DEA, Nunc Pro Tunc Rulings, and Hearings That Never Happened

June 13, 2018By Andrew J. Hull

A couple of months ago, the DEA Acting Administrator issued an order revoking the registration of David A. Ruben, M.D., on the grounds of lack of state authority (the Arizona Medical Board suspended his medical license in 2017). The same doctor was the subject of another frequently cited decision from 2013. This time around, DEA issued an order to show cause (OSC) against the doctor, dated June 12, 2017.  DEA’s regulations require that a request for hearing must be filed “within 30 days after the date of receipt of the [OSC].”  21 C.F.R. § 1301.43(a).  The doctor requested a hearing, and the hearing request was received by DEA’s Office of Administrative Law Judges (OALJ) on July 18, 2017.  The Administrative Law Judge found that the request was timely, and proceeded with summary disposition proceedings.

When the Acting Administrator received the case from the OALJ, he made the determination that the doctor’s request for hearing was not timely, and, thus “cancel[led]” the ALJ’s hearing proceedings “nunc pro tunc” (legalese meaning “now for then” and used to retroactively correct an earlier ruling).  83 Fed. Reg. 12027, 12028 (Mar. 19, 2018). The Acting Administrator noted that there was no evidence in the record as to when the doctor received the OSC.  As such, the Acting Administrator explained that he could only have found the doctor’s request to be timely if it was within 30 days of the date of the OSC (which it was not).  Notwithstanding no request from DEA counsel to do so, the Acting Administrator treated the case file transmitted from OALJ as a request for final agency action, and made a determination on his own that the doctor’s registration should be revoked for lack of state authority.

The Acting Administrator’s decision to find the doctor’s request for hearing untimely—without any evidence of when the doctor received the OSC—was arguably both wrong and an abuse of due process. DEA has a duty to provide each registrant with proper notice before a hearing.  5 U.S.C. §§ 554(b), 558(c).  The Agency’s regulations require that, after “receipt” of the OSC, a recipient has 30 days in which to request a hearing.  21 C.F.R. § 1301.43(a).  With no evidence of when the OSC was received by the doctor, the Acting Administrator had no justifiable basis for finding the doctor’s request untimely.  The burden to show that it was untimely was on DEA who, it appears, never raised the issue throughout the process (possibly because the request was timely in light of the OSC service date). See 21 C.F.R. § 1316.56 (“At any hearing, the proponent for the issuance, amendment, or repeal of any rule shall have the burden of proof.”).

Ultimately, even if the Acting Administrator did not find the request for hearing untimely, the matter still would have been decided on summary disposition (i.e., without a hearing) because DEA alleged that the doctor did not have state authority to handle controlled substances.  But a word to DEA registrants if ever a victim of this “catch-22”:  If you are filing a request for hearing more than 30 days from the date of the OSC (but within 30 days of your receipt of the OSC), make sure you provide evidence of the date of receipt with your hearing request.  Otherwise, DEA may deem that you (unwittingly and unintentionally) waived your right to a hearing—even after the hearing has already occurred, and the ALJ has issued an opinion!