Thursday, August 2, 2018
The Sixth Circuit ruled this week in Jones Brothers, Inc. v. Sec'y of Labor that administrative law judges in the Mine Safety and Health Review Commission are "inferior officers" and were invalidly appointed under the Appointments Clause.
The very short ruling (on the merits) is a straight-line application of Lucia.
The case arose when the Mine Safety and Health Administration imposed a civil penalty on Jones Brothers for failing to comply with agency safety requirements. A Commission ALJ upheld the penalty, and the Commission itself affirmed.
The problem: The ALJ was appointed by the Commission's Chief ALJ, and not by the "department head" (the Commission itself).
The Sixth Circuit ruled that Mine Commission ALJs operated almost exactly like the SEC ALJs at issue in Lucia, and so were "inferior officers" under the Appointments Clause:
The Commission's administrative law judges are likewise established by statute . . . and exercise significant authority commensurate with their SEC counterparts. Like SEC administrative law judges, they preside over trial-like hearings. In that role, they shape the administrative record by taking testimony, regulating document production and depositions, ruling on the admissibility of evidence, receiving evidence, ruling on dispositive and procedural motions, and issuing subpoenas. Indeed, they exercise "nearly all the tools of federal trial judges."
And like SEC administrative law judges, they have the authority to issue initial decisions assigning liability and imposing sanctions. After 40 days, those decisions become final decisions of the Mine Commission unless the Commission decides to review them. But such review is available at "the sound discretion of the Commission," not as a "matter of right." This process is nearly identical to the SEC's review process.
The court said that Commission ALJs, like SEC ALJs, are therefore "inferior officers." And as "inferior officers," they have to be appointed by the President, a court, or a head of department. But they weren't: they were appointed by the Commission's Chief ALJ. So they're unconstitutional.
The court recognized that the Commission ratified the appointment of every ALJ. That works fine going forward, but for this case, the court, like the Supreme Court in Lucia, ordered that Jones Brothers get a new ALJ hearing before a validly appointed ALJ who is not the original ALJ.
The court spilled quite a bit of ink determining whether Jones Brothers forfeited the constitutional argument by not raising at the administrative stage. The court said that Jones Brothers did forfeit it, but that the forfeiture was excusable here.