People’s Credit Union v. Trump

photo by Janine and Jim Eden

Twenty-one consumer finance regulation scholars (including yours truly) filed an amicus brief in Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union v. Trump, No. 1:17-cv-09536 (SDNY Dec. 14, 2017). The Summary of the Argument reads as follows:

The orderly succession of the leadership of regulatory agencies is a hallmark of American democracy. Regulated entities, such as Plaintiff Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union (LESPFCU) rely on there being absolute clarity regarding who is duly authorized to exercise regulatory authority over them. Without such clarity, regulated entities cannot be certain if agency actions, including the promulgation or repeal of rules and informal regulatory guidance, are actual agency policy or mere ultra vires actions.

This case involves a controversy over who lawfully serves as the Acting Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB or the Bureau) following the resignation of the Bureau’s first Senate-confirmed Director. The statute that created the CFPB, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (Dodd-Frank Act), is clear: the Deputy Director of the CFPB “shall . . . serve as acting Director in the absence or unavailability of the Director.” 12 U.S.C. § 5491(b)(5)(B). Thus, upon the resignation of the Director, the CFPB’s Deputy Director, Leandra English, became Acting Director and may serve in that role until a new Director has either been confirmed by the Senate or been recess appointed.

Despite the Dodd-Frank Act’s clear statutory directive, Defendant Donald J. Trump declined to follow either of the routes constitutionally permitted to him for appointing a Director for the Bureau. Instead, Defendant Trump opted to illegally seize power at the CFPB by naming the current Director of Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Defendant John Michael Mulvaney, as Acting CFPB Director. Defendants claim this appointment is authorized by the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 (FVRA), 5 U.S.C. § 3345(a).

As scholars of financial regulation, we believe that Deputy Director English’s is the rightful Acting Director of the CPFB for a simple reason: the only applicable statute to the succession question is the Dodd-Frank Act. In the Dodd-Frank Act, Congress expressly provided for a mandatory line of succession for the position of CFPB Director, stating that the Deputy Director “shall” serve as the Acting Director in the event of a vacancy. Congress selected this provision after considering and rejecting the FVRA during the drafting of the Dodd-Frank Act, and Congress’s selection of this succession provision is an integral part of its design of the CFPB as an agency with unique independence and protection from policy control by the White House. The appointment of any White House official, but especially of the OMB Director as Acting CFPB Director is repugnant to the statutory design of the CFPB as an independent agency.

The FVRA has no application to the position of CFPB Director. By its own terms, the FVRA is inapplicable as it yields to subsequently enacted statutes with express mandatory provisions for filling vacancies at federal agencies. This is apparent from the text of the FVRA, from the FVRA’s legislative history, and from the need to comport with the basic constitutional principle that a law passed by an earlier Congress cannot bind a subsequent Congress. Moreover, the FVRA does not apply to “any member who is appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate to any” independent agencies with a multi-member board. 5 U.S.C. § 3349c(1). The CFPB Director is such a “member,” because the CFPB Director also serves as a member of a separate multi-member independent agency: the Board of Directors of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

Plaintiff LESPFCU is seeking a preliminary injunction against acts by Defendants Mulvaney and Trump to illegally seize control of the CFPB, and it should be granted. As will be shown, LESPFCU has a high likelihood of success on the merits given the strength of its statutory arguments that the Dodd-Frank Act controls the CFPB Directorship succession. Unless the Court grants LESPFCU’s request for a preliminary injunction, LESPFCU will suffer irreparable harm because it will be subjected to regulation by a CFPB that would be under the direct political control by the White House that Congress took pains to forbid. Moreover, without a preliminary injunction, Defendant Mulvaney will continue to take actions that may place LESPFCU at a competitive disadvantage by creating an uneven regulatory playing field that favors certain types of institutions. See, e.g., Jessica Silver-Greenberg & Stacy Cowley, Consumer Bureau’s New Leader Steers a Sudden Reversal, N.Y.TIMES, Dec. 5, 2017. Nor will the President’s rights be in any way limited by such a preliminary injunction: the President remains able to seek Senate confirmation of a nominee for CFPB Director. All the President is being asked to do is fish or cut bait and proceed through normal constitutional order. The granting of a preliminary injunction is also very much in the public interest as it enables the controversy over the rightful claim to the CFPB Directorship to be resolved through an impartial court and not through a naked grab of power by the President.

Mooting The CFPB Constitutional Challenge

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.

Safeguarding The CFPB’s Arbitration Rule

image by Nick Youngson http://nyphotographic.com/

 

I was one of the many signatories of this letter to Senators Crapo (R-ID) and Brown (D-OH) opposing H.R. Res. 111/S.J. Res. 47, “which would block the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s new forced arbitration rule.” the 423 signatories all agree “(1) it is important to protect financial consumers’ opportunity to participate in class proceedings; and (2) it is desirable for the CFPB to collect additional information regarding financial consumer arbitration.” The letter, reads, in part,

Class action lawsuits are an important means of protecting consumers harmed by violations of federal or state law. Class actions enable a court to see that a company’s violations are widespread and to order appropriate relief. The CFPB’s study shows that, over five years, 160 million class members were awarded $2.2 billion in relief – after deducting attorneys’ fees. Class actions are especially important for small dollar claims, because the time, expense and investigation needed for an individual claim typically make no sense either for the consumer or for an attorney. Additionally, class actions provide behavioral relief both for the plaintiffs and the public at large, incentivizing businesses to change their behavior or to refrain from similar practices.

