Tag Archives: In the Matter of Timbervest LLC

7th Circuit Rules for SEC, Affirming Dismissal of Bebo Case on Jurisdictional Grounds

On August 24, 2015, the Seventh Circuit handed the SEC a major victory in the ongoing battle over alleged constitutional infirmities of the SEC’s administrative judicial process.  It agreed with the lower court that Laurie Bebo’s federal court challenge to her administrative proceeding cannot be heard in the case filed by her seeking injunctive relief against an SEC administrative proceeding.  The court found that the circumstances of Bebo’s case were such that she was required to wait to present her constitutional objections before a federal appellate court on review of whatever action the SEC might ultimately take against her.  The opinion can be read here: 7th Circuit Decision in Bebo v. SEC.

The court found that the Bebo case — and presumably others like hers — was not like the PCAOB case in which the Supreme Court decided the constitutional challenge could be heard immediately, in Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, 561 U.S. 477 (2010).  The court summarized: “It is ‘fairly discernible’ from the statute that Congress intended plaintiffs in Bebo’s position ‘to proceed exclusively through the statutory review scheme’ set forth in 15 U.S.C. § 78y.  See Elgin v. Dep’t of Treasury, 567 U.S. —, 132 S. Ct. 2126, 2132–33 (2012).  Although § 78y is not ‘an exclusive route to review’ for all types of constitutional challenges, the relevant factors identified by the Court in Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, 561 U.S. 477, 489 (2010), do not adequately support Bebo’s attempt to skip the administrative and judicial review process here.  Although Bebo’s suit can reasonably be characterized as ‘wholly collateral’ to the statute’s review provisions and outside the scope of the agency’s expertise, a finding of preclusion does not foreclose all meaningful judicial review. . . .  And because she is already a respondent in a pending administrative proceeding, she would not have to ‘‘bet the farm … by taking the violative action’ before ‘testing the validity of the law.’’ . . .  Unlike the plaintiffs in Free Enterprise Fund, Bebo can find meaningful review of her claims under § 78y.”

The court then addressed the arguments in greater detail:

The statutory issue here is a jurisdictional one: whether the statutory judicial review process under 15 U.S.C. § 78y bars district court jurisdiction over a constitutional challenge to the SEC’s authority when the plaintiff is the respondent in a pending enforcement proceeding.  Where the statutory review scheme does not foreclose all judicial review but merely directs that judicial review occur in a particular forum, as in this case, the appropriate inquiry is whether it is “fairly discernible” from the statute that Congress intended the plaintiff “to proceed exclusively through the statutory review scheme.” Elgin v. Dep’t of Treasury, 567 U.S. —, 132 S.Ct. 2126, 2132–33 (2012). 

This inquiry is claim-specific.  To find congressional intent to limit district court jurisdiction, we must conclude that the claims at issue “are of the type Congress intended to be reviewed within th[e] statutory structure.”  Free Enterprise Fund, 561 U.S. at 489, quoting Thunder Basin Coal Co. v. Reich, 510 U.S. 200, 212 (1994).  We examine the statute’s text, structure, and purpose. . . .

. . . .  Our focus in this appeal is whether Bebo’s case is sufficiently similar to Free Enterprise Fund to allow her to bypass the ALJ and judicial review under § 78y.  Based on the Supreme Court’s further guidance in Elgin, we believe the answer is no.

. . . .

Read broadly, the jurisdictional portion of Free Enterprise Fund seems to open the door for a plaintiff to gain access to federal district courts by raising broad constitutional challenges to the authority of the agency where those challenges (1) do not depend on the truth or falsity of the agency’s factual allegations against the plaintiff and (2) the plaintiff’s claims do not implicate the agency’s expertise.  That’s how Bebo reads the case.  She argues that Free Enterprise Fund controls here because her complaint raises facial challenges to the constitutionality of the enabling statute (§ 929P(a) of Dodd-Frank) and to the structural authority of the agency itself, and the merits of those claims do not depend on the truth or falsity of the SEC’s factual claims against Bebo or implicate the agency’s expertise.  While Bebo’s position has some force, we think the Supreme Court’s more recent discussion of these issues in the Elgin case undermines the broader reading of the jurisdictional holding of Free Enterprise Fund.

. . . .

[T]he Elgin Court specifically rejected the plaintiffs’ argument, advanced by Bebo in this appeal and by the dissent in Elgin, that facial constitutional challenges automatically entitled the plaintiffs to seek judicial review in the district court. . . .

