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  • 9th Circuit says CFPB can seek restitution in action against payday lender

    Courts

    On May 23, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a district court’s judgment finding an online loan servicer and its affiliates liable for a deceptive loan scheme. However, the appellate court vacated the district court’s order, which had imposed a $10 million civil penalty (rather than the requested penalty of over $50 million) and had declined the CFPB's request for $235 million in restitution. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2018, the district court ordered the defendants to pay the civil penalty for offering high-interest loans in states with usury laws barring the transactions after determining in September 2016 that the online loan servicer was the “true lender” of the loans that were issued through entities located on tribal land (covered by a Buckley Special Alert). At the time, the district court found that a lower statutory penalty was more appropriate than the CFPB’s requested amount because the Bureau failed to show the company “knowingly violated the CFPA” or acted “recklessly.” In rejecting the Bureau’s requested restitution amount, the district court found that the agency had not put forth any evidence that the defendants “intended to defraud consumers or that consumers did not receive the benefit of their bargain from the [program]” for restitution to be an appropriate remedy.

    According to the 9th Circuit, the district court applied the wrong legal analysis in 2018 when it assessed only a $10 million civil money penalty against the defendants and no restitution payments to consumers harmed by the improper loans. By applying federal common law choice-of-law principles, the appellate court declined to apply tribal law, holding that state laws applied to the loans, thus rendering them invalid. The appellate court determined that the defendants acted recklessly when they attempted to collect on invalid debts after counsel advised in 2013 that such actions were likely illegal. While the defendants shut down the tribal lending program for new loans, the 9th Circuit said they continued to collect on existing loans. “We conclude that from September 2013 on, the danger that [defendants’] conduct violated the statute was ‘so obvious that [defendants] must have been aware of it,’” the appellate court wrote. Noting that penalties for “reckless” violations under tier two were appropriate beginning September 2013, the appellate court ordered the district court to recalculate the civil penalty on remand. The 9th Circuit also directed the district court on remand to reconsider the appropriate restitution without relying on irrelevant considerations that motivated its earlier decision, including (i) whether defendants acted in bad faith; and (ii) “whether consumers received the benefit of their bargain.” Moreover, the appellate court held that the district court erred by stating “that the ‘proposed restitution amount [should be] netted to account for expenses.’”

    The 9th Circuit also concluded that the district court was correct in holding one of the individual defendants personally liable for the company’s conduct. Furthermore, the appellate court held that the defendants’ argument that the structure of the Bureau is unconstitutional did not affect the validity of the lawsuit (which was filed when the Bureau was headed by lawfully appointed former Director Richard Cordray), writing that, as in Collins v. Yellen (covered by InfoBytes here), “the unlawfulness of the removal provision does not strip the Director of the power to undertake the other responsibilities of his office.”

    Courts CFPB Ninth Circuit Appellate Tribal Lending Enforcement Constitution Payday Lending Consumer Finance

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  • 5th Circuit rules against SEC’s use of ALJs

    Courts

    On May 18, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that the SEC’s in-house adjudication of a petitioners’ case violated their Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial and relied on unconstitutionally delegated legislative power. The appellate court further determined that SEC administrative law judges (ALJs) are unconstitutionally shielded from removal. In a 2-1 decision, the 5th Circuit vacated the SEC’s judgment against a hedge fund manager and his investment company arising from a case, which accused petitioners of fraud under the Securities Act, the Securities Exchange Act, and the Advisers Act in connection with two hedge funds that held roughly $24 million in assets. According to the SEC, the petitioners had, among other things, inflated the funds’ assets to increase the fees they collected from investors. Petitioners sued in federal court, arguing that the SEC’s proceedings “infringed on various constitutional rights,” but the federal courts refused to issue an injunction claiming they lacked jurisdiction and that petitioners had to continue with the agency’s proceedings. While petitioners’ sought review by the SEC, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Lucia v. SEC, which held that SEC ALJs are “inferior officers” subject to the Appointments Clause of the Constitution (covered by InfoBytes here). Following the decision, the SEC assigned petitioners’ proceeding to an ALJ who was properly appointed, “but petitioners chose to waive their right to a new hearing and continued under their original petition to the Commission.” The SEC eventually affirmed findings of liability against the petitioners, and ordered the petitioners to cease and desist from committing further violations and to pay a $300,000 civil penalty. The investment company was also ordered to pay nearly $685,000 in ill-gotten gains, while the hedge fund manager was barred from various securities industry activities.

