Tag Archives: In the Matter of Charles L. Hill

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 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 Says It Will Appeal Hill v. SEC Decision, Seek To Stay the Case, and Try To Prevent Discovery

An SEC June 15, 2015 filing in Hill v. SEC, No. 15-cv-1801 (N.D. Ga.), informed Judge Leigh Martin May that the Commission will appeal her June 8 ruling that the administrative proceeding In the Matter of Charles L. Hill, Jr. violates the constitution because the appointment of the presiding administrative law judge, James Grimes, was unconstitutional.  See Court Issues Preliminary Injunction Halting Likely Unconstitutional SEC Proceeding.  The SEC also said it would seek a stay of the entire proceeding before Judge May, including any discovery the plaintiff intends to pursue as the Hill action moves beyond the preliminary injunction stage.  The SEC’s submission can be read here: SEC June 15 Filing in Hill v. SECThe submission on behalf of plaintiff Charles Hill can be read here: Hill June 15 Filing in Hill v. SEC.

These submissions were made in response to the portion of the June 8 ruling stating that the parties should “confer on a timetable for conducting discovery and briefing the remaining issues.”

Although Judge May’s preliminary injunction was narrowly drawn to halt only the single administrative action against Mr. Hill — and ALJ Grimes has since been appointed to preside over a new proceeding — the SEC still argues that the requirements for staying the Hill Order and litigation are satisfied.  The SEC wrote: “Defendant intends to appeal the preliminary injunction issued by this Court.  Defendant also intends to move to stay all proceedings in this Court pending appeal because the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling will have a significant impact on this case, and any further proceedings in this Court could prove largely superfluous and a waste of the parties’ and the Court’s resources.”  SEC Submission at 1-2.  Typically, however, the mere possibility of some wasted resources in the event of a reversal on appeal is insufficient to support a stay of proceedings.  Such a motion normally requires a showing that in the absence of a stay the status quo could be sufficiently altered that the moving party could suffer irreparable harm.  Because Judge May’s order does not go beyond the one proceeding, and the only harm to the SEC of the litigation going forward during the appeal would relate to discovery in the case itself, obtaining a stay should be an uphill battle.

Perhaps recognizing this, the SEC’s backup plan apparently is to slow play the Hill litigation.  It argued that if a stay is not issued, there is no urgency to resolve the matter.  Instead, the normal schedule for a civil action in the Northern District of Georgia should prevail: “There is no good cause for Plaintiff’s request that the parties begin discovery immediately.  First, this Court has already issued a preliminary injunction, and thus, there is no urgency for Plaintiff to proceed faster than the normal pace set by the Federal Rules and the Local Rules [under which] the government is entitled to have until July 20, 2015, to file its answer or other response to Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint.  There is no reason that the government should be deprived of the usual time that the Federal Rules provide for responding to the Amended Complaint nor that issues regarding whether discovery is warranted need to be resolved before the government has had that opportunity.  Moreover, under Local Rule 26.2(A), the discovery period does not commence until ‘thirty (30) days after the appearance of the first defendant by answer.'”  Id. at 2.

The SEC also said that plaintiff had not indicated the nature of discovery he intended to pursue, and argued that “no discovery is necessary because all of Plaintiff’s claims involve pure issues of law,” the “case can be resolved on dispositive motions without any factual development,” and “to the extent any facts are necessary, Plaintiff already has them in his possession.”  Id. at 2-3.  Accordingly, the SEC asks “that the Court should decide the case without permitting discovery.”  Id. at 3.

Plaintiff Charles Hill presented a different proposal.  After noting that counsel for the parties conferred “on multiple occasions” without reaching agreement on a proposed schedule, he proposed, without argument, simply that discovery begin “immediately,” end “90 days after Defendant files an answer, or, if Defendant files a Motion to Dismiss, 90 days after the Court denies the Motion to Dismiss,” and the deadline for motions for summary judgment be “30 days after the close of discovery.”  He presented no argument why the schedule should depart from local rules.

