Ever had one of those days where you think you’re acting with good faith, diligence, and care, and yet you still get sued by the FDIC? The directors and officers of the now defunct Buckhead Community Bank in Georgia find themselves in the government’s crosshairs and, unlike their D-and-O counterparts at public companies, a federal court in Georgia thinks it’s not so clear that they’ll be able to claim the protections of the business judgment rule to avoid the FDIC’s claim that they caused the bank to lose millions of dollars.
The background in this case reads like so many others in similar suits around the country. According to the FDIC, the bank implemented an “aggressive growth strategy” beginning in 2005 that resulted in a 240 percent increase in the bank’s loan portfolio through 2007, primarily from gains in the bank’s “high-risk real estate and construction loans.” The bank’s adversely classified assets grew from twelve percent to more than 200 percent of its tier-1 capital, and by December 2009 the bank had landed in FDIC receivership. The FDIC later sued the bank’s directors and officers in federal court alleging that they were negligent for repeated violations of the bank’s loan policy, underwriting requirements, banking regulations, and “prudent and sound banking practices.” Read More
Will shareholder litigation survive the abandonment of the fraud-on-the-market presumption of reliance? After the Supreme Court’s announcement that it will be considering the presumption in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, No. 13-317, there is much discussion of whether a rejection of fraud-on-the-market could mean the end of securities litigation. The fraud-on-the-market doctrine, set forth in Basic Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224, 243-50 (1988), allows a plaintiff seeking class certification to use a rebuttable presumption to establish reliance. The presumption is that public information is reflected in the price of a stock traded on a well-developed market, and that investors rely on the integrity of the market price when deciding whether to buy or sell a security. Under the doctrine, investors do not need to show they actually relied on a misstatement in order to satisfy the “reliance” element of their claim for class certification. Though overturning the presumption would have a significant impact on shareholder class actions under Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, it would not spell the end of shareholder litigation. Read More
Comments made by Kara N. Brockmeyer, the Securities Exchange Commission’s chief of the Foreign Corruption Practices Act (FCPA) unit, and Charles E. Duross, deputy chief of the Department of Justice’s FCPA unit, at the recent International Conference on the FCPA suggest that both agencies are increasing their scrutiny of possible FCPA violations for the next year. Both units have increased their resources for tackling investigations of possible FCPA violations. Additionally, both agencies have increased awareness among other U.S. and international government agencies so that those agencies could also be on the lookout for possible FCPA violations. Having strengthened their relationships with overseas regulators, both agencies are optimistic that they are in the position to bring significant FCPA cases in the following year.
According to Andrew Ceresney, co-director of the SEC’s enforcement division, the SEC also expects that FCPA violations will be “increasingly fertile ground” for the Dodd-Frank whistle-blower program. The SEC received 149 FCPA violation tips from whistle-blowers in just the last year and the SEC expects more enforcement cases to arise from whistle-blowers. Read More
The SEC this year has demonstrated its willingness to incentivize whistleblowers and companies to share information about misconduct and assist with the SEC’s investigations. To that end, the SEC issued its first Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) with an individual on November 12, 2013. A DPA is an agreement whereby the SEC refrains from prosecuting cooperators for their own violations if they comply with certain undertakings.
This first DPA is with Scott Herckis, a former Fund Administrator for Connecticut-based hedge fund Happelwhite Fund LP. In September 2012 Herckis resigned and contacted government officials regarding the misappropriation by the fund’s founder and manager, Berton Hochfeld, of $1.5 million in hedge fund proceeds. Herckis further reported that Hochfeld had overstated the fund’s performance to investors. Herckis’s cooperation with the SEC, including producing voluminous documents and helping the SEC staff understand how Hochfeld was able to perpetrate the fraud, led the SEC to file an emergency action and freeze $6 million of Hochfeld’s and the fund’s assets. Those frozen assets will be distributed to the fund’s investors. Read More
The SEC released its Fiscal Year 2013 Annual Report (the “Report”) to Congress on the Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Program on November 15, 2013. The Report analyzes the tips received over the last twelve months by the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower (“OWB”) and provides additional information about the whistleblower award evaluation process.
Breakdown of Tips Received in FY 2013
The OWB reported a modest increase in the number of whistleblower tips and complaints that it received in 2013 – 3,238 tips in 2013 compared to 3,001 in 2012. Overall, the 2013 whistleblower tips were similar in number, type, and geographic source to the whistleblower tips reported in 2012. As in 2012, the most common types of allegations in 2013 were: Corporate Disclosure and Financials (17.2%), Offering Fraud (17.1%), and Manipulation (16.2%). Most whistleblowers, however, selected “Other” when asked to describe their allegations. In 2012, the most common complaint categories reported were also Corporate Disclosure and Financials (18.2%), Offering Fraud (15.5%), and Manipulation (15.2%). See Appendix B to the Report, listing tips by allegation type and comparing tips received in 2013 to those received in 2012. Read More
Recently, the Delaware Court of Chancery in Pfeiffer v. Leedle declined to dismiss a shareholder derivative action against a board for breach of fiduciary duty, where the directors allegedly approved stock options exceeding the maximum number of options permissible under the corporation’s stock incentive plan. C.A. No. 7831-VCP (Del. Ch. Nov. 8, 2013).
