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SEC files brief in its Supreme Court appeal to reverse 5th Circuit ruling against use of adjudication powers and ALJs
On August 28, the SEC filed a brief in its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit’s 2022 ruling that the commission’s in-house adjudication is unconstitutional. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the 5th 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 brief argues that securities laws are “distinct from common law because they authorize the government to seek civil penalties even if no private person has yet suffered harm from the defendant’s violation (and therefore no person could obtain damages).” Moreover, the SEC argues that the Court has continually upheld the right of an agency to decide whether to enter an enforcement action through the civil or criminal process. The SEC referenced the 1985 Heckler v. Chaney case, which set the precedent that there is no constitutional difference between the power to decide whether to pursue an enforcement action and where to pursue an enforcement action, as they are both executive powers, supporting the claim that there is “a long and unbroken line of decisions that have relied on the public-rights doctrine in upholding such statutory schemes against Article III and Seventh Amendment challenges.” The SEC also reminded the Court that when it enforces securities laws through an administrative enforcement proceeding with a result that is not in favor of the respondent, the respondent may obtain a judicial review through the court of appeals. Finally, the commission contends that the 5th Circuit erred when it held that statutory removal restrictions for ALJs are unconstitutional, and that Congress has “acted permissibly in requiring agencies to establish cause for their removal of ALJs.”
A Delaware-based online payday lender and its founder and CEO (collectively, “petitioners”) recently submitted a petition for a writ of certiorari challenging the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit’s affirmation of a CFPB administrative ruling related to alleged violations of the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA), TILA, and EFTA. The petitioners asked the Court to first review whether the high court’s ruling in Lucia v. SEC, which “instructed that an agency must hold a ‘new hearing’ before a new and properly appointed official in order to cure an Appointments Clause violation” (covered by InfoBytes here), meant that a CFPB administrative law judge (ALJ) could “conduct a cold review of the paper record of the first, tainted hearing, without any additional discovery or new testimony.” Or, the petitioners asked, did the Court intend for the agency to actually conduct a new hearing. The petitioners also asked the Court to consider whether an agency funding structure that circumvents the Constitution’s Appropriations Clause violates the separation of powers so as to invalidate prior agency actions promulgated at a time when the Bureau was receiving such funding.
The case involves a challenge to a 2015 administrative action that alleged the petitioners engaged in unfair or deceptive acts or practices when making short-term loans (covered by InfoBytes here). The Bureau’s order required the petitioners to pay $38.4 million as both legal and equitable restitution, along with $8.1 million in penalties for the company and $5.4 million in penalties for the CEO. As previously covered by InfoBytes, between 2018 and 2021, the Court issued four decisions, including Lucia, which “bore on the Bureau’s enforcement activity in this case” by “deciding fundamental issues related to the Bureau’s constitutional authority to act” and appoint ALJs. During this time, two different ALJs decided the present case years apart, with their recommendations separately appealed to the Bureau’s director. The director upheld the decision by the second ALJ and ordered the lender and its owner to pay the restitution. A district court issued a final order upholding the award, which the petitioners appealed, arguing, among other things, that the enforcement action violated their due-process rights by denying the CEO additional discovery concerning the statute of limitations. The petitioners claimed that they were entitled to a “new hearing” under Lucia, and that the second administrative hearing did not rise to the level of due process prescribed in that case.
However, the 10th Circuit affirmed the district court’s $38.4 million restitution award, rejecting the petitioners’ various challenges and affirming the director’s order. The 10th Circuit determined that there was “no support for a bright-line rule against de novo review of a previous administrative hearing,” nor did it see a reason for a more extensive hearing. Moreover, the petitioners “had a full opportunity to present their case in the first proceeding,” the 10th Circuit wrote.
The petitioners maintained that “[d]espite the Court’s clear instruction to hold a ‘new hearing,’ ALJs and courts have reached divergent conclusions as to what Lucia requires, expressing confusion and frustration regarding the lack of guidance.” What it means to hold a “new hearing” runs “the gamut,” the petitioners wrote, pointing out that while some ALJs perform a full redo of the proceedings, others merely accept a prior decision based on a cold review of the paper record. The petitioners argued that they should have been provided a true de novo hearing with an opportunity for new testimony, evidence, discovery, and legal arguments. The rehearing from the new ALJ was little more than a perfunctory “paper review,” the petitioners wrote.
