Tag Archives: ALJ James Grimes

Why the SEC’s Proposed Changes to Its Rules of Practice Are Woefully Inadequate — Part III

This is the third in a series of posts addressing the SEC’s proposals for revising the Rules of Practice in its administrative court.  These proposals purport to modernize antiquated procedures in that forum.  Our first two posts addressed two blatant inadequacies in the SEC’s proposals: (1) requiring that respondents plead in their answers certain defense theories that are not “affirmative defenses” required to be pled in response to complaints filed by the SEC in the federal courts; and (2) providing for a discovery process limited to a maximum of 5 depositions, requiring that those be shared among multiple respondents, allowing the Division of Enforcement an equal number of depositions (in addition many investigative depositions taken before the case was filed), and limiting the scope of witnesses that respondents could depose within the tiny allotment provided.  You can review these comments here (Part I), and here (Part II), respectively.

Before we turn to the third respect in which the SEC’s proposals continue and expand the unfairness of the SEC’s administrative forum, we pause to report that SEC Chair Mary Jo White publicly embarrassed herself by insisting that the current forum is perfectly fair and needs only to be “modernized,” whatever that actually means.  As reported in the Wall Street Journal, here is what she said about the new proposals:

The SEC chief said that the commission recently proposed rules to modernize the administrative law proceedings and submitted a draft for public comment.  The proposal came amid calls for overhauling the system, which critics say is biased toward the agency and provides few protections to defendants.  The proposed change, she noted, includes allowing for additional time and discovery depositions before the trials.

Ms. White described the administrative law judge system as “very fair proceedings” that offer even more due-process rights to defendants than district court.  The 2010 Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law allowed the SEC to handle a broader range of cases in the in-house court.  Still, she acknowledged that the agency needs to critically examine the system for the sake of both fairness and appearance because “the rules haven’t been modernized for almost 10 years.”

SEC’s White Defends In-House Courts, but Sees Need to Modernize.

As an experienced defense counsel, Ms. White certainly knows that what she is saying is false.  There is no conceivable way that one could describe the SEC’s current administrative litigation process as offering “even more due-process rights to defendants than district court.” Similar statements in disclosures by public companies would be prosecuted as section 10(b) frauds by the SEC itself, if they were material.  Perhaps she could beat the fraud charge on the theory that her misstatements were “mere puffery” (a defense the SEC staff itself rarely accepts).  It is sad, indeed, that such an eminent lawyer in private practice has fallen into lock-step acceptance of the SEC mantra that it is gloriously clothed and everything is really fine, when the outside world knows the opposite is true: the SEC enforcement process is clothed in rags and the administrative enforcement forum is badly in need of reform.

Now we turn to the third respect in which the SEC’s regulatory proposal for its court is grossly inadequate: The new proposals do nothing to cure the extreme unfairness of the current Rules of Practice regarding the issuance of subpoenas to the SEC and third parties.

Remember the starting point for the respective parties when a case is commenced.  The SEC staff starts after having conducted years of investigation, in which it is able to obtain virtually limitless information from any person it chooses to subpoena, or ask for a “voluntary” production of materials.  The defense, on the other hand, typically has no access to information from third parties, and may only have had at best limited access to information from co-respondents, including other respondents who settled rather than litigate the charges against them (e.g., in many cases, the company they work for).  Thus, at the start of the case, the SEC itself is in possession, custody, or control of many potentially relevant materials, and the respondent typically has very little access to most of the materials the SEC has.

In cases filed in federal court, this imbalance between the parties can be remedied by means of aggressive use of the document production and subpoena powers available under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

First, because the SEC is a party, it is subject to discovery as a civil litigant, including requests for documents in its possession, custody, or control.  Although the SEC struggles mightily in these cases to avoid discovery that typically occurs against other civil litigants, and it succeeds before some pro-government judges, the general rule is that once it files its case, it is a civil litigant under the federal rules just like any other civil litigant, and therefore subject to the same discovery rules as other plaintiffs.  In a well-publicized discovery decision by Judge Shira Scheindlin in SEC v. Collins & Aikman Corp., the judge noted tersely that “[w]hen a government agency initiates litigation, it must be prepared to follow the same discovery rules that govern private parties.”  See Case Study: SEC v. Collins & Aikman Corp. (Law 360).

Second, Fed. R. Civ. P. 45 allows defendants to issue subpoenas directly to third parties for relevant evidence, or for other information likely to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.  There is no “gateway” procedure for these subpoenas – the party need not convince the judge to issue a subpoena; it can do so itself.  The burden then falls on the subpoenaed party to figure out how to respond, knowing that the courts usually take the view that discovery should be permitted unless it plainly imposes an undue burden or obviously seeks information not calculated to lead potentially useful evidence.  What happens following the issuance of these subpoenas is predictable.  In some, but few, cases, the third party will simply comply.  In some, but also few, cases, the third party will seek to quash the subpoena in its entirety.  In the vast majority of cases, the party issuing the subpoena and the third party will enter into discussions during which they reach some agreement about what material will be provided in response to the subpoena and which requests will be withdrawn.  The end result is that the defendant can gather what he or she considers important information from third parties without having to defend that view before a judge, but also typically agrees to accept less than he or she might get if the issue were fully litigated before a judge.

In contrast, in an SEC administrative proceeding, the respondents have no subpoena power.  That is so even though their opponent – the SEC staff – was accorded essentially unlimited subpoena power during the investigative stage, and typically uses that power to gather information that would support a potential charge, not defend against one.  (That is why production of the “investigative file” is often far from sufficient for adequate trial preparation by the respondent.)  The Rules do provide for the possible issuance of subpoenas, to third parties and the SEC itself, but only by application to the administrative law judge, who decides whether the subpoena will be issued.  The ALJ places the burden on the respondent to show that the subpoena is warranted, often asking for supporting information about the materials sought in the subpoena that is not, and cannot, be known by the respondent.  The ALJ also typically sets a higher bar for discovery than the standard in federal court.  The SEC staff almost always objects to the issuance of these subpoenas because they are focused on winning, not on seeking the truth.

SEC Rule of Practice 232 governs this process.  It says:

[A] party may request the issuance of subpoenas requiring . . . the production of documentary or other tangible evidence. . . .

Standards for Issuance.  Where it appears to the person asked to issue the subpoena that the subpoena sought may be unreasonable, oppressive, excessive in scope, or unduly burdensome, he or she may, in his or her discretion, as a condition precedent to the issuance of the subpoena, require the person seeking the subpoena to show the general relevance and reasonable scope of the testimony or other evidence sought.  If after consideration of all the circumstances, the person requested to issue the subpoena determines that the subpoena or any of its terms is unreasonable, oppressive, excessive in scope, or unduly burdensome, he or she may refuse to issue the subpoena, or issue it only upon such conditions as fairness requires. . . .

. . . Any person to whom a subpoena is directed, or who is an owner, creator or the subject of the documents that are to be produced pursuant to a subpoena, or any party may . . . request that the subpoena be quashed or modified. . . .

If compliance with the subpoena would be unreasonable, oppressive or unduly burdensome, the hearing officer or the Commission shall quash or modify the subpoena, or may order return of the subpoena only upon specified conditions. . . .

This sets up the ALJ as a gatekeeper for all subpoenas.  And history shows that the ALJs are, at the prodding of the SEC staff prosecuting the case, stingy gatekeepers indeed. The end result is the inverse of the environment for document discovery in the federal courts.  Instead of giving the party the authority to commence the process to obtain documents, which gives the opposing party, or the third party recipient, the burden of having to negotiate a resolution or appear in court to defend its intransigence, the respondent must plead for the issuance of a subpoena and bear the initial burden of convincing the ALJ to do so.  Even if that happens and the subpoena is issued, the recipient (or other persons) still can move to quash the subpoena.

