On June 9, 2016, the Securities and Exchange Commission (‘SEC”) awarded the second largest whistleblower bounty – $17 million – granted under the Dodd-Frank whistleblower rules to date. Previously, the highest whistleblower awards were a $30 million award in September 2014 and a $14 million award in October 2013. The $17 million award comes on the heels of $26 million in whistleblower awards given to five anonymous individuals over the last month alone. These awards serve as a warning to companies that the SEC takes its whistleblower program seriously and will continue to encourage and reward company insiders for coming forward with information that leads to successful enforcement actions. As Sean X. McKessy, Chief of the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower – a department created by the SEC to give whistleblowers a place to submit their tips – said, “[W]e hope these substantial awards encourage other individuals with knowledge of potential federal securities law violations to make the right choice to come forward and report the wrongdoing to the SEC.”
Danielle P. Van Wert
Danielle Van Wert, a senior associate in the Silicon Valley office, is a member of the Securities Litigation Group.
Ms. Van Wert's practice focuses on securities litigation and white collar criminal defense. She represents companies and individuals in securities-related regulatory investigations, including SEC and FINRA matters, and also represents special committees in internal investigations. In addition, Ms. Van Wert's practice focuses on shareholder derivative actions and actions brought under federal and state securities laws.
Her significant involvement in recent cases include the following.
- Representation of a former CFO of a technology company in action brought by the SEC alleging revenue recognition and accounting fraud.
- Representation of multiple board special committees in connection with internal investigations arising out of stock options issues.
- Representation of a former manager of a brokerage company in FINRA investigation.
Prior to joining the firm, Ms. Van Wert was an associate at DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary.
On April 13, 2016, the SEC published a concept release discussing and seeking public comment on modernizing certain business and financial disclosures required by Regulation S-K, which lays out reporting requirements for various public company SEC filings. The release focuses on whether the disclosure requirements – many of which have seen little change in decades – continue to elicit the information that investors need for investment and voting decisions, and whether any of the relevant rules have become outdated or unnecessary. It also seeks input on how registrants can most effectively present material information, including how the Commission can assist with improving the readability and navigability of SEC filings. As SEC Chair Mary Jo White explained in an April 13, 2016 statement regarding the release, “[w]e want to make sure that [the Commission’s disclosure] rules are facilitating both timely, material disclosure by companies and shareholders’ access to that information. And we want to make sure that our requirements are as efficient as they can be.”
On March 4, 2016, the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of two related securities actions against Sanofi Pharmaceuticals, its predecessor Genzyme Corporation, and three company executives (collectively, “Sanofi”). In doing so, the Second Circuit offered its first substantial interpretation of the Supreme Court’s March 2015 decision in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers District Council Construction Industry Pension Fund, 135 S. Ct. 1318 (2015), which addresses how plaintiffs can allege securities claims based on statements of opinion.
On January 11, 2016, the SEC announced its Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) priorities for the year . The announcement included several new areas of focus, including liquidity controls, public pension advisers, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), product promotion, and variable annuities. Hedge fund and mutual fund managers, private equity firms, and broker-dealers – in particular those that deal with retirement investments – would be wise to take note of these new areas of interest. As in past years, enforcement actions in these areas are likely to follow.
On July 1, 2015, the United States for the District of Columbia sued the estate and trusts of the late Layton P. Stuart – the former owner of One Financial Corporation and its subsidiary One Bank & Trust– and the trust’s beneficiaries, for alleged fraud on the Treasury Department and its Troubled Asset Relief Program (“TARP”). This civil suit is the latest in a growing list of cases brought by the government to recover TARP funds that it alleges were fraudulently procured.
Even with the SEC’s home-court advantage in bringing enforcement actions in its administrative court rather than in federal court, the SEC will still criticize its own administrative law judges (“ALJ”) when an ALJ’s decision falls short of established legal standards. On April 23, 2015, the SEC found that an ALJ’s decision to bar Gary L. McDuff from associating with a broker, dealer, investment adviser, municipal securities dealer, municipal adviser, transfer agent or nationally recognized statistical rating organization was insufficient because it lacked enough evidence to establish a statutory requirement to support a sanctions analysis. The SEC then remanded the matter to the same ALJ – no doubt in an effort to encourage him to revise his initial opinion.
The fall-out from the Second Circuit’s decision in U.S. v. Newman continued last week in SEC v. Payton, when Southern District of New York Judge Jed S. Rakoff denied a motion to dismiss an SEC civil enforcement action against two former brokers, Daryl Payton and Benjamin Durant, one of whom (Payton) had just had his criminal plea for the same conduct reversed in light of Newman. Although the United States may be unable to make criminal charges stick against some alleged insider traders under a standard of “willfulness,” Judge Rakoff found that the SEC had sufficiently alleged that related conduct of the two brokers at the end of the tip line was “reckless,” satisfying the SEC’s lower civil standard.
In an amicus brief filed earlier this month in Berman v. Neo@Ogilvy LCC, the SEC asked the Second Circuit to defer to the Commission and hold that individuals who report misconduct internally are covered by the anti-retaliation protections of the Dodd-Frank Act of 2002, regardless of whether they report the information to the SEC.
A federal court’s recent dismissal of Securities Exchange Act claims against the auditor of a Chinese company prompted us to examine the state of recent U.S. civil securities litigation against accounting firms that audited China-based companies that were listed on US exchanges.
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.)