Monday, April 15, 2024

Legislative Inquiry into Nonprofit Litigation Decisions

Sunday night, Senators Warren and Whitehouse sent a letter to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, demanding the Chamber answer questions about its litigation challenging a CFPB rule capping late fees at $8.

The Chamber is a nonprofit membership organization claiming to "represent[] the unified interests of U.S. business before Congress, government agencies, and the courts," but the Senators' question whether the Chamber "is not adequately representing its membership." The Senators doubt that the lawsuit is, in fact, representative of "the broad range of Main Street businesses, or their customers," suggesting that, "[i]nstead, the 'Chamber is again doing the dirty work of its big bank members,' such as JPMorgan, Citi, and Bank of America." Thus, the Senators ask the Chamber: "Did the Chamber conduct a vote or otherwise receive input from its members before deciding to file this lawsuit? a. If so, how did it do so? b. What did the opinions received by the Chamber indicate about members' opposition or support for the rule?"

Of course, concepts of representation for a nonprofit organization--even a membership-based organization--are rarely straightforward, as members rarely weigh in directly on specific policy positions, and members come and go for reasons that often have little to do with a single piece of litigation. (Counterexamples do exist: thousands of AARP members quit the organization after its support for the Affordable Care Act, and thousands of ACLU members left the organization due to objections to representation of Nazis in a free speech case although in both instances the nonprofit stood by its principles/stubbornly defied accountability to its members). "Who do we represent?" is a tough question that nonprofit leaders should constantly be asking themselves; it's much less clear that Congress has (or should have) much to say on the question.

The Senators' letter makes two further criticisms of the Chamber's litigation. First, it argues that the claims are frivolous. Second, it calls the Chamber out for being caught forum-shopping: adding a local chamber of commerce with dubious standing to file in a court believed to be advantageous to the challenge. (The district court granted a motion to transfer the case to the District of Columbia, only to have the Fifth Circuit issue a mandamus preventing transfer for the time being). Forum-shopping in cases challenging federal agency decisions is not novel, but it has come under consistent and increasing criticism--from across the political spectrum--with special attention being paid to forum-shopping in Texas federal courts specifically.

My two cents: Publicly criticizing a nonprofit for its litigation choices (especially when it is caught engaging in rather transparent forum-shopping) is one thing, but demanding details of the nonprofit's internal decisionmaking related to that litigation is quite another.

-Joseph Mead

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