As expected, CFPB Acting Director Mick Mulvaney has signed an order directing that the Notice of Charges filed against PHH be dismissed and terminating the matter.  The order indicates, that in dismissing the matter, Mr. Mulvaney accepted the recommendation made jointly by the CFPB and PHH that the matter be dismissed.

The order recites that on January 31, 2018, the D.C. Circuit issued its en banc PHH decision reinstating the RESPA-related portions of the D.C. Circuit’s panel decision.  The panel had held that the plain language of RESPA permits captive mortgage re-insurance arrangements like the one at issue in the PHH case, if the mortgage re-insurers are paid no more than the reasonable value of the services they provide.  The order states that “it is now the law of this case that PHH did not violate RESPA if it charged no more than the reasonable market value for the reinsurance it required the mortgage insurers to purchase, even if the reinsurance was a quid pro quo for referrals.”

PHH issued a press release about the dismissal in which it commented that the CFPB’s order “is consistent with our long-held view that we complied with RESPA and other laws applicable to our former mortgage reinsurance activities in all respects.”

 

 

American Banker has reported that that CFPB is planning to dismiss its lawsuit against PHH.  According to the American Banker report, the CFPB and PHH have issued a joint statement in which the parties confirm that they have conferred and agreed to recommend the dismissal and request that Acting Director Mulvaney proceed to dismiss the CFPB’s administrative proceeding.

On January 31, 2018, the D.C. Circuit issued its en banc PHH decision reinstating the RESPA-related portions of the D.C. Circuit’s October 2016 panel decision.  The panel had held that the plain language of RESPA permits captive mortgage re-insurance arrangements like the one at issue in the PHH case, if the mortgage re-insurers are paid no more than the reasonable value of the services they provide.  However, disagreeing with the panel decision, the en banc court rejected PHH’s challenge to the CFPB’s constitutionality based on its single-director-removable-only-for-cause structure.  Neither PHH Corporation nor the CFPB filed a petition for certiorari asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the en banc decision.

For the first time in 2015, in prosecuting the case against PHH, the CFPB announced a new interpretation of RESPA under which captive mortgage reinsurance arrangements were prohibited.  The panel rejected this interpretation on the ground that the statute unambiguously allows the kinds of payments that the CFPB’s 2015 interpretation prohibited.  The panel remanded the case to the CFPB to determine whether PHH complied with RESPA under the longstanding interpretation previously articulated by HUD.   The en banc court’s reinstatement of that aspect of the panel decision led it to order that the case be remanded to the CFPB for further proceedings.

Although the D.C. Circuit panel had agreed with PHH that the RESPA three-year statute of limitations applies to administrative proceedings, it left undecided another statute of limitations issue for the CFPB to consider on remand.  The panel stated:  “We do not here decide whether each alleged above-reasonable-market value payment from the mortgage insurer to the reinsurer triggers a new three-year statute of limitations for that payment.  We leave that question for the CFPB on remand and any future court proceedings.”

Since the en banc court reinstated the panel’s decision “insofar as it related to the interpretation of RESPA and its application to PHH,” the issue of when the RESPA three-year statute of limitations is triggered, which is of great significance to the mortgage industry, might have been addressed on remand.  The CFPB’s dismissal of the administrative proceeding means the CFPB will not have an opportunity to rule on that issue in this case.

A determination on remand as to whether PHH complied with RESPA under the longstanding interpretation previously articulated by HUD would have required the CFPB to consider whether the mortgage re-insurers were paid more than reasonable market value for the services they provided.  The dismissal of the administrative proceeding also means the CFPB will not have an opportunity to rule on how reasonable market value is determined in mortgage re-insurance arrangements.

 

Neither PHH Corporation nor the CFPB has filed a petition for certiorari asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the D.C. Circuit’s en banc PHH decision.  The filing deadline was May 1.

In that decision, which was issued on January 31, the D.C. Circuit ruled in favor of PHH on its challenge to the CFPB’s RESPA interpretation but rejected PHH’s challenge to the CFPB’s constitutionality based on its single-director-removable-only-for-cause structure.

