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.
The fall-out from the Second Circuit’s decision in U.S. v. Newman continued last week in SEC v. Payton, when Southern District of New York Judge Jed S. Rakoff denied a motion to dismiss an SEC civil enforcement action against two former brokers, Daryl Payton and Benjamin Durant, one of whom (Payton) had just had his criminal plea for the same conduct reversed in light of Newman. Although the United States may be unable to make criminal charges stick against some alleged insider traders under a standard of “willfulness,” Judge Rakoff found that the SEC had sufficiently alleged that related conduct of the two brokers at the end of the tip line was “reckless,” satisfying the SEC’s lower civil standard.
Last week, a New York federal judge struck another blow to prosecutorial efforts to secure insider trading convictions in tipper-tippee cases. As discussed in detail here, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York suffered a high-profile defeat in an insider trading case last month, when the Second Circuit issued its decision in U.S. v. Newman, No. 13-1837, 2014 WL 6911278 (2d Cir. Dec. 10, 2014). In Newman, the Second Circuit found that prosecutors in tipper-tippee cases must prove both that the tipper (the individual disclosing inside information in breach of a duty) received a personal benefit in exchange for the disclosure, and that the tippee (the individual receiving and trading on the information) knew about the tipper’s receipt of that benefit. In the wake of Newman, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara and others expressed concerns that the decision could limit future insider trading prosecutions.
On December 10, 2014, the Second Circuit issued an important decision (U.S. v. Newman, No. 13-1837, 2014 WL 6911278 (2d Cir. Dec. 10, 2014)) that will make it more difficult in that Circuit for prosecutors, and most likely the SEC, to prevail on a “tippee” theory of insider trading liability. Characterizing the government’s recent tippee insider trading prosecutions as “novel” in targeting “remote tippees many levels removed from corporate insiders,” the court reversed the convictions of two investment fund managers upon concluding that the lower court gave erroneous jury instructions and finding insufficient evidence to sustain the convictions. The court held, contrary to the government’s position, that tippee liability requires that the tippee trade on information he or she knows to have been disclosed by the tipper: (i) in violation of a fiduciary duty, and (ii) in exchange for a meaningful personal benefit. Absent such knowledge, the tippee is not liable for trading on the information.
Until recently, it was extremely rare for the SEC to bring enforcement actions against unregulated entities or persons in its administrative court rather than in federal court. However, as a result of the Dodd-Frank Act (and perhaps the SEC’s lackluster record in federal court trials over the past few years), the SEC is committed to bringing, and has in fact brought, more administrative proceedings against individuals that previously would be filed in federal court. Many have questioned the constitutionality of these administrative proceedings. As U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff remarked in August 2014: “[o]ne might wonder: From where does the constitutional warrant for such unchecked and unbalanced administrative power derive?” Several recent SEC targets agree with Judge Rakoff, and have filed federal court suits challenging the constitutionality of the SEC’s administrative proceedings. (Notably, in a 2011 order regarding the SEC’s first attempt to use its expanded Dodd-Frank powers to bring more administrative cases, Judge Rakoff denied a motion to dismiss a constitutional challenge to the SEC’s decision to bring an administrative proceeding in an insider trading case against an unregulated person, following which the SEC terminated that proceeding and litigated in federal court.)
On June 18, 2014, Judge Victor Marrero of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York approved the SEC’s no-admit, no-deny consent decrees in its insider trading case against CR Intrinsic Investors, LLC and affiliated entities. In approving the decrees, however, the court called on the SEC to take a “wait and see” approach in cases involving parallel criminal actions arising out of the same transactions alleged in its complaint.
The decision follows the much-anticipated opinion in SEC v. Citigroup Global Markets (“Citigroup IV”), in which the Second Circuit vacated Judge Rakoff’s order refusing to approve a no-admit, no-deny consent decree between the SEC and Citigroup. The Second Circuit found that district courts are required to enter proposed SEC consent decrees if the decrees are “fair and reasonable,” and if the public interest is not disserved. A court must focus on whether the consent decree is procedurally proper, and cannot find that a proposed decree disserves the public based on its disagreement with the SEC’s use of discretionary no-admit, no-deny settlements.
A California federal jury sided against the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday, June 6, finding the founder of storage device maker STEC Inc. not guilty on insider trading charges. This is the second insider trading loss in a week for the SEC, following a May 30 defeat in which a New York federal jury rejected insider trading allegations against three defendants, including hedge fund manager Nelson Obus.
In STEC, the SEC alleged that founder Manouchehr Moshayedi made a secret deal with a customer to conceal a drop in demand in advance of a secondary offering. According to the complaint, Moshayedi knew that one of STEC’s key customers, EMC Inc., would demand fewer of STEC’s most profitable products than analysts expected. The SEC alleged that he then made a secret deal that allowed EMC to take a larger share of inventory in exchange for a steep, undisclosed discount.
On March 31, 2014, the Securities and Exchange Commission brought insider trading charges against Ching Hwa Chen, the husband of a corporate insider, alleging that he misappropriated financial information from his wife and then shorted her employer’s stock, netting $138,000 in ill gotten gains. SEC v. Chen, No. 5:14-cv-01467 (N.D. Cal). The SEC’s allegations (taken from its complaint) are as follows: Chen’s wife was the Senior Tax Director of Informatica, a data integration company. In late June 2012, Informatica learned it would miss its revenue guidance for the first time in 31 consecutive quarters. That miss caused the defendant’s wife to work more than usual as the company scrambled to close its books and prepare for a potential pre-release of its quarterly revenues. Over the next several days, the defendant overheard his wife’s phone calls addressing the revenue miss, including on a four-hour drive to Reno, Nevada where his wife fielded calls from the passenger seat as he drove. Early the next week, convinced that Informatica’s stock would lose value, Chen bet heavily against the company, shorting its stock, buying put options, and selling call options. In early July, after announcing the miss, Informatica’s stock price fell 27% from $43 to $31. Chen closed out all of his positions that same day. Read More
In a story right out of the movies, complete with “poison pills” and “white squires,” the SEC announced on March 13, 2014 that motion picture company Lions Gate Entertainment Corporation settled charges that it failed to disclose to investors a set of “extraordinary” corporate transactions designed to thwart takeover efforts by investor Carl Icahn.
The tale of intrigue and midnight board meetings can be traced to Icahn’s efforts, beginning in 2008, to acquire control of Lions Gate. Despite his eventually gaining beneficial ownership of nearly 40 percent of Lions Gate’s outstanding shares, the company rejected various demands from Icahn over the years, including a demand to appoint five of the twelve seats on the Board of Directors. In March, 2010, Icahn made a tender offer with a premium over the market price to entice shareholders to sell. To thwart Icahn’s tender offer, Lions Gate adopted a poison pill and began to look for ways to keep the company out of Icahn’s hands. Read More
A trader who uses material nonpublic information to execute trades but does not personally benefit from the resulting gains may nonetheless face disgorgement of all profits, according to a recent Second Circuit opinion. In Securities Exchange Commission v. Contorinis, No. 12-1723, the Second Circuit affirmed a judgment from the Southern District of New York requiring defendant Joseph Contorinis, a former hedge fund manager at Jeffries & Co., to disgorge nearly $7.3 million in profits realized through an investment fund he had managed. The court rejected the argument a person can only disgorge profits that are personally enjoyed and instead found that disgorgement may also apply unlawful gains that flow to third parties. Relying on a principle that the limit for disgorgement is the total amount of gain flowing from illegal action, the Second Circuit concluded that district courts may impose disgorgement liability for gains that flow to third parties. Read More