The Elgin Court also read the jurisdictional portion of Free Enterprise Fund narrowly, distinguishing it on grounds directly relevant here. . . .  [In Elgin, b]ecause the [controlling statute] provided review in the Federal Circuit, “an Article III court fully competent to adjudicate petitioners’ claims [of unconstitutionality],” the statutory scheme provided an opportunity for meaningful judicial review.

. . . .

Elgin established several key points that undermine Bebo’s effort to skip administrative adjudication and statutory judicial review here.  First, Elgin made clear that Bebo cannot
sue in district court under § 1331 merely because her claims are facial constitutional challenges.  Second, it established that jurisdiction does not turn on whether the SEC has authority to hold § 929P(a) of Dodd-Frank unconstitutional, nor does it hinge on whether Bebo’s constitutional challenges fall outside the agency’s expertise.  Third, Elgin showed that the ALJ’s and SEC’s fact-finding capacities, even if more limited than a federal district court’s, are sufficient for meaningful judicial review.  Finally, Elgin explained that the possibility that Bebo might prevail in the administrative proceeding (and thereby avoid the need to raise her constitutional claims in an Article III court) does not render the statutory review scheme inadequate.

. . . .  We think the most critical thread in the case law is the first Free Enterprise Fund factor: whether the plaintiff will be able to receive meaningful judicial review without access to the district courts.  The second and third Free Enterprise Fund factors, although relevant to that determination, are not controlling, for the Supreme Court has never said that any of them are sufficient conditions to bring suit in federal district court under § 1331.  We therefore assume for purposes of argument that Bebo’s claims are “wholly collateral” to the administrative review scheme.  Even if we give Bebo the benefit of that assumption, we think it is “fairly discernible” that Congress intended Bebo to proceed exclusively through the statutory review scheme established by § 78y because that scheme provides for meaningful judicial review in “an Article III court fully competent to adjudicate petitioners’ claims.”

. . . .

Bebo’s counter to this way of synthesizing the cases is that the administrative review scheme established by § 78y is inadequate because, by the time she is able to seek judicial review in a court of appeals, she will have already been subjected to an unconstitutional proceeding. The Supreme Court rejected this type of argument in FTC v. Standard Oil Co., 449 U.S. 232, 244 (1980), holding that the expense and disruption of defending oneself in an administrative proceeding does not automatically entitle a plaintiff to pursue judicial review in the district courts, even when those costs are “substantial.”

This point is fundamental to administrative law. Every person hoping to enjoin an ongoing administrative proceeding could make this argument, yet courts consistently require plaintiffs to use the administrative review schemes established by Congress. . . .  It is only in the exceptional cases, such as Free Enterprise Fund and McNary, where courts allow plaintiffs to avoid the statutory review schemes prescribed by Congress. This is not
such a case.

Although several courts have now reached differing conclusions on this jurisdictional issue (see In Duka v. SEC, SDNY Judge Berman Finds SEC Administrative Law Enforcement Proceedings Constitutional in a Less than Compelling Opinion, and Court Issues Preliminary Injunction Halting Likely Unconstitutional SEC Proceeding), the Seventh Circuit is the first appellate court to do so, and that alone is likely to carry weight elsewhere.  But this is also a strongly-stated opinion, which examines seriously and in depth the somewhat varying Supreme Court precedent.  The fact that the court takes on Ms. Bebo’s arguments directly and rejects them on the basis of its interpretation of the Supreme Court precedent makes it even more likely to be influential.

The D.C. and Eleventh Circuits may be the next appellate courts to consider the jurisdictional issue.  The D.C. Circuit heard argument on this jurisdictional issue in Jarkesy v. SEC, and it may issue the next appellate opinion.  See Appeals panel considers SEC’s use of in-house courts.  And the 11th Circuit has already received the SEC’s brief on appeal in Hill v. SEC, which it appealed from the preliminary injunction issued by Judge Leigh May in the Northern District of Georgia.  See SEC 11th Circuit Appeal Brief in Hill v. SEC.  Because Judge May decided her court had jurisdiction, and then went on to find a likely constitutional violation, The 11th Circuit briefs will address both the jurisdictional issue and the merits of some of the constitutional arguments.  If the 11th Circuit agrees with the 7th Circuit that there is no jurisdiction to bring these cases, however, it will vacate the preliminary injunction and not address the merits of Mr. Hill’s claim.

Depending on what these appellate courts do, and whether they concur in the 7th Circuit’s analysis, the door to injunctive relief in the federal courts for these alleged constitutional violations may slam shut.  That would focus attention on the merits of the claims in cases decided by the SEC on a petition for review from an administrative decision.  The case likely to be the first such SEC decision that could be appealed would seem to be In the Matter of Timbervest, LLC, in which the SEC is still receiving supplemental briefing addressing constitutional and discovery issues.  See SEC Broadens Constitutional Inquiry into Its Own Administrative Judges in Timbervest Case and Division of Enforcement Continues To Refuse To Comply with SEC Orders in Timbervest Case.

