Alston & Bird Consumer Finance Blog

Supreme Court

Affirmative Action in Lending: The Implications of the Harvard Decision on Financial Institutions

Early this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellow of Harvard College effectively ended race-conscious admission programs at colleges and universities across the country. Specifically, the Supreme Court held that decisions made “on the basis of race” do nothing more than further “stereotypes that treat individuals as the product of their race, evaluating their thoughts and efforts—their very worth as citizens—according to a criterion barred to the Government by history and the Constitution.”

In particular, the Supreme Court reasoned that “when a university admits students ‘on the basis of race, it engages in the offensive and demeaning assumption that [students] of a particular race, because of their race, think alike.’” Such stereotyping purportedly only causes “continued hurt and injury,” contrary as it is to the “core purpose” of the Equal Protection Clause. Ultimately, the Supreme Court reminded us that “ameliorating societal discrimination does not constitute a compelling interest that justifies race-based state action.”

In the context of lending, federal regulatory agencies expect and encourage financial institutions to explicitly consider race in their lending activities. While the Community Reinvestment Act has required banks to affirmatively consider the needs of low-to-moderate-income neighborhoods, regulatory enforcement actions over the last few years have required both bank and nonbank mortgage lenders to explicitly consider an applicant’s protected characteristics such as race and ethnicity—conduct plainly prohibited by fair lending laws.

Could the impact of the Supreme Court holding extend beyond education to lending and housing? Will the Harvard decision serve to undercut federal regulators’ legal theories for demonstrating redlining and present a challenge for special purpose credit programs that explicitly consider race or other protected characteristics?

Fair Lending Laws Prohibit Consideration of Race

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) prohibits a creditor from discriminating against any applicant, in any aspect of a credit transaction, on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex or marital status, or age (provided the applicant has the capacity to contract). Similarly, the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination against any person in making available a residential real-estate-related transaction, or in the terms or conditions of such a transaction, because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.

In March 2022, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) went as far as to update its Examination Manual to provide that unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts and practices (UDAAPs) “include discrimination” and signaled that the CFPB will examine whether companies are adequately “testing for” discrimination in their advertising, pricing, and other activities. When challenged by various trade organizations, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas ruled that the CFPB’s update exceeded the agency’s authority under the Dodd–Frank Act. This decision is limited, however, and enjoins the CFPB from pursuing its theory against those financial institutions that are members of the trade association plaintiffs. It is also unclear if the verdict will be appealed by the CFPB.

Despite federal prohibitions, regulators such as the CFPB and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) expect, and at times even require, lenders to affirmatively target their marketing and lending efforts to certain borrowers and communities based on race and/or ethnicity.

Race-Based Decisions Are Encouraged and Even Required by Regulators

CFPB examiners often ask lenders to describe their affirmative, specialized efforts to target their lending to minority communities. If there have been no such explicit efforts by the institution, the CFPB penalizes these lenders for not explicitly considering race in their marketing and lending decisions. For example, in the CFPB’s redlining complaint against Townstone Financial, the CFPB alleged that “Townstone made no effort to market directly to African-Americans during the relevant period,” and that “Townstone has not specifically targeted any marketing toward African-Americans.”

What’s more, if enforcement culminates in a consent order, the CFPB and DOJ effectively impose race- based action by requiring lenders to fund loan subsidies or discounts that will be offered exclusively to consumers based on the predominant race or ethnicity of their neighborhood. In the CFPB/DOJ settlement with nonbank Trident Mortgage, the lender was required to set aside over $18 million toward offering residents of majority-minority neighborhoods “home mortgage loans on a more affordable basis than otherwise available.”

And in the more recent DOJ settlement with Washington Trust, the consent order required the lender to subsidize only those mortgage loans made to “qualified applicants,” defined in the settlement as consumers who either reside, or apply for a mortgage for a residential property located, in a majority-Black and Hispanic census tract. Such subsidies are a common feature of recent redlining settlements, which have been occurring with increased frequency since the DOJ announced its Combating Redlining Initiative in October 2021.

