Tag Archives: Seventh Amendment

Court Issues Preliminary Injunction Halting Likely Unconstitutional SEC Proceeding

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slip op. at 44.

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

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

Straight Arrow

June 9, 2015

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SEC ALJ Says He Lacks Authority To Decide Key Constitutional Challenges

On May 14, 2014, in In the Matter of Charles L. Hill, Jr., File No. 3-16383, SEC administrative law judge James Grimes ruled that he had no authority to decide that a portion of the Dodd-Frank Act allowing the SEC to commence civil actions against unregulated persons in its administrative law court was unconstitutional.  That could have a bearing on the issue of the standing of SEC administrative targets to bring federal court challenges to those proceedings.  ALJ Grimes did decide that he could address the constitutionality of the double layer of tenure protection provided to SEC ALJs against Presidential removal power, and, not surprisingly, ruled that he held his position constitutionally.  But he declined to offer any view on Mr. Hill’s arguments that the Dodd-Frank Act improperly delegated authority to the SEC, and that he had been denied a Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial.  The Order is available here: Order Denying Respondent’s Motion for Summary Disposition on Constitutional Issues.

On the issue of his authority to rule, he wrote:

After receiving Mr. Hill’s motion, I directed the parties to address “whether I have the authority to rule on Mr. Hill’s constitutional challenges.” . . .  The Division responded that I have authority to rule on Mr. Hill’s challenges. . . .  Mr. Hill disagrees. . . .

Subsequent to instructing the parties to address my authority to rule on Mr. Hill’s constitutional challenges, it came to my attention that the Commission has repeatedly held that it lacks the authority “to invalidate the very statutes that Congress has directed [it] to enforce.” . . .  It has recently reaffirmed this interpretation of its authority. . . .  The Commission thus operates on the assumption that its “governing statutes are constitutional” “[u]nless and until the courts declare otherwise.”

It follows from the foregoing that I lack the authority to rule on the constitutionality of particular provisions of the Exchange Act.

ALJ Grimes nevertheless concluded that he could address the issue of constitutionality of the double-layer of tenure protection afforded to SEC ALJs because that involved protections under 5 U.S.C. § 7521, which is not part of the Exchange Act.  He did so even though: “It would be incongruous . . . if I were unable to address the constitutionality of a provision of the Exchange Act, an Act I am regularly required to construe, but able to address the constitutionality of Section 7521, a provision I do not normally encounter.”

Turning to the double-layer of tenure protection, he “assumed” that ALJs are “inferior officers” of the Executive Branch, noting that “[b]oth parties have presented strong arguments in support of their positions.”  Nevertheless, he found that the double-layer of protection given to SEC ALJs against removal by the President does not make them unconstitutional because SEC ALJs “exercise only adjudicatory functions” that are “limited to a specific subject matter.”  In doing so, he relied almost exclusively on the Supreme Court’s decision in Morrison v. Olson, 487 U.S. 654 (1988), which addressed the constitutionality of the independent special prosecutor statute, and said “the real question is whether the removal restrictions are of such a nature that they impede the President’s ability to perform his constitutional duty, and the functions of the officials in question must be analyzed in that light.”  Id. at 691.  Because “the Commission’s administrative law judges exercise only adjudicatory functions,” and “their jurisdiction is limited to a specific subject matter and they ‘lack[] policymaking or significant administrative authority'” (quoting Morrison), “the dual-tenure protection afforded administrative law judges does not unconstitutionally impair the President’s ability to remove executive branch officials because those particular officials do not perform functions ‘central to the functioning of the Executive Branch'” (again quoting Morrison).

ALJ Grimes concludes: “Furthermore, taken to its logical end, Mr. Hill’s argument would mean that almost no independent agency could use administrative law judges.  If “‘a page of history is worth a volume of logic,’” however, it is unlikely this could be the case.”  Although he says that SEC ALJs are “not among ‘those who execute the laws,’” he does not address at all the critical role of SEC ALJs as part of what is probably the second most significant law enforcement agency in the federal government — the SEC — and the many respects in which SEC ALJs exercise significant discretion in the operation of that law enforcement process.

But ALJ Grimes chose not to offer any view on the other two constitutional challenges raised by Mr. Hill: (1) that “by giving the Commission the discretion to choose whether to seek civil penalties against unregulated individuals either administratively or in district court, Congress impermissibly delegated legislative power to the Commission”; and (2) that “by giving the Commission authority to bring an administrative action against an unregulated individual, Congress infringed on his Seventh Amendment right to a jury.”

