On December 22, 2017, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia held oral arguments on Leandra English’s preliminary injunction motion through which she seeks to block Mick Mulvaney from continuing to serve as the Acting Director of the CFPB. Judge Timothy Kelly presided over the hearing. Deepak Gupta argued for English. Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Division, Chad Readler argued for the Department of Justice.
At the beginning of the hearing, Judge Kelly announced that he had a list of questions for each side. He then used his questions to guide the hearing, giving each side an opportunity to answer before moving to his next question.
His questions generally cut straight to the heart of English’s and Mulvaney’s arguments, which we have discussed at length. The questions likely reflect his view on the decisive issues in the case. Judge Kelly bookended the hearing with questions about whether a preliminary injunction would throw the already embattled agency into chaos.
For example, his second question was whether and how a preliminary injunction would upset the status quo at the CFPB. He observed that injunctions exist to preserve the status quo while a case is litigated. Then he asked whether unseating Mulvaney would preserve the status quo given that Mulvaney is already leading the agency.
Gupta argued that, for reasons of equity, the status quo must be measured from the last “uncontested” state of affairs. Otherwise, Gupta argued, the court would reward usurpers. The last uncontested state of affairs as Gupta saw it was at midnight when English automatically became the Acting Director after Cordray’s resignation took effect.
The DOJ countered that English’s argument ignores some key facts, however. While English’s appointment took effect at midnight (according to her), Mulvaney’s appointment took effect a minute later at 12:01 am. That one-minute difference cannot reasonably be the deciding factor as to what counts as the status quo. This is especially so when the CFPB’s own general counsel stated that a Trump-appointed Acting Director would have a more legitimate claim to the office than English. Readler punctuated this argument by pointing-out that CFPB attorneys were seated with him at counsel table, not with English’s attorneys.
Towards the end of the hearing, when discussing the “balance of the equities” prong of the preliminary injunction analysis, Judge Kelly asked how a preliminary injunction would contribute to “clarity” about who was rightfully in charge of the CFPB. In response, Gupta generally repeated the status quo arguments he started-off with. Readler reminded the court that a preliminary injunction could result in the temporary appointment of a third leader of the agency in less than one month.
In the middle of the hearing, Judge Kelly’s questions touched on other significant weaknesses in English’s case. For example, English argues that language in Dodd-Frank allowing the CFPB Director to name a Deputy Director who “shall serve” as Acting Director is more specific than the Vacancies Reform Act (“VRA”) which allows the President to appoint acting officials. Thus, relying on the maxim of statutory construction that specific statutes trump general ones (i.e., the “general-specific” maxim), she argues that Dodd-Frank governs the appointment of the Acting CFPB Director. Through his questions, Judge Kelly highlighted that the “general-specific” maxim cannot be applied unless the VRA and Dodd-Frank are irreconcilable. The DOJ was quick to seize on the judge’s questions and point out that Dodd-Frank and the VRA are easily harmonized.
During the course of the argument, Gupta also confirmed that English takes the position that the Acting CFPB Director is removable only for cause just as the CFPB Director would be. Several amici have pointed-out the absurd results this creates, including the Credit Union National Association, which submitted an amicus brief drafted by Ballard Spahr. Judge Kelly followed-up by asking whether English’s removal-only-for-cause argument means that an unelected official can serve without Senate confirmation in the executive branch in opposition to the President. Gupta pointed to the Federal Housing Finance Agency (“FHFA”), which he said has analogous succession provisions. The DOJ responded: even if that were so, FHFA does not have nearly the power that the CFPB has wielded since its inception.
Also worth noting is the difficulty that English’s side had substantiating the irreparable harm element of her preliminary injunction claim. The DOJ argued that this was a run-of-the-mill employment case, in which irreparable harm is almost never found. Apparently rejecting that label, Judge Kelly nevertheless asked whether English could show any irreparable harm to herself that would flow from Mulvaney’ serving as Acting CFPB Director.
Gupta argued that English would be harmed by being deprived of the ability to exercise the powers of office. In doing so, he relied on a single district court case indicating that such harm could, indeed, be irreparable. Readler reminded the court that the case has never before been cited or relied upon by any court. He also distinguished the case and encouraged Judge Kelly to ignore it, saying that practically every case involving government employment involves some deprivation of the ability to exercise the powers of an office. If English were right, courts would have found irreparable harm in all of the run-of-the-mill employment cases, which they haven’t.
Judge Kelly wrapped-up the two-hour hearing by giving both sides an opportunity to raise any points not covered. He did not issue a decision or indicate when one could be expected. Based on the Judge’s denial of English’s request for a temporary restraining order and his questions and observations at the hearing, it seems likely that he will deny her preliminary injunction motion as well. English will likely appeal any such denial to the D.C. Circuit.