On May 24, the en banc U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit heard oral arguments in the matter of PHH Corp. v. CFPB. The parties and the Department of Justice generally presented their arguments as expected based on their briefs. However, questions from some members of the court indicated doubts about the conclusion by a panel of the court in October 2016 that the CFPB’s structure was unconstitutional. In particular, multiple members of the court repeatedly pressed PHH’s counsel on whether prior Supreme Court decisions upholding the constitutionality of the Federal Trade Commission and other independent agencies led by presidential appointees who could only be removed “for cause” prevented the D.C. Circuit from concluding that the president lacked sufficient authority over the CFPB’s Director.
Notably, however, in response to statements by PHH that current CFPB Director Richard Cordray could remain in his position after the expiration of his term in July 2018 until a successor was confirmed by the Senate, the CFPB’s counsel stated that, in the Bureau’s view, the “for cause” removal limitation no longer applied once the Director’s term expired, and the president could then remove the Director “at will.”
In contrast to the constitutional issue, the questioning on other aspects of the case was minimal and did not indicate that the en banc court was inclined to revisit the panel’s determination that the CFPB misinterpreted the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA) when applying it to PHH’s practices, violated due process by failing to give PHH proper notice of its interpretation, and improperly failed to apply RESPA’s statute of limitations in its administrative proceedings.
At the direction of the en banc court, the oral arguments in PHH followed those in Lucia v. SEC, a case addressing whether the SEC’s administrative law judges (ALJs) violate the appointments clause of the U.S. Constitution. Although this issue was not discussed during the PHH oral arguments, the CFPB originally brought its claims against PHH before an ALJ borrowed from the SEC and the court had previously suggested that a finding that the SEC ALJs were improperly appointed could also justify reversal of the CFPB’s decision against PHH. (See previous Special Alert here.)
A decision from the en banc court is not expected for months. Importantly, while questioning during oral argument is often used as a barometer of the potential outcome of a case, the questions asked by a judge do not necessarily indicate how that judge will vote on a particular issue. Judges often use oral argument to see how the parties and their colleagues will respond to hypotheticals, rather than to share their views of the case.