Family Fishermen Challenge Illegal, Industry-Killing At-Sea Monitoring Rule from Department of Commerce

Arlington, VA (Feb. 19, 2020) – Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) today filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of New Jersey family fishermen to block a new regulation that would force them to pay for third-party “at-sea monitors.”  The industry-killing rule—which was designed by the New England Fishery Management Council and promulgated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Department of Commerce—will require certain boats in the Atlantic herring fishery to carry “at-sea monitors” and at their own cost. Learn More

Supreme Court Signals Nondelegation Doctrine Has Life

This week, the Supreme Court indicated that it may be on the verge of, for the first time in eight decades, applying the nondelegation doctrine and requiring Congress, not government bureaucrats, to make law.  This critical development could result in significant advancement of economic freedom, political accountability, and the liberty of individual citizens.

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CoA Institute Case Study on the CFPB’s Arbitration Rule: How the Bureau Evaded Scientific Guidelines and Bypassed Peer Review—And How to Fix It

 

Executive Summary

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB” or “Bureau”) is an agency unlike most any other in the history of the United States.  It possesses untold power over the American people and businesses, and the heft of this power is in a single agency director accountable to no one.  As Judge Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held in a since-vacated decision, “the Director enjoys more unilateral authority than any other officer in any of the three branches of the U.S. Government, other than the President.”[1]

In the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, Congress delegated to the CFPB the power to regulate, if necessary, mandatory-binding arbitration clauses in consumer financial contracts.  This power came with an important caveat: the CFPB must first conduct a study on the effect arbitration clauses have on consumers, and any regulation promulgated by the agency must be based on that study.  Yet the CFPB already had the goal in mind to regulate and ban these arbitration clauses, driven largely by internal bias and promoted by third-party interests.  Instead of conducting an objective study backed by peer review, the agency sought a pre-determined result, abusing junk science and methodology to get there.  In doing so, it ignored the requirements of the Information Quality Act (“IQA”) and the ensuing Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”) bulletin requiring agency peer review.  This paper examines the failings of the arbitration study and offers solutions to the potential new agency head to ensure future policy is informed by sound science.

Recommendations

The best way to curtail the CFPB’s abuse of junk science is to force the agency to follow the standards contained within the IQA and the OMB peer review bulletin.  If the CFPB were to strictly adhere to the IQA’s standards of data quality—objectivity, integrity, and utility—and conduct rigorous, academic peer review, outcomes like the one detailed in this paper would be avoided.

Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) recommends that the new CFPB Director, once confirmed, immediately institute rulemaking actions to codify these already-mandatory requirements of the IQA and peer review.  This should apply to all studies or scientific findings released by the agency, whether they undergird a rule or not.[2]  Although the Director could just order agency personnel to follow these directives through a memorandum, that would only be a temporary solution.  Rulemaking under the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”) would ensure that these science-based requirements have more permanence and apply regardless of who is running the agency five years from now.[3]  Furthermore, the new Director should require, whether through rulemaking or otherwise, that all published scientific findings be accompanied by full disclosure of outside datasets, sources, and lobbying.

Eric Bolinder is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute

[1] PHH Corp. v. Consumer Fin. Prot. Bureau, 839 F.3d 1, 7 (D.C. Cir. 2016), vacated on reh’g en banc, 881 F.3d 75 (D.C. Cir. 2018); see Consumer Fin. Prot. Bureau v. RD Legal Funding, LLC, No. 17-890, 2018 WL 3094916, at *35 (S.D.N.Y. June 21, 2018) (“Respectfully, the Court disagrees with the holding of the en banc court and instead adopts Sections I-IV of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s dissent[.]”).
[2] This, of course, would extend to any scientific findings that are part of a proposed rule.
[3] A future Director could institute rulemaking to reverse the requirements, but that is a cumbersome process subject to judicial review.

