Tag Archives: Wing Chau

SEC Broadens Constitutional Inquiry into Its Own Administrative Judges in Timbervest Case

On May 27, 2015, the SEC agreed to expand its own consideration of constitutionality challenges to its administrative law adjudicative process.  It issued an order asking for further briefing on whether the appointment of its administrative law judges conforms to the Constitution’s Appointments Clause.  The order, which was issued in the administrative proceeding In the Matter of Timbervest LLC et al., File No. 3-15519, is laid out below.  We previously discussed the briefing of constitutional issues before the SEC in the Timbervest case here: Briefing of ALJ Constitutionality Before SEC Leaves Resolution in Doubt.

This new development was set in motion by the May 7, 2015 Wall Street Journal article by Jean Eaglesham reporting on questions being raised about the fairness and constitutionality of the SEC’s use of its own administrative courts to prosecute securities enforcement actions for severe penalties, especially against people who were not otherwise subject to SEC regulatory oversight.  See Fairness Concerns About Proliferation of SEC Administrative Prosecutions Documented by Wall Street Journal.  Among other things, that article quoted a former SEC administrative law judge about pressure that had been placed on her to favor the SEC in her rulings.  That revelation spurred respondents in SEC actions to seek further information from the SEC about possible bias or other taints to the SEC’s administrative law proceedings.  In the proceeding In the Matter of Charles L. Hill, Jr., administrative law judge James Grimes approved a subpoena to the SEC staff for the production of documents relating to the matters discussed in the Wall Street Journal article.  See SEC ALJ James Grimes Issues Important Discovery Order Against SEC.  The respondents in the Timbervest proceeding, which is now under review by the Commission itself after an Initial Decision against the respondents by ALJ Cameron Elliot, also asked for discovery into the matters raised in the WSJ article in a filing that can be read here: Respondents’ Motion To Allow Submission of Additional Evidence and Motion for Leave To Adduce Additional Evidence.  That led to the May 27 SEC order:

On May 20, 2015, Respondents filed a Motion to Allow Submission of Additional Evidence and for Leave to Adduce Additional Evidence.  Based on that motion, the Respondents now appear to be asserting that the manner of appointment of the administrative law judges who presided over this matter violates the Appointments Clause of the Constitution.

The Commission’s consideration of the Appointments Clause challenge would be assisted by the submission of additional material for inclusion in the record and by the submission of additional briefing.

Accordingly, it is ORDERED that the Division of Enforcement shall by June 4, 2015 file and serve on the parties an affidavit from an appropriate Commission staff member, with supporting exhibits if appropriate, setting forth the manner in which ALJ Cameron Elliot and Chief ALJ Brenda Murray were hired, including the method of selection and appointment.

It is further ORDERED that the parties shall file simultaneous supplemental briefs . . . limited to the following two issues: (1) whether, assuming solely for the sake of argument that the Commission’s ALJs are “inferior officers” within the meaning of Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution, their manner of appointment violates the Appointments Clause; and (2) the appropriate remedy if such a violation is found.

In a footnote, the Commission said it was not yet deciding the Timbervest motion, including “the materiality of the discovery sought.”  The order in its entirety can be found here: Order Requesting Additional Submissions and Additional Briefing.

The SEC is treading carefully here.  We know, of course, that there is no chance the Commission will rule that its own administrative proceedings are unconstitutional in any respect, but Mary Jo White is a good enough lawyer to know she has to make a record that will not undercut the appearance of fairness in this entire process, or suggest any SEC bias in its own favor.  Just saying that shows how absurd the process is: the SEC is obviously conflicted in considering whether the prosecutions it sent to its administrative judges are unconstitutional.  That, among other reasons, is why this issue needs to be thrashed out fully before actual Article III judges in Article III courts.  Nevertheless, federal district court judges, with one exception, have ruled they lack the jurisdiction to consider the issue.  See Court Dismisses “Compelling and Meritorious” Bebo Constitutional Claims Solely on Jurisdictional Grounds; SEC Wins First Skirmish on Constitutional Challenge to Chau Administrative Proceeding.  The one exception led to a decision in the SEC’s favor that lacked the substance to serve as a compelling precedent: see In Duka v. SEC, SDNY Judge Berman Finds SEC Administrative Law Enforcement Proceedings Constitutional in a Less than Compelling Opinion.

The revelation of possible pressure on SEC ALJs to favor the SEC would be a game-changer if it is substantiated.  That introduces new elements of due process and fundamental fairness concerns beyond the separation of powers and appointments clause issues that have been the focus of most of the challenges to date.  How the Commission could question the “materiality” of that information is hard to fathom.  As we previously wrote, the only appropriate response to such a “red flag” is to commence a fully independent review of issue.  That is, of course, what the SEC would demand if a similar event were to occur in a public company, in order to avoid a later charge by the SEC and its staff of “reckless disregard” of “red flags.”  But apparently different rules govern the Commission, which seems to be placing itself above the law.

Straight Arrow

May 28, 2015

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SEC Wins First Skirmish on Constitutional Challenge to Chau Administrative Proceeding

On December 11, 2014, Judge Lewis Kaplan ruled that his court lacked jurisdiction to consider Wing Chau’s injunctive action to prevent an SEC administrative prosecution against him on due process and equal protection grounds.  Although the ruling was narrowly confined to the jurisdiction issue, it nevertheless was a significant victory for the Commission.

In October 2013, the SEC commenced an administrative proceeding against Chau and his firm, Harding Advisory, alleging misrepresentations in connection with the sale of collateralized debt obligations (“CDOs”) that imploded during the housing/mortgage crisis.  The allegations essentially charged that Chau and Harding misrepresented the nature of the process for selecting assets that went into the CDOs.  After seeking to work within the administrative process to get the kinds of discovery and preparation time that typically would be available if the action were brought in federal court, Chau and Harding commenced a federal action in the Southern District of New York to stop the administrative proceeding.  They asserted in their complaint (which can be reviewed here: Wing Chau v. SEC), that the SEC administrative action violated due process because it did not allow a fair defense to be developed, and denied equal protection of the law because they were singled out for administrative prosecution when similar actions against other persons were brought in federal court (and two of three were lost by the SEC).

The court had previously denied a temporary restraining order and the administrative trial went forward and was concluded.  The parties are awaiting an ALJ determination.

The threshold issue was whether such an action was permissible — whether the district court had jurisdiction to hear a claim to preempt the administrative action.  Applying the standards set forth in Thunder Basin Coal Co. v. Reich, 510 U.S. 200 (1994), Judge Kaplan ruled there was no jurisdiction because (1) the plaintiffs could get meaningful judicial review in an appeal of the administrative action, (2) the claimed constitutional violations were not wholly collateral to the issues to be decided in the administrative action, and (3) the consideration of due process and equal protection claims were not outside of the SEC’s “expertise.”  A copy of the opinion can be found here: Chau v SEC Opinion.

The court found it significant that the due process claim “has been that the SEC’s procedural rules . . . are unfair in light of ‘facts and circumstances of [their] case'” and not that “the SEC’s rules are unconstitutional in every instance.”  Slip op. at 18-19.  The numerous grounds asserted to show that the respondents had been prevented from presenting a fair defense did not provide jurisdiction because they “all . . . are inextricably intertwined with [the] ongoing administrative proceeding and can be reviewed by a court of appeals.”  Id. at 20.  And because the challenges involve the day-to-day conduct of the proceeding, the due process arguments are not “wholly collateral” to the proceeding under Thunder Basin.  Id.  Finally, “plaintiffs fail to articulate any convincing reason why the SEC lacks the competence to consider the fairness of proceedings before its ALJs.”  Id. at 22.  The issue is the fairness of a particular hearing, not a determination that one of the SEC’s “constituent parts is unconstitutional,” and the “SEC is well equipped to evaluate claims of unfairness in proceedings before its ALJs — and if it fails to do so, the courts of appeals stand ready to correct the error.”  Id. at 22-23.

