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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

Government says CFPB should have authority to continue enforcement actions even if declared unconstitutional

Courts CFPB Single-Director Structure U.S. Supreme Court Fifth Circuit Appellate

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On November 6, the CFPB and the DOJ filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the Bureau should still “have the authority to commence or continue enforcement proceedings” in the event that the Court declares the Bureau’s structure unconstitutional. The brief was filed in response to a petition for writ of certiorari by two Mississippi-based payday loan and check cashing companies (collectively, “petitioners”) urging the Court to grant certiorari before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit renders a decision on a challenge to the Bureau’s single-director structure. The petitioners are not only challenging the Bureau’s structure but also arguing that the asserted constitutional violation requires the dismissal of the underlying lawsuit brought by the Bureau.

The government argues that dismissal of the underlying enforcement action is not the way to remedy a constitutional structure violation, at least in a situation where “an official fully accountable to the President determines that it should go forward.” The brief notes that, in this case, then-Acting Director Mulvaney, to whom the Bureau has argued the limitation to for-cause removal did not apply, had ratified the enforcement action against petitioners at issue. While the Bureau and the DOJ acknowledge that lower courts “have not yet addressed the particular issue here,” they make the case that “the few reasoned decisions that address related issues are in accord: A separation-of-powers problem with an agency does not compel invalidation of the agency’s actions if those actions are subsequently approved in compliance with separation-of-powers requirements.”

In its brief, the Bureau and the DOJ also argue that questions presented to the Court do not warrant review of the case before the 5th Circuit has an opportunity to rule. The government emphasizes that the Court has already agreed to hear a different case, Seila Law LLC v. CFPB, to answer the question of whether an independent agency led by a single director violates the Constitution’s separation of powers under Article II (covered by InfoBytes here). In doing so the Court also directed the parties to that action to brief and argue whether 12 U.S.C. §5491(c)(3), which established removal of the Bureau’s single director only for cause, is severable from the rest of the Dodd-Frank Act, should it be found to be unconstitutional.

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