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Posts by: Robert Varian

Hold the Phone: SEC Takes One Last Stand Before the Tenth Circuit regarding the Constitutionality of the SEC’s Administrative Law Judges

Last week, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission filed a petition for rehearing en banc with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, imploring the court to reconsider a divided panel’s ruling on the unconstitutionality of its administrative law judges in Bandimere v. SEC.  In that ruling (detailed here), the Tenth Circuit overturned the Commission’s sanctions against Mr. Bandimere because the SEC administrative law judge (“ALJ”) presiding over Mr. Bandimere’s case was an inferior officer who should have been constitutionally appointed (rather than hired) to the position, in violation of the Appointments Clause of the United States Constitution.

Primarily relying on its prior submissions and Judge Monroe G. McKay’s dissent in the panel’s original ruling, the SEC argues that the original decision reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of ALJs and Supreme Court precedent, and risks throwing essential features of the agency into disarray. In particular, the SEC questioned the majority’s opinion that Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U.S. 868 (1991), was dispositive in equating special trial judges of tax court to the ALJs to find that the ALJs are inferior officers who must be constitutionally appointed.  The SEC distinguishes the roles of its ALJs from those of the special tax court trial judges by noting differences in their power and function.  First, the special trial judges are vested with authority, including the power to enforce compliance with their orders, that is different in degree and kind from the powers given to ALJs.  For example, both the special trial judges and ALJs have the power to issue subpoenas, but unlike the special trial judges, ALJs have no authority to enforce subpoenas.  ALJs can only request the Commission to seek enforcement of the subpoenas in district court.  In addition, unlike the special trial judges, ALJs cannot use contempt power—a hallmark of a court—to enforce any order it may issue.  Second, the function between the special trial judges and ALJs differ because the Tax Court in Freytag was required to defer to the special trial judge’s factual finding unless “clearly erroneous, whereas the SEC decides all questions of fact and law de novo.

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Delaware Chancery Court Finds that Director Defendants Can Not “Merge Their Way Out of” Breach of Fiduciary Claims

court decision

On July 28, 2016, the Delaware Chancery Court allowed claims of unfair dealing against the Board of property management company Riverstone National Inc. to survive where the directors facilitated a merger that forestalled a derivative suit against them.  The court held that by orchestrating a merger that extinguished a possible derivative action, the director defendants obtained a special benefit for themselves.  As a result, the directors were interested in the transaction, thereby rebutting the presumption of the business judgment rule, and triggering application of the “entire fairness” doctrine.

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Former Hedge Fund Manager’s Civil Rights Suit Against New York U.S. Attorney Permitted to Proceed into Discovery

Shortly into his tenure as United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara announced a crackdown on insider trading, indicating that it would be his office’s “top criminal priority” and that investigations would utilize novel and “covert methods” to achieve convictions, including using wiretaps and informants.  According to Bharara, “every legitimate tool should be at our disposal.”  Over the next several years, federal prosecutors in Manhattan initiated nearly 100 insider trading cases against some of Wall Street’s leading names, and secured more than 80 convictions, many through guilty pleas.  For his work, Time magazine featured Bharara on its February 13, 2012 cover under the headline: “This Man is Busting Wall Street.”

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Merrill Lynch v. Manning: SCOTUS to Decide Scope of Federal Jurisdiction in Certain Securities Cases

On December 1, 2015, the Supreme Court heard argument in Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc. v. Manning.  In that case, the Court will resolve the split in the Circuits as to whether Section 27 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“the ’34 Act”) provides federal jurisdiction over claims that are asserted under state law but are based on violations of regulations adopted under the ’34 Act.

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The Boss Makes HOW much more than me? SEC Issues Final Pay Ratio Rule

On August 5, 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission approved its final rule subjecting most public companies to the so-called “Pay Ratio Disclosure” mandated by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.  The SEC voted 3-2 to approve the measure, with the panel’s two Republican members opposing it.  In the split vote, the SEC finally put into place one of the most controversial rules mandated by Dodd-Frank.  In the years since the SEC began working on the rule, it has attracted an intense measure of both public scrutiny and advocacy, drawing more than 286,000 public comments.

