BROCK V. PIERCE COUNTY, 476 U. S. 253 (1986)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Brock v. Pierce County, 476 U.S. 253 (1986)

Brock v. Pierce County

No. 85-385

Argued April 1, 1986

Decided May 19, 1986

476 U.S. 253


During the time pertinent to this case, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) (later repealed) required that qualified entities (such as respondent county), receiving federal grants for programs providing job training and employment opportunities for economically disadvantaged, unemployed, or underemployed persons, comply with the statute and the regulations of the Secretary of Labor (Secretary). Section 106(b) of CETA provided that the Secretary shall investigate whenever he has reason to believe, through a complaint, an audit, or otherwise, that a grant recipient was misusing CETA funds, and further provided that the Secretary "shall" determine "the truth of the allegation or belief involved, not later than 120 days after receiving the complaint." Labor Department audits with respect to two grants that respondent had received raised questions concerning respondent's costs related to ineligible employees, and were filed with the Department's Grant Officer, but his final determinations disallowing such costs in each instance were not issued within 120 days after the audit reports were filed. On review of both final determinations, an Administrative Law Judge, although reducing the amount of the disallowance in each case, rejected respondent's contention that the Secretary could not order respondent to repay such sums because the final determination was not issued within the 120-day period and respondent had suffered prejudice because of the delay. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that § 106(b) prevented the Secretary from acting unless his final determination was made within the 120-day period after the audits were filed.

Held: The Secretary does not lose the power to recover misused CETA funds after expiration of the 120-day period specified in § 106(b). Pp. 476 U. S. 258-266.

(a) The mere use of the word "shall" in § 106(b), standing alone, is not enough to remove the Secretary's power to act after 120 days. Every failure of an agency to observe a procedural requirement does not void subsequent agency action, especially when important public rights are at stake. When, as here, there are less drastic remedies available for failure to meet a statutory deadline, courts should not assume that Congress intended that the agency lose its power to act. Mohasco Corp. v. Silver, 447 U. S. 807, distinguished. There is no merit to respondent's

Page 476 U. S. 254

contention that statutes setting deadlines for agency action should be interpreted to permit the agency to proceed after the deadline has expired only when agency inaction would prejudice a private citizen seeking some sort of redress, and that, when agency inaction will injure only the Federal Treasury, courts should read a command like that of § 106(b) as a statute of limitations or jurisdictional bar. Pp. 476 U. S. 258-262.

(b) Nothing in the legislative history suggests that Congress intended to impose a jurisdictional limitation on the Secretary's enforcement powers if he failed to issue a final determination on a complaint or audit within 120 days. Rather, the 120-day provision was clearly intended to spur the Secretary to action in discovering and rectifying abuses of grant recipients, not to limit the scope of his authority. Pp. 476 U. S. 262-266.

(c) Nor is there any merit to the contention that the Secretary's regulations established a jurisdictional bar to the Secretary's recovery of funds. The regulations merely provided a timetable for the resolution of complaints and audits. And there is no authority in the statute or legislative history for the courts to create a remedy by treating § 106(b) like a statute of limitations that can vary depending on the complexity of the dispute or the culpability of the grant recipient. Pp. 476 U. S. 265-266.

769 F.2d 1398, reversed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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