While the decisions of the CFPB and PHH not to seek certiorari means the PHH case will not be the vehicle for a Supreme Court ruling on the CFPB’s constitutionality, other pending cases could provide such a vehicle.  Among such cases is CFPB v. All American Check Cashing, in which the Fifth Circuit recently agreed to hear an interlocutory appeal challenging the CFPB’s constitutionality.

 

On June 7, the CFPB submitted a Rule 28(j) letter to the D.C. Circuit in the PHH case.  In the letter, the CFPB embraced the fact that the Supreme Court’s recent Kokesh v. SEC decision makes the five-year statute of limitations in 28 USC § 2462 applicable to disgorgement remedies in CFPB administrative proceedings.  The CFPB asserted (incorrectly in our view) that Kokesh somehow obviated the applicability of RESPA’s three-year statute of limitations in the PHH case.

PHH forcefully responded to that argument in its reply letter.  It started with the point that § 2462’s limitation period applies “except as otherwise provided” by Congress. Because RESPA “otherwise provides” a three-year statute of limitations, § 2462 is inapplicable.  Next, it pointed out how unreasonable it is for the CFPB to assume that Congress would set one statute of limitations for judicial actions and another for administrative proceedings.  That “would destroy the certainty that Section 2614 was intended to provide,” it argued.  PHH also reminded the court of the CFPB Director’s holding in an earlier proceeding that no statute of limitations applies to administrative actions.  It chided the CFPB for trying to back away from that position at the “eleventh-hour.”

PHH also pointed out that “at the same time the CFPB argued in this Court that Section 2462 governs disgorgement, the Acting Solicitor General argued in Kokesh that it does not.  The CFPB’s freelancing merely underscores that the Director answers to no one but himself.”

On May 24, 2017, the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (D.C. Circuit) held oral argument in the PHH case, which we have blogged about extensively. The constitutionality of the CFPB’s structure was the central issue at the oral argument, occupying the vast majority of the time and the judges’ questions. It appears that the court intends to decide whether the CFPB’s single-director-removable-only-for-cause structure violates the Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine, even if the court rules in PHH’s favor on the RESPA issues.

The judges’ questioning signaled that, in their minds, the resolution turns on three questions: First, how does the CFPB structure diminish Presidential power more than a multi-member commission structure, which the Supreme Court has approved? Second, doesn’t the CFPB’s structure make it more accountable and transparent than a multi-member commission? Third, what are the consequences of approving the CFPB structure? Judges that appeared not to be concerned with the CFPB’s structure generally focused on the first two questions. Judges that appeared to be concerned with the CFPB’s structure focused on the third question. Another key theme addressed at various points throughout the oral argument is whether the CFPB’s structure is sufficiently close to the structures validated in prior Supreme Court cases, such that the court must uphold the CFPB’s structure.

At the oral argument, PHH’s counsel urged the court to recognize the serious affront that the various features of the CFPB’s structure, taken together, present to Presidential power, including: (i) the single director, (ii) the for cause removal provision, (iii) the funding outside the Congressional appropriations process, (iii) the director’s ability to appoint all inferior officers with no outside input, (iv) the director’s five-year term, (v) the deferential standard of review given to the director’s decisions, (vi) the director’s ability to promulgate regulations unilaterally, and (vii) the director’s sole ability to interpret and enforce regulations.

Before PHH’s counsel could even fully articulate his argument, however, judges started questioning him on how these features diminished Presidential power more than the multi-member commissions running other agencies, which the Supreme Court approved in Humphrey’s Executor. The DOJ, which was given time at the oral argument, forcefully responded to the judges’ questions. The “quintessential” character of the executive is the ability to act “with energy and dispatch,” counsel argued. Multi-member panels, as deliberative bodies, lack that quality and are thus more legislative and judicial than executive. Thus, they encroach on Presidential power to a much lesser degree.

