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On March 3, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Seila Law LLC v. CFPB to consider whether the Constitution prohibits an agency being led by a single director who cannot be removed at will by the President. In addition, the arguments addressed the question of the appropriate remedy if the Court determines that the limitation on the President’s ability to remove the director is unconstitutional.
The case arises out of a Civil Investigative Demand (CID) issued by the CFPB to the petitioner Seila Law, a law firm providing debt relief services to consumers. Seila Law refused to respond to the CID, arguing that it is invalid because the CFPB’s structure is unconstitutional. The CFPB and the DOJ agreed with the contention that the statute is unconstitutional. However, the parties differed on the question of remedy. The government argued that the removal restriction should simply be severed from the statute, leaving the remainder of the Consumer Financial Protection Act in place. But Seila Law argued that to do so would amount to a judicial “rewrite” of the statute, and the Court should instead simply hold that the CID is unenforceable and leave to Congress the task of revising the statute to comply with the Constitution.
Because the government was not defending the constitutionality of the statute, the court appointed a former Solicitor General to act as an amicus to defend the constitutionality of the statute. In addition, the House of Representatives, which had filed an amicus brief on behalf of that legislative body, also defended the constitutionality of the statute at the oral arguments.
Find continuing InfoBytes coverage of Seila Law here.
On February 18, the CFPB released a Decision and Order denying a joint request to set aside civil investigative demands (CIDs) issued in 2019 to four online installment lenders owned by a federally recognized Indian tribe, as well as a processing services company. The CIDs in dispute were issued to the petitioners last October and sought information “to determine whether lenders or associated individuals or entities have violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act’s (CFPA) prohibition on unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts and practices [(UDAAP)] by collecting amounts that consumers did not owe or by making false or misleading representations to consumers in the course of servicing loans and collecting debts.” As previously covered by InfoBytes, four of the petitioners were also part of a 2017 CFPB enforcement action, which alleged that the lenders’ practices violated UDAAP and the Truth in Lending Act. This action was voluntarily dismissed without prejudice in 2018 (covered by InfoBytes here).
According to the CFPB, the joint petition to set aside or modify the CIDs sets out five primary arguments: (i) the CFPB “lacks authority to investigate entities that are arms of a tribe”; (ii) the lenders cannot comply with the CIDs without violating a protective order issued by the Tribal Consumer Financial Services Regulatory Commission; (iii) “the CIDs lack a proper purpose”; (iv) “the CIDs are overly broad and unduly burdensome”; and (v) the CIDs should be withdrawn or stayed pending the U. S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Seila Law LLC v. CFPB about whether the structure of the CFPB is unconstitutional.
The CFPB’s denial of the petitioners’ request addresses each of the arguments. First, it rejects that it lacks authority to investigate “arms of a tribe” based on, among other things, a Ninth Circuit case holding that the CFPA applies to tribal businesses and numerous cases holding that tribes “do not enjoy sovereign immunity from lawsuits brought by the federal government.” Second, while noting the CFPB’s “utmost respect” for, and desire to coordinate with, state and tribal regulators, the agency is not required to coordinate with such regulators before carrying out its responsibility to investigate potential violations of federal consumer law. Third, with respect to whether the CIDs have a proper purpose, the CFPB asserts, among other things, that the dismissal of the earlier lawsuit does not preclude it from bringing future actions, and moreover, even if some of the requested information relates to potentially time-barred conduct, it does not undermine the overall validity. Fourth, concerning the petitioners’ claims that the CIDs are overbroad or unduly burdensome, the CFPB states that the petitioners did not meaningfully engage during the meet-and-confer-process and have not adequately specified or identified how or why the CIDs would be unduly burdensome. Finally, regarding the constitutional issue, the CFPB notes that it has consistently stated that “the administrative process set out in the [CFPB’s] statute and regulations for petitioning to modify or set aside a CID is not the proper forum for raising and adjudicating challenges to the constitutionality of the [CFPB’s] statute.” The CFPB directs the petitioners to comply with the CIDs within 30 days of the order.
On February 10, the CFPB denied a debt collection law firm’s request to modify or set aside a third-party Civil Investigative Demand (CID) issued to the firm by the Bureau while investigating possible violations of the FDCPA, CFPA, and the FCRA. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau also denied a request by a debt collection company to modify or set aside a CID, which sought information about the company’s business practices and its relationship with the firm in the same investigation. The firm’s petition asserted arguments largely based on the theory that the CFPB’s structure is unconstitutional, and that the Dodd-Frank Act provides the Bureau’s director with “overly broad executive authority.” Alternatively, the firm argued that if the CID is not set aside, it should be modified, stating, among other things, that the CID’s scope exceeds applicable statutes of limitation.
