On July 17, 2015, the SEC announced a whistleblower award of over $3 million to a company insider who provided information that “helped the SEC crack a complex fraud.” This payout represents the third highest award under the SEC’s whistleblower program to date. The SEC has made two of the three highest payments to clients of the same law firm – Phillips & Cohen LLP. (The SEC paid roughly $14 million to a whistleblower in October 2013, and nearly $30 million to a foreign whistleblower represented by Phillips & Cohen in September 2014.). This latest multi-million dollar payout suggests that the SEC’s whistleblower program is in full swing, and that legal representation of whistleblowers may be on the rise.
Jennifer Nejad is a managing associate in the San Francisco office and a member of the Securities Litigation, Investigations and Enforcement Group.
Ms. Nejad began her career as a summer associate in Orrick’s San Francisco and Paris offices in 2008.
Last week, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced an award payout of between $475,000 and $575,000 to a former company officer who reported information about an alleged securities fraud. While this is by no means the largest of the 15 payouts the SEC has made since the inception of the whistleblower program in fiscal year 2012 (the SEC awarded approximately $14 million to a whistleblower in October 2013, and roughly $30 million to a foreign whistleblower almost a year later), it is the first time that the SEC provided a whistleblower bounty award under the new program to an officer who learned about the alleged fraud through another employee, rather than firsthand.
As we have previously reported, practitioners and judges alike have recently been questioning the SEC’s increased use of administrative proceedings. Defense lawyers complain that administrative proceedings, which have historically been a rarely used enforcement tool, are stacked against respondents. Recently, Judge Rakoff of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York publicly discussed the “dangers” that “lurk in the SEC’s apparent new policy.” Director of Enforcement Andrew Ceresney delivered a speech late last month responding to public criticism, in particular countering many points raised by Judge Rakoff.
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.
Will shareholder litigation survive the abandonment of the fraud-on-the-market presumption of reliance? After the Supreme Court’s announcement that it will be considering the presumption in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, No. 13-317, there is much discussion of whether a rejection of fraud-on-the-market could mean the end of securities litigation. The fraud-on-the-market doctrine, set forth in Basic Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224, 243-50 (1988), allows a plaintiff seeking class certification to use a rebuttable presumption to establish reliance. The presumption is that public information is reflected in the price of a stock traded on a well-developed market, and that investors rely on the integrity of the market price when deciding whether to buy or sell a security. Under the doctrine, investors do not need to show they actually relied on a misstatement in order to satisfy the “reliance” element of their claim for class certification. Though overturning the presumption would have a significant impact on shareholder class actions under Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, it would not spell the end of shareholder litigation. Read More
The second quarter of 2013 saw the largest quarterly percentage decline in new securities actions since before the 2007/2008 financial crisis. New filings in the first quarter plummeted by 41 percent, from 352 in the first quarter to 234 in the second quarter. This drop represents a 55 percent decrease in the number of new securities actions filed as compared to same period last year (Q2 2012). It has been approximately five years since we have seen a lower number of quarterly filings.
The number of new securities fraud cases also plummeted, falling 59 percent from the prior quarter, with the number of new filings decreasing from 149 to 61. There were also quarterly declines in newly-filed shareholder derivative actions, which decreased from 43 filings in the first quarter to 37 in the second quarter, and breach of fiduciary duty cases, which fell from 99 new filings in the first quarter to 71 in the second quarter.
Not only did the number of securities actions filed drop significantly, but so too did the average settlement amounts. The average settlement for all types of securities cases in the second quarter was just over $37 million, a marked decrease from the average settlement amount of $69.3 million during the first quarter of 2013.
What’s going on? There are a number of factors that may be contributing to these downward filing trends. The stock market has been strong, so many investors have little to complain about. Moreover, the surge in suits against U.S.-listed Chinese companies appears to have run its course, and no new scandal or market development has yet become the next “big thing” that will drive increased filings. In addition, SEC enforcement activities have continued to shift into areas (such as insider trading and whistleblowing) that do not always spawn parallel private litigation. It remains to be seen whether the recent appointment of new SEC personnel or a renewed focus on accounting fraud cases by regulators, which is anticipated by some analysts, will cause a variation in these trends moving forward.