The equal protection claim yielded the same result.  Although a sister court found jurisdiction for such a claim in Gupta v. SEC, 796 F. Supp.2d 503 (S.D.N.Y. 2011), Judge Kaplan was not convinced to follow that decision.  He found the Gupta allegations of discriminatory conduct stronger, but also did “not find Gupta‘s application fo the Thunder Basin factors persuasive in these circumstances.”  Slip op. at 25.  In essence, he disagrees with the reasoning in Gupta and relied on modestly different facts to rule the other way.  He again also found no basis to conclude that the equal protection claim is outside of the SEC’s “expertise.”  But he did so with a circular argument.  He acknowledged that adjudicating such claims “is ‘not peculiarly within the SEC’s competence,'” but without addressing why equal protection analysis was within the SEC’s competence, stated that the SEC’s attempt to address the equal protection issues in an attempted interlocutory appeal from an ALJ decision “indicate that the SEC is competent to consider plaintiff’s constitutional claims.”  Id. at 31-32. 

At the end of the opinion, the judge noted that plaintiffs’ challenge “[t]aken to its logical conclusion . . . would upend all manner of administrative enforcement schemes.”  Id. at 32. He concluded that because “the normal channels of statutory review are adequate” his court lacked subject matter jurisdiction.

In an epilogue, Judge Kaplan took note that “the growth of administrative adjudication, especially in preference to adjudication by Article III courts and perhaps particularly in the field of securities regulation, troubles some.”  Id. at 34.  He singled out concerns that this approach could “increase the role of the Commission in interpreting the securities laws to the detriment or exclusion of the long standing interpretive role of the courts.”  This is a concern that has been raised by federal district judge Jed Rakoff (see here).  He also mentions concern that such SEC determinations might be accorded “broad Chevron deference to SEC interpretations of the securities laws in the determination of administrative proceedings.”  Id. at 34-35.  Concern about the proper scope of Chevron deference to SEC statutory interpretations was noted recently by Justice Scalia (see here).

Judge Kaplan said “[t]hese concerns are legitimate, whether born of self-interest or of a personal assessment of whether the public interest would be served best by preserving the important interpretative role of Article III courts in construing the securities laws – a role courts have performed since 1933.”  “But they do not affect the result in this case. . . .  This Court’s role is a modest one” — to determine subject matter jurisdiction.  Id. at 35.  In reaching its conclusion, the court “has not considered any views concerning the proper or wise allocation of interpretive functions between the Commission and the courts,” which “are policy matters committed to the legislative and executive branches of government.”  Id. at 35-36.

The takeaway from this decision is limited.  Although the jurisdictional issue required some consideration of the merits of the constitutional claims, the due process and equal protection concerns raised by Chau and Harding plainly were left for another forum to decide.  The very different constitutional issues raised by the plaintiffs in Stilwell v. SEC and Peixoto v. SEC (see here), were not mentioned.  As to those cases, even as to subject matter jurisdiction the analysis would have to be very different because, unlike Chau, they do involve a fundamental challenge to the structure of SEC administrative proceedings, i.e., they do require a determination whether one of the SEC’s “constituent parts is unconstitutional.”  It would be difficult to argue that the structural issues raised about SEC administrative law judges in Stilwell and Peixoto are even arguably within the competence of the SEC to decide for itself.  (For an in depth discussion of the merits of those issues, see here.)

But there remains no doubt that this is an SEC victory that, at a minimum, delays consideration of some aspects of the propriety of shifting SEC enforcement actions to its own administrative courts (see posts on this issue here and here).

Straight Arrow

December 15, 2014

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Challenges to the Constitutionality of SEC Administrative Proceedings in Peixoto and Stilwell May Have Merit

It’s not often that securities litigators get to breathe the rarefied air of constitutional law, but there are some challenging constitutional issues now being raised in opposition to the SEC’s use of administrative proceedings for its civil enforcement proceedings.

A range of such issues could be raised, some of them not limited to the administrative proceedings themselves.  They derive from the SEC’s peculiar (at least constitutionally) combination of authorities, powers, and responsibilities under the statutory framework created in the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.

In particular, the constitutionality of the administrative proceedings presided over by SEC administrative law judges has been challenged in two recent district court filings in Peixoto v. SEC and Stilwell v. SEC.  Those cases argue the administrative law judges cannot properly preside over such proceedings because they are officers of the United States who are not subject to removal at will by either the President or an appointee of the President, in violation of Article II of the Constitution.  Se our earlier discussion of these allegations here.  The complaints filed in those cases can be found here (Peixoto v SEC) and here (Stilwell v SEC).  Issues of due process were raised in Wing  Wing Chau v. SEC).  And there remains a distant cloud over much of the prosecutorial power of the SEC itself because its commissioners do not answer to the President when they exercise such powers.

A Little History Will Get Us Started

Although the first so-called independent agency was created before the turn of the 20th century when the Interstate Commerce Commission was established, the enormous growth of the so-called “Fourth Branch” came in the 1930s, when the Roosevelt Administration undertook a fundamental restructuring of the national government, based on a growing legal movement arguing that government affairs had grown too complex and specialized to be run by the purely political executive branch.  Complex commercial and financial activities, it was said, require the oversight of specialists in the field, who can apply expertise that normal executive department appointees, who come and go, cannot develop.  Brilliant legal minds like Felix Frankfurter developed jurisprudential theories justifying the need for, and propriety of, these administrative entities under our legal traditions.  Generations of lawyers have since been trained to accept this model as an enlightened approach to governance of the complex industrial state.

Frankfurter was a progenitor of the administrative state.  He was certain that the only viable means of governing a complex modern industrial state was to create government bureaus composed of experts who could apply neutral, scientific principles to guide commerce in the right direction.  He wrote in 1932:

Governmental regulation of banking, insurance, public utilities, industry, finance, immigration, the professions, health and morals, in short, the inevitable response of government to the needs of modern society, is building up a body of enactments not written by legislatures and of adjudications not made by courts, and only to a limited degree subject to their revisions.  These powers are lodged in vast congeries of agencies.  We are in the midst of a process, still largely unconscious and unscientific, of adjusting the play of these powers to the traditional system of Anglo-American law and courts.

Frankfurter and Davison, Cases and Other Materials on Administrative Law (1932), at vii.

So began the modern administrative state.  Multiple administrative agencies were created to develop rules governing commercial and financial activities, and to oversee compliance with those rules.  The FTC was created in 1914 to promote competition amidst great concern about trusts and monopolies, but it also was involved in efforts to try to deal with sharp practices in the sale of securities.  A focus on securities practices during the 1932 campaign led to the early proposal of a securities act, which became the Securities Act of 1933.  For a year, it was the FTC that had responsibility for overseeing that statute.  In 1934, the SEC was created in the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.  (Interestingly, some questioned the constitutionality of giving an independent agency the powers granted to the SEC, suggesting instead in earlier legislative proposals that they be given to the U.S. Post Office, based on the notion that the use of the postal service was key to securities transactions.)  Felix Frankfurter, who was thought by Roosevelt to be perhaps the greatest legal mind of his time, was a key architect of that statute.