    In vacating the SEC’s judgment, the appellate court determined that the SEC had deprived petitioners of their right to a jury trial by bringing its action in an “administrative forum” instead of filing suit in federal court. While the SEC challenged “that the legal interests at issue in this case vindicate distinctly public rights” and therefore are “appropriately allowed” to be brought in agency proceedings without a jury, the appellate court countered that the SEC’s enforcement action was “akin to traditional actions at law to which the jury-trial right attaches.” Moreover, the 5th Circuit noted that while “the SEC agrees that Congress has given it exclusive authority and absolute discretion to decide whether to bring securities fraud enforcement actions within the agency instead of in an Article III court[,] Congress has said nothing at all indicating how the SEC should make that call in any given case.” As such, the 5th Circuit opined that this “total absence of guidance is impermissible under the Constitution.”

    Additionally, the 5th Circuit raised concerns about the statutory removal restrictions for SEC ALJs who can only be removed for “good cause” by SEC commissioners (who are removable only for good cause by the president). “Simply put, if the President wanted an SEC ALJ to be removed, at least two layers of for-cause protection stand in the President’s way,” the appellate court concluded. “Thus, SEC ALJs are sufficiently insulated from removal that the President cannot take care that the laws are faithfully executed. The statutory removal restrictions are unconstitutional.”

    The dissenting judge disagreed with all three of the majority’s constitutional conclusions, contending that the majority, among other things, misread the Supreme Court’s decisions as to what are and are not “public rights,” and that “Congress’s decision to give prosecutorial authority to the SEC to choose between an Article III court and an administrative proceeding for its enforcement actions does not violate the nondelegation doctrine.” The judge further stated that while the Supreme Court determined in Lucia that ALJs are “inferior officers” within the meaning of the Appointments Clause in Article II, it “expressly declined to decide whether multiple layers of statutory removal restrictions on SEC ALJs violate Article II.” Consequently, the judge concluded that he found “no constitutional violations or any other errors with the administrative proceedings below.”

    Courts Appellate Fifth Circuit SEC ALJ Constitution Securities Act Securities Exchange Act Advisers Act Enforcement

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  • 9th Circuit: Data release did not violate defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights

    Privacy, Cyber Risk & Data Security

    On April 27, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit concluded that limited digital data uncovered online that was not collected at the behest of the government did not violate the Fourth Amendment, which protects individuals from unreasonable government searches and seizures. According to the opinion, the defendant, who was convicted of child exploitation, argued that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when two electronic service providers (ESPs) investigated his accounts without a warrant and reported the evidence of child sexual exploitation. He further maintained that evidence seized upon his arrest should have been suppressed because the ESPs were “acting as government agents when they searched his online accounts,” and that “he had a right to privacy in his digital data and that the government’s preservation requests and subpoenas, submitted without a warrant, violated the Fourth Amendment.” 

    The 9th Circuit disagreed, concluding first that the federal Stored Communications Act and the Protect Our Children Act “transformed the ESPs’ searches into governmental action” and “that the government was sufficiently involved in the ESPs’ searches of the defendant’s accounts to trigger Fourth Amendment protection.” The appellate court also determined that the government’s preservation requests for the private communications did not amount to unreasonable seizure and that “the defendant did not have a legitimate expectation of privacy in the limited digital data sought in the government’s subpoenas, where the subpoenas did not request any communication content from the defendant’s accounts and the government did not receive any such content in response to the subpoenas.” Moreover, the 9th Circuit stated that the defendant agreed to terms of use that granted the ESPs’ contractual rights under agreed upon privacy policies “to investigate, prevent, or take action regarding illegal activities,” and consented to the ESPs honoring of preservation requests from law enforcement.

    Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security Courts Constitution Fourth Amendment

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  • Court rules CDC eviction moratorium unconstitutional

    Courts

    On February 25, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas granted plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, ruling that decisions to enact eviction moratoriums rest with the states and that the federal government’s Article I power under the U.S. Constitution to regulate interstate commerce and enact necessary and proper laws to that end “does not include the power” to order all evictions be stopped during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an eviction moratorium order last September (set to expire March 31), which “generally makes it a crime for a landlord or property owner to evict a ‘covered person’ from a residence” provided certain criteria are met. The CDC’s order grants the DOJ authority to initiate criminal proceedings and allows the imposition of fines up to $500,000. The plaintiffs—owners/managers of residential properties located in Texas—argued that the federal government does not have the authority under Article I to order property owners to not evict specified tenants, and that the decision as to whether an eviction moratorium should be enacted resides with the given state. The CDC countered that Article I afforded it the power to enact a nationwide moratorium, and argued, among other things, that “evictions covered by the CDC order may be rationally viewed as substantially affecting interstate commerce because 15% of changes in residence each year are between States.”