As a result of this highly restrictive set of rules governing subpoenas by respondents – compared to almost no restrictions for subpoenas issued by the SEC staff during the investigative process – very modest document discovery is possible in SEC administrative proceedings.

Recent cases show that an ALJ will issue a subpoena to the SEC, but only a narrow one and only in rare circumstances.  In In the Matter of Charles L. Hill, Jr., the respondent sought discovery relevant to his defense that the administrative process was biased and the administrative prosecution violated his constitutional rights.  Mr. Hill asked for a subpoena to the SEC for ten categories of materials.  ALJ James Grimes issued a subpoena for two of those categories – materials on administrative prosecutions of similar cases and reflecting allegations by a former ALJ of internal communications encouraging favoring the SEC staff in these cases.  See SEC ALJ James Grimes Issues Important Discovery Order Against SEC.  But he refused to allow other aspects of the subpoena, which included materials sought to support contentions of equal protection and due process infringements.  That order turned on a detailed judgment that the materials sought could not assist those defenses based on a merits analysis, which is a far more demanding standard than the discovery standard in federal court – whether the material could possibly lead to admissible evidence.  See Order Denying in Part Subpoena Request in In the Matter of Charles L. Hill, Jr..

In In the Matter of Ironridge Global Partners, LLC, ALJ Grimes refused to issue a subpoena for materials bearing on the respondents’ defenses of bias and constitutional infringements (see Decision by SEC ALJ James Grimes on Motion for Issuance of Subpoenas in In the Matter of Ironridge Global Partners).  He also refused to permit a subpoena of the notes of SEC staff witness interviews “to the extent those portions relate to the facts and circumstances of this case, [and] the portions do not reflect attorney-opinion work product.”  He rejected this request — which seeks factual material that has often been ordered produced in federal courts — because he found the respondents had not sufficiently shown the need to obtain those materials, including because they were unable to show specifically how portions of the materials they had never seen could be useful in defending the case.  That is a standard far beyond what would apply in federal court.  In a federal court, at the worst, on a motion to compel production, the court would perform an in camera review of the materials and typically mandate production of the factual portions of those materials.  More likely, the court would try to force the parties to negotiate a compromise.  Amazingly, ALJ Grimes ruled that the respondents’ argument that it was important that they learn what fact witnesses told the SEC about the very practices at issue in the case was not a sufficient showing of need because “Respondents necessarily already know how they conducted their business. . . .  They therefore already possess information about the facts addressed in the Division’s interview notes.”  See Third Order on Subpoenas in In re Ironridge Partners, LLC.  The notion that the need to learn about actual evidence to be presented in the case fails to satisfy the burden for supporting a subpoena shows the unreasonably narrow scope used by SEC ALJs in ordering discovery against the SEC.

The current Rules of Practice support and encourage the ALJs’ niggardly approach to granting subpoenas.  They also fundamentally alter the balance of discovery in these cases as compared to those filed in federal court.  Discovery against the SEC in the administrative forum is very difficult and always very limited.  The ALJs believe that the limited scope of materials specifically made available to respondents under Rule 230 (which is limited to the so-called “investigative file”) operates against discovery from the SEC of other sorts of materials.  The federal courts do not generally hold the same view — they note that the federal rules of discovery apply equally to all parties.  And in federal court, the ability of a defendant to cause a third party to negotiate document production by issuing a subpoena directly to that party provides access to a much wider range of material than could possibly be available by seeking approval from ALJs, who apply discovery standards far more stringent than those used in federal court, and focus excessively on adhering to the Commission-set schedule (since that is what the Commission requires them to do).

The SEC’s proposed changes to the Rules of Practice do nothing to cure this fundamental, and deeply consequential, bias allowing the SEC staff far greater access to evidence or potential evidence than respondents.  In fact, there is no discussion at all of how well or poorly Rule 232 has operated, nor any discussion of whether some changes to that rule might enhance fairness or efficiency in the administrative court.

The only material change proposed for Rule 232 is to add another reason to quash a subpoena.  No effort is made to try to equalize access to evidence or potential evidence, or to try to equalize subpoena rights between federal court and the administrative court.  But for some reason the SEC found it necessary to grant ALJs additional grounds for quashing subpoenas previously approved, adding as a new reason for quashing a subpoena whether it “would unduly delay the hearing.”  As a result, even if the ALJ found the subpoena appropriate when first sought, and it is not oppressive or excessive, he or she must (“shall”) quash the subpoena if it will “unduly delay the hearing.”  This is yet another respect in which the Commission views compliance with its (arbitrary and artificial) schedule to be more important than giving respondents a fair and just proceeding.

The document discovery process in SEC administrative proceedings is unfair, unjust, and a major reason why targets of SEC prosecutions do better in federal courts than in the administrative forum.  Since the SEC seems not to care much about any of those things, no reforms were proposed.  That is our third reason why the proposed rule changes are woefully inadequate and should be rejected as arbitrary and capricious.

Straight Arrow

November 18, 2015

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SEC Hit with Double Whammy Rulings Barring It from Commencing Challenged Administrative Proceedings

On the afternoon of September 17, 2015, the SEC was rebuffed by two federal courts in separate cases challenging the constitutionality of the SEC’s administrative law enforcement proceedings.  As reported here, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit granted Lynn Tilton an order barring the SEC from proceeding with an administrative trial on charges against her, pending that court’s resolution of a dispute over whether the federal courts have jurisdiction to consider her complaint that the administrative proceeding would violate Article II of the Constitution.  At roughly the same time, New York federal district court Judge Richard Berman rejected a motion by the SEC to allow it to proceed with an administrative action against Barbara Duka while it appealed (to the Second Circuit) Judge Berman’s preliminary injunction barring that proceeding from moving forward, on the very same constitutional grounds.  Judge Berman’s preliminary injunction order can be read here: Order Issuing Preliminary Injunction in Duka v. SEC; and his order denying the SEC’s stay motion can be read here: Decision and Order in Duka v. SEC.

The result is that two more administrative proceedings are now barred by court orders, joining two others that were barred by orders of Judge Leigh May in the federal district court in Atlanta.  See Court Issues Preliminary Injunction Halting Likely Unconstitutional SEC Proceeding, and Order Enjoining SEC in Gray Financial Group v. SEC.

The Second Circuit order was brief and straightforward.  But Judge Berman’s denial of the SEC’s application for a stay is filled with meaty discussions of key issues, including reiterating that several of the SEC’s positions on jurisdiction and the merits are wrong, suggesting that the SEC plays a little fast and loose with the positions it argues, and emphasizing that the SEC might want to be more proactive in addressing allegations of potential bias in its administrative court.

Judge Richard Berman - NYLJ/Rick Kopstein 100614

Judge Richard Berman – NYLJ/Rick Kopstein

On the jurisdictional issue, Judge Berman restated his belief that his court does have jurisdiction over the Duka constitutional challenge (“The Court is, respectfully, convinced that it made the correct finding of subject matter jurisdiction,” slip op. at 3), and took the time to address the contrary position recently reached by the Seventh Circuit in Bebo v. SEC, 2015 WL 4998489 (7th Cir. Aug. 24, 2015) (see 7th Circuit Rules for SEC, Affirming Dismissal of Bebo Case on Jurisdictional Grounds).  He openly disagreed with the Seventh Circuit’s view that the Supreme Court decision in Elgin v. Dep’t. of the Treasury, 132 S. Ct. 2126 (2012), was on point because the factual circumstances differed significantly.  See slip op. at 8-9.