Frankfurter brought with him some key protégés, not the least of which was James Landis, who eventually served on the FTC and as Chairman of the SEC from 1935 to 1937.  Landis is most renowned for his encomium to administrative agencies in the book The Administrative Process (1938).  In that book, Landis argued that the Nation desperately needed a “Fourth Branch” because of “the inadequacy of a simple tripartite form of government to deal with modern problems.”  Like Frankfurter, he believed that because complexities of modern commerce, “the need for expertness became dominant.”  In his view, legislation should only identify the scope of subject matter for an agency and the issues it should address, and then stand aside and allow administrative experts to apply broad discretion to those matters.  Landis and another Frankfurter acolyte, Benjamin Cohen, created the first draft of the Securities Act of 1933.

Felix Frankfurter

Frankfurter signature

James Landis 1936Benjamin V. Cohen

                James Landis                                                                                Benjamin Cohen

Even as the governmental alphabet soup burgeoned with the establishment of the SEC, FCC and other agencies, it was apparent that the precise constitutional nature of these entities was not clear.  They were touted as the best means of regulating business activity because they were supposedly “non-political,” applying expertise to set an enlightened path to guide and develop commerce.  To promote that theoretical aim, and because they were to set rules for and govern vast portions of United States commerce, these agencies were designed not to be a captive of, or to answer to, the “political” branches – the President and the Congress.

The SEC itself was created in the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.  There was a legislative battle over whether the securities regulator would be the FTC or a new commission created specifically to oversee the securities exchanges.  Roosevelt preferred FTC oversight, but a separate SEC won the day largely because of fear that the FTC would overregulate the securities industry.  Like the FTC, the SEC was conceived as an “independent agency,” with five commissioners that were Presidential appointees subject to Senate approval.  A maximum of three commissioners could be members of the same party.  It was intended by its creators to populate the growing “Fourth Branch.”

Like the FTC, and unlike an executive department, the President was not given the power to remove a commissioner.  In fact, although the Federal Trade Commission Act gave the President power to remove FTC commissioners for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office” (i.e., not “at will”), the Securities Exchange Act had no provision addressing removal of commissioners.  It has since remained unclear what power the President may have to remove SEC commissioners, although it is usually assumed that he may do so only “for cause,” i.e., like the FTC, for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.”  The only time the Supreme Court addressed that issue, it accepted a stipulation by the parties that SEC commissioners “cannot themselves be removed by the President except [for] “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office,” and “decide[d] the case with that understanding.”  Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, 561 U.S. 477, 487 (2010) (“Free Enterprise Fund”).

The Problem

The constitutional problems created by some powers and authorities exercised by the SEC arise out of the Commission’s intended independence of the Executive Branch.  As discussed above, there is no doubt that independence was intended.  The ability to act independently of both the Executive and Legislative Branches was the sine qua non of Frankfurter and his disciples because that was the only way to create the hypothesized “experts” that would provide reasoned, non-political, direction to the Nation’s complex financial and commercial activity.  James Landis’s The Administrative Process left no doubt that the intention of the creators of “independent agencies” was indeed to make them independent of the branches of government designated in the Constitution.  Here are his words:

The reasons for favoring [the independent, regulatory administrative agency] seem simple enough – a desire to have the fashioning of industrial policy removed to a degree from political influence.  At the same time, there seems to have been a hope that the independent agency would make for more professionalism than that which characterized the normal executive department.  Policies would thus be more permanent and could be fashioned with greater foresight than might attend their shaping under conditions where the dominance of executive power was pronounced.  Again, the idea of the independent Commission seems naturally to have evolved from the very concept of administrative power.  That power embraces functions exercisable by all three branches of government.  To have taken these functions and to have placed them in the hands of any one of the three branches of government would have seemed incongruous.  The natural solution was to place them beyond the immediate control of any one of the three branches, yet subject to checks by each of them.

Landis, The Administrative Process (1966 ed.), at 111.  Landis goes on to note that independence allowed agencies “to have achieved a degree of permanence and consistency that they might not have possessed had their formulation been too closely identified with the varying tempers of changing administrations,” and “professionalism in the nonindependent agencies has suffered on occasion at the hands of political superiors.”  Id. at 113-14.

But the traditional “separation of powers” among the three branches of government recognized in Articles I-III of the Constitution – Legislative, Executive, and Judicial – could not easily accommodate this new conception; recall that Landis argued the administrative agencies were needed to cure “the inadequacy of a simple tripartite form of government to deal with modern problems.”  Id. at 1.  Ever since 1935, the Supreme Court has had great difficulty articulating how to accommodate the Constitution’s framework with various forms of creative governing mechanisms that fall outside of Articles I, II or III.

In a nutshell, the SEC’s constitutional challenges are: (1) to remain consistent with Article II’s statement of Executive powers and responsibilities while pursuing law enforcement activities that by all appearances are Executive functions, i.e., “executing” those laws placed by Congress within its (and not the Executive’s) jurisdiction; and (2) to adjudicate law enforcement proceedings internally while still complying with judicial concepts of due process and fundamental fairness.

The constitutional quagmires that the SEC’s “Fourth Branch” status raise can come in multiple forms.  They range from the question of how the insulation of SEC Commissioners from Presidential control (because they are not removable “at will”) may affect the SEC’s ability to appoint some officials who operate under its aegis, or to function as a powerful vehicle for enforcing a wide range of laws of the United States, to the question of how the SEC can function simultaneously as the enforcer of those laws and the adjudicator of the enforcement actions it decides to bring while still affording due process to those it prosecutes.

The issue currently at the top of the heap is how the SEC’s establishment as an independent agency impacts its ability to operate administrative courts with judges not subject to the control of the President, and we turn to that now.

The Constitutional Issue Raised About the SEC’s Administrative Law Courts

The current constitutional challenges to SEC proceedings flow from the SEC’s increased use of its administrative law courts to hear major law enforcement proceedings.  Although the constitutional issues discussed below might also apply to SEC administrative proceedings of a more traditional type (involving alleged violations of law by SEC-regulated entities), the intrusion on purely executive functions seems most clear when the “executive” action occurring is a prosecution for violation of the law by persons not otherwise subject to SEC regulation.

Stilwell v. SEC and Peixoto v. SEC involve challenges to the constitutionality of threatened and filed proceedings in the SEC’s administrative law court.  In these cases, the plaintiffs seek declaratory relief that their administrative proceedings would violate Article II of the Constitution because the officials administering those proceedings – SEC administrative law judges – are “officers” of the United States and therefore must be reasonably subject to Executive control under Article II.  Plaintiffs argue (i) the SEC ALJs are “officers” of the United States in the constitutional sense; (ii) the ALJs may be removed from their jobs only “for cause” by the SEC; and (iii) the SEC commissioners can be removed by the President only “for cause.”  This arrangement, it is alleged, so diminishes the President’s ability to control the conduct of executive officers that it violates Article II.

The Constitution

Particularly relevant to this issue are the following provisions of the Constitution:

Article  II, Section 1 vests “The executive Power” “in a President of the United States of America.”

Article II, Section 2, in delineating aspects of the “executive Power,” states that the President “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Court of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.”

Article II, Section 3 states that the Presidentshall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.”