Individual arbitrations are not a realistic substitute for class actions. Compared to the annual average of 32 million consumers receiving $440 million per year in class actions, the CFPB’s study found an average of only 16 consumers per year received relief from affirmative claims and another 23 received relief through counterclaims; in total, those consumers received an average of $180,770 per year. While the average per-person arbitration recovery may be higher than the average class action payment, the types of cases are completely different. The few arbitrations that people pursue tend to be individual disputes involving much larger dollar amounts than the smaller claims in class actions. Most consumers do not pursue individual claims in either court or arbitration for several reasons: they may not know their rights were violated; they may not know how to pursue a claim; the time and expense would outstrip any reward; or they cannot find an attorney willing to take an individual case. Thus, if a class action is not permitted, most consumers will have no chance at having their dispute vindicated at all. Class actions, on the other hand, are an efficient method of resolving claims impacting a large number of people.

The U.S. legal system depends on private enforcement of rights. Whereas some countries invest substantial resources in large government agencies to enforce their laws, the United States relies substantially on private enforcement. The CFPB’s study shows that, in those cases where there was overlap between private and public enforcement, private action preceded government enforcement 71% of the time. Moreover, consumer class actions provide monetary recoveries and reform of financial services and products to many consumers whose injuries are not the focus of public enforcers. American consumers can’t solely depend on government agencies to protect their rights.

Reporting on individual arbitrations will increase transparency, broaden understanding of arbitration, and improve the arbitration process. As scholars, we heartily endorse the information reporting requirements of the rule for individual arbitrations. This reporting will address many questions that have gone largely unanswered, due to the lack of transparency that currently exists in this area of law. For example, the public will now know the rate at which claimants prevail, whether it is important to be represented by an attorney, and whether repeat arbitrators tend to rule more favorably for one side than the other. The reporting will permit academic study, which will prompt a necessary debate on how to strengthen and improve the process.

In conclusion, we strongly support the CFPB rule as an important step in protecting consumers. We believe it is vital that Congress not deprive injured consumers of the right to group together to have their day in court or block important research into the arbitration process.

Gorsuch and the CFPB

photo provided byUnited States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

Judge Gorsuch

Bankrate.com quoted me in Supreme Court Pick Could Spell Trouble for the CFPB. It opens,

President Donald Trump’s first Supreme Court pick has been identified as the “most natural successor” to the late Justice Antonin Scalia, whom he would replace.

Neil Gorsuch, 49, a judge on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, is said to share many of Scalia’s beliefs and his judicial philosophy. That could tip the high court back toward the 5-4 conservative split it held during controversial cases prior to Scalia’s death, although Justice Anthony Kennedy will remain a liberal swing vote on certain social issues before the court.

Gorsuch’s big judicial decisions have favored religious freedom over government regulation and state’s rights over the power of the federal government.

But how might that impact consumers or their wallets directly?

“I think with a judge like Gorsuch, you can see there probably will be a tendency in that direction to dissuade innovation,” says David Reiss, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School and the academic program director for the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship.

That could mean the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, whose unique management structure a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit last fall called unconstitutional, could face an obstacle on the bench should the legal fight over its construction ever reach the Supreme Court.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who wrote the majority opinion for the D.C. circuit panel, said because this independent agency is headed by a director whom the president cannot fire at will – and not, say, a set of commissioners like other agencies within the government – it is a threat to individual liberty.

“In short, when measured in terms of unilateral power, the director of the CFPB is the single most powerful official in the entire U.S. government, other than the president,” Kavanaugh wrote. “In essence, the director is the president of consumer finance.”

How Gorsuch May Rule

Supporters of the bureau are trying to get a hearing before the full U.S. Court of Appeals, but the issue could well wind up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court – that is if Congress doesn’t take action first.

Legal scholars say should Gorsuch win Senate confirmation he is unlikely to look favorably on the bureau’s structure.

Indeed, Gorsuch is likely to “echo the views of Judge Kavanaugh,” Melissa Malpass, senior legal editor for consumer regulatory finance at Thompson Reuters Practical Law, said in an email.

“Judge Gorsuch, through recent decisions, has expressed his disfavor with permitting government agencies to not only determine what the law is, but also to interpret and re-interpret the law as they see fit, often based on the political climate,” Malpass says.

If the Supreme Court were to uphold the Kavanaugh ruling, it “may, in effect, destroy the CFPB as we know it, and that will have an effect on consumers,” Reiss says.

Not everyone, though, thinks restructuring the CFPB as a commission-led agency like the Federal Communications Commission, for example, would be bad for consumers.

