In Duka v. SEC, SDNY Judge Berman Finds SEC Administrative Law Enforcement Proceedings Constitutional in a Less than Compelling Opinion

Southern District of New York federal Judge Richard Berman yesterday decided that Barbara Duka, a former Standard & Poor’s employee charged with securities law violations by the SEC, cannot enjoin the SEC administrative enforcement action brought against her.  In doing so, Judge Berman rejected the argument that he lacked jurisdiction over the case, unlike two previous federal court judges.  See SEC Wins First Skirmish on Constitutional Challenge to Chau Administrative Proceeding, and Court Dismisses “Compelling and Meritorious” Bebo Constitutional Claims Solely on Jurisdictional Grounds.  As a result, he addressed the merits of Ms. Duka’s constitutional argument, finding the she was “unlikely to succeed on the merits” of that claim. Likely success on the merits of the claim is a requirement for granting the preliminary injunctive relief sought by Ms. Duka.  The opinion is available here: Order Denying Relief in Duka v. SEC.

Jurisdiction

Judge Berman rejected the jurisdictional argument accepted by two prior judges because, unlike them, he concluded that the relief sought by Ms. Duka could not be satisfied within the administrative adjudication process, the challenge made addressed not the substance of the claims against her but the very suitability of the forum to adjudicate those claims, and the constitutional issue fell outside of the SEC’s area of expertise.

On the availability of a remedy, here is what the court said:

The Court concludes that the absence of subject matter jurisdiction “could foreclose all meaningful judicial review” of Plaintiff’s claim. . . .  The Court of Appeals obviously would not be able, upon appellate review of any final SEC order, to enjoin the SEC from conducting the Administrative Proceeding, as Duka asks this Court to do.  And, while the Court of Appeals could, presumably, vacate an adverse decision (order) by the SEC on constitutional grounds, it would be unable to remedy the harm alleged by Plaintiff in this Court, i.e., the “substantial litigation and resource burdens incurred during [the] administrative proceeding,” and the “reputational harm” associated with her defending the Administrative Proceeding. . . .

Plaintiff is not here challenging the outcome of her Administrative Proceeding or any order(s) issued by the SEC.  Rather, Plaintiff seeks to enjoin the proceeding itself, and the (injunctive and declaratory) relief she seeks is to prevent the Administrative Proceeding from occurring in the first place. . . .  If Plaintiff were required, as the Government urges, to await the completion of the Administrative Proceeding to seek (any) judicial intervention, important remedies could be foreclosed.  That is, her claim for injunctive and declaratory relief would likely be moot at that stage because the allegedly unconstitutional Administrative Proceeding would have already taken place. Simply put, there would be no proceeding to enjoin. . . .

Slip op. at 10-12 (cites and footnotes omitted).

And this on whether the relief sought was collateral to the substance of the underlying proceeding, or an appropriate part of that proceeding:

The Court concludes that Plaintiff’s claim for injunctive and declaratory relief is “wholly collateral” to “any Commission orders or rules from which review might be sought” in the Court of Appeals. . . .  In Free Enterprise, the Supreme Court found that the petitioners’ Article II claim was collateral because “petitioners object[ed] to the Board’s existence, not to any of its auditing standards.”. . .  Similarly, Duka contends that her Administrative Proceeding may not constitutionally take place, and she does not attack any order that may be issued in her Administrative Proceeding relating to “the outcome of the SEC action.”  Chau [v. SEC], 2014 WL 6984236, at *13; see Gupta [v. SEC], 796 F. Supp. 2d at 513 (where plaintiff “would state a claim even if [he] were entirely guilty of the charges made against him . . . .”).

Unlike the plaintiffs in Chau, Duka does not assert an “as-applied” challenge to agency action “in light of the facts of a specific case.”  Chau, 2014 WL 6984236, at *6.  Rather, she contends that Administrative Proceedings are “unconstitutional in all instances—a facial challenge.”  Id.  As Judge Kaplan noted in Chau, “courts are more likely to sustain preenforcement jurisdiction over broad facial and systematic challenges.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

Slip op. at 12-13.