The Defense Argument

The validity of the defense argument turns on whether the SEC ALJs are “Officers” or “inferior Officers” of the United States, and, if so, whether the President’s inability to remove them “at will,” or reasonably cause someone else to remove them “at will,” impedes his ability to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”

Free Enterprise Fund  is the Supreme Court precedent most central to this argument.  In that case, the Court considered a constitutionality challenge to the law enforcement powers of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (“PCAOB”).  The PCAOB was created in the Sarbanes Oxley Act of 2002 as a government organization with powers to adopt and enforce rules governing the public accounting profession, under the oversight of the SEC.  Its five Board Members are appointed by the SEC.  They are not government employees for statutory purposes, but they were acknowledged by all parties to be “Officers of the United States” who exercised “significant authority pursuant to the laws of the United States.”  561 U.S. at 485-86.  They are removable by a formal order of the SEC only “for good cause shown,” subject to judicial review.  Id. at 486.  As noted above, the parties in the case also stipulated that the SEC Commissioners were removable by the President only for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.”  Id.  at 487.  The case presented the question whether the layering of “for cause” removal restrictions – limiting the President as to “a principal officer” (the SEC Commissioners) “who is in turn restricted in his ability to remove an inferior officer (the PCAOB Members) – is permissible “even though that inferior officer determines the policy and enforces the laws of the United States.”  Id. at 483-84.

The Court found that the appointments of the PCAOB Members did not violate the Appointments Clause because the SEC is a “Department” within the meaning of that clause, noting that “the common, near-contemporary definition of a ‘department’ as a ‘separate allotment or part of business; a distinct province, in which a class of duties are allotted to a particular person’ is consistent with that result even thought the SEC was created as an independent agency.  Id. at 511.  As a result: “Because the Commission is a freestanding component of the Executive Branch, not subordinate to or contained within any other such component, it constitutes a “Departmen[t]” for the purposes of the Appointments Clause.”

But the Court nevertheless concluded that the PCAOB violated Article II because its members were too insulated from presidential control to allow the President to perform his required executive functions: “We hold that such multilevel protection from removal is contrary to Article II’s vesting of the executive power in the President.  The President cannot “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed” if he cannot oversee the faithfulness of the officers who execute them.  Here, the President cannot remove an officer who enjoys more than one level of good-cause protection, even if the President determines that the officer is neglecting his duties or discharging them improperly.”  Id. at 484.

That raises questions about the SEC’s ALJs.  Under the Administrative Procedure Act, the SEC is responsible for the appointment of the ALJs that preside over its administrative courts.  The SEC is also responsible for their removal.  But it can’t do so “at will.”  5 U.S.C. § 7521 states: “An agency may remove, suspend, reduce in level, reduce in pay, or furlough for 30 days or less an administrative law judge only for good cause established and determined by the [Merit Systems Protection Board] on the record and after opportunity for a hearing before the Board.”  In other words, the SEC’s ALJs are removable by the SEC only after proof of good cause as found by the Merit Systems Protection Board.  In that respect, it appears to be somewhat more difficult for the SEC to remove an ALJ than it is to remove a Member of the PCAOB.

Since no one has yet disputed that SEC Commissioners are removable only for cause, that appears to resolve the issue of whether an ALJ “enjoys more than one level of good-cause protection.”  That would make the dispositive issue whether an SEC ALJ is an “Officer” or an “inferior Officer” of the United States performing executive functions that should be subject to presidential influence.  If he/she is, then by all appearances his/her protection from removal by the President would be “contrary to Article II’s vesting of the executive power in the President” because “[t]he President cannot “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”

Is an Administrative Law Judge an Officer or Inferior Officer of the United States?

Treatment of ALJs in the Free Enterprise Fund decisions.  So is an ALJ an Officer or inferior Officer of the United States?  The Court in Free Enterprise Fund addressed, but did not decide this issue.  Stating that nothing in its opinion “should be read to cast doubt on the use of what is colloquially known as the civil service system within independent agencies,” Justice Roberts devoted a footnote to the impact of the opinion on administrative law judges:

For similar reasons, our holding does not address that subset of independent agency employees who serve as administrative law judges. . . .  Whether administrative law judges are necessarily “Officers of the United States” is disputed.  [See Landry v. FDIC, 204 F.3d 1125 (D.C. Cir. 2000).]  And unlike members of the Board, many administrative law judges of course perform adjudicative rather than enforcement or policymaking functions. . ., or possess purely recommendatory powers.  The Government below refused to identify either “civil service tenure-protected employees in independent agencies” or administrative law judges as “precedent for the PCAOB….”

Free Enterprise Fund, 561 U.S. at 507 n.10.  The Court did “not address” the issue, but it certainly raised a significant obstacle, seemingly suggesting that if ALJs “perform adjudicative rather than enforcement or policymaking functions” they may be constitutionally okay.

The difficulty of getting ALJs included as “officers” is also reflected in Judge Kavanagh’s dissenting opinion in the D.C. Circuit ruling in which the majority rejected the constitutional challenge to the PCAOB.  See Free Enterprise Fund v. PCAOB, 537 F.3d 667 (D.C. Cir. 2008).  Justice Roberts liberally referred to and incorporated arguments from Judge Kavanagh’s dissent as part of his majority Supreme Court opinion, so Judge Kavanagh’s thoughts could be influential.  Here is what he said on the ALJ question (much of which was tracked by Justice Roberts in his footnote):

[A]dministrative law judges in the independent agencies are removable only for cause at the initiation of the agency that employs them and with approval of the Merit Systems Protection Board, . . . whose members in turn are removable only for cause by the President. . . .  [T]here are good reasons the Board and the United States did not cite ALJs as a precedent.  First, an agency has the choice whether to use ALJs for hearings . . . Congress has not imposed ALJs on the Executive Branch.  Second, many ALJs are employees, not officers.  [See Landry v. FDIC, 204 F.3d 1125, 1132-34 (D.C. Cir. 2000)] (ALJs in FDIC are employees because they possess only recommendatory powers that are subject to de novo review by agency).  Third, ALJs perform only adjudicatory functions that are subject to review by agency officials . . . and that arguably would not be considered “central to the functioning of the Executive Branch” for purposes of the Article II removal precedents. . . .  Nothing in this dissenting opinion is intended to or would affect the status of employees in independent agencies who have congressionally mandated civil service tenure protection or the status of administrative law judges.

537 F.3d 667 at 699 n.8 (dissenting opinion).

The opinion in Landry v. FDIC.  Both Justice Roberts’s Supreme Court opinion and Judge Kavanagh’s D.C. Circuit dissent cite only one case in relation to the ALJ issue: Landry v. FDIC, 204 F.3d 1125 (D.C. Cir. 2000).  Kavanagh cites Landry to support the statement that “many ALJs are employees, not officers” and Roberts cites it for the point that “Whether administrative law judges are necessarily ‘Officers of the United States’ is disputed.” Neither judge is suggesting that the holding in Landry decides the issue completely, but it would be important for someone asserting the SEC ALJs are “officers” to be able to explain why the rationale underlying Landry is not especially helpful in evaluating the status of the SEC ALJs.

Landry involved a challenge to sanctions imposed by the FDIC after it reviewed the decision of an FDIC administrative law judge recommending findings and sanctions under the operative FDIC statute.  Among the grounds for appeal to the D.C. Circuit was the contention that the appointment of the FDIC’s ALJ violated the Appointments Clause of the Constitution, Article II, Section 2, Clause 2: “[The President] … shall appoint … Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.”  Landry contended that an FDIC ALJ was an “inferior Officer” who could be appointed only by the President, the Courts, or a Head of Department, but had been appointed by a federal banking agency, which was not a “Department” in the constitutional sense.