DOJ’s counsel also pointed out that the rationale justifying the for cause removal provision that that the Supreme Court approved in Humphrey’s Executor was not present in agencies endowed with the CFPB’s structural features. The DOJ’s counsel pointed to language in Humphrey’s Executor approving the for-cause removal provisions only as to “officers of the kind here under consideration,” namely FTC commissioners. The Humphrey’s Executor court extensively described the FTC and the officers “here under consideration” in a way that precluded any applicability of the case to the CFPB. In Humphrey’s Executor, the FTC was described as a “non-partisan,” non-political body of experts that exercised quasi-judicial and quasi-legislative powers. The CFPB does not fit that mold, the DOJ ‘s counsel argued.

Counsel for both PHH and the DOJ also stressed that the CFPB did not fit the mold of the inferior officer at issue in Morrison v Olson, in which the Supreme Court approved a for-cause removal provision applicable to a special prosecutor. A few judges asked counsel questions apparently aimed at establishing that the existence of special prosecutors was as great an affront to Presidential power as is the CFPB’s structure.

During these lines of questioning, one judge suggested that the CFPB’s structure makes it more accountable to the President. She pointed out that, with a single director, there is one person to blame for problems and that, unlike multi-member commissions, the President has the power to appoint leadership with complete control over the agency. Counsel for PHH and the DOJ responded to this by reminding the court that the President can only appoint a director after the last director’s five-year term expires or the for-cause removal provision is triggered. Interestingly, no one raised the point that the for cause removal provision and five-year term also limit the ability of a President to remove a director that he or she appointed, even if the appointee did not act in a manner satisfactory to the President. Thus, the argument that the CFPB director is somehow more accountable than a multi-member commission does not hold water.

Some judges’ questions presented the issue that “if” the CFPB director is the same as a special prosecutor or FTC commissioner, then the D.C. Circuit is bound by Humphrey’s Executor and Morrison v. Olson. Without missing a beat, however, the DOJ picked up on that “if” and argued the point that the CFPB director is nothing like either position. DOJ’s counsel asserted that the director is not an inferior officer, as was the special prosecutor in Morrison v. Olson, nor is the director part of a non-partisan body of experts, as was the FTC commissioner in Humphrey’s Executor.

During the argument, Judge Brown and Judge Kavanaugh, who wrote the panel’s majority opinion, attempted to draw the rest of the court’s attention to the consequences of extending Humphrey’s Executor to a single-director agency and Morrison v. Olson to principal, as opposed to inferior, officers. Judge Brown suggested that, if the CFPB’s structure is constitutional, nothing would prevent Congress from slapping lengthy terms and for-cause removal restrictions on cabinet-level officials. That, she argued, would reduce the presidency to a “nominal” office with no real executive power. Judge Kavanaugh addressed the same issue making an apparent reference to the speculation that Elizabeth Warren may run for President after Trump leaves office. How would it be, he questioned, if she ran on a consumer protection platform, got elected, and was stuck with a Trump-appointed CFPB director, who would presumably take a much different position on issues central to her platform?

The CFPB’s counsel defended the Bureau’s structure at the hearing using the same technical arguments that the CFPB has been making all along. The CFPB’s counsel asserted that the CFPB’s structure was constitutional because each of the features taken individually has support in Supreme Court jurisprudence, principally Humphrey’s Executor and Morrison v. Olson.

In discussing the CFPB’s problematic structural features, CFPB counsel argued that, because each feature is a “zero” in terms of a problematic Congressional encroachment on Presidential power, that adding them together resulted in zero constitutional problems. “Zero plus zero plus zero, is zero,” he said. In rebuttal, PHH’s counsel pointed out that, as catchy as the argument may be rhetorically, it completely ignores the fact that even Supreme Court jurisprudence supportive of the individual features recognizes them as departures from the norm, acceptable only under certain circumstances. PHH’s counsel observed that the features at issue are not “zeros.”

