Frequent guest blogger Carl Smith brings us up to date with what has been happening in the litigation concerning administrative law judges (ALJs) and whether their selection meets the requirements of the Appointments Clause of the Constitution. Although tax practitioners do not routinely encounter ALJs in their practice and probably hope never to encounter them because such encounters usually occur in disciplinary proceedings, these decisions do have meaning in the tax area and deserve attention. Keith
In three prior posts beginning in September 2015, which can be found here, here, and here, I have reported on challenges brought under the Constitution’s Appointments Clause to SEC ALJs. This is to report that on December 27, in a case named Bandimere v. SEC, a divided panel of the Tenth Circuit held that SEC ALJs are inferior officers who need to be (but are not currently) appointed under the Constitution’s Appointments Clause. This creates a direct Circuit split with the D.C. Circuit, which held last August that SEC ALJs are not inferior officers needing appointment. Raymond J. Lucia Cos., Inc. v. SEC, 832 F.3d 277, 283-89 (D.C. Cir. 2016). Thus, the issue of which, if any, of the nearly 2,000 federal government ALJs need to be appointed under the Appointments Clause appears headed to the Supreme Court.
The IRS uses ALJs to hold hearings on Circular 230 violations. Anyone representing a person in such a Circular 230 proceeding should probably forthwith do some discovery to get into the record how, if at all, those ALJs were appointed or hired. The resolution of the issue for SEC ALJs may dictate a similar resolution for IRS ALJs, though, in my second post, I explained why there might be some differences.read more...
Dodd-Frank created the system of having SEC ALJs decide many SEC sanctions cases in the first instance, rather than having the SEC sue in the district courts to impose sanctions. If an SEC ALJ’s ruling is appealed to the full SEC, the full SEC reviews the ALJ de novo, though giving some deference to the ALJ on factual findings. Review of the SEC’s rulings can be had directly in the Circuit courts of appeals.
In my first two posts, I reported that in the summer of 2015, two district courts held the ALJs to be inferior officers of the United States who need to be appointed under the Appointments Clause. The SEC concedes that its judges were not so appointed.
Much of the time between my first two posts and my third post was taken up by Circuit court opinions holding that district courts in these and in other collateral proceedings lacked jurisdiction to decide the constitutional issue. Hill v. SEC, 825 F.3d 1236 (11th Cir. 2016); Tilton v. SEC, 824 F.3d 276 (2d Cir. 2016); Jarkesy v. SEC, 803 F.3d 9 (D.C. Cir. 2015); Bebo v. SEC, 799 F.3d 765 (7th Cir. 2015). (Hill was issued two days after my last post.)
But, in August of 2016 (also after my last post), the D.C. Circuit, in a case on direct review of an SEC order affirming the sanctions imposed by an SEC ALJ, held that under the Supreme Court’s “significant authority” standard used in Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U.S. 868 (1991), SEC ALJs were not inferior officers because they could not render final decisions in their cases. Raymond J. Lucia Cos., Inc. v. SEC, 832 F.3d 277, 283-89 (D.C. Cir. 2016). In Freytag, the Supreme Court held that Tax Court Special Trial Judges (STJs) were inferior officers exercising significant authority on behalf of the United States because of the many judge-like powers they possessed, including their wide discretion to issue rulings.
The Freytag opinion was admittedly less than clear in whether, to be an inferior officer, a person needed the ability to render final decisions binding the government. In 2000, a divided panel of the D.C. Circuit in Landry v. FDIC, 204 F.3d 1125 (D.C. Cir. 2000), had held that FDIC ALJs did not need to be appointed – based on the panel’s interpretation of Freytag to require final decision-making authority in a person to render that person an officer of the United States.
In an opinion issued by a divided panel of the Tenth Circuit on December 27, in Bandimere v. SEC, the Tenth Circuit rejected Landry’s holding and held that Freytag did not require that inferior officers need the power to render final decisions. Rather, the Bandimere majority said that, in Freytag, the Supreme Court discussed the finality of STJ rulings under what is now section 7443A(b)(7) only in response to a government concession – and not as part of the Supreme Court’s actual holding in the case. (I agree.) Thus, while having the ability to enter final, binding orders was one factor that could lead to a finding that a person was an officer, it was not a “but for” requirement, according to Bandimere. And, in any event, even though the SEC had the authority to do de novo review, Bandimere pointed out that in about 90% of cases either there was no SEC review of the ALJ or the SEC review resulted in upholding the ALJ verbatim, so it is really the ALJ who effectively binds the government in the vast majority of SEC cases. Further, even the de novo review of the ALJ that the SEC gives is one in which the SEC in fact gives deferential review of facts found by the ALJ. This is similar to the deferential review on factual issues of STJs by Tax Court judges.
The dissenting judge in Bandimere worried that the ruling of the majority would lead to all ALJs in the federal government needing to be appointed. This particularly would affect the Social Security Administration, where over 1,500 such ALJs are located. (The SEC only has 5 ALJs at present.) I am not so sure other ALJs lack proper appointment under the Appointments Clause. 5 USC § 3105 authorizes agencies to appoint ALJs. Systems of hiring or appointment may vary by agency. Moreover, I don’t think the result worried about by the dissent would surprise the Supreme Court. Even Justice Scalia, in his Freytag concurrence (joined by three other Justices), noted: “Today, the Federal Government has a corps of administrative law judges numbering more than 1,000, whose principal statutory function is the conduct of adjudication under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), see 5 U.S.C. §§ 554, 3105. They are all executive officers.” Freytag, 501 U.S. at 910 (emphasis in original).
While the holding of Bandimere primarily impacts, for tax practitioners, only the IRS ALJs who try Circular 230 violations, the Tax Court’s ruling in Tucker v. Commissioner, 135 T.C. 114 (2010), affd. 676 F.3d 1129 (D.C. Cir. 2012) (in which I represented the taxpayer), is now called somewhat into question. In Tucker, the Tax Court refused to hold that the IRS Settlement Officers and their Appeals Team Managers who hold CDP hearings and render determinations therein were individuals needing to be appointed under the Appointments Clause. The Tax Court’s reasoning, in part, was that these IRS employees do not render final rulings, but Landry v. FDIC held that the ability to enter final orders was a necessary requirement for a person to be an inferior officer. See 135 T.C. at 162-165. “Since we find persuasive the reasoning of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in its determination that ALJs for the FDIC do not exercise ‘significant authority’, we hold that the lesser position of CDP ‘appeals officer’ (‘or employee’) within the Office of Appeals likewise does not exercise ‘significant authority’”. Id. at 165.
In the D.C. Circuit’s affirmance of the Tucker opinion, however, the D.C. Circuit disagreed with the Tax Court and held that such Appeals personnel did have final authority, just that the authority was on issues (1) not of constitutional significance (collection) or (2) where their discretion was too circumscribed by IRS Counsel’s potential involvement (liability determinations). “[W]e conclude that the lack of discretion is determinative, offsetting the effective finality of Appeals employees’ decisions within the executive branch.” 676 F.3d at 1134.
The Supreme Court denied cert. in Tucker, and no taxpayer has again made the same argument that I made therein. But, the intrepid pro se taxpayer Ronald Byers has a CDP case in the Tax Court (not the same one that he took to the D.C. Circuit), in which he tells me that he plans to raise the same Appointments Clause argument that I raised in Tucker with respect to CDP Appeals Office personnel. He will appeal this case to the Eight Circuit (where he lives). He may try to create a Circuit split. He may get the Tax Court to address the effect of Bandimere on his argument, as well.