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On September 19, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied a motion for summary judgment from the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies arguing that the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s disparate-impact rule conflicts with the limits of the Fair Housing Act as interpreted at the Supreme Court. The rule, promulgated in 2013 and reinstated under the Biden administration, a policy is unlawful if it has a “discriminatory effect” on a protected class and was not necessary to achieve a “substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory” interest or if there is a less discriminatory alternative. Judge Richard J. Leon held that the rule does not exceed limitations on disparate-impact liability under the FHA placed by the Supreme Court in Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., 576 U.S. 519 (2015) where those limitations avoid potential constitutional issues and prevent the Act from forcing housing authorities to reorder their legitimate priorities.
SEC files brief in its Supreme Court appeal to reverse 5th Circuit ruling against use of adjudication powers and ALJs
On August 28, the SEC filed a brief in its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit’s 2022 ruling that the commission’s in-house adjudication is unconstitutional. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the 5th 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 brief argues that securities laws are “distinct from common law because they authorize the government to seek civil penalties even if no private person has yet suffered harm from the defendant’s violation (and therefore no person could obtain damages).” Moreover, the SEC argues that the Court has continually upheld the right of an agency to decide whether to enter an enforcement action through the civil or criminal process. The SEC referenced the 1985 Heckler v. Chaney case, which set the precedent that there is no constitutional difference between the power to decide whether to pursue an enforcement action and where to pursue an enforcement action, as they are both executive powers, supporting the claim that there is “a long and unbroken line of decisions that have relied on the public-rights doctrine in upholding such statutory schemes against Article III and Seventh Amendment challenges.” The SEC also reminded the Court that when it enforces securities laws through an administrative enforcement proceeding with a result that is not in favor of the respondent, the respondent may obtain a judicial review through the court of appeals. Finally, the commission contends that the 5th Circuit erred when it held that statutory removal restrictions for ALJs are unconstitutional, and that Congress has “acted permissibly in requiring agencies to establish cause for their removal of ALJs.”
On August 15, the USDA filed a brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decision to reverse its FCRA lawsuit brought by a plaintiff who alleged that the consumer credit reporting agency reported two loans as past due even though he claimed both were closed with a $0 balance. In August 2022, the 3rd Circuit reversed a district court’s decision to grant a student loan servicer, consumer credit reporting agency, and the USDA’s (defendants) motion to dismiss a case finding that Congress unambiguously waived the government’s sovereign immunity in enacting FCRA (covered by InfoBytes here). The USDA argues that the district court was wrong in its decision, and that the FCRA does not waive the U.S.’s sovereign immunity for claims under 15 U.S.C. 1681n and 1681o because, among other things, (i) a waiver of sovereign immunity requires “unmistakably clear” statutory language; (ii) the FCRA does not create a cause of action that “‘expressly authorizes suits against sovereigns,’ and ‘recognizing immunity’ would ‘negate’ that express authorization”; (iii) the FCRA uses “persons” in a way that does not distinguish between sovereign and non-sovereign senses; (iv) “inexplicable incongruencies” with the term “person” within the context of §§ 1681n and 1681o includes a sovereign entity, which would not only expose the federal government but also individual states to potential lawsuits seeking monetary damages; and (v) interpreting the FCRA to permit lawsuits against the U.S. would significantly broaden the scope of liability for federal agencies, creating “overlap” already provided by the Privacy Act.
On July 10, the West Virginia attorney general, along with 26 other states, filed an amicus brief in support of respondents in Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. Community Financial Services Association of America, arguing that the CFPB’s funding structure violates the Constitution and that by operating outside the ordinary appropriations process states are often left “out in the cold.” In their brief, the states urged the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit’s decision in which it found that the Bureau’s “perpetual self-directed, double-insulated funding structure” violated the Constitution’s Appropriations Clause (covered by InfoBytes here and a firm article here). The 5th Circuit’s decision also vacated the agency’s Payday Lending Rule on the premise that it was promulgated at a time when the Bureau was receiving unconstitutional funding.
Arguing that the Bureau is operating beyond the boundaries established by the Constitution, the states maintained that the current funding mechanism limits Congress’s ability to oversee the agency. “Even if the CFPB has done some good—and some would even dispute that premise—it wouldn't matter,” the states said, warning that “sidelining Congress can greenlight an agency to wreak havoc,” especially if the “agency wields broad regulatory and enforcement powers over the entire U.S. financial system, acts under the control of a single powerful figure, and lacks other protections from meaningful oversight.”