 

Federal Court Upholds Cigar Labeling Requirements — Why and What This Means

Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) has been active as an amicus curiae (friend of the court) in an ongoing federal lawsuit regarding cigars and other tobacco products.  Meaning, while we don’t represent any of the parties, we have been submitting briefs to help the Court reach its final decision. The Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) originally proposed a burdensome tobacco-safety regulation that would have effectively crippled the premium cigar market, putting countless American small businesses out on the street.  After the 2016 election, however, new FDA leadership delayed that rule with the intent to change it. This was a wonderful development for both cigar companies and hobbyists alike. However, the FDA kept pushing a scaled-back rule that would require large, intrusive warning labels on premium cigar products.  We submitted a brief opposing that rule.

CoA Institute did not take a position on the efficacy or utility of tobacco warning labels.  Our concern was, as it frequently is, that agencies must show their work when they enact a new regulation.  The governing statute here, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (“FTA”), required the FDA to show that any new regulations would be appropriate for the protection of the public health.  Plaintiffs, as well as CoA Institute, argued that the FDA had not done its work and, indeed, had conceded it had no real quantitative data or analysis for the efficacy of these new warning labels for cigar products.  Regulatory action for the sake of regulatory action is bad policy.

Unfortunately, the Judge disagreed, finding that the FDA had done its due diligence in determining that the warning labels would be effective.  He held that the FDA’s statements connecting the labels to public health, as well as their citation of certain data, such as the overall addictiveness of nicotine, was enough.  Furthermore, he found that the agency’s concession that it had no data available was merely an admission of the “agency’s inability to quantify the benefits of the Deeming Rule’s requirements prior to their implementation date.”  He held that a mere connection, quantifiable or not, between smoking prevention and the larger warning labels is enough.  He cited the agency’s prior work with other tobacco products, singling out cigarettes, as the foundation for the FDA’s contention that the new health warnings were appropriate and would affect cigar and pipe tobacco usage.

As any cigar aficionado knows, cigars and cigarettes are distinct products.  I regularly enjoy cigars, but I never touch cigarettes.  Why?  Because, in my opinion, the health risks are profoundly different for the two products.  More importantly, the addictive nature of the two is incomparable.  I regularly smoke cigars during the summer—which, for me, is 1-3 a week—and completely stop for the long winter months with no undesired effects or feelings of withdrawal.  That, to put it lightly, is not the usual experience with cigarettes.  Aficionados know: these are two different worlds.

Some might criticize me for relying on personal anecdotes to argue a federal regulation is unfounded.  I agree!  And that’s why the FDA should have conducted quantitative studies specific to premium cigars, rather than just relying on general science on nicotine addiction and the agency’s experience with a totally different product, cigarettes.  I suspect this is why Congress included language in the statute mandating that a “finding as to whether such regulation would be appropriate for the protection of the public health shall be determined[.]”  Of course, we live in the era of Chevron deference, where the Supreme Court has instructed the lower courts to defer to an agency’s interpretation of a statute and, sometimes by extension, the agency’s own science (or lack thereof).  Accordingly, the agency’s own statements in support of the rule were given enormous deference by the Court.

The Plaintiffs in the case argued that it was ridiculous for the FDA to claim to not have access to quantitative data, since they’ve had “sixteen years and an entire nation’s worth of data to examine the efficacy of the [prior-implemented] FTC warnings.”  After all, most of the cigars produced and sold in the United States are subject to an FTC consent decree that requires these companies to put warning labels on their products.  The FDA could have studied the efficacy of the FTC warnings on cigar use, but failed to do so.  In rejecting this argument, the Judge made an interesting comment: “Plaintiffs, however, have identified no requirement, statutory or otherwise, that compelled the FDA to undertake such studies to make the findings required by [the statute].”  CoA Institute, as amici, did just that though.  We contended that Chamber of Commerce of the United States v. Securities & Exchange Commission, which applied to similar statutory language in the financial sector, was controlling here.  The SEC made basically the same claim the FDA did, arguing “it was without a reliable basis” to determine costs associated with a regulation.  In Chamber, the D.C. Circuit recognized that limitations on data cannot “exclude the Commission from its statutory obligation to determine as best it can the economic implications of the rule it has proposed.” In its decision upholding the labeling rule, the District Court did not cite Chamber.