The RESPA and statute of limitations issues did not occupy much time at the oral argument. Counsel for PHH urged the D.C. Circuit to reinstate the panel’s RESPA and statute of limitations rulings, all of which were in favor of PHH, and to rule on one issue not addressed by the panel.  While the panel decided, contrary to the CFPB’s views, that the CFPB is subject to statutes of limitations in administrative proceedings, the panel left for the CFPB on remand to decide if, as argued by the CFPB, each reinsurance premium payment triggered a new three-year statute of limitations, or whether, as argued by PHH, the three year statute of limitations is measured from the time of loan closing.  The judges did not raise any questions in response to counsel’s arguments on the RESPA and statutes of limitation issues.

Even though Lucia v. SEC was argued that same day, no questions surfaced during the PHH oral argument about the impact that Lucia may have on the PHH case.

* * *

It is likely that the earliest the D.C. Circuit’s decision will be issued is toward year-end. We will continue to monitor developments in this case.

 

PHH filed its reply brief with the D.C. Circuit on April 10 in the en banc rehearing of the PHH case. We have blogged extensively about the case since its inception. Central to the case is whether the CFPB’s single-director-removable-only-for-cause structure is constitutional. Of course, the CFPB fiercely defends its structure, while PHH, the DOJ, and others argue that the CFPB’s structure epitomizes Congressional usurpation of executive power in violation of the constitution’s separation of powers principles.

If the CFPB’s structure is constitutional then there is no reason why Congress can’t divest the President of all executive power, PHH argues. “[I]f Congress can divest the President of power to execute the consumer financial laws, then it may do so for the environmental laws, the criminal laws, or any other law affecting millions of Americans.” “The absence of any discernible limiting principle is a telling indication that the CFPB’s view of the separation of powers is wrong.”

Even if existing Supreme Court precedent authorizes Congress to assign some executive power to independent agencies, PHH argued that the CFPB’s structure goes too far. “No Supreme Court case condones the CFPB’s historically anomalous combination of power and lack of democratic accountability, and the Constitution forbids it.” The fact that the CFPB has the power of a cabinet-level agency while lacking any democratic accountability or structural safeguards is a sure sign that its structure is unconstitutional.

The only remedy to the CFPB’s unconstitutional structure, PHH argues, is to dismantle the agency entirely. “The CFPB’s primary constitutional defect, the Director’s unaccountability [], is not a wart to be surgically removed. Congress placed it right at the agency’s heart, and it cannot be removed without changing the nature of what Congress adopted.”

* * *

PHH’s reply completes the briefing in this appeal. Oral arguments are scheduled to take place on May 24, with each side being given 30 minutes to argue. On April 11, the D.C. Circuit granted the DOJ’s request for 10 minutes to present its views during oral argument.

The Department of Justice, with the consent of PHH and the CFPB, has filed an unopposed motion with the D.C. Circuit requesting ten minutes of argument time in the oral argument to be held on May 24, 2017 in the rehearing en banc in the PHH case.

The DOJ filed an amicus brief in which it agreed with PHH’s position that the CFPB’s structure is unconstitutional but advocated a more limited remedial measure than PHH is seeking.  In contrast to PHH which has argued that the CFPB should be dismantled in its entirety, the DOJ supports keeping the CFPB intact with a director removable at will by the President.

The D.C. Circuit has allocated 30 minutes per side for oral argument.  In its motion seeking argument time, the DOJ states that because “our position in this case does not fully align with either party,” it is requesting that “instead of sharing time with either party, we receive a total of ten minutes for the United States.”

 

 

On Friday, PHH filed its opening en banc brief with the D.C. Circuit in the rehearing of its appeal of Director Cordray’s June 2015 decision that affirmed an administrative law judge’s (ALJ) recommended decision concluding PHH had violated RESPA and increased the ALJ’s disgorgement award from over $6.4 million to over $109 million.  The rehearing was sought by the CFPB after a divided D.C. Circuit panel ruled that the CFPB’s single-director-removable-only-for-cause structure is unconstitutional and severed the unconstitutional provision to make the CFPB Director removable without cause by the President; rejected Director Cordray’s new RESPA interpretation and held that even assuming that his interpretation was consistent with RESPA, the CFPB’s attempt to apply that new interpretation retroactively violated due process; held that statutes of limitations apply to CFPB administrative enforcement actions; and remanded to the CFPB for further proceedings consistent with the panel’s decision.