 A majority of the D.C. Circuit panel ruled that the FDIC ALJ was not an inferior officer, but was instead a mere “employee.”  The court noted that “[t]he line between ‘mere’ employees and inferior officers is anything but bright. . . .  In fact, the earliest Appointments Clause cases often employed circular logic, granting officer status to an official based in part upon his appointment by the head of a department.”  Landry, 204. F.3d at 1132 (citations omitted).  The Supreme Court’s statement in Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 126 n.162 (1976), that “any appointee exercising significant authority pursuant to the laws of the United States is an ‘Officer of the United States,’” was treated as not especially helpful.  Instead, “ascertaining the test’s real meaning requires a look at the roles of the employees whose status was at issue in other cases.”  Landry, 204 F.3d at 1133.

 The one case deemed “most analogous” was Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U.S. 868 (1991), in which the Court found that special trial judges (“STJ”) for the Tax Court were indeed “inferior Officers.”  The Landry majority distinguished Freytag, however, because the Freytag Court relied in part on powers of the STJ not matched by the FDIC ALJs: “the authority to render the final decision of the Tax Court in declaratory judgment proceedings and in certain small-amount tax cases.”  Landry, 204 F.3d at 1133.  Because the FDIC ALJ could only render a recommended decision, findings of fact, and conclusions of law, with final decisions reserved to the FDIC, and because the Supreme Court in Freytag “laid exceptional stress on the STJs’ final decisionmaking power” (id. at 1134), the majority found the ALJ was not an “officer” of the United States.

 Judge Randolph concurred in the result based on no prejudice suffered by the appellant, but strongly disagreed on the determination that the ALJ was not an officer of the United States.  He found the FDIC ALJ indistinguishable in material respects from the Tax Court STJ under the reasoning of the Supreme Court in Freytag.  Quoting the Freytag opinion extensively, he argued that the Supreme Court placed no great importance on the limited respects in which the STJs had final authority.  In particular, the mere fact “that an ALJ cannot render a final decision and is subject to the ultimate supervision of the FDIC shows only that the ALJ shares the common characteristic of the ‘inferior Officer,’” that is that “‘inferior’ officers are officers whose work is directed and supervised at some level by others who were appointed by Presidential nomination….”  Landry, 204 F.3d at 1142 (quoting Edmond v. United States, 520 U.S. 651, 663 (1997).

 In the end, the divided opinion in Landry v. FDIC lends some, but limited, support to the notion that an ALJ whose authority is exclusively limited to recommending determinations to be made finally by others may be an “employee” and not an “inferior Officer.”  But the division in the court makes this far from clear.

 The decision in Freytag v. Commissioner.  Since the Landry decision turns on how the disagreeing judges read the Supreme Court decision in Freytag, we should at least understand what the Freytag court decided.

 As noted above, the Freytag case involved the status of special trial judges (formerly known as “commissioners”) appointed by the Tax Court.  The Tax Court is an Article I court created by Congress with judges appointed for limited terms.  Congress authorized the Chief Judge of the Tax Court to appoint STJs to hear specific types of tax cases, some of which could be decided by the STJ but others of which require a recommended decision by the STJ and final determination by a regular judge of the Tax Court.  Freytag’s case was one of those that required review and adoption by a regular judge, and that is what occurred.

 Freytag challenged the validity of the judgment against him in part because the appointment of STJs by the Chief Judge of the Tax Court violated the Appointments Clause.  The Court unanimously rejected this contention, although it was sharply divided on the reasoning.  A majority of five justices reasoned that the STJ was an “inferior Officer” whose appointment was proper because the Tax Court could properly appoint an inferior officer as one of “the Courts of Law” under Article II, Section 2, Clause 2.  The remaining four justices reasoned that the STJ was an “inferior Officer,” but that the Tax Court’s power to make such appoints derived from the fact that it was a Department within the meaning of Article II, Section 2, Clause 2.  All nine justices, therefore, agreed that the STJs were “inferior Officers.”

The reasoning behind that was laid out in the majority opinion.  That opinion rejected the contention set forth by the Commissioner of the IRS that the STJs were “employees” who did no more than assist the regular Tax Court judges in taking evidence and preparing proposed findings and an opinion.  The Court started with the statement in Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 126 (1976), that” “Any 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].”  It went on to reject the argument that STJs are only employees “because they lack authority to enter into a final decision” because that argument “ignores the significance of the duties and discretion that special trial judges possess.”  Freytag, 501 U.S. at 881.  The Court focused on the facts that “the office of special trial judge is ‘established by Law’” and the statute lays out their “duties, salary, and means of appointment for that office” (id.); they “perform more than ministerial tasks” including “tak[ing] testimony, conduct[ing] trials, rul[ing] on the admissibility of evidence, and hav[ing] the power to enforce compliance with discovery orders.”  Id. at 881-82.  And in the course of doing so, they “exercise significant discretion.”  Id. at 882.  These factors were bolstered by others, because “[e]ven if the duties of [STJs] were not as significant as . . . we have found them to be,” there are circumstances where “they exercise independent authority,” and they cannot be “inferior Officers” for some purposes and not others.  See id.

 So, Freytag rejects the argument that officials who “lack authority to enter into a final decision” must be employees and not inferior officers, places great weight on whether a person’s job was created and delineated by statute and involves the exercise of significant discretion, and notes that if this is accompanied by the exercise of “independent authority,” there is no doubt that the official is an inferior officer.

Supreme Court decisions in the military judge cases.  The Supreme Court issued a triumvirate of opinions of relatively recent vintage in cases applying the Appointments Clause to judges presiding over military courts.  See Weiss v. United States, 510 U.S. 163 (1994); Ryder v. United States, 515 U.S. 177 (1995); Edmond v. United States, 520 U.S. 651 (1997).  These cases could be viewed as providing strong support for the view that government officials other than Article III judges who preside over government legal proceedings are to be considered “inferior Officers” of the United States.  (Article III judges almost certainly would be viewed as principal officers.)

Weiss challenged military trial judges who were appointed by the President as officers of the military but never appointed to be judges.  The case proceeded on the “common ground” of the parties, with apparent acquiescence by the Court, that “military judges, because of the authority and responsibilities they possess, act as ‘Officers’ of the United States.”  Weiss, 510 U.S. at 169; see id. at 173 (Buckley, Freytag, and Morrison v. Olson “undoubtedly establish the analytical framework upon which to base the conclusion that a military judge is an ‘officer of the United States’ – a proposition to which both parties agree”).  The Court held that because the appointment as military officers of those serving as judges was consistent with the Appointments Clause, no “reappointment” was required.  The only issue disputed by the justices was how to decide whether the military judges were “inferior Officers” or “principal officers.”  See id. at 182-94 (Souter, J., concurring).

Ryder involved a challenged conviction where the intermediate appellate court, the Coast Guard Court of Military Review, included two civilian judges whose appointments did not comply with the Appointments Clause, and, because they were not military officers, were never appointed to a military office by means consistent with the Appointments clause.  The Court unanimously reversed the decision of the United States Court of Military Appeals (the highest military appellate court) that there were ground to ignore this flaw, and overturned the conviction.  In doing so, the Court agreed that judges serving on the Coast Guard Court of Military Review were officers required to be appointed in accordance with the Appointments Clause.  Significantly, the Court reached this result despite the fact that the intermediate appellate judges in question were subject to review by the higher appellate court, noting that the lower and higher courts applied different standards of review.  Ryder, 515 U.S. at 187-88.