If this case were to be appealed—and, again, CoA Institute was just amici and did not represent any of the parties—we believe the D.C. Circuit would be faced with two interesting questions.  First, is the statutory language enforced by the Court in Chamber similar enough to the FTA that the case controls here?  And second, if Chamber does apply, can the FDA comply by simply reaching back and pointing to data based on cigarettes and other general science on tobacco?  We, of course, would argue no, given the distinct differences between premium cigars and cigarettes.

What does this all mean for cigar smokers?  Probably not that much, at least for now.  The original rule would have rocked the market, cutting off competition, reducing quality, and increasing prices exponentially.  The new, cutback rule might result in some increase in price, given the labeling costs cigar companies will now need to endure, but the same quality and quantity of cigars should be available for purchase.

But here’s the important point: there’s nothing preventing a future administration from bringing back the original rule.  And, given the Judge’s opinion in this case, the FDA would not have to reach a high bar to “deem” and regulate cigars the same way it does cigarettes.  This could be a death knell for the pastime.  The Courts and Congress must act to hold agencies accountable to good science and, most importantly, to doing their job.

*There were many other strong arguments made by the Plaintiffs, including Administrative Procedure Act and constitutional claims.  These were similarly rejected by the Court. For this blog post, I concentrated only on the arguments CoA Institute highlighted in our amicus brief.  The Court did vacate one part of the rule, which defined retailers who blend pipe tobacco in their stores as “manufacturers,” asking the agency to justify its reasoning.*

Congress Throws Fishermen a Lifeline

Congress gave groundfishermen in New England a new lease on life when it appropriated funds last week to cover the cost of the At-Sea Monitoring program for 2018.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) requires groundfishermen—who target bottom-dwelling fish like cod or flounder—to carry at-sea monitors on their boats and, as of 2015, requires the fishermen to pay the costs associated with these monitors, which can exceed $700 per day.  By NOAA’s own estimates, this could put nearly 60% of the groundfishing fleet out of business.  Small, family-run businesses would be hit hardest.  CoA Institute released a short video with its client, David Goethel, that describes the destructive impact industry-funded monitoring will have on fishermen’s lives.

Judicial Review

CoA Institute filed suit on behalf of the fishermen in 2015. In 2017, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the fishermen filed their lawsuit too late because the underlying regulation was promulgated in 2010.[1]  The statute governing the fishing industry—the Magnuson-Stevens Act—has a review period of only thirty days after the finalization or implementation of a regulation for a legal challenge.  Although CoA Institute argued that imposing costs on industry for the first time in November 2015 should have restarted the clock for a legal challenge, the Court disagreed.  But the First Circuit did note that:

[G]iven NOAA’s own study which indicated that the groundfish sector could face serious difficulties as a result of the industry funding requirement, we note that this may be a situation where further clarification from Congress would be helpful for the regulated fisheries and the agency itself as it balances the competing goals of conservation and the economic vitality of the fishery.

Congress Steps Up

Congress appears to have taken notice by appropriating the funds necessary to cover at-sea monitoring costs for Fiscal Year 2018.  Congress also gave specific instructions to NOAA in order to avoid any ambiguity and ensure that the agency uses these funds for their intended purpose.

This is not a permanent solution but, for now, it will allow fishermen to stay afloat.  In the future, if regulators want to continue to impose constitutionally suspect monitors on an already-beleaguered American fishing industry, they must justify the cost to the American taxpayer.  The enormous public debt associated with the Omnibus Funding bill is reckless and unsustainable.  Eliminating at-sea monitoring would be a good start to curtailing spending.  But in the meantime, a federal agency like NOAA cannot be allowed to create a regulatory structure and then destroy an entire industry in order to fund it.  If the government cannot afford to fund its programs, those programs must end.  For 2018, at least, the government has chosen to cover the costs of monitoring, and our fishermen will get to keep on fishing.  The better solution, however, would be to eliminate at-sea monitoring altogether.

