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

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

Jurisdiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slip op. at 12-13.

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

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

Slip op. at 14.

Likelihood of Success on the Merits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Straight Arrow

April 16, 2015

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Tilton v. SEC: Lynn Tilton Files Latest Challenge to SEC Administrative Proceeding

On April 1, 2015, Lynn Tilton and the private equity funds she runs filed a complaint against the SEC seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the SEC’s pursuit of an enforcement action against them in the SEC’s captive administrative law court.  The complaint is available here: Tilton v. SEC Complaint.  The complaint follows the general formula of other actions of this nature filed recently.  Perhaps even moreso than usual, since her lawyers, Skadden Arps, were the architects of the action filed by Joseph Stilwell when he was the target of an SEC administrative enforcement action (Stilwell v. SEC).  The Stilwell action was never decided; the SEC case against Stilwell was settled (In the Matter of Joseph Stilwell and Stilwell Value LLC).  Rumor has it that the SEC was especially eager to do so to rid itself of Stilwell’s legal action in the SDNY, but we can’t attest to that.  We previously wrote that the constitutional challenges to the SEC’s administrative law court are far from frivolous in light of existing Supreme Court precedent: Challenges to the Constitutionality of SEC Administrative Proceedings in Peixoto and Stilwell May Have Merit.

The Tilton complaint does have some new tweaks, however.  It still presents the theory that the SEC ALJs do not comply with Article II of the Constitution because they are “officers” that have “double insulation” against removal by the President — they cannot be removed from office by the SEC Commissioners other than for cause, and the SEC Commissioners cannot be removed other than for cause by the President.  This is precisely what was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Free Enterprise Fund v. Pub. Co. Accounting Oversight Bd., 561 U.S. 477 (2010).  The only dispute can be whether the SEC ALJs are “officers” within the meaning of Article II.  But the Tilton complaint adds a second theory: that “SEC ALJs have not been appointed by the SEC Commissioners, as the Constitution requires.”  That theory is based on the argument that the SEC is “a “Department” of the United States,” that “the Commissioners collectively function as the ‘Head’ of the Department with authority to appoint such ‘officers,’ but that the SEC ALJs are not, in fact, appointed by the Commissioners.  The complaint alleges that: “The Commissioners have not appointed ALJs, as constitutionally required. SEC ALJs 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.  In some cases, ALJs have been simply transferred to the Commission from FERC and other federal agencies.  The Commissioners themselves are not involved in the appointment of ALJs.”

The Tilton complaint is also supplemented with new allegations based on events after the Stilwell and Peixoto complaints were filed.  These include the call by Commissioner Piwowar for the adoption of standards for determining the forum to be used in SEC enforcement actions, and the inability of Enforcement Director Ceresney to identify in Congressional testimony any such standards.  And, unlike the Stilwell case, Ms. Tilton and her private equity funds are not subject to statutorily-mandated SEC regulatory control.

The actions that have been filed against the SEC to enjoin an administrative proceeding have so far run into a roadblock because federal judges have concluded that even if the complaints had merit, the requirements for injunctive relief are not satisfied because the plaintiffs can eventually get their constitutional challenges heard if they lose their administrative case and pursue an appeal to a federal court of appeals.  See SEC Wins First Skirmish on Constitutional Challenge to Chau Administrative Proceeding.  One of the judges even dismissed the claim despite finding that the “claims are compelling and meritorious.”  See Court Dismisses “Compelling and Meritorious” Bebo Constitutional Claims Solely on Jurisdictional Grounds.  These courts say that the SEC’s targets will not suffer “irreparable harm” from being forced to use the administrative process to adjudicate their constitutional challenges. That’s lawyer-speak for telling folks that they have to suffer through years of a potentially unlawful proceeding, and the expense of that proceeding, in order to get a court to decide whether it was lawful in the first place.  Not exactly a shining moment for the American judiciary, but judges are lawyers, and lawyers have, in the words of a former colleague of mine, “an instinct for the capillary.”