Stay tuned.

Straight Arrow

August 24, 2015

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What Is the SEC Backup Plan if It Loses the ALJ Constitutionality Issue in Court?

The saga of challenges to the constitutionality of the SEC’s administrative law proceedings — and in particular the appointments and removal protections of the administrative law judges — has played out over many months in both court and commentary.  After some early SEC victories on jurisdictional challenges, the Commission seemed content to try to fend off the court cases on such procedural grounds, and fight the merits by deciding the issue in its own favor on a petition for review of one of these proceedings (like the one now before it in the Timbervest case), with perhaps an upper hand once the case reached a federal appeals court.

If that was the early strategy, it now seems to be in need of reconsideration.  Two federal district court judges found jurisdiction over cases making such challenges in four separate cases, and ruled on preliminary injunction motions that the plaintiffs will likely succeed on the merits.  In three of those four cases, involving proceedings against Charles Hill, Gray Financial Group, and Barbara Duka, the SEC is now preliminarily enjoined from moving forward with its administrative proceedings.  (In the other, against Timbervest, the preliminary injunction was denied because the case had already been tried and was now before the SEC for review.)  See Court Issues Preliminary Injunction Halting Likely Unconstitutional SEC Proceeding; N.D. Ga. Judge Leigh May Issues Injunction for Gray Financial and Denies One for Timbervest; SDNY Court Ups the Ante, Allowing Duka Injunctive Action To Proceed on Appointments Clause Issue; Order Issuing Preliminary Injunction in Duka v. SEC.  The merits of the constitutionality issue now can no longer be dismissed as fringe advocacy.  The main issue in these cases — whether the SEC ALJs are “inferior officers” under Article II of the Constitution — has now been substantially vetted by two courts, which found they were, indeed, inferior officers under closely analogous Supreme Court decisions.  Beyond this, the SEC made embarrassing errors in court submissions about how its ALJs were appointed, and at a minimum seems incompetent at figuring out and reporting to the courts on this simple factual issue.  Indeed, even in the SEC’s own proceeding in Timbervest, the Enforcement Division refused to comply with an adjudicative order from the Commission to provide the Commissioners with a description of how the ALJs were appointed.  Whether it was because they couldn’t do so, or just didn’t want to do so, is not clear.  See SEC Bumbles Efforts To Figure Out How Its Own Administrative Law Judges Were Appointed.  In this context, the SEC itself will have difficulty writing an opinion in Timbervest upholding the constitutionality of the ALJs that would not be in significant danger of being overturned.

But the SEC continues to take a “business as usual” approach in its administrative court proceedings.  Many of these are ongoing, and more are assigned each day (or at least each week).  Any defense lawyer could be committing malpractice by failing to challenge a pending or new case on grounds of unconstitutionality.  Indeed, I question why the ALJs themselves don’t make clear in each such case that the constitutionality of their appointments is now at issue, and stating sua sponte that each respondent would be deemed to have challenged the proceeding on that ground, in the event the argument was ultimately upheld in the courts.

So, what happens if the SEC’s stonewalling defense posture fails; if the constitutionality challenge is ultimately upheld?  If the status quo prevails, my guess is near chaos.  To be sure, the ruling is likely to be applied prospectively, and stayed for some time to allow for some remedial steps to be taken, akin to the approach taken when the bankruptcy courts were ruled unconstitutional.  See Northern Pipeline Co. v. Marathon Pipe Line Co., 458 U.S. 50, 87-88 (1982).  But I don’t see how every case currently pending, or instituted between now and when such a decision occurs, in which such a challenge is made, would not be vacated.  See D.C. Circuit Invalidates Appointment of Former Acting GC for Labor Board (DC Circuit holds in SW General, Inc. v. NLRB, No. 1107, that NLRB action by Acting General Counsel serving unlawfully must be vacated).  That could be a lot of cases that need to be retried (or reconsidered or settled).  Perhaps the Commission is counting on the appellate courts (and the Supreme Court) to blanche at the prospect of vacating such a large number of prosecuted cases.