Gorsuch’s Path to the High Court

Democrats, still stung over the Senate’s refusal to consider Merrick Garland, then-President Barack Obama’s pick to succeed Scalia, could try to block Gorsuch’s nomination. Under current Senate rules, at least eight Democrats will need to cross the aisle to prevent a filibuster of the appointment.

Gorsuch, who was confirmed for his current post in 2006 by Senate voice vote, has won widespread acclaim in Republican circles. He also received a vote of confidence from a former Obama administration official.

“I think the Democrats are going to ask questions to determine if the nominee is outside what they call the political mainstream,” Reiss says. “We know this battle will be a brutal one, almost definitely because of the treatment of Merrick Garland’s nomination under the Obama administration.”

The Fate of the CFPB

photo by Lawrence Jackson

President Obama Nominating Richard Cordray to Lead Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, with Elizabeth Warren

The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued a decision in PHH Corporation v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, No. 15-1177 (October 11, 2016), that found an important aspect of the structure of the CFPB to be unconstitutional:  the insulation of the Director from Presidential supervision. While this decision will almost certainly be appealed, even if it is upheld, it will allow the the CFPB to continue functioning much as it has.

I was interviewed about the decision on NPR’s All Things Considered in a segment titled, Appeals Court Orders Restructuring Of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (audio available). The transcript reads,

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A federal appeals court has mandated big changes to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The three-judge panel says the consumer watchdog agency is set up in a way that’s unconstitutional. In its ruling, the court says the agency will have to restructure. NPR’s Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: The suit was brought by a mortgage lender called PHH, which asked the court to invalidate a $109 million enforcement action against it and scrap the agency, too. The D.C. Court of Appeals sent the fine back to the bureau for review.

But it also ruled that the CFPB’s director has too much power to write and enforce rules without enough oversight from another branch of government. The remedy, the panel says, is that the CFPB should fall under the president’s control. And the president should be able to remove the director at will.

The CFPB’s opponents in the financial services industry declared victory. Bill Himpler is executive vice president for the American Financial Services Association.

BILL HIMPLER: Our issue is still with the authority given to a single director. That is, as the court pointed out, not subject to a lot of oversight.

NOGUCHI: Himpler instead supports a CFPB run by a bipartisan commission, similar to others like the Securities and Exchange Commission. David Reiss, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School, says the ruling is not an existential challenge to the CFPB or its past decisions.

DAVID REISS: The decision does not invalidate the CFPB’s actions. This is more about its structure going forward.

NOGUCHI: Reiss says an appeal to the Supreme Court is all but guaranteed. Indeed, the CFPB says it disagrees with the conclusion. In an emailed statement, a spokesperson says the ruling does not change its mission and that it is, quote, “considering options for seeking further review of the court’s decision.”

Dennis Kelleher is CEO of Better Markets, a group that advocates for stronger financial regulation. He says the bureau’s actions on banks have made the financial sector more determined to undercut the agency.

DENNIS KELLEHER: They do not want a consumer watchdog on the Wall Street beat. That’s what this fight is about.

NOGUCHI: The decision was not unanimous on all the issues. Judge Karen Henderson dissented in part, saying the panel overreached in calling the bureau’s structure unconstitutional. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

 

Consumers’ Credit Score Score

photo by www.gotcredit.com

The Consumer Federation of America and VantageScore Solutions, LLC, released the findings from their sixth annual credit score survey. Their findings are mixed, showing that many consumers have a basic understanding of how a credit score operates, but that many consumers are missing out on a lot of how they work. They find that

a large majority of consumers (over 80%) know the basic facts about credit scores:

  • Credit scores are used by mortgage lenders (88%) and credit card issuers (87%).
  • Key factors used to calculate credit scores are missed payments (91%), personal bankruptcy (86%), and high credit card balances (85%).
  • Ethnic origin is not used to calculate these scores (believed by only 12%).
  • 700 is a good credit score (81%).

Yet, the national survey also revealed that many consumers do not understand credit score details with important cost implications:

  • Most seriously, consumers greatly underestimate the cost of low credit scores. Only 22 percent know that a low score, compared to a high score, typically increases the cost of a $20,000, 60-month auto loan by more than $5,000.
  • A significant minority do not know that credit scores are used by non-creditors. Only about half (53%) know that electric utilities may use credit scores (for example, in determining the initial required deposit), while only about two-thirds know that these scores may be used by home insurers (66%), cell phone companies (68%), and landlords (70%).
  • Over two-fifths think that marital status (42%) and age (42%) are used in the calculation of credit scores. While these factors may influence the use of credit, how credit is used determines credit scores.
  • Only about half of consumers (51%) know when lenders are required to inform borrowers of their use of credit scores – after a mortgage application, when a consumer does not receive the best terms on a consumer loan, and whenever a consumer is turned down for a loan.

Overall, I guess this is good news although it also seems consistent with what we know about financial literacy — people are still lacking when it comes to understanding how consumer finance works. That being said, it would be great if we could come up with strategies to improve financial literacy so that people can improve their financial decision-making. I am not yet hopeful, though, that we can.