Agency Reports Improvements to ALJ System

January 2010

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SIU headquarters officials in late November met with U.S. Coast Guard officers in Washington, D.C., to discuss numerous enhancements in the agency’s Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) system.

SIU Executive Vice President Augie Tellez and Secretary-Treasurer David Heindel (along with officials from other maritime unions) were updated on various improvements which have been implemented during the past two years and on some ongoing efforts to further upgrade the system.

The Coast Guard cited accomplishments including increasing public availability of decisions (on the agency’s “homeport” web site); aligning the chief ALJ’s supervisory functions with the best practices used at other agencies; establishing a mariner call center for improved access to the ALJ system; staff training enhancements; streamlining processes, and more. Several other upgrades are in the works.

In 2008, Congress ordered its agency review arm, the Government Accountability Office, to check the Coast Guard’s investigative and legal processes and to recommend if improvements were needed. Congress regularly tasks the GAO to review government agency programs, effectiveness, efficiencies, and best practices and to ensure that Office of Personnel Management guidelines are being followed. Of particular congressional interest was whether the Coast Guard’s legal processes and case loads were manageable, if staff received sufficient training and if the Coast Guard’s ALJ program was structured to ensure fairness to mariners going before administrative review. The Coast Guard welcomed the review and participated in earnest, according to the GAO.

In June 2009, the GAO released its report about its review of 1,675 cases of suspension and revocation of credentials opened and closed by the Coast Guard from Nov. 10, 2005 through Sept. 30, 2008. The report showed that 62 percent of suspension and revocation cases were disposed of through settlements between the Coast Guard and mariners. It also showed that only three percent of cases were heard by Administrative Law Judges and those resulted in 51 percent with sanctions less severe than revocation, including 13 percent with no sanction at all.

Of the 1,035 cases that ended in settlements, 68 percent ended in agreements called “stayed revocation,” which allows mariners to regain their credentials but can also result in permanent revocation if mariners fail to meet agreed conditions. In essence, the GAO founds most cases are resolved between the Coast Guard and mariners though agreements outside of the Administrative Law Judge program.

The GAO further reported that it found the ALJ system provides judges protection from agency coercion or influence and that all persons related to a case are adequately informed in a fair manner. Regulations governing complaints filed against mariners were being followed. The GAO also said the program’s appeal process is properly designed to protect mariners’ interests.

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