    However, the court disagreed stating that the CDC’s “statistic does not readily bear on the effects of the eviction moratorium” at issue, and that moreover, “[i]f statistics like that were enough, Congress could also justify national marriage and divorce laws, as similar incidental effects on interstate commerce exist in that field.” The court determined that the CDC’s eviction moratorium exceeds Congress’ powers under the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause. “The federal government cannot say that it has ever before invoked its power over interstate commerce to impose a residential eviction moratorium,” the court wrote. “It did not do so during the deadly Spanish Flu pandemic. . . .Nor did it invoke such a power during the exigencies of the Great Depression. [] The federal government has not claimed such a power at any point during our Nation’s history until last year.”

    The DOJ issued a statement on February 27 announcing its decision to appeal the court’s decision, citing that the court’s order “‘does not extend beyond the particular plaintiffs in that case, and it does not prohibit the application of the CDC’s eviction moratorium to other parties. For other landlords who rent to covered persons, the CDC’s eviction moratorium remains in effect.’”

    Courts Covid-19 CDC State Issues Constitution Evictions DOJ

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  • Court says Kansas credit card surcharge ban is unconstitutional

    Courts

    On February 25, the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas granted in part and denied in part a plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment in an action concerning whether a state statute that bans credit card surcharges violates the First Amendment. Kansas law prohibits merchants from imposing a surcharge on customers who pay with credit cards instead of cash, and allows merchants to offer discounts to consumers who pay with cash. The plaintiff, a payment processing technology company, provides “software that allows merchants to display prices, including cost surcharges on purchases made by credit card,” which “allows consumers to comparison shop among payment types.” The plaintiff challenged the constitutionality of the law, claiming it is an unconstitutional restriction on commercial speech since it “effectively limits” what the plaintiff and merchants “can treat as the ‘regular price’ of an item and the corresponding information about prices and credit card fees that can be conveyed to consumers.” The Kansas attorney general—who has the authority to enforce the state’s no-surcharge statute—countered, among other things, that the statute furthers substantial state interests by (i) encouraging merchants to charge lower prices to customers who pay with cash; (ii) lowering the amount of consumer credit card debt through the use of cash discounts; and (iii) providing benefits to merchants by encouraging cash purchases, thereby allowing them to receive immediate payments, avoid credit card fees, and incur lower costs.

    The court disagreed, ruling that none of the AG’s arguments advanced a substantial state interest—a requirement in order to not be considered a violation of the First Amendment. “Plaintiff's desire to display a single price while informing customers that credit card purchasers will be charged an additional fee would logically tend to support whatever interest the state may have in encouraging lower prices for cash customers,” the court wrote. “The statute nevertheless effectively prohibits this type of disclosure. Clearly, this restriction on speech is more extensive than necessary to further the asserted state interest.” Moreover, the court noted that “‘surcharges and discounts are nothing more than two sides of the same coin; a surcharge is simply a ‘negative’ discount, and a discount is a ‘negative’ surcharge.”

    Courts Surcharge Credit Cards State Issues State Attorney General Payment Processors Constitution

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  • Debt collection trade association claims Massachusetts emergency regulation is unconstitutional

    Federal Issues

    On April 20, a debt collection trade association filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts against the Massachusetts attorney general, challenging the state’s emergency regulation issued in March, which makes numerous standard debt collection actions an unfair and deceptive act or practice during the Covid-19 pandemic. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the emergency regulation includes provisions that prohibit both creditors and debt collectors from (i) initiating, filing, or threatening to file debt collection lawsuits; (ii) garnishing wages and repossessing vehicles; and (iii) initiating phone calls with debtors, unless necessary to discuss a rescheduled court appearance or at the request of the debtor. Alleging violations of both state and federal law, including the First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, and the separation of powers, the trade association argues that the emergency regulations are a content-based restriction on free speech and unconstitutional because they, among other things, exclude six classes of collectors from the prohibition on placing collection calls, and do not treat all “communications” equally by excluding certain types of collections communications. The trade association also contends that the restrictions block members from providing consumers with possible resolutions, such as “temporary hardship repayment plans that may provide a variety of options for deferring payments or determining longer-term payment plans tailored to individual consumer situations where income has been interrupted for any reason.” The complaint also cites examples from debt collectors in the state that detail the negative impact the emergency regulation has had on their businesses. The trade association filed an emergency motion seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction enjoining enforcement of the regulation.