On these issues, ALJ Grimes concluded that the limits on his authority to address constitutional issues preclude him from addressing those arguments.  Interestingly, in reaching this conclusion, he also implicitly holds that the SEC itself has no power to reach those issues, because the grounds for limiting his authority apply equally to the Commission.  That gives significant ammunition to those trying to get judicial review of these constitutional issues, because the standing to do so depends in part on whether the SEC has the power to address them as part of the normal administrative adjudication process.

Straight Arrow

May 15, 2015

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SEC Commissioner Michael Piwowar Comments on Increased Use of Administrative Enforcement Actions

At the 2015 SEC Speaks PLI Conference, Commissioner Michael Piwowar devoted part of his address to the SEC’s decision to make increased use of administrative proceedings in its enforcement actions.  He advocated that “In order to ensure that the Commission does not engage in arbitrary or capricious conduct in enforcement matters, the Commission should formulate and adhere to a consistent set of guidelines when conducting our enforcement proceedings.”  Here is what he said on the subject (footnotes omitted):

Our enforcement program could also benefit from a look through the lens of fairness.  In order to ensure that the Commission does not engage in arbitrary or capricious conduct in enforcement matters, the Commission should formulate and adhere to a consistent set of guidelines when conducting our enforcement proceedings.

Commission staff has recently indicated that they will recommend instituting more enforcement matters, including insider trading cases, through administrative proceedings rather than going through the federal district courts.  Announcement of this plan to increase the use of administrative proceedings in insider trading cases followed the Commission’s loss in two insider trading cases in federal district courts.  Regardless of whether these circumstances are linked, this change has the appearance of the Commission looking to improve its chances of success by moving cases to its in-house administrative system.

Even prior to the staff announcement, more cases were being brought in administrative proceedings as a result of the enactment in 2010 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd‑Frank Act).  Prior to the Dodd-Frank Act, the Commission only had the authority to seek monetary penalties in administrative proceedings against regulated entities and would have needed to file an action in federal court to obtain a monetary penalty against any other person.

In administrative proceedings, there is no jury and cases are presented to administrative law judges that are employees of the Commission.  In addition, discovery available to defendants is more limited.  The Commission has an extremely high success rate when litigating through administrative proceedings.  One Article III federal judge has stated that in fiscal year 2014 the SEC won 61 percent of federal court trials but was successful in 100 percent of its administrative proceedings.  To avoid the perception that the Commission is taking its tougher cases to its in-house judges, and to ensure that all are treated fairly and equally, the Commission should set out and implement guidelines for determining which cases are brought in administrative proceedings and which in federal courts.

The lack of any standards governing the SEC’s determination when to use the administrative process instead of the federal courts to pursue enforcement actions is one of the grounds used to challenge the constitutionality of those proceedings.  It is argued that according the SEC unfettered discretion over when to allow an enforcement target the right to a jury trial violates the Seventh Amendment and the equal protection clause of the Constitution, and also results in arbitrary and capricious agency decision-making.  Commissioner Piwowar’s suggestion does not vitiate the fundamental problem of denying key substantive and procedural rights to SEC enforcement targets by circumventing the federal courts, but it represents at least a small step in the direction of limiting unbridled power in the decision whether to strip an enforcement defendant of those rights.

The full speech is available here: Remarks at the “SEC Speaks” Conference 2015: A Fair, Orderly, and Efficient SEC.

Straight Arrow

February 23, 2015

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New Challenge to the Constitutionality of an SEC Administrative Proceeding Filed in Bebo v. SEC

On January 2, 2015, Laurie Bebo, the former CEO of Assisted Living Concepts, Inc., filed an action against the SEC in the Eastern District of Wisconsin for injunctive and declaratory relief to halt an administrative enforcement proceeding against Ms. Bebo in the SEC’s administrative courts. The complaint alleges that the administrative enforcement process under which Ms. Bebo would be prosecuted is unconstitutional for three reasons: (1) the SEC’s administrative law court violates Article II because an SEC administrative law judge is an executive branch officer who is not under the control or influence of the President; (2) the provision of the Dodd-Frank Act granting the SEC the same powers to impose penalties through the administrative court process as may be imposed by a federal district court is unconstitutional because it negates a respondent’s Seventh Amendment rights to a jury trial in a civil action by giving the SEC the sole power to determine whether a jury trial will occur; and (3) the SEC’s administrative actions proceed under rules and procedures that violate Ms. Bebo’s rights of procedural due process because they do not permit the development and presentation of a fair defense and are inj other respects fundamentally unfair.  A copy of the complaint can be found here: Bebo v. SEC Complaint.

