Speaking last week at the SEC’s and Rock Center’s Silicon Valley Initiative at Stanford Law School, SEC Chair Mary Jo White cautioned Silicon Valley’s start-up companies regarding their potential lack of internal controls. In particular, she warned that unicorns—nonpublic start-up companies valued north of one billion dollars—may warrant special scrutiny into whether their corporate governance and investor disclosures are keeping pace with their growing valuations. Ms. White repeatedly warned that the prestige of obtaining “unicorn” status may drive companies to inflate their valuations.
James E. Thompson, a senior associate in the San Francisco office, is a member of the Securities Litigation, Investigations and Enforcement Group. His practice focuses on defending companies and individuals in securities class actions, shareholder derivative suits, and SEC investigations and enforcement actions.
Mr. Thompson has extensive experience litigating securities class actions, derivative suits (including M&A related litigation), and other complex commercial disputes in both state and federal courts across the country. He also has represented companies and board committees in numerous internal investigations and regularly advises companies on corporate governance, fiduciary duty and disclosure issues.
Mr. Thompson’s clients include NVIDIA Corporation, Oracle Corporation, Fisker Automotive, VantagePoint Venture Partners, Aruba Networks, and David Sambol.
Significant recent engagements include the following:
- In re NVIDIA Securities Litigation. Obtained dismissal with prejudice of securities fraud class action brought against NVIDIA and certain of its officers.
- Countrywide Mortgage-Backed Securities Litigation. Representing former President and COO of Countrywide Financial Corp. in connection with state and federal litigation in numerous jurisdictions.
- In re Intermix Securities Litigation. Obtained dismissal of federal and state actions stemming from NewsCorp.’s acquisition of Myspace on behalf of VantagePoint Venture Partners.
- Oracle/Retek Merger Litigation. Obtained summary judgment on behalf of Retek Inc. in shareholder merger litigation arising from its acquisition by Oracle.
- Represented Board of Directors of health care company in investigation of potential insider trading issues.
- Represented Audit Committee of a technology company in investigation of revenue recognition issues in China.
Mr. Thompson has also dedicated significant time to pro bono representations. Recently, he successfully tried a case before Judge Alsup in the Northern District of California on behalf of an inmate, demonstrating that the inmate had not received adequate due process.
Mr. Thompson is a regular contributor to Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe’s Weekly Auditor Liability Bulletin, Securities Litigation & Regulatory Enforcement Blog and the Securities Reform Act Litigation Reporter.
After the repeated challenges to the SEC’s in-house courts as previously reported, Mark Cuban joined the debate by filing an amicus curiae brief in support of petitioners Raymond J. Lucia Companies, Inc. and Raymond J. Lucia (collectively “Lucia”) in Lucia v. SEC. Cuban, describing himself as a “first-hand witness to and victim of SEC overreach” in a 2013 insider trading case brought against him in an SEC court, argued that the D.C. Circuit should grant the petitioners’ appeal because SEC in-house judges are unconstitutionally appointed.
The practice of high frequency trading has been a hot-button issue of late, thanks in part to Michael Lewis’ 2014 book Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, which examines the rise of this phenomenon throughout U.S. markets. Several class action lawsuits have alleged that various private and public stock and derivatives exchanges entered into agreements and received undisclosed fees to favor high frequency traders (“HFTs”), conferring timing advantages that damaged other market participants. Two courts have recently addressed the merits of claims for damages against such exchanges and both ruled that plaintiffs failed to state a claim for relief.
On October 30, 2015, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) moved forward in implementing Title III of the JOBS Act and adopted new rules permitting companies to offer and sell securities to all potential investors through crowdfunding. Crowdfunding is the use of small amounts of capital from a large number of investors to finance new business ventures. This method of investment, typically conducted over the internet, is aimed at assisting smaller companies with capital formation by accessing a greater pool of potential investors. The SEC had previously opened crowdfunding investment to “accredited investors” (investors meeting certain net worth and/or investment experience criteria) but these rules permit non-accredited investors, i.e., everyone else, to participate while providing them with additional protection under the federal securities laws. Title III and these rules come in response to the enormous growth of equity crowdfunding through financing platforms such as GoFundMe, Kickstarter or Indiegogo.