Source = Advisen D&O Claims Trends: 2013 Report (July 2013)
Last Friday, Judge Kleinberg of the California Superior Court, County of Santa Clara, dismissed two shareholder class actions against the former directors of Actel Corporation and Applied Signal Technology, Inc. for breach of fiduciary duties arising out of the sales of Actel and Applied Signal to third-party buyers. In doing so, Judge Kleinberg stated that, under California law, damages claims brought by shareholders of California corporations against directors for breach of fiduciary duties in connection with the approval of a merger are derivative, not direct. Thus, because a plaintiff in a shareholder’s derivative suit must maintain continuous stock ownership throughout the pendency of the litigation, and the plaintiffs ceased to be stockholders of Actel and Applied Signal by reason of a merger, Judge Kleinberg held that they lacked standing to continue the litigation.
In holding that post-merger claims against directors of California acquired corporations are derivative, Judge Kleinberg relied on the pre-Tooley rationale (which is no longer controlling in Delaware and has been questioned in California) that a harm suffered equally by all shareholders in proportion to their pro rata ownership of the company is a derivative harm. Judge Kleinberg rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that Delaware’s Tooley standard for determining whether a claim was direct or derivative was adopted by the California Court of Appeal in Bader v. Andersen, 179 Cal. App. 4th 775 (2009). According to Judge Kleinberg, in stating that California and Delaware law were “not inconsistent,” the Bader court was merely observing that the results of applying California versus Delaware law in that case were not inconsistent; it was not saying that California and Delaware law are the same on the direct versus derivative issue.
Judge Kleinberg’s holding is a victory for the defense bar, as it means that merger litigation involving California incorporated targets will be susceptible to dismissal by demurrer or summary judgment following the preliminary injunction stage.
On October 15, 2012, Chief Judge Claudia Wilken of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California denied defendants’ motion for certification of an interlocutory appeal of the court’s prior order denying defendants’ motion to dismiss. SEC v. Sells, No. 11-04941 (N. D. Cal. Oct. 15, 2012). A split will therefore remain amongst district courts as to whether the Supreme Court’s holding in Janus Capital Group Inc. v. First Derivative Traders, 131 S. Ct. 2296, 2303 (2011), applies to cases involving Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933 or in cases alleging scheme liability under Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. Janus held that a defendant could only be liable under Rule 10b-5(b) for material misstatements if the defendant “made” the statements.
Last October, the SEC filed suit against defendants Christopher Sells and Timothy Murawski, former executives at medical device company Hansen Medical, Inc., for their alleged involvement in a financial manipulation scheme designed to enhance the company’s sales and income. Defendants sought dismissal of the action in part on Janus grounds. The district court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss, finding that to allow liability for defendants’ alleged conduct would not be inconsistent with Janus. Defendants subsequently sought certification to the Ninth Circuit of two Janus-related issues: first, whether the SEC could bring scheme liability claims under Rule 10b-5(a) and (c) based upon an alleged misstatement that the defendant did not “make” under Janus; and second, whether Janus applied to claims under Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933. Read More
In numerous pending lawsuits in New York federal and state courts, monoline insurers are suing Wall Street banks for alleged breaches of representations and warranties about the quality and characteristics of residential loans in RMBS pools. At stake in these suits is the ultimate responsibility for billions of dollars in losses suffered by RMBS certificate holders insured by the monolines. In most of these deals, the applicable MLPA, PSA and insurance contracts provide that the securitization’s sponsor must repurchase a loan if a breach of a representation or warranty “materially and adversely affects” the interests of the insurer in the loan. The fighting issue is whether this provision requires an insurer to prove that the alleged breaches of representations and warranties proximately caused the loan to become delinquent or default. Now, for the first time, a New York federal court has squarely addressed this critical question. Read More