The appropriations process plays a crucial role in enabling states to influence agency actions indirectly, the states maintained, explaining that when an agency initiates a new enforcement initiative or significant rulemaking endeavor, it is required to publicly outline its projected work in order to secure the necessary funding to carry it out. “Disclosure on the front end of the appropriations process can empower affected parties—including the [s]tates—to take quick, responsive actions beyond lobbying their representatives (up to suing to stop illegal action, if need be).” In contrast, the Bureau’s insulation from this process has allowed it to hide its actions from public view, the states wrote. As an example, the Bureau has repeatedly declined to interpret or provide further clarity on how the provisions governing unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices work.
The brief also highlighted examples of when Congress used funding cuts through the appropriations process to curtail agencies’ powers. Additionally, unlike the challenges of amending authorizing statutes, appropriations bills must be passed by Congress each year to avoid a government shutdown, which can be “a painful pill to swallow for the sake of standing up for an agency’s policy choice,” the states noted, adding that “[b]ecause appropriations involves both oversight committees and appropriations committees, agencies may have ‘less flexibility to ally themselves with executive branch officials or interest groups.’”
The states also urged the Court to “ignore doomsaying” about the consequences of finding the funding structure unconstitutional. Should the Court agree to invalidate the funding structure, Congress can pass a proper appropriations bill for the Bureau, the states explained, adding that “a rebuke from this Court would no doubt grease the sticky wheels of the legislative process and move them a bit faster.” Moreover, states could also fill any gaps should Congress somehow pare back the CFPB’s funding, the brief stressed.
Several amicus briefs were also filed this week in support of CFSA, including an amici curiae brief filed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and several banking associations and an amici curiae brief filed by 132 members of Congress, including 99 representatives and 33 senators, which urged the Court to uphold the 5th Circuit’s decision.
On July 3, the Community Financial Services Association of America (CFSA) and the Consumer Service Alliance of Texas filed their brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, urging the high court that the CFPB’s independent funding structure is “unprecedented and must be stopped before it spreads without limit.” Respondents asked the Court to affirm the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Community Financial Services Association of America v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where the appellate court found that the Bureau’s “perpetual self-directed, double-insulated funding structure” violated the Constitution’s Appropriations Clause (covered by InfoBytes here and a firm article here). The 5th Circuit’s decision also vacated the agency’s Payday Lending Rule on the premise that it was promulgated at a time when the Bureau was receiving unconstitutional funding.
The Bureau expanded on why it believes the 5th Circuit erred in its holding in its opening brief filed with the Court in May (covered by InfoBytes here), and explained that even if there were some constitutional flaw in the statute creating the agency’s funding mechanism, the 5th Circuit should have looked for some cure to allow the remainder of the funding mechanism to stand independently instead of presuming the funding mechanism created under Section 5497(a)-(c) was entirely invalid. Vacatur of the agency’s past actions was not an appropriate remedy and is inconsistent with historical practice, the Bureau stressed.
In their brief, the respondents challenged the Bureau’s arguments, writing that the “unconstitutionality of the CFPB’s funding scheme is confirmed by both its unprecedented nature and lack of any limiting principle. Whether viewed with an eye toward the past or the future, the threat to separated powers and individual liberty is easy to see.” Disagreeing with the Bureau’s position that the Constitution gives Congress wide discretion to exempt agencies from annual appropriations and that independent funding is not uncommon for a financial regulator, the respondents stated that Congress gave up its appropriations power to the Bureau “without any temporal limit.” The respondents further took the position that the Bureau “can continue to set its own funding ‘forever’” unless both chambers agree and can persuade or override the president. Moreover, because the Federal Reserve Board is required to transfer “the amount determined by the Director to be reasonably necessary to carry out the [CFPB’s] authorities, . . . it ‘foreclose[s] the application of any meaningful judicial standard of review.’”
The respondents also argued that the Bureau’s funding structure is clearly distinguishable from other assessment-funded agencies in that these financial regulators are held to “some level of political accountability” since “they must consider the risk of losing funding if entities exit their regulatory sphere due to imprudent regulation.” Additionally, the respondents claimed that the fundamental flaws in the funding statute cannot be severed, reasoning, among other things, that courts “cannot ‘re-write Congress’s work’” and are not able to replace the Bureau’s self-funding discretion with either a specific sum or assessments from regulated parties.