Not only do the CFPB and DOJ encourage, and in certain cases, even require, race-based lending in potential contravention of fair lending laws, but federal regulators also expect some degree of race-based hiring by lenders. This expectation is based on the stereotypical assumption that lenders need racial and ethnic minorities in their consumer-facing workforce to attract racial and ethnic minority loan applicants. In the Townstone complaint, for example, the CFPB chastised the lender for failing to “employ an African-American loan officer during the relevant period, even though it was aware that hiring a loan officer from a particular racial or ethnic group could increase the number of applications from members of that racial or ethnic group.”

Ultimately, all the recent redlining consent orders announced by the CFPB and DOJ impose at least some race-based requirement, which would seem to run afoul of fair lending laws and Supreme Court precedent.

Racial Quota-Based Metrics Used by Regulators

Further, when assessing whether a lender may have engaged in redlining against a particular racial or ethnic group, the CFPB and DOJ, as a matter of course, employ quota-based metrics to evaluate the “rates” or “percentages” of a lender’s activity in majority-minority geographic areas, specifically majority-minority census tracts (MMCTs). Then the regulators compare such rates or percentages of the lender’s loan applications or originations in MMCTs to those of other lenders. For example, in its complaint against Lakeland Bank, the DOJ focused on the alleged “disparity between the rate of applications generated by Lakeland and the rate generated by its peer lenders from majority-Black and Hispanic areas.” The agency criticized the bank’s “shortfalls in applications from individuals identifying as Black or Hispanic compared to the local demographics and aggregate HMDA averages.”

Undoubtedly, this approach utilizes nothing more than a quota-based metric, which the Supreme Court in Harvard squarely rejected. Indeed, the Supreme Court reasoned that race-based programs amount to little more than determining how “the breakdown of the [incoming] class compares to the prior year in terms of racial identities,” or comparing the racial makeup of the incoming class to the general population, to see whether some proportional goal or benchmark has been reached.

While the goal of meaningful representation and diversity is commendable, the Supreme Court emphasized that “outright racial balancing and quota systems remain patently unconstitutional.” And such a focus on racial quotas means that lenders could attempt to minimize or even eliminate their fair lending risk simply by decreasing their lending in majority-non-Hispanic-White neighborhoods—without ever increasing their loan applications or originations in majority-minority neighborhoods. Of course, this frustrates the essential purpose of ECOA and other fair lending laws.

Potential Constitutional Scrutiny of Race-Based Lending Efforts

If race-based state action, including the use of racial quotas, violates the Equal Protection Clause, it is possible that the race-based lending measures recently encouraged and even required by federal regulators may be constitutionally problematic. In addition to racially targeted loan subsidies and racially motivated loan officer hiring, regulators continue to encourage lenders to implement special purpose credit programs (SPCPs) to meet the credit needs of specific racial or ethnic groups. As the CFPB noted in its advisory opinion, “[b]y permitting the consideration of a prohibited basis such as race, national origin, or sex in connection with a special purpose credit program, Congress protected a broad array of programs ‘specifically designed to prefer members of economically disadvantaged classes’ and ‘to increase access to the credit market by persons previously foreclosed from it.’”

While SPCPs are explicitly permitted by the language of ECOA and its implementing regulation, Regulation B, as an exception to the statute’s mandate against considering a credit applicant’s protected characteristics, it is uncertain whether these provisions, if challenged, would survive constitutional scrutiny by the current Supreme Court.

Takeaways for Lenders

For the time being, lenders that offer SPCPs based on a protected characteristic should ensure that their written plans continue to meet the requirements of Section 1002.8(a)(3). As always, the justifications for lending decisions that could disproportionately affect consumers based on their race, ethnicity, or other protected characteristic should be well documented and justified by legitimate business needs. And if faced with a fair lending investigation or potential enforcement action, lenders should consider presenting to regulators any alternate data findings or conclusions that demonstrate the institution’s record of lending in MMCTs rather than focusing on the rates or percentages of other lenders in the geographic area.

