Tweet, Tweet: The SEC Gets Social

The SEC recently issued an investor alert to warn investors about potential fraudulent investment schemes involving popular social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, turning its eye towards investor fraud perpetuated via social media. The alert, issued by the SEC’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy, provides five tips to help consumers recognize and avoid investment fraud, easily made anonymous online, using social media websites and services: (1) be wary of unsolicited offers to invest; (2) look for “red flags,” e.g., offers that sound too good to be true or that “guarantee” returns; (3) look for “affinity frauds,” which are “investment scams that prey upon members of identifiable groups, such as religious or ethnic communities, the elderly or professional groups;” (4) be thoughtful about privacy and security settings; and (5) ask questions and investigate investment opportunities thoroughly. The alert also describes common investment scams that have used social media and the internet to gain traction, including “Pump-and-dump” schemes, fraudulent “research opinions” or “investment newsletters,” high-yield investment programs, and offerings that just fail to comply with applicable registration provisions of the federal securities laws.

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Keep Your Unreasonable Opinions to Yourselves: The Supreme Court Hears Argument in Omnicare

On November 3, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court held oral argument in Omnicare v. Laborers District Council Construction Industry Pension Fund. As discussed in earlier posts, from March 18, 2014 and July 22, 2014, the Supreme Court in Omnicare has been asked to resolve a circuit split regarding the scope of liability under Section 11 of the Securities Act: does an issuer violate Section 11 if it makes a statement of opinion that is objectively false, or must the issuer also have known that the statement was false when made?

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When the Whistle Blows, What Follows?

Real estate investment trust American Realty Capital Properties (“ARCP”) recently announced the preliminary findings of an Audit Committee investigation into accounting irregularities and the resulting resignation of its Chief Financial Officer and Chief Accounting Officer. The events surrounding ARCP are a case study of how, within a matter of weeks, an internal report of concerns to the Audit Committee can lead to both internal and external scrutiny: an internal investigation and review of financial reporting controls and procedures, on the one hand; media coverage, securities fraud litigation, and an inquiry by the Securities Exchange Commission, on the other.

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There’s No Place Like Home: The Constitutionality of the SEC’s In-House Courts

Until recently, it was extremely rare for the SEC to bring enforcement actions against unregulated entities or persons in its administrative court rather than in federal court. However, as a result of the Dodd-Frank Act (and perhaps the SEC’s lackluster record in federal court trials over the past few years), the SEC is committed to bringing, and has in fact brought, more administrative proceedings against individuals that previously would be filed in federal court. Many have questioned the constitutionality of these administrative proceedings. As U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff remarked in August 2014: “[o]ne might wonder: From where does the constitutional warrant for such unchecked and unbalanced administrative power derive?” Several recent SEC targets agree with Judge Rakoff, and have filed federal court suits challenging the constitutionality of the SEC’s administrative proceedings. (Notably, in a 2011 order regarding the SEC’s first attempt to use its expanded Dodd-Frank powers to bring more administrative cases, Judge Rakoff denied a motion to dismiss a constitutional challenge to the SEC’s decision to bring an administrative proceeding in an insider trading case against an unregulated person, following which the SEC terminated that proceeding and litigated in federal court.)

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Circuits Split on When to Impute Employees’ Knowledge to Corporation for Section 10(b) Claims

One of the most significant challenges facing plaintiffs in pleading a violation of Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 is sufficiently alleging that the defendant company possessed scienter, or an “intent to deceive.”  Because a corporation can only act through its employees, the challenge is to determine which employees’ alleged state of mind should be imputed to the company.

On October 10, 2014, the Sixth Circuit considered that question in In re Omnicare Sec. Litig., No. 13-5597, 2014 WL 5066826 (6th Cir. Oct. 10, 2014).  Omnicare involved a Section 10(b) shareholder class action against Omnicare, Inc., a pharmaceutical manufacturer, alleging that Omnicare’s financial statements and other public disclosures contained misstatements regarding the company’s compliance with Medicare and Medicaid regulations.  In particular, plaintiffs alleged that although Omnicare’s internal audit group discovered that certain company facilities had submitted false reimbursement claims, Omnicare failed to disclose the fraud and, in publicly-filed documents signed by the CEO and CFO, asserted that Omnicare’s “billing practices materially comply with applicable state and federal requirements.” Read More

