Kevin Askew, a senior associate in Orrick’s Los Angeles office, is a member of the White Collar, Investigations, Securities Litigation & Compliance Group.

Kevin represents companies, officers and directors in connection with SEC investigations and enforcement actions, securities class actions, shareholder derivative suits and other complex commercial litigation matters. He has also represented clients in a broad range of matters involving antitrust, trade secrets, contract disputes and consumer class actions.

Kevin has also devoted a significant portion of his time to pro bono representations in immigration and asylum matters.

Kevin’s notable recent engagements include:

  • Representation of the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer of a telecommunications company in connection with an SEC enforcement action alleging misstatements related to revenue recognition.
  • Representation of a municipal employee in connection with an SEC enforcement action alleging misstatements in municipal bond offering documents. Successfully argued motion to strike SEC’s request for more than $13 million in disgorgement from client.
  • Representation of the former president of the nation’s largest mortgage lender in various securities lawsuits around the country.
  • Representation of international trust entities and Singapore-based public company in action alleging alter ego and RICO liability.

Posts by: Kevin Askew

What to Watch for From the New SEC Chairman

Last Thursday, Jay Clayton was officially sworn in as the new Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.  As the new Chairman takes office, here are a few things we’re keeping an eye on:

Will Chairman Clayton take a position on the recently introduced bipartisan bill that would increase civil monetary penalties in SEC enforcement actions?  The “Stronger Enforcement of Civil Penalties Act of 2017” would significantly increase civil monetary penalties in enforcement actions to as much as $1 million per violation for individuals and $10 million per violation for entities, or three times the money gained in the violation or lost by the victims.  The current maximum civil monetary penalties are $181,071 and $905,353 per violation for individuals and entities, respectively.

Will the new Chairman preserve the directive reportedly issued by former Acting Chairman Michael Piwowar to re-centralize authority to issue formal orders of investigation?  In 2009, the SEC adopted a rule that delegated authority to issue formal orders initiating investigations to the Director of Enforcement, who then “sub-delegated” it to regional and associate directors and unit chiefs within the Enforcement Division.  In February, Piwowar reportedly revoked the “sub-delegated” authority, ordering it re-centralized exclusively with the Director of Enforcement.

Will enforcement actions against public companies increase or decrease after hitting their highest level since 2009 last year?  A recent report issued by the NYU Pollack Center for Law & Business and Cornerstone Research found that the 92 actions the SEC brought against public companies and their subsidiaries in 2016 is more than double the level of enforcement activity from just three years prior. READ MORE

Circuit Split on Whistleblower Protections Widens

On March 8, 2017, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion in Somers v. Digital Realty Trust Inc. that further widened a circuit split on the issue of whether the anti-retaliation provisions in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act apply to whistleblowers who claim retaliation after reporting internally or instead only to those who report information to the SEC.  Following the Second Circuit’s 2015 decision in Berman v. [email protected] LLC, the Ninth Circuit panel held that Dodd-Frank protections apply to internal whistleblowers.  By contrast, the Fifth Circuit considered this issue in its 2013 decision in Asadi v. G.E. Energy (USA), LLC and found that the Dodd-Frank anti-retaliation provisions unambiguously protect only those whistleblowers who report directly to the SEC.

Plaintiff Paul Somers alleged that Digital Realty Trust fired him after he made several reports to senior management regarding possible securities law violations. Somers only reported these possible violations internally at the company, and not to the SEC.  After his employment was terminated, Somers sued Digital Realty, alleging violations of state and federal securities laws, including violations of the whistleblower protections under Dodd-Frank.  Digital Realty moved to dismiss on the ground that Somers was not a “whistleblower” under Dodd-Frank.  The district court denied the motion, deferring to the SEC’s interpretation that internal reporters are also protected from retaliation under Dodd-Frank.