Judge Berman also made pointed statements elsewhere in his opinion arguing that immediate consideration of the consitutional issue was consistent with Second Circuit law and the public interest.  For example: “The SEC argues unconvincingly that a party in Ms. Duka’s shoes ‘must patiently await the denouement of proceedings within the [administrative agency],” . . . .  But Second Circuit precedent appears to refute such a notion.  See Touche Ross & Co. v. S.E.C., 609 F.2d 570, 577 (2d Cir. 1979) (‘[T]o require appellants to exhaust their administrative remedies would be to require them to submit to the very procedures which they are attacking.’).”  Slip op. at 15-16 (some cites omitted).  And: “With respect to the public interest, the Court submits that it is of the utmost importance to the public that complex constitutional questions be resolved at the outset, with finality, and by application of the expertise of the federal courts.  See, e.g., Massaro v. United States, 538 U.S. 500,504 (2003); see also Pappas v. Giuliani, 118 F. Supp. 2d 433, 442 (S.D.N.Y. 2000) affd, 290 F.3d 143 (2d Cir. 2002) (‘Although often highly competent in their designated area of law, administrative decision-makers generally have neither the training nor the experience to adjudicate complex federal constitutional issues.’); Austin v. Ford, 181 F.R.D. 283, 286 (S.D.N.Y. 1998) (‘Public interest in finality of judgment encompasses the development of decisional law, the importance of the opinion to nonparties, and the deterrence of frivolous litigation.’).”  Slip op. at 16 (some cites and footnote omitted).

All of these points could be impactful as the Second Circuit considers the same jurisdictional issue in the Tilton v. SEC appeal.

On the merits, Judge Berman restated his belief that Supreme Court case law leaves little doubt that the SEC’s administrative law judges are “inferior officers” within the meaning of that term in Article II, and, as a result, their appointments are subject to limitations in Article II’s Appointments Clause.  His finding that the High Court reasoning and holding in Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U.S. 868 (1991), yields the conclusion that SEC ALJs are inferior officers because they exercised “significant authority pursuant to the laws of the United States” was not new – as he noted, he previously reached the same conclusion when he issued the preliminary injunction.  Slip op. at 9.  But it came within two weeks of the SEC reaching the opposite conclusion in its recent decision on the petition for review in In the Matter of Raymond J. Lucia Cos., Inc., File No. 15006 (see SEC Declares All Is Okay Because Its ALJs Are Just Employees and Not “Inferior Officers”), without even mentioning that decision or its analysis, suggesting Judge Berman found the SEC reasoning unpersuasive and sees no reason to defer to SEC views on the issue.  No doubt with knowledge of the specific analysis of the SEC in Lucia, he still wrote: “the SEC will not, in the Court’s view, be able to persuade the appellate courts that ALJs are not “inferior officers.”  Slip op. at 11.  Judge Berman’s bottom line: “Duka’s constitutional (Appointments Clause) challenge is (very) likely to succeed.”  Id. at 10.

On the SEC’s nimble willingness to revise its arguments to fit the circumstances, Judge Berman noted the “irony” of the SEC’s new-found emphasis on the compelling importance of judicial efficiency after it scoffed at Ms. Duka’s similar arguments in the original preliminary injunction hearing.  He wrote: “The Court’s reference to ‘irony’ [in an earlier ruling] refers to the fact that conservation of Duka’s resources was a core argument that she raised in objecting to participating in the SEC’s administrative proceedings prior to resolution of her constitutional challenge in federal court.  The SEC flatly opposed that argument, which it now appears firmly to embrace.”  He quoted his own statement during the oral argument that “I don’t understand why you reject that argument when Ms. Duka makes it but then at the same time in this Court you make the very same argument.”  Slip op. at 3 n.2.

And Judge Berman was surely making a point when he dwelled, without any apparent need, on the SEC’s opaque handling of publicly-disclosed evidence that its own administrative court could have a latent, or even intentional, bias in favor of the prosecution.  His opinion includes the following striking paragraph:

The Court is aware of recent allegations of undue pressure said to have been applied to an SEC ALJ to cause her to make SEC-favorable rulings.  “Lillian McEwen, who was an SEC judge from 1995 to 2007, said she came under fire from [Chief Administrative Law Judge Brenda] Murray for finding too often in favor of defendants.”  See Jean Eaglesham, SEC Wins with In-House Judges, The Wall Street Journal, May 6, 2015. . . .  And, in In the Matter of Timbervest, respondents allegedly sought to depose presiding ALJ Cameron Elliot, who was then allegedly invited by the SEC “to file by July I, 2015 an affidavit addressing whether he has had any communications or experienced any pressure similar to that alleged in the May 6, 2015 The Wall Street Journal article.”. . .  On June 9, 2015, ALJ Elliot emailed the following response: “I respectfully decline to submit the affidavit requested.”  See Jean Eagelsham, SEC Judge Declines to Submit Affidavit of No Bias, The Wall Street Journal, June 11, 2015. . . .  On July 24,2015, Chief Administrative Law Judge Murray issued an Order Redesignating Presiding Judge, designating Administrative Law Judge James E. Grimes “in place and stead of the Administrative Law Judge [ALJ Cameron Elliot] heretofore designated, to preside at the hearing in these proceedings and to perform other and related duties in accordance with the Commissioner’s Rules of Practice.”  See In the Matter of Barbara Duka, File No. 3-16349 (SEC).

During the September 16, 2015 hearing, the Court noted that it was “aware that there is some sort of flap at the SEC with respect to some of the ALJs,” that it “want[ed] to get further clarification about that matter,” and that “in this very case, [ALJ] Cameron Elliot . . . has been reassigned because he was not able or would not submit an affidavit.”. . .  While acknowledging that ALJ Elliot was removed from the Duka matter, Ms. Lin contended that “Judge Elliot has a very busy docket . . . and there is no suggestion, no connection whatsoever about [The Wall Street Journal article], about that particular former ALJ’s accusations to Judge Elliot’s reassignment in this case. . . .  And it’s not true that there would be any kind of connection.”. . .  The Court assumes that the SEC will want fully to investigate these matters.

Slip op. at 14-15 (citations omitted and emphasis added).

Apparently Judge Berman is as perplexed as yours truly when the Commission seems more insouciant than concerned in its reaction to serious public questioning of the fairness of its own administrative judicial process.  See SEC Bumbles Efforts To Figure Out How Its Own Administrative Law Judges Were Appointed; and SEC “Invites” ALJ Cameron Elliot To Provide Affidavit on Conversations “Similar” to Those Described by Former ALJ.  Indeed — although Judge Berman made no mention of this — it is downright embarrassing that 15 months ago the SEC’s General Counsel acknowledged that the Rules of Practice governing SEC administrative proceeding are archaic and need revamping and nothing has yet been done to address that issue.  See SEC Administrative Case Rules Likely Out Of Date, GC Says.  (Ms. Small said it was fair for attorneys to question whether the SEC’s rules for administrative proceedings were still appropriate, with the rules last revised “quite some time ago” when the SEC’s administrative proceedings dealt with different kinds of cases than the more complex administrative matters it now takes on or expects to take on — given the commission’s expanded authority under the Dodd-Frank Act — such as insider-trading actions.  It was “entirely reasonable to wonder” if those rules should be updated to reflect the changed situation, for instance by allowing more flexibility on current limits to trial preparation time or allowing for depositions to be taken.  “We want to make sure the process is fair and reasonable, so [changing] procedures to reflect the changes makes a lot of sense.”)