In its opening brief, PHH argues that the CFPB’s “unprecedented independence from the elected branches of government violates the separation of powers” and that because the CFPB’s “constitutional infirmities extend far beyond limiting the President’s removal power…the proper remedy is to strike down the agency in its entirety.”  According to PHH, the Dodd-Frank “for-cause removal provision is not severable from the rest of the provisions establishing the CFPB because severance would create a new agency unrecognizable to the Congress that passed Dodd-Frank.”  PHH contends that the court cannot avoid the separation-of-powers issues “simply by adopting the panel’s statutory holdings and remanding to the CFPB, because this Court cannot remand a case to an unconstitutional agency.”  PHH asserts that such issues can only be avoided “by vacating the CFPB’s order without remand, so that the CFPB would not be free to resume proceedings against PHH.” (emphasis provided).

In its order granting the CFPB’s petition for rehearing en banc, one of the issues the court ordered the parties to address was what the appropriate disposition would be in PHH if the court were to hold that the ALJ in Lucia v. SEC was an inferior officer.  In Lucia, a panel of the D.C. Circuit held that because the SEC’s ALJ was an “employee” rather than “inferior officer” who must be appointed in accordance with the Appointments Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the ALJ’s appointment by the SEC’s Office of Administrative Law Judges rather than an SEC Commissioner was constitutional.  The D.C. Circuit granted a petition for rehearing en banc in Lucia and, as noted below, has scheduled oral argument in that case and in PHH for the same day.

Responding to the issue posed by the D.C. Circuit, PHH argues in its brief that if the court holds the ALJ in Lucia was improperly appointed, then the ALJ in its case was also an “inferior officer” who was not appointed in accordance with the Appointments Clause.  As a result, the entire hearing before the ALJ was invalid, Director Cordray’s order would need to be vacated, and “any future proceeding must begin afresh before a constitutionally structured agency but also before a valid adjudicator.”  PHH further argues that merely restarting the current proceeding still would not provide PHH with full relief because “the unconstitutional taint stemming from the initial authorization of the Notice of Charges would continue to infect this matter.”  PHH asserts that for this reason, the court “must decide PHH’s separation-of-powers challenge even if the ALJ was improperly appointed.”

With regard to the RESPA issues, PHH contends they “should not properly be disputed” before the en banc court “and any en banc opinion should simply reinstate the panel’s statutory rulings.”  It also observes that the RESPA issues “plainly were not en banc-worthy” and Director Cordray’s RESPA interpretation, if adopted by the en banc court, “would create a circuit split with every other court to have considered RESPA’s proper scope.”  Nevertheless,  PHH states that “[i]n an abundance of caution and in light of the critical importance of the RESPA issues to PHH and to the entire settlement-services industry…PHH addresses those issues directly [in its brief] to demonstrate that there is no legitimate basis to revisit the panel’s statutory rulings.”

Amicus briefs in support of PHH were filed on Friday by:

The RD Legal amici are defendants in an enforcement action filed by the CFPB and the New York Attorney General last month alleging that a litigation settlement advance product offered by RD Legal is a disguised usurious loan that is deceptively marketed and abusive.  (In their brief, the RD Legal amici claim that the action was filed in retaliation for a preemptive challenge to the CFPB’s jurisdiction filed by RD Legal.)  State National Bank of Big Spring and the other amici on its brief are the plaintiffs in a separate lawsuit pending in D.C. federal district court challenging the CFPB’s constitutionality.  The State National Bank of Big Spring plaintiffs previously filed an unsuccessful motion with the D.C. Circuit seeking to intervene in the PHH en banc rehearing.

