Ever since the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in 2011, it has become what some argue is the most powerful federal agency in history. The Dodd-Frank Act not only established the CFPB, but transferred to it rulemaking authority previously held by seven different federal agencies, resulting in a significant concentration of power and giving the agency authority over nearly every type of financial product and service in the financial marketplace. Yesterday, that power was curtailed – to some extent – by the federal Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
In its opinion, the Court of Appeals noted that the Director of the CFPB, Richard Cordray, possesses more unilateral authority than any single commissioner or board member in any other independent agency in the U.S. government. The director alone decides what rules to issue, how to enforce those rules, when to enforce, against whom to enforce, and what sanctions and penalties to impose. Additionally, Dodd-Frank provided that the director can be removed only "for cause." As a result, the director has an enormous amount of influence over American business, American consumers, and the overall U.S. economy, yet is accountable to no one – neither Congress nor the president.
The challenge the court considered was brought by PHH Corporation, a mortgage lender that argued the single-director model was unconstitutional and sought a shut-down of the entire agency. The court opted, however, for a more narrow approach, striking the phrase "for cause" from the Dodd-Frank provision concerning the grounds for removal of the agency's director. Thus, the director can now be removed by the president at will; a solution, the court reasoned, that will provide the critical check on the agency which was previously lacking.
The court also made another important finding in its decision, related to whether CFPB administrative actions are limited by statutes of limitations. The agency has repeatedly argued in the past that its administrative enforcement actions are not subject to statutes of limitations, meaning that it could theoretically bring an administrative action based on conduct occurring at any time in the past. However, the court rejected this argument and held that CFPB enforcement actions, whether brought as administrative actions or in court, are subject to the applicable statutes of limitations found within the underlying consumer protection laws the agency enforces.
It is unclear whether this decision will prompt other, more material changes in the agency's structural organization and regulatory approach. Although the director may now be removed at will, he still holds all the same rulemaking and enforcement power as before. For example, the CFPB administrative appeals process is still heavily weighted in the agency's favor, as each action brought by the director initially must then be appealed to him before becoming eligible for judicial review.
Though the agency will not be going away in the near future, this change does provide some ability to manage the director's extraordinary power, at least in the short term. An appeal to either the full D.C. Court of Appeals or to the U.S. Supreme Court is expected, which could (if the case is reversed) return the CFPB back to its status quo, with virtually unlimited power and influence.