On the issue of the SEC’s expertise to decide the constitutional issue, Judge Berman wrote:

Without in any way diminishing ALJ Elliot’s exceptional legal background, the Court concludes that the constitutional claim posed in this injunctive/declaratory judgment case is outside the SEC’s expertise.  This aspect of executive agency practice is governed by clear Supreme Court precedent.  See Thunder Basin [Coal Co. v. Reich], 510 U.S. at 215 (“[A]djudication of the constitutionality of congressional enactments has generally been thought beyond the jurisdiction of administrative agencies.”); see also Free Enterprise [Fund v. Pub. Co. Accounting Oversight Bd.], 561 U.S. at 491 (“Petitioners’ constitutional claims are also outside the Commission’s competence and expertise . . . .  [T]he statutory questions involved do not require ‘technical considerations of [agency] policy’. . . .  They are instead standard questions of administrative law, which the courts are at no disadvantage in answering.”).

Slip op. at 14.

Likelihood of Success on the Merits

When he turned to the merits of the constitutional issue, Judge Berman was unwilling to apply the Supreme Court’s Free Enterprise Fund decision to the SEC’s administrative law judges. Not, however, because he doubted that SEC ALJ’s are “inferior officers” of the Executive Branch in constitutional terms.  He did not decide that issue, because he said it was unnecessary, but plainly viewed prior Supreme Court precedent regarding Tax Court special trial judges in Freytag v. Commissioner likely to be determinative: “The Supreme Court’s decision in Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U.S. 868 (1991), which held that a Special Trial Judge of the Tax Court was an “inferior officer” under Article II, would appear to support the conclusion that SEC ALJs are also inferior officers. See Freytag, 501 U.S. at 881–82 (“[S]pecial trial judges perform more than ministerial tasks. They take testimony, conduct trials, rule on the admissibility of evidence, and have the power to enforce compliance with discovery orders. In the course of carrying out these important functions, the special trial judges exercise significant discretion.”).  Slip op. at 16.  As noted, however, Judge Berman decided he “need not resolve that issue.”  Id.

That is because he reasoned that even if the SEC’s ALJ’s are inferior officers, the double-layer of removal protection they are accorded by statute does not undermine the President’s Executive power.  He noted that the Free Enterprise Fund Court “specifically excluded ALJs from the reach of its holding,” and rejected Ms. Duka’s argument that Free Enterprise Fund established a “categorical rule” forbidding two levels of “good cause” tenure protection.  Slip op. at 17.

Instead, Judge Berman created “a functional test to determine whether and when statutory limitations on the President’s power to remove executive officers violate Article II” based on other Supreme Court precedent.  He relied on the Supreme Court’s special prosecutor case, Morrison v. Olson, 487 U.S. 654 (1988), to argue for a test focused on whether Congress “interfere[d] with the President’s exercise of the ‘executive power’ under Article II” (quoting Morrison, 487 U.S. at 689-90). Although Free Enterprise Fund had no similar language regarding the double-layer of removal protection, Judge Berman argued that the Free Enterprise Fund decision “likewise focused upon whether the statutory restrictions on removal of PCAOB members were so structured as to infringe the President’s constitutional authority by ‘depriv[ing] the President of adequate control over the Board.’ Free Enterprise, 561 U.S. at 508.”  Slip op. at 17-18.

Judge Berman went on to reason “that congressional restrictions upon the President’s ability to remove ‘quasi judicial’ agency adjudicators are unlikely to interfere with the President’s ability to perform his executive duties.”  He argued that SEC ALJs exercise adjudicative power rather than executive power, and therefore the limits on removal of ALJs do not interfere with the President’s exercise of executive power.  He contrasted the Free Enterprise Fund case, which involved a subordinate entity of the SEC that “determines the policy and enforces the laws of the United States.”  Slip op. at 19-20.  In contrast, he said: “SEC ALJs perform solely adjudicatory functions, and are not engaged in policymaking or enforcement.”  Id. at 20.  As a result, “[t]he challenged (good cause) limitations upon the removal of an SEC ALJ will in no way ‘impede the President’s ability to perform his constitutional duty.’  Morrison, 487 U.S. at 691.”

Indeed, he argues that if the President could dismiss ALJ’s without cause, that would “undermine” the agency adjudication process, citing an article by Elena Kagan, written before she became a Supreme Court justice. Slip op. at 21.