Even a Commission confident in its arguments needs to consider how to proceed in a way that minimizes chaos if it loses.  What could it do now to protect against that future result?  Two steps immediately come to mind.  First, at least for now, while the constitutionality issue remains in doubt, reverse its new policy of bringing more of its complex cases in the administrative court and go back to the model in which those cases were brought in federal court.  To save face, this need not be announced; it can be effected sub silentio.  The Commission seems to prefer secrecy over sunshine, although a little more open discussion of how it approaches these issues would probably do a lot more good than harm.  An open statement of this discretionary decision would evidence more good faith than we’ve seen over the past year.  Second, obtain a waiver of the constitutionality issue from fully informed respondents before commencing new proceedings, or continuing pending proceedings.  I haven’t researched the issue, but my bet is that the SEC and an opposing party can, by mutual consent, agree to any forum to resolve cases, and a fortiori, an agreement to use the administrative court with its current ALJs likely would be enforceable.  At a minimum, a party that agreed to proceed on this basis would likely be estopped from making a future challenge on this ground.  The SEC might have to make some concessions to get such an agreement — probably involving fairer rules for discovery and scheduling in these cases — but by now they should recognize that this might not be a bad thing.  Many respondents with limited defense resources could well prefer, and agree to, this approach.  That would take a lot of potential future vacated results off the table.

No doubt there are other steps that can be taken to avoid a potential future quagmire.  The important thing is that the Commission and its staff should be thinking about, and implementing, these kinds of steps, because, like it or not, the Commission may find itself on the losing end of the constitutional question.

Straight Arrow

August 12, 2015

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N.D. Ga. Judge Leigh May Issues Injunction for Gray Financial and Denies One for Timbervest

Events are flowing fast and furious on the continuing litigation of the constitutionality of the SEC’s administrative enforcement proceedings.  We previously reported that S.D.N.Y. Judge Richard Berman issued a favorable ruling to Barbara Duka and withheld deciding whether to issue a preliminary injunction for seven days pending possible SEC action.  See SDNY Court Ups the Ante, Allowing Duka Injunctive Action To Proceed on Appointments Clause Issue.  Now, N.D. Ga. Judge Leigh May, who was the first to rule that the appointment of SEC administrative law judges was likely to be in violation of Article II of the Constitution in Hill v. SEC (see Court Issues Preliminary Injunction Halting Likely Unconstitutional SEC Proceeding), has issued another preliminary injunction based on the same analysis in Gray Financial Group, Inc. v. SEC.  See Order Enjoining SEC in Gray Financial Group v. SEC.

But the respondents in the administrative proceeding In the Matter of Timbervest, LLC et al.were denied a preliminary injunction by Judge May.  See Order Denying Preliminary Injunction in Timbervest v. SEC.  Unlike the Hill and Gray Financial cases, the administrative trial in the Timbervest administrative proceeding was already completed — and petitions for review from both the Timbervest respondents and the Division of Enforcement were in the midst of consideration by the Commission — when the Timbervest parties commenced their action seeking preliminary relief after Hill v. SEC was decided.  The fact that the case was at a different stage was critical to Judge May, who find that becuase the burden of an extensive administrative trial could no longer be avoided, the justification for a preliminary injunction was far less compelling for Timbervest as compared to the other cases.

Judge May still found that, like the other cases, Timbervest was likely to succeed on the merits of its case, but that was not enough to support the issuance of the preliminary injunction.  Here is what she said on that:

The Court finds that Plaintiffs have not satisfied the remaining preliminary injunction factors as Plaintiffs have failed to meet their burden that they will be irreparably harmed if this injunction does not issue.  Plaintiffs seek limited relief: they request the Court enjoin the SEC’s ability to publish its decisions or enforce those decisions against them until this matter is resolved; they do not seek to enjoin the proceeding or prevent the SEC from issuing its final order. However, unlike the procedural posture in the Court’s prior decisions in Gray and Hill, Plaintiffs waited until the ALJ had issued his initial decision and this case was before the SEC itself before filing this motion.  Plaintiffs have already gone through the entirety of the administrative procedure before the ALJ—thus, no injunction will cure or prevent Plaintiffs’ prior obligation to defend itself before
the ALJ.  And any harm which Plaintiffs have already suffered by virtue of the initial decision being published has already been experienced; removing the ALJ’s initial decision from the website would not prevent a future harm.

Plaintiffs argue that by virtue of the initial decision being posted, they are subject to the results of an unconstitutional procedure. . . .  But even if the Court were to order the initial decision to be taken down, the initial decision has been publicly available since August 2014 and articles have been published about it.  Reality dictates that the results of the initial decision will still be available in the public domain even if the decision is removed, albeit not in its most formal version.

