Online lender asks Supreme Court to review ALJ ruling
A Delaware-based online payday lender and its founder and CEO (collectively, “petitioners”) recently submitted a petition for a writ of certiorari challenging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit’s affirmation of a CFPB administrative ruling related to alleged violations of the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA), TILA, and EFTA. The petitioners asked the Court to first review whether the high court’s ruling in Lucia v. SEC, which “instructed that an agency must hold a ‘new hearing’ before a new and properly appointed official in order to cure an Appointments Clause violation” (covered by InfoBytes here), meant that a CFPB administrative law judge (ALJ) could “conduct a cold review of the paper record of the first, tainted hearing, without any additional discovery or new testimony.” Or, the petitioners asked, did the Court intend for the agency to actually conduct a new hearing. The petitioners also asked the Court to consider whether an agency funding structure that circumvents the Constitution’s Appropriations Clause violates the separation of powers so as to invalidate prior agency actions promulgated at a time when the Bureau was receiving such funding.
The case involves a challenge to a 2015 administrative action that alleged the petitioners engaged in unfair or deceptive acts or practices when making short-term loans (covered by InfoBytes here). The Bureau’s order required the petitioners to pay $38.4 million as both legal and equitable restitution, along with $8.1 million in penalties for the company and $5.4 million in penalties for the CEO. As previously covered by InfoBytes, between 2018 and 2021, the Court issued four decisions, including Lucia, which “bore on the Bureau’s enforcement activity in this case” by “deciding fundamental issues related to the Bureau’s constitutional authority to act” and appoint ALJs. During this time, two different ALJs decided the present case years apart, with their recommendations separately appealed to the Bureau’s director. The director upheld the decision by the second ALJ and ordered the lender and its owner to pay the restitution. A district court issued a final order upholding the award, which the petitioners appealed, arguing, among other things, that the enforcement action violated their due-process rights by denying the CEO additional discovery concerning the statute of limitations. The petitioners claimed that they were entitled to a “new hearing” under Lucia, and that the second administrative hearing did not rise to the level of due process prescribed in that case.
However, the 10th Circuit affirmed the district court’s $38.4 million restitution award, rejecting the petitioners’ various challenges and affirming the director’s order. The 10th Circuit determined that there was “no support for a bright-line rule against de novo review of a previous administrative hearing,” nor did it see a reason for a more extensive hearing. Moreover, the petitioners “had a full opportunity to present their case in the first proceeding,” the 10th Circuit wrote.
The petitioners maintained that “[d]espite the Court’s clear instruction to hold a ‘new hearing,’ ALJs and courts have reached divergent conclusions as to what Lucia requires, expressing confusion and frustration regarding the lack of guidance.” What it means to hold a “new hearing” runs “the gamut,” the petitioners wrote, pointing out that while some ALJs perform a full redo of the proceedings, others merely accept a prior decision based on a cold review of the paper record. The petitioners argued that they should have been provided a true de novo hearing with an opportunity for new testimony, evidence, discovery, and legal arguments. The rehearing from the new ALJ was little more than a perfunctory “paper review,” the petitioners wrote.
Petitioners asked the Court to grant the petition for three reasons: (i) “the scope of Lucia’s ‘new hearing’ remedy is an important and apparently unsettled question of federal law”; (ii) “the notion Lucia does not require a genuinely ‘new’ de novo proceeding is necessarily wrong because a sham ‘remedy’ provides parties no incentive to litigate Appointments Clause challenges”; and (iii) the case “is an ideal vehicle to provide guidance on Lucia’s ‘new hearing’ remedy.” The petitioners further argued that “Lucia’s remedy should provide parties an incentive to raise separation of powers arguments by providing them actual and meaningful relief.”
The petitioners’ second question involves whether Appropriations Clause violations that render an agency’s funding structure unconstitutional, if upheld, invalidate agency actions taken under such a structure. The petitioners called this “an important, unsettled question of federal law meriting the Court’s review,” citing splits between the Circuits over the constitutionality of the Bureau’s funding structure which has resulted in uncertainty for both regulators and regulated parties. Recently, the Court granted the Bureau’s request to review the 5th Circuit’s decision in CFSAA v. CFPB, which held that Congress violated the Appropriations Clause when it created what the 5th Circuit described as a “perpetual self-directed, double-insulated funding structure” for the agency (covered by InfoBytes here).