President Trump and Republicans in Congress have broadcast their every intention to gut the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The president’s budget attempted to defund it and leading Republicans have called for its director to be fired and replaced with a more Wall Street-compliant regulator.
But much like the bulk of Trump’s agenda, that assault remains in the aspirational phase, and the agency continues to do its work. Earlier this month, the CFPB released a major new rule, flat-out barring financial institutions from using forced arbitration clauses in consumer contracts to stop class-action lawsuits.
Now, Trump has sent out his lead attack dog to overturn the arbitration rule — a former bank lawyer who has used the very tactic the CFPB wants to prevent.
Class-action lawsuits are often the only way abusive behavior is checked. Take one of the more flagrant examples relating to overdraft fees. Millions of Americans are painfully familiar with the little perforated postcard that kindly arrives in the mail, courtesy of your financial institution, informing you that you have overdrawn your bank account and have been assessed a fee. Or, sometimes, you get three of them in the mail.
In order to make sure you get three and not one, banks in the past would re-order your transactions. The case of Gutierrez v. Wells Fargo is instructive here: a federal class-action case in California, the suit charged the bank with debit card reordering, or altering the sequence of debit card withdrawals to maximize overdraft fees. So if a cardholder with $100 in their account made successive withdrawals of $20, $30, and $110 over the course of a day, instead of getting hit with one $35 overdraft fee, Wells Fargo would reorder the transactions from high to low, thus earning three fees.
The plaintiffs won a $203 million judgment in 2010. But in an appeal before the 9th Circuit in 2012, Wells’ lawyers argued that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2011, AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, gave Wells Fargo the right to compel arbitration and quash the case, even after the judgment was rendered.
The 9th Circuit ruled that Wells Fargo never requested or even mentioned arbitration for five years of litigating the case. Only after losing in court and getting a potential lifeline from the Supreme Court did the lawyers take the shot. “Ordering arbitration would … be inconsistent with the parties’ agreement, and contradict their conduct throughout the litigation,” the court ruled.
Wells Fargo eventually paid California customers, but only after six years of appeals. Yet the company is still trying to use arbitration to quash a similar class action on overdraft fees, which would affect consumers in the other 49 states. Over 30 banks have been sued for this conduct, and every one of them settled the case except Wells Fargo.
Banks have a lot riding on the CFPB rule. Luckily for Wells Fargo, a former senior attorney of theirs is now a top federal regulator. In fact, Keith Noreika worked on that class-action defense in Gutierrez v. Wells Fargo before becoming the acting chair of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.
In May, President Trump hired Noreika to take over OCC, in an unusual arrangement where he would serve as a “special government employee,” retained to perform “temporary duties” for not more than 130 days, and exempt from most ethics rules or Senate confirmation.
His first high-profile move is to insert himself into the CFPB rule-making process, the bureaucratic equivalent of laying down in the street in front of the bus.
Right before the CFPB released its final arbitration rule, Noreika charged in a letter that the rule could create “safety and soundness concerns.” On Monday, Noreika asked the CFPB to delay publishing the rule in the Federal Register until OCC could review it for safety and soundness concerns. Essentially, Noreika is saying that allowing consumers to band together to stop petty theft by banks threatens the ability of those banks to survive. The CFPB already sent the rule to the Federal Register, and called Noreika’s request “plainly frivolous.”
Noreika threatened to use Section 1023 of Dodd-Frank, which allows the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC), composed of the major bank regulators, to halt CFPB rules if they put the safety, soundness, or stability of the banking system at risk. The chair of the FSOC, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, could stay the rule for 90 days pending a vote of the 10-member council. Seven votes would be needed to set aside the rule.
On Tuesday, Sherrod Brown, ranking Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, wrote to Noreika about his objections. Brown noted that the CFPB made its rule and the research behind it publicly available for two years, and collaborated with safety and soundness regulators throughout the rule-making process. OCC never raised any objections in that time, even after Noreika was named acting chair. “The argument that consumer protections will jeopardize the soundness of banks is as specious today as it has been in the past,” Brown wrote.
Brown also cited a case study in the CFPB’s 2015 arbitration report, which “deals with banks manipulating the order in which they process checking account transactions to charge their customers more overdraft fees.” The CFPB found that consumers benefited from class actions in the overdraft case, while those barred saw little restitution.
“It is especially surprising that you are not familiar with these outcomes,” Brown wrote. “Previously, as an attorney in private practice, you represented Wells Fargo in just such a case, and attempted to quash a class action brought by consumers harmed in exactly the same way by invoking Wells Fargo’s forced arbitration clause.”
Noreika is in fact required to recuse himself from matters involving Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, HSBC, and others, because he has previously represented all of them as a lawyer. Because the arbitration rule isn’t targeted at a specific bank, Noreika is getting around that restriction.
Using FSOC to nix the CFPB rule is a long shot, though it could delay its taking effect. In addition, Congress can overturn the rule by majority vote in both chambers through the Congressional Review Act, as it has done 14 times this year. They have 60 legislative days to take those votes. Senate Republicans are preparing the legislation, led by Banking Committee Chair Mike Crapo.