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Is Your Confidentiality Agreement a Ticking Time Bomb? SEC’s First Action Over Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Protections Targets Company’s Internal Investigations

For the first time in the nearly five years since Dodd-Frank went into effect, the SEC last week took action against a company over concerns that the company was preventing its employees from potentially blowing the whistle on illegal activity.  The action is significant because the SEC was targeting seemingly innocuous language in a confidentiality agreement and there were no allegations that the company, KBR, Inc., was otherwise breaking the law.

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On a Roll: The SEC Continues to Deliver on its Promise to Seek Admissions of Wrongdoing

The SEC announced last week that it has obtained yet another admission of wrongdoing in connection with an agreement to settle an SEC enforcement action.  This time, Peter A. Jenson, the former COO of Harbinger Capital Partners LLC, admitted that he aided and abetted Harbinger’s CEO, Philip Falcone, in obtaining a fraudulent loan from Harbinger.  Jenson agreed to a $200,000 penalty along with a two-year suspension from practicing as an accountant on behalf of any SEC-regulated entity.  The settlement awaits court approval.

The Jenson settlement is the latest in a series of settlements in which the SEC has obtained admissions of wrongdoing since announcing changes to its “no admit/no deny” settlement policy in June 2013. Other examples include the March 2014 Lions Gate settlement, the February 2014 Scottrade settlement, and the August 2013 Falcone/Harbinger settlement that settled charges related to those Jenson settled last week.    READ MORE

You Better Forum-Shop Around . . . While You Still Can

Matrix

On January 31, 2014, Chevron Corporation moved to certify to the Delaware Supreme Court the question of whether exclusive forum bylaws are valid under Delaware law.  Chevron filed its motion before the Honorable Jon S. Tigar of the Northern District of California.  If Judge Tigar certifies the question, it seems likely that the Delaware Supreme Court will affirm a recent Delaware Court of Chancery decision finding such bylaws to be valid under statutory and contractual law, given that the author of that decision, then-Chancellor Leo E. Strine, is now Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court.

In 2013, plaintiffs filed suit in both the Delaware Court of Chancery and the Northern District of California challenging Chevron’s board-adopted forum exclusivity bylaw.  The case in the Northern District was stayed pending the outcome of the Delaware case, since both involved questions of Delaware state law.  The Delaware plaintiffs argued that the forum exclusivity bylaw was statutorily invalid under Delaware General Corporation Law (DGCL), and contractually invalid because it was adopted unilaterally without shareholder consent.  In June 2013, the Delaware Court of Chancery – in a decision by then-Chancellor Strine – found that the bylaw was enforceable, and that the Delaware Court of Chancery should be the sole and exclusive forum for (1)any derivative action brought on behalf of the Corporation, (2) any action asserting a claim of breach of a fiduciary duty, (3) any action asserting a claim arising pursuant to any provision of the DGCL, or (4) any action asserting a claim governed by the internal affairs doctrine. READ MORE

News of the (Shareholder Derivative) World: Record-High $139 Million Settlement in News Corp. Phone Hacking Suit

Stack of Money

Putting an end to shareholder derivative litigation arising from News Corp.’s phone-hacking scandal, the company’s directors agreed last week to a record-breaking $139 million cash settlement. According to the plaintiffs’ lawyers, the deal is the “largest cash derivative settlement on record.” The settlement will be funded by directors’ and officers’ insurance proceeds.

Plaintiffs initially filed suit in the Delaware Court of Chancery in March 2011, asserting claims based on the company’s proposed acquisition (since completed) of Shine Group Ltd., a television and movie production company owned by the daughter of News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch. According to plaintiffs, the News Corp. directors breached their fiduciary duties by permitting the purchase of Shine at an excessive price. The court later consolidated various related cases, and plaintiffs’ allegations expanded to include claims that the company’s directors failed to properly investigate the UK phone-hacking allegations that led to the demise of News Corp.’s News of the World. READ MORE

Tracing Meets Twombly: Ninth Circuit Sets Section 11 Pleading Standards For Aftermarket Purchasers

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