For Now, The Broad Interpretation of “Foreign Officials” Under the FCPA Is Here to Stay

In recent years, the DOJ and SEC have significantly increased their Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement efforts, and in the process, have successfully advocated the theory that state-owned or state-controlled entities should qualify as instrumentalities of a foreign government under the FCPA. The FCPA defines a foreign official as “any officer or employee of a foreign government or any department, agency or instrumentality thereof.” In August 2014, the government’s broad definition of who constitutes a “foreign official” came into question for the first time when two individuals (Joel Esquenazi and Carlos Rodriguez) filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court to challenge their convictions under the FCPA and argued for the high court to limit the FCPA’s definition of the term. However, on October 6, 2014, the Supreme Court declined to consider the potential landmark case effectively upholding the government’s broad view of the term “foreign official.” Read More

Rural/Metro II: Additional Lessons for Financial Advisors, Directors and Counsel in M&A Transactions And Related Litigation

On October 10, 2014, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued a decision awarding nearly $76 million in damages against a seller’s financial advisor. In an earlier March 7, 2014 opinion in the case, In re Rural/Metro Corp. Stockholders Litigation, Vice Chancellor Laster found RBC Capital Markets, LLC liable for aiding and abetting the board’s breach of fiduciary duty in connection with Rural’s 2011 sale to private equity firm Warburg Pincus for $17.25 a share, a premium of 37% over the pre-announcement market price. The recent decision reinforces lessons from the March 7 decision and provides new guidance for directors and their advisors in M&A transactions and related litigation.

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Are Bank Branches in New York the Gateway to Seizure of Foreign Assets: The New York Court of Appeals Reconsiders the Separate Entity Rule

On September 16, 2014, the New York Court of Appeals heard oral argument on a certified question from the Second Circuit in Motorola Credit Corp. v. Standard Chartered Bank, an important case concerning the application of New York’s “separate entity rule” to foreign banks that maintain a branch in New York.

When someone obtains a judgment in New York, he may enforce that judgment by serving a restraining notice on a bank that holds the judgment debtor’s assets. Once the bank receives that notice, it may not distribute the funds to any person other than the sheriff. The judgment creditor may also sue for a court order requiring the bank to turn over the judgment debtors’ assets. Read More

Oklahoma Takes a Stand a Stand in the Battle Over Derivative Fee-Shifting

Back in May we discussed ATP Tour, Inc. v. Deutscher Tennis Bund a seminal Delaware Supreme Court case that upheld a non-stock corporation’s “loser pays” fee-shifting bylaw.  ATP Tour held that where a Delaware corporation adopts a fee-shifting bylaw, it can recover its fees and costs from any shareholder that brings a derivative lawsuit and loses.  Many commentators have suggested the case would effectively kill derivative actions in Delaware and indeed, since the time of that decision, the Delaware Corporation Law Council has proposed amendments to the Delaware General Corporation Law that would limit its applicability to only non-stock corporations.

Last week the Oklahoma State Legislature went a step further than ATP Tour and amended the Oklahoma General Corporation Act to specifically require fee-shifting for all derivative lawsuits brought in the state, whether against an Oklahoma corporation or not.  Unlike the fee provision in ATP Tour, however, the law also affords derivative plaintiffs the right to recover their fees and costs should they win final judgment.

The difference is likely substantial.  For while the law will potentially chill unmeritorious derivative actions, also known as “strike suits,” it could also provide an incentive for derivative plaintiffs with strong claims.  Where shareholders use the “tools at hand”—including books and records inspection requests—to carefully vet their claims before filing, the promise of a fee recovery could encourage shareholder plaintiffs to bring claims they otherwise might not.

Consider:  in the typical derivative lawsuit, the shareholder plaintiff stands to gain nothing tangible if he or she wins.  Because he or she is suing on behalf of the corporation, any recovery will inure to the corporation itself.   Thus, under the old regime, even if a derivative lawsuit was successful, the plaintiff would receive, at most, any resulting increase in the value of his or her company stock.  Under the new statute, that same plaintiff could stand to receive the not-insubstantial costs of his or her efforts.