On March 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld a 2016 FDIC cease and desist order against a California bank arising out of alleged deficiencies in compliance management relating to the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) and anti-money laundering laws. According to the opinion, FDIC examinations dating back to 2010 identified areas for BSA compliance improvement. While the bank made adjustments in response to the original findings, a 2012 FDIC examination found the bank’s BSA compliance program still was deficient, including because it did not “establish and maintain procedures designed to ensure adequate internal controls, independent testing, administration, and training”—known as the “four pillars”—and because the bank had not filed a necessary suspicious activity report. The bank argued that the BSA compliance standards were too vague, accused FDIC examiners of bias during the examination in a manner that violated its due process rights, and alleged that the decision was not supported by substantial evidence.
The three-judge panel ruled that (i) there was no bias in the FDIC’s decision to assess a penalty against the bank because there was substantial evidence to support an administrative law judge’s findings that the bank’s failure to maintain adequate controls violated BSA regulations; and (ii) because the BSA and FDIC’s implementing regulations are “economic in nature and threaten no constitutionally protected rights,” vagueness is not an overriding concern. While the “four pillars” of BSA compliance are open to interpretation, the panel noted, the FDIC provides banks with a manual written by the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council that sets forth a uniform compliance standard. Furthermore, FDIC Financial Institution Letter 17-2010 clarifies that the manual contains the FDIC’s BSA compliance supervisory expectations. “A BSA Officer at the Bank bearing the requisite ‘specialized knowledge’ would understand that compliance with the FFIEC Manual ensures compliance with the BSA. . . . The BSA and its implementing regulations are not unconstitutionally vague,” the panel stated. Therefore, the 9th Circuit held that the manual was entitled to Chevron deference and denied the bank’s petition for review.