Honey, You Did What? SEC Charges Yet Another Spouse with Insider Trading

On March 31, 2014, the Securities and Exchange Commission brought insider trading charges against Ching Hwa Chen, the husband of a corporate insider, alleging that he misappropriated financial information from his wife and then shorted her employer’s stock, netting $138,000 in ill gotten gains.  SEC v. Chen, No. 5:14-cv-01467 (N.D. Cal).  The SEC’s allegations (taken from its complaint) are as follows:  Chen’s wife was the Senior Tax Director of Informatica, a data integration company.  In late June 2012, Informatica learned it would miss its revenue guidance for the first time in 31 consecutive quarters.  That miss caused the defendant’s wife to work more than usual as the company scrambled to close its books and prepare for a potential pre-release of its quarterly revenues.  Over the next several days, the defendant overheard his wife’s phone calls addressing the revenue miss, including on a four-hour drive to Reno, Nevada where his wife fielded calls from the passenger seat as he drove.  Early the next week, convinced that Informatica’s stock would lose value, Chen bet heavily against the company, shorting its stock, buying put options, and selling call options.  In early July, after announcing the miss, Informatica’s stock price fell 27% from $43 to $31.  Chen closed out all of his positions that same day. Read More

Are Confidential Witness Reforms Looming on the Horizon? Can the Plaintiff’s Bar Stop Them?

A decision is expected shortly in the highly publicized so-called confidential witness “scandal” involving the Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd law firm.  Judge Suzanne B. Conlon of the United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois, will decide whether to impose sanctions on the plaintiffs’ firm for its conduct regarding a confidential witness in the City of Livonia Employees’ Retirement System v. Boeing Company case, No. 1:09-cv-07143 (N.D. Ill.).  The decision could have a lasting impact over the use of confidential witnesses in securities fraud complaints.

Judge Conlon will decide this matter following the Seventh Circuit’s remand in late March 2013 on the narrow issue of whether to impose Rule 11 sanctions for (1) providing multiple assurances to the court that the confidential source in their complaint was reliable even though none of the lawyers had spoken to the source or (2) failing to investigate after plaintiffs’ investigators expressed qualms about the confidential source.  (Previous blog post here).  In remanding the case, the Seventh Circuit ruled that making “representations in a filing that are not grounded in an inquiry reasonable under the circumstance or are unlikely to have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for further investigation or discovery violate Rule 11.”  City of Livonia Empls.’ Ret. Sys. v. Boeing Co., 711 F.3d 754, 762 (7th Cir. 2013). Read More

Rare Securities Trial Over Credit Crises Claims Results in Defense Verdict

On May 28, 2013, in Delshah Group LLC v. Javeri, a rare securities trial regarding credit-crisis related claims, Judge Katherine B. Forrest of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York issued an order directing a complete defense judgment following a two-week bench trial. The decision includes a noteworthy discussion and analysis of loss causation in the context of credit crisis litigation—directly applicable to pending cases under Sections 10, 11 and 12—and highlights a tension between the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act and longstanding securities law when it comes to proving culpable intent.

Factual Background

The case arose from a real estate investment gone bad. In March of 2007, plaintiff purchased interests in a venture called 40 Broad Street Project. That project sought to make a return on converting commercial real estate space into condominiums and thus take advantage of the rapidly rising value of condos in New York City. Plaintiffs claimed that defendant misrepresented how far along the building project was, whether it was under budget, and how much “skin in the game” defendants had in the project. When the credit crisis hit and the real estate market collapsed, plaintiff lost substantial sums on its investment and claimed the above misstatements were its cause. Read More

Stop! In the Name of … 28 U.S.C. §2462

Last week we heard from RUSH. This week we’re tuning in to The Supremes.

On January 8, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Gabelli v. Securities and Exchange Commission, No. 11-1274, concerning when the clock begins to run on the five-year statute of limitations for civil penalty claims by the SEC and other federal agencies. The 200-year-old statute at the heart of the dispute (28 U.S.C. §2462) provides: “Except as otherwise provided by Act of Congress, an action, suit or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture, pecuniary or otherwise, shall not be entertained unless commenced within five years from the date when the claim first accrued . . . .” Taking their cue from the Supremes that, “No, you just have to wait,” the SEC argues that “accrued” means when the government discovered, or reasonably could have discovered, the alleged wrongdoing (in this case, market timing by two executives of investment adviser Gabelli Funds, LLC ). On the other hand, the two executives want to know, “How long must I wait, How much more can I take?arguing that “accrued” means when the government can first bring the action (typically when the alleged wrongdoing occurs), regardless of whether the government knows about it.