The best result probably lies somewhere between the two proposals.  The SEC’s notion that this should be treated as just another ordinary case seems a little tone-deaf, and strangely out of sync with the expectation that whatever the result, the Commission should want to avoid extending the period during which there is a cloud over its administrative proceedings.  It certainly seems in the public interest to expedite a case of this nature, and try to move quickly to a final result, while allowing the parties ample time to address complex issues.  On the other hand, it is the rare case that moves “immediately” to discovery when there is no pending deadline that causes the parties and the court to need to reach a quick result.  And the SEC has a point that the nature of discovery needed is unclear with respect to the appointments clause issue because the facts of ALJ Grimes’s appointment appear not to be in dispute.  (Although there could be a need for discovery or development of expert testimony on the equitable factors bearing on whether an injunction should issue, and, if so, what its scope should be.)  The same may not be true for the other Article II issue raised in the complaint — the alleged invalidity of the double layer of “for cause” protection for SEC ALJs against removal by the President — as to which Judge May’s opinion did not address the merits.  It is also not clear whether plaintiff will try to seek discovery on the two other theories in the complaint — the alleged improper delegation of legislative authority to SEC ALJs, and the denial of a 7th Amendment jury right — which Judge May found were not likely to succeed on the merits.

In any event, whether any discovery is appropriate, and if so what it would encompass, is not really a scheduling issue.  If the plaintiff wants to pursue discovery and the SEC objects, that dispute can be raised with the court.

The inability of the parties to reach a reasonable compromise on scheduling leaves it up to Judge May to decide what she believes is reasonable under these circumstances.  That probably should be something that allows the case to move forward expeditiously, but not quite at the breakneck pace Mr. Hill is suggesting.

In the meantime, as reported in Law 360 (SEC To Appeal District Judge’s Admin Court Injunction) the SEC informed Judge Richard Berman in a letter to the court in Duka v. SEC “that the agency has no plans to change the way it appoints its judges while it waits for the solicitor general to approve the appeal to the Eleventh Circuit it was not considering an effort to cure the appointments clause violation found by Judge May.”  The letter supports this position because “the SEC has over 100 litigated proceedings at various stages of the administrative process and the ALJ scheme has been in use for seven decades and is grounded in a highly-regulated competitive service system that Congress created for the selection, hiring and appointment of ALJs in the executive branch.”  That suggests that it may not be as straightforward as Judge May speculated that the appointments clause violation might be easily cured.

Straight Arrow

June 16, 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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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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SEC ALJ James Grimes Denies Request To Certify Discovery Ruling for Interlocutory Appeal

We reported several days ago that SEC administrative law judge James Grimes approved a subpoena to the SEC for materials relating to the allegations by former SEC ALJ Lillian McEwen that she was pressured as an ALJ to issue favorable rulings for the SEC staff.  See SEC ALJ James Grimes Issues Important Discovery Order Against SEC.  The SEC’s Office of General Counsel (OGC) was not pleased.  It asked ALJ Grimes to certify an interlocutory appeal to the Commission itself to challenge the discovery order.  On June 1, 2015, ALJ Grimes rejected that request for an interlocutory appeal.  His order can be read here: Order Denying Certification.

The OGC argued “that Mr. Hill’s request is “extraordinary,” and contrary to “the presumption that administrative law judges are unbiased.”  But the OGC did “not assert that Mr. Hill seeks irrelevant information.”  ALJ Grimes noted that “Mr. Hill has a due process right to an unbiased adjudicator and the media article to which he refers raises concerns about that right,” even though “the Office of the General Counsel is correct that administrative law judges are presumed to be unbiased.”  He also observed that “the conversation that is alleged in the media article must have occurred at least ten years ago — if it ever occurred at all,” and “Mr. Hill has done little to tie that alleged conversation to his proceeding.”  That’s not totally correct, since the person who allegedly pressured Ms. McEwen, Brenda Murray, is currently the Chief ALJ for the SEC — what additional connection could Mr. Hill supply without any discovery?

In any event, ALJ Grimes rejected the request because “[t]he initial opposition to Mr. Hill’s request, however, was based only on an argument that the request sought irrelevant information. The opposition made no mention of the arguments the Office of the General Counsel now raises. The Commission, however, has made clear that a litigant ‘may not rely upon . . . arguments’ not previously raised ‘as a basis for urging interlocutory review.’”  Because “the current basis for seeking interlocutory review was not previously raised, the request for certification is denied.”

ALJ Grimes did stay the obligation to comply with the subpoena until June 4, 2105, to allow the OGC “time to determine whether to seek interlocutory review absent certification.”

Straight Arrow

June 2, 2015

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