Client Alert

SEC Reportedly Centralizing Authority to Issue Formal Investigation Orders

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the acting Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission has centralized authority to issue formal orders of investigation – a critical authority that triggers the ability of SEC staff attorneys to issue subpoenas.  The move, which was not publicized by the SEC, would curb existing powers of the Commission’s enforcement staff.

Since 2009, the power to issue formal orders of investigation had been “sub-delegated” to about 20 senior attorneys within the SEC’s Enforcement Division. However, according to the Journal report, acting SEC Chairman Michael Piwowar ordered the authority to be centralized exclusively with the Director of Enforcement. READ MORE

Second Circuit Halts Constitutional Challenge to SEC Administrative Proceedings

On June 1, the Second Circuit in Tilton et al. v. SEC, No. 15-2103 (2d. Cir. Jun. 1, 2016), echoed recent Seventh and D.C. Circuit decisions (respectively, Bebo v. SEC, No. 15-1511 (7th Cir. Aug. 24, 2015), cert. denied, 136 S. Ct. 1500 (Mar. 28, 2016), and Jarkesy v. SEC, No. 14-5196 (D.C. Cir. Sept. 29, 2015)) in finding that constitutional or other challenges to SEC proceedings cannot go forward in court until the administrative proceeding ends; review can only be sought as an appeal from a final decision by the Commission.  The Second Circuit’s decision in Tilton creates unanimity among the circuit courts that have addressed the issue to date, although, as we previously reported, the Eleventh Circuit is likely to rule on the issue sometime this year in Hill v. SEC, No. 15-12831. Unless the Eleventh Circuit bucks this trend and creates a circuit split, it now looks unlikely that the Supreme Court will weigh in on this issue (particularly because the Supreme Court previously denied a petition to review the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Bebo).

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Taking Action That Affects The Shareholder Vote? Expect the “Gimlet Eye”

On May 19, 2016, the Delaware Chancery Court preliminarily enjoined the directors of Cogentix Medical from reducing the size of the company’s board because, under the facts presented, there was a reasonable probability that the board reduction plan was implemented to defeat insurgent candidates in a contested director election.  Pell v. Kill, C.A. No. 12251-VCL (Del. Ch. May 19, 2016).  The decision is a reminder that board actions that affect the shareholder vote—particularly decisions that make it more difficult for stockholders to elect directors not supported by management—will be subject to enhanced judicial scrutiny by Delaware courts on the lookout with a “gimlet eye” for conduct having a preclusive or coercive effect on the stockholder vote.

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Supreme Court Issues Two Decisions That Limit Access to Federal Courts

On May 16, 2016, the United States Supreme Court handed down two decisions that may, in practice, limit the ability to access federal district courts.  In Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, No. 13-1339, 578 U.S. ___ (2016), the Supreme Court rejected the Ninth Circuit’s conclusion that statutory violations are per se sufficient to confer Article III standing, and, in Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc. v. Manning, No. 14-1132, 578 U.S. ___ (2016), the Court concluded that jurisdiction under Section 27 of the Securities and Exchange Act (Exchange Act) is limited to suits brought under the Exchange Act and state law claims that turn on the plaintiff’s ability to prove the violation of a federal duty.

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Delaware Supreme Court Reaffirms KKR, But Sounds Cautionary Note to Gatekeepers

On May 6, 2016, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the Delaware Chancery Court’s ruling that Zale Corporation’s sale to Signet Jewelers withstood scrutiny under the business judgment rule because the transaction was approved by a fully-informed, uncoerced vote of the disinterested stockholders, and that an aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty claim against Zale’s financial advisor failed as a matter of law where the plaintiff failed to establish that the Zale board had acted with gross negligence.  In so holding, the Court reaffirmed its holding in Corwin v. KKR Financial Holdings LLC, 125 A.3d 304 (Del. 2015), that in cases in which Revlon would otherwise apply, approval of the transaction by a fully-informed, uncoerced majority of disinterested stockholders invokes the deferential business judgment rule standard of review.  While the Court also affirmed the Chancery Court’s dismissal of the aiding and abetting claim against Zale’s financial advisor, it called the Chancery Court’s reasoning for the dismissal into doubt and sounded a cautionary note to gatekeepers that they are not insulated from liability merely because they are alleged to have aided and abetted a non-exculpated breach of fiduciary duty by their director clients.

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Eighth Circuit Breathes Life Into Halliburton’s Price Impact Defense

The first Circuit Court of Appeals decision applying the Supreme Court’s landmark 2014 decision in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2398 (2014) (“Halliburton II”), favored the defendants, finding as a matter of law that Best Buy Co. and its executives successfully rebutted the presumption of reliance set forth in Basic v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224 (1988) at the class certification stage through evidence of a lack of price impact from their alleged misstatements.  See IBEW Local 98 Pension Fund et al. v. Best Buy Co., Inc. et al., Case No. 14-3178 (8th Cir. Apr. 12, 2016).  By reversing the district court and holding that a class could not be certified, the Eighth Circuit showed that Halliburton II provides defendants with a meaningful opportunity to challenge the fraud on the market presumption.  The plaintiffs’ bar, however, will be eager to highlight Best Buy’s unique pattern in trying to limit the impact of the decision beyond this case.  Whether other federal courts follow the Eighth Circuit’s lead and deny class certification motions based on Halliburton II in greater numbers, and outside the Best Buy fact pattern, remains to be seen.

