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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

CFPB’s debt-collection suit can proceed

Courts CFPB Enforcement Consumer Finance Seila Law Student Lending U.S. Supreme Court CFPA UDAAP


On December 13, the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware ruled that the CFPB can proceed with its 2017 enforcement action against a collection of Delaware statutory trusts and their debt collector for, among other things, allegedly filing lawsuits against consumers for private student loan debt that they could not prove was owed or that was outside the applicable statute of limitations. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) According to the court’s opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Seila Law v. CFPB (which determined that the director’s for-cause removal provision was unconstitutional but was severable from the statute establishing the Bureau—covered by a Buckley Special Alert) upended its previous dismissal of the case, which had held that the Bureau lacked enforcement authority to bring the action when its structure was unconstitutional. The court also previously ruled that the Bureau’s claims were barred by the statute of limitations and that former Director Kathy Kraninger’s subsequent ratification of the action came after the limitations period had expired. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) 

In now finding that the CFPB can proceed with the 2017 enforcement action, the court rejected the statute of limitations argument because, under the Supreme Court’s ruling that unconstitutional removal protections do not automatically void agency actions, the Bureau’s action in 2017 was valid and it stopped the three-year clock when it sued. While the court recognized the defendants’ argument that the Bureau first discovered the alleged violations on September 4, 2014, when it issued a civil investigative demand and then sued on September 18, 2017 (allegedly exceeding the three-year limit by two weeks), the court noted that at this stage it could not find a time bar because nothing on the “face of the complaint” supports the defendants’ argument that the allegations are untimely.

The court also held that the Bureau did not need to ratify the suit. Pointing to the majority opinion in the Supreme Court’s decision in Collins v. Yellen (covered by InfoBytes here), the court stated that “‘an unconstitutional removal restriction does not invalidate agency action so long as the agency head was properly appointed[,]’” and therefore the agency’s actions are not void and do not need to be ratified, unless a plaintiff can show that “the agency action would not have been taken but for the President’s inability to remove the agency head.” The court wrote: “This suit would have been filed even if the director had been under presidential control. It has been litigated by five directors of the CFPB, four of whom were removable at-will by the President. . . . And the CFPB did not change its litigation strategy once the removal protection was eliminated. This is strong evidence that this suit would have been brought regardless.”

The court also disagreed with the defendants’ argument that, as trusts, they are not “covered persons” under the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA). While the defendants argued that they used subservicers to collect debt and therefore did not “engage in” providing services listed in the CFPA, the court stated that the trusts were still “engaged” in their business and the alleged misconduct even though they contracted it out. “[I]f Congress wanted to allow enforcement against only those who directly engage in offering or providing consumer financial services, it could have said so,” the court said.