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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

8th Circuit lets GSE shareholders seek retrospective relief

Courts Fannie Mae Freddie Mac GSE FHFA Single-Director Structure U.S. Supreme Court Shareholders


On October 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac shareholders have standing to seek retrospective, but not prospective, relief related to their claims that they suffered damages as a result of the FHFA’s leadership structure. The shareholders alleged FHFA’s leadership structure and appointments violated the appointments clause, the separation of powers, and the non-delegation doctrine. Among other things, the shareholders claimed that (i) the Housing and Economic Recovery Act (Recovery Act), which created the agency, violated separation of powers principles because it only allowed the president to fire the FHFA director “for cause,” and (ii) FHFA acted outside its statutory authority when it adopted a third amendment to the Senior Preferred Stock Purchase Agreements, which replaced a fixed-rate dividend formula with a variable one requiring the GSEs to pay quarterly dividends equal to their entire net worth minus a specified capital reserve amount to the Treasury Department (known as the “net worth sweep”). The district court dismissed the claims for lack of standing, and in the alternative, rejected them on the merits.

The 8th Circuit began by rejecting the district court’s holding that the shareholders lacked standing. Relying on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Collins v. Yellen (covered by InfoBytes here), the appellate court held that the shareholders’ alleged injury flowed from the adoption of the agreement containing the net worth sweep by FHFA’s acting director, who did not properly hold office. However, the shareholders were limited to seeking retrospective relief, because prospective relief was mooted by the adoption of subsequent amendments to the agreement by validly-appointed directors.

However, the appellate court went on to hold that the shareholders were not entitled to relief based on their argument that the acting director had been in office too long in an “acting” role when he adopted the agreement. Even if the shareholders were correct, the acting director’s decisions were valid under the de facto officer doctrine, which confers validity on the acts of persons operating “under the color of official title even though it is later discovered that the legality of that person’s appointment or election to office is deficient.” Moreover, even if the de facto officer doctrine did not control, “[a]ny defect was resolved when the subsequent FHFA directors—none of whose appointments were challenged—ratified the third amendment.”

The 8th Circuit also rejected the argument that Congress unlawfully delegated authority to FHFA in the Recovery Act, finding that the statute directs FHFA “to act as a ‘conservator,’ with clear and recognizable instructions.”

Finally, the 8th Circuit did agree with the shareholders that FHFA’s leadership structure was unconstitutional because, as the Court held in Collins, it limited the president’s ability to remove the director. But the appellate court rejected the shareholders’ request that it vacate the adoption of the agreement containing the net worth sweep as a result, noting that the acting director was always “removable at will,” and that there was no allegation that subsequent agency directors (who took actions to implement the agreement) were appointed improperly. Still, the appellate court noted that, in Collins, the Court had remanded the case for a determination whether the constitutional violation “caused compensable harm” to the plaintiffs, and it did the same here.