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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

Appeals Court to consider whether CFPA covers trusts

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

Courts

On February 11, the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware stayed a 2017 CFPB enforcement action against a collection of Delaware statutory trusts and their debt collector after determining there may be room for reasonable disagreement related to questions of “covered persons” and “timeliness.” As previously covered by InfoBytes, last December the court ruled that the CFPB could proceed with the enforcement action, which alleged, among other things, that the defendants filed lawsuits against consumers for private student loan debt that they could not prove was owed or that was outside the applicable statute of limitations. The court concluded that the suit was still valid and did not need ratification in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 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), upending its previous dismissal of the case, which had held that the Bureau lacked enforcement authority to bring the action when its structure was unconstitutional. At the time, 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. 

However, the court now certified two questions for appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The first question centers on whether the defendants qualify as “covered persons” subject to the Bureau’s enforcement authority. The court concluded that another court may rule differently on this “novel” issue. “I was the first judge to decide whether the Bureau may bring enforcement actions against creditors like the Trusts who contract out debt collection and loan servicing,” the judge wrote, noting that the judge previously assigned to the case had also “expressed ‘some doubt’ that the Trusts are covered persons.” The second question addresses the Bureau’s efforts to continue the case after Seila. The defendants argued that the suit should be dismissed because the initial filing was invalid due to the director’s unconstitutional insulation and was not ratified within the statute of limitations. In December the court had held that the Bureau did not need to ratify the suit because—pointing to the majority opinion in the Supreme Court’s decision in Collins v. Yellen (covered by InfoBytes here)—“‘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 now acknowledged, however, that Collins “is a very recent Supreme Court decision” whose scope is still being “hashed out” in lower courts, which therefore “suggests that there is room for reasonable disagreement and thus supports an interlocutory appeal here.”