Petitioners asked the Court to grant the petition for three reasons: (i) “the scope of Lucia’s ‘new hearing’ remedy is an important and apparently unsettled question of federal law”; (ii) “the notion Lucia does not require a genuinely ‘new’ de novo proceeding is necessarily wrong because a sham ‘remedy’ provides parties no incentive to litigate Appointments Clause challenges”; and (iii) the case “is an ideal vehicle to provide guidance on Lucia’s ‘new hearing’ remedy.” The petitioners further argued that “Lucia’s remedy should provide parties an incentive to raise separation of powers arguments by providing them actual and meaningful relief.”
The petitioners’ second question involves whether Appropriations Clause violations that render an agency’s funding structure unconstitutional, if upheld, invalidate agency actions taken under such a structure. The petitioners called this “an important, unsettled question of federal law meriting the Court’s review,” citing splits between the Circuits over the constitutionality of the Bureau’s funding structure which has resulted in uncertainty for both regulators and regulated parties. Recently, the Court granted the Bureau’s request to review the 5th Circuit’s decision in CFSAA v. CFPB, which held that Congress violated the Appropriations Clause when it created what the 5th Circuit described as a “perpetual self-directed, double-insulated funding structure” for the agency (covered by InfoBytes here).
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.”
On January 12, the FDIC published a final rule amending 12 CFR Part 308 to codify the agency’s “practice of having certain adjudicative functions performed by an inferior officer of the United States appointed by the FDIC’s Board of Directors.” The clarification follows a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lucia v. SEC, which held that SEC administrative law judges (ALJs) are “inferior officers” subject to the Appointments Clause (Clause) of the Constitution (covered by InfoBytes here). The FDIC notes that while the Lucia decision did not directly affect the agency or FDIC ALJs, the Board has chosen to “formally appoint the ALJs that preside over FDIC enforcement proceedings.” The final rule, which also makes other technical edits to the agency’s rules of practice and procedure to update outdated references to certain position titles, becomes effective immediately.
On August 4, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) recommended that a Delaware-based online payday lender and its CEO be held liable for violations of TILA, CFPA, and the EFTA and pay restitution of $38 million and $12.5 million in civil penalties in a CFPB administrative action. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in November 2015, the Bureau filed an administrative suit against the lender and its CEO alleging violations of TILA and the EFTA, and for engaging in unfair or deceptive acts or practices. Specifically, the CFPB argued that, from May 2008 through December 2012, the online lender (i) continued to debit borrowers’ accounts using remotely created checks after consumers revoked the lender’s authorization to do so; (ii) required consumers to repay loans via pre-authorized electronic fund transfers; and (iii) deceived consumers about the cost of short-term loans by providing them with contracts that contained disclosures based on repaying the loan in one payment, while the default terms called for multiple rollovers and additional finance charges. In 2016, an ALJ agreed with the Bureau’s contentions, and the defendants appealed the decision. In May 2019, CFPB Director Kraninger remanded the case to a new ALJ.
After a new hearing, the ALJ concluded that the lender violated (i) TILA (and the CFPA by virtue of its TILA violation) by failing to clearly and conspicuously disclose consumers’ legal obligations; and (ii) the EFTA (and the CFPA by virtue of its EFTA violation) by “conditioning extensions of credit on repayment by preauthorized electronic fund transfers.” Moreover, the ALJ concluded that the lender and the lender’s owner engaged in deceptive acts or practices by misleading consumers into “believing that their APR, Finance Charges, and Total of Payments were much lower than they actually were.” Lastly, the ALJ concluded the lender and its owner engaged in unfair acts or practices by (i) failing to clearly disclose automatic rollover costs; (ii) misleading consumers about their repayment obligations; and (iii) obtaining authorization for remote checks in a “confusing manner” and using the remote checks to “withdraw money from consumers’ bank accounts after consumers attempted to block electronic access to their bank accounts.” The ALJ recommends that both the lender and its owner pay over $38 million in restitution, and orders the lender to pay $7.5 million in civil money penalties and the owner to pay $5 million in civil money penalties.