Plaintiffs also argue that they may be subject to additional harm if the SEC publishes a final order or imposes additional future action against them while their appeal from the SEC’s final order is pending.  The Court finds that any future harm as to the judgment is speculative at this point as it has not yet been imposed.  See Winter v. Natural Res. Def. Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 22 (2008) (noting that plaintiffs must show “irreparable injury is likely in the absence of an injunction” and stating that “[i]ssuing a preliminary injunction based only on a possibility of irreparable harm is inconsistent with our characterization of injunctive relief as an extraordinary remedy that may only be awarded upon a clear showing that the plaintiff is entitled to such relief.”) (emphasis in original).  And the SEC stated at the hearing that the SEC often stays its final orders pending appeal, so even if the SEC decides to impose future action against Plaintiffs, the SEC could agree to stay that harm (e.g., any bars, fines, or suspensions) pending appeal.  Therefore, the Court DENIES Plaintiffs’ Motion.

Slip op. at 27-29.

Finally, in connection with the appeal of the preliminary injunction issued in Hill v. SEC, Judge denied the SEC’s request for a stay of her order pending appeal.  See Order Denying SEC Stay Motion in Hill v. SEC.  She said:

The Court finds that a stay of the preliminary injunction pending appeal is not warranted. First, for the reasons stated in this Court’s Order in this case, . . . and the reasons the Court has since stated in two other very similar cases, Gray Financial Group, Inc. v. SEC, No. 1:15-cv-492-LMM, and Timbervest, LLC v. SEC, 1:15-cv-2106, the Court finds that the SEC has not made a strong showing it is likely to succeed on the merits.  As well, the Court notes that the SEC is only foreclosed from conducting an administrative proceeding in front of an ALJ who was not appointed by the SEC itself—the SEC Commissioners may conduct the hearing against Plaintiff at any time or appoint the SEC ALJ directly.  They may also elect to bring their claims in district court. Thus, the Court does not find the SEC is irreparably injured or the public interest is affected as the SEC still has a channel to pursue Plaintiff—even through an administrative proceeding if it chooses.  However, if the stay is lifted, Plaintiff would have to participate in a likely unconstitutional proceeding which would cause a substantial injury. Thus, the SEC’s Motion to Stay is DENIED.

Order at 4.

In showing she is willing to parse through the different factors in these cases and reach varying decision based on the applicable standards, Judge May gains credibility for a reasoned approach to this volatile issue.

Straight Arrow

August 6, 2015

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Division of Enforcement Continues To Refuse To Comply with SEC Orders in Timbervest Case

Two days ago, we wrote about the Division of Enforcement’s refusal to comply with an SEC adjudicative order in In the Matter of Timbervest, LLC.  Instead of complying with a Commission Order to supply information about the circumstances of the hiring of ALJs Brenda Murray and Cameron Elliot, the Division provided information that it deemed sufficient to address the Appointments Clause issue raised by the respondents.  Then, amazingly, the partial response the Division deigned to supply, based on what it decided was relevant, was wrong, which was learned when ALJ Elliot corrected the errors on the record in a different proceeding.  See SEC Bumbles Efforts To Figure Out How Its Own Administrative Law Judges Were Appointed.

Well, paraphrasing a former President’s famous one-liner: “There they go again!”

Yesterday, the Division made another filing in the Timbervest administrative proceeding that refused to comply with a Commission Order.  Instead, the Division again told the Commission that it really shouldn’t have asked for the submission it ordered, and declined to respond.  If there were any further evidence needed of the inherent unfairness of the administrative adjudicatory process to respondents, and the inability of the Commission to address fundamental constitutional issues under its own roof, this is it.  The Division would not dare thumb its nose in the face of a district court judge in this manner, even if it were really upset that it was being ordered to make submissions it really preferred not to make.  But here, Mr. Ceresney has no reason for concern because the “chief judge” he is facing — Mary Jo White — is his former law partner, and the person who appointed him head of the Enforcement Division.  Conflict of interest?  Perhaps not, technically.  But how fair would you think this adjudicative forum is if you were in Timbervest’s shoes on the other side of the “v.” from Mr. Ceresney when the Division was allowed to make its own decisions about the extent it would comply with Commission orders?

Here is what happened.  In response to a motion from the respondents, on May 27, 2015, the Commission, sitting in its capacity as adjudicator of the Timbervest enforcement action:

ORDERED that the parties shall file simultaneous supplemental briefs, not to exceed ten double-spaced pages, by July 1, 2015. The briefs shall be limited to the following two issues: (1) whether, assuming solely for the sake of argument that the Commission’s ALJs are “inferior officers” within the meaning of Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution, their manner of appointment violates the Appointments Clause; and (2) the appropriate remedy if such a violation is found.

The Order “assum[ed] solely for the sake of argument” that the Commission’s ALJs are ‘inferior officers'” under Article II, Section 2, Clause 2, and mandated short submissions on two specific points: (1) under that assumption, have the appointments of SEC ALJs violated the Appointments Clause, and (2) “if such a violation is found,” what should be the appropriate remedy?

