The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on Thursday dropped a suit in Kansas federal court against four payday lenders, the latest signal the Trump-appointed interim director of the agency is shifting enforcement priorities.
CFPB enforcement attorneys in other cases have requested deadline extensions. Separately, the bureau’s enforcers, in talks with defense lawyers, are proposing agreements that would temporarily stop the running of the statute of limitations on certain allegations, giving the agency more time to make decisions about how to proceed.
The Obama-era CFPB had sued the four payday companies in April, alleging they had mistreated customers by collecting on debts that were not legally owed. The agency said the debts were void because their annual interest rates, ranging from 440 percent to 950 percent, violated state interest rate caps.
The payday loan industry has been perhaps the biggest immediate beneficiary of Mick Mulvaney’s tenure atop the CFPB as the interim director. Earlier this week, Mulvaney, the White House budget director, said the CFPB planned to reconsider rules, finalized last year, that put restrictions on high-cost payday loans. Mulvaney has launched an agencywide review of cases, and Thursday’s action could be the first of other moves to drop lawsuits and shift resources to other matters. Mulvaney did not ask for any additional funding for the agency.
Citing their affiliation with a Native American tribe, the companies, represented by Beth Wilkinson, a name partner at Wilkinson Walsh + Eskovitz, argued they were not subject to the state licensing requirements and interest rate caps. On Wednesday, the CFPB filed a notice of voluntary dismissal. The bureau offered no explanation for the move, which was first reported by Bloomberg.
“[T]his case should never have been brought in the first place. We’re pleased that the bureau has decided to withdraw a lawsuit that was diverting the tribe’s resources and attention away from economic activity that benefits the Tribe’s members and its neighbors,” Lori Alvino McGill, a Wilkinson Walsh partner, said in a statement.
The dismissal of the case drew the ire of consumer interest groups.
Mulvaney’s decision gave “a free pass to lenders that are collecting on illegal loans that charge an obscene 950 percent interest,” Lauren Saunders, associate director of the National Consumer Law Center, said in a statement.
As Mulvaney reviews the agency’s cases, bureau lawyers are buying time.
In the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on Thursday, CFPB lawyers asked for an extension in a fight over a subpoena—known as a “civil investigative demand”—the agency had issued to Future Income Payments, a California-based provider of pension advances. The CFPB asked for an upcoming Jan. 25 deadline to be pushed to March 12 to “allow new leadership personnel adequate time to consider the issues relevant to this case.”
Meanwhile, a lawyer on the CFPB’s enforcement command staff is preparing to leave the agency to join the California-based Public Rights Project in February as legal director.
Joanna Pearl, the chief of staff under the past three enforcement directors, played a key role in setting the CFPB’s enforcement strategy. She was not immediately reached for comment.
Pearl will lead the group’s work “to assist state and local governments looking to expand their efforts to enforce civil rights, consumer protection, and environmental laws,” Jill Habig, founder and president of the Public Rights Project, said in a statement. Habig said Pearl’s “background and experience leading enforcement teams to protect consumers from fraud and predatory conduct will be a huge asset.”