Anne Small -- SEC General Counsel

Anne Small — SEC General Counsel

When all of the dust settles on the Appointments Clause and other Article II constitutional challenges to these administrative courts, we will still be left with what every practicing securities litigator knows are vastly diminished due process rights in the SEC’s administrative courts as compared to the federal courts.  Judge Berman certainly seemed concerned about this in his opinion.  He said: “during the September 16, 2015 hearing, the SEC argued that administrative proceedings would serve the public interest because ‘it is a much faster process and it expedites the consideration and the determination of whether the underlying security violations had actually occurred and, more importantly, to impose the kind of remedy that would then help to prevent future harm.’. . .  The Court responded that ‘faster is [not] necessarily better because faster means no juries, no discovery, no declaratory relief.  In federal court you can get that . . . there’s a whole lot of protections, Ms. Duka argues, that are available in federal courts that are not available before the Commission.'”  Slip op. at 16.

If the SEC continues to be empowered to exercise effectively uncontrolled discretion over which cases are directed to the administrative courts (as a result of the expanded jurisdiction of those courts under the Dodd-Frank Act), and it continues to ignore obvious needs to modernize and balance the procedures for those proceedings to eliminate their “Star Chamber” similarities, the controversy over these actions will be unabated.

Straight Arrow

September 18, 2015

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SEC Argues Common “Facts” Are Not Common “Issues of Fact” — I Kid You Not

Yesterday, we described the SEC’s desperate attempt to nullify the assignment of the case Timbervest, LLC v. SEC to Judge Leigh Martin May.  That was based on the argument that the other cases already before Judge May identified as “related cases,” Hill v. SEC and Gray Financial Group v. SEC, were not actually “related cases” because “the cases do not ‘involve the same issue of fact,’” and they “do not arise out of the same event or transaction.”  See SEC, Desperate To Avoid Judge May, Challenges Related Case Designation in Timbervest Action.  Timbervest argued this was wrong because “they all arise out of the same facts concerning how SEC administrative law judges (‘ALJs’) are hired and what authority and powers SEC ALJs possess,” and the factual differences in the underlying SEC allegations in each case have no bearing on the constitutional issues raised in the respective complaints in these actions.

Today, the SEC filed its response.  It can be read here: SEC reply in opposition to related case designation.  It acknowledges that the cases have some common “facts” but argues that common “facts” are not common “issues of fact.”  In the SEC’s words, “At best, Plaintiffs’ argument boils down to the contention that these cases involve some of the same ‘facts,’ rather than ‘issues of fact.’”  The SEC’s argument turns on the assertion, made without citation, that an “issue of fact” must be a “dispute of fact,” and because the SEC will not dispute the common “facts” in these cases, they cannot be considered “issues of fact” because they will be undisputed.  (“their arguments ignore the distinction between a mere ‘fact’ and an ‘issue of fact,’ i.e., a dispute of fact”).  The best the SEC can do to support this view is a cite to Black’s Law Dictionary, which is quoted as saying: “An ‘issue of fact’ is ‘[a] point supported by one party’s evidence and controverted by another’s.'”  I don’t have a copy of Black’s Law Dictionary handy, but I guarantee you this purported definition had nothing to do with the assignment of cases to district court judges.

I have to chuckle.  No wonder lawyers are not often trusted by ordinary folks.  They concoct these arguments whether they make sense or not.  What ordinary person out there would think that two paragraphs with identical facts would not have the same “issues of fact”?  In any case, that doesn’t really matter here because it is patently obvious that in the context at issue here — how to assign a newly-filed case — a court (actually, a clerk of court) cannot possibly apply the standard the SEC passionately espouses because there is no way to determine at that stage which “facts” will or will not be “disputed.”  At this stage, there is only one source that can be used to assign the case — the allegations in the complaint.  If the allegations in the complaint involve factual contentions that materially overlap the facts alleged in another pending case, then the “related case” designation should be appropriate.  Last I checked, no clerk of court sought input from the defendant in an action about what factual allegations would be disputed before making a “related case” assignment.  Got a cite for that, SEC?

I wonder whether, having made this cute argument, the SEC will argue against being judicially estopped from disputing any of the facts alleged in the complaint when it files its Answer.  SEC counsel has now represented there are no material “disputed” facts, right?

I also wonder what Judge May is thinking about all of these machinations conjured up by the SEC solely to avoid having her preside over the Timbervest complaint?  If she has a sense of humor, she’ll chuckle as well, and move on to the job of deciding whether the few important facts that differ between Timbervest v. SEC and Hill v. SEC — which involve the different status of the respective administrative actions when the complaints were filed — alters the jurisdictional analysis in her Hill opinion.

Straight Arrow

June 18, 2015

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SEC, Desperate To Avoid Judge May, Challenges Related Case Designation in Timbervest Action

The SEC really wants to avoid Judge Leigh Martin May — the Northern District of Georgia judge who ruled in Hill v. SEC that the appointment of SEC ALJ James Grimes violated the appointments clause of Article II of the Constitution — like the plague.  The Commission filed a motion in Timbervest, LLC v. SEC seeking nullification of the assignment of the Timbervest action to Judge May as a case related to Hill v. SEC because it does not properly fit the definition of a “related case.”  The Timbervest complaint was filed after another case in that district making the same constitutional argument, Gray Financial Group v. SEC, was reassigned to Judge May as a related case.  See Timbervest Files Complaint and TRO Motion To Halt SEC Proceeding.  Timbervest identified it as a case related to Hill and Gray Financial in the cover sheet for its complaint, and the Timbervest action was assigned to Judge May, but the SEC’s papers do not address the actual process and rationale leading to the assignment of the case to Judge May.  Instead, the SEC accused Timbervest of “judge shopping” by checking the “related case” box.  By all appearances, however, it is the SEC that is “judge shopping” with this motion — shopping for any N.D. Ga. judge other than Judge Leigh Martin May.

The SEC’s motion can be read here: SEC motion opposing related case designation in Timbervest case.  Plaintiff’s response can be read here: Plaintiff’s response to SEC reassignment motion in Timbervest.

The SEC’s argument is that cases are “related” for purposes of judicial assignment in the Northern District of Georgia only if they arise out of common facts (“Plaintiffs noted the supposed relationship between their case, on the one hand, and Hill and Gray on the other, by checking a box on their civil cover sheet allowing for the designation of cases as related if they ‘involve the same issue of fact or arise[] out of the same event or transaction included in an earlier numbered pending suit.’”)  But, the SEC argues, the court’s Internal Operating Procedures establish that “a case is NOT related if it has the same LEGAL issue. . . .”  (quoting Rule 905-2(a)).  The SEC contends that Hill, Gray Financial, and Timbervest all present a common legal issue about the validity of the appointment of ALJs, but they arise out of very different facts (i.e., the SEC’s factual contentions of law violations are different in each case): “the cases do not arise out of the same event or transaction. To the contrary, the cases arise out of different administrative proceedings involving different respondents.”

This argument conflates the facts relevant to the SEC’s charges in the administrative cases with those relevant to the plaintiffs’ complaints pending before the district court.  Each of these cases — that is, each of the federal court complaints — turn on essentially identical facts about the appointments of, powers granted to, and removal limitations for, the ALJs presiding over the proceedings.  The critical facts at issue are not the underlying violations of law charged by the SEC, but the nearly identical facts surrounding the appointment of the ALJs assigned to hear the three administrative cases, the President’s control (or lack thereof) over those ALJs, and the powers they exercise as ALJs.