In their amicus brief, the Republican state AGs argue that separation of powers creates a structural check against the aggregation of power on the federal level and protects the role of the states in the federal system by limiting the range of permissible federal action and ensuring federal power can only be wielded by officials who are politically accountable.  A group of Democratic AGs from 16 states and the District of Columbia filed an unsuccessful motion with the D.C. Circuit seeking to intervene in the PHH appeal.  Among the arguments made by the Democratic AGs in support of their motion was that their intervention was necessary because the Trump Administration might not defend the CFPB’s constitutionality.

Except for the brief filed by the ABA and twelve other trade groups which addresses only the merits of PHH’s RESPA arguments, the amicus briefs only address the CFPB’s constitutionality and argue that the CFPB is unconstitutionally structured because of the CFPB Director’s expansive powers and insulation from Presidential and Congressional oversight.  (ACA International’s brief includes the argument that, in addition to being insulated from accountability, the CFPB’s funding mechanism also raises a conflict of interest.  According to ACA, the civil penalty fund “creates a perverse incentive for the Bureau to use its enforcement actions as a funding mechanism, where the Bureau is both prosecutor and beneficiary.”)

The ABA’s brief states that even though amici “do not understand the Court to have granted en banc review to reconsider the panel’s straightforward resolution of the RESPA and fair notice questions,” they are nonetheless “filing this brief out of an abundance of caution because [such] questions addressed by the panel are of critical importance to them and their members.”  The ABA amici argue that the CFPB “misread RESPA, overturned decades of settled interpretations without any notice, and disrupted a large sector of the economy.”  They assert that the panel’s decision “correctly restored the status quo” and urge the en banc court “to let that decision stand.”

Also on Friday, the D.C. Circuit entered an order allowing each side 30 minutes at the en banc oral argument scheduled for May 24, 2017.  The order also indicates that the oral argument in Lucia v. SEC, also scheduled for May 24, will be heard first to be followed by a “short recess” before the argument in PHH.  Finally, the order confirms that the en banc panel will consist of eleven judges, including Senior Judge Randolph.  In addition to Senior Judge Randolph, four of the other panel members were appointed by a Republican president.

 

The D.C. Circuit has entered an order granting the unopposed motion of the United States for leave to file an amicus brief in PHH by March 17, 2017.  As we previously observed, the motion appears to signal the DOJ’s intention to support PHH rather than the CFPB.

In a second order, the D.C. Circuit denied various motions to intervene or for reconsideration of motions to intervene as follows:

  • The motion of the plaintiffs in State National Bank of Big Spring, Texas, et al. v. Lew, another case challenging the CFPB’s constitutionality, to intervene in the en banc rehearing was denied.  In their motion to intervene, the plaintiffs had argued that if the D.C. Circuit granted the CFPB’s petition for rehearing en banc but decided the case on RESPA grounds, their constitutional claims would be left unresolved, and the district court would be left without binding guidance on the constitutional question.
  • The petition for rehearing en banc filed by Democratic AGs from 16 states and the District of Columbia was denied as were the motions for reconsideration en banc filed by Senator Sherrod Brown and Representative Maxine Waters and by Americans for Financial Reform, Center for Responsible Lending, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, United States Public Interest Research Group, Maeve Brown (who chairs the CFPB’s Consumer Advisory Board), and Self-Help Credit Union.  The motions to intervene were based in substantial part on the argument that because the movants can no longer rely on the CFPB and/or the DOJ under the Trump Administration to adequately defend the CFPB’s constitutionality and have a legal interest in the CFPB remaining an independent agency, intervention is necessary to protect the movants’ legal interests, including by filing a petition for a writ of certiorari.

It is noteworthy that Senior Judge Randolph, is named on both orders, thus confirming that he intends to participate in the rehearing en banc.  (Senior Judge Randolph can elect to sit on the en banc court because he was a member of the original panel.)  As a result, because Chief Judge Garland will not be participating, the en banc court will consist of eleven judges: ten active judges, six of whom were appointed by either President Obama or President Clinton, and Senior Judge Randolph who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush.