Pomerantz LLP

Agencies Shifting Many Enforcement Actions to In-House Administrative Courts

ATTORNEY: Emma Gilmore

The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission have recently signaled that they intend to bring many future enforcement actions in administrative courts rather than federal courts. Kara Brockmeyer, the chief of the Division’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act Unit, said at a legal conference in Washington held in October that bringing cases as administrative proceedings “is the new normal.”

While both venues have always been available for such actions, the Dodd-Frank Act expanded the powers of administrative courts, allowing them to impose remedies similar to those available in federal court, including the imposition of monetary penalties. The shift has stirred a flurry of public debates on the fairness of the administrative procedures.

Critics argue that the administrative procedure mechanism deprives defendants of constitutional and procedurals advantages, as discovery is limited (essentially precluding depositions, except to preserve evidence); the Federal Rules of Evidence do not apply (even hearsay is admissible); and there is no right to a jury. Those critics also point out that the initial factfinder is an SEC employee, and is therefore presumably biased in the SEC’s favor. They argue that while a defendant can appeal the administrative decision to a federal court of appeals, the court is likely to defer to the administrative agency. Among the fierce critics of such administrative proceedings is Southern District of New York Judge Jed S. Rakoff, who, in a speech last November, argued that “the law in such cases would effectively be made, not by neutral federal courts, but by SEC administrative judges,” saying that administrative proceedings are compromised by “informality” and “arguable unfairness.”

Another federal judge, Lewis A. Kaplan of the Southern District of New York, takes a decidedly different view. He recently held that a defendant’s right to appeal to a federal court at the end of the procedure would suffice to address any injustice or due process violations committed in the administrative proceeding. He concluded that “Congress has provided the SEC with two tracks on which it may litigate certain cases. Which of those paths to choose is a matter of enforcement policy squarely within the SEC’s province,” and the SEC is “especially competent…to determin[e] which…cases are appropriately brought in a district court and which in an administrative proceeding.” (emphasis in original).

In similar vein, the SEC’s Enforcement Division Director Andrew Ceresney defended the agency’s recent shift. “It’s not the case there is no more activity in district court; there is. Having said that, it is certainly the case we’re going to use [administrative] proceedings more often. Why is that? Because Congress gave us the authority under Dodd-Frank to obtain the same remedies in administrative proceedings as we can obtain in district courts,” Ceresney said. He argued at a November 7 conference sponsored by the Practicing Law Institute (“PLI”) that the administrative proceedings process is not only fair to defendants, but also constitutes a more efficient means to reach a resolution. dministrative proceedings are relatively fast, with rulings usually handed down within 300 days of the case being filed, as opposed to years for the typical federal-court case. Ceresney insisted that cases are heard by judges who are seasoned, sophisticated fact finders in the securities field.

At that same PLI conference, CFTC’s Enforcement Division Director Aitan Goelman said a streamlined enforcement proceeding is necessary because his agency is financially constrained and does not have the money to engage in lengthy litigations. The CFTC is mulling a “best-offer” settlement agreement very early in the proceeding in hopes of streamlining the resolution of enforcement disputes.

Another likely reason for the forum shift may be, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported, that the SEC’s win rate in recent years is “considerably higher” in administrative forums than in federal courts. In the 12 months through September 2014, the SEC won all six contested administrative hearings where verdicts were issued, but only 61%—11 out of 18—federal-court trials. Previous years showed the same pattern: the agency won nine of 10 contested administrative proceedings in the 12-month period through September 2013 and seven out of seven in the 12 months through September 2012, according to SEC data. The SEC won 75% and 67%, respectively, of its trials in federal court in those years.

Given the SEC’s success rate in such forum, this shift can prove beneficial to private litigants. Assuming the administrative procedures are fair and do not violate a defendant’s due process rights (and given the administrative law judges’ specialized knowledge of securities laws), appeals courts are likely to affirm the administrative law decisions. SEC-favorable decisions can in turn be employed as highly persuasive authority by private plaintiffs in actions brought against distinct defendants but under analogous fact patterns.