Wendy Kamenshine, Ombudsman for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau office, along with her colleague Sharon Asar, conducted an interesting presentation at the recent ABA Business Law Section Annual Meeting on the role of the Ombudsman office at the CFPB.

The role of the office is to advocate for a fair process in individual and corporate interfaces with the agency.  Users are encouraged to engage the Ombudsman office whenever they seek assistance in their dealings with the agency. 

She drew a distinction between Ombudsmen and other ADR processes.  Although an Ombudsman is a third party neutral, the work involves stakeholders within and outside the agency, attending to relationships over a sustained period of time rather than at the moment of a particular problem.  Another distinction are the available resources – Ombudsmen engage in shuttle diplomacy, facilitated conversations, impartial evaluation, organizational procedure recommendation, and other jobs  that are unrelated to dispute resolution per se.  The office is authorized by a short passage in the Dodd -rank Act establishing a function that would act as liaison to persons experiencing problems with respect to the activities of the agency.

Five areas are focused upon: issues arising from the examination process, the enforcement process, the consumer complaint process, examination appeals, and relationships of the Bureau with other agencies, particularly those engaged in financial regulation.

Three basic tenants of the office are independence, impartiality and confidentiality.

  • The office is independent of the operations of the Bureau, and is not part of the agency’s organizational business line. It has a high-level reporting function, in keeping with its obligation to influence organizational changes as needed. Its direct report is to the Assistant Director, and then the Director.
  • Impartiality means that it takes no sides; its obligation is to the process. Consumer and trade groups, government agencies, congressional staffers, counsel to companies – all are equally served.  They are also not advocates for the operational activities of the agency, except that they have a mission to improve its processes.
  • Confidentiality is necessary to facilitate individuals’ willingness to reach out to the office without risk.

The goal is to resolve processes informally, to the extent possible.  The office has no authority to address internal disputes, such as employment or human relations matters, and notice to its office is not notice to the agency for purposes of statutory timing.  If a matter is in litigation, the Ombudsman office cannot assist in resolving it.

The office is approached by individuals, groups and organizations.  One of its fundamental jobs is to provide resources to those who approach the agency.  One example was a group of concerns about the examination process, and the lack of useful and consistent information provided to companies subject to examination.  As a result of the Ombudsman office’s work, more robust and uniform information is now provided to companies subject to examination.  Another example was the difficulty that visually impaired users experienced in engaging with the agency’s web site.  The office worked with groups of visually impaired users and greatly enhanced the ability of visually impaired users to file a complaint online.

The office opened in 2011.  Over 1,100 people from 47 states contacted the office during 2014.  The office’s web site and annual report are sources of further information.

 

F. Peter Phillips is an arbitrator and mediator practicing through Business Conflict Management in Montclair, New Jersey. He is also the Director of the Alternative Dispute Resolution Skills Program at New York Law School where, as Adjunct Professor, he teaches Alternative Dispute Resolution, Negotiation, and International Commercial Dispute Resolution.