On July 16, 2014, a three-judge Second Circuit panel affirmed the dismissal of a securities class action against Deutsche Bank AG and several underwriters. The case was brought on behalf of investors who purchased approximately $5.5 billion in preferred Deutsche Bank shares in 2007, and who alleged that defendants misled them about the bank’s exposure to mortgage-backed securities and other risks in a registration statement filed in October of 2006. Plaintiffs alleged that the registration statement omitted details about Deutsche Bank’s business, including that the company failed to properly record provisions for RMBS, commercial real estate loans and exposure to monoline insurers.
The SEC suffered a blow very recently when Judge James Lawrence King of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida entered summary judgment dismissing the entirety of its alleged Ponzi scheme case on statute of limitations grounds. SEC v. Graham, 2014 WL 1891418 (S.D. Fla. May 12, 2014). The court’s order is a significant application of last year’s Supreme Court decision in Gabelli v. SEC, 133 S. Ct. 1216 (2013), in that (i) it applies the applicable statute of limitations to sanctions that have usually been considered equitable, rather than punitive, in nature; and (ii) it holds that the applicable statute of limitations is a jurisdictional threshold on which the SEC bears the burden, not an affirmative defense on which the defendant bears the burden.
In Graham, the SEC alleged that five defendants defrauded nearly 1,400 investors of more than $300 million by marketing unregistered securities as real estate investments and guaranteeing an immediate 15% profit and future rental revenue on certain resort properties. According to the SEC, the defendants were using the new deposits to pay earlier investors in a classic Ponzi-scheme. After the defendants abandoned their efforts with the collapse of the real estate and credit markets in 2007, the SEC embarked on a seven-year investigation, and ultimately brought suit in January of 2013. The SEC alleged five counts of violations of federal securities laws, and sought not only civil penalties but also injunctive relief and disgorgement of all ill-gotten gains. The defendants moved for summary judgment on the ground that the five-year statute of limitations under 28 U.S.C. § 2462 time-barred all of the SEC’s claims. Section 2462 states, “Except as otherwise provided by Act of Congress, an action, suit or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture, pecuniary or otherwise, shall not be entertained unless commenced within five years from the date when the claim first accrued ….”
On February 26, 2014, the U. S. Supreme Court (“the Court”) held that the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act of 1998 (“SLUSA”) did not preclude Stanford Ponzi scheme plaintiffs’ state-law class action claims because the claims did not involve covered securities. The 7-2 majority opinion in Chadbourne & Parke, LLC v. Troice was written by Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Kagan, Sotomayor, Ginsburg, Scalia and Chief Justice Roberts. Justice Thomas concurred, and Justices Kennedy and Alito dissented.
The Court’s decision is significant because it resolves a long-standing circuit split over the interpretation of the “in connection with” requirement in SLUSA. As a result of the decision, plaintiffs may increasingly bring state law claims based on investment vehicles that are not covered securities themselves but whose performance implicates or is backed by covered securities. Investment managers and entities that market such investments, as well as lawyers and accountants, may face an increased risk of liability as a result of this decision. 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
Judge Carter issued his final order on July 16, 2013, following our blog post. The final order is substantively the same as the tentative order, and denies S&P’s motion to dismiss the case for the same reasons previously set forth. Judge Carter added a note rejecting Defendants’ argument at the hearing on July 8, 2013 that no reasonable investor or issuer bank could have relied on S&P’s claims of independence and objectivity, because this would beg the question of whether S&P truly believed that S&P’s rating service added zero material value as a predictor of creditworthiness. Judge Carter’s finding that an issuer bank could be a victim that was misled by S&P’s fraudulent ratings of its own mortgage-backed security products is an interesting development, and one that may open new doors to mortgage-backed securities litigation under FIRREA.
We first blogged about the obscure Financial Institutions Reform Recovery Enforcement Act (“FIRREA”) on May 14. As we explained, this statute provides a generous ten-year statute of limitations and a low burden of proof. Just as we predicted, the FIRREA story is beginning to heat up.
The most recent FIRREA litigation involves claims brought under this statute against ratings agency giant Standard & Poor’s. The DOJ sued S&P for $5 billion, accusing it of knowingly issuing ratings that didn’t accurately reflect mortgage-backed securities’ credit risk. S&P’s practices of issuing credit ratings to banks that paid for those services led to an inherent conflict of interest. To reassure banks and investors that its ratings were accurate, S&P issued a “Code of Conduct,” containing promises that it had established policies and procedures to address these conflicts of interest. The DOJ alleged that the “Code of Conduct” statements were false and material to investors.
On July 8, Judge David O. Carter of the Central District of California tentatively denied S&P’s motion to dismiss the case. In his tentative order, Judge Carter explained why S&P’s three arguments for dismissal were unpersuasive. First, he found that the allegedly fraudulent statements regarding the credibility of S&P’s ratings were not “mere puffery” because they were filled with “shalls” and “must nots” that went beyond mere aspirational language. Read More
In the latest development in an SEC lawsuit filed Friday, February 15, U.S. District Judge Rakoff extended a freeze on a Swiss Goldman Sachs account linked to possible insider trading in H.J. Heinz Company call options. The complaint alleges that these options were bought for $90,000 the day before the ketchup maker agreed to be bought by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. and Brazilian investment firm 3G Capital, giving the mystery investors $1.7 million in profits. The SEC said that the timing and size of the trades were suspicious because the account had had no history of trading Heinz stock over the last six months.
On Friday, February 15, Rakoff approved an emergency court order to freeze the assets in a Swiss trading account, which would prevent the investors from taking the profits out of the account until they showed up in court to “unfreeze” them. At a hearing the following week, none of the investors showed up. Rakoff relished: “They can hide, but their assets can’t run.” Read More
Courts have been making slow but steady progress in testing the limits of the 2010 Supreme Court case Morrison v. Nat’l Australian Bank Ltd., 130 S.Ct. 2869 (2010). In Morrison, the Court held the federal securities laws apply only to purchases or sales made “in connection with the purchase or sale of a security listed on an American stock exchange, and the purchase or sale of any other security in the United States.” Id. at 2888. The Second Circuit has held that the “purchase and sale” of a security occurs when “irrevocable liability” occurs and the parties are bound to the transaction. Absolute Activist Value Master Fund v. Ficeto, 677 F.3d 60 (2d Cir. 2012) Read More