Tag Archives: Judge Leigh Martin May

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

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

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

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

Straight Arrow

June 11, 2015

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Court Issues Preliminary Injunction Halting Likely Unconstitutional SEC Proceeding

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slip op. at 44.

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

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

Straight Arrow

June 9, 2015

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