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 Humphry’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 Humphry’s Executor was not present in agencies endowed with the CFPB’s structural features. The DOJ’s counsel pointed to language in Humphry’s Executor approving the for-cause removal provisions only as to “officers of the kind here under consideration,” namely FTC commissioners. The Humphry’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 Humphry’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 Humphry’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 Humphry’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 Humphry’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 Humphry’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.
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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.