Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and to a certain extent, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, use similar procedures.

Now more than ever, it is imperative that a bank director appreciate heightened supervisory expectations, actively provide oversight to management and, importantly, document for the record curiosity and skepticism. A director’s best defense is to be alert to warning signs that a finding of a legal violation is being considered. With management, the board should be proactive in addressing supervisory concerns, and document curative actions taken before the violation is outlined in a written supervisory communication.

Frank Mayer

John Bowman