With respect to the vacatur of the Payday Lending Rule and the potential for unintended consequences, the respondents urged the Court to affirm the 5th Circuit’s rejection of the rule, claiming it was unlawfully promulgated since a valid appropriation was a necessary condition to its rulemaking. “Lacking any viable legal argument, the Bureau resorts to fear-mongering about ‘significant disruption’ if all ‘the CFPB’s past actions’ are vacated,” the respondents wrote, claiming the Bureau “grossly exaggerates the effects and implications of setting aside this Rule.” According to the respondents, the Bureau does not claim that any harm would result from setting aside the rule, especially since no one has “reasonably relied” on the rule as it has been stayed and never went into effect. As to other rules issued by the agency, the respondents countered that Congress could “legislatively ratify” some or all of the agency’s existing rules and that only “‘timely’ claims can lead to relief” in past adjudications. Additionally, the respondents noted that many of the Bureau’s rules were issued outside the six-year limitations period prescribed in 28 U.S.C. § 2401(a). This includes a substantial portion of its rules related to mortgage-related disclosure. Even for challenges filed within the time limit, courts can apply equitable defenses such as “laches” to deny retrospective relief and prevent disruption or inequity, the respondents said.
On June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 6-3 decision in Biden v. Nebraska, striking down the Department of Education’s (DOE) student loan debt relief program (announced in August and covered by InfoBytes here) that would have provided between $10,000 and $20,000 in debt cancellation to certain qualifying federal student loan borrowers making under $125,000 a year.
The Biden administration appealed an injunction entered by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit that temporarily prohibited the Secretary of Education from discharging any federal loans under the agency’s program. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) Arguing that the universal injunction was overbroad, the administration contended that the six states lack standing because the debt relief plan “does not require respondents to do anything, forbid them from doing anything, or harm them in any other way.” Moreover, the secretary was acting within the bounds of the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act of 2003 (HEROES Act) when he put together the debt relief plan, the administration claimed.
In considering whether the secretary has authority under the HEROES Act “to depart from the existing provisions of the Education Act and establish a student loan forgiveness program that will cancel about $430 billion in debt principal and affect nearly all borrowers,” the Court majority (opinion delivered by Chief Justice Roberts, in which Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett joined) held that at least one state, Missouri, had Article III standing to challenge the program because it would cost the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority (MOHELA), a nonprofit government corporation created by the state to participate in the student loan market, roughly $44 million a year in fees. “The harm to MOHELA in the performance of its public function is necessarily a direct injury to Missouri itself,” the Court wrote.
The Court also ruled in favor of the respondents on the merits, noting that the text of the HEROES Act does not authorize the secretary’s loan forgiveness plan. While the statute allows the Secretary to “waive or modify” existing statutory or regulatory provisions applicable to student financial assistance programs under the Education Act in connection with a war or other military operation or national emergency, it does not permit the Secretary to rewrite that statute, the Court explained, adding that the “modifications” challenged in this case create a “novel and fundamentally different loan forgiveness program.” As such, the Court concluded that “the HEROES Act provides no authorization for the [s]ecretary’s plan when examined using the ordinary tools of statutory interpretation—let alone ‘clear congressional authorization’ for such a program.”
In dissent, three of the justices argued that the majority’s overreach applies to standing as well as to the merits. The states have no personal stake in the loan forgiveness program, the justices argued, calling them “classic ideological plaintiffs.” While the HEROES Act bounds the secretary’s authority, “within that bounded area, Congress gave discretion to the [s]ecretary” by providing that he “could ‘waive or modify any statutory or regulatory provision’ applying to federal student-loan programs, including provisions relating to loan repayment and forgiveness. And in so doing, he could replace the old provisions with new ‘terms and conditions,”’ the justices wrote, adding that the secretary could provide whatever relief needed that he deemed most appropriate.
The Court also handed down a decision in Department of Education v. Brown, ruling that the Court lacks jurisdiction to address the merits of the case as the respondents lacked Article III standing because they failed to establish that any injury they may have suffered from not having their loans forgiven is fairly traceable to the program. Respondents in this case are individuals whose loans are ineligible for debt forgiveness under the plan. The respondents challenged whether the student debt relief program violated the Administrative Procedure Act’s notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures as they were not given the opportunity to provide feedback. (Covered by InfoBytes here.)