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Gordon v. Verizon: New York Parts Company with Delaware

People at a Table

On February 2, 2017, the New York Appellate Division, First Department, issued a decision in Gordon v. Verizon Communications, Inc., No. 653084/13, 2017 WL 442871 (1st Dep’t 2017), approving the settlement of litigation over an acquisition by Verizon Communications (“Verizon”) and articulating a new test to evaluate the fairness of such settlements. The Gordon decision signals that New York will remain a friendly venue to disclosure-based M&A settlements and may see increased shareholder M&A lawsuits as a result

As we have repeatedly written about (here, here and here), Delaware Chancery Courts have spent the past year attempting to curtail, or eliminate altogether, M&A litigation settlements where the sole remedy is enhanced proxy disclosures. Chancellor Bouchard’s landmark decision in In re Trulia Stockholder Litigation, 129 A.3d 884 (Del. Ch. 2016), rejected these “disclosure-only” settlements, finding that the “enhanced” disclosures produced by such settlements were not “material or even helpful” to stockholders.  The Chancery Court bemoaned the proliferation of disclosure-only settlements in Delaware, and indicated that these types of settlements would be met by “continued disfavor” unless the supplemental disclosures are “plainly material,” i.e., they must “significantly alter the ‘total mix’ of information made available.”

In Trulia’s wake, the number of M&A suits filed in Delaware plummeted—declining by almost 75% in the first half of 2016—as plaintiffs’ counsel opted to file in federal court or states other than Delaware in the hope of finding more hospitable fora for “disclosure-only” resolutions.  READ MORE

Ninth Circuit Smells a Rat and Reinstates Claim That Pharmaceutical Company Failed to Disclose Cancers in Animal Testing

The Ninth Circuit recently revived a securities class action against Arena Pharmaceuticals, issuing a decision with important guidance to pharmaceutical companies speaking publicly about future prospects for FDA approval of their advanced drug candidates. The court’s opinion reemphasizes the dangers of volunteering incomplete information, holding that a company that touts the results of trials or tests as supportive of a pending application for FDA approval must also disclose negative test results or concerns expressed by the FDA about those studies—even if the company reasonably believes the concerns are unfounded and are the product of a good faith disagreement.

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Supreme Court Weighs Insider Trading: Friends, Family, and Others

On October 5, 2016, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in US v. Salman, a closely-watched insider trading case in which the Ninth Circuit held that, where the insider had a close personal relationship with the tippee, a remote tippee could be liable for insider trading even in the absence of a pecuniary benefit to the tipper. In so holding, the Ninth Circuit declined to extend the Second Circuit’s 2014 decision in US v. Newman, which held that insider trading requires proof of “a meaningfully close personal relationship that generates an exchange that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.”  Early analysis of the arguments in Salman suggests that the Court will, as some have previously predicted , “split the baby” by leaving Salman’s conviction in place while also adopting a rule that would not affect the result in US v. Newman.  Given the Court’s decision to grant certiorari in Salman rather than Newman, this result seems all the more likely.

Bassam Salman was convicted of insider trading after trading on information he received from Michael Kara, his brother in law, who in turn received that information from his brother, Maher Kara. Salman was aware that the information came from Maher, a Citigroup banker working on various health care deals and sharing information very openly with his brother.  Michael also traded on the information and, although he told Maher that he was not trading, Maher suspected otherwise.  Nevertheless, Maher never received any financial or other concrete benefit in the exchange, though there was evidence that he and his brother had a close relationship.

In Salman’s brief, he argued that his conviction was inconsistent with the Court’s seminal 1983 insider trading decision in SEC v. Dirks as interpreted by the Second Circuit in Newman: that insider trading requires proof of “at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.”  That is, to the extent that Maher offered material, non-public information to his brother in violation of his confidentiality obligations to his employer, that activity did not violate insider trading laws because Maher did not receive anything concrete in exchange.

From the outset of oral argument, several justices were noticeably skeptical of Salman’s arguments. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Anthony Kennedy questioned whether Salman’s conviction was just analogous to standard accomplice liability.  Justice Kennedy observed that where the tippee does the trading and benefits thereby, as in Salman’s case, the tippee is really the recipient of the “gift” of the tip and by traditional analysis is an accomplice to the tipper’s wrongdoing.

In addition, several justices repeatedly went back to Dirks, in which the Court said that it might be possible to infer the required personal benefit “when an insider makes a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend.”  As Justice Kennedy observed, Dirks suggested that “there’s a benefit in making a gift,” even if there is no pecuniary exchange.  Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer both observed that Salman’s suggested approach would be a significant departure from most courts’ interpretations of the original Dirks holding.  Justice Kagan noted that Dirks seemed to indicate that “it’s not only about when there’s a quid pro quo from the tippee to the tipper, but when the tipper makes a gift to the tippee, and in particular a relative or friend.”  Justice Breyer noted outright that if the court embraced Salman’s approach, it was “really more likely to change the law that people have come to rely upon than it is to keep to it.”

