On July 31, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit decided the case of Jones Brothers, Inc. v. Secretary of Labor, et al., another decision involving the authority of a federal administrative law judge to decide a regulatory controversy. In order to reach this argument, the Court of Appeals had to be certain that it had jurisdiction to hear it, that the Jones Brothers had not forfeited their right to make this constitutional argument to the Court of Appeals. After an exhaustive review of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act, the Court of Appeals concluded that it was empowered to review the appointments issue. Accordingly, the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission’s (Commission) decision was vacated, and the Jones Brothers are now entitled to a new hearing before a different judge.
The appeal was filed by Jones Brothers, Inc., a company hired by the Tennessee Department of Transportation to repair a portion of a Tennessee state highway. An inspector had issued nine citations and imposed $2,940 in civil penalties. The Jones Brothers challenged the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (Administration) power to issue the citations before the Commission, an independent agency responsible for reviewing the Administration’s actions.
A Commission administrative law judge (ALJ) rejected the argument on the ground that the site was “a coal or other mine” under the Administration’s jurisdiction. Before the Commission, the Jones Brothers, for the first time, “identified” an issue that the ALJ was not authorized to hear this case in view an ongoing dispute over the authority of many ALJs to hear such cases under recent interpretations of the Constitution’s Appointments Clause. The Commission affirmed the decision of the ALJ, and the Jones Brothers petitioned the Court of Appeal for review of the Commission’s decision.
The case was argued on April 26, 2018, or several weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court decided Lucia v. SEC, in which the Court held that ALJs are “inferior officers” who must be appointed to that position by the President, a court of law, or the head of a department. That required the Court to vacate the adverse SEC determination against Lucia, and confirm that any future proceedings must be held before a properly-constituted judge.
Here, the ALJ presiding over the Jones Brothers’ administrative hearing was appointed by the Commission’s chief administrative law judge, which was contrary to the decision in Lucia. In fact, the Commission quickly acted to cure this constitutional defect by having all Commission ALJs appointed by the Commissioners themselves, but not until the initial proceeding had been completed.