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.
Posts by: James Grohsgal
Last week, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission filed a petition for rehearing en banc with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, imploring the court to reconsider a divided panel’s ruling on the unconstitutionality of its administrative law judges in Bandimere v. SEC. In that ruling (detailed here), the Tenth Circuit overturned the Commission’s sanctions against Mr. Bandimere because the SEC administrative law judge (“ALJ”) presiding over Mr. Bandimere’s case was an inferior officer who should have been constitutionally appointed (rather than hired) to the position, in violation of the Appointments Clause of the United States Constitution.
Primarily relying on its prior submissions and Judge Monroe G. McKay’s dissent in the panel’s original ruling, the SEC argues that the original decision reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of ALJs and Supreme Court precedent, and risks throwing essential features of the agency into disarray. In particular, the SEC questioned the majority’s opinion that Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U.S. 868 (1991), was dispositive in equating special trial judges of tax court to the ALJs to find that the ALJs are inferior officers who must be constitutionally appointed. The SEC distinguishes the roles of its ALJs from those of the special tax court trial judges by noting differences in their power and function. First, the special trial judges are vested with authority, including the power to enforce compliance with their orders, that is different in degree and kind from the powers given to ALJs. For example, both the special trial judges and ALJs have the power to issue subpoenas, but unlike the special trial judges, ALJs have no authority to enforce subpoenas. ALJs can only request the Commission to seek enforcement of the subpoenas in district court. In addition, unlike the special trial judges, ALJs cannot use contempt power—a hallmark of a court—to enforce any order it may issue. Second, the function between the special trial judges and ALJs differ because the Tax Court in Freytag was required to defer to the special trial judge’s factual finding unless “clearly erroneous, whereas the SEC decides all questions of fact and law de novo.
A divided panel of the Seventh Circuit recently held that the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act (“SLUSA”) requires any covered class action that “could have been pursued under federal securities law” to be brought in federal court. The plaintiff maintained an investment account at LaSalle Bank, which was later acquired by Bank of America. Each night, LaSalle invested (“swept”) the account’s balance into a mutual fund approved by the plaintiff. Without the plaintiff’s knowledge, LaSalle also allegedly pocketed the fees that some of the mutual funds paid each time a balance was transferred. When the plaintiff found out, he brought a class action in state court, arguing that LaSalle had breached its contractual and fiduciary duties to its customers by secretly paying itself fees generated by their accounts.
LaSalle and Bank of America successfully argued before the district court that SLUSA required removal of the case to federal court. SLUSA authorizes defendants to demand removal of any class action with at least fifty members that alleges “a misrepresentation or omission of a material fact in connection with the purchase or sale of a covered security.” Congress drafted SLUSA to force securities class actions out of state courts and into federal courts, where plaintiffs must clear higher pleading hurdles.
The SEC last week announced that it has sanctioned several market participants in the penny stock industry, including attorneys who wrote offering documents as well as stock transfer agents, for their roles in various sham IPOs of microcap stocks. These are the latest in a string of penny stock enforcement actions since outgoing SEC Chair Mary Jo White announced the implementation of the Commission’s “broken windows” policy in 2013. That policy targeted both large and small issuers and market participants. The strategy has resulted in the SEC racking up its largest-ever volume of enforcement cases in fiscal year 2016.
In the first enforcement actions, the SEC alleged that a California-based securities lawyer wrote false and misleading registration statements in connection with five microcap IPOs, which were part of a scheme to transfer unrestricted shares to offshore market participants. The SEC also alleged that the CFO of American Energy Development Corp. (AEDC), one of the issuers in question, and the attorney who wrote opinion letters for the offerings made false and misleading statements. The market participants were barred from any further penny stock activity, and the attorneys were permanently suspended from appearing and practicing before the SEC. The SEC also suspended trading in shares of ADEC.
Earlier this month, the SEC (the “Agency”) announced that it initiated a record-breaking 868 enforcement actions in fiscal year 2016. This figure – along with other milestones – reflect the Agency’s commitment to expanding the scope and reach of its enforcement programs to pursue an array of federal securities law violations.
