Chairman Clayton Sets New SEC Agenda

On Wednesday July 12, 2017, in his first public speech as Chairman of the SEC, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton laid out a set of eight priorities that will guide his SEC Chairmanship.[1] He said his priorities are consistent with and complimentary to the seven “core principles” set forth in President Donald Trump’s February 3, 2017 executive order regarding the regulation of the U.S. financial system.

The overarching themes in Chairman Clayton’s speech are that he is focused primarily on capital formation, modernizing the trading and markets system, and he favors a disclosure and market-based approach to federal securities regulation . Given the kind words for former Chair Mary Jo White and multiple references of areas of agreement, it is difficult to determine how much of a shift one can expect from the Commission under Chairman Clayton. Nevertheless, the following are a few key takeaways from the speech.

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Time’s Up: Supreme Court Affirms Three-Year Deadline for Opting Out of Section 11 Class Actions

On June 26, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that will have a significant effect on securities class action litigation, changing the strategic calculus for both institutional plaintiffs and defendants. In California Public Employees’ Retirement System v. Anz Securities, Inc., No. 16-373, 582 U.S. ___ (2017) , the Court held that American Pipe tolling does not apply to the 3-year statute of repose for private damage claims under the Securities Act of 1933.  Thus, the filing of a class action complaint under Section 11 of the Securities Act of 1933 does not toll the three-year statute of repose for individual claims that may be brought by putative class members who later decide to opt out of a class-wide settlement.

CalPERS arose out of two public securities offerings issued by Lehman Brothers Holdings in 2007 and 2008.  In September 2008, with Lehman in bankruptcy, a Section 11 class action was filed against Anz Securities and other underwriters to the offerings, alleging that the registration statements included material misstatements or omissions.  The class action complaint was consolidated with other securities suits against Lehman into a single multidistrict class action in the Southern District of New York.  CalPERS, an unnamed member of the putative class, subsequently filed a separate complaint alleging identical causes of action against the respondents in the Northern District of California in February 2011—more than three years after the offerings closed.  CalPERS’ individual suit was transferred to the Southern District of New York and consolidated with the multidistrict litigation.  CalPERS opted out of the class only after the class action reached a settlement.

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Report Shows 2016 Record-Setting Year for Class Action and SEC Settlements

Last week, proxy advisory firm Institutional Shareholders Services (“ISS”) published its semi-annual report of the top 100 U.S. securities class action settlements and top 50 SEC settlements of all time, as of December 31, 2016. The report adds thirteen new class action settlements from last year – making 2016 the most represented year in the report’s settlement rankings – along with two new top SEC settlements.

The ISS report ranks, among other things, the top 100 shareholder class action settlements ever reached in the U.S. for actions filed on or after January 1, 1996, when the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act was implemented. ISS’s June 2017 report reflects that there were 137 court-approved securities class action settlements in the US in 2016, remaining steady with 2015. Notably, however, 13 of the 137 class action settlements were among the top 100 shareholder class action settlements, resulting in a total approved settlement fund of over $5.6 billion, the largest in a single year. The largest of these 13 settlements was in Lawrence E. Jaffe Pension Plan v. Household International, Inc., et al., Case No. 02-CV-05893 (N.D. Ill.), which was based on claims of fraudulent misrepresentations concerning allegedly illegal sales techniques, predatory lending practices, and accounting manipulations. In December 2016, the Northern District of Illinois approved a final settlement fund of $1.58 billion, resulting in the seventh largest securities class action settlement in U.S. history. READ MORE

Dodd-Frank Re-Write—the House of Representatives Edition

The House has approved major changes to signature aspects of Dodd-Frank. While those changes are unlikely to survive intact, they are certainly worthy of close attention. We’ve studied the nearly 600-page bill so you don’t have to.

On June 8, 2017, the House passed H.R. 10, entitled the Financial CHOICE Act of 2017. Sponsored by Rep. Jen Hensarling (R-Texas), the bill advances to the Senate after a largely party-line vote, 233 to 186. All but one Republican supported the bill, while all Democrats opposed.

The bill extensively amends the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the landmark 2010 legislation passed by a Democrat-controlled Congress in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse and ensuing financial crisis.

Key changes include:

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Supreme Court Unanimously Limits the SEC’s Ability to Seek Disgorgement

This week, the United State Supreme Court finally resolved a circuit split and unanimously held that SEC actions seeking to disgorge ill-gotten gains are subject to a five-year statute of limitations on civil fines, penalties or forfeitures under 28 U.S.C. § 2462.  This decision is expected to dramatically reduce the SEC’s ability to collect disgorgement in enforcement actions.