Edmond also involved a challenge to a conviction where the intermediate appellate court (now renamed the Coast Guard Court of Criminal Appeals) included two civilian judges who were assigned to the intermediate court by the Judge Advocate General of the Coast Guard (who also was General Counsel of the Department of Transportation).  After Weiss was decided, the Secretary of Transportation “adopted” the assignments as his own “judicial appointments.”  The Court found no violation of the Appointments Clause because the judges were officers of the Department of Transportation and the power to appoint all such officers was given by statute to the Secretary of Transportation, consistent with the Appointments Clause.  One of petitioner’s challenges was that these judges were “principal officers,” not “inferior officers.”  The Court noted that its “cases have not set forth an exclusive criterion for distinguishing between principal and inferior officers,” and discussed several cases finding other officials to be inferior officers.  Edmond, 520 U.S. at 661.  In response to the argument that these judges exercised “significant authority” on behalf of the United States, the Court that this does not make them principal officers, but draws “the line between officer and non-officer.”  Id. at 662.  The Court concluded they would be “inferior officers” because “[g]enerally speaking, the term ‘inferior officer’ connotes a relationship with some higher ranking officer or officers below the President: whether one is an ‘inferior’ officer depends on whether he has a superior.”  The fact that these judges were subject to administrative oversight by the Judge Advocate General, and could be removed by the Judge Advocate General “without cause,” were strong grounds to show they were subordinates.  Id. at 664.  And the fact that the decisions of the intermediate court were subject to reversal on further appeal, also showed that these judges “have no power to render a final decision on behalf of the United States unless permitted to do so by other executive officers” and are therefore inferior officers.  Id. at 665.  Justice Souter’s concurrence argued that more factors should be considered in determining whether these judges were principal or inferior officers, but in the end agreed “that the judges . . . are inferior officers within the meaning of the Appointments Clause.”  Id. at666-70 (Souter, J., concurring).

The SEC’s ALJs exercise powers of the government and have significant discretion in adjudicating enforcement proceedings involving major sanctions.  Although they are subject to review by the SEC, the cases seem to make it crystal clear that merely being subject to reversal does not render an inferior officer a non-officer.  That their decisions can be reversed is a sign that they are not “principal officers,” but has little bearing on whether they are inferior ones.  To the contrary, in the words of Justice Scalia in Edmond, “we think it evident that ‘inferior officers’ are officers whose work is directed and supervised at some level by others who were appointed by presidential nomination with the advice and consent of the Senate.”  Edmond, 520 U.S. at 663.

 Beyond the case law.  This certainly has not been an exhaustive review of all cases discussing the scope of “inferior Officers.”  But it seems sufficient to conclude that the characterization of the SEC ALJs as inferior officers, on the one hand, or employees, on the other, is not easily made based solely on the cases.  One question to ask is whether there are other authorities addressing the issue that might be helpful.  It turns out that the Office of Legal Counsel of the Department of Justice (OLC) has on several occasions considered how to determine whether certain officials are officers of the United States.  Might these analyses be useful?

 In April 2007, the OLC produced its most recent analysis, a Memorandum Opinion for the General Counsels of the Executive Branch entitled Officers of the United States Within the Meaning of the Appointments Clause (Apr. 16, 2007) (“OLC April 2007 Opinion”).  A copy of that document can be found here: Officers of the United States Within the Meaning of the Appointments Clause – OLC Opinion.  With extensive analysis, the OLC concluded:

 We conclude that any position having the two essential characteristics of a federal “office” is subject to the Appointments Clause.  That is, a position, however labeled, is in fact a federal office if (1) it is invested by legal authority with a portion of the sovereign powers of the federal Government, and (2) it is “continuing.”  A person who would hold such a position must be properly made an “Officer[ ] of the United States” by being appointed pursuant to the procedures specified in the Appointments Clause.

 OLC April 2007 Opinion at 1.

The crux of the OLC analysis is that a person is a federal officer if he or she has a continuing position established by law that involves the application of the sovereign powers of the federal government.  That would be in contrast to a person whose position is “purely advisory” or who “provides goods and services.”  Id.  at 4.  If their official positions involve “the wielding of delegated sovereign authority,” they hold an office, and are officers.  Id. at 7.  Citing historic authorities, the OLC says: “Officers, thus, were persons holding sovereign authority delegated from the King that enabled them in conducting the affairs of government to affect the people “against [their] will, and without [their] leave.”  Id.  at 8.  An influential 19th century treatise cited by the OLC summarized a public office as follows:  “A public office is the right, authority and duty, created and conferred by law, by which for a given period, either fixed by law or enduring at the pleasure of the creating power, an individual is invested with some portion of the sovereign functions of government, to be exercised by him for the benefit of the public. The individual so invested is a public officer.”  Id. at 10 (citing F. Mechem, A Treatise on the Law of Public Offices and Officers § 1, at 1-2 (1890)).

Critically, the OLC emphasizes that “‘independent discretion’ is not a necessary attribute of delegated sovereign authority.”  Id. at 17.  “[T]reating discretion as necessary for the existence of an office conflicts with the original understanding of ‘office,’ early practice, and early precedents.”  Id. at 18.  Nor is the exercise of “independent” authority needed:  “If it is not necessary to the existence of delegated sovereign authority (and thus to the existence of an office) that a position include the exercise of discretion, all the more is it not necessary that a position include some sort of ‘independent’ discretion in carrying out sovereign functions.  The question for purposes of this first element is simply whether a position possesses delegated sovereign authority to act in the first instance, whether or not that act may be subject to direction or review by superior officers.”  Id.

 This OLC opinion, coupled with the Supreme Court decisions in Freytag and Edmond, provides heavy artillery in support of the argument that the SEC ALJs are “inferior Officers” under the Appointments Clause.  They surely are “invested by legal authority with a portion of the sovereign powers of the federal Government.”  They wield governmental power to issue subpoenas and compel testimony.  They determine what evidence should be included in the record, and decide whether portions of the case should proceed to trial or not.  They can sanction lawyers.  In short, they have all the powers of a judge in their courtrooms, and those powers are derived from the sovereign.  They hold “continuing” positions and can only be removed for cause.  They do not appear distinguishable from military judges, and are barely distinguishable from Tax Court special trial judges, or for that matter, from U.S. magistrates.

Do the SEC’s Administrative Law Judges Perform Executive Functions?

Since  the constitutionality issue in Free Enterprise Fund turned on the inability of the President to exercise sufficient influence over the PCAOB’s executive functions, could the SEC’s ALJs be approved on the theory that they do not perform executive functions?  After all, they are serving in a traditional adjudicative capacity, and Justice Roberts did note in his footnote that “unlike members of the Board, many administrative law judges of course perform adjudicative rather than enforcement or policymaking functions. . ..”  Free Enterprise Fund, 561 U.S. at 507 n.10.

Surely that comment provides the opening for an argument, but it is difficult to conceive of the Court concluding that the SEC’s ALJs are not functioning as Executive officers even though they perform key functions in what the Court concluded was an Executive Department.  When the Court decided the Freytag case, it left open whether a “principal agenc[y], such as . . . the Securities and Exchange Commission” is a “Department” under the Appointments Clause.  Freytag, 501 U.S. at 887 n.4.  But with that issue now resolved with the ruling that it is such a Department, it is difficult to create an argument that statutory judges performing adjudicative functions within that Department, just as the special trial judges functioned within the Treasury Department, should be treated as outside of the Executive power.  Likewise, the military court triumvirate of cases all involved officers performing adjudicative functions as part of an arm of the Executive, and it was never suggested that this impacted the importance of their Executive roles.