CFPB Petitions High Court to Consider Decision Holding Funding Structure Unconstitutional

A&B Abstract:

On November 14, 2022, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in connection with the Fifth Circuit’s recent decision in Community Financial, which held that the CFPB’s funding structure violated the Constitution’s Appropriations Clause.  (For a full discussion of the Community Financial decision, click here.)

The CFPB is asking that the Supreme Court set the case for argument this term during its April 2023 sitting.

The CFPB’s Petition

According to the CFPB, the Fifth Circuit’s ruling constituted an “unprecedented and erroneous understanding of the Appropriations Clause.”  In the CFPB’s view, the Appropriations Clause requires only that “Congress enact[] a statute explicitly authorizing . . . [the] use [of] a specified amount of funds from a specified source for specified purposes,” which Congress did in establishing the CFPB’s funding.  For support, the CFPB relied on the constitutional text, historical practice, and the Supreme Court’s precedent.  And it argued that “[n]o other court has ever held that Congress violated the Appropriations Clause by passing a statute authorizing spending.”

The CFPB also asserts that the Fifth Circuit “compounded its error by adopting a sweeping remedial approach that calls into question virtually every action the CFPB has taken in the 12 years since it was created.”  This remedy, the CFPB argues, “raises grave concerns not just for the CFPB and consumers, but for the entire financial industry,” as the vacatur of past CFPB actions could have “destabilizing consequences.”

The CFPB asked the Supreme Court to review the Fifth Circuit’s decision for several reasons.  First, the Fifth Circuit held an Act of Congress violates the Constitution, and there is a strong presumption in favor of granting writs of certiorari to review decisions holding federal statutes unconstitutional.  Second, the Fifth Circuit’s decision conflicts with the D.C. Circuit’s decision on the same issue, creating a circuit split that the Supreme Court should resolve.  Third, the Fifth Circuit’s decision has “immense legal and practical significance” that should be addressed promptly because it “threatens the validity of all past CFPB actions,” which, if unwound, could result in harm to consumers and the “entire financial industry.”

For these reasons, the CFPB asked the Supreme Court to set the case for argument this term.   Given what is at stake, the CFPB explained that it filed its petition “less than one month after the [Fifth Circuit’s] decision,” and “plans to waive the 14-day waiting period after the brief in opposition is filed,” so that the Supreme Court may “consider the petition at its January 6, 2023 conference and hear the case during its April 2023 sitting.”


The CFPB has acknowledged the significant existential threat that the Fifth Circuit’s Community Financial decision poses to its future, and has petitioned the Supreme Court for relief.  Stay tuned for further updates on whether the Supreme Court grants the CFPB’s petition.

Supreme Court to Decide CFPB’s Constitutionality

A&B ABstract: On October 18, 2019, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Seila Law v. CFPB to decide the constitutionality of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s leadership structure.[1]  Significantly, the Court also ordered the parties to brief and argue a second question: “If the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau [“CFPB”] is found unconstitutional on the basis of the separation of powers, can 12 U.S.C. § 5491(c)(3) [which permits the President to remove the Director of the CFPB only for cause] be severed from the Dodd-Frank Act?”[2]

A decision on these two questions could significantly affect every financial institution or entity regulated by the CFPB.

