By Andrew H. Perellis, Patrick D. Joyce, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The U.S. Supreme Court agreed this week to reconsider a key precedent of administrative law that tells judges to defer to an agency’s interpretation of its own ambiguous regulation, taking up a challenge to the so-called “Auer” or “Seminole Rock” deference.  The Auer deference has been criticized by conservative justices on the court. Kisor v. Sectretary of Veterans Affairs, No. 18-15 (US Dec. 10, 2018).

The specific question being considered is whether the Court should overrule Auer and Seminole Rock. In context, the specific question being considered is: what deference, if any, should courts give to an agency interpretation of its own regulation that has not gone through Administrative Procedure Act (APA) notice and comment rulemaking?

Historically, courts have struggled with the extent of deference to give an agency’s interpretations of its own regulations. Under the APA § 553(b)(A), agency interpretive rules and general statements of policy are exempt from notice and comment rulemaking because interpretative rules are non-substantive, and the APA only requires substantive interpretations, having the force of law, to go through notice and comment rulemaking. However, the “Auer doctrine,” from Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452, 117 S.Ct. 905 (1997), accords substantial deference to an Agency’s allegedly non-substantive interpretation of its own regulations, even if presented in an unofficial manner such as in an amicus brief.

We have blogged frequently on Auer deference and its impact on case law, precedent, and regulatory and agency authority — and ultimately on business and employers. These cases run the scope of topical law and issues. See for instance Ninth Circuit Issues En Banc Decision Upholding DOL’s 20% Tip Credit Rule; Ball is Now in DOL’s Court, Supreme Court to Rule on Case Addressing Bathroom Access Based on Gender Identity, Fourth Circuit Holds that “Sex” Under Title IX Incorporates Gender Identity, Texas District Court Enjoins Federal Gender Identity Protection Of Students, Judicial Deference to Informal Agency Interpretations: Could this be the Beginning of the End for Auer?, and Eighth Circuit Rejects OSHA’s Attempt to Expand the Scope of its Machine Guarding Standard.

In in Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA), 575 U.S. ____, 135 S.Ct. 1199 (2015), Supreme Court Justices Scalia and Thomas expressed their discontent with agency deference under the “Auer doctrine.”

In his analysis, Justice Scalia cited to § 556 of the APA for the proposition that only the courts may interpret agency actions, not the agencies themselves. Justice Scalia opined that the purpose of the § 553(b)(A) exemption was to allow agencies to advise the public on the impact of a complex regulation without binding the public to that interpretation.

However, Justice Scalia believed Auer deference acts to allow agencies to both advise and bind the public because the agency can draft the regulation to be broad and vague and then interpret it in a manner that would not have been evident to the public when the regulation was originally proposed for notice and comment. Further, under Auer, a reviewing court is beholden to an agency interpretation unless its interpretation is unreasonable, and the public is thus bound by the agency’s interpretation with the force of law. Justice Scalia called for abandoning Auer in a future decision, when the question was properly before the Court.

Justice Scalia distinguished Auer deference and deference to an agency’s interpretation of its governing statute, also known as “Chevron deference,” from Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 104 S.Ct. 2778, 81 L.Ed.2d 694 (1984). Under Chevron, if a statutory term is ambiguous, then the agency has authority to construe that term and interpret its meaning within the statutory scheme by promulgating regulations following APA notice and comment procedures. This is arguably permissible because Congress explicitly granted agencies the ability to interpret their governing statutes, and APA rulemaking procedures are followed in establishing the interpretation via regulations. Justice Scalia pointed out that Auer is unlike Chevron because, under the Auer doctrine, an agency does not use APA notice and comment procedures and Congress has not explicitly granted agencies the ability to interpret their regulations. This difference was enough for Justice Scalia to call for the end of Auer.

Justice Thomas takes a different route when calling Auer into question, looking instead to the separation of powers and checks and balances put in place by the U.S. Constitution. In his concurrence in MBA, Justice Thomas referred to the cases dealing with deference to agency interpretations of regulations, beginning with Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co., 325 U.S. 410, 65 S.Ct. 1215 (1945), and calls into question the constitutionality of the entire line of cases, including Auer.