In fact, the SEC itself previously argued to Judge May that the only relevant facts in the Hill case are the circumstances of the appointment of ALJ James Grimes (see SEC Says It Will Appeal Hill v. SEC Decision, Seek To Stay the Case, and Try To Prevent Discovery).  Since the Timbervest complaint alleges that the same circumstances apply to the appointment of ALJ Cameron Elliot, who presided over the Timbervest administrative trial, the SEC should be in agreement that the material issues in each of those cases “involve the same issue of fact.” 

But putting aside the merits of the SEC’s argument, it is difficult to understand why the SEC cares about whether the Timbervest case is assigned to the same or a different judge than the Hill and Gray Financial cases.  The SEC already informed Judge May that it will be appealing her preliminary injunction order to the 11th Circuit.  See SEC Says It Will Appeal Hill v. SEC Decision, Seek To Stay the Case, and Try To Prevent Discovery.  Given the fact that this issue is going up on appeal no matter what, why make a desperate motion to reassign a case turning on what is acknowledged to be an identical legal issue to another judge in the same district?  The legal issue is going to be heard de novo by the court of appeals; there is little or no value in trying to force another judge to labor on another opinion.  And even if the case were reassigned, the strong likelihood is that a different judge in the same district would defer to Judge May’s opinion — which, whether ultimately right or wrong, is thoughtful and certainly not off the wall — rather than labor through the complex analysis again, knowing that the 11th Circuit will be ruling soon in any event.

So, even putting aside the questionable legal arguments made by the Commission, the problem with this motion to reassign the Timbervest case is that it just doesn’t make a lot of tactical, strategic, or common sense.  The filing of the motion, together with a bevy of other questionable recent decisions made by the Commission on the issues raised over the last year about the SEC’s administrative enforcement practices, leaves the impression that very little thought is being given to an overall plan for dealing with what is plainly an important problem.  (Three examples come immediately to mind: the publication without hearings or comment of slapdash and plainly meaningless guidelines for bringing cases administratively, which have been roundly ridiculed by commentators; the recent debacle where the Commission asked ALJ Elliot for an affidavit on bias issues and Mr. Elliot declined to do so; and the Commission’s apparent paralysis in responding to remarks by former ALJ Lillian McEwen about possible systemic biases in the administrative court.)  See Upon Further Review, SEC Memo on Use of Administrative Courts Was Indeed a Fumble; SEC ALJ Cameron Elliot Declines To Submit Affidavit “Invited” by the Commission; and Fairness Concerns About Proliferation of SEC Administrative Prosecutions Documented by Wall Street Journal.

Most everything the SEC is doing now with these cases, and on the critical issues raised by the Commission’s increased use of administrative enforcement actions, seems without rhyme or reason.  The Commission and its staff need to sit back, take a deep breath, and figure out how to get to a resolution of these serious concerns with minimal chaos and upheaval, both in the courts and in its own administrative court.  Right now, that is just not happening, and the resulting turmoil is saddening and a bit frightening.

Straight Arrow

June 17, 2015

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Timbervest Files Complaint and TRO Motion To Halt SEC Proceeding

Today (June 12, 2015), Timbervest, LLC filed a complaint in federal court in the Northern District of Georgia seeking a halt to its ongoing SEC administrative proceeding, In the Matter of Timbervest, LLC at al.  We have previously discussed the Timbervest SEC proceeding, including recent developments involving Timbervest’s challenge to the constitutionality of the SEC administrative process and requests for discovery into possible systemic bias within the administrative court.  See Briefing of ALJ Constitutionality Before SEC Leaves Resolution in Doubt, SEC Broadens Constitutional Inquiry into Its Own Administrative Judges in Timbervest Case, SEC “Invites” ALJ Cameron Elliot To Provide Affidavit on Conversations “Similar” to Those Described by Former ALJ, and SEC ALJ Cameron Elliot Declines To Submit Affidavit “Invited” by the Commission.

With its efforts to pursue the constitutional challenge before the SEC meeting obstacles before the Commission, Timbervest opted to seek federal court intervention, commencing an action for injunctive relief, and moving for a temporary restraining order.  Those documents can be found here: Complaint in Timbervest v. SECMemorandum in Support of Motion for TRO in Timbervest v. SEC.

Because Timbervest is located in Atlanta, it filed its complaint in the federal district court for the Northern District of Georgia.  That is the same court that days ago halted a different SEC administrative proceeding, In the Matter of Charles L. Hill, Jr., in the action Hill v. SEC.  In that case, Judge Leigh Martin May found the appointment of ALJ James Grimes violated the appointments clause of Article II of the Constitution.  See Court Issues Preliminary Injunction Halting Likely Unconstitutional SEC Proceeding. And another case filed in that same court by yet another SEC respondent, Gray Financial Group v. SEC, was just assigned to Judge May as a related case.  See Ga. Judge Who Blocked SEC Admin Suit Gets Similar Case.  The new Timbervest complaint, which is case number 1:15-cv-02106-LMM, was also assigned to Judge May.

Judge May. an Obama appointee who is only in her first year of service as a judge, was active in the Democratic party before her appointment.  An article discussing her background can be read here: The Atlanta Judge Who Stuck A Thorn In The SEC’s Side.

In the Timbervest SEC proceeding, ALJ Cameron Elliot issued an Initial Decision as to which both the respondents and the SEC staff petitioned for Commission review, which was granted.  After briefing of the issues before the Commission, and supplemental briefing addressing constitutional issues, Timbervest sought discovery after the Wall Street Journal revealed possible pressures on SEC administrative judges to favor the SEC staff.  See Fairness Concerns About Proliferation of SEC Administrative Prosecutions Documented by Wall Street Journal.  Only days ago, the Commission held oral argument on the petitions for review.  But after Judge May”s decision in the Hill case, and ALJ Elliot’s refusal to provide information about possible pressures requested by the Commissioners, Timbervest felt it had to seek relief in federal court, saying: “Plaintiffs have appealed the ALJ’s Initial Decision to the Commission, but it has become clear that the Commission should not hear these arguments.  First, the Commission itself did not properly appoint the ALJ.  Second, the Commission has argued in other cases that its administrative forum is constitutional.  Thus, Plaintiffs’ appeal to the Commission is nothing more than an exercise in futility.”  Complaint ¶ 8.

The Timbervest complaint reveals an interesting issue about the handling of its case by the SEC’s ALJs.  The case was originally assigned to Chief Administrative Law Judge Brenda Murray, but then handed over to ALJ Elliot.  (ALJ Murray is the person identified by former ALJ Lillian McEwen as having told Ms. McEwen that she “questioned her loyalty to the SEC” because she did not treat the SEC staff sufficiently favorably.)  ALJs Murray and Elliot allegedly made a critical decision preventing Timbervest from using Brady material (material tending to show the respondents were innocent):

Given the age of the case, the primary evidence presented in support of the Division’s alleged violations was the faded and inconsistent memories of two Division witnesses.  As to one of those witnesses, Plaintiffs argued that the SEC had in its possession Brady material that the Commission’s staff disagreed with and argued was inadvertently produced.  The Brady material consisted of notes of two interviews the Commission’s staff conducted with that witness.  The Plaintiffs argued that the notes were exculpatory and, at the very least, were inconsistent statements that were required to be produced.  Pursuant to the SEC’s own administrative proceeding rules, it is required to produce Brady material.  Even though the SEC conducted an investigation that lasted over three years,speaking to numerous individuals over that time, the Commission’s staff did not produce any documents or information that it identified as Brady to the Plaintiffs.  Ultimately, ALJ Elliot, as well as ALJ Murray, ruled in favor of the Commission’s staff that the notes were not Brady, even though the notes were clearly inconsistent and exculpatory.

