The defense bar recently won a significant victory in the battle to challenge the SEC’s expanded use of administrative proceedings, following the 2010 enactment of the Dodd-Frank Act, to seek penalties against unregulated individuals and entities. As we previously wrote in SEC’s Administrative Proceedings: Where One Stands Appears to Depend on Where One Sits and There’s No Place Like Home: The Constitutionality of the SEC’s In-House Courts, SEC administrative proceedings have recently faced growing scrutiny, including skepticism about whether the administrative law judges (ALJs) presiding over these cases are inherently biased in favor of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that ALJs rule in favor of the SEC 90% of the time in administrative proceedings. Administrative proceedings have also been criticized for the ways in which they differ from federal court actions, including that respondents are generally barred from taking depositions, counterclaims are not permissible, there is no equivalent of Rule 12(b) motions to test the allegations’ sufficiency, and there is no right to a jury trial.
On Friday June 5, 2015, the SEC made incremental progress toward finalizing the “pay ratio” rule required by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act by publishing a memo from the Division of Economic and Risk Analysis (DERA memo) that addresses questions about how that pay ratio will be calculated for the purposes of the law.
Last week the SEC announced an award of between $1.4 to $1.6 million to a whistleblower who provided information that assisted the SEC in an enforcement action. The enforcement action against the whistleblower’s company resulting in monetary sanctions exceeding $1 million. This marks the second award to a whistleblower with an internal audit or compliance function at a company. The first was back in August 2014, when the SEC awarded a whistleblower in internal auditing/compliance with over $300,000. Here, as with the prior award, the officer had a reasonable basis for believing that disclosure to the SEC was necessary to prevent imminent misconduct from causing substantial financial harm to the company or investors. In both cases, responsible management was made aware of the potential harm that could occur, yet failed to take steps to prevent it.
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.
Last week, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced an award payout of between $475,000 and $575,000 to a former company officer who reported information about an alleged securities fraud. While this is by no means the largest of the 15 payouts the SEC has made since the inception of the whistleblower program in fiscal year 2012 (the SEC awarded approximately $14 million to a whistleblower in October 2013, and roughly $30 million to a foreign whistleblower almost a year later), it is the first time that the SEC provided a whistleblower bounty award under the new program to an officer who learned about the alleged fraud through another employee, rather than firsthand.
In an amicus brief filed earlier this month in Berman v. Neo@Ogilvy LCC, the SEC asked the Second Circuit to defer to the Commission and hold that individuals who report misconduct internally are covered by the anti-retaliation protections of the Dodd-Frank Act of 2002, regardless of whether they report the information to the SEC.
On January 14, 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that loosens certain Dodd-Frank requirements and reduces the scope of the SEC’s regulatory authority over certain private equity firms, small businesses, and emerging companies. The bill is part of a larger fight between Democrats and Republicans over the scope of Dodd-Frank and government oversight over financial institutions generally.
As we have previously reported, practitioners and judges alike have recently been questioning the SEC’s increased use of administrative proceedings. Defense lawyers complain that administrative proceedings, which have historically been a rarely used enforcement tool, are stacked against respondents. Recently, Judge Rakoff of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York publicly discussed the “dangers” that “lurk in the SEC’s apparent new policy.” Director of Enforcement Andrew Ceresney delivered a speech late last month responding to public criticism, in particular countering many points raised by Judge Rakoff.
In an interesting and uncommon intersection between securities law, curbing human rights abuses and freedom of speech under the First Amendment, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia recently agreed to re-consider whether the SEC can require companies to disclose whether their products contain “conflict minerals.” The term “Conflict Minerals” is defined in Section 1502(e)(4) of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank Act”) and refers to certain minerals originating from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (“DRC”), or an adjoining country, that have been used by armed groups to help finance violent conflicts and human rights abuses in those countries. These minerals currently include gold, tin, tatalum, tungsten, and may include any other mineral the Secretary of State determines is being used to finance conflict in the DRC or an adjoining country.
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.