Last week, the SEC scored a victory in its battle to defend the use of administrative proceedings in enforcement actions seeking penalties against unregulated entities or persons. On June 30, 2015, Southern District of New York Judge Ronnie Abrams denied Plaintiffs Lynn Tilton, Patriarch Partners LLC, and affiliated entities’ motion for a preliminary injunction halting the SEC’s administrative proceedings against them. Judge Abrams’ decision in Tilton v. SEC is the latest in a string of challenges to the SEC’s use of administrative proceedings in enforcement actions (also discussed in earlier posts from July 31, 2014 and October 28, 2014). As we have written, the SEC has faced mounting scrutiny for its increasing use of administrative proceedings, including criticism that the Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) presiding over the proceedings are biased in favor the SEC’s Enforcement Decision and that defendants subjected to administrative proceedings are entitled to fewer due process protections, including limited discovery and no right to a jury trial. The SEC began increasing its use of administrative proceedings after the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act enabled the Commission to file actions against unregulated entities or persons in its in-house forum, rather than in federal courts, as it had traditionally been required to do.
Penelope A. Graboys Blair
Penelope Graboys Blair, a partner in the San Francisco office, is a member of the Securities Litigation, Investigations and Enforcement Group. Ms. Blair is also a member of the Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Task Force and the Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities (RMBS) Litigation Task Force.
Ms. Blair’s practice focuses on the defense of government enforcement actions and securities litigation. She represents public companies, officers and directors, and other market participants in class action litigation, challenges to corporate governance, and other matters involving allegations of fraud and breach of fiduciary duty. Ms. Blair defends and conducts internal investigations for those subject to enforcement actions by the Securities and Exchange Commission, Department of Justice, and other government agencies and self-regulatory organizations. Ms. Blair is among a small number of lawyers in the country who have defended a securities class action trial to verdict. Representative cases include the following:
- Represents the former President of Countrywide Financial Corporation, the nation’s largest mortgage lender, in connection with investigations by and litigation with the SEC and the California Attorney General, and related class action and derivative litigation including multiple suits by equity and debt holders, pool insurers and investors in RMBS in multiple jurisdictions.
- Conducted internal investigation of the China offices of a U.S. technology company on allegations of fraud.
- Facebook, Inc. v. Eduardo Saverin: One of the two partners representing Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, Inc., in litigation arising from claims of breach of fiduciary duty, fraud and misappropriation of trade secrets.
- Represented multiple companies and board committees in stock option fraud investigations by the SEC and various U.S. Attorney offices and in class action and derivative litigation.
- Conducted internal investigation into allegations of fraud in the China offices of a U.S. technology company.
- Represented Siebel Systems, Inc. in a securities class action and prevailed on motion to dismiss with prejudice, and affirmed on appeal in Ninth Circuit.
- Represented a mutual fund company in market timing investigation by the New York Attorney General’s Office and the SEC.
- Represented a former chief financial officer in a widely publicized financial and accounting fraud litigation including multiple securities class actions, derivative suits, ERISA cases, Congressional hearings and SEC proceeding arising from public company’s multi-year restatement of financial statements.
- Represented nVidia in class action and derivative suits arising from restatement of financials and prevailed on motions to dismiss with prejudice.
- Represented Nike in securities class actions and prevailed in motion to dismiss and favorable settlement.
- Served on trial team in Howard v. Everex Systems, Inc., (N.D. Cal) a securities class action and obtained a jury verdict for the defense.
- Represented a board of directors in multiple lawsuits by shareholders of an acquired company and ultimately secured dismissal with prejudice.
Ms. Graboys Blair is a frequent lecturer on issues involving securities matters and class action litigation.
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 25, 2014, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued a decision in In Re Comverge, Inc. Shareholders Litigation, which: (1) dismissed claims that the Comverge board of directors conducted a flawed sales process and approved an inadequate merger price in connection with the directors’ approval of a sale of the company to H.I.G. Capital LLC; (2) permitted fiduciary duty claims against the directors to proceed based on allegations related to the deal protection mechanisms in the merger agreement, including termination fees potentially payable to HIG of up to 13% of the equity value of the transaction; and (3) dismissed a claim against HIG for aiding and abetting the board’s breach of fiduciary duty.
The case provides important guidance to directors and their advisors in discharging fiduciary duties in a situation where Revlon applies and in negotiating acceptable deal protection mechanisms. The decision also is the latest in a series of recent opinions addressing and defining the scope of third party aiding and abetting liability.
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.
