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Are ALJ Appointed Properly, per the Constitution?

A sneaky and under-publicized matter, which will affect every one of you reading this, slid into common law last year with a very recent case, dated Jan. 9, 2020, upholding and expanding the findings of a 2018 case, Lucia v. SEC, 138 S. Ct. 2044 (U.S. 2018). In Lucia, the Supreme Court upheld the plain language of the U.S. Constitution’s Appointments Clause.

The Appointments Clause prescribes the exclusive means of appointing “officers.” Only the President, a court of law, or a head of department can do so. See Art. II, § 2, cl. 2.

In Lucia, the sole issue was whether an administrative law judge (ALJ) can be appointed by someone other than the President or a department head under Article II, §2, cl. 2 of the U.S. Constitution, or whether ALJs simply federal employees. The Lucia court held that ALJs must be appointed by the President or the department head; this is a non-delegable duty. The most recent case, Sara White Dove-Ridgeway v. Nancy Berrryhill, 2020 WL 109034, (D.Ct.DE, Jan. 9, 2020), upheld and expanded Lucia.

ALJs are appointed. In many states, ALJs are direct employees of a single state agency. In other words, in many states, about half, the payroll check that an ALJ receives bears the emblem of the department of health for that state. I have litigated in administrative courts in approximately 33 states, and have seen my share of surprises. In one case, many years ago, LinkedIn informed me that my appointed ALJ was actually a professional photographer by trade.

Lucia, however, determined that ALJs at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) were “officers of the United States,” subject to the Appointment Clause of the Constitution, which requires officers to be appointed by the president, the heads of departments, or the courts. The court’s decision raised concern at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) because its ALJs had not been appointed by the secretary, but rather by lower agency officials.

The court also held that relief should be granted to “one who makes a timely challenge to the constitutional validity of the appointment of an officer who adjudicates his case.” Whether that relief is monetary, in the form of attorneys’ fees reimbursed or out-of-pocket costs, it is unclear.

In July 2018, President Trump’s Executive Order 13843 excepted ALJs from the competitive service, so agency heads, like HHS Secretary Alex Azar, could directly select the best candidates through a process that would ensure the merit-based appointment of individuals with the specific experience and expertise needed by the selecting agencies.

The executive order also accepted all previously appointed ALJs. So there became a pre-July 16, 2018, challenge and a post-July 16, 2018, based on Trump’s Executive Order. Post-July 16, 2018, appointees had to be appointed by the President or department head. But the argument could be made that ALJs appointed pre-July 16, 2018, were grandfathered into the more lax standards. In Dove-Ridgway, Social Security benefits were at issue. On July 5, 2017, ALJ Jack S. Pena found a plaintiff not disabled. On Jan. 7, 2019, the plaintiff filed an appeal of the ALJ’s decision, seeking judicial review from the district court. In what seems to be the fastest decision ever to emerge from a court of law, two days later, a ruling was rendered. The District Court found that even though at the time of the administrative decision, Lucia and Trump’s Executive Order had not been issued, the court still held that the ALJ needed to have been appointed constitutionally. It ordered a remand for a rehearing before a different, constitutionally appointed ALJ, despite the fact that Trump had accepted all previously appointed ALJs.

In this firsthand, post-Jan. 9, 2020, era, we have an additional defense against Medicare or Medicaid audits or alleged overpayments in our arsenal: was the ALJ appointed properly, per the U.S. Constitution?

Programming Note: Listen to Knicole Emanuel’s live reports on Monitor Monday, 10-10:30 a.m. EST.

As seen on RACMonitor.