LawFlash

DOJ Limits Use of Agency Guidance Documents in Affirmative Civil Enforcement Cases

美国司法部限制在代表美国政府的民事案件中援引政府指导性文件

January 26, 2018
中文

US Department of Justice litigators may no longer rely on guidance documents issued by federal agencies as binding on regulated entities for the purposes of affirmative civil enforcement litigation. The Department also specifies in a memorandum that such guidance documents cannot create any legal obligations for regulated entities.

The US Associate Attorney General, the third-ranking official within the Department of Justice (DOJ or Department), issued a memorandum on January 25 that prohibits DOJ litigators from treating any agency guidance document as “presumptively or conclusively establishing that a party violated [an] applicable statute or regulation.”[1] Given DOJ’s wide-ranging role in bringing civil enforcement matters, including but not limited to healthcare, environmental, tax, civil rights, and labor matters, this directive could have far-reaching implications.

Federal agencies routinely issue “guidance documents,” which the issuing agency then later suggests should be regarded as binding on the entities those agencies regulate. Agencies will often claim a regulated entity violated a regulation or statute because it violated a guidance document, even though the underlying regulation may be highly ambiguous or silent on the particular regulatory question at issue. In turn, many regulated parties have long felt that this practice of relying on guidance documents produces de facto expansion of regulatory burdens without the accountability of notice and comment rulemaking, an impact felt across a multitude of industries: energy, healthcare, finance, tax, and many others. Regulated entities have had to fear litigation for violating these documents, not simply for violating the actual regulatory and statutory texts.[2]

But the DOJ memorandum now clearly forbids Department litigators from relying on these guidance documents as binding rules for purposes of civil enforcement litigation. Noncompliance with a guidance document—short of independent proof of noncompliance with the underlying lawful regulation or statute itself—will no longer be relied upon as supporting an enforcement action. The memorandum is especially clear on this point: agency guidance documents cannot create any additional legal obligations.

Important Implication of DOJ Memorandum

The memorandum provides needed relief for the regulated community. First and foremost, for affirmative civil enforcement cases brought in federal court—where DOJ and not the administrative agency itself brings the enforcement action—DOJ will assess, and will force the regulating agency to assess as part of enlisting DOJ to bring the case, whether the case can stand on its own without the benefit of guidance documents. In turn, that assessment will provide new arguments and leverage to those facing threatened actions or actually involved in litigation, and will remove a potential source of evidence and argument for DOJ regarding what a law or regulation requires.[3]

Further Considerations

Strictly speaking the memorandum does not apply to administrative cases that an agency handles through its internal administrative law courts and where DOJ is not involved, or to cases involving independent agencies with federal court litigating authority independent of DOJ. When an agency brings a lawsuit in an administrative law court, or an independent agency (such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or Nuclear Regulatory Commission) brings enforcement litigation itself, DOJ litigators may not be involved. Thus, it is at least possible such other agencies may continue to accept that the violation of a guidance document necessarily indicates the underlying regulation or statute has also been violated.

On the other hand, while not formally restricting such agencies, the memorandum still may have effects on independent agency litigation by, for example, pressuring the agency litigators to treat guidance documents the same way the DOJ treats them. It would be odd indeed if administrative agency litigators in front of an administrative law judge treated a guidance document as binding, only to have DOJ litigators treat the same document as representing no binding or even presumptive legal obligation on appeal to a federal district court if the agency’s administrative judgment were later challenged. More broadly, DOJ’s leading role in formulating and announcing executive branch legal positions may pressure other agencies with independent litigating authority to take a similar step. Any and all such developments should prove useful in negotiations between regulated entities and independent agencies regarding potential enforcement actions.

Finally, the memorandum does not on its face prohibit a regulated entity from relying on guidance documents that may be favorable to the regulated entity and on which it has relied to shape its actions. Thus, regulated entities may be able to continue using guidance documents for legal defense, even where DOJ cannot use the documents offensively to establish a legal violation.

