By Joe Patry
Most media reports and commentary discussing the recent D.C. Circuit opinion on the CFPB focused on the Constitutional issues involving how the Director of the CFPB is appointed and may be removed, but overlooked the decision’s potentially significant benefit to the financial services industry. The key impact on the financial services industry is the D.C. Circuit’s restriction on the extent of the CFPB’s ability to levy penalties and bring enforcement actions.
D.C. Circuit Decision
On October 11, 2016, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned an administrative decision by the CFPB, which previously imposed a $109 million fine against PHH Mortgage Corporation (“PHH”). The D.C. Circuit rejected the CFPB’s attempt to apply its changed interpretation of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (“RESPA”), 12 U.S.C. § 2601(b)(2), retroactively, and ruled that the CFPB erroneously ignored the expiration of the applicable statute of limitations to inappropriately inflate the amount of the imposed fine.
HUD’s Prior Interpretation of RESPA
Before the CFPB was created, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) was responsible for regulations interpreting Section 8(a) of RESPA. See PHH v. CFPB et al., No. 15-1177 at 14. This section of RESPA prohibits mortgage companies from giving kickbacks or other incentives to vendors. Id.
HUD issued guidance regarding mortgage reinsurance, which is used by mortgage insurance companies to reduce risk. Id. at 83. Under certain circumstances, mortgage companies were allowed to refer consumers to mortgage reinsurance companies that the mortgage lenders themselves owned. Id.
CFPB Switches Course
Contrary to HUD’s long-standing interpretation, the CFPB decided that RESPA prohibits these reinsurance practices. Id. Based on this changed interpretation of RESPA, the CFPB brought an administrative enforcement proceeding against PHH. Id. During the proceeding, the CFPB imposed a $109 million fine on PHH for reinsurance charges that were eventually passed on to borrowers. Id. PHH challenged the CFPB’s authority to enforce the fine in the court system. Id.
CFPB’s Arguments before the D.C. Circuit
Before the D.C. Circuit, the CFPB argued that the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank”) authorizes the CFPB to bring enforcement actions but that Dodd-Frank contains no explicit statute of limitations to govern actions brought under this power. Id. As a result, the CFPB asserted that it is not bound by RESPA’s three-year statute of limitations. Id. at 12. This is significant because PHH argued that the vast majority of the allegedly prohibited charges were barred by the expiration of the statute of limitations. Id. Additionally, the CFPB argued that it was authorized to apply its changed interpretation of RESPA retroactively. Id. at 83.
D.C. Circuit Rejects the CFPB’s Position
The D.C. Circuit soundly rejected both of the CFPB’s arguments. First, the D.C. Circuit found that Dodd-Frank and RESPA together restricted the CFPB to bring cases only within the statute of limitations. Id. at 93. Nothing in Dodd-Frank explicitly states that the CFPB is not bound by any applicable statutes of limitation; if Congress had intended this to be the law, it would have said so. Id. at 98 (stating that Congress does not “hide elephants in mouseholes”) (internal citations omitted). The D.C. Circuit further noted that the CFPB’s limitless interpretation of its authority was “absurd.” Id. at 99.
Second, the D.C. Circuit found that the CFPB’s attempt to retroactively apply its changed interpretation of RESPA is unconstitutional. The D.C. Circuit ruled: “When a government agency officially and expressly tells you that you are legally allowed to do something, but later tells you ‘just kidding’ and enforces the law retroactively against you and sanctions you for actions you took in reliance on the government’s assurances, that amounts to a serious due process violation. The rule of law constrains the governors as well as the governed.” Id. at 87. (emphasis in original).
The D.C. Circuit remanded the administrative enforcement proceeding back to the CFPB. Id. at 100. Because of this decision, the agency will not be able to rely on its retroactive interpretation of RESPA and must consider the applicable statute of limitations when assessing potential fines. Id.
Although this decision from a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit could be reversed by the entire D.C. Circuit or the United States Supreme Court, this decision is potentially a significant win for financial institutions. First, mortgage companies that referred consumers to mortgage reinsurance companies that the mortgage lenders themselves owned, or relied on other HUD interpretations of RESPA, can take comfort in knowing that the CFPB cannot retroactively apply its changed interpretation of RESPA. Second, the CFPB’s ability to bring enforcement actions is governed by the applicable statutes of limitation, so the ability to enforce is not timeless or limitless.
 All references to pagination is to how the pages are numbered in the opinion released on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia’s website on October 11, 2016.