Eric Bolinder is counsel at Cause of Action Institute

[1] CoA Institute also filed a petition with the Supreme Court, which declined to take the case.

Records show Richard Cordray scrambled in final days to name successor, thwart Trump’s nominee

The last-ditch coup by Richard Cordray was orchestrated despite apparent pushback from CFPB’s top attorney

Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) has uncovered documents that reveal Richard Cordray and his lieutenants, in Cordray’s last days as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”), scrambled to plan a gambit to usurp the president’s appointment authority and allow Cordray to name his own successor.

Cordray announced on November 15, 2017 that he would be stepping down as director of the CFPB, presumably to run for governor of Ohio.  Later that same day, the president announced his intention to appoint an acting director until a new director could be nominated and approved by the Senate.  Here’s where things get interesting.  On November 24, 2017, Cordray named the agency’s chief of staff, Leandra English, as the deputy director of the CFPB.  Then, he announced his resignation and tapped English as the acting director.

President Trump ignored this attempted unlawful action and appointed his own acting director, Mick Mulvaney.  Then the next day, the general counsel of the CFPB issued an opinion supporting the president and holding Mulvaney as the acting director.

Accordingly, as General Counsel for the Bureau, it is my legal opinion that the President possesses the authority to designate an Acting Director for the Bureau under the FVRA, notwithstanding § 5491(b)(5).

English, however, refused to back down, creating the absurd situation where a government agency had two people claiming to be acting director.  She sued in federal court, asking Judge Timothy Keller to make her acting director.  The court, however, denied her request, holding that “[d]enying the president’s authority to appoint Mr. Mulvaney raises significant constitutional questions.”  The agency, relying both on the opinion of its general counsel and the court’s decision, has recognized Mulvaney as the leader.  The Court case continues.  What follows is the result of CoA Institute’s investigation into the final weeks of Cordray’s tenure as director.

Internal CFPB communications reveal that on November 15, the date Richard Cordray announced his intent to retire, English forwarded Cordray a Politico Pro email that contained a report of the president’s intention to appoint an acting director.  A number of top CFPB employees were CC’d on this email, including General Counsel Mary McLeod.

The next substantial action came on November 22, when “RC” (presumably Richard Cordray) circulated an article from creditslips.com that outlines a legal argument for Cordray to appoint his own successor. Just two minutes later, Cordray sent another article from theintercept.com which, relying on the creditslips.com article, posits that David Silberman, then acting deputy director, should succeed Cordray.  The article notes “[t]he legal argument that Silberman would become interim director would be greatly improved if Cordray officially named him deputy director[.]”  CC’d on both these emails is General Counsel McLeod.  The full subject of Cordray’s email includes the line: “Mary [McLeod], need you to have people consider it further please[.]”

On the day of the formal resignation, November 24, documents revealed a scramble inside CPFB to properly time the gambit.  In an email thread titled “Possible presser” sent between Zixta Martinez, associate director for external affairs, Jennifer Howard, assistant director for communications, Kate Fulton, deputy chief of staff,[1] Cordray, and English, the group appears to discuss a document that is distinct from Cordray’s formal resignation announcement.  The group is concerned about the resignation going out before this “presser” document which, presumably, was the announcement of Leandra English as deputy director.

Later that day, in Cordray’s final letter to the staff, he made public his intention to name Leandra English as deputy director and his self-proclaimed successor.  The email below reveals that the agency wanted to wait until virtually the last minute to put this all into process.

Cordray’s team grappled with when, and in what order, to update the website.

And, finally, discussion of the order of the email to staff and the resignation letter.

English confirms:

The general counsel, Mary McLeod, was obviously aware that this is all going on, given that she was CC’d on virtually all of these emails, including the one above.  Yet, in the biggest blow to Cordray’s gambit, General Counsel McLeod sends a letter memo to the CFPB Leadership Team the very next day, November 25, with a concrete conclusion:

I advise all Bureau personnel to act consistently with the understanding that Director Mulvaney is the Acting Director of the CFPB . . . . Accordingly, as General Counsel for the Bureau, it is my legal opinion that the President possesses the authority to designate an Acting Director for the Bureau under the FVRA, notwithstanding § 5491(b)(5).