The decision arose out of an SEC enforcement action brought in 2009 that alleged between 1995 and 2006, Charles Kokesh, a New Mexico-based investment adviser, misappropriated $35 million from two investment advisory companies he owned and controlled, thereby squandering the money of tens of thousands of small investors. Kokesh was ultimately found liable at trial and the trial court ordered him to disgorge the entire $35 million he was found to have misappropriated plus interest, and pay a civil monetary penalty.  Kokesh subsequently challenged the disgorgement order before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, arguing that the SEC’s claim for disgorgement was subject to the five year statute of limitations period codified in Section 2462, and therefore the $35 million disgorgement amount should be significantly reduced by eliminating any ill-gotten gains received prior to 2004—five years prior to the initiation of the SEC enforcement action.  A three judge circuit court panel of the Tenth Circuit unanimously disagreed, and upheld the disgorgement order on the basis that disgorgement is not a “penalty” or “forfeiture” as defined in Section 2462, but rather was “remedial” and “does not inflict punishment” because it leaves the wrongdoer “in the position he would have occupied had there been no misconduct.”  On this basis, the Tenth Circuit held that Section 2462’s limitations period was inapplicable to disgorgement. READ MORE

Government Leaks Lead to Landmark Insider Trading Case

On May 24, 2017, the SEC for the first time brought charges based on allegations of insider trading on confidential government information. The alleged insider trading scheme involved tips related to three announcements by the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) regarding non-public rate changing decisions affecting the stock of issuers in the healthcare industry.

The complaint alleges that from May 2012 to November 2013, Christopher Worrall, a health insurance specialist in the Center for Medicare (“CM”), the CMS component that administers Medicare’s national payment systems and determines Medicare reimbursement rates, tipped his long-time friend David Blaszczak about internal deliberations and planned actions of CMS.  Blaszczak is a consultant specializing in healthcare policy issues and a former CMS employee. READ MORE

The Potential Declawing of the SEC: The Financial CHOICE Act

Gavel and Hundred-Dollar Bill

The Financial CHOICE Act (or “CHOICE Act 2.0”), which would significantly narrow the SEC’s ability to bring enforcement actions and make it more challenging for it to prevail in such actions, is inching its way towards becoming law. On May 4, 2017, the Financial Services Committee passed the Act and it is now slated to be introduced to the House in the coming weeks. As part of the push by the current administration to deregulate, this bill aims to repeal key provisions of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, including those directed towards the SEC.  Although the Act has a long way to go before it is enacted, many of its provisions would have far-reaching consequences and would change the way the SEC operates as we know it.

Should the CHOICE Act 2.0 become law, the following are some of the more important effects it would have on the SEC’s enforcement abilities:

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From Greyball to Snowball: Uber’s Latest Travails, and How Multiple Investigations of Misconduct May Imperil the Attorney-Client Privilege

It emerged on May 5 that the Department of Justice opened an investigation into Uber’s use of software called “Greyball” that concealed the ride-sharing company’s operations from regulators in cities and countries that did not permit Uber’s services.  Since then, the Portland City Council has voted to subpoena documents concerning the program, and lawmakers in Philadelphia and Austin have said they are cooperating with DOJ investigation. Uber allegedly deployed Greyball not only in the United States (including in Boston, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas), but also in Australia, Paris, China, and South Korea.

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What to Watch for From the New SEC Chairman

Last Thursday, Jay Clayton was officially sworn in as the new Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.  As the new Chairman takes office, here are a few things we’re keeping an eye on:

Will Chairman Clayton take a position on the recently introduced bipartisan bill that would increase civil monetary penalties in SEC enforcement actions?  The “Stronger Enforcement of Civil Penalties Act of 2017” would significantly increase civil monetary penalties in enforcement actions to as much as $1 million per violation for individuals and $10 million per violation for entities, or three times the money gained in the violation or lost by the victims.  The current maximum civil monetary penalties are $181,071 and $905,353 per violation for individuals and entities, respectively.

Will the new Chairman preserve the directive reportedly issued by former Acting Chairman Michael Piwowar to re-centralize authority to issue formal orders of investigation?  In 2009, the SEC adopted a rule that delegated authority to issue formal orders initiating investigations to the Director of Enforcement, who then “sub-delegated” it to regional and associate directors and unit chiefs within the Enforcement Division.  In February, Piwowar reportedly revoked the “sub-delegated” authority, ordering it re-centralized exclusively with the Director of Enforcement.

Will enforcement actions against public companies increase or decrease after hitting their highest level since 2009 last year?  A recent report issued by the NYU Pollack Center for Law & Business and Cornerstone Research found that the 92 actions the SEC brought against public companies and their subsidiaries in 2016 is more than double the level of enforcement activity from just three years prior. READ MORE

Congress May Significantly Increase SEC Civil Penalties Up To $10 Million Per Violation

On March 30, 2017, a bipartisan group of Senators introduced a bill called “Stronger Enforcement of Civil Penalties Act of 2017” (the “SEC Penalties Act”) to “crack down on Wall Street fraud” that would significantly increase civil monetary penalties in SEC enforcement actions up to $1 million per violation for individuals and $10 million per violation for entities, or three times the money gained in the violation or lost by the victims.  Currently, the maximum civil monetary penalties in SEC enforcement actions are $181,071 per violation for individuals and $905,353 per violation for entities.[1]

The SEC Penalties Act raises the maximum penalties under all three penalty tiers, would tie penalties to the scope of harm and associated investor losses, triple the maximum penalty caps under each tier for recidivists who have been held criminally or civilly liable for securities fraud within the preceding five years, and provide the SEC with authority to seek disgorgement of ill-gotten gains in SEC administrative actions (currently disgorgement is only available in federal district court actions). The legislation would not alter the current three-tier penalty structure or the standards for establishing a penalty under each tier, and does not define how administrative law judges and federal district courts should interpret the “each act or omission” language in the penalty statutes.[2]

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