Tag Archives: administrative enforcement proceeding

SEC ALJ in Bebo Case Refuses To Consider Constitutional Challenge and Denies More Time To Prepare Defense

SEC Administrative Law Judge Cameron Elliot continued his run of decisions against respondent Laurie Bebo with two orders issued April 7, 2015.  The approach reflected in these decisions reinforces the view that his court is not serving as a fair forum for Ms. Bebo.  See Bebo Case Continues To Show Why SEC Administrative Proceeding Home Advantage Is Unfair.

In one ruling, he refused to consider major motion papers filed on behalf of Ms. Bebo challenging the constitutionality of the administrative proceeding because he decided that should be considered a “motion for summary disposition,” and, as such, was filed out of time, and would not be considered.  See Order on Respondent’s Motion for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief for Constitutional Violations and Request for Leave To File Overlength Motion

In the second, he rejected a request for an extension of time before the administrative trial commences (it is scheduled to start in fewer than two weeks), holding that “the  proceeding is neither unusually complex nor is the investigative file particularly large, and granting the requested relief would jeopardize my ability to complete the proceeding under the timeline” set by the SEC in its order initiating the proceeding.  See Order Denying Renewed Motion for Relief from Rule 360(a)(2) Presumptive Hearing Schedule.

These orders ooze parochialism and tunnel vision, again showing the administrative forum is no place for enforcement actions of this magnitude.

The refusal to consider the constitutional issue on a procedural ground seems bizarre.  If Mr. Elliot were on the basketball court, he would be one of those players desperately trying to avoid taking the clutch shot.  Mr. Elliot knows this is a key issue of some notoriety, and knows that the world is watching how he conducts his proceeding, but insisted on focusing on minutiae.  He certainly had the discretion to consider the motion.  Declining to do so using the crutch of a procedural time-limit, and with the lame statement that the “arguments may be renewed post-hearing,” shows the world that he is just not ready for prime time.  He must know that if there is a constitutional violation, he exacerbates it by requiring that the respondent go through the trial before even considering the issue.

Mr. Elliot showed his true colors, however, by trying to have it both ways, when he opted to comment on one of the points in Ms. Bebo’s submission even while declining to consider it.  He wrote a long footnote arguing that one of the (minor) grounds for considering SEC administrative law judges to be “inferior officers” for constitutional purposes — because they “can issue final decisions under certain circumstances” — is wrong, because even if the ALJ’s order does not get reviewed the SEC must issue an order that makes it final.  Whether he’s right or wrong on this point, it is peculiar that he should choose to give an advisory view on this lesser issue while declining to consider the broader constitutional arguments.

A quality judge would approach the constitutionality issue head on, knowing he will have to do so eventually anyway, and by doing so at the outset, substantial resources could be conserved.  Indeed, any judge worth his salt would look forward to doing so.  But, of course, we know (and so does he) that Mr. Elliot will not give serious consideration to the arguments (that is above his pay-grade), and he is conflicted on the issue to boot (his own job could be at stake).  That’s one reason why the Wisconsin federal court presented with these arguments ruled the wrong way when it found no jurisdiction to hear the challenge.  See Court Dismisses “Compelling and Meritorious” Bebo Constitutional Claims Solely on Jurisdictional Grounds.

The ruling declining to delay the commencement of the trial to allow the defense more time to prepare is yet another example why enforcement proceedings of this type simply don’t belong in the administrative forum.  Mr. Elliot was more focused on meeting the SEC-mandated schedule than whether Ms. Bebo can adequately prepare to defend a case that will determine her future ability to be an executive or director in a public company.  This is a major, life-changing, proceeding for Ms. Bebo, but Mr. Elliot gives no hint that he recognizes that.  His reason for denying the motion focused on administrative precedent that showed he had the discretion to reject it (but not how he should exercise that discretion), and his deferral to the SEC (“in setting the time frame for the case, the Commission has already considered the complexity of the case”).  A real judge would balance the prejudice to either side from granting the relief — which Mr. Elliot strangely does need even address — and almost certainly conclude that in light of the stakes for Ms. Bebo, the much longer period the SEC staff has had to learn the record and prepare its case, and the negligible prejudice to the SEC from a delay, a modest extension was warranted.

Make no mistake.  Cameron Elliot is a homer, which does not bode well for Ms. Bebo.