An important issue for companies and their executives that are the subject of an investigation by the federal government is whether, and how early, to cooperate.
On September 27, 2016, Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Bill Baer delivered remarks at the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics Conference, where he laid out in some detail his views on the value of early cooperation with the federal government in financial cases, and the consequences for waiting. As the number 3 attorney in the Department of Justice who is charged with overseeing civil litigation, antitrust, and other large divisions, Baer’s words are significant, and are a further gloss on the so-called “Yates Memo”, which Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates released last September, detailing DOJ’s guidance on individual accountability for corporate wrongdoing.
Speaking specifically about cases against banks and the fallout from protracted litigation involving residential mortgage-backed securities, Baer said those cases could have been resolved more quickly if only the financial institutions “had decided early to cooperate.” Consequently, “each [institution] paid a lot more than it would have if it had cooperated early on.” Recalling that many of these same institutions had nonetheless sought “significant cooperation credit,” Baer stated that DOJ “dismissed the arguments quickly because they so lacked merit.”
So how early is early enough, and how can your company get credit for cooperating? Baer elaborated on recent “internal” guidance he has provided to his attorneys in civil enforcement matters.
In a 2-1 decision, the Seventh Circuit has joined the Delaware Court of Chancery’s call for enhanced scrutiny of “disclosure-only” M&A settlements that involve no monetary benefits to shareholders. As previously discussed here, M&A litigation, typically alleging breach of fiduciary duty by directors and insufficient disclosures, often ends in settlement, with defendants agreeing to provide supplemental disclosures in exchange for broad releases of claims, while plaintiffs’ counsel “earns” large attorneys’ fees for providing the class with the “benefit” of the agreed-upon disclosures. In In re Walgreen Company Stockholder Litigation (“In re Walgreen Co.”), the Seventh Circuit rejected such a settlement, endorsing the standard for approval of disclosure-only settlements articulated by the Delaware Court of Chancery in In re Trulia, Inc. Shareholder Litigation (“In re Trulia”). In In re Trulia, the Court of Chancery held that disclosure-only settlements in M&A litigation will meet with disfavor unless they involve supplemental disclosures that address a “plainly material misrepresentation or omission” and any proposed release of claims accompanying the settlement encompasses only disclosure claims and/or fiduciary duty claims regarding the sale process.
On May 3, 2016, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority announced that MetLife Securities, Inc. agreed to pay $25 million to settle allegations that the company misled its customers in tens of thousands of variable annuity replacement applications. The sanction represents FINRA’s largest fine related to variable annuities.
Variable annuities (“VAs”) are highly complex and highly regulated insurance contracts that guarantee their holders—typically retirees—a minimum payment at the end of an accumulation stage. When a consumer seeks to replace one VA for another, her broker must complete an Annuity Replacement and Transfer Disclosure (ARTD) setting forth the comparative cost and guarantee information about existing and proposed annuity contracts. In New York, brokers must also complete a “Regulation 60 Disclosure,” which contains a hypothetical illustration of death benefits and surrender values for existing and proposed contracts under various hypothetical market growth rates.
In a recent address, SEC Chair Mary Jo White stated that the SEC had focused its reinvigorated investigation and enforcement efforts on holding preparers and auditors accountable for their work on financial statements. She alerted the 2015 American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (“AICPA”) National Conference to the weighty responsibilities and challenges faced by auditors and preparers, as well as audit committee members, standard setters and regulators, when endeavoring to ensure high-quality, reliable financial reporting.
On Tuesday, Andrew Ceresney, Director of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Division of Enforcement, told the House Judiciary Committee that the Email Privacy Act (H.R. 699) and the Electronic Communications Privacy Amendments Act (S. 356) should not be amended to require prosecutors and civil enforcement agencies to obtain criminal warrants when requesting emails and other electronic data directly from internet service providers (“ISPs”), which include cloud-based storage services. READ MORE