On January 12, 2021, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued sweeping new directives regarding the procedures the Department will follow when relying on guidance documents, initiating enforcement actions, making jurisdictional determinations, and allowing prior notice and opportunity to be heard on agency determinations. These directives apply to civil and administrative enforcement proceedings and adjudications and take effect immediately.
First, HHS directed that the Department may not use guidance documents to impose binding requirements or prohibitions on persons outside of the executive branch except as authorized by law or expressly incorporated into a contract. That is, noncompliance with a standard or practice found only in a guidance document will not constitute a violation of the applicable statute or regulation. Further, the Department may refer to a guidance document in a civil enforcement action only if it has notified the public of the guidance in advance.
Second, HHS directed that the Department will only apply standards and practices, including in initiating a civil enforcement action or making an agency decision, that have been publicly stated in a way that would not cause unfair surprise. Of note, HHS defined “unfair surprise” to include when the Department initiates litigation following a lengthy period of conspicuous inaction.