For the first time in the nearly five years since Dodd-Frank went into effect, the SEC last week took action against a company over concerns that the company was preventing its employees from potentially blowing the whistle on illegal activity. The action is significant because the SEC was targeting seemingly innocuous language in a confidentiality agreement and there were no allegations that the company, KBR, Inc., was otherwise breaking the law.
David Keenan is a managing associate in Orrick’s Seattle office. David’s practice focuses on securities and other complex commercial litigation as well as internal investigations, and he has represented clients in Washington’s superior, appellate and supreme courts, as well as in numerous federal courts, and has argued and won a case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Mr. Keenan was the recipient of the 2011 Washington State Bar Association Outstanding Young Lawyer Award and the 2013 Seattle University School of Law Recent Graduate Award. He graduated from Seattle University School of Law, and he was associate editor of the Seattle University Law Review. He received the Dean’s Medal as the top all-around student in his graduating class, an honor he achieved while working full-time and attending law school at night.
Prior to joining Orrick, Mr. Keenan served as a senior special agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security where he was assigned to the Financial and Trade Investigations Division, investigating money laundering, terrorist finance, bulk currency smuggling and bank, wire and identity fraud. He served as Homeland Security representative to the Western Washington banking community regarding bank secrecy and anti-money laundering issues.
Mr. Keenan was also a member of the Financial Intelligence Review Team under the direction of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle, and has presented on a panel on bank secrecy and suspicious activity reports at the National Advocacy Center. He also worked as a special agent for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the U.S. Department of Justice, where he investigated drug smuggling, human trafficking and fraud.
Outside of work, Mr. Keenan is very involved in service to the legal and non-profit communities, serving on six boards and commissions and several committees with a particular focus on at-risk youth and access to justice issues. In addition, Mr. Keenan devotes hundreds of hours each year to pro bono work, including in U.S. District Court and before the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
On September 10, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (“OCC”) published proposed revisions to its information collecting regulations related to the Dodd-Frank Act’s “stress test” for large national banks and federal savings associations.
Section 165(i)(2) of the Act requires certain financial institutions, including national banks and federal savings associations that have at least $10 billion in total consolidated assets (“covered institutions”), to conduct annual “stress tests” and report the findings to the Federal Reserve System and the institution’s primary governing regulatory agency. In July, the Fed proposed changes to its stress test rules, including revisions to almost twenty schedules that must be completed by covered institutions with over $50 billion in total consolidated assets, and changes to the institutions’ filing deadlines. The OCC’s proposed revisions would bring its reporting requirements in line with the Fed’s proposed requirements. Read More
Corporations facing federal securities suits can sometimes avoid liability by claiming that their forward-looking statements were so vague or indefinite that they could not have affected the company’s stock price and are therefore not material. Such statements are not actionable because courts consider them “puffing,” famously described by Judge Learned Hand nearly 100 years ago as “talk which no sensible man takes seriously.” Though we cannot know today what Judge Hand would think of the civil complaint recently filed by the SEC against several marijuana-company stock promoters, it’s safe to say that this isn’t the kind of ‘puffing’ he had in mind.
The defendants in the SEC civil action are all stock promoters, most of whom operate websites where they promote stocks, including microcap or so-called “penny” stocks. The SEC alleges that the defendants promoted shares in microcap companies related to the marijuana industry. For example, one of the companies, Hemp Inc., claims to be involved with medical marijuana. According to the SEC, three of the defendants bought and sold more than 40 million shares in Hemp Inc. in order to give the appearance that there was an active market in the company’s stock. In reality, the transactions allegedly consisted of wash trades and matched orders. A wash trade occurs when a security is traded between accounts, but with no actual change in beneficial ownership, while a matched order entails coordinating buy and sell orders to create the appearance of trading activity. As the defendants were allegedly generating trading activity, they were also allegedly promoting the stock on the Internet, touting “a REAL Possible Gain of OVER 2900%” in Hemp Inc. stock. Wow, that is high.
In a virtual course on how to bring—or not bring—an M&A strike suit, on June 30, a Delaware Chancery Court dismissed all shareholder claims against a merger target and its acquirer, ending nearly two years of litigation. Though the allegations are familiar in the strike-suit context, the 45-page opinion which this ~$100 million merger yielded is notable for its methodical tour of Delaware fiduciary-duty law, 102(b)(7) exculpatory provisions, and so-called Revlon duties. The roadmap opinion should be required reading for directors considering a merger.
Defendants Ramtron International and Cypress Semiconductor both work in the technology industry and the two began their courtship in 2011. Though shareholder-plaintiff Paul Dent couldn’t prevent the 2012 Ramtron-Cypress marriage, he continued to hold out for a better dowry, naming Ramtron’s board and Cypress in a suit alleging that Cypress aided and abetted Ramtron’s board in breaching its duty to shareholders, and seeking quasi-appraisal of his shares. Vice Chancellor Parsons disposed of these claims, taking the time to explain in unusual detail why the allegations utterly failed. Read More
Today the Supreme Court rejected calls from lawyers, economists and corporate associations to overrule the “fraud-on-the-market” theory that makes it possible to litigate federal securities fraud claims as class actions, instead handing defendants a modest procedural victory. In Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., the Court declined to overrule a decision that for more than twenty-five years has been used by securities plaintiffs to certify thousands of federal class actions, but also recognized that defendants can rebut class certification by showing that allegedly misleading statements did not affect the price of a company’s securities. Halliburton kills what had been a growing movement to eliminate federal securities fraud class actions for all intents and purposes.
