Legislation to tweak regulations imposed on the title insurance industry in recent years by the state Department of Financial Services is poised to secure final passage by state lawmakers as early as next week, the bill’s sponsors said.
The measure already passed earlier this week in the state Assembly where Democrats and Republicans alike voted unanimously in favor of the bill.
State Sen. Neil Breslin, a Democrat from Albany who sponsors the legislation in the upper chamber, said he expects it to come to the floor for a vote in the coming days. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate last year but stalled in the Assembly.
“I expect it will be taken up, it will be on the Rules calendar, in the next week or so,” Breslin said. Legislation typically goes to the Rules Committee in the Senate immediately before it goes to the floor for a vote.
Breslin, an attorney, said he doesn’t expect there to be much, if any, opposition to the measure. Many of the lawmakers who approved it last year are still in the chamber this year, though there is a slew of new members that have yet to consider the bill.
The legislation is intended to roll back, to some extent, part of a regulation promulgated by DFS nearly two years ago that barred title insurance companies and agents from billing certain marketing expenses to consumers.
Maria Vullo, who was superintendent of the agency when the regulations were promulgated, slammed the legislation in a statement to the New York Law Journal on Friday. She defended the regulations and pointed to an appellate court decision from earlier this year that upheld them.
“It’s a very bad bill,” Vullo said. “Is New York’s supposedly progressive legislature going to allow the title industry to continue to engage in what the Appellate Division has called ‘unscrupulous’ behavior, all at the expense of New York homebuyers?”
The bill isn’t a done deal as of yet; Vullo and other opponents of the legislation are still trying to prevent it from coming to the floor for a vote. She hasn’t been silent on the issue, either. She published an op-ed in the New York Daily News on Friday morning criticizing the bill and urging lawmakers to withdraw their support from the measure.
“Title insurance is, for all purposes, an arm of the real estate industry,” Vullo wrote. “Legislators who are seeking to rein in the power of landlords should not simultaneously be giving away the store to title insurers.”
The regulations were prompted by an investigation led by Vullo in 2015 that found title insurance companies and agents spend millions each year marketing to attorneys and real estate agents. Those expenses, which the agency said ranged from something as small as a cup of coffee to a paid vacation for prospective clients, were then passed on to consumers.
One insurer, for example, spent more than $1 million every year on tickets to sporting events for prospective clients, who were mainly attorneys and real estate agents, according to the investigation. Other insurers allegedly paid for their clients to go to strip clubs on Long Island and bought them expensive designer products.
All of that, the investigation alleged, was to convince attorneys and real estate agents to drive their business to those specific title insurance companies. That kind of conduct, referred to as inducement, is illegal under the state’s insurance laws, according to DFS.
Representatives from the title insurance industry have said the agency’s findings are the exception among their colleagues, not the rule. The regulations promulgated thereafter have prevented them from billing something as frugal as a meal with a client or prospective client, even if that meeting was not a quid pro quo transaction.
The New York State Land Title Association, which represents the industry, sued the state after the regulations were finalized, saying that they went beyond the statutory authority of the agency. That argument was well-received in Manhattan Supreme Court last year, where the regulations were struck down.
That win was short-lived for the industry; an appellate court in Manhattan reinstated the regulations in a decision handed down earlier this year. The case was sent back to the trial court for further litigation but could ultimately end up at the state’s highest court.
The bill that’s expected to receive final passage by the Legislature next week attempts to provide some clarity as to what marketing expenses would be allowed by title insurance companies and agents and which would not.
“I think it’s important that we lay down some guidelines for the superintendent to follow for all marketing activities of title insurance companies and not rely on a disputed interpretation of the existing law, which is already the subject of protracted litigation,” said Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, a Democrat from Kingston who sponsors the bill in the lower chamber.
The main change, according to the bill, would allow title insurance agents and companies to pay for meals with prospective or current clients, as long as that expense wasn’t intended to induce their business.
The text of the legislation says specifically that title insurance companies and agents would be able to spend money on “meal and beverages with present or prospective customers where one or more employees or representatives of the title insurance corporation or title insurance agent are present and title insurance business.”
Bob Treuber, executive director of the Land Title Association, said they were encouraged by this week’s vote to approve the bill in the Assembly. They’ve argued that the state’s regulations would increase their overhead costs and particularly harm smaller agencies that may have to cut costs elsewhere to comply.
“We’ve been working very hard on educating members and informing them of the unintended consequences to consumers and it’s really about making real estate finance work for the people of New York,” Treuber said.
Vullo argued that the bill is written in a way that would open loopholes for the title insurance industry to go back to billing for lavish meals and entertainment for prospective clients. She said the regulations promulgated while she was head of DFS were both “reasonable and consistent,” and criticized the title insurance industry’s lobbying efforts against them.
“They were issued to prevent further unlawful inducements of business and to protect the consumer,” Vullo said. “The newest bill, likely drafted by the title industry, contains every loophole imaginable to allow current unethical practices to continue.”
It’s possible that, if the bill becomes law, DFS could promulgate new regulations to place a cap on the amount title insurance companies and agents would be allowed to spend when buying meals for prospective clients.
But to get to that point, the legislation would have to be signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who appointed Vullo when she was chosen to lead DFS. A spokesman for Cuomo’s office said they’re reviewing the bill.