Internal investigations are an ever-present challenge for companies. They can involve virtually any topic and arise in myriad ways. Embezzlement, accounting improprieties, bribery, and financial statement adjustments can all lead to a closely scrutinized investigation, with likely triggers of whistleblower reports, news articles, litigation demands, or regulatory inquiries. The common denominator is that they present high pressure and/or high stakes. Consequently, it is imperative that matters not be made worse through a flawed internal investigation. In today’s post, we cover some of the essential topics to keep in mind when managing an internal investigation to ensure that the investigation itself does not cause or exacerbate harm to the company.
Lily Stevens Becker is a senior associate in the San Francisco office. A significant portion of Ms. Becker’s practice focuses on corporate internal investigations involving FCPA, compliance, embezzlement, fraud and securities laws issues. Ms. Becker has experience in conducting global investigations for multinational corporations as well as targeted investigations for small organizations. She currently serves on the Monitor Team for an SEC and DOJ FCPA Monitorship to a banking technology company, and has served on the legal team for a FCPA Monitorship to a medical device company.
Ms. Becker regularly represents individuals and corporations in connection with SEC enforcement actions and investigations, DOJ investigations, FINRA inquiries, securities class actions and shareholder derivative suits. She has represented founders and investors in start-up companies, including matters involving venture capital disputes, unfair competition, breaches of partnership and shareholder agreements, employment and fraud claims, and fiduciary obligations.
In addition, she counsels and litigates in insurance areas, in particular regarding directors and officers insurance and corporate indemnification obligations.
Sample representations include:
- Serving on the Monitor Team for a FCPA Monitorship to a banking technology company
- Served on legal counsel team for a FCPA Monitorship to a medical device company.
- Represented numerous individuals relating to interviews in connection with SEC and DOJ investigations.
- Represented medical device company in connection with allegations regarding the FCPA.
- Represented public company board members in connection with shareholder derivative demands and litigation.
- Represented numerous public companies in connection with shareholder class actions alleging violations of securities fraud.
- Second chair of arbitration trial resulting in prevailing award in a dispute between founders of an internet start-up company.
- Represented former general counsel of a public company in connection with stock option litigation.
- Represented a corporation in connection with a D&O policy dispute.
- Represented a corporation in an arbitration dispute regarding real estate, tax and contractual matters.
Prior to joining Orrick, Ms. Becker was a clerk for the Honorable Loren A. Smith on the United States Court of Federal Claims.
On February 4, 2015, the First Circuit affirmed the summary dismissal of a shareholder derivative suit, which brought Nevada state claims for breach of fiduciary duty, waste of corporate assets, unjust enrichment, and entitlement to contribution or indemnification against Smith & Wesson and its officers and directors. Plaintiff alleged Smith & Wesson made false and misleading statements when it overstated its sales projections and earnings guidance while demand collapsed and the Company had excessive inventory. During the course of the litigation, the suit was transferred to the federal District Court of Massachusetts, which granted summary dismissal, upholding the independence of a Special Litigation Committee and the reasonableness of its conclusion not to pursue a claim against defendants. Because Nevada adopted Delaware state law, the First Circuit applied Delaware law to make its ruling.
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.
“Dark pools of liquidity” have recently become the focus of increased regulatory scrutiny, including a number of high-profile enforcement actions related to these alternative trading systems. This increased scrutiny follows on the heels of Michael Lewis’s popular book, “Flash Boys,” which introduced the public at large to dark pools through its allegations that high frequency trading firms use dark pools to game the system to the detriment of common investors. But what exactly are dark pools and do they have any redeeming qualities? This post provides a primer on the benefits and disadvantages of dark pools and why they matter.
In general, “dark pools of liquidity” are private alternative forums for trading securities that are typically used by large institutional investors and operate outside of traditional “lit” exchanges like NASDAQ and the NYSE. The key characteristic of dark pools is that, unlike “lit” exchanges, the identity and amount of individual trades are not revealed. The pools typically do not publicly display quotes or provide prices at which orders will be executed. Dark pools, and trading in dark pools, have proliferated in recent years due in part to the fragmentation of financial trading venues coupled with advancements in technology, including online trading. There are currently over 40 dark pools operating in the United States. Around half of these are owned by large broker-dealers and are operated for the benefit of their clients and for their own proprietary traders. According to the SEC, the percentage of total trading volume executed in dark venues has increased from approximately 25% in 2009 to approximately 35% today.