Laurie Bebo

Laurie Bebo

The first several paragraphs of the complaint summarize these arguments, as follows:

1.  For over two years, the Division of Enforcement of the SEC has been investigating whether there had been any violations of the federal securities laws in relation to certain periodic financial reports file d with the Commission by Assisted Living Concepts, Inc. (“ALC”). The SEC issued 43 subpoenas for testimony or documents, collected millions of pages of documents (approximately 270 gigabytes of data), and took a cumulative total of 55 days of on -the-record testimony.

2.  Those financial reports, filed on Forms 10-K (annual reports) and 10-Q (quarterly reports) consist of thousands of pages of information about ALC.

3.  The net result of this investment of extensive investigation is the allegation that a single statement – asserting compliance with a lease agreement – out of those thousands of pages of financial statements an d disclosure documents was false or misleading because it failed to provide additional information about how the Company was meeting the lease covenants. The SEC alleges, in turn, that Ms. Bebo, who was the Chief Executive Officer of ALC during the time period in which the challenged periodic reports were filed with the Commission (approximate ly 2009 to 2012), should be found guilty of committing securities fraud; should be subject to civil monetary penalties of hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars ; and should be subject to a permanent ban on serving as an officer or director of a publicly-traded company.

4.  Prior to the passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, Pub. L. No. 111-203, 124 Stat. 1376 (2010) (hereafter “Dodd-Frank”), which became effective July 21, 2010, the SEC would have been required by law to bring charges seeking the remedies set forth in the immediately preceding paragraph in the federal district court.

5.  Bebo would have had a Seventh Amendment right to a trial by a jury of her peers. Any trial in the action would have been subject to the Federal Rules of Evidence, which preclude the use of unreliable evidence such as hearsay.

6.  Bebo would have been protected by the numerous substantive and procedural mechanisms of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, including depositions and other discovery. And Ms. Bebo would have had a reasonable amount of time to review the 1.5 million pages of documents that the SEC has collected over the course of its two-year investigation.

7.  However, pursuant to Section 929P(a) of Dodd-Frank, the SEC may now obtain the same remedies in administrative proceedings overseen by the Commission Providing an agency with the ability to obtain the same remedy in federal court or in an administrative proceeding is a unique (and unconstitutional) enforcement regime previously unheard of in the large and ever-growing administrative state.

8.  That is, the SEC has been given unlimited discretionn to bring enforcement actions against unregulated persons either in federal district court or in internal administrative proceedings. There are no statutes or regulations to guide these decisions.

9.  On December 3, 2014 the SEC exercised its newly-granted discretion and, instead of filing an action in federal district court, the Commission issued an Order Instituting Public Administrative and Cease-and-Desist Proceedings (“OIP”), initiating administrative proceedings against Ms. Bebo.

10.  The SEC’s rules of practice set a presumptive hearing date (trial) within four months (i.e. April 2015), which will preclude Ms. Bebo from adequately defending against the charges against her given the massive investigative file amassed during the two-year investigation. The SEC’s Rules of Practice also preclude most pre-hearing discovery, such as depositions, and the final hearing will not be governed by the Rules of Evidence.

11.  Most disturbingly, as set forth in more detail below, by proceeding administratively the Commission has stripped her entirely of the ability to secure the testimony at the hearing, much less at a deposition, of key witnesses in the case, including the ALC’s chairman and vice chairman of the board, the chair of ALC’s audit committee, and two other members of the audit committee.

12.  In sum, the SEC has chosen a forum that allows it to investigate, prosecute, adjudicate, and if successful in supporting the charges before an administrative law judge, provide appellate review of a case for which the very same Commissioners approved the filing of charges in the first place.

13.  These administrative proceedings violate the U.S. Constitution, and the SEC’s unlimited ability to choose that forum deprives Ms. Bebo of her constitutional rights to due process and equal protection under the law.

14.  SEC administrative proceedings—governed by an administrative law judge protected by at least two layers of tenure—violate Article II of the U.S. Constitution, which mandates that the “executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.”