On August 5, 2014, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff reluctantly approved a$285 million settlement in the SEC’s enforcement action against Citigroup. In SEC v. Citigroup, the SEC alleged that after Citigroup realized in early 2007 that the market for mortgage-backed securities was beginning to weaken, it created a billion-dollar fund to sell some of these assets to investors without disclosing either that Citigroup had exercised significant influence in selecting the assets to include in the fund and had itself retained a $500 million short position in the assets it had helped select.
Judge Rakoff initially declined to approve the proposed consent judgment because he said it lacked “sufficient evidence to enable it to assess whether the agreement was fair, adequate, reasonable, and in the public’s interest.” He was forced to reconsider that position when the Second Circuit ruled, on appeal, that the “primary focus of the [district court’s] inquiry . . . should be on ensuring the consent decree is procedurally proper, . . . taking care not to infringe on the SEC’s discretionary authority to settle on a particular set of terms.” Read More
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
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
SAC Capital Advisors pleaded guilty last Friday to securities fraud claims brought by the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan. If approved, the deal would require SAC to pay a $1.2 billion penalty, including a $900 million criminal fine and $284 million civil forfeiture, and to cease operation of its outside investment business. Appearing on behalf of SAC, Peter Nussbaum, general counsel for the hedge fund, offered the plea of five counts of securities and wire fraud charges based on the allegations that the company allowed rampant insider trading among its employees. More than merely turning a blind eye, SAC allegedly went out of its way to hire portfolio managers and analysts who had contacts at corporations and failed to monitor and prevent trades based on their inside knowledge.
Mr. Nussbaum expressed “deep remorse” for each individual at SAC who broke the law, taking responsibility for the misconduct which occurred under SAC’s watch. He also noted that “even one person crossing the line into illegal behavior is too many,” but emphasized that despite the six former employees that SAC admitted engaged in insider trading, “SAC is proud of the thousands of people who have worked at our firm for more than 20 years with integrity and excellence.” The six former employees, Noah Freeman, Richard Lee, Donald Longueuil, Jon Horvath, Wesley Wang and Richard C.B. Lee, had already pled guilty to insider trading-related claims. Critics have called for the judge to reject the plea, arguing that SAC has not taken enough responsibility. Prosecutors have indicated that had the case gone to trial, evidence would have shown that far more than six people were involved in the insider trading there. Read More
On April 16, 2013, Judge Victor Marrero conditionally approved a $600 million consent judgment between the SEC and CR Intrinsic Investors LLC (“CR”) where CR “neither admitted nor denied” the allegations brought against it. The settlement was on the heels of a highly publicized investigation and lawsuit regarding CR’s purported insider trading scheme involving S.A.C. Capital Advisors and former S.A.C. trader Mathew Martoma. Despite finding the proposed injunctive and monetary relief “fair, adequate, and reasonable, and in the public interest,” Judge Marrero questioned the appropriateness of the “neither admit nor deny” provisions because of the extraordinary public and private harm caused by CR’s alleged wrongful conduct.
Approval of the CR settlement was conditioned upon the outcome of the pending Second Circuit appeal in S.E.C. v. Citigroup Global Markets, Inc., 11-cv-5227 (2d Cir.). In Citigroup, Judge Rakoff (of the Southern District of New York) denied approval of the SEC’s proposed settlement of fraud charges against Citigroup. Rakoff’s opinion harshly critiqued the agency’s use of “no admission” settlements as imposing “substantial relief on the basis of mere allegations.” He questioned whether “no admission” settlements could be properly judged when the Court did not know the relevant facts and therefore “lack[ed] a framework for determining adequacy.” Both Citigroup and the SEC appealed Rakoff’s decision to the Second Circuit, where the decision remains pending. Read More
On January 24, President Obama announced his nominee for Chairman of the Securities Exchange Commission – Mary Jo White, a former United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
By selecting White, the President is signaling an interest in seeing a more forceful approach at the Commission. Indeed, if confirmed, White will be the first former criminal prosecutor to head the SEC. Previous SEC chairs, by contrast, had established careers in private legal practice, in academia, in business, and in government, either as legislators or, in the case of Harvey Pitt, as general counsel to the SEC (before his long career in private legal practice) — but not as criminal prosecutors. Although White has little regulatory or policymaking experience, she brings to the table a wealth of experience in enforcement, which has been a top priority for the SEC in recent years.
As the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 1993 to 2002, White is best known for winning convictions for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and for the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa as well as for winning the conviction of mobster John Gotti. The President emphasized, “Today . . . there are rules to end taxpayer-funded Wall Street bailouts once and for all. But it’s not enough to change the law. We also need cops on the beat to enforce the law.” Read More