Ms. Tilton tries to overcome this obstacle by alleging in her complaint that there are special reasons in her case why that kind of delay would be debilitating, and therefore her case does satisfy the irreparable harm requirement.  She alleges:

The SEC’s administrative machinery does not provide a reasonable mechanism for raising or pursuing Plaintiffs’ claims.  The SEC’s Rules of Practice do not permit counterclaims against the SEC, nor do they allow the kind of discovery of the SEC personnel necessary to elicit admissible evidence of such claims, such as interrogatories and demands for admissions.  Meaningful judicial review cannot await an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals following a final Commission decision. The curtailed ALJ proceeding is unlikely to create a full record on Plaintiffs’ claims adequate for review in the Court of Appeals. As described in greater detail below, Plaintiffs perform a sensitive role managing investment funds and deeply distressed companies that employ tens of thousands of people.  If they are forced to undergo an unconstitutional administrative proceeding, and are found liable, it may well be too late to salvage important value for the funds.  The OIP allegations do not take issue with Ms. Tilton’s and Patriarch’s performance of their vital function in executing the investment strategy of turning around distressed businesses, and an unconstitutional administrative proceeding should not be permitted to interfere with such performance and put American jobs at risk.  The SEC ALJ is in no position to rule that he or she has been unconstitutionally appointed and has no legal authority whatsoever. And the Commission, having ordered the administrative proceeding and directed action by the SEC ALJ, is in no position to take a fresh look at the constitutional infirmities of its own ALJ program.

*          *          *

Without injunctive relief from this Court, Plaintiffs will be required to submit to an unconstitutional proceeding. This violation of a constitutional right, standing alone, constitutes an irreparable injury. The lack of traditional procedural safeguards in SEC
administrative proceedings further exacerbates that harm.

Allowing the SEC to pursue an administrative proceeding while the instant complaint is pending would require the expenditure of substantial legal fees defending against an unconstitutional action.  Moreover, plaintiffs cannot assert counterclaims or seek declaratory relief in an administrative proceeding, foreclosing any possibility of review until an appeal to a federal circuit court of appeals.  The burdens incurred during an administrative proceeding would be for naught, because such administrative proceeding is unconstitutional and the SEC likely would try to reprise its case in a lawful setting, such as federal district court.  However, forcing Plaintiffs to litigate twice would compound costs, lost time, and reputational risk….

The availability of an appeal after an administrative proceeding to a federal circuit court of appeals cannot avoid it, because the administratively-imposed sanction already may take effect – and the damage therefore already substantially and harmfully done – by the time the appellate court made a ruling.

Likewise, the harm cannot be remedied after the fact by money damages.  Various immunity doctrines substantially constrain Plaintiffs’ ability to seek damages from the SEC.  Furthermore, even if damages were procedurally available, the reputational harm to Ms. Tilton and Patriarch – possibly permanent and devastating to Ms. Tilton’s business – should the SEC impose administrative sanctions would be impossible to monetize.  And because Ms. Tilton’s business model involves debt and equity positions in private distressed companies, which positions are illiquid, accurately calculating the value of the lost ownership opportunities that would result from an unfavorable ruling in an unconstitutional administrative proceeding would be well-nigh impossible.

We will see whether this effort is successful, or perhaps whether the judge hearing the case, Judge Ronnie Abrams, has a more realistic sense of what constitutes irreparable harm in an action in which the very forum that is used to adjudicate the SEC’s claims is the subject of a constitutionality challenge, and the financial entities involved may well be defunct before judicial consideration is possible.

Straight Arrow

April 2, 2015

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SEC Gets Reasonable Relief in Life Partners Case — but only 2.5% of $2 Billion Request

On August 22, 2014, we discussed the SEC’s outrageous request for a $2 billion award of disgorgement and penalties in SEC v. Life Partners Holdings, even after getting no fraud judgment.  See SEC Again Runs Amok, Seeking $2 Billion in Texas Case.  The final judgment is now in, and Judge James Nowlin gave a thoughtful and well-reasoned package of relief of just below $50 million, only $1,950,000,000 less than the SEC argued was the proper result.  So the SEC can be 2.5% right and still cause a lot of pain.  You can read the court’s Final Judgment here: Judgment in SEC v Life Partners Holdings.

