D.C. Circuit Holds CFPB Structure Unconstitutional, Interpretation of RESPA Not Entitled to Deference

Ballard Spahr LLP

The D.C. Circuit yesterday issued its long-awaited decision in PHH Corporation v. CFPB. In reversing the decision of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) Director Cordray to impose an enhanced penalty of $109 million on PHH for its use of a captive (wholly-owned) mortgage reinsurer, the court made several landmark rulings.

First, it held that the CFPB's single-director-removable-only-for-cause structure is unconstitutional. The court held that it was a violation of Article II for the CFPB to lack the "critical check" of presidential control or the "substitute check" of a multi-member governance structure necessary to protect individual liberty against "arbitrary decisionmaking and abuse of power." The court remedied this constitutional defect by severing the removal-only-for-cause provision from the Dodd-Frank Act. Under the ruling, Director Cordray now serves at the will of the President and is subject to supervision and management by the President. In a footnote, the court acknowledged that this may create some fallout in other cases, but left it for other courts to address.

It also rejected the CFPB's argument that statutes of limitations do not apply to its administrative enforcement actions. The court's holding was straightforward: If Congress had intended to alter the standard statute of limitations scheme, it would have said so. "[W]e would expect Congress to actually say that there is no statute of limitations for CFPB administrative actions . . . But the text of Dodd-Frank says no such thing."

In addition, the court held that the plain language of RESPA permits captive mortgage re-insurance arrangements like the one at issue in the PHH case, if the mortgage re-insurers are paid no more than the reasonable value of the services they provide. This is consistent with HUD's prior interpretation. For the first time in 2015, in prosecuting the case against PHH, the CFPB announced a new interpretation of RESPA under which captive mortgage reinsurance arrangements were prohibited. The court rejected this on the ground that the statute unambiguously allows the kinds of payments that the CFPB's 2015 interpretation prohibited. We have blogged about the CFPB's erroneous interpretation of the RESPA provisions at issue in this case.

Finally, the court further admonished the CFPB by alternatively holding that—even assuming that the CFPB's interpretation was permitted under any reading of RESPA—the CFPB's attempt to retroactively apply its 2015 interpretation, which departed from HUD's prior interpretation, violated due process. It held that "the CFPB violated due process by retroactively applying that new interpretation to PHH's conduct that occurred before the date of the CFPB's new interpretation."

Notably, the court explicitly declined to address the CFPB's claim that each mortgage insurance payment made in violation of RESPA triggers a new three-year statute of limitations for that payment. The CFPB's view on this point was one basis that allowed it to dramatically increase the penalties it sought from PHH. The court's decision not to address this point in its opinion makes it likely that this will not be the last circuit court opinion required to resolve the case.

The opinion of the court also did not address one aspect of the CFPB Director's prior decision that disgorgement of the entire amount of the premiums was required, without an offset for the claims paid, which had also added considerably to the penalty amount. The court states in footnote 24 that if a mortgage insurer paid more than reasonable market value for reinsurance, the disgorgement remedy is the amount that was paid above reasonable market value. The court did not expressly address the Director's approach of ignoring the claims paid. The concurring/dissenting opinion by Judge Henderson does address this point, however, indicating that disgorgement must be reduced by the claims paid.

Because the opinion did not dismantle the CFPB, the court remanded the case to the CFPB for consideration of whether PHH violated RESPA as interpreted by HUD.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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