President Biden expressed his disappointment following the rulings, but announced new actions are forthcoming to provide debt relief to student borrowers. (See DOE fact sheet here.) The first is a rulemaking initiative “aimed at opening an alternative path to debt relief for as many working and middle-class borrowers as possible, using the Secretary’s authority under the Higher Education Act.” The administration also announced an income-driven repayment plan—the Saving on a Valuable Education (SAVE) plan—which will, among other things, cut borrowers’ monthly payments in half (from 10 to 5 percent of discretionary income) and forgive loan balances after 10 years of payments rather than 20 years for borrowers with original loan balances of $12,000 or less.
On May 8, petitioner CFPB filed its brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, criticizing the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Community Financial Services Association of America v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where the appellate court found that the Bureau’s “perpetual self-directed, double-insulated funding structure” violated the Constitution’s Appropriations Clause (covered by InfoBytes here and a firm article here). The 5th Circuit’s decision also vacated the agency’s Payday Lending Rule on the premise that it was promulgated at a time when the Bureau was receiving unconstitutional funding.
Earlier this year, the Bureau filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, which the Court granted (covered by InfoBytes here). The Bureau explained in its petition that the 5th Circuit’s decision would negatively impact its “critical work administering and enforcing consumer financial protection laws” and “threatens the validity of all past CFPB actions as well” as the decision vacates a past agency action based on the purported Appropriations Clause violation. Community Financial Services Association of America (CFSA) filed a conditional cross-petition, seeking review on other aspects of the 5th Circuit’s decision, including that the 5th Circuit’s decision does not warrant review because the appellate court correctly vacated the Payday Lending Rule, which, according to the respondents, has “multiple legal defects, including but not limited to the Appropriations Clause issue.” (Covered by InfoBytes here.)
In its opening brief, the Bureau expanded on why it believes the 5th Circuit erred in its holding. The Bureau argued that the text of the Appropriations Clause “does not limit Congress’ authority to determine the specificity, duration, and source of its appropriations.” The agency further explained that Congress has chosen similar funding mechanisms for many other financial regulatory agencies, including the FDIC, NCUA, FHFA, and the Farm Credit Administration (and agencies outside of the financial regulatory sector), where they are all funded in part through the collection of fees, assessments, and investments. The Bureau emphasized that the 5th Circuit and the CFSA failed “to grapple with the Appropriation Clause’s text, Congress’ historical practice, or [Supreme] Court precedent,” but instead asserted only that the funding mechanism was “unprecedented.” “Congress enacted a statute explicitly authorizing the CFPB to use a specified amount of funds from a specified source for specified purposes,” the Bureau emphasized. “The Appropriations Clause requires nothing more.” The 5th Circuit’s “novel and ill-defined limits on Congress’s appropriations authority contradict the Constitution’s text and congressional practice dating to the Founding.”
The Bureau also addressed the now-vacated Payday Lending Rule. Arguing that even if there were some constitutional flaw in 12 U.S.C. § 5497 (the statute creating the Bureau’s funding mechanism), the 5th Circuit should have looked for some cure to allow the remainder of the funding mechanism to stand independently instead of “adopting an unjustified and profoundly disruptive retrospective remedy” and presuming the funding mechanism created under Section 5497(a)-(c) was entirely invalid. The Bureau also stressed that vacatur of the agency’s past actions was not an appropriate remedy and is inconsistent with historical practice. Adopting a remedial approach, the Bureau warned, would inflict significant disruption by calling into question 12 years of past agency actions.
The Bureau urged the Court to at most grant only “prospective relief preventing the CFPB from enforcing the Payday Lending Rule against [CFSA] or their members until Congress provides the Bureau with funding from another source.” While such an approach could still “upend” the Bureau’s activities, “it would at least avoid the profoundly disruptive effect of unwinding already completed and concededly authorized agency actions like the Payday Lending Rule,” the Bureau wrote, adding that “[v]acatur of the CFPB’s past actions would be inappropriate in light of the significant disruption that such vacatur would produce.”
On April 13, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois denied a credit reporting agency’s (CRA) bid to stay litigation filed by the CFPB alleging deceptive practices related to the marketing and sale of credit scores, credit reports, and credit-monitoring products to consumers. The Bureau sued the CRA and one of its former senior executives last April (covered by InfoBytes here), claiming the defendants allegedly violated a 2017 consent order by continuing to engage in “digital dark patterns” that caused consumers seeking free credit scores to unknowingly sign up for a credit monitoring service with recurring monthly charges.
