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National Labor Relations Board v. SW General, Inc.

United States Supreme Court

March 21, 2017

NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS BOARD, PETITIONER
v.
SW GENERAL, INC., DBA SOUTHWEST AMBULANCE

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT

          Argued November 7, 2016

         Article II of the Constitution requires that the President obtain "the Advice and Consent of the Senate" before appointing "Officers of the United States." §2, cl. 2. Given this provision, the responsibilities of an office requiring Presidential appointment and Senate confirmation (PAS office) may go unperformed if a vacancy arises and the President and Senate cannot promptly agree on a replacement. Congress has accounted for this reality by giving the President limited authority to appoint acting officials to temporarily perform the functions of a vacant PAS office without first obtaining Senate approval.

         The current version of that authorization is the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 (FVRA). Section 3345(a) of the FVRA permits three categories of Government officials to perform acting service in a vacant PAS office. Subsection (a)(1) prescribes the general rule that, if a vacancy arises in a PAS office, the first assistant to that office "shall perform" the office's "functions and duties temporarily in an acting capacity." Subsections (a)(2) and (a)(3) provide that, "notwithstanding paragraph (1), " the President "may direct" a person already serving in another PAS office, or a senior employee in the relevant agency, to serve in an acting capacity instead.

         Section 3345 also makes certain individuals ineligible for acting service. Subsection (b)(1) states: "Notwithstanding subsection (a)(1), a person may not serve as an acting officer for an office under this section" if the President nominates him for the vacant PAS office and, during the 365-day period preceding the vacancy, the person "did not serve in the position of first assistant" to that office or "served in [that] position . . . for less than 90 days."

         The general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or the Board) is a PAS office. In June 2010, a vacancy arose in that office, and the President directed Lafe Solomon to serve as acting general counsel. Solomon qualified for acting service under subsection (a)(3) of the FVRA, because he was a senior employee at the NLRB. In January 2011, the President nominated Solomon to serve as the NLRB's general counsel on a permanent basis. The Senate never took action on the nomination, and the President ultimately withdrew Solomon's name in favor of a new candidate, whom the Senate confirmed in October 2013. Throughout this entire period Solomon served as the acting general counsel to the NLRB.

         In January 2013, an NLRB Regional Director, exercising authority on Solomon's behalf, issued an unfair labor practices complaint against respondent SW General, Inc. An Administrative Law Judge concluded that SW General had committed unfair labor practices, and the NLRB agreed. SW General sought review in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, arguing that the complaint was invalid because, under subsection (b)(1) of the FVRA, Solomon could not perform the duties of general counsel to the NLRB after having been nominated to fill that position. The NLRB countered that subsection (b)(1) applies only to first assistants who automatically assume acting duties under subsection (a)(1), not to acting officers who, like Solomon, serve under (a)(2) or (a)(3). The Court of Appeals vacated the Board's order. It concluded that the prohibition on acting service by nominees contained in subsection (b)(1) applies to all acting officers, regardless of whether they serve pursuant to subsection (a)(1), (a)(2), or (a)(3). As a result, Solomon became ineligible to perform the duties of general counsel in an acting capacity once the President nominated him to fill that post.

         Held:

1. Subsection (b)(1) of the FVRA prevents a person who has been nominated to fill a vacant PAS office from performing the duties of that office in an acting capacity. The prohibition applies to anyone performing acting service under the FVRA. It is not limited to first assistants performing acting service under subsection (a)(1). Pp. 8- 18.
(a) The text of the FVRA requires this conclusion. Pp. 8-14. (1) Subsection (b)(1) applies to any "person" and prohibits service "as an acting officer for an office under this section." "Person" has an expansive meaning that can encompass anyone who performs acting duties under the FVRA. See Pfizer Inc. v. Government of India, AQA U.S. 308, 312. And "under this section" clarifies that subsection (b)(1) applies to all of §3345: The FVRA contains cross-references to specific subsections and paragraphs. But subsection (b)(1) refers to §3345, which contains all of the ways a person may become an acting officer. The rest of the FVRA also uses the pairing of "person" and "section" to encompass anyone serving as an acting officer under the FVRA, and Congress could readily have used more specific language if it intended subsection (b)(1) to apply only to first assistants acting under (a)(1).
The dependent clause at the beginning of subsection (b)(1)- "[n]otwithstanding subsection (a)(1)"-confirms the breadth of the prohibition on acting service by nominees. In statutes, "notwithstanding" clauses show that one provision prevails over another in the event of a conflict. Here, that means that subsection (b)(1) applies even when it conflicts with the default rule in (a)(1) that first assistants "shall perform" acting duties. Pp. 8-10.
(2) The Board argues that, because the phrase "notwithstanding subsection (a)(1)" does not mention (a)(2) or (a)(3), Congress did not intend the prohibition in subsection (b)(1) to apply to people serving as acting officers under those provisions. The Board relies on the "interpretive canon, expressio unius est exclusio alterius, expressing one item of [an] associated group or series excludes another left un-mentioned." Chevron U.S. A. Inc. v. Echazabal, 536 U.S. 73, 80 (internal quotation marks omitted).
This interpretive canon applies, however, only when "circumstances support [] a sensible inference that the term left out must have been meant to be excluded." Id., at 81. A "notwithstanding" clause does not naturally give rise to such an inference; it just shows which of two or more provisions prevails in the event of a conflict. Singling out one conflict generally does not suggest that other, unaddressed conflicts should be resolved in the opposite manner. Here, the conflict between (a)(1) and (b)(1) is unique: The former uses mandatory language-the first assistant "shall perform" acting duties-while the latter identifies who "may not" serve as an acting officer. The "notwithstanding" clause clarifies that the mandatory language in subsection (a)(1) does not prevail over subsection (b)(1) in the event of a conflict. Subsections (a)(2) and (a)(3) lack that mandatory language, so the natural inference is that Congress left these provisions out of the "notwithstanding" clause because they differ from subsection (a)(1), not to implicitly exempt them from the prohibition in subsection (b)(1).
Moreover, subsection (b)(2) specifies that (b)(1) "shall not apply" to certain people who are "serving as the first assistant." If (b)(1) applied only to first assistants, stating that limitation would be superfluous. Pp. 10-14.
(b) Because the text is clear, the Board's arguments about legislative history, purpose, and post-enactment practice need not be considered. In any event, its arguments are not compelling.
The original draft of the FVRA contained a prohibition on nominees serving as acting officers, but explicitly limited that prohibition to first assistants. The Board argues that, when Congress revised this original draft, it made changes to give the President more flexibility to appoint acting officers and did not intend to broaden the prohibition on nominees performing acting service. The glitch in this argument is that Congress did change the prohibition on nominees performing acting service, revising it to clearly apply to all acting officers. The fact that certain Senators stated that they wanted to give the President more flexibility to appoint acting officials does not mean that they got exactly what they wanted. Nor does a statement by one of the sponsors of the FVRA-who said that subsection (b)(1) applies only to first assistants-overcome the clear text, particularly given that the very next Senator to speak offered a contradictory account of the provision.
The Board also argues that, since the FVRA was enacted, Congress has not objected when Presidents have nominated individuals who were serving as acting officers under subsection (a)(2) or (a)(3), and that the Office of Legal Counsel and Government Accountability Office have issued guidance construing subsection (b)(1) to apply only to first assistants. Relying on NLRB v. Noel Canning, the Board contends that this "historical practice" is entitled to "significant weight." 573 U.S.__.
"[H]istorical practice" is too grand a title for the Board's evidence. The FVRA was not enacted until 1998, and the evidence the Board cites is not significant enough to warrant the conclusion that Congress's failure to speak up implies that it has acquiesced in the view that subsection (b)(1) applies only to first assistants. By contrast, the Court's decision in Noel Canning dealt with the President's constitutional authority under the Recess Appointments Clause; an issue that had attracted intense attention from Presidents, Attorneys General, and the Senate dating back to the beginning of the Republic. Pp. 14-18.
2. Applying the FVRA to this case is straightforward. Subsection (b)(1) prohibited Solomon from continuing his service as acting general counsel once the President nominated him to fill the position permanently. The President could have appointed another person to serve as acting officer in Solomon's place, but did not do so. P. 18.

796 F.3d 67, affirmed.

          ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which KENNEDY, Thomas, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a concurring opinion. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which GINSBURG, J., joined.

          Roberts Chief Justice

         Article II of the Constitution requires that the President obtain "the Advice and Consent of the Senate" before appointing "Officers of the United States." §2, cl. 2. Given this provision, the responsibilities of an office requiring Presidential appointment and Senate confirmation- known as a "PAS" office-may go unperformed if a vacancy arises and the President and Senate cannot promptly agree on a replacement. Congress has long accounted for this reality by authorizing the President to direct certain officials to temporarily carry out the duties of a vacant PAS office in an acting capacity, without Senate confirmation.

         The Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 (FVRA), 5 U.S.C. §3345 et seq., is the latest version of that authorization. Section 3345(a) of the FVRA authorizes three classes of Government officials to become acting officers. The general rule is that the first assistant to a vacant office shall become the acting officer. The President may override that default rule by directing either a person serving in a different PAS office or a senior employee within the relevant agency to become the acting officer instead.

         The FVRA, however, prohibits certain persons from serving as acting officers if the President has nominated them to fill the vacant office permanently. The question presented is whether that limitation applies only to first assistants who have automatically assumed acting duties, or whether it also applies to PAS officers and senior employees serving as acting officers at the President's behest. We hold that it applies to all three categories of acting officers.