The government, by contrast, had urged that there was no conflict among the reasoning upholding Salman’s conviction, SEC v. Dirks, or US v. Newman.  The government urged that Michael and Maher had the kind of “meaningfully close personal relationship” that was not present in Newman, a case that involved several levels of remote tippees, none of whom had particularly close friendships much less a family relationship as in Salman.  By this logic, the result in Salman was entirely consistent with both Dirks and Newman because the “personal relationship” was sufficiently different and satisfied the precedent established by Dirks.

When the government lawyer took the podium, the justices continued to pose challenging questions, but many justices signaled an apparent belief that the government’s position was more acceptable. Some justices did seem concerned that under the government’s proposed rule, non-relatives or non-friends might be swept into liability, but Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben seemed ready to concede some ground on that front.  Toward the end of the argument, Justice Kagan asked whether the court could “separate out that strange, unusual, hardly-ever-prosecuted situation” of non-friends or non-relatives facing liability and Dreeben said he would be “fine with that.”  As described above, his response may open the door for the Court to uphold Salman’s conviction while leaving Newman unchanged.

SDNY Prosecutors Score First Post-Newman Insider Trading Conviction

On August 17, 2016, jurors in a New York federal court convicted Sean Stewart on criminal charges of conspiracy, securities fraud, and tender offer fraud after more than five days of deliberation.  Stewart, a former investment banker for JPMorgan and Perella Weinberg Partners, was charged with leaking confidential information about health care mergers to his father, Robert Stewart, on at least five occasions over the course of four years.  The case provides a victory to Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, after a series of setbacks in the form of unfavorable decisions in the aftermath of the Second Circuit’s decision in U.S. v. Newman, the repercussions of which have been covered extensively on this blog (see here, here).  As the first conviction post-Newman, U.S. v. Stewart provides some insight into the kinds of facts that might support an insider trading charge in the Second Circuit going forward and is thus worthy of analysis.

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Equity Trust Notches a Rare Defense Win in SEC Administrative Proceedings

Pen and Calculator

On June 27, 2016, SEC Administrative Law Judge Carol Fox Foelak dismissed the Division of Enforcement’s charges against IRA custodian Equity Trust Company in connection with the company’s processing of investments marketed by two convicted fraudsters.  Judge Foelak’s decision—a complete defense victory for Equity Trust—shows that while the Division of Enforcement may still win most of its cases in administrative proceedings, it doesn’t win them all.

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Here’s a Tip: “Substantial and Important Contributions” to Pre-Existing SEC Investigations Can Pay Off For Whistleblowers

In a move evidencing the SEC’s continued commitment to its whistleblower program, the Commission announced on Friday that it has awarded a whistleblower over $3.5 million for providing information that did not lead to a new investigation, but rather only served to bolster an ongoing investigation.  This decision came after the SEC’s Claims Review Staff preliminarily determined that the SEC should deny the whistleblower claim because the information provided by the individual did not appear to “cause Enforcement staff to open the investigation or to inquire into different conduct, nor . . . to have significantly contributed to the success” of the action.  But after reviewing the whistleblower’s written response for reconsideration, in addition to factual information from staff in the Division of Enforcement, the Commission changed course, determining that the information indeed “significantly contributed” to the success of the SEC’s action, and approving the award.

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Full Court Pressure: SEC OIG Finds No Undue Influence By ALJs in Favor of Government

The Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of the Inspector General (“OIG”) recently released findings from its extensive investigation into allegations of potential bias against respondents in SEC administrative proceedings.  The OIG report comes at a time when the fairness of the SEC’s in-house administrative forum is under scrutiny from both inside and outside of the agency.

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Chancery Court Continues to Close the Door on Disclosure-Only Settlements and Fees (But Opens a Window for “Mootness Dismissals”)

Building

As previously discussed here, in 2015, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued a number of decisions calling for enhanced scrutiny of “disclosure-only” M&A settlements that involve no monetary benefits to a shareholder class.  For example, the recent decision in In re Riverbed Technology, Inc. Stockholders Litigation expressly eliminated the “reasonable expectation” that a merger case can be settled by exchanging insignificant supplemental disclosures (and nothing more) for a broad release of claims.  In In re Trulia, Inc. Stockholder Litigation, the Chancery Court demonstrated that its “increase[ed] vigilance” in this area is genuine, rejecting a disclosure-only M&A settlement and finding that the supplemental disclosures did not warrant the broad release of claims.

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