Part of a Pattern

On January 30, 2017, less than a month into office, President Donald Trump issued Executive Order 13771, or what is now commonly known as the “One-in, Two-out” rule, which requires an agency to eliminate at least two existing regulations for every new regulation or significant regulatory action that must be submitted for review to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the Office of Management and Budget. In addition, the net incremental cost of the aggregate regulatory action must be neutral for 2017 and for some fixed amount annually thereafter. Executive Order 13777, issued February 24, 2017, went a step further, requiring agencies to establish “Regulatory Reform Task Forces” dedicated to evaluating existing regulations to make recommendations “regarding their repeal, replacement, or modification.” The Trump administration has called the first year of this initiative to deregulate a great success, noting a promulgation-to-elimination ratio of 22–1, or 67 deregulatory actions and only three regulatory actions. Those agencies claiming to have been most active include the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Interior, Commerce, Health and Human Services, and Labor.

Conclusion

This development changes the playing field for regulated parties, giving them greater opportunity to push back against enforcement theories that largely rely on a “clear” guidance document regarding an underlying ambiguous or silent regulation or statute.

Contacts

If you have any questions or would like more information on the issues discussed in this LawFlash, please contact any of the following Morgan Lewis lawyers:

Century City
Harry I. Johnson, III

Chicago
Tinos Diamantatos

Houston
Christopher B. Amandes
Gregory N. Etzel

Los Angeles
James J. Dragna

Philadelphia
Eric W. Sitarchuk

Washington, DC
Grace E. Speights
Ronald J. Tenpas
Howard J. Young


[1] Memorandum from the Associate Attorney General to the Heads of Civil Litigating Components, United States Attorneys, Regarding Limiting Use of Agency Guidance Documents in Affirmative Civil Enforcement Cases (Jan. 25, 2018).

[2] Id.

[3] DOJ attorneys may continue to use these documents, however, as evidence that a party read a document that merely explains legal mandates existing in statutes or regulations to prove the party had knowledge of the mandate.




English

在代表美国政府机构的民事案件中,美国司法部的代表律师或将不得援引联邦政府发布的指导性文件约束受监管实体。美国司法部还在一份备忘录中指出,该类指导性文件不得为受监管实体创设任何法律义务。

美国助理总检察长(美国司法部第三级官员)于1月25日发布了一篇备忘录,该备忘录旨在禁止美国司法部的代表律师在诉讼中将任何政府机构的指导性文件作为“对方违反相关法规的推定或明确证据”。[1] 鉴于美国司法部在民事诉讼案件中的重要地位(包括但不限于医疗、环境、税务、公民权利和劳动事务等领域),这一主张将会产生深远的影响。

美国联邦政府经常颁布“指导性文件”。其后,这些文件往往由联邦政府机构提议,将受该些政府机构监管的实体纳入应受文件约束的范畴。当某些特定领域的法律法规未做明确规定或规定不清时,政府机构往往宣称,受监管实体若违反指导性文件应视为违反相关法律法规。另一方面,由于通知问责和沟通机制的匮乏,许多受监管实体长期以来一直抱怨对指导性文件的过度依赖在事实上增加了其合规成本,这种情形在能源、医疗、金融、税务等各个行业都普遍存在。即使没有违反法律法规,受监管对象不得不担心因违反这些指导性文件而产生的民事诉讼。[2]

然而,该份司法部的备忘录明确禁止“公诉人”在民事诉讼中将此类指导性文件中的内容作为具有法律约束力的规则。在没有其他独立的违法证据的情况下,单纯对指导性文件的违反,将不再作为民事诉讼中的违法证据。该备忘录明确指出:政府机构的指导性文件不得创设额外的法律义务。

