The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (the “court”) has issued its long-awaited en banc decision in PHH v. CFPB. In a January 31, 2018 opinion, the court rejected the three-judge panel’s conclusion that the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) is unconstitutional. But the en banc court reinstated the panel’s decisions that the CFPB’s interpretation of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (“RESPA”) is unlawful and may not stand and that the CFPB is subject to a three-year statute of limitations even when bringing RESPA claims administratively.
As is well known, on October 11, 2016, a three-judge panel of the court had overturned a $109 million disgorgement order that the CFPB had imposed on PHH Corporation (“PHH”) for its involvement in an allegedly unlawful mortgage reinsurance arrangement. Pursuant to that arrangement, PHH did business with mortgage insurance companies that purchased reinsurance from a wholly-owned subsidiary of PHH. The court held, by a 2-1 vote, that the CFPB’s single-director structure allowing the President to remove the Director during his/her five-year term only for cause violates the Constitution’s separation-of-powers principles. The court severed the for-cause limitation, thereby effectively allowing the President to remove the Director at will at any time.
The three-judge panel also unanimously rejected the CFPB’s interpretation of Section 8 of RESPA, concluding that, contrary to the CFPB’s determination, Section 8(c)(2) of the statute provides an actual exemption to the anti-kickback provision in Section 8(a). On February 16, 2017, the court granted the CFPB’s petition for rehearing en banc, vacating the panel decision and setting up review by the full D.C. Circuit. Nearly a year later, the court ruled on these matters.
In a 7-3 majority ruling, the court held that the CFPB is not unconstitutionally structured and that the for-cause limitation on the President’s removal authority is a permissible exercise of congressional authority. This part of the decision, however, seems less momentous in the wake of former CFPB Director Richard Cordray’s resignation in November 2017 and President Trump’s appointment of Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney as the CFPB’s Acting Director.
Of more immediate significance to the settlement service industry is the court’s decision to reinstate the three-judge panel decision respecting RESPA. The panel had found that Section 8(c)(2) was indeed an exemption to the Act’s Section 8(a) anti-kickback provisions, provided that reasonable payments are made in return for services actually performed or goods actually furnished. As a result of the court’s reinstatement, real estate brokers, lenders and title companies that were waiting on the sidelines for this decision may take another look at advertising agreements, desk rentals, and other services agreements.
The panel opinion also had rejected the CFPB’s contention that no statute of limitations applies to administrative enforcement of RESPA. That aspect of the reinstated opinion is likely to be helpful to respondents facing administrative claims under other federal consumer financial laws as well.
Finally, despite the 7-3 ruling on the constitutional issues and differences of opinion regarding the proper interpretation of RESPA, one thing all of the judges seem to agree on is that an agency cannot seek penalties for past conduct that violates a novel legal interpretation first advanced in an enforcement case. That is, “regulation by enforcement” is permissible as a way to announce new legal principles, but, for due process reasons, it cannot be a basis to penalize past conduct.
It remains to be seen if PHH will seek Supreme Court review of the constitutional holding or will instead try its luck on remand in front of the Mulvaney-led CFPB.