Straight Arrow

April 8, 2015

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Gray Financial Group v. SEC Is SEC’s Latest Constitutional Challenge

The latest constitutional challenge to an SEC administrative enforcement proceeding was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on February 19, 2015 in a case captioned Gray Financial Group, Inc. v. SEC, No. 1:15-cv-0492 (N.D. Ga.).  Gray Financial is a registered investment advisor subject to SEC regulatory oversight, and, as a result, has not been newly subjected to SEC administrative proceedings by the Dodd Frank Act’s 2010 expansion of jurisdiction of SEC administrative law judges to non-regulated persons.  As a result, the theory of the case is limited to alleged constitutional shortcomings that are unaffected by whether or not the putative respondent is an SEC-regulated entity.  In this respect, of the recent cases challenging SEC administrative enforcement actions, Gray Financial most resembles Stilwell v. SEC, previously filed the Southern District of New York.  See Stilwell v. SEC.

The complaint alleges that Gray Financial is a small investment advisory firm registered with the SEC, and in Georgia and Michigan.  It established as an investment alternative for Georgia-based pension funds, and with advice of counsel, an “alternative investment” in the form of a fund of funds.  Georgia recently adopted a new pension law permitting alternative investments by public pension funds.  The SEC commenced an investigation of whether the new fund complied with the Georgia law.  The SEC staff thereafter issued a “Wells notice” on the theory that the fund was not in compliance with the Georgia pension law.  Gray Financial contends that the Georgia law is unclear, has never been interpreted by Georgia courts, and that it acted only on the advice of experienced counsel.  Nonetheless, the SEC argued the firm intentionally violated the Georgia law and insisted on a “draconian” settlement to avoid an administrative enforcement proceeding.  A copy of the complaint is available here: Gray Financial Group v. SEC Complaint.

The complaint describes the SEC administrative proceeding process and the role of SEC ALJ’s in detail, including the insulation of the ALJ’s from removal by the SEC or the President for other than good cause.  It then lays out its constitutional argument that the SEC administrative law judges are executive officers outside of the control of the President, in violation of Article II of the Constitution:

Article II’s vesting authority requires that the principal and inferior officers of the Executive Branch be answerable to the President and not be separated from the President by attenuated chains of accountability.  Specifically, as the Supreme Court held in Free Enterprise, Article II requires that executive officers, who exercise significant executive power, not be protected from being removed by their superiors at will, when those superiors are themselves protected from being removed by the President at will.

The SEC ALJs’ removal scheme is contrary to this constitutional requirement because SEC ALJs are inferior officers for the purposes of Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, and because:

a. SEC ALJs are protected from removal by a statutory “good cause” standard; and

b. The SEC Commissioners who are empowered to seek removal of SEC ALJs – within the constraints of the “good cause” standard – are themselves protected from removal by an “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office” standard; and

c. The MSPB members who are empowered to effectuate the removal decision – again limited by a “good cause” standard – are themselves protected from removal by an “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office” standard.

Under this attenuated removal scheme, “the President cannot remove an officer who enjoys more than one level of good-cause protection, even if the President determines that the officer is neglecting his duties or discharging them improperly.  That judgment is instead committed to another officer, who may or may not agree with the President’s determination, and whom the President cannot remove simply because that officer disagrees with him.  This contravenes the President’s ‘constitutional obligation to ensure the faithful execution of the laws.’”  Free Enterprise [Fund v. Pub. Co. Accounting Oversight Bd.], 130 S. Ct. at 3147 (quoting Morrison v. Olson, 487 U.S. 654, 693 (1988)).

Because the President cannot oversee SEC ALJs in accordance with Article II, SEC administrative proceedings violate the Constitution.

Complaint, ¶¶ 60-63.  The relief sought is an injunction barring an SEC administrative proceeding.

Although the complaint describes many respects in which SEC administrative proceedings are less fair to respondents than federal court actions, it does not explicitly contend that the SEC’s threatened administrative proceeding would violate due process, the equal protection clause, the Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial in civil actions, or be an arbitrary and capricious agency action under the Administrative Procedure Act.  That likely is because SEC-regulated entities like Gray Financial have long been subject to administrative enforcement actions as part of the SEC’s overall authority over regulated entities.

The merits of the Article II theory laid out in the complaint were previously discussed in the earlier post: Challenges to the Constitutionality of SEC Administrative Proceedings in Peixoto and Stilwell May Have Merit.

Straight Arrow

February 24, 2015

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