In a story right out of the movies, complete with “poison pills” and “white squires,” the SEC announced on March 13, 2014 that motion picture company Lions Gate Entertainment Corporation settled charges that it failed to disclose to investors a set of “extraordinary” corporate transactions designed to thwart takeover efforts by investor Carl Icahn.
The tale of intrigue and midnight board meetings can be traced to Icahn’s efforts, beginning in 2008, to acquire control of Lions Gate. Despite his eventually gaining beneficial ownership of nearly 40 percent of Lions Gate’s outstanding shares, the company rejected various demands from Icahn over the years, including a demand to appoint five of the twelve seats on the Board of Directors. In March, 2010, Icahn made a tender offer with a premium over the market price to entice shareholders to sell. To thwart Icahn’s tender offer, Lions Gate adopted a poison pill and began to look for ways to keep the company out of Icahn’s hands. Read More
A trader who uses material nonpublic information to execute trades but does not personally benefit from the resulting gains may nonetheless face disgorgement of all profits, according to a recent Second Circuit opinion. In Securities Exchange Commission v. Contorinis, No. 12-1723, the Second Circuit affirmed a judgment from the Southern District of New York requiring defendant Joseph Contorinis, a former hedge fund manager at Jeffries & Co., to disgorge nearly $7.3 million in profits realized through an investment fund he had managed. The court rejected the argument a person can only disgorge profits that are personally enjoyed and instead found that disgorgement may also apply unlawful gains that flow to third parties. Relying on a principle that the limit for disgorgement is the total amount of gain flowing from illegal action, the Second Circuit concluded that district courts may impose disgorgement liability for gains that flow to third parties. Read More
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
In a recent decision, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed the Court of Chancery in Pyott, et al. v. Louisiana Mun. Police Emp. Ret. Sys., et al., holding that a derivative suit against Botox-maker Allergan, Inc. should be dismissed because Allergan had already secured a judgment in its favor in a nearly identical suit in California. The decision will make it more difficult for plaintiffs’ lawyers to pursue duplicative derivative litigation in multiple jurisdictions.
Shortly after Allergan entered into a $600 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over alleged off-labeling marketing of Botox, separate groups of shareholders brought suit in Delaware and California. Before motions to dismiss in the Delaware derivative litigation were heard, a California Federal Court dismissed the California derivative suit, finding that plaintiffs could not support the inference that the Allergan directors conspired to violate the law, which prevented plaintiffs from showing that making a demand on the Board to investigate the matter would be futile. The Delaware Court of Chancery held that the California Judgment did not bar the Delaware action and denied Allergan’s motion to dismiss. The Court of Chancery’s decision that it was not required to give preclusive effect to the California judgment was based on two principles: first, under Delaware law, the shareholder plaintiffs in two jurisdictions were not in privity with each other, and second, the California shareholders were not adequate representatives of the corporation. Read More
In a precedent setting decision, the Ninth Circuit affirmed dismissal of a putative class action in In re Century Aluminum Co. Securities Litigation, significantly raising the pleading bar in Section 11 cases. Plaintiffs alleged that Century Aluminum and its underwriters, Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley, issued false and misleading statements in connection with a secondary offering. The Ninth Circuit applied the Twombly/Iqbal “plausibility” standard, holding that those decisions no longer make it possible for plaintiffs to simply allege without plausible supporting facts that their shares can be “traced” back to a secondary offering. The court’s decision in Century Aluminum may mean that Ninth Circuit plaintiffs filing suit under Section 11 who rely on aftermarket purchases, and cannot otherwise plead plausible facts they purchased in the secondary offering itself, face a near impossible uphill battle at the pleading stage when alleging tracing.
Section 11 provides a remedy to shareholders who purchase securities under “a materially false or misleading registration statement.” When shares are issued under only one such registration statement, this tracing requirement is not a problem. However, when shares are issued under multiple registration statements, tracing back to the allegedly misleading registration statement can be extremely difficult. The court acknowledged that tracing to a secondary offering is “often impossible,” but noted that the tracing requirement “is the condition Congress has imposed for granting access to the ‘relaxed liability requirements’ that Section 11 affords.”
Century Aluminum issued 49 million shares in an Initial Public Offering that were already trading when plaintiffs purchased their shares. In a prospectus supplement on January 28, 2009, an additional 25 million shares entered the market. Plaintiffs alleged they had standing to pursue a Section 11 claim because they “purchased Century Aluminum Common Stock directly traceable to the Company’s Secondary Offering.” In support of their tracing theory, plaintiffs argued that their shares were purchased on dates that showed sharp spikes in trading activity, indicating the flood of new shares as a result of the allegedly misleading prospectus supplement. Read More