|Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau|
|Argued March 3, 2020|
Decided June 29, 2020
|Full case name||Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau|
|Citations||591 U.S. ___ (more)|
140 S. Ct. 2183
|Prior||Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. Seila Law LLC, 923 F.3d 680 (9th Cir. 2019), affirming Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. Seila Law LLC, No. 8:17-cv-01081-JLS-JEM, 2017 WL 6536586 (C.D. Cal. 2017)|
|The CFPB’s leadership by a single individual removable only for inefficiency, neglect, or malfeasance violates the separation of powers.|
|Majority||Roberts, joined by Alito, Kavanaugh; Thomas, Gorsuch (except Part IV)|
|Concur/dissent||Thomas, joined by Gorsuch|
|Concur/dissent||Kagan, joined by Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor|
|U.S. Const., Art. II, §2, cl. 2|
Seila Law LLC v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 591 U.S. ____ (2020) was a U.S. Supreme Court case which determined that the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), with a single director who could only be removed from office "for cause", violates the separation of powers. The Court's 5–4 decision, issued on June 29, 2020, recognized that the directorship position was severable from the statute that established the CFPB, allowing the CFPB to continue to operate.
The CFPB was envisioned by Elizabeth Warren while she was a law professor at Harvard Law School, it was brought into being through the 2010 Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
The CFPB was designed to protect consumers and promote regulations to prevent similar events such as the Great Recession that ran from 2007 to 2009. To be able to promote these regulations, it was determined that the agency needed to be independent, and thus it was established to have a single Director, selected by the President with confirmation by the Senate, appointed to a five-year term, and who could only be removed for "inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office", as set by . Since its establishing, the CFPB has actively gone after banks and other financial service providers that have determined to be "bad actors". Notably, the CFPB was a major player in the Wells Fargo account fraud scandal.
The CFPB was established under President Barack Obama and the Democratic-led Congress, and had been seen as a bane by the Republican Party as a sign of government overreach. In the years after it was established, the Republicans gained control of the Senate, and Donald Trump became president in 2017, putting the CFPB under scrutiny. Businesses that also shared this dismissive view of the CFPB began to file lawsuits to try to challenge the agency's legality.
These lawsuits focused on the for-cause termination statute around the CFPB's directorship position. For-cause removal of agency executives presents a prima facie challenge to the separation of powers, because it places a limit—imposed by Congress, a co-equal branch of government—on the President's Article II authority over executive branch officials. Accordingly, the constitutionality of the CFPB's organizational structure has been subject to extensive litigation. Most courts that have considered the question have found that for-cause removal of the CFPB Director is constitutional.
The Supreme Court has previously held that for-cause removal is constitutional in Humphrey's Executor v. United States (Humphrey's Executor) and Morrison v. Olson (Morrison), at least where the agency in question exercises "quasi-legislative" or "quasi-judicial" functions. However, the Court reached the opposite conclusion in Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, a case in which officers of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board had two levels of protection against presidential removal.
Facts and procedural history
Seila Law LLC (Seila Law), a law firm that provided debt relief services, was under investigation by the CFPB. As part of its investigation, the CFPB issued a civil investigative demand (CID) to Seila Law, which required Seila Law to produce certain documents. Seila Law declined to comply with the CID and challenged the constitutionality of the CFPB. The CFPB brought a motion to enforce the CID to the United States District Court for the Central District of California, where District Judge Josephine Staton granted the motion after finding the CFPB was constitutionally structured.
Seila Law's appeal to the Ninth Circuit was dismissed. The 9th Circuit panel affirmed the District Court's ruling, and agreed that the Supreme Court's prior decisions upholding for-cause removal in Humphrey's Executor and Morrison were "controlling." It also referred approvingly to the en banc decision of the DC Circuit in PHH Corp. v. CFPB (2018), in which the Circuit found that the structure of the CFPB was constitutional.
