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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

Supreme Court holds SEC ALJs are subject to the Appointments Clause of the Constitution

Courts U.S. Supreme Court ALJ SEC PHH v. CFPB

Courts

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).

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