The parties’ responses were filed yesterday.  The respondents’ submission can be read here: Brief of Respondents In Response to the Commission’s May 27, 2015 Order.  The Division of Enforcement’s submission, personally signed by Enforcement Director Andrew Ceresney, can be read here: Division of Enforcement’s Response to the Commission’s May 27 Order

The respondents submitted what the SEC ordered.  They laid out their argument why the appointment of the ALJ who presided over most of their proceeding violated the Appointments Clause, assuming he was indeed an “inferior officer” under that clause.  They then argued that the violation makes the proceeding and findings of the ALJ invalid, requiring that the Initial Decision be vacated.  If a new proceeding is to be commenced (which they argue is not in the public interest), it must be, they say, before an ALJ properly appointed under the Appointments Clause.

The Division, on the other hand, chose (again) not to submit what the Commission ordered.  The Division’s brief acknowledges that, based on the known circumstances of the appointment of SEC ALJs, if one assumes “for the sake of argument” that the SEC’s ALJs are “inferior officers,” their appointments did not comply with the Appointments Clause:

In response to the Commission’s first question, “assuming solely for the sake of argument that Commission ALJs” who presided over Respondents’ administrative hearing are “‘inferior officers’ within the meaning of Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution,” the Division believes that their manner of appointment would be inconsistent with the terms of the Appointments Clause.

SEC Brief at 1.

But on the second issue — the appropriate remedy in the event such a violation is found — the Division gave no response.  Instead, it argued (again) that SEC ALJs are mere employees, and that therefore no remedy is needed.  In short, the Division refused to comply with the SEC’s Order:

In response to the Commission’s second question, the Division strongly urges the Commission to refrain from fashioning a fix for a non-existent constitutional violation. Rather, and for the additional reasons explained below, the Commission should find that ALJ Elliot was hired in a manner consistent with Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution because he is an employee, and not a constitutional officer, and that there is therefore no Appointments Clause defect to remedy.

SEC Brief at 2.  Later in the submission, the Division says:

Because there is no constitutional violation under the Appointments Clause, there is no basis for a “remedy.”  If, however, the Commission holds that SEC ALJs are inferior officers and that their hiring violated the Appointments Clause because they were not hired with the approval of the Commissioners, the Division requests that it be permitted to submit additional briefing about components of any appropriate remedy, such as ratifying SEC ALJs’ prior hiring.  To be clear, the Division does not seek any remedy, including as an alternative measure, at this juncture.  Because of the potential ramifications of such a remedy [fn] and because Congress has set out a scheme, implemented by OPM, for the hiring of these employees, the Division believes that any Commission efforts to superimpose on this scheme a remedy to rectify a problem that does not exist is inadvisable at this time.

[fn]: Such a remedy is not only unnecessary but also fails to resolve the ongoing litigation before the Commission and in district courts around the country given the other constitutional claims raised in this case and others that would not be addressed by such action.  Further, it seems likely to prompt new issues in litigation, whether in this case or others.

SEC Brief at 5-6.

Not to belabor the point, but if the Division believed the submission it was ordered to make was inadvisable at this time, for tactical litigation reasons involving other cases or for whatever other cause, it should have asked for relief from the Order and allows the Commission to decide whether the Order should be revised.  Simply refusing to comply and asking for the right to address the issue later if necessary is contemptuous of the adjudicator (here, the Commission), and of the proceeding itself, which does not permit parties to dictate when they will and will not comply with the administrative court’s orders.

Straight Arrow

July 2, 2015

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SEC Bumbles Efforts To Figure Out How Its Own Administrative Law Judges Were Appointed

The SEC’s handling of the controversy over whether its administrative law judges were properly appointed under the Appointments Clause of Article II of the Constitution continues to amuse, or horrify, depending on your point of view.  Putting aside the actual substance of the Appointments Clause issue itself, which will work its way through the courts, when it comes to the mere disclosure of the underlying facts at issue about the appointment of the SEC’s ALJs, the SEC staff has acted with questionable competence, and apparent insubordination.  That’s a strong statement, so you can decide for yourself, based on recent events in the In the Matter of Timbervest, LLC administrative proceeding.

You may recall that the Timbervest administrative enforcement action was tried to SEC ALJ Cameron Elliot, who issued an Initial Decision finding for the Division of Enforcement in all respects except that he concluded two of the individual respondents lacked the scienter required for aiding and abetting the firm’s violations, and that the five-year statute of limitations in 28 U.S.C. § 2462 precluded the associational bars sought against the individuals and the revocation of Timbervest’s adviser’s license.  Both sides petitioned for review by the Commission, which was granted.  Before the Commission itself, the respondents pressed their constitutional challenges to the administrative proceeding, and the Commission asked for further briefing on those issues.  See Briefing of ALJ Constitutionality Before SEC Leaves Resolution in Doubt.