         I

         A

         The Senate's advice and consent power is a critical "structural safeguard[] of the constitutional scheme." Edmond v. United States, 520 U.S. 651, 659 (1997). The Framers envisioned it as "an excellent check upon a spirit of favoritism in the President" and a guard against "the appointment of unfit characters . . . from family connection, from personal attachment, or from a view to popularity." The Federalist No. 76, p. 457 (C. Rossiter ed. 1961) (A. Hamilton). The constitutional process of Presidential appointment and Senate confirmation, however, can take time: The President may not promptly settle on a nominee to fill an office; the Senate may be unable, or unwilling, to speedily confirm the nominee once submitted. Yet neither may desire to see the duties of the vacant office go unperformed in the interim.

         Since President Washington's first term, Congress has given the President limited authority to appoint acting officials to temporarily perform the functions of a vacant PAS office without first obtaining Senate approval. The earliest statutes authorized the appointment of "any person or persons" to fill specific vacancies in the Departments of State, Treasury, and War. Act of May 8, 1792, ch. 37, §8, 1 Stat. 281. Congress at first allowed acting officers to serve until the permanent officeholder could resume his duties or a successor was appointed, ibid., but soon imposed a six-month limit on acting service, Act of Feb. 13, 1795, ch. 21, 1 Stat. 415.

         Congress revisited the issue in the 1860s, ultimately passing the Vacancies Act of 1868. The Vacancies Act expanded the number of PAS offices that the President could fill with acting officers. Act of July 23, 1868, ch. 227, 15 Stat. 168; see also Act of Feb. 20, 1863, ch. 45, 12 Stat. 656. With that expansion came new constraints. The authority to appoint "any person or persons" as an acting officer gave way to a default rule that the "first or sole assistant . . . shall" perform that function, with an exception allowing the President to instead fill the post with a person already serving in a PAS office. 15 Stat. 168. And rather than six months of acting service, the Vacancies Act generally authorized only ten days. Ibid. That narrow window of acting service was later lengthened to 30 days. Act of Feb. 6, 1891, ch. 113, 26 Stat. 733.

         During the 1970s and 1980s, interbranch conflict arose over the Vacancies Act. The Department of Justice took the position that, in many instances, the head of an executive agency had independent authority apart from the Vacancies Act to temporarily fill vacant offices. The Comptroller General disagreed, arguing that the Act was the exclusive authority for temporarily filling vacancies in executive agencies. See M. Rosenberg, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, The New Vacancies Act: Congress Acts to Protect the Senate's Confirmation Prerogative 2-4 (1998) (Rosenberg). Congress then amended the Vacancies Act to clarify that it applies to such agencies, while at the same time lengthening the term of permissible acting service to 120 days, with a tolling period while a nomination is pending. Id., at 3; see Presidential Transitions Effectiveness Act, §7, 102 Stat. 988.

         But tensions did not ease. By 1998, approximately 20 percent of PAS offices in executive agencies were occupied by "temporary designees, most of whom had served beyond the 120-day limitation period . . . without presidential submissions of nominations." Rosenberg 1. These acting officers filled high-level positions, sometimes in obvious contravention of the Senate's wishes. One, for instance, was brought in from outside Government to serve as Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, immediately after the Senate refused to confirm him for that very office. Ibid.; see M. Rosenberg, Congressional Research Service, Validity of Designation of Bill Lann Lee as Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights 1-3 (1998). Perceiving a threat to the Senate's advice and consent power, see Rosenberg 6, Congress acted again. In 1998, it replaced the Vacancies Act with the FVRA.

         Section 3345(a) of the FVRA permits three categories of Government officials to perform acting service in a vacant PAS office. Subsection (a)(1) prescribes a general rule: If a person serving in a PAS office dies, resigns, or is otherwise unable to perform his duties, the first assistant to that office "shall perform" the office's "functions and duties . . . temporarily in an acting capacity."

         The next two paragraphs of §3345(a) identify alternatives. Subsection (a)(2) provides that "notwithstanding paragraph (1), " the President "may direct a person" who already serves in a PAS office to "perform the functions and duties of the vacant office temporarily in an acting capacity." Subsection (a)(3) adds that "notwithstanding paragraph (1), " the President "may direct" a person to perform acting duties if the person served in a senior position in the relevant agency for at least 90 days in the 365-day period preceding the vacancy.[1]

         Section 3345 also makes certain individuals ineligible for acting service. Subsection (b)(1) states: "Notwithstanding subsection (a)(1), a person may not serve as an acting officer for an office under this section" if the President nominates him for the vacant PAS office and, during the 365-day period preceding the vacancy, the individual "did not serve in the position of first assistant" to that office or "served in [that] position ... for less than 90 days." Subsection (b)(2) creates an exception to this prohibition, providing that "[p]aragraph (1) shall not apply to any person" serving in a first assistant position that itself requires the Senate's advice and consent.