The Constitutionality of the CFPB

In response to the 2008 financial crisis, Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Act, which included the Consumer Financial Protection Act (“CFPA”) and created, arguably, one of the most powerful federal agencies to have ever existed—the CFPB.[3]  This power emanates from the CFPB’s single director structure, the CFPB’s broad rulemaking and enforcement authority, and the fact that the CFPB’s Director is insulated from removal except for cause.  Since the CFPB’s inception, there have been numerous challenges to the constitutionality of what is known as the “for-cause” removal provision of the CFPA, which permits the President to remove the Director of the CFPB, not at will, but only “for inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.”[4]  Challenges have been brought in courts in the Second, Third, Fifth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, and D.C. Circuits.[5]

One of the most significant challenges to the CFPB’s constitutionality occurred before an en banc D.C. Circuit in PHH Corp. v. CFPB.  There, a majority of the D.C. Circuit held that the CFPB’s leadership structure was constitutional, reversing the three-judge-panel decision written by now-Justice Kavanaugh.[6]   Justice Kavanaugh then dissented from the en banc opinion that reversed the original decision. In his dissent, he again concluded that the CFPB’s leadership structure was unconstitutional because the Director’s power and authority were “massive in scope, concentrated in a single person, and unaccountable to the President.”[7]  It is unclear whether Justice Kavanaugh will choose to recuse himself in Seila Law, given that he has already ruled on the issue of the CFPB’s constitutionality in PHH Corp., though he is not required to do so.

One of the most recent challenges, and the one to be reviewed by the Supreme Court, was raised by the law firm Seila Law.  As explained in a previous post,[8] Seila Law involves Seila Law’s refusal to comply with a CFPB civil investigative demand (“CID”).  When the CFPB moved to enforce the CID in federal district court, Seila Law argued that the CFPB’s structure was unconstitutional and, as a result, the CID was unenforceable.  While the CFPB prevailed before the district court, and on appeal to the Ninth Circuit, with the argument that the CFPB’s leadership structure was constitutional, it has since asserted the new position that the for-cause removal provision is unconstitutional.[9]  The Supreme Court has now taken up Seila Law’s petition for certiorari.

The Severability Question

While Seila Law petitioned for certiorari on the issue of whether the CFPB’s leadership structure is unconstitutional, the obvious follow-up question is what happens as the remedy if it is.  That is, what happens if the Supreme Court strikes down the CFPA’s for-cause removal provision?  Recognizing this, when the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Seila Law, it sua sponte also ordered the parties to brief and argue the additional question of whether the for-cause removal provision is severable from the remainder of the CFPA, if the CFPB’s leadership structure is found unconstitutional on the basis of separation of powers.

This is significant because if the Court holds that the provision is not severable, it could strike down the entire CFPA, resulting in any number of drastic consequences.  For example, the Court could strip the CFPB of its enforcement powers or hold that all of the CFPB’s actions to date were ultra vires.  At least one amicus litigant in Seila Law has already made arguments to this end.  The State of Texas’s amicus brief on the certiorari issue took the position that the for-cause removal provision renders the CFPB unconstitutional and, as a result, there is no obligation for Seila Law to answer the CFPB’s CID.[10]

If the provision is found to be severable, then the CFPB likely would proceed with business as usual, even if its structure is held unconstitutional because the remedy would be to make the CFPB’s Director removable at the will of the President.  This is the position the CFPB has taken in recent statements agreeing that its leadership structure is unconstitutional.[11] The CFPB has largely relied on the fact that the Dodd-Frank Act contains a severability clause, which states that “[i]f any provision of this Act . . . is held to be unconstitutional, the remainder of this Act . . . shall not be affected thereby.”[12]  As such, the CFPB has stated that “a Supreme Court decision holding that the for-cause removal provision is unconstitutional should not affect the Bureau’s ability to carry out its important mission [of consumer protection],” because “if the Court holds the for-cause removal provision unconstitutional, the CFPA should remain ‘fully operative’ and the Bureau would ‘continue to function as before, just with a Director who ‘may be removed at will by the President.’”[13]