Then the Wall Street Journal published a blockbuster article discussing potential issues of fairness in the SEC’s administrative court, including statements by former SEC ALJ Lillian McEwen that she had been pressured to issue rulings more favorable to the SEC staff.  See Fairness Concerns About Proliferation of SEC Administrative Prosecutions Documented by Wall Street Journal.  On the basis of that article, the Timbervest respondents sought to pursue additional discovery to obtain evidence relevant to its constitutional challenges.  The precise request made is not clear from the record because the SEC failed to post this motion on its docket.  But it is apparent that the information sought included data about SEC ALJs Cameron Elliot and Brenda Murray (who was the original ALJ designated to hear the case before it was transferred to Mr. Elliot), as well as information about the allegations made by Ms. McEwen.  The Commission responded with an Order Requesting Additional Submissions and Additional Briefing, stating that “The Commission’s consideration of the Appointments Clause challenge would be assisted by the submission of additional material for inclusion in the record and by the submission of additional briefing.”  It then “ORDERED that the Division of Enforcement shall . . . file . . . an affidavit from an appropriate Commission staff member, with supporting exhibits if appropriate, setting forth the manner in which ALJ Cameron Elliot and Chief ALJ Brenda Murray were hired, including the method of selection and appointment.”

A week later, the Commission issued another Order Concerning Additional Submission and Protective Order, in which it “invited” ALJ Elliot to provide an affidavit addressing whether he was ever aware of ALJs being subjected to such pressures.  See SEC “Invites” ALJ Cameron Elliot To Provide Affidavit on Conversations “Similar” to Those Described by Former ALJ.

The responses to these Orders were remarkable.  In response to the second Order, Mr. Elliot declined to provide the affidavit “invited” by the Commission.  That certainly raised the possibility that the content of such an affidavit would be problematic.  See SEC ALJ Cameron Elliot Declines To Submit Affidavit “Invited” by the Commission.  But that at least was consistent with the SEC’s Order, which made it clear it was not mandating that ALJ Elliot provide the affidavit.

The Division of Enforcement’s response to the first Order was even more extraordinary.  It refused to provide the ordered “affidavit . . . setting forth the manner in which ALJ Cameron Elliot and Chief ALJ Brenda Murray were hired, including the method of selection and appointment,” instead providing an affidavit only containing “the factual information the Division believes legally relevant to resolving Respondents’ Article II-based constitutional claims,” which said only that “ALJ Elliot was not hired through a process involving the approval of the individual members of the Commission.”  In further explanation, the Division justified failing to comply with the Commission’s Order because “the Division believes that the facts set forth in the affidavit — i.e., facts relating to ALJ Elliot’s hiring — are sufficient for the Commission’s consideration of Respondents’ Appointments Clause challenge.”  The precise language of the affidavit was: “Based on my knowledge of the Commission’s ALJ hiring process, ALJ Elliot was not hired through a process involving the approval of the individual members of the Commission.”  See Division’s Notice of Filing, with Attached Affidavit of Jayne L. Seidman.

The Division described “the hiring process for Commission ALJs,” as administered by OPM, and told the Commission: “It is the Division’s understanding that the above process was employed as to ALJ Elliot, who began work at the agency in 2011.  As for earlier hires, it is likely the Commission employed a similar, if not identical, hiring process.  But the Division acknowledges that it is possible that internal processes have shifted over time with changing laws and circumstances, and thus the hiring process may have been somewhat different with respect to previously hired ALJs. For instance, Chief ALJ Murray began work at the agency in 1988 and information regarding hiring practices at that time is not readily accessible.”

This submission was a stunning act of insubordination, bordering on contempt.  It plainly declined to address the specific issues ordered by the Commission, and did so on the presumptuous basis that “the Division believes” the information ordered by the Commission was not necessary for the Commission to decide the issues raised by the respondents.  If the Division wanted relief from the Order, it should have moved for it to be revised.  It was impermissible to ignore the command based on what the Division — at this point simply a party in the proceeding — believed should have been requested.  But even beyond this, the affidavit the Division provided was misleading.  It did not even attempt to state the facts of Mr. Elliot’s hiring.  Instead, it was only “based on” “knowledge of the Commission’s ALJ hiring process,” and the Division’s Notice was founded on an unsupported “understanding” that the normal process was used.  So, even in the single respect the Division responded to the Order, it did so based on presumption, not investigation.  The combination of brazenly ignoring the Order, and then providing an affidavit not founded on facts, is conduct that should be reprimanded, if not sanctioned.  If a respondent had acted this way in response to a Commission Order, there would be more than silence from the Commission.