How Good Is the Opinion, and How Influential Might It Be

Having elided the issue of whether the SEC ALJs are “inferior officers,” the opinion strikes me as somewhat superficial and relatively weak effort at resolving the constitutional issues that arise if they are, indeed, officers in the Executive Branch.  Judge Berman dispenses with this issue in a mere 4-1/2 double-spaced pages. His treatments of the Supreme Court decisions in Morrison v. Olson, Wiener v. United States, and the grandfather of them all, Humphrey’s Executor v. United States, are largely superficial.  In Judge Berman’s view, the fact that ALJ’s perform their executive duties as part of an adjudicative process insulates them from the need for control or influence by the Chief Executive.  He makes no real effort to examine the constitutional consequences of exempting large numbers of Executive Department officers from the need for Presidential control, and fails even to address the conundrum of treating an Executive Department officer within a law enforcement agency as if he or she were just another judge.  The nuances of how to accord administrative judges the freedom to act as an independent judicial branch within a powerful law enforcement department of the Executive Branch are basically ignored.  In sum, the effort lacks the depth and studiousness of an opinion likely to persuade appellate courts, and possibly other district courts as well.  It may well be that a proper, complete, and thorough argument along these lines can be made, but it is not reflected in this opinion.

Judge Berman effectively creates an adjudicative exception to the need for Presidential control over “inferior officers” involved in an adjudicative process within the Executive Branch. That is, essentially, formed out of whole cloth.  His core argument — “that congressional restrictions upon the President’s ability to remove ‘quasi judicial’ agency adjudicators are unlikely to interfere with the President’s ability to perform his executive duties” — is pure ipse dixit.  Short references to Humphrey’s Executor, Wiener, and Morrison, none of which involved facts and circumstances even vaguely like this case, hardly suffice to justify such a broad-reaching conclusion.  Many of the Supreme Court decisions addressing the role of the Executive in non-Article III courts are not examined, or even mentioned. Included among these is the separation of powers discussion in Freytag v. Commissioner, which Judge Berman acknowledged in the first part of his opinion and ignored thereafter (Freytag has an extensive discussion of the separation of powers implications of performing adjudicative functions outside in non-Article III courts).  Since Free Enterprise Fund plainly treats the SEC as an Executive Department, and there is abundant case law addressing the constitutional treatment of non-Article III courts, an in-depth analysis of those cases would seem necessary before reaching Judge Berman’s conclusions. I haven’t delved into those cases any more than he does (which is to say, not at all), but I’m certain that a reasoned resolution of the issue requires a lot more spade work than I see reflected in Judge Berman’s four pages on the issue.

Judge Berman’s decision also proceeds on the assumption that it is not important – and, indeed, could be harmful – for the President to be able to exercise authority over officials within the Executive Branch who perform adjudicative-like functions. That fails totally to consider the context in which the SEC ALJs function.  Judge Berman seems to think all ALJs perform the same kind of function, and none of them do things the Chief Executive cares much about.  But some ALJs, like those in the SEC, are critical cogs in a law enforcement process addressing large portions of the Nation’s economic and financial infrastructure.  They play a critical role in an Executive process to enforce the law, and exercise considerable discretion in doing so, without any direct supervisors.  The SEC’s enforcement actions already proceed with, at best, limited input from, or control by, the President. To the contrary, the SEC touts itself as being “independent” of the President.  If the SEC’s ALJs are, indeed, executive officers playing key roles in implementing a quintessentially executive function – the enforcement of the laws – why does the fact that ALJs follow an adjudicative-like process as part of that function mean they should be doubly insulated from Presidential influence? Judge Berman effectively postulates this as a necessary aspect of having an agency-based adjudicatory function, but the stated support for that – even if it is a law review article by Elena Kagan — is slim indeed, putting aside whether the very concept of an independent judiciary, functioning within an independent law enforcement agency, has any place in Articles I, II, or III of the Constitution.

There also is no mention or apparent consideration of potential Appointments Clause issues in this context. That may well be because Ms. Duka’s counsel never pressed those issues.  But if the SEC’s ALJs are officers of the Executive Branch, the Appointments Clause applies, and it is not at all clear whether the appointment process for SEC ALJs complies with that process.

Conclusion

To be sure, this decision represents a victory for the SEC in another battle in this campaign.  The loss on the jurisdiction issue is more than outweighed by the favorable ruling on the merits issue.  (Although it may encourage the DC Circuit to reach the merits of the constitutional issue in the recently-argued appeal in Jarkesy v. SEC).  The approach taken by the court does suggest that the SEC may not fare well in its arguments that its administrative law judges are not “inferior officers,” but the overall rejection of the Free Enterprise Fund double-insulation theory provides the groundwork for future SEC arguments on the merits in other courts.  One of those courts may take the time and make the effort to provide a more thorough consideration of the merits issue, but for now, count this as a significant, if not definitive, victory for the Commission.

Straight Arrow

April 16, 2015

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6 thoughts on “In Duka v. SEC, SDNY Judge Berman Finds SEC Administrative Law Enforcement Proceedings Constitutional in a Less than Compelling Opinion

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