         Other sections of the FVRA establish time limits on acting service and penalties for noncompliance. In most cases, the statute permits acting service for "210 days beginning on the date the vacancy occurs"; tolls that time limit while a nomination is pending; and starts a new 210-day clock if the nomination is "rejected, withdrawn, or returned." §§3346(a)-(b)(1). Upon a second nomination, the time limit tolls once more, and an acting officer can serve an additional 210 days if the second nomination proves unsuccessful. §3346(b)(2). The FVRA ensures compliance by providing that, in general, "any function or duty of a vacant office" performed by a person not properly serving under the statute "shall have no force or effect." §3348(d).

         B

         The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) is charged with administering the National Labor Relations Act. By statute, its general counsel must be appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. 29 U.S.C. §153(d).

         In June 2010, the NLRB's general counsel-who had been serving with Senate confirmation-resigned. The President directed Lafe Solomon to serve temporarily as the NLRB's acting general counsel, citing the FVRA as the basis for the appointment. See Memorandum from President Barack Obama to L. Solomon (June 18, 2010). Solomon satisfied the requirements for acting service under subsection (a)(3) of the FVRA because he had spent the previous ten years in the senior position of Director of the NLRB's Office of Representation Appeals.

         The President had bigger plans for Solomon than acting service. On January 5, 2011, he nominated Solomon to serve as the NLRB's general counsel on a permanent basis. The Senate had other ideas. That body did not act upon the nomination during the 112th Congress, so it was returned to the President when the legislative session expired. 159 Cong. Rec. S17 (Jan. 3, 2013). The President resubmitted Solomon's name for consideration in the spring of 2013, id., at S3884 (May 23, 2013), but to no avail. The President ultimately withdrew Solomon's nomination and put forward a new candidate, whom the Senate confirmed on October 29, 2013. Id., at S7635. Throughout this entire period, Solomon served as the NLRB's acting general counsel.

         Solomon's responsibilities included exercising "final authority" to issue complaints alleging unfair labor practices. 29 U.S.C. §§ 153(d), 160(b). In January 2013, an NLRB Regional Director, exercising authority on Solomon's behalf, issued a complaint alleging that respondent SW General, Inc.-a company that provides ambulance services-had improperly failed to pay certain bonuses to long-term employees. An Administrative Law Judge concluded that SW General had committed unfair labor practices, and the NLRB agreed. 360 N. L. R. B. 109 (2014).

         SW General filed a petition for review in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. It argued that the unfair labor practices complaint was invalid because, under subsection (b)(1) of the FVRA, Solomon could not legally perform the duties of general counsel after having been nominated to fill that position. The NLRB defended Solomon's actions. It contended that subsection (b)(1) applies only to first assistants who automatically assume acting duties under subsection (a)(1), not to acting officers who, like Solomon, serve under (a)(2) or (a)(3).

         The Court of Appeals granted SW General's petition for review and vacated the Board's order. It reasoned that "the text of subsection (b)(1) squarely supports" the conclusion that the provision's restriction on nominees serving as acting officers "applies to all acting officers, no matter whether they serve pursuant to subsection (a)(1), (a)(2) or (a)(3)." 796 F.3d 67, 78 (CADC 2015). As a result, Solomon became "ineligible to serve as Acting General Counsel once the President nominated him to be General Counsel." Id., at 72.[2] We granted certiorari, 579 U.S. __ (2016), and now affirm.

         II

         Subsection (b)(1) of the FVRA prevents a person who has been nominated for a vacant PAS office from performing the duties of that office in an acting capacity. In full, it states:

"(1) Notwithstanding subsection (a)(1), a person may not serve as an acting officer for an office under this section, if-
(A) during the 365-day period preceding the date of the death, resignation, or beginning of inability to serve, such person-
(i) did not serve in the position of first assistant to the office of such officer; or
(ii) served in the position of first assistant to the office of such officer for less than 90 days; and
(B) the President submits a nomination of such person to the Senate for appointment to such office."

         Subsection (b)(2) adds that "[p]aragraph (1) shall not apply" to a person serving in a first assistant position that itself requires the advice and consent of the Senate.

         We conclude that the prohibition in subsection (b)(1) applies to anyone performing acting service under the FVRA. It is not, as the Board contends, limited to first assistants performing acting service under subsection (a)(1). The text of the prohibition extends to any "person" who serves "as an acting officer . . . under this section, " not just to "first assistants" serving under subsection (a)(1). The phrase "[notwithstanding subsection (a)(1)" does not limit the reach of (b)(1), but instead clarifies that the ...


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