That isn’t the end of the story, because it turns out the assumption used to support the affidavit, and the Division’s purported “understanding” of what occurred, was unfounded, which could have been learned with only a modicum of effort.  ALJ Elliot is now presiding over another case being challenged on constitutional grounds, In the Matter of Laurie Bebo and John Buono.  In that case, at a hearing on June 18, 2015, ALJ Elliot raised the issue of the circumstances of his hiring, and the Division’s filing in Timbervest,  and noted the “the Division’s description of how I was hired was erroneous.”  He went on, “The crucial language is in the first full paragraph on page 2. . . .  I have informed the chief ALJ.  I brought it to her attention that it was wrong.  Of course she knew because she hired me, so she already knew that it was wrong.  I also informed Jayne Seidman, who is the woman who gave the affidavit.”  He went on, “I certainly don’t want the Division to be, you know, embarrassing themselves by saying things that are wrong. . . .”

The next day, the parties asked that ALJ Elliot state “what you believe the inaccuracies to be.”  He explained that the SEC’s affidavit assumed he was newly hired as an ALJ by the SEC, but that was not correct because he had been an ALJ in the Social Security Administration.  That meant that he was hired “through the process that essentially everyone else goes through,” responding to a posting on the federal government’s job-posting website.  “I saw a posting on USA Jobs when I was at Social Security.  I sent in my resume, I had an interview, I got an offer; it’s as simple as that.  What’s described in the Division’s notice of filing in Timbervest is if you’ve never been an ALJ before.  And as I said, I did in fact go through that process, just not when I was hired by the SEC.”  He went on, “I think when I was hired by the SEC, the Office of Personnel Management did have to approve my transfer from Social Security to SEC. . . .  So OPM does actually get involved in every ALJ’s hiring, to my knowledge.”  When asked with whom he interviewed, he responded: “I interviewed with Judge Murray, with Jayne Seidman, . . . and an attorney with the general counsel’s office, whose name escapes me at the moment.”  He also said “I pulled out one of my forms that I got from HR, and it appears that someone in HR did sign off on my hiring. . . .  I’m not saying that the person who signed the paper itself was my appointment. . . .  Whether that constitutes my appointment or not, I don’t know.”  When asked if he knew who appointed him, or the actual act that constituted his appointment, he responded: “I would have to say no, I don’t know.  I have an educated guess, but it’s really just an educate guess.  No, I don’t know the answer.”

This response makes it clear that records available at the SEC, could have informed the Division that the affidavit it provided was inaccurate.  Numerous people knew that ALJ Elliot was initially hired to serve at the Social Security Administration, apparently including the affiant, Ms. Seidman, but this fact was ignored.  Presumably the Division did not find it convenient actually to search the SEC’s own HR records before submitting the erroneous affidavit.  The difference here may not be material, which was ALJ Elliot’s stated view, but that is surely not within the Division’s purview to decide.  When asked for the facts, the Division (a) declined to seek them out, and (b) made an inaccurate filing instead.

The Division finally corrected the record in the Timbervest case on June 23, with the filing of an additional Notice: SEC June 23 Notice in Timbervest Administrative Proceeding.  That Notice attached the transcript of comments made by ALJ Elliot in the Bebo hearing, but otherwise said the Division still had not taken steps to confirm whether these recollections were accurate, including, apparently, not even seeking to obtain documents that could clarify the record.  Interestingly, although the Division’s original, inaccurate, Notice is posted on the docket, the mea culpa corrective Notice, with the excerpted portions of the Bebo transcript, is strangely missing, just like Timbervest’s original motion for discovery.

Of course, as ALJ Elliot noted, at a minimum the Division of Enforcement is “embarrassing themselves by saying things that are wrong.”  If this weren’t the government seeking to impose major penalties and other sanctions, we could dismiss them as “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight” (credit to Jimmy Breslin, RIP).

Jimmy Breslin - The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight

Jimmy Breslin – The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight

But what happened here is much worse.  The Commission, sitting in its adjudicatory capacity, ordered that the Division provide certain information.  The Division refused to do so, declined to seek relief from the order, and instead substituted erroneous information, which a modest amount of diligence would have shown was certainly incomplete, if not inaccurate.  If the Division were held to the standards of performance it routinely applies to those it investigates and prosecutes, there would be meaningful repercussions, if not outright accusations of reckless misconduct.

I won’t hold my breath.

Straight Arrow

June 30, 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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