On September 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit remanded an SEC case against an investment adviser and his company for a new hearing before another Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) or before the Commission in accordance with the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lucia v. SEC. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in June, the Supreme Court held that SEC ALJs are “inferior officers” subject to the Appointments Clause of the Constitution. After the decision in Lucia, the SEC moved to remand the case for a new hearing. In response, the investment adviser moved to have the SEC’s previous orders, including those imposing penalties, set aside in whole, arguing that remand is not authorized in this circumstance; citing to Lucia, the investment adviser argued the penalties resulted from an unconstitutional hearing and the language concerning remand for a new hearing in Lucia was dicta and carried no weight. The D.C. Circuit rejected this argument and denied the motion to set aside in part, citing D.C. Circuit precedent in stating “carefully considered language of the Supreme Court, even if technically dictum, generally must be treated as authoritative.”
On July 10, President Trump issued an Executive Order (EO) excepting Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) from the federal government’s competitive hiring service. The EO is in response to the recent Supreme Court decision in Lucia v. SEC, which held that ALJs are “inferior officers” subject to the Appointments Clause of the Constitution. (Previously covered by InfoBytes here.) The EO allows federal agencies to hire ALJs without going through the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) competitive selection process, which will give agencies the ability to select candidates who meet the agency’s specific needs— providing greater “flexibility and responsibility for ALJ appointments,” according to the White House announcement. The announcement emphasizes that the EO “reduces the legal uncertainty” over new ALJ appointments under the Appointments Clause in order to safeguard agencies’ enforcement of federal laws.
On June 21, the U.S. Supreme Court held, in Lucia v. SEC, that SEC administrative law judges (ALJs) are “inferior officers” subject to the Appointments Clause (Clause) of the Constitution. The case began when the SEC instituted an administrative proceeding against the petitioner resulting in a decision by the ALJ imposing sanctions against the petitioner, including civil penalties of $300,000 and a lifetime bar from the investment industry. On appeal, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ALJ’s sanctions and rejected the petitioner’s argument that ALJs are officers of the United States and therefore subject to provisions of the Clause, including the requirement that officers be appointed by the president, the head of a department, or a court of law. The D.C. Circuit decision conflicts with subsequent decisions by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th and 5th Circuits (available here and here).
In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the D.C. Circuit decision, holding that ALJs are “Officers of the United States” subject to the Clause under the framework the Court used in Freytag v. Commissioner (concluding that U.S. Tax Court “special trial judges” are officers subject to the Clause). In support of this holding, the majority noted that ALJs receive a career appointment, exercise “significant discretion,” and if the SEC decides against reviewing a decision, their decisions become final and are “deemed the action of the Commission.”
Notably, the ALJ that presided over the petitioner’s case is the same ALJ that presided over the CFPB’s claims against PHH, which ultimately lead to the D.C. Circuit’s en banc decision in PHH v. CFPB and the CFPB’s subsequent dismissal of the action (covered by Buckley Sandler here and here).
On January 12, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it had granted a writ of certiorari in Lucia v. SEC—a case which challenges the SEC’s practice of appointing administrative law judges (ALJs) and moves the Court to consider whether the ALJ appointment practice violates the Appointments Clause (Clause) of the Constitution. In Lucia, the petitioner—against whom an ALJ had issued sanctions, imposed a lifetime securities ban, and fined $300,000—appealed the decision to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, and argued that ALJs are officers of the United States and therefore subject to provisions of the Clause, including the requirement that officers be appointed by the president, the head of a department, or a court of law. However, the D.C. Circuit upheld the ALJs sanctions and ruled that ALJs are not “inferior officers” subject to the Clause. In his petition for certiorari, the petitioner claimed that because he was subjected to a “trial before an unconstitutionally constituted tribunal,” the ALJ’s decision should be dismissed or a new hearing granted.
Notably, last November, the Solicitor General of the United States submitted a brief on behalf of the SEC to the Supreme Court, arguing that the SEC views in-house judges as officers of the U.S. government—not mere employees—who are subject to the Clause. Additionally, on November 30, the SEC ratified the appointment of its ALJs to resolve “any concerns that administrative proceedings presided over by its ALJs violate the Appointments Clause.”
A decision by the Court may resolve a split between the D.C. Circuit, which has ruled that ALJs are not “inferior officers” of the U.S. government, and the Tenth and Fifth Circuits, which disagreed and ruled separately that ALJs are officers.