The CRA requested a stay while the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether the Bureau’s funding mechanism is unconstitutional. Earlier this year, the Court agreed to review next term the 5th Circuit’s decision in Community Financial Services Association of America v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where it found that the CFPB’s “perpetual self-directed, double-insulated funding structure” violated the Constitution’s Appropriations Clause. (Covered by InfoBytes here and a firm article here.) While acknowledging that a ruling against the Bureau may result in the dismissal of the action against the CRA, the court concurred with the Bureau that consumers may be exposed to harm during a stay. “Were I to grant the requested stay, it could last more than one year, depending on when the Supreme Court issues its opinion,” the court wrote. “In that time, if the Bureau’s allegations bear out, consumers will continue to suffer harm because of defendants’ unlawful conduct. That potential cost is too great to outweigh the resource preserving benefits a stay would confer.”
On April 5, the CFPB filed a complaint against two individuals, both individually and in their roles as co-trustees of two trusts, accusing them of concealing assets to avoid paying a fine owed to the Bureau. In 2015 the Bureau filed an administrative action alleging one of the co-trustees—the former president of a Delaware-based online payday lender (the “individual defendant”)—and the lender violated TILA and EFTA and engaged in unfair or deceptive acts or practices when making short-term loans. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The Bureau’s administrative order required the payment of more than $38 million in both legal and equitable restitution, along with $7.5 million in civil penalties for the company and $5 million in civil penalties for the individual defendant.
As previously covered by InfoBytes, two different administrative law judges (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 the individual defendant to pay the restitution. A district court issued a final order upholding the award, which was appealed on the grounds that the enforcement action violated their due process rights by denying the individual defendant additional discovery concerning the statute of limitations. The lender and the individual defendant recently filed a petition for writ of certiorari challenging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit’s affirmation of the CFPB administrative ruling, and asked the U.S. Supreme Court to 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 ALJ could “conduct a cold review of the paper record of the first, tainted hearing, without any additional discovery or new testimony,” or whether the Court intended for the agency to actually conduct a new hearing.
The Bureau claimed in its announcement that to date, the defendants have not complied with the agency’s order, nor have they obtained a stay while their appeal was pending. The defendants have also made no payments to satisfy the judgment, the Bureau said. The complaint alleges that the co-trustee defendants transferred funds to hinder, delay, or defraud the Bureau, in violation of the FDCPA, in order to avoid paying the owed restitution and penalties. Specifically, the complaint alleges that between 2013 and 2015, after becoming aware of the Bureau’s investigation, the individual defendant transferred $12.3 million to his wife through their revocable trusts, for which his wife is the beneficiary. The complaint requests a declaration that the transactions were fraudulent, seeks to recover the value of the transferred assets via liens on the property in partial satisfaction of the Bureau’s judgment against the individual defendant, and seeks a monetary judgment against the wife and her trust for the value of the respective property and/or funds received as a transferee of fraudulent conveyances of the property belonging to the individual defendant.
On March 31, plaintiffs CFPB and the New York Attorney General moved the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York to lift its stay order in their litigation against a remittance provider in response to a recent U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decision upholding the CFPB’s funding structure under the Constitution’s Appropriations Clause. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) The plaintiffs argued that the 2nd Circuit’s binding opinion has now “answer[ed] the question at the heart of this Court’s stay order: whether the Bureau’s statutory funding mechanism violates the Constitution.”
As previously covered by InfoBytes, the district court had originally paused the proceedings at the defendant’s request when the Supreme Court was considering whether to hear an appeal in a different matter relating to the Bureau’s funding structure. The district court continued the stay after the Supreme Court agreed to review the 5th Circuit’s decision in Community Financial Services Association of America v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where it found that the CFPB’s “perpetual self-directed, double-insulated funding structure” violated the Constitution’s Appropriations Clause. The Supreme Court is scheduled to review the 5th Circuit’s decision next term (covered by InfoBytes here).
The agencies argued primarily that (i) the 2nd Circuit “expressly considered and rejected the Fifth Circuit’s contrary view in CFSA;” (ii) it “did so notwithstanding that the Supreme Court will consider the same issue next Term”; and (iii) “[g]rants of certiorari do not change the law, and a district court remains bound by circuit precedent until the Supreme Court or the court of appeals changes that precedent.”
On April 7, the court issued an order denying the Bureau's request and electing to keep the stay in place while the Supreme Court resolves the circuit split on this issue.