司法部备忘录的重要意义

备忘录减轻了广大的受监管实体的压力。首先,对于联邦法院受理的代表美国政府的民事案件(司法部起诉,而非由相关行政机关自己起诉),司法部将评估,并要求相关监管机构协助评估案件是否可在没有援引政府指导性文件的情况下得以进展。进而,该项评估结果将向涉诉或者潜在涉诉的当事人提供新的论据和支持,使得司法部在解释法律法规的要求时,无法援引该种潜在依据(即指导性文件)作为证据和论据。[3]

进一步的思考

严格意义上说,备忘录并不适用于行政机关通过其内部法庭处理的,且没有司法部参与的行政案件,也不适用于那些具有在联邦法院独立起诉权(独立于美国司法部)的行政机关处理的案件。当政府机构在行政法庭提起诉讼,或者当一个具有独立诉权的机关(例如美国证券交易委员会,美国联邦能源管理委员会,或者美国核管理委员会)自行提起诉讼时,司法部都可能未涉及其中。因此,至少在上述情形下,政府机构将继续坚持认为,违反指导性文件即可以构成违反该文件背后的法律法规。

另一方面,虽然没有明文规定,但是该份备忘录仍然可能对上述具有独立诉权的政府机构产生一定的影响。比如,司法部或将对该些独立政府机构施加压力,以促使其在对待指导性文件的内容问题上同司法部保持一致。诚然,若在政府机构内部法庭中,法官将指导性文件的内容作为具有约束力的规则处理,那么当判决上诉至联邦法院时,司法部又对此采取截然不同的做法,这样的局面着实会显得有些奇怪。但宏观来看,司法部在政府机构的法律地位认定问题上具有导向性的作用,其他具有独立诉权的政府机构有可能因受到来自司法部的压力而采取同司法部相同的做法。在受监管实体同监管机构间就潜在民事案件的谈判过程中,所有该等最新的进展都将成为有力的谈判筹码。

最重要的一点,从表面上理解,备忘录没有禁止受监管实体援引指导性文件中对其有利的内容,以证明其行为的合法性。因此,尽管司法部不得援引指导性文件证明受监管实体行为的违法性,受监管实体依然可以继续援引指导性文件,以为其自己的行为辩护。

冰山下的一角

司法部于1月25日颁布的该份备忘录,反映了特朗普政府改革计划的一部分。该计划旨在革新被许多人称为“压迫经济且荒诞难忍”的监管制度。。

2017年1月30日,上任未满一月,美国总统唐纳德·特朗普发布第13771号行政命令,即所谓的“一进两出”规则。该行政命令要求政府机构部门在:(1)每一次制定新的监管规章;或(2)采取需要向公共预算管理办公室下属的信息与监管事务办公室汇报的重大监管行动时,必须同时削减现存的两个法规。此外,全部监管行动的成本净增量不得超过2017年,且在之后的每年都必须保持在某一特定值之内。2017年2月24日的第13777号行政命令,进一步要求政府机构建立专门的“监管改革任务小组”来评估现有的监管规章制度,并就法律法规“废除、代替和修该”作出评估意见。改革后的第一年,法律法规的“发布-废除比率”达到22:1,且“去监管”行动67项而监管行动仅有3项:特朗普政府将其称之为“去监管改革”的重大成功。据称,践行该项行政命令最为积极的机构包括美国国家环境保护局、内政部、商务部、卫生及公共服务部、劳工部。

结论

司法部的这一举动将改变受监管方的操作空间。面对监管机构,受监管实体拥有了更强有力的武器,用以对抗那些宣称“在法律法规模糊甚至空白时,可以援引‘清晰’的指导性文件进行执法”的主张。




[1] 关于在代表美国政府的民事案件中限制使用机构指导性文件的备忘录,由助理检察长向检方民事诉讼部分负责人出具。(2018年1月25日)

[2]. 同上

[3]司法部可以继续用仅解释法规的指导性文件以证明当事人已经读过相关文件,且知晓与文件相关的法规。