Because the SEC’s ALJs perform their adjudicative functions as a critical part of executing the SEC’s overall law enforcement authority, which plainly must be considered an executive function, it seems unlikely that the Supreme Court will decide that the adjudicative nature of their functions alone places them outside of the Article II mandate that it is the President who must “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”

Conclusion

 The constitutional challenges raised in the Stilwell and Peixoto cases are far from makeweight.  The Supreme Court decision in Free Enterprise Fund coupled with the SEC’s status as an “independent agency” with Commissioners not subject to removal by the President other than “for cause” seem to make these cases come down to a single issue: are the SEC’s administrative law judges “officers” of the United States performing Executive functions.  A significant line of Supreme Court cases provides apparent support for finding these officials to be “inferior Officers” within the meaning of that clause.  There is also apparent support for this contention from the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel opinion addressing the issue of how to decide when a person is an “inferior Officer.”  And the determination that the SEC is to be treated as “a freestanding component of the Executive Branch” leaves little room to conclude that ALJs working for the SEC are not performing Executive functions.

 To be sure, the majority opinion of the D.C. Circuit in Landry, and the footnotes of Justice Roberts and Judge Kavanagh in the Free Enterprise Fund cases noting this to be an open issue, make it clear this is not a slam dunk.  But there can be no doubt that the constitutional issues raised are real and serious, and it seems likely that the Supreme Court will be deciding them relatively soon.

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When we next delve into SEC constitutional issues, which may take awhile, we will address why it is that an “independent agency” can exercise enormous power in executing the law through enforcement proceedings even though Article II of the Constitution places the power to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed” solely in the hands of a unitary Executive.

 Straight Arrow

 December 2, 2014

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Michael Lewis Saved from Paying the Piper for False Portrayal in “The Big Short”

By virtue of a poorly reasoned opinion from Second Circuit Judge Richard Wesley, author Michael Lewis narrowly escaped answering to a jury for blatantly inaccurate and unfair descriptions of CDO manager Wing Chau in Lewis’s apocryphal book, The Big Short.  On November 14, 2014, a majority of the three-judge panel in Chau v. Lewis, No. 13-1217, affirmed a district court grant of summary judgment to Lewis on Chau’s claims that descriptions of him in The Big Short were libelous.  Although the majority’s ruling for Lewis was hardly a vindication – it acknowledged the falsity of Lewis’s statements but merely inoculated them against liability in a libel action – it also reflected a myopic elevation of legal nicety over the real world.  A copy of the majority opinion can be found here: Chau v. Lewis 2d Circuit Opinion (Opinion”) .

Courtesy Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Michael Lewis (Courtesy Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Senior Judge Ralph Winter, a dean of the 2d Circuit bench and author of many securities law opinions over the years, tried to restrain himself, but could not avoid a satiric tinge in a dissenting opinion lambasting the majority for using trees to obscure the forest, even while claiming they were deciding the case based on “the context of the publication as a whole, not just the paragraph or chapter containing them.” Opinion, slip op. at 14.  A copy of Judge Winter’s dissent can be found here: Chau v. Lewis 2d Circuit Dissent (“Dissent”).  Perhaps the great disappointment was that Senior Judge Amalya Kearse, who is highly respected, joined in Judge Wesley’s weak effort.

For those who may be interested in looking at what the lawyers of Chau and Lewis had to say on appeal, copies of their briefs filed in redacted form (to omit the most juicy stuff) can be found here (Appellant Brief in Chau v Lewis) and here (Appellee Brief in Chau v Lewis).

The case originated in Lewis’s blockbuster work of purported non-fiction about the underpinnings of the 2007-2008 financial crisis in the massive market of mortgage-backed securities offerings, and in particular collateralized debt obligations built on subprime mortgages.  Lewis’s book was on the New York Times bestseller list for 28 weeks, but over time has been shown to be far from accurate in key respects.  Nevertheless, as is the way of the world nowadays, the book created impressions that last and are taken as fact, regardless of its degree of accuracy or inaccuracy.  The district court record in Chau v. Lewis includes an expert report from a Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism professor stating: ““Lewis’ methodology in researching, drafting, and fact-checking The Big Short fell far below the standard required by this profession.”  Lewis chose not to have an expert defend his work.  Revelations about Lewis’s factual sloppiness (to be kind) in The Big Short do not bode well for verity-checks of Lewis’s new tabloid-like charges in Flash Boys that the stock market is “rigged” for the benefit of high frequency traders. 

Wing Chau’s company Harding Advisory LLC served as collateral manager for many CDO offerings.  Lewis dwelled in particular on an attack on Wing Chau in Chapter 6 of the book, entitled Spider-Man at the Venetian.  Relying on a report from co-defendant Steven Eisman of a supposed conversation between Chau and Eisman at a dinner in Las Vegas, Lewis presented a no-holds-barred indictment of CDO managers in general, and Wing Chau in particular, for having fostered the origination of worthless mortgage loans which were packaged to create also-worthless CDOs, all to satisfy the wealth and greed of Wall Street, CDO managers, and Wing Chau himself.

Any person who read Chapter 6 came away from the book believing Wing Chau was an idiot, moron, fool, greedy bloodsucker, and fraudster.  That was Lewis’s plain intent and the obvious import of what he wrote.  It ruined Chau’s career, and is a picture he will never live down.  The problem is, Lewis based it on hyperbole, insidious mockery, Eisman’s questionable portrayals, and plainly false statements.  Presumably he relied on Eisman and did little in the way of independent analysis.  I don’t know what steps he took before deciding to commit Chau to a public pillory, but one thing we do know, at least if Judge Winter is reliable, is that Lewis “admits that he does not use a fact checker.”  Dissent, slip op. at 5.  No surprise there.

Judge Wesley decided that just because Lewis ridiculed and demeaned Chau professionally and personally with false statements is not an adequate reason to force him to explain to a jury why he did what he did.  Instead, Wesley wrote down the 26 nasty, snarky, and sometimes false things Lewis said (or Lewis said that Eisman said) and, one by one, explained why each one, standing alone, was not a valid basis for a libel claim.  His opinion is the definition of myopia.  It is as far as you can get from what Wesley portrayed as the correct approach, which requires examining “the context of the publication as a whole, not just the paragraph or chapter containing them.”  Opinion, slip op. at 14.  Somehow he decides that pages and pages of statements that disparaged Chau, portrayed him as a greedy profiteer who made tens of millions of dollars for doing nothing, and accused him of being a fraudster, was not libelous because each statement taken alone was either “opinion” or not sufficiently harmful to qualify as being defamatory.  How frightening that an appellate judge tucked away in his robes and life-tenured position could be so clueless.  By deciding in his view what “an average reader” would and would not view to be defamatory – a plain invasion of the province of the jury – Judge Wesley deprived Chau of his only chance to regain dignity and a future: a decision from a jury of his peers.

