Characterizing Director Richard Cordray of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as the “single most powerful official in the entire U.S. Government, other than the President,” a federal appeals court ruled yesterday in the case of PHH Corporation v. CFPB, that the CFPB’s organizational structure and authority to impose fines violates the due process provisions of the U.S. Constitution. The surprising 101-page ruling called into question the Director’s authority to impose certain fines and the agency’s authority to enact rules and regulations, although future appeals are likely. The agency, the pet project of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, has long been criticized by the banking industry and congressional Republicans as wielding too much power.
PHH, a mortgage lender, made national headlines when it challenged Director Cordray’s decision to tack on a $103 million increase to a $6 million fine initially levied against PHH for allegedly illegally referring consumers to mortgage insurers in exchange for kickbacks in violation of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act. The case was one of the first times that a company fought back against the CFPB, the governmental agency championed by Elizabeth Warren and congressional liberals after the Bush era financial crisis and the Dodd-Frank Act.
In a unanimous decision, a three judge panel of the federal appeals court governing Washington D.C. ruled that the CFPB’s current structure allows the director to wield far too much power, more than any other agency in the entire U.S government. “Because the Director alone heads the agency without Presidential supervision, and in light of the CFPB’s broad authority over the U.S. economy, the Director enjoys significantly more unilateral power than any single member of any other independent agency,” the judges reasoned.
The fallout remains unclear, but certainly this ruling gives opponents of the CFPB heavy ammunition to challenge the agency on its decisions and rule-making authority. The Mortgage Bankers Association welcomed the decision and the clarification the decision presents for RESPA. “MBA is gratified that the court has issued an extremely thoughtful opinion. It addresses all of the key issues raised by the PHH case, including the proper interpretation of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act, the need for due process including reasonable statutes of limitations and the very constitutionality of the CFPB itself,” MBA President and CEO David Stevens said.
The National Association of Realtors also welcomed the decision’s clarity surrounding marketing service agreements, which are clearly a target of the CFPB. “Today’s decision offers much-needed clarity on the legality of marketing service agreements, and makes clear that MSAs are compliant with RESPA provided that payment for goods and services actually furnished or performed are made at fair market,” said NAR President Tom Salomone. “We’re hopeful this will address any uncertainty moving forward and offer a clear road ahead for any of our members who have entered into MSAs with settlement service providers,” Salomone continued. “We will continue to monitor this case and the further appeals that are likely, and continue to communicate to Realtors on what this means for them and their business.”
I have been a vocal critic of the CFPB’s massive revision to the closing and settlement disclosure statements which went into effect last year. While there is no indication that the new Closing Disclosure and Loan Estimate will go away, this ruling will hopefully make the agency think twice about going over the top with future rules and regulations.