What can be divined from the oral argument? The justices appeared skeptical of the government’s position. It was pointed out that this was not a position that had ever been taken by any other government agency, and not by the SEC until 2004, even though the statute had been on the books for almost 200 years. Justice Breyer went so far as to press, “All I’m asking you for is one case [prior to 2004],” but the government’s attorney could not provide one.

Some of justices also commented that it would almost be impossible for a defendant to prove that the government “should have known” about something. There would be no bright-line rules to such an approach. Whether an agency “should have known” could potentially depend on any number of circumstances, for example whether the agency had 100 or 1,000 people reviewing things to shed light on a violation or even whether the agency was overworked or underfunded at the time of the violation. In other words, SEC, “Think it over.” Read More

Federal Court Concludes Much of SEC Claims Against Nicor Gas Executives Are Full of Gas

A federal judge in Illinois hollowed out much of the SEC’s case against two former executives of Nicor Gas. SEC v. Fisher, et al., No. 07-4483 (N.D. Ill.) (Zagel, J.) (Order). Although the court allowed the SEC’s substantive Section 10(b) and 17(a) fraud claims to proceed, the court granted summary judgment to the executives with respect to all claims for civil penalties and injunctive relief. The Order makes clear that to survive summary judgment on injunctive relief, like any other claim, the SEC must put forth concrete evidence, not just “rank speculation.” Accordingly, the SEC’s claims will proceed to trial only for the equitable remedy of disgorgement of profits.

Background

In 2008, the SEC brought fraud charges against three former executives of Nicor Gas, a utility company providing Northern Illinois with natural gas. The SEC alleges that from 1999 to 2002, these executives manipulated Nicor’s earnings through accounting gimmicks and transactions that took advantage of Nicor’s low cost of inventories in a rising gas price environment without disclosing the practice or its effect on earnings. Read More

Cornerstone Releases Updated Study of M&A Litigation

On April 25, 2012, Cornerstone Research released an interesting report entitled “Recent Developments in Shareholder Litigation Involving Mergers and Acquisitions—March 2012 Update.”  The report notes that the incidence of litigation in connection with mergers valued at $500 million or greater rose from 57% in 2007 to 96% in 2011.  This observation has already caught the attention of the Delaware Chancery Court where Vice Chancellor Laster commented in a teleconferenced ruling, “I don’t think for a moment that 90%—or based on recent numbers—95% of deals are the result of a breach of fiduciary duty.  I think there are market imbalances here and externalities that are being exploited.  What this means is that the Court needs to think carefully about balancing.”

The report also shows that the number of lawsuits per litigated deal increased from an average of 2.8 in 2007 to 6.2 in 2011.  The absolute count of lawsuits involving deals with values of $500 million or greater also nearly doubled from 289 in 2007 to 502 in 2011.  The report also noted that as of March 2012, 67 lawsuits have already been reported for 13 out of 17 deals announced during January and February.

Lesser-Known SEC Rule Compels Dismissal of Securities Act Claims

Relying on a lesser-known U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rule, the Southern District of New York dismissed over forty underwriter and director defendants from a securities action against General Electric Co. on April 18, 2012.  Shareholders alleged that GE made false statements in connection with a $12 billion secondary stock offering in 2008, including misrepresentations about its ability to sell commercial paper.  GE, which was mostly financed by 30-day commercial paper, encountered difficulties in funding its operations after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.

District Judge Denise Cote ruled that older statements incorporated by reference into the offering documents were modified and superseded by subsequent statements under SEC Rule 412, and that statements made by GE in its Forms 10-K between 2004 and 2007, expressing confidence in its commercial paper position, could not be relied upon to state a Securities Act claim.  Citing SEC Rule 412, Judge Cote found that the 2008 offering’s prospectus supplement warned of potentially impaired access to the commercial paper market, and thus “directly modif[ied] and replace[d] the earlier statements” of GE.  Judge Cote also rejected lead plaintiff’s argument that the newer statements were merely standardized “boilerplate.”

The ruling modified a January 2012 opinion from District Judge Richard Holwell in one of his last opinions before retiring from the bench.  Upon reassignment of the matter Judge Cote granted defendants’ pending motions for reconsideration of the January opinion with respect to all surviving claims under the Securities Act and Exchange Act.  Judge Cote’s ruling did not dispose of the entire action, keeping intact the Exchange Act claims against GE and its chief financial officer for alleged misstatements about the quality of the company’s loan portfolio.

In re: General Electric Co. Securities Litigation, case number 1:09-cv-01951, United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.