There was arguably a circuit split on the question presented in Seila Law. While the Ninth Circuit and DC Circuit had held that the CFPB's structure is constitutional, the Fifth Circuit in Collins v. Mnuchin (2018) held that the structure of the Federal Housing Finance Agency—another agency whose director can be removed only for cause—violated the separation of powers.
The Court issued its decision on June 29, 2020. The 5–4 decision ruled that the CFPB structure, with a sole director that could only be terminated for cause, was unconstitutional as it violated the separation of powers, vacating the lower court judgement and remanding the case for review. The Court recognized that the statutes around the director of the CFPB was severable from the rest of the statute establishing the agency, and thus "The agency may therefore continue to operate, but its Director, in light of our decision, must be removable by the President at will."
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh. Roberts wrote that the CFPB structure with a single point of leadership that could only be removed for cause "has no foothold in history or tradition", and has only been used in four other instances: three current uses for the United States Office of Special Counsel, the Social Security Administration, and the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and temporarily for one year during the American Civil War for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Roberts wrote that the three current uses "are modern and contested. And they do not involve regulatory or enforcement authority comparable to that exercised by the CFPB." Roberts also wrote that the CFPB structure "is also incompatible with the structure of the Constitution, which — with the sole exception of the Presidency — scrupulously avoids concentrating power in the hands of any single individual." Roberts referred back to the precedent established by Humphrey's Executor and Morrison as a basis for the majority's decision.
Thomas wrote a partial concurrence joined by Gorsuch, adding that he believed that Humphrey's Executor should be overturned and all "for cause" terminations positions should be considered unconstitutional. Thomas also wrote that he believed there was no need to resolve the severability matter for the specific case at hand.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissent joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor. Kagan wrote that "Today's decision wipes out a feature of that agency its creators thought fundamental to its mission — a measure of independence from political pressure." Kagan challenged the separation of powers argument presented by the majority: "Nowhere does the text [of the Constitution] say anything about the President's power to remove subordinate officials at will." The dissenting Justices did concur on the matter of severability of the remaining structure of the CFPB outside of the director.
An alert published by Holland & Knight noted that the litigation posture of Seila Law is unusual, as the CFPB has declined to defend the constitutionality of its own structure before the Supreme Court.
Thomas A. Barnico, a professor at Boston College Law School, noted that the case raised federalism issues. In particular, he suggested that the CFPB's power to pre-empt state legislation presents special concerns regarding accountability for its leadership.
Subsequent to the Seila Law decision, the Supreme Court certified the petition to the Fifth Circuit decision on Collins v. Mnuchin related to the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) that had been established with the same single-administrator position, dismissable only for cause, as the CFPB. In June 2021, the Supreme Court affirmed the Fifth Circuit's decision in light of Seila Law that the FHFA directorship position's termination allowance was unconstitutional but otherwise left the FHFA in place.
- Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. Seila Law LLC, 923 F.3d 680 (9th Cir. May 6, 2019). [Seila Law CA]
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- Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. Seila Law LLC, ___ F__ ___ (United States District Court for the Central District of California August 25, 2017).
- Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. Seila Law LLC, 923 F.3d 680 (9th Cir. May 6, 2019).
- PHH Corp. v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 881 F.3d 75 (D.C. Cir. January 31, 2018).
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- Adler, Jonathan (June 29, 2020). "With Chief in Charge, SCOTUS Strikes Down Louisiana Abortion Law and Eliminates CFPB Independence". Reason. Archived from the original on June 29, 2020. Retrieved June 29, 2020.
- DiResta, Anthony E.; Haller, David L. (March 20, 2020). "Supreme Court Wrestles with Constitutional Challenge to the CFPB". Holland & Knight. Archived from the original on June 21, 2020.
- Barnico, Thomas E. (April 13, 2020). "Seila Law LLC v. CFPB: "Humphrey's Pre-emptor"?". Notice & Comment (Yale Journal on Regulation). Archived from the original on April 23, 2020. Retrieved June 20, 2020.
- Brief for the Respondents Archived 2020-07-22 at the Wayback Machine, Seila Law v. CFPB, p. 7.
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