While some pundits think that Operation Choke Point is a dead issue, as evidenced by the FDIC's recent guidance that claimed that they were only kidding when they labeled entire lines of business as "high risk," the folks at Ballard Spahr note that the lawsuit filed by the payday loan industry against the bank regulatory agencies continues to forge forward. On September 25, the federal judge hearing the case "rejected most of the arguments in the agencies’ motion to dismiss," allowing the lawsuit proceed.
The agencies first challenged plaintiffs’ standing to sue. While acknowledging that the denial of banking services establishes one necessary element of standing (an “injury in fact”), defendants argued that the plaintiffs do not satisfy the two remaining elements, namely causation, a link between the defendants’ actions and the plaintiffs’ injuries, and redressability, evidence that a favorable ruling will redress the plaintiffs’ alleged injuries.
According to the defendants, the plaintiffs’ injuries resulted from independent decisions by their banks rather than the agencies’ guidance documents. Judge Kessler notes that the plaintiffs’ burden of eventually proving their “third party” causation theory−that the defendants’ conduct compelled the banks to deny them service−will be substantial. However, taking as true all of the plaintiffs’ factual allegations, as is required when deciding a motion to dismiss, she determined that the claims satisfy both the causation and redressability requirements.
The judge also found that the agencies' subsequent "guidance" that "urged" banks to take a risk-based approach on a client-by-client, rather than industry-by-industry basis, does not render the controversy "moot."
Although she agreed that the agencies’ subsequent pronouncements have largely superseded earlier Choke Point guidance, Judge Kessler rejected the defendants’ contention that this alone renders moot all of the plaintiffs’ claims. In particular, she notes that the plaintiffs claim they have been stigmatized and deprived of their ability to engage in a legally permitted business, all without constitutionally required notice and opportunity to be heard.
The judge dismissed claims based upon alleged violation of the Administrative Procedures Act, ruling that agency "guidance" is not final agency action. That is technically correct. However, as those of us who see the consequences of failing to follow agency "guidance," including the inclusion on examination reports of MRAs (matters requiring attention) for "violation" of "guidance," the way the agencies use guidance might be considered by a cynic as an end-around the APA. Luckily, I'm an optimist and would never suggest such a thing.
As I've previously assert, I think that the only thing that will ultimately drive a stake through the heart of Operation Choke Point will be a change in the White House in 2016. Until then, I hope that the plaintiffs continue to keep fighting the good fight.