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 January 31, 2018, the en banc D.C. Circuit handed down its opinion in the PHH v. CFPB case, which we’ve discussed at length. It held, 7 to 3, that the CFPB’s single-director-removable-only-for-cause structure is constitutional but that the CFPB’s interpretation of RESPA was wrong.

En Banc Court Reinstates Panel’s RESPA Ruling

The en banc Court reinstated 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. This is consistent with HUD’s prior interpretation. 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 on the ground that the statute unambiguously allows the kinds of payments that the CFPB’s 2015 interpretation prohibited.

In remanding the case to the CFPB for further proceedings, the panel had admonished the CFPB by alternatively holding that—even assuming that the CFPB’s interpretation was permitted under any reading of RESPA—the CFPB’s attempt to retroactively apply its 2015 interpretation, which departed from HUD’s prior interpretation, violated due process. It held that “the CFPB violated due process by retroactively applying that new interpretation to PHH’s conduct that occurred before the date of the CFPB’s new interpretation.” The en banc Court cited the panel’s due process analysis with approval.

The panel’s RESPA decision remanded the case to the CFPB to determine whether PHH violated 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.

Statute of Limitations Continues to Apply to RESPA Cases Before CFPB

At the administrative stage of the case, the CFPB argued that no statute of limitations applies to any CFPB administrative action. The panel soundly rejected that argument, holding that RESPA’s three-year statute of limitations applies to any RESPA claims that the CFPB brings, whether administratively or otherwise. That aspect of the panel decision, because it pertains to RESPA, is also reinstated by the en banc Court’s ruling.

CFPB’s Structure Deemed Constitutional

The panel of the D.C. Circuit had also held that the CFPB’s structure was unconstitutional because it improperly prevented the President from “tak[ing] Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” Rejecting this holding, the en banc Court held that “[w]ide margins separate the validity of an independent CFPB from any unconstitutional effort to attenuate presidential control over core executive functions.” In other words, the en banc Court found (wrongly, in our view) that it wasn’t even a close call.

In reaching this conclusion, the en banc Court considered two questions: First, it asked whether the “means” that Congress employed to make the CFPB independent was permissible? That is, were the independence-creating tools used ones that the Supreme Court approved of, such as for-cause removal or budgetary independence? The en banc Court found that the Supreme Court approved each of the “means” Congress used to achieve CFPB “independence” individually. It reasoned then, that those “means” could all be combined in a single agency without running afoul of the U.C. Constitution.

Second, the en banc Court asked whether “the nature of the function that Congress vested in the agency calls for that means of independence?” In answer to the second question, the en banc Court found it was consistent with historical practice to grant financial regulators like the CFPB such independence.

The en banc Court went further, however, and dismissed the panel’s other constitutional concerns under the heading “Broader Theories of Unconstitutionality.” For example, it rejected the panel’s concern that having a powerful unaccountable CFPB Director was a threat to individual liberty. It suggested that such an argument “elevat[ed] regulated entities’ liberty over those of the rest of the public.” “It remains unexplained why we would assess the challenged removal restriction with reference to the liberty of financial services providers, and not more broadly to the liberty of the individuals and families who are their customers,” it said. In doing so, it seems to have forgotten that Dodd-Frank gives the CFPB Director broad powers to go after individuals, “mom and pop” businesses, and large “regulated entities.”

Lucia Issue Regarding ALJ Appointment Not Addressed

Notably, the en banc Court in PHH specifically “decline[d]to reach the separate question whether the ALJ who initially considered this case was appointed consistently with the Appointments Clause.” That was the issue in Lucia, which we have blogged about extensively. In that case, Raymond J. Lucia challenged the manner in which the SEC appointed administrative law judges (“ALJs”), arguing that ALJs are “inferior officers” who must be appointed by the president, a department head, or the courts under the Appointments Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  The Supreme Court recently agreed to hear Lucia.

On January 12, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the Lucia case in which Raymond J. Lucia is challenging how the SEC appoints administrative law judges (“ALJs”). He argues that ALJs are “inferior officers” who must be appointed by the President, the courts, or a department head in accordance with the Constitution’s appointments clause. Lucia filed a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court after the D.C. Circuit rejected his argument. A circuit split was created when the 10th Circuit reached the opposite conclusion in another case making a similar appointments clause challenge. The Supreme Court’s decision in Lucia may impact numerous past and pending ALJ decisions, including cases involving the CFPB, most notably the PHH case. We’ve discussed the potential impact of Lucia and the related 10th Circuit case before and will continue to follow them closely.

On July 21, 2017, an investment adviser sought review by the Supreme Court of the D.C. Circuit’s recent ruling in Lucia that allowed to stand a district court decision holding that SEC administrative law judges (“ALJs”) are not officers subject to the appointments clause of the U.S. Constitution. We’ve blogged about Lucia extensively because the issue in that case has the potential to impact the outcome of the PHH case.