The Stock Incentive Plan provided that no participant could receive options relating to more than 150,000 shares of stock in any calendar year. Nevertheless, the board of directors allegedly awarded the CEO nearly 450,000 stock options in 2011, and 285,000 stock options in 2012.
Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to make a demand, and for failure to state a claim. The Court of Chancery rejected both arguments. Read More
SAC Capital Advisors pleaded guilty last Friday to securities fraud claims brought by the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan. If approved, the deal would require SAC to pay a $1.2 billion penalty, including a $900 million criminal fine and $284 million civil forfeiture, and to cease operation of its outside investment business. Appearing on behalf of SAC, Peter Nussbaum, general counsel for the hedge fund, offered the plea of five counts of securities and wire fraud charges based on the allegations that the company allowed rampant insider trading among its employees. More than merely turning a blind eye, SAC allegedly went out of its way to hire portfolio managers and analysts who had contacts at corporations and failed to monitor and prevent trades based on their inside knowledge.
Mr. Nussbaum expressed “deep remorse” for each individual at SAC who broke the law, taking responsibility for the misconduct which occurred under SAC’s watch. He also noted that “even one person crossing the line into illegal behavior is too many,” but emphasized that despite the six former employees that SAC admitted engaged in insider trading, “SAC is proud of the thousands of people who have worked at our firm for more than 20 years with integrity and excellence.” The six former employees, Noah Freeman, Richard Lee, Donald Longueuil, Jon Horvath, Wesley Wang and Richard C.B. Lee, had already pled guilty to insider trading-related claims. Critics have called for the judge to reject the plea, arguing that SAC has not taken enough responsibility. Prosecutors have indicated that had the case gone to trial, evidence would have shown that far more than six people were involved in the insider trading there. Read More
A pair of investment firms recently filed suit against Twitter in the Southern District of New York, alleging that Twitter had fraudulently refused to allow them to sell its private stock in advance of its much-anticipated IPO. If that sentence looks somewhat bizarre, it is because the allegations themselves are bizarre, at best.
In short, the plaintiff investment firms allege that a managing partner of GSV Asset Management, who was a Twitter shareholder, engaged them to market a fund that would purchase and hold nearly $300 million in private Twitter shares from the Company’s early-stage shareholders. Plaintiffs then embarked on an “international roadshow” to line up investors in the fund. Plaintiffs allege that, on the roadshow, “there was substantial interest in purchasing [the private] Twitter shares at $19 per share.” Read More
Following a defense verdict in the insider trading case brought against him by the SEC, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has not been sitting on the bench—but rather using his blog to stay on the offensive. Since the October 16, 2013 verdict, Cuban continues to post about the case on his blog—including, just a few days ago, blogging about when his own blog became the focus of the trial. According to his October 26 post, an SEC attorney asked him during trial if everything he posted on his blog was true information, to which he replied that it was meant more “to communicate a point” and stimulate discussion. Following up, the SEC attorney asked: “If you post on your blog that you think the Lakers are going to stink in 2013 . . . you’re not telling this jury that that’s an opinion you don’t honestly hold, right?” Cuban posted that the courtroom “cracked up” when he replied “This year?”, before going on to answer: “Well, no. In 2004, I wouldn’t say it. They had Shaq, they had Kobe, they actually went to the finals . . . To answer your question, if I said in 2004 that they stink, I didn’t believe it.” In an earlier blog entry, Cuban also poked fun at the former Head of Enforcement—posting about internal emails, disclosed earlier in the case, in which SEC attorneys commented on photos of Cuban. Read More
In a recent speech to the Securities Enforcement Forum, SEC Chair Mary Jo White fleshed out the Commission’s plan to pursue all violations of federal securities laws, “not just the biggest frauds.” She also addressed the looming question of whether this approach makes the best use of the agency’s limited resources.
Chair White compared the SEC’s strategy of pursuing all forms of wrongdoing, no matter how big or small, to the “broken window” theory of policing, which was largely credited for reducing crime in New York City under Mayor Rudy Giuliani. According to the “broken window” theory, a broken window which remains unfixed is a “signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.” On the other hand, a broken window which is fixed indicates that “disorder will not be tolerated.” Chair White postulated that the same theory applies to the US securities markets: minor violations that go ignored may lead to larger violations, and may foster a culture where securities laws are treated as “toothless guidelines.” Characterizing the SEC as the investors’ “cop,” she declared that the SEC needs to be a “strong cop on the beat,” understanding that even the smallest securities violations have victims. Read More