As it did in the debt collection company’s request to set aside or modify the CID, the Bureau rejected the firm’s constitutionality argument, stating that “[t]he administrative process for petitioning to modify or set aside CIDs is not the proper forum for raising and adjudicating challenges to the constitutionality of provisions of the Bureau’s statute.” Additionally, the Bureau’s Decision and Order discounts the firm’s statute of limitations argument, contending that “the Bureau is not limited to gathering information only from the time period in which conduct may be actionable. Instead, what matters is whether the information is relevant to conduct for which liability can be lawfully imposed.” The Bureau also directed the firm to comply with the CID within ten days of the Order.
U.S. Solicitor General: Supreme Court can decide on severability clause without deciding CFPB's future
On February 14, U.S. Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco filed a reply brief for the CFPB in Seila Law LLC v. CFPB, arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court could decide whether the CFPB’s single-director structure violates the Constitution’s separation of powers under Article II without deciding whether the Bureau as a whole should survive. “Although the removal restriction is unconstitutional, Congress has expressly provided that the rest of the Dodd-Frank Act shall be unaffected,” Francisco said, replying in part to arguments made by Paul D. Clement, the lawyer selected by the Court to defend the leadership structure of the Bureau. As previously covered by InfoBytes, Clement argued, among other things, that Seila Law’s constitutionality arguments are “remarkably weak” and that “a contested removal is the proper context to address a dispute over the President’s removal authority.” Clement also contended that “there is no ‘removal clause’ in the Constitution,” and that because the “constitutional text is simply silent on the removal of executive officers” it does not mean there is a “promising basis for invalidating an Act of Congress.” According to Francisco, Seila Law’s arguments for invalidating the entirety of Title X of Dodd-Frank “are insufficient to overcome the severability clause’s plain text,” and its “arguments for ignoring the severability questions altogether are both procedurally and substantively wrong.” Francisco further emphasized that “refusing to apply the severability provision . . .would be severely disruptive” because the Bureau is the only federal agency dedicated solely to consumer financial protection.
Seila Law also filed a reply brief the same day, countering that Clement offered “no valid justification” for the Court to rule on the severability question separately, and arguing that a “civil investigative demand issued and enforced by an unaccountable director is void, and the only appropriate resolution is to order the denial of the CFPB’s petition for enforcement.” Seila Law further contended that the Court should reverse the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s decision from last May—which deemed the CFPB to be constitutionally structured and upheld a district court’s ruling enforcing Seila Law’s obligation to comply with a 2017 civil investigative demand—and “leave to Congress the quintessentially legislative decision of how the CFPB should function going forward.”
Notably, Francisco disagreed with Seila Law’s argument that the 9th Circuit’s judgment should be reversed outright, stating that to do so “would deprive the Bureau of ratification arguments” that the 9th Circuit chose not to address by instead upholding the removal restriction’s constitutionality. The Bureau’s ratification arguments at the time, Francisco stated, contended that even if the removal restriction was found to be unconstitutional, “the CID could still be enforced because the Bureau’s former Acting Director—who was removable at will—had ratified it.” As such, Francisco recommended that the Court “confirm that the severability clause means what it says and remand the case to the [9th Circuit] to resolve any remaining case-specific ratification questions.”
The same day, the Court approved Seila Law’s motion for enlargement of time for oral argument and for divided argument. The time will be divided as follows: 20 minutes for Seila Law, 20 minutes for the solicitor general, 20 minutes for the court-appointed amicus curiae, and 10 minutes for the House of Representatives.
Find continuing InfoBytes coverage on Seila here.
On February 6, the CFPB released a Decision and Order denying a debt collection company’s (petitioner) request to set aside or modify a third-party Civil Investigative Demand (CID) issued by the Bureau, and directing the petitioner to provide all information required by the CID. The CID in dispute was issued to the petitioner by the CFPB in November and seeks documents and written responses pertaining to the petitioner’s business practices and its relationship with a New York-based debt collection law firm. The CID requests information regarding whether “debt collectors, furnishers, or associated persons” had, among other things, (i) violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act by ignoring warnings regarding debts resulting from identity theft “in a manner that was unfair, deceptive or abusive”; (ii) violated the FDCPA by disregarding cease-and-desist requests or by failing to provide required notices or making false or misleading statements; or (iii) violated the FCRA by “fail[ing] to correct and update furnished information, or fail[ing] to maintain reasonable policies and procedures.”