Notably, though it is unclear what position the Justices will take on the severability issue, Justice Kavanaugh’s original decision in PHH Corp., and his dissent in the en banc review, also touched on severability, finding that “[a]s to remedy . . . [t]he Supreme Court’s Free Enterprise Fund decision and the Court’s other severability precedents require that we sever the CFPB’s for-cause provision, so that the Director of the CFPB is supervised, directed, and removable at will by the President.”[14]


After years of litigation, and conflicting court decisions, the Supreme Court has finally agreed to take on the question of whether the CFPB’s leadership structure is unconstitutional and, if so, what the remedy should be.  That said, even if the CFPB’s leadership structure is found to be unconstitutional, at least one conservative Justice is already on record with the conclusion that the for-cause provision is severable (though Justice Kavanaugh could elect to recuse himself).  While the ultimate outcome is unclear, this case promises to be a major development in the arena of consumer finance and administrative law.

Seila Law will likely be scheduled for oral argument in early 2020, with a decision following in the coming summer.  For now, we will be monitoring the case for developments, including what arguments rise to the top during the briefing process.

[1] (Oct. 18, 2019).
[2] Id.
[3] See 12 U.S.C. § 5491.
[4] See 12 U.S.C. § 5491(c)(3); see e.g., CFPB v. Nationwide Biweekly Admin., No. 18-15431 (9th Cir.); CFPB v. CashCall, Inc., No. 18-55479 (9th Cir.); CFPB v. All Am. Check Cashing, Inc., No. 18-90015 (5th Cir.); CFPB v. RD Legal Funding, LLC, No.18-2860 (2d Cir.); Community Fin. Servs. Assoc. v. CFPB, No. 1:18-cv-0295 (W.D. Tex.); CFPB v. Ocwen Fin. Corp., No. 9:17-cv-80495 (S.D. Fla.); BCFP v. Progrexion Mktg., Inc., 2:19-cv-00298 (D. Utah); CFPB v. Navient Corp., 3:17-cv-101 (M.D. Pa.).
[5] See CFPB v. Nationwide Biweekly Admin., No. 18-15431 (9th Cir.); CFPB v. CashCall, Inc., No. 18-55479 (9th Cir.); CFPB v. All Am. Check Cashing, Inc., No. 18-90015 (5th Cir.); CFPB v. RD Legal Funding, LLC, No.18-2860 (2d Cir.); Community Fin. Servs. Assoc. v. CFPB, No. 1:18-cv-0295 (W.D. Tex.); CFPB u. Ocwen Fin. Corp., No. 9:17-cv-80495 (S.D. Fla.); BCFP v. Progrexion Mktg., Inc., 2:19-cv-00298 (D. Utah); CFPB v. Navient Corp., 3:17-cv-101 (M.D. Pa.).
[6] PHH Corp. v. Consumer Fin. Prot. Bureau, 881 F.3d 75 (D.C. Cir. 2018) (en banc).
[7] PHH Corp., 881 F.3d 75, 166 (Kavanaugh, J., dissenting).
[9] See CFPB v. Seila Law, No. 19-7 (S. Ct. ), CFPB Br. on Pet. for Cert. (filed Sept. 17, 2019).
[10] See CFPB v. Seila Law, No. 19-7 (S. Ct.), Texas Amicus Br. on Pet. for Cert. at 16.
[11] See September 17, 2019 Letters from Director Kraninger to Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader McConnell (quoting Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Co. Accounting Oversight Bd., 561 U.S. 477, 508 (2010)).
[12] See 12 USCS § 5302 (“If any provision of this Act, an amendment made by this Act, or the application of such provision or amendment to any person or circumstance is held to be unconstitutional, the remainder of this Act, the amendments made by this Act, and the application of the provisions of such to any person or circumstance shall not be affected thereby.”).
[13] See September 17, 2019 Letters from Director Kraninger to Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader McConnell (quoting Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Co. Accounting Oversight Bd., 561 U.S. 477, 508 (2010)).
[14] PHH Corp., 881 F.3d 75, 167 (Kavanaugh, J., dissenting).