Wednesday, August 18, 2021
The Ninth Circuit ruled that removal protections for Department of Labor Administrative Law Judges did not violate the separation of powers. The ruling rebuffed a claim by a coal corporation in a Black Lung Benefits Act case. It means that the agency ruling against the corporation stands, and that DOL ALJs are safe . . . for now.
That "for now" is because the Supreme Court has been on a tear to rule that more and more removal protections violate the separation of powers. This case could give the Court another opportunity to move in the direction of complete presidential control over the removal of executive officers--toward a robust "unitary executive theory."
The case, Decker Coal v. Pehringer, arose after a DOL ALJ awarded a claimant Black Lung Benefits Act benefits, and the Benefits Review Board upheld the award. Decker Coal filed a motion for reconsideration and a motion to reopen the record; the ALJ denied the motions, and the BRB affirmed. This appeal followed.
The Ninth Circuit rejected Decker Coal's argument that removal protections for DOL ALJs violated the separation of powers. By statute, DOL ALJs can be fired only for good cause determined by the Merit Systems Protection Board, members of which, in turn, can be removed by the president only for "inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office." Decker claimed that the dual for-cause removal protection violated the Court's ruling in Free Enterprise Fund, which held that the dual for-cause removal protection for members of the PCAOB violated the separation of powers. The Ninth Circuit disagreed, for three reasons.
First, the court ruled that in contrast to PCAOB members, "the ALJ here was performing a purely adjudicatory function in deciding the BLBA claim."
Next, the court said that DOL itself decided to use ALJs to adjudicate BLBA benefits. It noted that by statute DOL could have used any "[q]ualified individuals appointed by the Secretary of Labor," including individuals who did not enjoy for-cause removal protections, and that the president could order DOL to use such individuals instead of ALJs. In other words, the court said that Congress didn't impermissibly encroach upon the president's power to direct the executive branch; DOL (and ultimately the president) did, and they can change it if they like.
Finally, the court said that the president can exercise control of ALJs through the BRB, which reviews ALJ decisions, and members of which are appointed without removal protections by the Secretary of Labor (who, of course, enjoys no removal protections).