Financial Institutions

A Fraud By Any Other Name: Seventh Circuit Holds That SLUSA Extends to Class Actions That Could Be Pursued Under Federal Securities Fraud Laws

A divided panel of the Seventh Circuit recently held that the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act (“SLUSA”) requires any covered class action that “could have been pursued under federal securities law” to be brought in federal court.  The plaintiff maintained an investment account at LaSalle Bank, which was later acquired by Bank of America.  Each night, LaSalle invested (“swept”) the account’s balance into a mutual fund approved by the plaintiff.  Without the plaintiff’s knowledge, LaSalle also allegedly pocketed the fees that some of the mutual funds paid each time a balance was transferred.  When the plaintiff found out, he brought a class action in state court, arguing that LaSalle had breached its contractual and fiduciary duties to its customers by secretly paying itself fees generated by their accounts.

LaSalle and Bank of America successfully argued before the district court that SLUSA required removal of the case to federal court. SLUSA authorizes defendants to demand removal of any class action with at least fifty members that alleges “a misrepresentation or omission of a material fact in connection with the purchase or sale of a covered security.”  Congress drafted SLUSA to force securities class actions out of state courts and into federal courts, where plaintiffs must clear higher pleading hurdles.

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New Year, Similar Priorities: SEC Announces 2017 OCIE Areas of Focus

On January 12, 2017 the SEC announced its Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) priorities for the year, including areas of focus for Retail Investors, Senior Investors and Retirement Investments, Market-wide risks, FINRA oversight, and cybersecurity.  These priorities reflect an extension of previous years’ commitments, in particular with regard to focus on the retirement industry and cybersecurity.  The “Regulation Systems Compliance and Integrity” (Regulation SCI) adopted by the SEC in November 2014 will also be a continued focus.

Once again, protection of retail investors is of primary concern for the OCIE. Among the detailed areas of focus are examining risks related to electronic investment advice, “wrap fee” programs where investors are charged a single fee for bundled advisory and brokerage services, and “Never-before examined” Investment advisers, an initiative that was started in 2014 to engage with newly-registered advisers that had never-before been examined.  Examination of Exchange-Traded funds (ETFs) and continuation of the ReTIRE initiative are two carryovers from 2016 priorities .  The OCIE previously identified ETFs, which are sometimes seen as alternatives to mutual funds, for examination related to compliance with the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and the Investment Company Act of 1940. ReTIRE, launched in June 2015, places particular focus on those SEC-registered investment advisers and broker dealers who offer retirement-oriented investment services to retail investors, including examining whether there is a reasonable basis for the recommendations made.  This year, the SEC will expand ReTIRE to include “assessing controls surrounding cross-transactions, particularly with respect to fixed income securities.”

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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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FBI Warns Against Fraudulent E-mail Scheme

Companies should take notice of a new fraud scheme that has been making the rounds, targeting businesses that regularly make wire transfers.  Known as the “Business E-mail Compromise,” or BEC, this scam targets employees responsible for wiring money, instructing them under false pretenses to wire large sums to fraudulent accounts.  The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that the scam has claimed over 2,000 victims and resulted in losses totaling nearly $215 million since October 2013.  In one version of the BEC fraud, the e-mail accounts of high-level business executives (CEO, CFO, CTO, etc.) are compromised by the creation of spoof e-mail addresses.  The imposters then use the compromised executive’s e-mail account to send a request for a wire transfer to a second employee within the company who is responsible for processing such requests.  This version of the scheme has been referred to as “CEO Fraud” or the “Business Executive Scam.”  In another variation of the scam, businesses which have a long-standing relationship with a particular supplier or vendor (i.e. a landlord) receive a spoofed e-mail purportedly from that vendor directing the business to wire funds for invoice payment to an alternate, fraudulent account.  This version of the scheme has been referred to as “The Bogus Invoice Scheme” or “The Supplier Swindle.”

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Are Bank Branches in New York the Gateway to Seizure of Foreign Assets: The New York Court of Appeals Reconsiders the Separate Entity Rule

On September 16, 2014, the New York Court of Appeals heard oral argument on a certified question from the Second Circuit in Motorola Credit Corp. v. Standard Chartered Bank, an important case concerning the application of New York’s “separate entity rule” to foreign banks that maintain a branch in New York.

When someone obtains a judgment in New York, he may enforce that judgment by serving a restraining notice on a bank that holds the judgment debtor’s assets. Once the bank receives that notice, it may not distribute the funds to any person other than the sheriff. The judgment creditor may also sue for a court order requiring the bank to turn over the judgment debtors’ assets. READ MORE