Complaint ¶ 28.

The Timbervest complaint also revealed that the SEC staff acknowledged that “ALJ Elliot was not hired through a process involving the approval of the individual members of the Commission.”  The staff could not state how ALJ Murray was appointed because “Chief ALJ Murray began work at the agency in 1988 and information regarding hiring practices at that time is not readily available.”  Complaint ¶ 36.  At a minimum, then, if Judge May retains her view that the SEC’s administrative law judges are “inferior officers” of the Executive Branch, a finding that ALJ Elliot was improperly appointed may come soon.  The only thing that might prevent such a ruling is if Judge May concludes that because the Timbervest SEC proceeding has already gone through trial and is before the SEC on review of the Initial Decision — a different set of circumstances than she faced in the Hill case — a federal court should not take jurisdiction over the case.

The SEC’s pot is now boiling over in, of all places, Atlanta, Georgia.

Straight Arrow

June 12, 2105

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SEC ALJ Cameron Elliot Declines To Submit Affidavit “Invited” by the Commission

On June 4, 2015, we discussed the SEC’s Order in In the Matter of Timbervest LLC “inviting”  administrative Law judge Cameron Elliot to submit an affidavit “addressing whether he has had any communications or experienced any pressure similar to that alleged in the May 6, 2015 The Wall Street Journal article, ‘SEC Wins With In-House Judges,’ and whether he is aware of any specific instances in which any other Commission ALJ has had such communications or experienced such pressure.”  See SEC “Invites” ALJ Cameron Elliot To Provide Affidavit on Conversations “Similar” to Those Described by Former ALJ.  Well, ALJ Elliot either doesn’t think that fits his job description, or he just doesn’t like the idea of providing a sworn declaration to the SEC.  On June 9, after considering the matter for four days, he tersely declined the invitation, saying only “I respectfully decline to submit the affidavit requested.”  (This does suggest that, at least as to this ALJ, the President or his proxies at the Commission do not have much sway over an ALJ who has multiple layers of protection against being fired.)

That would seem to leave the SEC in a bit of a pickle.  The Commissioners obviously thought there would be some value in gathering information on the issue of pressure on ALJs to act favorably to the Commission, which was raised by former ALJ Lillian McEwen with Wall Street Journal reporter Jean Eaglesham.  See Fairness Concerns About Proliferation of SEC Administrative Prosecutions Documented by Wall Street Journal.  The invitation to ALJ Elliot to supply data specific to him has now been rejected.  The Commission apparently still has not acted on respondent Timbervest’s request for discovery on the issue.  So what next step can the Commission take that doesn’t smack of arbitrarily ignoring the question, even after acknowledging it could be relevant?  We can only wait and see.  The Wall Street Journal reported that in a recent interview, Ms. McEwen explained that a sitting SEC judge would have difficulty discussing whether he or she felt pressure to favor the SEC, but that she said “she would ‘of course’ be happy to give evidence about her own experience” to the commissioners “if the agency decided to ask her for that.”  See SEC Judge Declines to Submit Affidavit of No Bias.

We’ve called for the Commission to commence an open, independent, and transparent inquiry into what is now at least a potential appearance of bias in its administrative process.  If that kind of review is occurring, it certainly is not open and transparent to interested observers.  The outward appearance is that there is a strange paralysis on the issue.  The longer the silence prevails, the more the appearance of this being a real issue has a chance to develop.  With the courts now for the first time showing a willingness to scrutinize the SEC administrative law process in response to challenges raised by respondents (see Court Issues Preliminary Injunction Halting Likely Unconstitutional SEC Proceeding), paralysis — or stonewalling, if that’s what it is — would seem to encourage continued chaos.  (Speaking of chaos, doesn’t it seem a little strange that in the wake of Judge May’s decision in Hill v. SEC that the appointment of ALJ James Grimes violated the constitution’s appointments clause, the SEC has taken no steps to address that issue?  Instead, following Judge May’s ruling, ALJ Grimes was appointed to preside over a new proceeding: see Order Scheduling Hearing and Designating Presiding Judge in In the Matter of R. Scott Peden.)

Straight Arrow

June 11, 2015

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Court Issues Preliminary Injunction Halting Likely Unconstitutional SEC Proceeding

In a breakthrough development, Northern District of Georgia federal district judge Leigh Martin May found that Charles Hill, a respondent in a pending SEC administrative proceeding, had a “substantial likelihood of success” of showing that the proceeding against him is unconstitutional because the appointment of the administrative law judge presiding over his case violated the appointments clause of Article II of the Constitution.  That is one of several arguments that have been made against the legality of the SEC’s administrative enforcement proceedings, and this is the first court to treat any of those arguments seriously.

Judge May’s decision is here: Order in Hill v. SEC.

 

Judge Leigh May. Photo by John Disney/Daily Report.

Judge Leigh May. Photo by John Disney/Daily Report.

The opinion, while tempered, is an eye-opener for the SEC, which has so far convinced other courts (and no doubt themselves) either not to consider these arguments or give them short shrift.  The Commission now has no choice but to reconsider whether its recent determination to shift important enforcement cases from federal courts to its administrative courts still makes sense.  One can assume there will be every effort to appeal this decision and get this decision overturned on an expedited basis, but that could take months, even in an accelerated proceeding, and the Eleventh Circuit might end up agreeing with Judge May.  The availability of a stay pending appeal may be in doubt because the order only halts the one proceeding against Mr. Hill, making the need for a stay questionable.  Alternatively, the Commission could expedite its own consideration of this issue in the pending Timbervest administrative proceeding (see SEC Broadens Constitutional Inquiry into Its Own Administrative Judges in Timbervest Case), rule in its own favor, and possibly get the issue to an appellate court with an added argument that the SEC’s decision is entitled to some deference.  Since Timbervest is located in Atlanta, that may also end up before the Eleventh Circuit.  In the meantime, there is a cloud over the entire SEC administrative enforcement process, although, as noted, Judge May’s order itself only halts the impending adminsitrative trial of Mr. Hill.

Judge May’s opinion was careful and thorough.  In the end, it came down to a single issue: whether the SEC’s administrative law judges are “executive officers” subject to the appointments clause and other Article II limits on diminishing executive power.  Some time ago, we wrote that this was a serious issue on which Supreme Court precedent seemed likely create problems for the SEC.  See Challenges to the Constitutionality of SEC Administrative Proceedings in Peixoto and Stilwell May Have Merit.  Until now, however, no court has been willing to give the argument thorough consideration.  See In Duka v. SEC, SDNY Judge Berman Finds SEC Administrative Law Enforcement Proceedings Constitutional in a Less than Compelling Opinion.

The opinion begins with a discussion of many of the respects in which “SEC administrative proceedings vary greatly from federal court actions.”  Slip op. at 4.  These include: the rules of evidence do not apply; respondents “are generally barred from taking depositions”; “SEC administrative proceedings also occur much more quickly than federal court actions”; “[c]ounterclaims are not permissible”; there is no equivalent of Rule 12(b) motions “to test the allegations sufficiency”; and “there is no right to a jury trial.” Id. at 4-5.

It then discusses the respective powers of the ALJ and the SEC: the presiding ALJ is selected by the chief ALJ, presides over the matter and issues an initial decision; the SEC may order interlocutory review of any ALJ decision during the proceeding; the initial decision can be appealed by either party or reviewed by the SEC on its own initiative; a decision is not final until the SEC issues it, but if there is no appeal and the SEC does not review an ALJ decision “it is deemed the action of the Commission,” and the SEC issues an order making that decision final; SEC review is de novo and new evidence can be heard, but “the SEC will accept the ALJ’s ‘credibility finding, absent overwhelming evidence to the contrary.’”  An SEC decision can be appealed to a federal court of appeals (either the D.C. Circuit or the Circuit where the respondent resides).  On appeal, the “SEC’s findings of facts are ‘conclusive’ ‘if supported by substantial evidence.’” Id. at 5-7.

