On June 26, 2017, the en banc D.C. Circuit was equally divided on the question of whether SEC administrative law judges (“ALJs”) are “inferior officers.”  This leaves intact the D.C. Circuit panel decision in Lucia which held that SEC ALJs are not officers and do not have to be appointed by the President.  Because SEC ALJs are not appointed that way, a different decision may have called into question virtually every SEC ALJ decision ever issued.

Because it was an SEC ALJ who rendered the initial PHH decision, there was talk that a different decision in Lucia may have given the en banc D.C. Circuit a way to decide the PHH case in PHH’s favor without addressing the constitutional issues surrounding the CFPB’s structure.  Indeed, in its final merits brief at the panel level, PHH raised the same argument at issue in Lucia.  While the panel decision in PHH did not address the issue, in his concurrence, Judge Randolph stated that the problem with the ALJ’s appointment “itself rendered the proceedings against petitioners unconstitutional.”  It may be that the Lucia issue ends up being decided in the PHH case, which has an eleven-judge panel that cannot split evenly.

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.

 

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 CFPB’s petition for rehearing en banc in the PHH case.  Because the order was issued per curiam, it does not indicate which of the active judges voted to grant the petition but only indicates that Chief Judge Garland did not participate.

The order vacates the panel’s October 2016 judgment, sets a briefing schedule, and sets May 24, 2017 as the date for oral argument.   The order also provides that “[w]hile not otherwise limited,” the parties are directed to address the following three issues in their briefs:

  • Is the CFPB’s structure as a single-Director independent agency consistent with Article II of the Constitution and, if not, is the proper remedy to sever the for-cause provision of the statute?
  • May the court appropriately avoid deciding that constitutional question given the panel’s ruling on the statutory issues in this case?
  • If the en banc court, which has today separately ordered en banc consideration of Lucia v. SEC, 832 F. 3d 277 (D.C. Cir. 2016), concludes in that case that the administrative law judge who handled that case was an inferior officer rather than an employee, what is the appropriate disposition of this case?

In Lucia, the decision cited in the third issue, 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.  In its brief to the D.C. Circuit filed in connection with its appeal from Director Cordray’s order affirming the ALJ’s decision that PHH had violated RESPA, PHH argued that the ALJ was an “inferior officer” whose appointment did not satisfy the Appointments Clause.  PHH indicated in its brief that it was preserving an Appointments Clause challenge to the CFPB’s use of an ALJ for review by the en banc D.C. Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court.  Nevertheless, the panel’s October 2016 decision included a concurring opinion from Senior Judge Randolph in which he stated that because the ALJ used by the CFPB was an “inferior officer” who had not been appointed in accordance with the Appointments Clause, “[t]his in itself rendered the proceedings against petitioners unconstitutional.”

Because Chief Judge Garland will not be participating, ten active judges will sit on the en banc court, six of whom were appointed by either President Obama or President Clinton.  Since he was on the original panel, Senior Judge Randolph, appointed by President George H.W. Bush, can also sit on the en banc court should he wish to do so.

Just before year-end, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, in Bandimere v. United States Securities and Exchange Commission, set aside an SEC decision finding the petitioner liable for violating various securities law on the grounds that the SEC’s administrative law judge (ALJ)  who conducted the proceeding was unconstitutionally appointed.  The Tenth Circuit held that the ALJ was an “inferior officer” who, pursuant to the Appointments Clause of Article II of the U.S. Constitution, could only be appointed by the President, a court, or the head of a “Department.”  The parties agreed that the process used by the SEC to hire ALJs in which an ALJ is selected by the SEC’s Chief ALJ did not qualify as an appointment by the President, a court, or the head of a “Department.”

In holding that the SEC’s ALJ was an “inferior officer” who must be appointed in accordance with the Appointments Clause, the Tenth Circuit created a circuit split, thus making the case a good candidate for U.S. Supreme Court review.  In August 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, in Raymond J. Lucia Companies, Inc. et al. v. Securities and Exchange Commission, rejected a similar constitutional challenge and ruled that the SEC’s ALJ was an “employee” rather than “inferior officer.”  As a result, the D.C. Circuit held that the ALJ’s appointment by the SEC’s Office of Administrative Law Judges rather than an SEC commissioner was constitutional.  

The Tenth Circuit’s ruling might be used to support an Appointments Clause challenge to the CFPB’s use of ALJs.  As we have previously noted, because the CFPB is housed within the Federal Reserve, it could be argued that Director Cordray is not a “Department” head who can appoint “inferior Officers” under the Appointments Clause.  Thus, if the CFPB were unable to establish that its ALJ was an employee rather than an inferior officer, its ALJ might be deemed unconstitutionally appointed.

A challenge to the constitutionality of the SEC’s use of administrative law judges (ALJ) was rejected by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.  In Raymond J. Lucia Companies, Inc. et al. v. Securities and Exchange Commission, the petitioners contended that the SEC’s decision imposing sanctions for violations of the Investment Advisors Act should be vacated because the ALJ rendering the initial decision was an “inferior Officer” who, pursuant to the Appointments Clause of Article II of the U.S. Constitution, could only be appointed by the President, a court, or the head of a “Department.”  Since the ALJ was hired by the SEC’s Office of Administrative Law Judges and not appointed by an SEC commissioner, the petitioners argued that the ALJ’s appointment was unconstitutional.

Pointing to statutory language which provides that an ALJ’s “action,” when not reviewed by the SEC, shall “be deemed the action of the Commission,” the petitioners argued that SEC ALJs were Officers and not employees because they had the ability to issue final decisions of the SEC.  The court rejected this argument, observing that under SEC rules, an ALJ’s decision does not become final until the SEC determines not to review the decision.  The court noted that even if a petition for review is not filed, the SEC “can always grant review on its own initiative, and so it must consider every initial decision, including those in which it does not order review.”

As we have previously noted, because the CFPB is housed within the Federal Reserve, it could be argued that Director Cordray is not a “Department” head who can appoint “inferior Officers” under the Appointments Clause.  Thus, if an Appointments Clause challenge were made to the CFPB’s use of an ALJ, it might be necessary for the CFPB to establish that its ALJ was an employee rather than an Officer.