As Judge Winter pointed out in dissent, the opinion is just plain wrong.  Lewis used statements that were admittedly false, or in some instances could be proved to be false, to portray Chau as lawless, stupid, greedy, unethical, and immoral.  For example:

  • He wrote that Chau “spent most of his career working sleepy jobs at sleepy life insurance companies” before turning to CDO investing, to make the point that Chau lacked the skills to work as a CDO Manager.  This is now admitted to be false.
  • He said Chau invested in only “dog shit” subprime CDOs when in fact 40 percent of his CDOs were not in that category.  Faced with this, Judge Wesley lamely opined: that this was a “fine and shaded distinction[]” that would not matter to a reader.  Opinion, slip op. at 24.  That’s what juries are supposed to decide.
  • He said Chau “made it possible for tens of thousands of actual human beings to be handed money they could never afford to repay.”  There’s so much wrong with that statement it’s hard to know where to start.  Suffice it to say that there is an ample likelihood that it would be proved false at trial.
  • He said Chau “didn’t do much of anything” as a CDO manager, which almost certainly is inaccurate.
  • He said Chau was a “double agent” who “represented the interests of Wall Street bond trading desks” and not that of investors.  He surely had no facts to support that beyond Eisman’s meanderings, but its truth or falsity is certainly a jury issue.  Judge Wesley exonerates Lewis for this and some other statements because he cloaked them by referring to “CDO Managers” generally, but not Chau in particular.  Opinion, slip op. at 21.  But that is laughable, since the whole chapter is about Chau as a CDO Manager and Eisman’s purported discussion with Chau, as Judge Winter points out (Dissent, slip op. at 3).
  • He said Chau didn’t care about what his CDOs invested in because he “simply passed all the risk that the underlying home loans would default on to the big investors.”  The point is that he allegedly failed in his duties to investors because he passed on risk to others.  Another clear jury issue.
  • He said Chau served “as a new kind of front man for the Wall Street firms,” i.e., that Chau allegedly committed fraud on investors by favoring the Wall Street firms.  That could be true or false, but is again a jury issue.  Judge Wesley gave Lewis a pass on this because he viewed calling someone a “front man” for others is a matter of “opinion.”  Opinion, slip op. at 20.  Far from it.  It is an accusation that someone falsely portrayed himself as protecting investor interests when he was not doing so, in other words, that he committed mail, wire, and securities fraud.  Accusing someone of criminal conduct is not “opinion,” as Judge Winter recognized.  See Dissent, slip op. at 10 (“This description could easily serve as the opening statement in a civil or criminal fraud trial.”).
  • He said Chau took home $26 million in a single year for doing all this but “didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about what was in CDOs.”  That is patently false as to what he earned (by a factor of ten), and likely is false as to the rest.  It suggests, falsely, that Chau earned $26 million in return for betraying his duties to investors.

How an appellate judge could declare that pages of such statements were not actionable “because an ordinary person would not take the statement (albeit incorrect) in context to be sufficiently derogatory to make an actionable claim for defamation” is totally beyond comprehension.  Judge Wesley said that a statement is defamatory if it exposes an individual to, among, other things, “shame, obloquy, contumely, odium, contempt, ridicule, aversion, ostracism, degradation or disgrace.”  Opinion, slip. op. at 15 (emphasis added).  Let’s see.  Obloquy is “the condition of someone who lost the respect of other people.”  That seems pretty clear here.  Shame means “dishonor or disgrace.”  Ditto.  Ostracism — “exclusion by general consent from common privileges or social acceptance” — was actually reflected in evidence in the district court record.  Ridicule is patently apparent on the face of the publication.  Judge Wesley either didn’t read what he wrote or didn’t bother to take it seriously.  His only role was to decide whether a reasonable jury (not him) could look at the evidence and find any of those impacts on Chau, and it really seems beyond debate that the evidence would permit that.  

Judge Winter certainly thought so.  He wrote:

Michael Lewis’s book describes appellant as admitting to acts that a jury could easily find to have breached his obligations to investors in the fund that employed him and to have constituted civil or criminal fraud. . . .  [T]heir conclusion that certain statements are not defamatory is reached only by evaluating those statements in hermetic isolation from the context in which they were made.  They conclude that certain statements can have only a single and non-defamatory meaning even where the book clearly conveyed a different and defamatory meaning that was adopted by the book’s readership. . . .

*          *          *

 A trier of fact could easily find the following.

. . .  Appellant is portrayed as lining his own pockets and foisting doomed-to-fail portfolios upon investors.  Although he was paid to monitor the amount of risk in the fund’s portfolio, he worried only about volume because he was paid by volume.  And, knowing that the default rate of residential mortgages was sufficient to wipe out the fund’s holdings, appellant sold all his interests in the fund, passing all the risk to the fund’s investors, who believed he was monitoring that risk. The portrayal of the appellant is particularly graphic because it purports to show his state of mind and his actions out of his own mouth. . . .

 The book’s author admits that he does not use a fact checker, and much of what the book says about the appellant is known even now (before a trial) as false. . . .  These falsehoods provide the scenic background for the portrayal of the appellant as engaging in conduct that a trier of fact could find amounted to fraud in order to line appellant’s own pockets.  This portrayal can be described as non-defamatory only by declining to view it as a whole; by taking some of the statements and quotations entirely out of the context in which they were made; by finding that some statements have only a single and non-defamatory meaning when the book clearly intended a different and defamatory meaning, one adopted by readers, or so a trier could find; and by labeling some statements as opinion without regard to the facts that they imply.

Dissent, slip op. at 1, 3-4, 5-6.

Perhaps Judge Wesley’s willingness to give short shrift to the allegations of defamation here derive from an excessive willingness to see people in the financial business as acceptable targets of ridicule, hyperbole, and false accusations simply because they are involved in a big money business.  Remember, Wing Chau was not a public figure when Lewis savaged him; he was just a bit player in the huge financial markets.  Let’s do a little fictional mind experiment.  Imagine a self-absorbed author decided to try to make money writing a book sensationalizing sordid legal practices in upstate New York (I know this is far-fetched, but stick with me).  As part of this book, he decided to personalize the charges by including accusations he heard about a lawyer who practiced in a well-known firm in Rochester and then became a partner in a small firm outside of Rochester with a varied practice.  He accused all upstate lawyers of breaching fiduciary duties and used this lawyer as a poster child.  Without doing any fact-checking, he accused the lawyer of breaching fiduciary duties to his clients in order make big bucks by knowingly ignoring his clients’ needs.  The accusations were false.  The lawyer didn’t make such big bucks and didn’t ignore his clients’ needs.  The lawyer tried to save his reputation but was stymied when a judge said he hadn’t actually been defamed.  As a result he was unable to continue work as a lawyer, could not become elected an assemblyman, could not be elected to serve as a judge, and could never get appointed to the federal bench.  Instead, he got hauled before the Bar on charges that he violated the law (as Wing Chau has been hauled before an SEC administrative law court).  I have little doubt Judge Wesley would not look so skeptically at the claims that the lawyer was injured by a defamatory publication.

Judge Wesley’s error was to diminish the significance of the accusations made against Chau while showing excessive deference to allowing false publications, in an effort support “the free exchange of ideas and viewpoints.”  Opinion, slip op. at 27.  But Lewis wasn’t doing that.  He set out to make money on sensational “non-fiction” revelations.  Wing Chau became a vehicle for doing this — an exemplar villain of the financial markets who met face-to-face with Lewis’s faux anti-hero, Eisman.  Lewis skillfully went about crucifying Chau based on false accusations to promote Lewis’s own personal benefit, and should sit in the dock and face the music for doing so.  The majority opinion disingenuously diminishes the substance of what happened here.  This involves more than “simple slights” or “wound[ing] one’s pride.”  Id.  What Chau suffered is a lot more than “hurt feelings.”  Id.  He is professionally disgraced; his ability to support himself and his family is shattered.  That the court deprives him of his chance to stand up for his name and dignity is an affront to the legal process.

Michael Lewis is the villain here, and Judges Wesley and Kearse are accessories after the fact.

 Straight Arrow

November 17, 2014

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