Law360 quoted me in PHH Case Poised To Test CFPB’s Constitutionality (behind a paywall). It opens,
A battle over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s interpretation of mortgage regulations in assessing a $109 million penalty against a New Jersey-based mortgage firm has morphed into a fight over the authority vested in the bureau’s director that could reshape the consumer finance watchdog, experts say.
The appeal from PHH Corp. to the D.C. Circuit originally centered on CFPB Director Richard Cordray’s decision to dramatically hike a $6 million mortgage insurance kickback penalty issued by an administrative law judge against a company subsidiary, to the final, $109 million figure. But the judges hearing the case warned the bureau to prepare to answer questions at oral arguments Tuesday about language in the Dodd-Frank Act that says the president could remove the CFPB director only for cause, and about how the court should view an administrative agency led by a single director rather than the more typical commission structure.
Those questions have been hanging over the CFPB since its inception in the 2010 law, and if the D.C. Circuit rules against the bureau, that could fundamentally alter the way the bureau operates, said Jonathan Pompan, a partner at Venable LLP.
Cordray “is potentially going to have to address questions that go to the core of his authority, which really hadn’t been at the forefront of the PHH case until now,” he said.
Challenges to the CFPB’s constitutionality are not new. Everything from the bureau’s single-director rather than commission structure to the agency’s funding through the Federal Reserve’s budget rather than the congressional appropriations process have been constant refrains for the CFPB’s opponents.
Those concerns have been addressed through legislation aimed at curtailing the CFPB’s power, and claims challenging the agency’s constitutionality have been an almost pro forma rite of any litigation involving the bureau.
Up until now, however, those complaints and attempts to curb the CFPB have gone nowhere.
So it was a surprise when the D.C. Circuit last Wednesday told the bureau’s attorneys to be prepared to face questions about whether Dodd-Frank’s provision stating that the president can remove the CFPB director only for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office” passed constitutional muster.
The panel, made up of three Republican appointees led by U.S. Circuit Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, is also seeking answers about potential remedies for any problems that that provision brings, including potentially removing it from the statute and allowing the president to remove the CFPB director without any specific cause.
The judges also want to know how any fix to the problem, if they determine there is one, would affect the CFPB director’s authority.
“This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, idle thinking on their part,” said David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School.
The questions being posed by the D.C. Circuit panel do not pose the same level of threat that the other constitutional challenges the CFPB could potentially face would, but it is certainly a more defining question than what most observers thought the case would be about.
PHH is challenging Cordray’s interpretation of violations under the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act that allowed him to supersize a $6 million penalty handed down by an administrative law judge, to the $109 million that the CFPB director handed down when PHH appealed.
But the arguments set for Tuesday are expected to go far beyond that issue.
There will be the central question of whether the U.S. Constitution allows Congress to put in restrictions on when the president can fire officials at an administrative agency. The U.S. Supreme Court addressed these issues in the 2010 Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board decision, which affirmed a D.C. Circuit ruling that such protections were constitutional.
Judge Kavanaugh cast a dissenting vote in that case, stating that a president should not have to notify Congress as to why the director of an administrative agency is removed.
“If the challenges were going to be taken seriously anywhere, it was probably going to be this panel,” said Brian Simmonds Marshall, policy counsel at Americans for Financial Reform, which seeks tougher banking regulations.
Removing that provision from the statute, should the D.C. Circuit elect to do so, could limit the CFPB’s independence, as well as that of other administrative agencies for which statute requires a reason for the dismissal of officials, he said.
“The CFPB doesn’t have to check with the White House right now before it brings an enforcement action,” Simmonds Marshall said.
Another case that will be heavily scrutinized will be a 1935 Supreme Court decision in Humphrey’s Executor v. U.S., which allowed for restrictions on the removal of Federal Trade Commission commissioners.
The CFPB relied heavily on that case in its filings with the D.C. Circuit, noted Benjamin Saul, a partner at White & Case LLP.
“I’ll be looking for the questions being driven by Judge Kavanaugh and his comments from the bench, particularly on the Humphrey’s case,” Saul said.
Whether the arguments focus mostly on the constitutional questions about the ability to remove the CFPB director or on remedies to fix that could also indicate where the court is headed on these questions, according to Reiss.
“It does sound that they’re searching for remedies that are not earth-shattering remedies,” Reiss said.