On February 23, a U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a Memorandum Opinion denying a request for injunctive relief sought by a group of payday lenders to stop “Operation Choke Point” – a DOJ initiative targeting fraud by investigating US banks and the business they do with companies believed to be a higher risk for fraud and money laundering including, but not limited to, payday lenders. Payday lenders have called the initiative a coordinated effort by federal regulators to stop banks from doing business with them, thereby threatening their survival. See Advance America v. FDIC, [Memorandum Opinion No. 134] No. 14-CV-00953-GK (D.D.C. Feb. 23, 2017). According to the lenders, the Fed, FDIC, and OCC have adopted DOJ guidance on bank reputation risk and then used that guidance to exert “backroom regulatory pressure seeking to coerce banks to terminate longstanding, mutually beneficial relationships with all payday lenders.” The government has rejected this characterization, asserting that banks can do business with payday lenders as long as the risks are managed properly.
Evaluating the request under the due process “stigma-plus rule,” the Court focused on whether the payday lenders could show they were likely to succeed on the merits of their case and whether or not they were likely to suffer irreparable harm without the injunction.
Ultimately, the payday lenders were unable to convince the Court that they were likely to suffer the harm central to a “stigma-plus” claim. The Court reasoned that (i) the closure of some bank accounts would not be enough to constitute the loss of banking services, and that the lenders needed (and failed) to show that the loss of banking services had effectively prevented them from offering payday loans; and (ii) nearly all of the lenders were still in operation; and (iii) because the lenders were still able to find banks to work with, evidence of the possibility of future loss of banking services was too speculative to support an injunction.
The Court was also not persuaded that the lenders would be able to prove that regulatory actions caused banks to deny services to petitioners. Specifically, the Court determined that the lenders were “unlikely” to be able to set forth evidence of the “campaign of backroom strong-arming” underlying petitioners’ request for injunctive relief. Specifically, the Court noted that the lenders relied on “scattered statements,” some of which the Court characterized as “anonymous double hearsay,” to support their claims. The only direct evidence, according to the Court, was actually just “evidence of a targeted enforcement action against a single scofflaw.”
Though the Court explained that the two other factors—the balance of equities and the public interest—were of less significance in this situation, it noted in closing that “enjoining an agency’s statutorily delegated enforcement authority is likely to harm the public interest, particularly where plaintiffs are unable to demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits.”