Plaintiff-respondent Erica P. John Fund, Inc. (the “Fund”) purchased stock in Halliburton and lost money when Halliburton’s stock price dropped upon the release of certain negative news regarding the company. The Fund filed suit against Halliburton and its CEO David Lesar (collectively, “Halliburton”), alleging that Halliburton had made knowing or severely reckless misrepresentations concerning those topics, in violation of Sections 10(b) and 20(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and SEC Rule 10b-5. Read More
Summer is coming, but this is probably not the vacation Southern District of New York Judge Jed Rakoff had in mind. On June 4, 2014, the Second Circuit vacated Judge Rakoff’s order refusing to approve the SEC’s $285 million settlement with Citigroup regarding a 2007 collateralized debt obligation (“CDO”) offering. The highly anticipated opinion – the decision did not come down until more than a year after oral argument – sharply limits the instances in which a court may reject or even modify a Commission settlement, even when the SEC does not extract an admission of facts or liability. The decision, which comes at a time when the SEC has been seeking and obtaining more admissions from public companies in connection with settlements, is sure to have a significant impact on the agency’s future approach toward settlements and admissions.
Though the facts of the underlying case are almost a footnote at this point, the SEC had alleged that in 2007, Citigroup negligently represented its role and economic interest in structuring a fund made up of tranches of CDOs. As with similar allegations against Goldman Sachs and its ABACUS CDO, the SEC alleged that Citigroup hand-picked many of the mortgage-related assets in the fund while telling investors that the assets were selected by an independent advisor. The SEC further alleged that Citigroup chose mortgage-backed assets that it projected would decline in value and in which it had taken short positions. Thus, according to the SEC, Citigroup sold investors assets on the hope the CDOs would increase in value, while Citigroup had selected and bet against these same assets on the belief they would actually decrease in value. The SEC alleged that Citigroup was able to reap a substantial profit from shorting the assets it selected for the fund, while fund investors lost millions.
In a story right out of the movies, complete with “poison pills” and “white squires,” the SEC announced on March 13, 2014 that motion picture company Lions Gate Entertainment Corporation settled charges that it failed to disclose to investors a set of “extraordinary” corporate transactions designed to thwart takeover efforts by investor Carl Icahn.
The tale of intrigue and midnight board meetings can be traced to Icahn’s efforts, beginning in 2008, to acquire control of Lions Gate. Despite his eventually gaining beneficial ownership of nearly 40 percent of Lions Gate’s outstanding shares, the company rejected various demands from Icahn over the years, including a demand to appoint five of the twelve seats on the Board of Directors. In March, 2010, Icahn made a tender offer with a premium over the market price to entice shareholders to sell. To thwart Icahn’s tender offer, Lions Gate adopted a poison pill and began to look for ways to keep the company out of Icahn’s hands. Read More
Though investors might have assumed that the entire Securities and Exchange Commission was their advocate to begin with, on February 12th the agency announced that it had hired Rick Fleming to be its very first Investor Advocate in the recently created Office of the Investor Advocate (“OIA”).
In hiring Fleming, the SEC is implementing Title IX of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which amended the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 by creating, among other things, an Investor Advisory Committee, the OIA, and an ombudsman to be appointed by the Investor Advocate. Fleming comes to the SEC from his most recent job as Deputy General Counsel at the North American Securities Administrators Association where he advocated for state securities regulators in matters before Congress and the SEC. Fleming previously spent several years in Kansas state government, including some fifteen years in the state’s Office of the Securities Commissioner. Read More
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
Some of the SEC’s enforcement targets are no longer in denial, or at least they won’t be if a recent policy shift at the regulator takes hold. In a widely-reported letter on June 17, 2013 and then again in public remarks the next day, SEC Chairperson Mary Jo White indicated that the Commission would step up efforts to secure actual admissions of guilt in some cases rather than relying on the far more typical no-admit/no-deny settlements which have the advantage of avoiding litigation but which have also left some judges, politicians, and the public flat.
The purported change comes at a time when the SEC is facing criticism from a number of circles for settling high-profile cases. Among the loudest critics of the SEC’s settlement policy has been U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, who in November 2011 would not approve a $285 million settlement between the SEC and Citigroup in which Citigroup did not admit liability. As Judge Rakoff explained: “Here, the S.E.C.’s long-standing policy—hallowed by history, but not by reason—of allowing defendants to enter into Consent Judgments without admitting or denying the underlying allegations, deprives the Court of even the most minimal assurance that the substantive injunctive relief it is being asked to impose has any basis in fact.”
Apparently, the SEC was listening to Judge Rakoff and others, but the consequences of this policy shift are unclear. For example, in her public remarks, Ms. White explained that “public accountability” cases were “quite important”—“and if you don’t get them, you litigate them.” Ms. White elaborated, adding that, “to some degree it turns on how much harm has been done to investors, [and] how egregious the fraud is.” As to any specific criteria the SEC would apply in seeking admissions of guilt, the regulator explained that such admissions might be appropriate in instances to safeguard against risks posed by the defendant to the investing public or where the defendant obstructed the SEC’s investigative process. In addition, two recent nominees to the SEC, Kara M. Stein and Michael Piwowar, stated during their confirmation hearings that they supported the policy shift. Read More