This case asked whether the plaintiff, who signed a home mortgage but not the accompanying loan, was a “borrower” under the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA), 12 U.S.C. § 2605(f). The court endeavored to determine the ordinary meaning of “borrower,” as the statute does not define it. The court began with contemporaneous dictionary definitions, which defined “borrower” in connection with a loan or receipt of something. So did legal dictionaries. The court then turned to the rest of the statute for context, noting that § 2605 applies generally to “federally related mortgage loans,” not mortgages themselves, and that, where “borrower” appears elsewhere in RESPA, it refers to a relationship with a lender under the terms of a loan. Thus, the panel determined, someone who only gives a mortgage is not a “borrower” because a “borrower” must be personally obligated under a loan. And the plaintiff, who was not personally obligated, was not a “borrower” under RESPA and did not have a cause of action under the statute.

Notably, the panel also discussed the role of the “so-called liberal construction canon,” which holds that “remedial statute[s]” should be “construed broadly to effectuate [their] purposes.” Examining that canon’s interpretive justifications, the panel determined that this canon should be invocable only after a court “has exhausted other, more helpful (and more legitimate) tools of interpretation.” Slip Op. at 7–8. The court criticized this canon for its vagueness and two of the assumptions on which it rests: that statutes have only one or only compatible purposes, and that Congress wanted these purposes to be pursued as far as possible.