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.”

Borden and Reiss on Show Me The Note!

Brad and I were e-interviewed by the Knowledge Effect, a Thomson Reuters blog on our recent article (co-authored with KeAupuni Akina), Show Me The Note!.  The interview is below:

Westlaw Journals: Your commentary is about the success of the “show me the note” defense to stop or delay a foreclosure.  Can you explain what the “show me the note” defense means during foreclosure proceedings? 

Bradley T. Borden and David J. Reiss:“Show me the note” can mean different things in different jurisdictions.  But the bottom line is that the homeowner is typically telling the court that the foreclosure should not proceed unless and until the foreclosing party can prove that it in fact owns or holds (or is the agent of the owner or holder of) the mortgage note that is secured by the mortgage that is being foreclosed upon.

WJ: What is the difference between a mortgage and a deed of trust, and does this have any bearing on the foreclosure defense?

BTB and DJR:The two documents are very similar in many ways – they both provide a security interest in real property.  The mortgage is the simpler of the two, involving just two parties.  The two parties are the mortgagor (the borrower) and the mortgagee (the lender).  The borrower uses its interest in real property to secure a loan made to it by the lender.  If the borrower fails to repay the loan or otherwise violates the terms of the loan transaction, the mortgagee can foreclose upon the real property.  The mortgagee forecloses through a judicial proceeding.

The deed of trust adds another party to a secured loan transaction.  Here, the borrower delivers a deed of trust to a trustee which states that the borrower’s real property is held as security for the loan made by the lender to the borrower.  The trustee of a deed of trust has the very limited role of following the provisions of the deed of trust.  Most importantly, it can foreclose on the deed of trust on behalf of the beneficiary of the deed of trust, the lender, if the terms of the loan transaction have been violated.  Because of the addition of this third party, foreclosure can (but need not) take place in a non-judicial proceeding.  The thinking is that the trustee will ensure that there will be some basic procedural protections in place for the foreclosure, obviating the need for judicial oversight. The big advantage of the deed of trust is the ability to foreclose quickly and cheaply by means of a non-judicial proceeding.

WJ: How do assignments of mortgages contribute to the confusion about what entity has the right to foreclose?

BTB and DJR: Let us count the ways!  On our blog, REFinblog.com, we track the litigation that arises from the foreclosure epidemic.  The absence of all of the relevant assignments in a transaction can play out one way in a judicial foreclosure (in mortgage-only jurisdictions), another way in a non-judicial foreclosure (in jurisdictions that allow for deeds of trust) and another way in a bankruptcy proceeding.  It plays out differently in different states.  It can play out one way if the mortgagee brings the suit, in another way if the servicer brings the suit and another if MERS (the Mortgage Electronic Recording System) brings the suit.  It can play out differently if the note is negotiable or if it is non-negotiable.  So to answer your question precisely, assignments of mortgages don’t contribute to the confusion – they are the confusion!

WJ: What is the difference between a judicial and non-judicial foreclosure?  Is the “show  me the note” defense more successful in states that use a non-judicial foreclosure proceeding or judicial proceeding?  What contrasts exists between the cases highlighted in your analysis? 

BTB and DJR: Keep in mind that states typically fall into two categories:  those that only allow judicial foreclosures and those that allow either judicial or non-judicial foreclosures.  In a judicial foreclosure, foreclosure actions are brought in court.  A judicial foreclosure can be brought where the security interest is a mortgage or deed of trust.  A non-judicial foreclosure does not – shocker! — involve a court proceeding.  Instead it is conducted using the power of sale contained in the deed of trust.  With the power of sale, the mortgaged property is sold at a public auction.

If we were to generalize, the rule is that state supreme courts do not require the foreclosing party to “show the note” in a non-judicial foreclosure (with Massachusetts one exception).  In addition, the general rule in a judicial foreclosure is that the foreclosing party must “show the note,” although it need not be the actual mortgage note holder, but merely one who has been assigned an interest in the mortgage note by the mortgage note holder.

We think the most interesting contrast is between the more typical Hogan v. Washington Mutual Bank, 277 P.3d 781 (Ariz. 2012), and the more cutting edge Eaton v. Federal National Mortgage Association, 969 N.E.2d 1118 (Mass. 2012).  Hogan strictly construes the state foreclosure law, but leads to some odd results, including the possibility that a borrower can be liable in competing foreclosure proceedings arising from just one deed of trust.  Eaton pushes the language of the statute a bit, but seems to ensure that borrowers are protected from inequitable results in foreclosure proceedings.  For a more in depth analysis, we would recommend a recent law review article by Dale Whitman and Drew Milner in the most recent issue of the Arkansas Law Review, Foreclosing on Nothing: The Curious Problem of the Deed of Trust Foreclosure Without Entitlement to Enforce the Note.

WJ: How does state law influence the success of the defense?   Are there any federal laws applicable to the “show me the note” defense?

BTB and DJR: While “show me the note” does come up in federal cases, federal courts defer to the applicable state law in reaching their results.  As our article demonstrates, the courts’ holdings tend to flow from a careful reading of the relevant state foreclosure statute, so a particular state’s law can have a big effect on the outcome.  We would note that many scholars and leaders of the bar are befuddled by courts’ failure to do a comprehensive analysis under the UCC as part of their reasoning in mortgage enforcement cases, but judges make the law, not scholars and members of the bar.  See Report of The Permanent Editorial Board for The Uniform Commercial Code Application of The Uniform Commercial Code to Selected Issues Relating to Mortgage Notes at 1 (Nov. 14, 2011).

WJ: What are the main points you want to emphasize for homeowners and their attorneys challenging a foreclosure action?

BTB and DJR: The main point is – the law matters and the jurisdiction matters.  Whether you are a homeowner trying to stave off foreclosure or a real estate finance lawyer structuring a securitization, you should expect that courts will enforce statutes as they are written in an adversarial proceeding.  What works in one jurisdiction may not work in another because the laws of the jurisdictions may vary.  Plan accordingly.