Elsewhere in her letter, McLeod states, “[t]his confirms my oral advice to the Senior Leadership team[.]”  Oral advice that the team ignored when they tried to install English.

To make matters worse, English continued to send emails claiming to be the Acting Director.  The first came in an email to the Senior Leadership Team, which included the General Counsel.

She made the same claim in an email to the staff of Senator Elizabeth Warren:

And finally in a staff-wide email.

This brazen attempt to commandeer an entire agency threatens the Constitutional Order.  Were Richard Cordray and Leandra English successful, they would have essentially created an agency that fell outside of any of the three branches of government.  As D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh stated, the Director of the CFPB holds “enormous power over American business, American consumers, and the overall U.S. economy. [ ] The Director alone decides what rules to issue; how to enforce, when to enforce, and against whom to enforce the law[.]”[3]  Judge Kavanaugh concluded, “the Director enjoys more unilateral authority than any other officer in any of the three branches of the U.S. Government, other than the President.”[4]  Deciding who wields such awesome power should not happen in a series of harried emails between bureaucrats.  It should be decided by the President[5] and, when a permanent successor is ultimately named, the Senate confirmation process.[6]

Eric Bolinder is counsel at Cause of Action Institute.

 

[1] According to LinkedIn.

[3] PHH Corp v. Consumer Fin. Prot. Bureau, 839 F.3d 1, 7 (D.C. Cir. 2016), vacated and granted en banc review, Feb. 16, 2017.  The D.C. Circuit granted en banc review for this case, which automatically vacates Judge Kavanaugh’s opinion.  A decision is still pending.

[4] Id.

[5] See U.S. Const. art. II, § 3, cl. 2. (the Appointments Clause).

[6] This author would like to note he agrees with Judge Kavanaugh that the overall structure of the CFPB is unconstitutional, regardless of who appoints the Director.

CoA Institute Investigates CFPB’s ‘Dumbledore Army’ Using Encrypted Messaging Apps to Thwart Transparency

Washington D.C. – Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) today filed a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request after media reports identified a number of career employees at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) who use encrypted messaging apps to communicate about ways to resist changes under newly Trump-appointed acting director Mick Mulvaney. The group reportedly refers to itself as Dumbledore’s Army, a nod to a fictional resistance movement in the Harry Potter novels.

CoA Institute Counsel Eric Bolinder: “A number of CFPB employees are reportedly using encrypted apps on their phones to evade transparency laws and conceal their communications from oversight. Under the Federal Records Act, the CFPB has a legal obligation to preserve all records made by employees working on official government business. Congress and the public have a right to know if federal employees are intentionally evading transparency in order to resist changes under CFPB’s new leadership.”

A December 5, 2017 article by the New York Times reported that CFPB employees are communicating among themselves using encrypted messaging applications:

An atmosphere of intense anxiety has taken hold, several employees said. In some cases, conversations between staff that used to take place by phone or text now happen almost exclusively in person or through encrypted messaging apps.

It is unknown whether these employees discuss work-related issues using their CFPB-issued or personal devices. Under the Federal Records Act, the CFPB has a legal obligation to preserve records evidencing employees working on government business, no matter the medium of their communication.

CoA Institute’s FOIA seeks all records reflecting the number of CFPB devices on which encrypted messaging applications were installed, internal policy guidelines on the use of such apps, as well as the communications themselves and efforts by CFPB to recover and archive these messages. The FOIA also specifically requests all communications that contain the words “Dumbledore,” “Dumbledore’s Army,” “Snape,” “Voldemort,” and “He-who-shall-not-be-named,” among other records.

The full FOIA can be found here.

For information regarding this press release, please contact Zachary Kurz, Director of Communications at CoA Institute: zachary.kurz@causeofaction.org.