On July 5, 2017, the U.S. District Court for the District Columbia, in the lawsuit filed in 2014 challenging “Operation Choke Point” — a federal enforcement initiative involving various agencies, including the Consumer Protection Branch of the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Federal Depository Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the Federal Reserve (Fed), and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency — denied the agencies’ motions to dismiss and/or for summary judgment and permitted the payday lender-plaintiffs’ due process claims to proceed.
Initiated in 2012, Operation Choke Point targeted banks serving online payday lenders and other companies that have raised regulatory or “reputational” concerns. In June 2014, the national trade association for the payday lending industry and Advance America, a payday lender, initiated the action against the FDIC, Fed, and the OCC. The lawsuit alleged that certain actions taken by the agencies as part of Operation Choke Point violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and that Operation Choke Point violated their due process rights. The court granted the agencies’ motion to dismiss the defendants’ APA claim and, although ruling that the due process claim could proceed, subsequently dismissed the trade association as a party for lack of standing. Following the addition of six new payday lenders to the complaint, the agencies moved to dismiss the new payday lenders’ due process claim for lack of standing and failure to state a claim, and moved for summary judgment as to all plaintiffs on the basis that they cannot show that they suffered a deprivation of liberty without due process.
The Court rejected the agencies’ arguments, holding that the newly-added plaintiffs had established both standing and a plausible claim for relief, and concluding that the agencies were not entitled to judgment on any of the plaintiffs’ due process claims. First, the Court rejected the agencies’ attempt to challenge the new plaintiffs’ allegations of future harm — i.e., their potential for future loss of access to the banking system, and potential preclusion from the payday lending industry — finding that they demonstrated the requisite elements of standing, and stated a plausible claim for relief, by alleging that they previously lost bank accounts as a result of Operation Choke Point, and that they will continue to do so if the agencies’ actions continue.
The Court also held that the agencies’ were not entitled to summary judgment on any of the plaintiffs’ due process claims. The court rejected the agencies’ argument that plaintiffs could not show a due process violation where they “continue to access the banking system and remain quite profitable.” According to the court, the agencies had not definitively demonstrated that plaintiffs would “not be put out of business by the continued regulatory pressure from Federal Defendants.”
The Court was also unmoved by the agencies’ argument that plaintiffs “are able to pursue other lines of business.” In support of that argument, the agencies cited cases finding no due process violation where the plaintiffs were barred from conducting business with the government, but remained free to transact with private individuals and entities. The court held that these cases, which distinguished between a person’s ability to sell services to the government versus one’s ability to sell services at all, did “little to support [the agencies’] argument that the Due Process Clause tolerates the destruction of an entire line of Plaintiffs’ business, so long as there are other lines of business they can pursue.” Citing to the Plaintiffs’ Opposition, the Court observed that “it would be of little consolation to an attorney, driven from his practice by improper governmental stigma, that McDonalds is still hiring.”
Despite the change to a Republican Administration, lawmakers continue to raise concerns that Operation Choke Point remains in operation. In a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions dated July 6, 2017, Republican Senators Mike Crapo and Thom Tillis stated that “[w]hile many would claim that this program has ceased to operate, this does not appear to be the case as we continue to receive complaints that indicate the program is still in effect.” The Senators asked “that DOJ review all options available to ensure lawful businesses are able to continue to operate without fear of significant financial consequences, which should include taking the additional step of issuing a Statement of Enforcement Policy that Operation Choke Point is no longer in effect and that administrative subpoenas issued pursuant to DOJ’s civil investigative authority under [FIRREA] may be issued only where there is an articulable suspicion of illegal activity being conducted or facilitated by the intended recipient of the subpoena.”
Legislation has also been proposed in the House, with Republican Congressman Blaine Leutkemeyer (R-Mo.) introducing a bill (H.R. 2706) that seeks to prevent future recurrences of Operation Choke Point by limiting the authority of banking regulators and the DOJ.