Tulsa Small Business Paves Road to Justice

Bob Belden
Bob Belden  ·  November 1, 2023

Danny Barbee is a fourth-generation bricklayer. Together with his wife, Diana, he runs ProCraft Masonry, LLC—a small masonry company with fewer than a dozen employees. Now, two federal administrative giants are taking apart everything they’ve built. 

In 2020, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) suspected the family business of harmless errors on employment forms. This kicked off a three-year investigation that led to more than $31,000 in fines. Agonizing delays and steep penalties are sledgehammers federal agencies use to force small businesses like ProCraft to settle: Pay up now or spend even more time (and even more money) contesting the fines. 

What’s worse, you don’t get to make your case before a real court. Instead, a DOJ employee called an “administrative law judge” decides your case and determines the penalty. The only review of that decision is by another executive branch bureaucrat or the Attorney General. That means ProCraft would never get a jury, and it would be years before it even saw a real federal court on appeal. 

It’s easy to see why average people facing potentially ruinous fines might give in, even when they’ve done nothing wrong. So ProCraft teamed up with IJ to fight back against this unfair system.

The Founders articulated distinct roles for each branch of government; separate functions exist to set the rules, enforce them, and adjudicate disputes. Even so, the executive branch has always been able to adjudicate its own cases when they involve “public rights,” most often benefits created and provided by the government (the quintessential example being Social Security benefits). But by imposing monetary fines, as in ProCraft’s case, agency judges infringe on private rights—such as the right to be free from excessive fines—that exist independent of government.   

The agency “court” system—and its overreach—isn’t unique to the DHS and DOJ; agencies that use administrative judges to impose monetary penalties include the DOL, EPA, FTC, and SEC. And unsurprisingly, the agencies almost always rule for themselves. This is IJ’s third case seeking to put an end to these schemes.

 ProCraft deserves a fair chance in a real court with a real judge and jury—and the Constitution demands it.

Bob Belden is an IJ attorney.

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