In its petition to set aside or modify the CID, the petitioner set out four primary arguments: (i) the structure of the CFPB is unconstitutional, and it therefore “lacks authority to proceed with enforcement activity”; (ii) the CID improperly seeks attorney-client privileged information; (iii) the CID is “overly broad,” does not apply to the petitioner, and does not sufficiently provide the “nature of the conduct under investigation and the applicable provisions of law”; and (iv) the CID improperly seeks information beyond the applicable statute of limitations.
The Bureau’s denial of the petitioner’s request addresses each of the petitioner’s arguments. Regarding the constitutionality of the CFPB’s structure, the order asserts that “the administrative process set out in the [B]ureau’s statute and regulations for petitioning to modify or set aside a CID is not the proper forum for raising and adjudicating challenges to the constitutionality of the [B]ureau’s statute.” In response to the petitioner’s attorney-client privilege argument, the order states that the petitioner “does not ask…to modify the CID to avoid seeking privileged information—it only asks that the CID be quashed in its entirety.” The Bureau states that because the petitioner makes a “blanket assertion” of attorney-client privilege rather than providing the required privilege log in order to properly claim privilege over materials requested in the CID before filing its petition, the petitioner’s argument is “procedurally improper” and does not show that the “CID should be set aside on these grounds.” To the petitioner’s lack of specificity argument, the order states that the CID “sets forth in detail both the conduct under investigation and applicable laws,” adding that there is no requirement that the Bureau disclose the targets of its “ongoing and confidential law-enforcement investigations.” The order also rejects the petitioner’s statute of limitations argument, explaining that the Bureau is not limited to the three years preceding the CID, but “instead what matters is whether the information is relevant to conduct for which liability can be lawfully imposed.”
On December 26, the CFPB denied a petition by a student loan relief company to modify or set aside a civil investigative demand (CID) issued by the Bureau last October. According to the company’s petition, the CID requested information as part of an investigation into the company’s promotion of student loan debt relief programs. As previously covered by InfoBytes, stipulated orders were entered against the company by the FTC and the Minnesota attorney general for violations of TILA and the assisting and facilitating provision of the Telemarketing Sales Rule, which resulted in the company being permanently banned from engaging in transactions involving debt relief products and services or making misrepresentations regarding financial products and services. In its petition, the company argued that the CFPB’s requests were duplicative of the FTC’s earlier investigation. The company also argued that the documents and materials sought in the CID were overly burdensome and the time frame to respond was too short. Furthermore, the company stated that until the U.S. Supreme Court issues a decision in Seila Law v. CFPB on whether the Bureau’s structure violates the Constitution’s separation of powers under Article II, the CID should either be withdrawn or stayed because of the uncertainty surrounding the Bureau’s ability to proceed with enforcement actions.
The Bureau denied the petition, arguing that “the administrative CID petition process is not the proper forum for raising and deciding constitutional challenges to provisions of the Bureau’s statute.” The Bureau also noted that the company failed to show that it engaged with Bureau staff on ways to alleviate undue burden, such as proposing modifications to the substance of the requests, and that even though the Bureau proposed an extension to the CID deadline, the company did not seek such an extension.
On November 22, in a speech at The Clearing House + Bank Policy Institute Annual Conference, CFPB Director Kathy Kraninger noted that the Bureau is considering changes to its consent order process to “ensur[e] consent orders remain in effect only as long as needed to achieve their desired effects.” Specifically, Kraninger discussed that while most consent orders are effective for five-year periods and companies can request early termination or termination of indefinite orders, the Bureau has only terminated “a few” consent orders in the past. Similar to the Bureau’s recent changes to its Civil Investigative Demand (CID) policy (covered by InfoBytes here), Kraninger stated that the Bureau intends to announce an updated consent order policy “soon,” in order to “provide clarity and consistency.”