Fraud violations of section 17(a)(1) of the Securities Act of 1933 were found by the jury, but the judge set aside that portion of the verdict because the SEC’s only evidence of securities fraud involved a time period not charged in the complaint.  Judgment was issued only on the jury’s findings of reporting violations of section 13(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and SEC Rules thereunder, but it was plain from the opinion that the judge found serious culpability at least for the individual who controlled and guided the company’s conduct.

Brian D. Pardo

R. Scott Peden

 

Individual defendants Brian Pardo and R. Scott Peden

 

 

 

Judge Nowlin gave short shrift to the testimony of the SEC’s putative “expert,” Larry Rubin, who testified that there should be a “disgorgement” remedy of $500 million, on the theory that “retail investors would have paid $500 million less than they actually did” if Life Partners used accurate life expectancy information in its disclosures.  (Life Partners is in the “life settlement” business, acquiring and reselling life insurance policies that generate payments when the insured person dies; longer life expectancies result in delays in revenue or lower resale values.)  The court wrote that it “is not satisfied that Larry Rubin’s testimony supports the SECs proposition that $500 million is a reasonable estimate of [Life Partners’] illicit gains….  [T]he task of discerning the good money from the bad — as the law requires — is exceptionally complicated in this case, and the SEC offers a meat cleaver when a scalpel is required.  Such an approach is not a reasonable means of calculating how much [Life Partners] should have to pay back.”  Slip op. at 9-10.

Judge Nowlin was forced to resort to his own analysis in an effort to do rough justice where the SEC failed to even attempt to do so.  He excoriated the defendants’ bad faith in issuing a series of false disclosures, and made an effort to distinguish between gains obtained as a result of misleading Life Partners investors, which was the subject matter of the allegations, and benefits derived from overpricing resales of policies by Life Partners, which were not securities violations.  That analysis showed that an order to disgorge $500 million would be “neither justified nor just.”  Id. at 11.

Without the benefit of any useful expert analysis, the judge came up with a disgorgement number he felt comfortable with — $15 million.  He found this was “sufficiently large — it is more than half the current market capitalization of [Life Partners] — to deter future wrongdoers,” yet he was “confident that it does not overstate the ext[e]nt of [Life Partners’ ill gotten gains.”  Id. n.5.

The judge also went through a reasonable analysis of the other forms of relief awarded.  He granted the SEC’s request for an injunction against future violations — which the SEC seeks in every case — but not before explaining in detail why injunctive relief was warranted.  Here, he explained, the key defendant who controlled the company was a recidivist with a previous injunction against him, who presided over a company that made no efforts to remedy past violations and operated with an ill-informed and inactive Board of Directors.  The judge dwelled on how grossly uninformed one the directors was.  This was not an example of rote issuance of an injunction merely because a violation was found.  See slip op. at 3-7.

The judge also made a reasonable effort to calculate civil penalties, choosing an amount below the maximum ($2 million) for a defendant with lower culpability, and hitting the repeat offender who made the company’s decisions with penalties several times higher ($6 million).  Penalties against the company were assessed at $23.7 million.  Given the size and economic wherewithal of the company, this is a huge award.  The judge justified it based on his review of the evidence showing blatant violations of law that were at least reckless, even though the violations adjudicated against the defendants were non-fraud reporting violations of Section 13(a).

In the end, the SEC obtained major relief against the defendants, but showed truly bad form in doing so.  It’s proposed disgorgement and penalties were a joke, and hence were not taken seriously by the judge.  Another judge might have reacted more harshly to this combination of puerile gamesmanship and spectacularly poor judgment.  But Judge Nowlin did his job notwithstanding the SEC’s overreaching, and it looks like rough justice was done.

Straight Arrow

December 3, 2104

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