The initial PHH decision was decided by an SEC ALJ who was on loan to the CFPB. If the Supreme Court decides to hear Lucia and decides that SEC ALJs are subject to the appointments clause, then the initial ALJ decision in PHH may be invalidated. If that happens, the D.C. Circuit could remand PHH back to the CFPB for decision by a properly-appointed ALJ. That would provide the D.C. Circuit with another basis to decide the PHH case without addressing the constitutionality of the CFPB’s structure. Given how the PHH oral arguments went, that seems unlikely, but we will continue to follow Lucia just in case.

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.”

Clients are always asking me and others in our Consumer Financial Services Group about how long Richard Cordray will remain as CFPB Director.  The short answer is nobody knows, perhaps not even Richard Cordray.  There are a number of factors, however, that lead me to believe that he will remain as Director until the end of his term on July 16, 2018 unless he voluntarily resigns before then to run for Governor of Ohio.

A Politico article yesterday reported that Gary Cohn, top White House economic aide, recently had a dinner meeting with Director Cordray at which he gave him an ultimatum:  resign or be removed by President Trump.  The article reported that Mr. Cohn had heard the rumors that Director Cordray wants to run for Ohio governor and, according to people familiar with the meeting, left the dinner thinking that the rumors were true.  According to the article, the White House decided to hold off on firing Director Cordray because President Trump “didn’t want to cause a sensation that could boost his candidacy and juice his fundraising.”

While it is very hazardous to predict what President Trump will do, I doubt whether he will try to remove Director Cordray either for cause or without cause.  As things now stand, the only event which could change my opinion would be if the Court of Appeals en banc in the PHH case were to reach the same conclusion as the 3-judge panel in the case – namely, that the CFPB was unconstitutionally structured and the appropriate remedy is to enable the President to remove the Director without cause – and the en banc judgment were to become final before Director Cordray’s term ends on July 16, 2018 (which is only 15 months away).  In my view, the likelihood of those events happening before July 16, 2018 is remote.

The recent filing of a brief  by the DOJ in the PHH case essentially urging  the en banc court to adopt the opinion of the 3-judge panel  suggests that President Trump will not jump the gun by attempting to remove Director Cordray before a final judgment in the PHH case authorizes him to do so.  An attempt by the President to remove Director Cordray for cause would likely trigger a legal challenge by Director Cordray that would outlast the expiration of his term unless his removal were to coincide with a decision by him to voluntarily resign to run for Ohio Governor.  Such a lawsuit would likely be stayed pending the outcome of the PHH case.  If President Trump intended to pursue a removal for cause, I believe he would have done so by now.  If he were to attempt now to remove Director Cordray for cause, that would also likely result in litigation that would outlast July 16, 2018 and, in the meantime, Director Cordray might remain in office.

Ultimately, I believe the length of Director Cordray’s remaining tenure at the CFPB will turn on whether he decides to run for Ohio Governor, and, if so, his view on when he needs to resign as Director to begin his campaign.

Even if Director Cordray remains at the CFPB for several months or longer, it does not necessarily mean that he will finalize any new regulations.  While he should have sufficient time to finalize at least the arbitration regulation, he may be deterred from doing so because of his concern that the rule will be overridden by Congress and President Trump under the Congressional Review Act.  Congress and President Trump have already overridden at least 13 final regulations issued by other federal agencies.

While Director Cordray may be deterred from finalizing any additional regulations, there is no reason to believe that there will be any let-up in his continuing pursuit of his enforcement and supervisory activities.  Indeed, the CFPB has initiated 9 enforcement actions since President Trump’s inauguration.

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.”

 

 

The DOJ submitted its amicus brief in the PHH case on Friday, March 17.  We have blogged extensively about this case since its inception. Unsurprisingly, the Trump DOJ supports striking from Dodd-Frank the removal-only-for-cause protection currently applicable to the director of the CFPB.  In its “view, the panel correctly applied severability principles and therefore properly struck down only the for-cause removal restrictions.”  If the DOJ gets its way, the CFPB would remain intact with a director that President Trump can replace at any time.

While PHH likely appreciates the DOJ’s support, the DOJ is advocating a more limited remedial measure than PHH is seeking.  As we’ve noted before, PHH is arguing in the case that the CFPB should be dismantled in its entirety because its “unprecedented independence from the elected branches of government violates the separation of powers” and 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.”  In sharp contrast, the Trump DOJ supports keeping the CFPB intact with a director removable at the will of the President.

Though the brief does not highlight the fact, the Trump DOJ has departed substantially from the position that the DOJ took under President Obama.  The departure is most obvious in brief’s first footnote, where the DOJ notes that “[i]n one case filed against several federal agencies and departments . . ., [t]he [DOJ’s] district court briefs . . . argued that, based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Humphrey’s Executor, the CFPB’s for-cause removal provision is consistent with the Constitution.”  However, the footnote goes on, “[a]fter reviewing the panel’s opinion here and further considering the issue, the [DOJ] has concluded that the better view is that the provision is unconstitutional.”  The obviously political nature of the change makes it difficult to predict how the judges on the court will react to the DOJ’s brief.

Of course, the change at the DOJ is not reflected in the CFPB’s view, which is diametrically opposed to the DOJ’s.  It’s rare that two executive agencies disagree so starkly and so publicly on an issue of such importance.  This contrast only highlights the problems created by a federal agency headed by a single person that is not accountable to the president.