Agency Assessment and Mitigation of Civil Money Penalties

Publication Date
June 8, 1979

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The civil money penalty has become one of the most widely used techniques in the enforcement programs of Federal administrative agencies. Most regulatory offenses punishable by civil penalties involve adverse social consequences of private business activity. The motivational impact of these penalties depends in large part on the certainty of imposition and uniformity of amount, although some cases may require individualized tailoring to the circumstance of the offender so as to remove the economic benefit of the illegal conduct. Other civil penalties may also serve a secondary function of compensating society for the harm caused by unlawful conduct.

Recommendation 72-6 urged that the advantages of civil money penalties would be best achieved through an “administrative imposition system” in which the agency would be empowered to adjudicate the violation and impose the penalty after a trial-type hearing, subject to “substantial evidence” judicial review. Such a system, it was stated, would avoid the delays, high costs, and jurisdictional fictions inherent in the traditional and most common system of imposing civil money penalties by a court in a civil action initiated on behalf of the agency by the Department of Justice.

Since adoption of that Recommendation in 1972, the use of civil money penalties in general and of administratively imposed civil money penalties in particular has increased significantly, and the constitutionality and desirability of administratively imposed penalties has been widely recognized.

Experience has shown that agencies play a crucial role and exercise broad discretion in the administration of civil penalty programs, whether or not the statute in question authorizes an administrative imposition system. Agencies possessing such authority have found it efficient to try to resolve cases before the formal hearing stage through settlement and negotiation. Those agencies not possessing administrative imposition authority operate under a wide variety of statutes: some make no express reference to an agency role in the penalty process, while others confer on the agency only a power to “assess” or to “mitigate” penalties, thereby expressly or implicitly reserving to the respondent the right to seek a subsequent de novo fact-finding hearing by the court in a collection proceeding. Agencies typically exercise their statutory authority to “mitigate” in resolving contested penalty assessments prior to the initiation of formal enforcement action. In these recommendations the term “mitigation” refers to any informal process of resolving a contested initial penalty assessment.

Whatever the statutory framework, the enforcing agency typically makes the initial assessment, and provides a process for mitigation of the penalty. Thus, both where there exists administrative imposition authority and where such authority does not exist, agencies and respondents customarily utilize these initial assessment and mitigation processes to resolve the great majority of civil money penalty cases without reaching the stage of formal administrative adjudication or court collection proceeding.

These informal processes for the initiation and termination of civil penalty proceedings represent an area of previously unstudied and largely discretionary agency action. Appropriate standards and structures for the exercise of such discretion are needed to improve the consistency, efficiency and openness of agency assessment and mitigation processes.

The recommendations that follow focus on (A) the need for agencies to develop standards for determining penalty amounts, (B) agency procedures for initially assessing penalties, (C) agency mitigation procedures, and (D) the use by agencies of evidentiary hearings to impose civil penalties where such a procedure, though not required by statute, might result in a limited scope of judicial review.


A. Standards for Determination of Penalty Amount

1. Agencies enforcing regulatory statutes, violation of which is punishable by a civil money penalty, should establish standards for determining appropriate penalty amounts for individual cases. In establishing standards, agencies should specify the factors to be considered in determining the appropriate penalty amount in a particular case. To the extent practicable, agencies should specify the relative weights to be attached to individual factors in the penalty calculation, and incorporate such factors into formulas for determining penalty amounts or into fixed schedules of prima facie penalty amounts for the most common types or categories of violation. A penalty intended to deter or influence economic behavior should, at a minimum, be designed to remove the economic benefit of the illegal activity, taking into account the documented benefit and the likelihood of escaping detection. Penalty standards should, in addition, specify whether and to what extent the agency will consider other factors such as compensation for harm caused by the violation or the impact of the penalty on the violator’s financial condition. In order to reduce the cost of the penalty calculation process and increase the predictability of the sanction, simplifying assumptions about the benefit realized from or the harm caused by illegal activity should be utilized.

2. Agencies should periodically evaluate the continuing effectiveness of their penalty standards. Such evaluations should be based upon the results of compliance surveys and internal audits of agency assessment and mitigation decisions as well as data on the nature and frequency of violations routinely generated by the agency’s enforcement program.

3. Agencies should make such standards known to the public to the greatest extent feasible through rulemaking or publication of policy statements. Such an approach is especially desirable where adjudications that produce written decisions are rare.

4. Agencies should collect and index those written decisions made in response to mitigation requests or after agency assessment hearings, and make such decisions available to the public except to the extent that their disclosure is prohibited by law. Whenever a respondent cites a previous written decision as a precedent for the agency to follow in the respondent’s case, the agency should either do so, distinguish the two cases, or explain its reasons for not following the prior decision.

B. Initial Assessment of Penalties

1. Agencies should give adequate written notice to the respondent of the factual and legal basis for, and amount of, the penalty assessment.

2. Agencies should not mechanically assess variable civil money penalties at the statutory maximum if reliable evidence in their possession indicates the presence of mitigating factors. Nor, if they possess such evidence, should agencies assess at the statutory level fixed penalties which are subject to an express administrative “mitigation” authority.

3. The greater the degree to which an agency decentralizes its penalty assessment authority, the more it should structure the exercise of that authority by the use of highly specific standards. Agencies should not ordinarily delegate discretionary authority to assess civil money penalties to investigative personnel unless the delay inherent in review by an independent assessment official would materially impair the effectiveness of the enforcement process.

C. Mitigation of Penalties

Respondents in civil money penalty cases have a right to a trial-type hearing at either the administrative or judicial level. It is nevertheless desirable that agencies establish fair and economical procedures whereby respondents may informally contest the initial assessment of civil penalties without the necessity of going forward to trial-type hearings. These procedures should be governed by the following principles:

1. Agencies should provide the respondent with a right to reply in writing to a penalty claim.

2. Agency staff should not refuse a reasonable request to discuss a penalty claim orally. But an informal conference need not be built into the process except in those categories of cases where the use of written communications is likely to prove inadequate because of such factors as the unsophistication of violators or the prevalence of factual disputes.

3. Agencies should consider providing an opportunity for administrative review of a decision denying a request for mitigation.

4. Agency decisions on mitigation requests should be in writing and should be accompanied by a brief indication of the grounds for the decision.

5. In regulatory programs typically involving the imposition of small penalties, agencies may appropriately rely most heavily on readily ascertainable standards of liability, fixed schedules of prima facie penalty amounts for the most common types of categories of violations, and highly objective inspection procedures. Opportunity for mitigation should be narrowly confined and mitigation requests entertained only if in written form.

6. In regulatory programs typically involving the imposition of large penalties, agencies may appropriately provide an opportunity to a respondent to present a request for mitigation, orally or in writing, request an oral conference thereon, receive a written decision, and submit a written petition for review of such decision or for compromise of such claim at a higher agency level.

D. Evidentiary Hearings

As expressed in Recommendation 72-6, it is desirable that agencies be given express authority to employ the procedures of adjudication on the record pursuant to the APA, 5 U.S.C. 554-557, for the imposition of civil money penalties. Where its statute does not provide for such procedure but confers upon the agency authority to “assess” or to “mitigate” a penalty, particularly if the agency is required to conduct a “hearing,” the agency should consider establishing such procedures by regulation, especially where by doing so a de novo proceeding upon judicial review could be avoided. Where such a hearing procedure has in fact been observed by the agency, and the statute does not provide for de novo judicial proceedings, the court should ordinarily utilize a limited scope of review of such agency action imposing civil money penalties.



44 FR 38824 (July 3, 1979)

1979 ACUS 23