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Recent SEC Enforcement Actions and Public Commentary Demonstrate the Commission’s Continued Focus on Internal Control Failures

We have previously written about how, over the past few years, the SEC and other regulatory agencies have devoted substantial resources to investigations regarding allegations that public companies have inadequate internal controls and/or a system for reporting those controls.  See herehere and here.  That effort shows no signs of waning.  As recently as March 23, 2016, the SEC announced a settlement with a multi-national company due in part to the internal controls failures at two foreign subsidiaries.  On March 10, 2016, the SEC announced a settlement of claims against Magnum Hunter Resources Corporation in connection with alleged internal control failures.  And, on February 17, 2016, the SEC announced a settlement of claims against a biopesticide company, Marrone Bio Innovations, based on the company having reported misstated financial results caused in part by internal control failures.[1]

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Supreme Court Affirms Class Certification and Judgment Predicated upon “Representative Evidence”

On March 22, 2016, the Supreme Court issued a decision permitting class plaintiffs to rely on “representative” or “sample” evidence to satisfy the prerequisites to class certification and certain elements of their claims.  See Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, No. 14-1146, 2016 WL 1092414 (Mar. 22, 2016).  This is one of the relatively few recent class action decisions by the Court that could be construed as something other than a victory for class defendants.  As Justice Thomas stated in dissent, the decision arguably is inconsistent with the Court’s pro-defendant decisions in Wal-Mart and Comcast.  We have previously discussed the Supreme Court’s recent class action jurisprudence, including the Wal-Mart and Comcast decisions.

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Chancery Court Reaffirms There Is No Magic Number for “Control” Status

On February 29, 2016, the Delaware Court of Chancery denied a motion to dismiss fiduciary duty claims against certain current and former directors of Halt Medical and a 26% stockholder, American Capital, arising out of a transaction that was allegedly designed to “squeeze out” minority stockholders.  See Calesa Associates, L.P. v. American Capital, Ltd., C.A. No. 10557-VCG.  Vice Chancellor Glasscock found that the plaintiffs had adequately alleged that American, despite owning only 26% of the company’s shares, exercised sufficient influence over the Halt Medical board such that it and certain affiliates could be deemed “controlling stockholders” owing fiduciary duties to other stockholders.  Among other things, the decision in Calesa reaffirmed that majority stock ownership is not the sole criterion for determining “control.”  The decision also sounded a cautionary note, however, by suggesting that, where plaintiffs remain minority stockholders in the company after the allegedly dilutive transaction at issue, they must plead demand futility even where, as here, only direct claims are asserted, or face dismissal at the pleading stage.

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Gatekeepers No More: Delaware Supreme Court Clarifies Scope of Potential Financial Advisor Liability In M&A Sales Transactions

On November 30, 2015, the Delaware Supreme Court issued a 107-page opinion affirming the Court of Chancery’s post-trial decisions in In re Rural/Metro Corp. Stockholders Litigation (previously discussed here).  In the lower court, Vice Chancellor Laster found a seller’s financial advisor (the “Financial Advisor”) liable in the amount of $76 million for aiding and abetting the Rural/Metro Corporation board’s breaches of fiduciary duty in connection with the company’s sale to private equity firm Warburg Pincus LLC.  See RBC Capital Mkts., LLC v. Jervis, No. 140, 2015, slip op. (Del. Nov. 30, 2015).  The Court’s decision reaffirms the importance of financial advisor independence and the courts’ exacting scrutiny of M&A advisors’ conflicts of interest.  Significantly, however, the Court disagreed with Vice Chancellor Laster’s characterization of financial advisors as “gatekeepers” whose role is virtually on par with the board’s to appropriately determine the company’s value and chart an effective sales process.  Instead, the Court found that the relationship between an advisor and the company or board primarily is contractual in nature and the contract, not a theoretical gatekeeping function, defines the scope of the advisor’s duties in the absence of undisclosed conflicts on the part of the advisor.  In that regard, the Court stated:  “Our holding is a narrow one that should not be read expansively to suggest that any failure on the part of a financial advisor to prevent directors from breaching their duty of care gives rise to” an aiding and abetting claim.  In that (albeit limited) sense, the decision offers something of a silver lining to financial advisors in M&A transactions.   Equally important, the decision underscores the limited value of employing a second financial advisor unless that advisor is paid on a non-contingent basis, does not seek to provide staple financing, and performs its own independent financial analysis.

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