Justice Thomas believed that any deference to administrative interpretations of regulations constitutes a transfer of judicial power to the executive, contrary to the language of the Constitution. Because Seminole Rock and Auer erode the judicial obligation to serve as a check on the other branches and muddle the separation between the Judicial and the Executive Branches, Justice Thomas called for reconsideration of the entire Seminole Rock line of cases, including Auer, at the appropriate moment.

In addition, in a joint concurrence to a prior case, Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center, 568 U.S. ___, 133 S.Ct. 1326 (2013), Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito indicated that reconsideration of Auer may be appropriate when the issue is properly before the Court. The issue of Auer deference was not before the Court in MBA or Decker, but with at least four Justices questioning the continued validity of the doctrine, it is possible the question of judicial deference to agency interpretive rules will be reconsidered under in Kisor.

Such a reconsideration of Auer would have significant impact upon administrative law. Judicial review of agency action provides important protection against arbitrary or unfair agency action. However, that review is significantly restricted under Auer¸ because a court must defer to an agency interpretation simply because it is issued by the agency, with little check on the reasonableness of the interpretation. Allowing courts to consider but not defer to agency interpretations would compel agencies to be more exacting (and perhaps more forthcoming) when engaging in rulemaking and interpreting regulations. Rulemaking, while perhaps a tedious process for the agency, required notice to the public, an opportunity for the public to comment, and an opportunity for judicial review, all to ensure that the agency action is consistent with law and not arbitrary or capricious.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Seyfarth Environmental Compliance, Enforcement & Permitting or Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) Teams.

By Andrew H. Perellis, Kay R. Bonza, and Patrick D. Joyce

Seyfarth Synopsis: With a dramatic change from a progressive democratic to a conservative republican administration, we anticipate that EPA is not only likely to pivot away from an enforcement heavy to a more business friendly agenda, it is also likely to abandon many of the previous administration’s landmark climate regulations and take a more measured approach to climate change.

The U.S. presidential election outcome has left many with questions about what to expect with the new administration and a Republican-controlled Congress. However one thing is certain: we will experience a 180 degree shift in current environmental policy when Donald Trump takes office in January 2017.  Below is a synopsis of the key environmental changes we expect to see under the Trump administration, although, of course, nothing is certain given the overall lack of information regarding Mr. Trump’s policy proposals and no background as to how he will act as an elected official.

Regulatory Reform

Mr. Trump has stated that he will likely issue a temporary moratorium on all new environmental regulation, and plans to strike regulations which his administration deems “unnecessary” and that “kill jobs and bloat government.”  Specific rules Mr. Trump has singled out to “eliminate” include: the Interior Department’s proposed Stream Protection Rule to safeguard communities from coal mining operations; the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers’ Clean Water Rule redefining water bodies subject to federal jurisdiction and protection; and EPA’s Clean Power Plan which requires states to develop strategies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

In addition, currently proposed EPA rules will likely not be made final, and environmental regulations facing challenges in the courts could be weakly defended by the Justice Department at the direction of the new administration. It is also possible any regulations that make it to the U.S. Supreme Court will be struck down by a conservative Court. Rescinding regulations that do not fall in line with the new administration is a possibility, but one that requires another EPA rulemaking process that may face challenges by environmental groups and states in support of the regulations.

Energy

Mr. Trump has indicated he has plans to revamp U.S. energy policies to make the U.S. a net energy exporter by opening onshore and offshore leasing on federal lands and waters to encourage production of energy resources. He also has hinted at plans to review all “anti-coal regulations,” rescind the coal mining lease moratorium on new federal coal leases announced in January 2016, and open up more public land for fossil fuel extraction. Eliminating the proposed Stream Protection Rule will remove regulatory requirements for the coal mining industry to consider the effects of their operations on groundwater, surface water, and endangered species, making it cheaper and easier to mine coal.  At the same time, the new administration is likely to focus on promoting policies and regulations to develop the infrastructure necessary for the export of fossil fuels.