On September 29, 2015, the D.C. Circuit, the second federal appellate court to recently weigh in on the ongoing debate over SEC administrative actions, ruled in favor of the SEC in Jarkesy v. SEC, holding that federal courts do not have subject matter jurisdiction over challenges to ongoing SEC administrative enforcement proceedings. Notably, and in accord with the Seventh Circuit’s recent decision in Bebo v. SEC, the D.C. Circuit’s decision was narrowly tailored – focusing only on the issue of subject-matter jurisdiction – but not the substantive viability of Jarkesy’s constitutional challenges. The three-judge panel unanimously held that a party to a pending administrative proceeding must first defend against that proceeding, and only once the SEC proceeding concludes may the party seek review by a federal court.
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.
As noted previously in this blog, the SEC and other regulatory agencies continue to display an increased interest in the issue of internal and supervisory controls. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) has continued this trend, recently bringing charges against a number of member firms related to allegedly inadequate supervisory controls.
On February 24, 2015, the SEC announced that it had reached an agreement with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (“Goodyear”) for Goodyear to disgorge more than $16 million to settle FCPA charges stemming from its Kenyan and Angolan subsidiaries. This settlement is notable because it focuses on bribery involving private companies as opposed to official corruption, which is typically prosecuted by the SEC. While the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions apply only to improper payments to foreign officials, the SEC charged Goodyear with violations of the FCPA’s books and records provisions, which have no such requirement and instead require a company to keep records that “accurately and fairly reflect the transactions and dispositions of the assets of the issuer” and to “devise and maintain a system of internal accounting controls” sufficient to ensure the integrity of the company’s financial records. This use of the books and records provisions is important because it signals the SEC’s intent and ability to use the FCPA to bring broad, far-reaching enforcement cases that have the potential to ensnare any public company.
On November 3, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court held oral argument in Omnicare v. Laborers District Council Construction Industry Pension Fund. As discussed in earlier posts, from March 18, 2014 and July 22, 2014, the Supreme Court in Omnicare has been asked to resolve a circuit split regarding the scope of liability under Section 11 of the Securities Act: does an issuer violate Section 11 if it makes a statement of opinion that is objectively false, or must the issuer also have known that the statement was false when made?
Judge John L. Kane of the United States District Court for the District of Colorado is uninterested in oxymoronic gimmicks, that much is clear. In a fiery April 24, 2014 opinion, Judge Kane rejected settlements between the SEC and two individual defendants in an insider trading case. Judge Kane evoked—both in style and via explicit citation—Judge Jed Rakoff’s well-known rejection of the proposed settlement in SEC v. Citigroup Global Markets and similarly rejected the proposed settlements because they included numerous “provisions and recitations that [he would] not endorse.”
Judge Kane’s ire was focused on the SEC’s proposed settlement with Michael Van Gilder, the individual who allegedly traded based on inside information in advance of a high-stakes acquisition and tipped friends and family in an email titled “Xmas present.” The SEC’s proposed settlement with Van Gilder included a permanent injunction prohibiting future violations of Section 10(b) or Rule 10b-5, a $109,265 disgorgement payment (credited in part by a payment already made in a parallel criminal proceeding), and another $109,265 in civil penalties. The proposal included a number of standard provisions for SEC settlements, including a waiver of the entry of findings of fact and conclusions of law, a waiver of the right to appeal from the entry of final judgment, “a statement that Van Gilder neither admits nor denies the allegations of the Complaint,” and enjoining Van Gilder from future violations of existing statutory law. Judge Kane decisively rejected each of these in turn. Read More