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En banc 5th Circuit declares FHFA structure unconstitutional, allows net worth sweep claims to proceed
On September 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit reaffirmed, in an en banc rehearing, that the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) structure violates constitutional separation of powers requirements and allowed “net worth sweep” claims brought by a group of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (government-sponsored entities or GSEs) shareholders to proceed. As previously covered by InfoBytes, GSE shareholders brought an action against the U.S. Department of Treasury and FHFA arguing that (i) the FHFA acted outside its statutory authority when it adopted a dividend agreement that requires the GSEs to pay quarterly dividends equal to their entire net worth to the Treasury Department (known as “net worth sweep”); and (ii) the structure of the FHFA is unconstitutional because it violates separation of powers principles. The district court dismissed the shareholder’s statutory claims and granted summary judgment in favor of the Treasury Department and the FHFA on the separation of powers claim. On appeal, the 5th Circuit agreed with the lower court on the first claim, concluding that the net worth sweep payments were acceptable under the FHFA’s statutory authority and that the FHFA was lawfully established by Congress through the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (HERA), which places restraints on judicial review. However, the appellate court reversed the lower court’s decision on the separation of powers claim, concluding that Congress went too far in insulating the FHFA’s single director from removal by the president for anything other than cause, ruling that the agency’s structure violates Article II of the Constitution.
After an en banc rehearing, the appellate court issued two separate majority opinions. Both opinions concluded that (i) the GSE shareholders plausibly alleged that the net worth sweep exceed the powers of the FHFA when acting as a conservator under HERA; and (ii) the FHFA’s structure—which provides the director with “for cause” removal protection—violates the Constitution’s separation of powers requirements. However, the opinions differed on the appropriate remedy, with nine judges concluding that the remedy should be severance of the for-cause provision, not prospective relief invalidating the net worth sweep, stating that “the Shareholders’ ongoing injury, if indeed there is one, is remedied by a declaration that the “for cause” restriction is declared removed. We go no further.”
Various dissenting opinions were issued, including one signed by seven judges concluding that the FHFA acted within its statutory powers under HERA when it adopted the net worth sweep, stating “the FHFA’s ‘powers are many and mostly discretionary.’” In another dissenting opinion, four judges argued that the majority opinions wrongly concluded that the FHFA’s structure is unconstitutional, arguing that there are “only reasons for caution and skepticism, and none for action” in the constitutional claim. “Neither the Constitution’s text, nor the Supreme Court’s constructions thereof, nor the adversary process in this litigation has given us much ground on which to declare the FHFA’s design unconstitutional,” the judges argued.
Given the similarities of the FHFA’s single director structure with that of the CFPB, this case warrants close attention as it has the potential to create a vehicle for consideration by the Supreme Court of the constitutionality of single director agencies.
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