    Federal Issues Courts Debt Collection State Issues State Attorney General Constitution Covid-19

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  • Basis for invalidating CFPB is “remarkably weak,” says court-appointed defender

    Courts

    On January 15, Paul Clement, the lawyer selected by the U.S. Supreme Court to defend the leadership structure of the CFPB, filed a brief in Seila Law LLC v. CFPB arguing 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.” First, Clement stated 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.” Moreover, the Constitution leaves it to Congress to decide “all manner of questions about the organization and structure of executive-branch departments and officers,” Clement wrote. Second, Clement disagreed with the argument that Congress cannot impose modest restrictions on the President’s ability to remove executive officers, so long as the President is the one exercising the removal powers. Third, Clement noted that in the past, the Court has repeatedly upheld the ability to place permissible restrictions on a President’s removal authority.

    Clement further contended, among other things, that the dispute in Seila is “not just unripe, but entirely theoretical.” He referenced the Bureau’s brief filed last September (covered by InfoBytes here), in which the CFPB argued that the for-cause restriction on the President’s authority to remove the Bureau’s single director violates the Constitution’s separation of powers, and noted that “[w]hatever was true when this suit was first filed, the theory of the unitary executive appears alive and well in the Director’s office.” Rather, Clement stated, the Court should wait for an instance where a CFPB director has been fired for something short of the “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office” threshold that Congress set for dismissing a CFPB director in Dodd-Frank before ruling on the question. Clement also emphasized that “text, first principles and precedent” all “strongly support” upholding 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 compliance with a 2017 civil investigative demand.

    As previously covered by InfoBytes, the 9th Circuit held that the for-cause removal restriction of the CFPB’s single director is constitutionally permissible based on existing Supreme Court precedent. The panel agreed with the conclusion reached by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit majority in the 2018 en banc decision in PHH v. CFPB (covered by a Buckley Special Alert) stating, “if an agency’s leadership is protected by a for-cause removal restriction, the President can arguably exert more effective control over the agency if it is headed by a single individual rather an a multi-member body.”

    The parties in Seila filed briefs last December. While both parties are in agreement on the CFPB’s single-director leadership structure, they differ on how the matter should be resolved. Seila Law argued that the Court should invalidate all of Title X of Dodd-Frank, whereas the Bureau contended that the for-cause removal provision should be severed from the rest of the law in accordance with Dodd-Frank’s express severability clause. Oral arguments are scheduled for March 3. (Previous InfoBytes coverage here.)

    Courts U.S. Supreme Court CFPB Single-Director Structure Seila Law Constitution

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  • Supreme Court to review TCPA debt collection exemption

    Courts

    On January 10, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it had granted a petition for a writ of certiorari filed by the U.S. government in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants Inc.—a Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) case concerning an exemption that allows debt collectors to use an autodialer to contact individuals on their cell phones without obtaining prior consent to do so when collecting debts guaranteed by the federal government. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the 4th Circuit agreed with the plaintiffs (a group of several political consultants) that the government-debt exemption contravenes the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause, and found that the challenged exemption was a content-based restriction on free speech that did not hold up to strict scrutiny review. “Under the debt-collection exemption, the relationship between the federal government and the debtor is only relevant to the subject matter of the call. In other words, the debt-collection exemption applies to a phone call made to the debtor because the call is about the debt, not because of any relationship between the federal government and the debtor,” the appellate court opined. However, the panel sided with the FCC to sever the debt collection exemption from the automated call ban instead of rendering the entire ban unconstitutional, as requested by the plaintiffs. “First and foremost, the explicit directives of the Supreme Court and Congress strongly support a severance of the debt-collection exemption from the automated call ban,” the panel stated. “Furthermore, the ban can operate effectively in the absence of the debt-collection exemption, which is clearly an outlier among the statutory exemptions.” The petitioners—Attorney General William Barr and the FCC—now ask the Court to review whether the government-debt exception to the TCPA’s automated-call restriction is a violation of the First Amendment. Oral arguments are set for April 22.

    Courts Appellate Fourth Circuit Debt Collection TCPA Constitution U.S. Supreme Court FCC DOJ Autodialer

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  • Briefs filed in Supreme Court CFPB constitutionality challenge

    Courts

    On December 9, parties filed briefs in Seila Law LLC v. CFPB. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the U.S. Supreme Court granted cert in Seila to answer the question of whether an independent agency led by a single director violates the Constitution’s separation of powers under Article II, while also directing the parties to brief and argue whether 12 U.S.C. §5491(c)(3), which sets up the CFPB’s single director structure and imposes removal for cause, is severable from the rest of the Dodd-Frank Act, should it be found to be unconstitutional. While both parties are in agreement on the CFPB’s single-director leadership structure, they differ on how the matter should be resolved.