While the fossil fuel industries may receive less scrutiny under environmental regulations under the Trump administration, the new administration may not change the renewable energy sector significantly because individual states have made significant progress in this area. For example, many states now require utilities to draw a percentage of their generation capacity from renewable energy sources and have implemented policies and set future goals to increase the use of renewable sources.  Corporations are increasingly procuring their own power, from rooftop solar energy to utility-scale wind farms, all of which are contributing energy to the electric grid.  Federal regulation that may interfere with states’ progress in the renewable energy sector is unlikely given Mr. Trump’s disfavor for regulations and the Republican position against limiting states’ rights.

Climate Change

Under the new administration, and with climate change skeptic Myron Ebell on the shortlist to become EPA Administrator, regulations for controlling greenhouse-gas emissions face a high likelihood of being scrapped, including the Clean Power Plan, mentioned above, and the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan.  It is also highly like the U.S. will back out of the Paris Agreement, where more than 190 countries agreed to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions and limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius.  The agreement calls for “appropriate financial flows, a new technology framework and an enhanced capacity building framework” to support action by developing and vulnerable countries.  While formally withdrawing from the agreement may prove difficult due to a time-specific exit clause barring exit for three years from the date of ratification, followed by a one-year waiting period upon a request to withdraw, the new administration could opt to ignore the agreement and refuse to provide financial aid.  Without the participation of the U.S., the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas polluter, the goal to limit global warming may be unattainable.

Supreme Court and Agency Decision-making

With a Republican president and Republican-controlled Congress, a conservative Justice will almost certainly be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court and as a result, we expect the Court to be less deferential to agency decision-making. We had previously blogged about the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Association and indicated that conservative leaning Supreme Court justices have called into question whether agency interpretations of their own regulations should be given any judicial deference.  The appointment of a conservative Justice could tip the scale in favor of curbing the level of deference given to agency interpretations, thereby prompting agencies like the EPA to undertake the formal rulemaking process more frequently to amend their interpretations of existing rules.

EPA’s National Enforcement Initiatives

The EPA selects National Enforcement Initiatives (NEIs) every three years, to prioritize its resources on the most significant environmental risks that can be mitigated by government action, and those issues where noncompliance is a significant contributing factor.  The NEIs for fiscal years 2017 – 2019 went into effect on October 1, 2016, and include: a focus on reducing air pollution from the largest sources and reducing hazardous air pollutants; ensuring energy extraction activities comply with environmental laws; reducing pollution from mineral processing operations and reducing risks of accidental releases at industrial and chemical facilities; and protection the nation’s waters from industrial pollutants, raw sewage, contaminated stormwater, and animal waste.

These enforcement priorities will very likely shift under the new administration which has the ability to redirect resources from one priority to another. Given Mr. Trump’s focus on revamping the U.S. coal industry, he is likely to de-emphasize the enforcement of environmental laws in the energy extraction sector and instead opt for a business-friendly approach.  The EPA as a whole may begin to approach enforcement more reactively when incidents prompt intervention, rather than proactively to prevent environmental disasters.  Enforcement may be replaced by increased agency initiatives to promote compliance assistance and more heavily consider the costs of environmental compliance on the regulated community.  Decreased enforcement activity could in turn lead to citizen suits to force the EPA to enforce its regulations.

Conclusion

Navigating environmental policy under the new administration will likely involve paying closer attention to state regulatory regimes that will move to the forefront in instances of reduced federal regulation. EPA could shift a large portion of environmental regulation and enforcement to the states, subjecting multi-state companies to different state-specific regulatory requirements.  We will continue to monitor the changes sure to take place for environmental compliance and enforcement under the Trump administration and will provide more clarity as the situation unfolds.  However, keep in mind that the EPA is like a cargo ship out on the ocean; it takes time to change course.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Seyfarth Environmental Compliance, Enforcement & Permitting Team.

By Andrew H. Perellis and Patrick D. Joyce

US Supreme Court Capitol Hill Daytime Washington DCIn the recently released decision in Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA), 575 U.S. ____, 135 S.Ct. 1199 (2015), Supreme Court Justices Scalia and Thomas expressed their discontent with agency deference under the “Auer doctrine.”

Another Seyfarth blog, the Wage & Hour Litigation Blog, discusses the major holding in MBA: to reject the reasoning used by the D.C. Circuit that held notice and comment rulemaking pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) must take place when an agency issues a new interpretation at odds with a prior interpretation. The focus of this blog is on an issue that MBA did not address, but which is creating friction for the courts. Specifically, what deference, if any, should courts give to an agency interpretation that has not gone through APA notice and comment rulemaking?