The court then describes that SEC ALJs “are ‘not appointed by the President, the Courts, or the [SEC] Commissioners.  Instead, they are hired by the SEC’s Office of Administrative Law Judges, with input from the Chief Administrative Law Judge, human resource functions, and the Office of Personnel Management.’”  Id. at 7.  Congress authorized the SEC to delegate any of its functions to an ALJ, and the SEC promulgated regulations making ALJs responsible for the “fair and orderly conduct” of proceedings and giving them the authority to: “(1) Administer oaths and affirmations; (2) Issue subpoenas; (3) Rule on offers of proof; (4) Examine witnesses; (5) Regulate the course of a hearing; (6) Hold pre-hearing conferences; (7) Rule upon motions; and (8) Unless waived by the parties, prepare an initial decision containing the conclusions as to the factual and legal issues presented, and issue an appropriate order.”  Id. at 8.

The court then moved to the specifics of Mr. Hill’s prosecution, noting that he moved for summary disposition on constitutionality grounds but that ALJ James Grimes ruled that he lacked the authority to address two of the three grounds asserted: that “Congess’s delegation of authority to the SEC to pursue cases before ALJs violates the delegation doctrine in Article I of the Constitution,” and that “Congress violated his Seventh Amendment right to jury trial by allowing the SEC to pursue charges in an administrative proceeding.”  Id. at 10.  See SEC ALJ Says He Lacks Authority To Decide Key Constitutional Challenges.  Mr. Hill sought relief from the federal court to prevent the proceeding on these constitutionality grounds, and later amended his complaint to assert that the proceeding was also unconstitutional because “the SEC ALJ’s appointment violated the Appointments Clause of Article II as the ALJ is allegedly an inferior officer and he was not appointed by the President, the courts of law, or a department head.”  Slip op. at 10-11.

Turning to the legal determinations, Judge May first rejected the SEC’s contention that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case.  The SEC made this argument successfully in cases previously brought by other respondents, including Wing Chau and Laurie Bebo.  See SEC Wins First Skirmish on Constitutional Challenge to Chau Administrative Proceeding; Court Dismisses “Compelling and Meritorious” Bebo Constitutional Claims Solely on Jurisdictional Grounds.  The SEC argued “that its election to pursue claims against Plaintiff in an administrative proceeding, ‘channels review of Plaintiff’s claims through the Commission’s administrative process, with review in the courts of appeals,’” that is, “judicial review can only come from the courts of appeal following the administrative proceeding and the SEC’s issuance of a final order in Plaintiff’s case.”  Slip op. at 11-12.  The court found this “in tension with 28 U.S.C. § 1331, which provides that federal district courts ‘have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States,’ and 28 U.S.C. § 2201, which authorizes declaratory judgments.”  Id. at 12.  The court rejected the SEC’s argument that “Congress declared its intent for the administrative proceeding to be the exclusive forum for judicial review for these cases by allowing the SEC to make the administrative proceeding its forum choice,” finding instead that “Congress’s purposeful language allowing both district court and administrative proceedings shows a different intent.  Instead, the clear language of the statute provides a choice of forum, and there is no language indicating that the administrative proceeding was to be an exclusive forum.”  Id. at 13.

Moving beyond this point to the issue addressed previously by two other courts in the SEC’s favor – whether Supreme Court precedent on the issue supports a finding that Congress did withdraw jurisdiction – Judge May found otherwise because:

(1) “If Plaintiff is required to raise his constitutional law claims following the administrative proceeding, he will be forced to endure what he contends is an unconstitutional process.”  Slip op. at 15.  Critically, Mr. Hill “does not challenge the SEC’s conduct in that proceeding or the allegations against him—he challenges the proceeding itself” (id. at 17).  “Waiting until the harm Plaintiff alleges cannot be remedied is not meaningful judicial review.”  Id. at 18.

(2) The constitutional challenge is “wholly collateral” to the merits of the proceeding itself.  “Plaintiff is not challenging an agency decision; Plaintiff is challenging whether the SEC’s ability to make that decision was constitutional.  What occurs at the administrative proceeding and the SEC’s conduct there is irrelevant to this proceeding which seeks to invalidate the entire statutory scheme.”  Id. at 20.

(3) The constitutional issues are outside the SEC’s expertise.  “Plaintiff’s constitutional claims are governed by Supreme Court jurisprudence, and ‘the statutory questions involved do not require technical considerations of agency policy.’”  Id. at 21.

This aspect of the opinion is consistent with Judge Richard Berman’s decision in Duka v. SEC (SDNY).  Judge Berman, however, went on to reject Ms. Duka’s constitutional argument, finding the she was “unlikely to succeed on the merits” of that claim.

Having likewise found her court had jurisdiction over Mr. Hill’s claim, however, Judge May went in a different direction on the merits of the preliminary injunction sought by Mr. Hill.  The critical issue was whether Mr. Hill had “a substantial likelihood to succeed on the merits” on his constitutional claims.

Judge May found no such likelihood of success for the argument that the power given to the SEC in the Dodd-Frank Act to bring these cases in its administrative court was an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power.  Instead, she found this authority was a form of prosecutorial discretion that is an executive power, not a delegated legislative power.  “When the SEC makes its forum selection decision, it is acting under executive authority and exercising prosecutorial discretion. . . .  Because Congress has properly delegated power to the executive branch to make the forum choice for the underlying SEC enforcement action, the Court finds that the Plaintiff cannot prove a substantial likelihood of success on the merits on his non-delegation claim.”  Slip op. at 23-29.

On the Seventh Amendment jury trial issue, the court likewise found no substantial likelihood of success.  Judge May found Supreme Court precedent on this controlling because SEC prosecutions involve “public rights,” since the SEC “is acting as a sovereign in the performance of its executive duties when it pursues an enforcement action.”  The controlling Supreme Court case, Atlas Roofing Co. v. Occupational Safety & Health Review Comm’n, 430 U.S. 442 (1977), rejected the jury trial argument in administrative enforcement actions brought by OSHA.

One might question whether this addresses the true jury trial issue in SEC cases.  Unlike the OSHA case, the SEC traditionally prosecuted alleged violations of the securities laws by unregulated persons in federal court actions, in which there is a jury trial right as to non-equitable claims.  Only after Dodd-Frank was enacted was the SEC permitted to commence the same actions in its administrative courts.  That means the SEC was given the power to deny a defendant what for many years has been a jury trial right, and, because there are no standards governing how to go about doing this, currently does so without any enforceable or predictable guidelines for the decision.  That raises a combination of jury trial, equal protection, and arbitrary and capriciousness arguments that the Atlas Roofing case does not begin to address.  I expect a more definitive consideration of the jury trial issue is yet to come.   

Judge May did ultimately find a substantial likelihood of success on one of Mr. Hill’s constitutional arguments, which raises the question of whether it was prudent to decide these first two constitutional issues when they did not, in the end, have a bearing on her decision.  Normally, a court strives to avoid constitutional issues if possible.

But the blockbuster part of the opinion is certainly the discussion of the alleged Article II violations.  Judge May did find a substantial likelihood of success on at least one of Mr. Hill’s alleged violations of Article II – whether the appointment of ALJ Grimes violated the appointments clause in Article II, section 2, clause 2.  (Having reached that conclusion, she found it unnecessary to decide the other Article II issue – whether the double layer of tenure protection for SEC ALJs unacceptably encroached on the President’s executive power.  Why was that given different treatment than the delegation and jury trial issues?)

