REFinBlog

Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

December 1, 2017

Mooting The CFPB Constitutional Challenge

By David Reiss

Law360 quoted me in DC Circ. May Skip CFPB Fight After Cordray’s Exit. It opens,

The legal battle over who will temporarily lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau comes as the D.C. Circuit is considering whether the bureau’s structure is constitutional, and experts say the fight over its leadership could lead the appeals court to punt on the constitutional question.

The full D.C. Circuit has been considering an appeal filed by mortgage servicer PHH Corp. to overturn a $109 million judgment entered by former CFPB Director Richard Cordray over alleged violations of anti-kickback provisions of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act. PHH’s argument is that the agency’s structure, which includes a single director rather than a commission along with independent funding not appropriated by Congress, is unconstitutional.

But now that a political and legal fight has broken out over who should temporarily lead the CFPB since Cordray has left the bureau, the D.C. Circuit may be even more inclined to find a way to decide the underlying arguments about the CFPB’s enforcement of a decades-old mortgage law without touching the constitutional questions.

“If the D.C. Circuit wants to avoid this question, they certainly have plausible means to do it,” said Brian Knight, a senior research fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center.

The battle over the CFPB’s constitutionality waged by PHH in some ways opened the door for the current conflict over who should serve as the bureau’s acting director.

PHH’s fight with the CFPB stems from Cordray’s decision to jack up a RESPA penalty against the New Jersey-based mortgage company in June 2015.

A CFPB administrative law judge had originally issued a $6.4 million judgement against PHH over alleged mortgage kickbacks, but on appeal Cordray slapped the company with a $109 million penalty.

PHH then took its case to the D.C. Circuit, arguing that the single-director structure at the CFPB, which allowed Cordray to unilaterally hike the penalty, was a violation of the Constitution’s separation of powers clause.

Ultimately, a three-judge panel led by U.S. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh found that the CFPB’s structure was unconstitutional but declined to eliminate the bureau and invalidate its actions. Instead, the panel elected to eliminate a provision that only allowed the president to fire the CFPB director for cause, rather than allowing the director to be fired at will by the president.

The original, now vacated, D.C. Circuit decision also overturned the CFPB’s penalty against PHH. That portion of the decision was unanimous.

The CFPB then sought an en banc review of the decision, with oral arguments held in May. Since then, the CFPB and the industry have waited for a decision.

In fact, the wait for that decision may have allowed Cordray to hang on as long as he did at the CFPB. Trump was expected to fire Cordray soon after taking office, but that never happened, and instead Cordray waited until November to depart the bureau for what many believe will be a run for governor in his home state of Ohio.

Many predicted the D.C. Circuit would go the route of U.S. Circuit Judge Karen L. Henderson, a member of the original panel that ruled in the PHH litigation. Judge Henderson dissented on the constitutional question but supported the decision on RESPA enforcement.

“You arguably don’t have to reach the constitutional question,” said Christopher Walker, a professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz School of Law.

But the D.C. Circuit’s decision comes as two individuals argue over which one of them is the CFPB’s rightful acting director.

Cordray last Friday promoted his chief of staff, Leandra English, to be the CFPB’s deputy director just moments before he formally announced his departure. Cordray and English argue that the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, which created the CFPB, made the deputy director the acting director in his absence.

Hours later, Trump appointed Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, a fierce CFPB opponent, to be the federal consumer finance watchdog’s acting director under a different federal law.

English sued to block Mulvaney’s appointment, and although the case will continue, a judge on Tuesday rejected her request for a temporary restraining order.

Against that backdrop, the D.C. Circuit may have more of an incentive to lie low on the constitutional questions, said Brooklyn Law School professor David Reiss.

“My reading would be that if they reversed the agency on the RESPA issues, then they may be able to moot the constitutional issues,” he said.

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