Historically, courts have struggled with the extent of deference to give an agency’s interpretations of its own regulations. Under the APA § 553(b)(A), agency interpretive rules and general statements of policy are exempt from notice and comment rulemaking because interpretative rules are non-substantive, and the APA only requires substantive interpretations, having the force of law, to go through notice and comment rulemaking. However, the “Auer doctrine,” from Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452, 117 S.Ct. 905 (1997), accords substantial deference to an Agency’s interpretation of its own regulations, even if presented in an unofficial manner such as in an amicus brief.

In separate concurrences in MBA, Justices Scalia and Thomas both call into question whether any judicial deference to agency interpretations of regulations is appropriate.

In his analysis, Justice Scalia cites § 556 of the APA for the proposition that only the courts may interpret agency actions, not the agencies themselves. Justice Scalia opines that the purpose of the § 553(b)(A) exemption was to allow agencies to advise the public on the impact of a complex regulation without binding the public to that interpretation.

However, Justice Scalia believes Auer deference allows agencies to both advise and bind the public because the agency can draft the regulation to be broad and vague and then interpret it in a manner that would not have been evident to the public when the regulation was originally proposed for notice and comment. Further, under Auer, a reviewing court is beholden to an agency interpretation unless its interpretation is unreasonable, and the public is thus bound by the agency’s interpretation with the force of law. Justice Scalia calls for abandoning Auer in a future decision, when the question is properly before the Court.

Justice Scalia distinguishes Auer deference and deference to an agency’s interpretation of its governing statute, also known as “Chevron deference,” from Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 104 S.Ct. 2778, 81 L.Ed.2d 694 (1984). Under Chevron, if a statutory term is ambiguous, then the agency has authority to construe that term and interpret its meaning within the statutory scheme by promulgating regulations following APA notice and comment procedures. This is arguably permissible because Congress explicitly granted agencies the ability to interpret their governing statutes, and APA rulemaking procedures are followed in establishing the interpretation via regulations. Justice Scalia points out that Auer is unlike Chevron because, under the Auer doctrine, an agency does not use APA notice and comment procedures and Congress has not explicitly granted agencies the ability to interpret their regulations. This difference is enough for Justice Scalia to call for the end of Auer.

Justice Thomas takes a different route when calling Auer into question, looking instead to the separation of powers and checks and balances put in place by the U.S. Constitution. In his concurrence, Justice Thomas refers to the cases dealing with deference to agency interpretations of regulations, beginning with Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co., 325 U.S. 410, 65 S.Ct. 1215 (1945), and calls into question the constitutionality of the entire line of cases, including Auer.

Justice Thomas believes any deference to administrative interpretations of regulations constitutes a transfer of judicial power to the executive, contrary to the language of the Constitution. Because Seminole Rock and Auer erode the judicial obligation to serve as a check on the other branches and muddle the separation between the Judicial and the Executive Branches, Justice Thomas calls for reconsideration of the entire Seminole Rock line of cases, including Auer, at the appropriate moment.

In addition, in a joint concurrence to a prior case, Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center, 568 U.S. ___, 133 S.Ct. 1326 (2013), Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito indicated that reconsideration of Auer may be appropriate when the issue is properly before the Court. The issue of Auer deference was not before the Court in MBA or in Decker, but with at least four Justices questioning the continued validity of the doctrine, it is possible the question of judicial deference to agency interpretive rules will be reconsidered in the near future.

Such a reconsideration of Auer could have significant impact upon administrative law. Judicial review of agency action provides important protection against arbitrary or unfair agency action. However, that review is significantly restricted under Auer¸ because a court must defer to an agency interpretation simply because it is issued by the agency, with little check on the reasonableness of the interpretation. Allowing courts to consider but not defer to agency interpretations would compel agencies to be more exacting (and perhaps more forthcoming) when engaging in rulemaking. Rulemaking, while perhaps a tedious process for the agency, required notice to the public, an opportunity for the public to comment, and an opportunity for judicial review, all to ensure that the agency action is consistent with law and not arbitrary or capricious.