The threshold question for each of these arguments was whether SEC ALJs are “executive officers” within the meaning of Article II.  We previously discussed this issue at length (in the aforementioned Challenges to the Constitutionality of SEC Administrative Proceedings in Peixoto and Stilwell May Have Merit), and expressed the view that Supreme Court precedent in Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U.S. 868 (1991), strongly suggested that the SEC ALJs were, indeed, “inferior officers” within the meaning of Article II.  Judge May agreed that Freytag was effectively controlling, as follows:

The issue of whether the SEC ALJ is an inferior officer or employee for purposes of the Appointments Clause depends on the authority he has in conducting administrative proceedings. . . .  The Appointments Clause . . . creates two classes of officers: principal officers, who are selected by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, and inferior officers, whom “Congress may allow to be appointed by the President alone, by the heads of departments, or by the Judiciary.” . . .  The Appointments Clause applies to all agency officers including those whose functions are “predominately quasi judicial and quasi legislative” and regardless of whether the agency officers are “independent of the Executive in their day-to-day operations.” . . .

“[A]ny appointee exercising significant authority pursuant to the laws of the United States is an ‘Officer of the United States,’ and must, therefore, be appointed in the manner prescribed by § 2, cl. 2, of [Article II].” . . .  By way of example, the Supreme “Court has held that district-court clerks, thousands of clerks within the Treasury and Interior Departments, an assistant surgeon, a cadet-engineer, election monitors, federal marshals, military judges, Article I [Tax Court special trial] judges, and the general counsel for the Transportation Department are inferior officers.” . . .

Plaintiff claims that SEC ALJs are inferior officers because they exercise “significant authority pursuant to the laws of the Unites States” while the SEC contends ALJs are “mere employees” based upon Congress’s treatment of them and the fact that they cannot issue final orders and do not have contempt power. . . .  The Court finds that based upon the Supreme Court’s holding in Freytag, SEC ALJs are inferior officers.

 In Freytag, the Supreme Court was asked to decide whether special trial judges (“STJ”) in the Tax Court were inferior officers under Article II. . . .  The Government argued, much as the SEC does here, that STJs do “no more than assist the Tax Court judge in taking the evidence and preparing the proposed findings and opinion,” id., and they “lack authority to enter a final decision.” . . .  The Supreme Court rejected that argument. . . .

The Court finds that like the STJs in Freytag, SEC ALJs exercise “significant authority.” The office of an SEC ALJ is established by law, and the “duties, salary, and means of appointment for that office are specified by statute.” . . .  ALJs are permanent employees—unlike special masters—and they take testimony, conduct trial, rule on the admissibility of evidence, and can issue sanctions, up to and including excluding people (including attorneys) from hearings and entering default. . . .

Slip op. at 35-38 (citations omitted).

Judge May went on to consider the divided decision of a D.C. Circuit panel in Landry v. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., 204 F.3d 1125 (D.C. Cir. 2000), that ALJs at the FDIC were not executive officers.  She was convinced that the concurring minority opinion in that case was more true to Freytag than the majority of the panel, and, like the concurring judge in Landry, concluded “that the Supreme Court in Freytag found that the STJs powers—which are nearly identical to the SEC ALJs here—were independently sufficient to find that STJs were inferior officers.”  Slip op. at 40.

Judge May also rejected the SEC’s argument that the court “should defer to Congress’s apparent determination that ALJs are inferior officers” because “Congress is presumed to know about the Appointments Clause, and it decided to have ALJs appointed through OPM and subject to the civil service system,” and therefore “intended for ALJs to be employees.”  Id. at 41.  Because the appointments clause “prevents Congress from dispensing power too freely,” Judge May found that argument unacceptable: “Congress may not ‘decide’ an ALJ is an employee, but then give him the powers of an inferior officer; that would defeat the separation-of-powers protections the Clause was enacted to protect.”  Accordingly, the court found “that SEC ALJs are inferior officers.”  Id.  Moreover, because the SEC “concedes that Plaintiff’s ALJ, James E. Grimes, was not appointed by an SEC Commissioner,” he “was not appointed by the President, a department head, or the Judiciary” as the appointments clause requires.”  As a result, “[b]ecause he was not appropriately appointed pursuant to Article II, his appointment is likely unconstitutional in violation of the Appointments Clause.”  Id. at 42.

We might add that by all appearances ALJ Grimes’s treatment of the constitutional challenges to the proceeding before him has been handled responsibly, even to the point of granting a subpoena on the SEC sought by Mr. Hill relating to a due process challenge on the basis of possible systemic bias in the administrative court.  See SEC ALJ James Grimes Issues Important Discovery Order Against SEC.

Judge May went on to find the other requirements for a preliminary injunction satisfied (id. at 42-43), and ruled that “a preliminary injunction is appropriate to enjoin the SEC administrative proceeding and to allow the Court sufficient time to consider this matter on the merits.”  Id. at 44.

The judge’s final words addressed whether all of this was important enough to support potentially debilitating relief (and least in the short term):

The Court notes that this conclusion may seem unduly technical, as the ALJ’s appointment could easily be cured by having the SEC Commissioners issue an appointment or preside over the matter themselves.  However, the Supreme Court has stressed that the Appointments Clause guards Congressional encroachment on the Executive and “preserves the Constitution’s structural integrity by preventing the diffusion of appointment power.” Freytag, 501 U.S. at 878.  This issue is “neither frivolous or disingenuous.” Id. at 879. The Article II Appointments Clause is contained in the text of the Constitution and is an important part of the Constitution’s separation of powers framework.

In addition, the Appointments Clause may not be waived, not even by the Executive.  Id. at 880 (“Neither Congress nor the Executive can agree to waive this structural protection.”).  As this likely Appointment Clause violation “goes to the validity of the [administrative] proceeding that is the basis for this litigation,” id. at 879, it is hereby ORDERED that Defendant, the Securities and Exchange Commission, is preliminarily enjoined from conducting the administrative proceeding brought against Plaintiff . . . including the hearing scheduled for June 15, 2015, before an Administrative Law Judge who has not been appointed by the head of the Department.

Slip op. at 44.

The SEC is likely unprepared for this occurrence.  But, as we previously wrote, the case law strongly supported the view that SEC ALJs are, indeed, inferior executive officers, and serious constitutional issues flow from that, including the appointments clause issue now decided against the SEC.

As the court notes, there may be some tweaks that could clear up this issue, although they may well require action by Congress amending the statutory provisions governing the appointment of administrative law judges (an issue I’ve not looked at).  But even if a “cure” is possible with such tweaks, they would not address the more fundamental question of whether the SEC is doing the right thing by bringing serious prosecutorial actions like these against persons not subject to SEC regulatory oversight in the administrative court.  The lengthy list given by Judge May of the respects in which respondents are impeded from presenting a defense in the administrative forum, as compared to federal courts, should give a fair-minded Commission pause about whether its recent policy of increased administrative enforcement actions needs to be reconsidered.  See Former SEC Enforcement Leaders Urge SEC To Reform Administrative Enforcement Process.  The bottom line is that when unregulated persons are prosecuted for alleged violations and face debilitating demands for penalties and purported “disgorgement,” plus the usual SEC effort to bar these people from future employment as officers or directors of public companies, perhaps the “right” thing to do is allow them to defend themselves in a forum that provides a more level playing field.  Is it really that hard to “do the right thing”?

Straight Arrow

June 9, 2015

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