On October 18, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied defendants’ request to enforce a modified Civil Investigative Demand (CID) and prevent the CFPB from obtaining personal information about the defendants’ clients via CIDs to third parties. In August 2017, the CFPB issued a CID to the defendants requesting various documents and information. The defendants challenged the scope of the original CID and, following mediation, the parties stipulated to a modified CID that no longer sought personal information of the defendants’ clients who obtained products or services related to immigration bonds. The CFPB subsequently issued third party CIDs and requested the personal information of the defendants’ clients from certain other parties. In March 2019, the defendants moved to enforce the modified CID, claiming that the CFPB “reneged on its stipulation and [acted] in bad faith” by seeking this personal information from third parties. The court, however, denied the defendants’ request to enforce the modified CID, ruling that “the modified CID makes no mention of CIDs issued to other parties,” and that the parties’ stipulation did not “preclude the CFPB from acquiring any type of information from third parties.” The court also explained that it was unclear whether the defendants had standing to contest the CFPB’s CID to a third party, noting that the defendants failed to state how they would suffer an injury if the pertinent information was disclosed by a third party.
In September, the CFPB published documents related to an investigation into whether a national bank opened credit card accounts without customer authorization in violation of various federal laws and regulations, including the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the Consumer Financial Protection Act’s ban on unfair or abusive practices. In March 2019, the Bureau issued a civil investigative demand (CID) to the bank seeking, among other things, “a tally of specific instances of potentially unauthorized credit card accounts,” as well as a manual assessment of card accounts that were never used by the customer. The bank argued in its petition to modify or set aside the CID that it had already provided information to regulators showing that it did not have a “systemic sales misconduct issue,” and cited to the OCC’s broad review into sales practice issues at mid-size and large national banks, which has not, according to the bank, identified systemic issues with bank employees opening unauthorized accounts without consumer consent. Among other things, the bank also contended that the CID was unduly burdensome—requiring manual account-level assessments—and said the CFPB should end its investigation because the facts “refute an investigation’s initial hypothesis.” The bank further argued that the inquiry into its sales practices should be conducted by CFPB supervisory staff instead of as an enforcement investigation, which would be “the proper mechanism for resolving any remaining issues when an investigation fails to uncover evidence warranting [e]nforcement action.”
Concerning the bank’s argument that the CID was unduly burdensome, the Bureau stated in its order denying the petition that the bank had failed to “meaningfully engage” with the Bureau during the course of the investigation in a way that merited modification to the terms of the CID. Moreover, with regard to whether the investigation should be conducted by supervisory staff, the Bureau countered that “[t]his is not a request properly made in a petition to modify or set aside a CID, for the same reasons that it is not proper to use a CID petition to ask that the Bureau close an investigation because (in the recipient’s view) it has already shown that it engaged in no wrongdoing.”
On September 17, the DOJ and the CFPB filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the for-cause restriction on the president’s authority to remove the Bureau’s single Director violates the Constitution’s separation of powers. The brief was filed in response to a petition for a writ of certiorari by a law firm, contesting the May decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which held that (i) the Bureau’s single-director structure is constitutional, and that (ii) the district court did not err when it granted the Bureau’s petition to enforce a law firm’s compliance with a 2017 civil investigative demand (CID) (previously covered by InfoBytes here). The brief cites to a DOJ filing in opposition to a 2018 cert petition, which also concluded that the Bureau’s structure is unconstitutional by infringing on the president’s responsibility to ensure that federal laws are faithfully executed, but urged the Court to deny that writ as the case was a “poor vehicle” for the constitutionality consideration (previously covered by InfoBytes here).
In contrast to the December brief, the DOJ now asserts that the present case is a “suitable vehicle for resolving the important question,” noting that only the constitutional question was presented to the Court and the 9th Circuit has stayed its CID mandate until final disposition of the case with the Court. Moreover, the government argues that until the Court resolves the constitutionality question of the Bureau’s structure, “those subject to the agency’s regulation or enforcement can (and often will) raise the issue as a defense to the Bureau’s efforts to implement and enforce federal consumer financial law.” While the Bureau previously defended the single-director structure to the 9th Circuit, the brief notes that since the May decision was issued, “the Director has reconsidered that position and now agrees that the removal restriction is unconstitutional.”
On the same day, Director Kraninger sent letters (here and here) to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) supporting the argument that the for-cause restriction on the president’s authority to remove the Bureau’s single Director, violates the Constitution’s separation of powers. Kraninger notes that while she is urging the Court to grant the pending petition for certiorari to resolve the constitutionality question, her position on the matter “does not affect [her] commitment to fulfilling the Bureau’s statutory responsibilities” and that should the Court find the structure unconstitutional, “the [Consumer Financial Protection Act] should remain ‘fully operative,’ and the Bureau would ‘continue to function as before,’ just with a Director who “may be removed at will by the [President.]’”
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