15.  And because the remedies are the same in either forum, in bringing these charges administratively, the SEC concluded that the government would have been disadvantaged by Ms. Bebo’s anticipated assertion of her Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial in district court. Under established Supreme Court precedent, this statutory regime, which penalizes the exercise or anticipated exercise of a fundamental constitutional right, is a violation of the Ms. Bebo’s right to due process under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

16.  Section 929P(a) of the Dodd-Frank Act, which grants the SEC authority to choose, arbitrarily and without any legitimate reason, to pursue civil remedies against unregulated citizens in either federal district court (where the defendant is entitled to a jury) or SEC administrative proceedings (where she is not), violates the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment guarantee of equal protection of law.

 As discussed in an earlier Securities Diary post, the contentions laid out here with regard to compliance with Article II may have merit based on recent Supreme Court precedent.  The procedural due process arguments are also substantial.  They were recently rejected by District Judge Kaplan in the Southern District of New York case of Chau v. SEC (see here), although that decision did not occur until after the administrative trial was concluded.  There is no doubt that from a practical litigation standpoint, the administrative proceeding strips a respondent of valuable resources to prepare and present a defense, and allows consideration of “evidence” that would not be permitted in a federal court (see our discussion of that here).  But whether this rises to the level of a due process violation has not yet been addressed by a court in any definitive or authoritative opinion.  The notion that the availability of ultimate review by a court of appeals is sufficient to protect those rights (using a deferential appellate standard) is certainly arguable.  Most trial lawyers would raise grave concerns on that issue.

To our knowledge, there are now two federal cases pending that challenge the constitutionality of the SEC’s use of its administrative courts to prosecute law enforcement actions against non-regulated persons – this case and Stilwell v. SEC, pending in the Southern District of New York (see here). A third case making such a challenge, Peixoto v. SEC, was mooted by the SEC’s decision to drop its administrative action against Mr. Peixoto (see here).

The future of these challenges remains in doubt. But whichever way the courts eventually go on this, the filing of these actions reflects a genuine concern that the SEC has gone too far in its zeal to win enforcement actions at the expense of allowing a just and fair process for targeted individuals to defense themselves.  On that issue, it may be worth reading our very first post on why the SEC doesn’t seem very interested in justice and fairness in its enforcement process, which can be found here.

Straight Arrow

January 7, 2005

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SEC To Hear Wide Range of Constitutional Challenges to Administrative Proceeding in Jarkesy Case

Having just escaped district court consideration of constitutional challenges to the SEC’s use of an administrative proceeding in the Chau/Harding Advisory case, the SEC will now review a number of similar challenges to its administrative adjudicatory process in In re Jarkesy, SEC File No. 15255.   The petition for review of respondents John Thomas Capital Management Group and George Jarkesy, which the Commission agreed to hear on December 11, 2014, will be the first opportunity for SEC consideration of a number of constitutional issues since the recent hubbub about the increased use of the administrative court for these kinds of cases.  A copy of the Petition for Review is available here: Jarkesy Petition for Review.

The issues raised in the petition are extensive.  They include:

  1. The administrative proceeding is invalid because the Commissioners issued findings of fact and conclusions of law in advance of the hearing.
  2. The administrative proceeding is invalid because the Commission exercises unguided discretion on the choice of forum for its prosecutions even when they do not involve subject matters outside of the conventional experience of Article III judges, which violates the separation of powers doctrine.  
  3. The decision to require respondents to defend themselves in the administrative court violated the equal protection clause because others similarly situated have not been required to do so and they were deprived them of a Seventh Amendment right to jury trial, which they contend is a fundamental right.
  4. The assignment of their case to the administrative court violates the equal protection clause under the “class of one” doctrine.
  5. The proceeding is invalid because ex parte communications between the Division of Enforcement and the Commission were permitted during the discussions of settlements with co-respondents, which violates due process rights to an impartial forum.
  6. The effective denial of rights under the doctrine of Brady v. Maryland because relevant documents were hidden in a 700gb “document dump” incapable of being reviewed violates due process.
  7. The refusal to allow respondents to create a record for review of violations of rights is itself a due process violation.
  8. The requirement that respondents defend themselves within a “truncated” time-period prevented discovery of relevant facts or the opportunity to prepare a defense, which violated due process rights.

Whether any of this stocks is another question entirely.  Of course, we can be virtually certain that the Commission itself will give these arguments short shrift.  But where the appeals court comes out may be another question.   That would be either the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, or, it would appear, the Fifth Circuit, since the respondents appear to be located in Texas.

Straight Arrow

December 15, 2014

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