    According to Seila Law’s brief, the CFPB’s single-director leadership structure is a blatant violation of the Constitution’s separation of powers clause. Seila Law proposes that the Court eliminate the CFPB entirely, leaving Congress to determine how to address the unconstitutionality of the Bureau, rather than save the law by making the director an at-will employee of the President. Removing the director at will, Seila Law argues, “would radically reshape the CFPB, creating a mutant version of the agency that Congress envisioned—one that would still be unaccountable to Congress, yet fully within presidential control.” Discussing the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s reliance in part on a 1935 Supreme Court decision in Humphrey’s Executor v. United States (which dealt with removal protections for members of a nonpartisan, multimember commission) in its May ruling which held that the Bureau’s single-director structure is constitutional (InfoBytes coverage here), Seila Law states that the Court’s ruling in Humphrey’s Executor was “badly reasoned, wrongly decided, and should be overruled,” and, in any event, is distinguishable when addressing the CFPB’s single-director leadership structure. Whether the Court distinguishes or overturns Humphrey’s Executor’s precedent, Seila Law argues, it should hold that the Bureau’s structure violates the separation of powers clause and reverse the 9th Circuit’s judgment.

    “By insulating the director of the CFPB from removal at will by the President while empowering him to exercise substantial executive power, Congress breached the President’s core prerogatives under Article II of the Constitution,” Seila Law further asserts, claiming that the appropriate remedy for the constitutional violation would be to deny the CFPB’s petition to enforce the CID and ultimately let Congress determine how to address the “constitutional defect in the CFPB’s structure.” Seila Law also argues that should the Court decide to engage in severability analysis, it should invalidate all of Title X of Dodd-Frank, which does not allow the current leadership structure to be altered to a multi-member commission.

    In contrast, though the CFPB concedes that Dodd-Frank’s restriction on the President’s ability to remove the Bureau’s director violates the “separation of powers” principles of the Constitution, it contends in its brief that, should the removal provision be found unconstitutional, it should be severed from the rest of the law in accordance with Dodd-Frank’s express severability clause. “Even considering only the Bureau-specific provisions contained in Title X . . . , there is no basis to conclude that Congress would have preferred to have no Bureau at all rather than a Bureau headed by a Director who would be removable like almost all other single-headed agencies,” the CFPB wrote. “Nothing in the statutory text or history of the Bureau’s creation suggests, much less clearly demonstrates, that Congress would have preferred, for example, that the regulatory authority vested in the Bureau revert back to the seven federal agencies that previously administered those responsibilities if a court were to invalidate the Director’s removal restriction.”

    Oral arguments are scheduled for March 3, 2020.

    Courts Federal Issues CFPB Single-Director Structure Constitution Seila Law Separation of Powers Dodd-Frank

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  • Supreme Court to decide CFPB constitutionality

    Courts

    On October 18, the U.S. Supreme Court granted cert in Seila Law LLC v. CFPB, to answer the question of whether an independent agency led by a single director violates the Constitution’s separation of powers under Article II. The Court also directed the parties to brief and argue whether 12 U.S.C. §5491(c)(3), which sets up the Bureau’s single director structure and imposes removal for cause, is severable from the rest of the Dodd-Frank Act, should it be found to be unconstitutional. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the law firm filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the Court, appealing 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 (ii) the district court did not err when it granted the Bureau’s petition to enforce the law firm’s compliance with a 2017 Civil Investigative Demand (previously covered by InfoBytes here). In response to the petition, the Bureau and the DOJ filed a brief 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. 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.”

    In response to the Court’s decision to grant cert, an online loan servicer that operated on tribal lands has withdrawn its appeal from the 9th Circuit challenging the Bureau’s structure pending the Court’s decision in Seila Law. In the original action, the district court found that an online loan servicer that operated on tribal lands engaged in deceptive practices by collecting on loans that exceeded the usury limits in various states, and ordered it and its affiliates to pay a $10 million penalty, far short of the Bureau’s request. (Previously covered by InfoBtyes here and here.)

    Courts CFPB Single-Director Structure Constitution Separation of Powers Federal Issues Dodd-Frank Seila Law

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