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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

5th Circuit rules against SEC’s use of ALJs

Courts Appellate Fifth Circuit SEC ALJ Constitution Securities Act Securities Exchange Act Advisers Act Enforcement

Courts

On May 18, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that the SEC’s in-house adjudication of a petitioners’ case violated their Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial and relied on unconstitutionally delegated legislative power. The appellate court further determined that SEC administrative law judges (ALJs) are unconstitutionally shielded from removal. In a 2-1 decision, the 5th Circuit vacated the SEC’s judgment against a hedge fund manager and his investment company arising from a case, which accused petitioners of fraud under the Securities Act, the Securities Exchange Act, and the Advisers Act in connection with two hedge funds that held roughly $24 million in assets. According to the SEC, the petitioners had, among other things, inflated the funds’ assets to increase the fees they collected from investors. Petitioners sued in federal court, arguing that the SEC’s proceedings “infringed on various constitutional rights,” but the federal courts refused to issue an injunction claiming they lacked jurisdiction and that petitioners had to continue with the agency’s proceedings. While petitioners’ sought review by the SEC, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Lucia v. SEC, which held that SEC ALJs are “inferior officers” subject to the Appointments Clause of the Constitution (covered by InfoBytes here). Following the decision, the SEC assigned petitioners’ proceeding to an ALJ who was properly appointed, “but petitioners chose to waive their right to a new hearing and continued under their original petition to the Commission.” The SEC eventually affirmed findings of liability against the petitioners, and ordered the petitioners to cease and desist from committing further violations and to pay a $300,000 civil penalty. The investment company was also ordered to pay nearly $685,000 in ill-gotten gains, while the hedge fund manager was barred from various securities industry activities.

In vacating the SEC’s judgment, the appellate court determined that the SEC had deprived petitioners of their right to a jury trial by bringing its action in an “administrative forum” instead of filing suit in federal court. While the SEC challenged “that the legal interests at issue in this case vindicate distinctly public rights” and therefore are “appropriately allowed” to be brought in agency proceedings without a jury, the appellate court countered that the SEC’s enforcement action was “akin to traditional actions at law to which the jury-trial right attaches.” Moreover, the 5th Circuit noted that while “the SEC agrees that Congress has given it exclusive authority and absolute discretion to decide whether to bring securities fraud enforcement actions within the agency instead of in an Article III court[,] Congress has said nothing at all indicating how the SEC should make that call in any given case.” As such, the 5th Circuit opined that this “total absence of guidance is impermissible under the Constitution.”

Additionally, the 5th Circuit raised concerns about the statutory removal restrictions for SEC ALJs who can only be removed for “good cause” by SEC commissioners (who are removable only for good cause by the president). “Simply put, if the President wanted an SEC ALJ to be removed, at least two layers of for-cause protection stand in the President’s way,” the appellate court concluded. “Thus, SEC ALJs are sufficiently insulated from removal that the President cannot take care that the laws are faithfully executed. The statutory removal restrictions are unconstitutional.”

The dissenting judge disagreed with all three of the majority’s constitutional conclusions, contending that the majority, among other things, misread the Supreme Court’s decisions as to what are and are not “public rights,” and that “Congress’s decision to give prosecutorial authority to the SEC to choose between an Article III court and an administrative proceeding for its enforcement actions does not violate the nondelegation doctrine.” The judge further stated that while the Supreme Court determined in Lucia that ALJs are “inferior officers” within the meaning of the Appointments Clause in Article II, it “expressly declined to decide whether multiple layers of statutory removal restrictions on SEC ALJs violate Article II.” Consequently, the judge concluded that he found “no constitutional violations or any other errors with the administrative proceedings below.”

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