The Supreme Court term has started, and the Court once again seems to be dipping its toes in the water with more CVSGs in 101 cases. Maybe this time the Court will take the plunge. For our case of the week—our highly subjective selection based on whatever case piqued our interest—we look at a case of international intrigue that discusses important principles of judicial review and an agency’s inherent authority to reconsider its own decisions.
Precedential opinions: 2
Non-precedential opinions: 5
Rule 36: 2
Longest pending case from argument:Hekmati v. United States, No. 21-2086 (247 days)
Shortest (non-Rule 36) pending case from argument:Weisner v. Google LLC, No. 21-2228 (128 days)
Case of the (recent) week:Hekmati v. United States, No. 21-2086
Panel: Judges Lourie, Bryson, and Cunningham, with Judge Cunningham writing the opinion
You should read this case if: you’re interested in bars to judicial review and an agency’s inherent reconsideration authority (or you just want to read an interesting case that doesn’t involve 101)
The facts of the case read a bit like a spy novel for lawyers, or at least special masters. Amir Hekmati, a veteran and then government contractor stationed in Afghanistan, was detained in a trip to Iran—where he allegedly intended to visit family. Over the next four years, the Iranian government imprisoned and tortured Hekmati until the United States could secure his release in a prisoner exchange. Upon his return to the United States, Hekmati sued and obtained a default judgment against the Iranian government for $63.5 million. With that default judgment, he then applied for compensation from the United States Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund established by the Justice for United States Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Act, which provides money to citizens who obtain judgments against foreign states designated as state sponsors of terrorism. The special master approved the claim.
Despite the approval, Hekmati received no money. After being told that the Department of Justice intended to seek reconsideration of the Fund’s approval of the claim, Hekmati sued in the Court of Federal Claims. And shortly thereafter, the special master reversed course and denied Hekmati’s claim, saying that his application contained material omissions and false statements. What were those omissions and falsities? Hekmati allegedly hadn’t actually gone to Iran to visit family; he had gone “‘to sell classified U.S. national security information to the government in Iran.’” As to Hekmati’s suit in the Court of Federal Claims? The court dismissed it for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
So did the Court on appeal get to look into the intrigue of whether Hekmati tried to sell state secrets to Iran? Nope. It said that the Justice for United States Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Act precludes judicial review of claims like Hekmati’s. The Court noted the strong presumption for judicial review when construing statutes, but it noted that this presumption can be overcome by clear and convincing indications drawn from the text, history, and structure of the statute. Here, the Court found such a clear statement. That Act includes specific language stating that “decisions made by the Special Master with regard to compensation from the Fund” are “final” and “not subject to . . . judicial review.”
Hekmati tried to sidestep this language by arguing that he wasn’t challenging the special master’s decision to deny him funds but was instead raising a broader challenge to the Fund’s administration to enforce the Act. But the Court noted that to decide that challenge would necessarily require judicial review of whether the decision regarding compensation was correct—something plainly barred by the Act.
Hekmati also argued that the Court should review whether the special master’s decision to reconsider an award was itself procedurally proper. The Court acknowledged that nothing in the Act expressly provided a basis for the special master to reconsider decisions. Nonetheless, it concluded that administrative agencies generally have inherent authority to reconsider their decisions—and (since we have to mention patent law somewhere) the Court noted that it previously held that the PTAB has inherent authority to reconsider its decisions to institute IPRs. Of course, the Court noted the general limits on an agency’s ability to inherently reconsider its decision—including whether the inherent authority would be contrary to the statute, whether the statute sets forth specific procedures for reconsideration, whether the agency gave notice, and whether reconsideration occurred within a reasonable period of time. Hekmati challenged only the last limit, arguing that the reconsideration did not occur soon enough. But the Court brushed aside that argument, noting that the interest in finality was outweighed by the public interest in protecting the integrity of the proceeding based on new evidence of fraud. And having concluded that reconsideration was permitted, the Court said it could not review the result of the reconsideration decision.