In Gabelli v. SEC, a unanimous Supreme Court held that the statute of limitations for “penalty” claims in governmental enforcement actions begins to run from the date of the underlying violation of the law, not when the government discovers or reasonably should have discovered the misconduct. Gabelli has important implications for the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and all governmental agencies because it limits the sanctions available to the agency for conduct that occurred more than five years before it commences a civil enforcement action. Opinion.
Gabelli involved the application of 28 U.S.C. § 2462, which provides that “an action, suit or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty or forfeiture … shall not be entertained unless commenced within five years from the date when the claim first accrued[.]” In 2008, the SEC sought civil penalties from Mark Gabelli, a mutual fund portfolio manager, for alleged violations of the Investment Advisers Act in connection with alleged market timing issues. Gabelli successfully moved to dismiss the penalty claims as time-barred under Section 2462 because the complaint was filed almost six years after the alleged misconduct. On appeal, the Second Circuit reversed, reasoning that in cases of fraud the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the SEC discovered (or reasonably could have discovered) the wrongful acts. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that “a claim based on fraud accrues—and the five-year clock begins to tick—when a defendant’s allegedly fraudulent conduct occurs.” Read More
Today, the Supreme Court granted a petition for certiorari in Gabelli v. Securities and Exchange Commission (11-1274). In the appeal from a Second Circuit opinion, the Court will decide whether a governmental claim for penalties accrues on the date that the underlying violation occurs, or when the SEC discovers (or reasonably could have discovered) the violation, for purposes of the 5-year statute of limitations for governmental penalty actions embodied in 28 U.S.C. s. 2462. The precise question presented is:
“When Congress has not enacted a separate controlling provision, does the government’s claim first accrue for purposes of applying the five-year limitations period under 28 U.S.C. s. 2462 when the government can first bring the action for a penalty?”
The Second Circuit, in an opinion adopting the SEC’s position, held that the discovery rule applies to SEC enforcement actions rooted in fraud. Under that rubric, the SEC could bring an enforcement action within five years of learning about a fraud, which, in many cases, can be far more than five years after the underlying violation occurred. The Supreme Court’s decision to take the case follows closely on the heels of the Fifth Circuit’s August 7, 2012 decision in SEC v. Bartek, previously discussed here. In Bartek, the Fifth Circuit held that the statute of limitations for penalties in SEC enforcement actions began to run on the date of the underlying in violation, and that the discovery rule does not apply to 28 U.S.C. s. 2462. The Bartek decision therefore created a clear Circuit split that the Supreme Court is poised to resolve next term.