Coming on the heels of the SEC’s first wave of settlements with underwriters as part of its Municipalities Continuing Disclosure Cooperation (“MCDC”) initiative, the agency has brought yet another precedent-setting enforcement action against an underwriter in the municipal bond market. On August 13, 2015, the SEC brought a settled enforcement action against the brokerage firm Edward Jones, in which the firm agreed to pay more than $20 million to settle charges that it overcharged customers in connection with the sale of municipal bonds in the primary market. Edward Jones settled without admitting or denying the SEC’s findings.
United States District Court Judge Richard M. Berman of the Southern District of New York has been making headlines in recent weeks as he presides over the highly publicized case between the National Football League (“NFL”) and National Football League Players Association (“NFLPA”) regarding the suspension of New England Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady over his alleged role in “Deflategate.” Taking a page from the Patriot’s playbook, Judge Berman recently deflated the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and its controversial administrative court forum.
On August 11, 2015, the SEC announced that it was bringing fraud charges against 32 defendants for their alleged participation in a five-year, international hacking and insider trading scheme. According to the SEC, two Ukrainian men hacked into at least two major newswire services, stole non-public copies of embargoed corporate announcements containing quarterly and annual earnings data, and provided the announcements to 30 other defendants, who traded off the information. In parallel actions, the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the District of New Jersey and the Eastern District of New York also announced criminal charges against some defendants named in the SEC’s action. The SEC’s enforcement action may be a harbinger of events to come. As we have written, cybersecurity is emerging as the SEC’s newest area of focus for enforcement actions.
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.
On August 4, 2015 the Securities and Exchange Commission issued interpretive guidance elaborating its view that the anti-retaliation provisions in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act apply equally to tipsters who claim retaliation after reporting internally, as well as those who are retaliated against after reporting information to the SEC. The guidance reflects that there is a split among federal courts over whether Dodd-Frank’s whistleblower retaliation provisions apply to internal as well as external reporting, and recognizes that the only circuit court to decide the issue to date, the Fifth Circuit, has taken a contrary position to that of the Commission in Rule 21F, the regulation the SEC adopted to implement the whistleblower legislation, holding that internal reports are not protected by Dodd-Frank. Whether internal reports qualify for Dodd-Frank coverage has important implications because, among other things, Dodd Frank provides enhanced recoveries (including two times back pay) and longer time frames (six years) for bringing a retaliation claim than would be available under the anti-retaliation provisions in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.
Today, the Solicitor General filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in United States v. Newman, 773 F.3d 438 (2d Cir. 2014), asking the United States Supreme Court to address the standard for insider trading in a tipper-tippee scenario. Specifically, the Solicitor General argues that the Second Circuit’s Newman decision is in conflict with the Supreme Court’s 1983 decision in Dirks v. SEC, 463 U.S. 646 (1983), and the Ninth Circuit’s recent decision in United States v. Salman, No. 14-10204 (9th Cir. July 6, 2015). Because the Supreme Court grants certiorari in nearly three out of four cases filed by the Solicitor General, the likelihood of a cert grant in Newman is particularly high.
On July 17, 2015, the SEC announced a whistleblower award of over $3 million to a company insider who provided information that “helped the SEC crack a complex fraud.” This payout represents the third highest award under the SEC’s whistleblower program to date. The SEC has made two of the three highest payments to clients of the same law firm – Phillips & Cohen LLP. (The SEC paid roughly $14 million to a whistleblower in October 2013, and nearly $30 million to a foreign whistleblower represented by Phillips & Cohen in September 2014.). This latest multi-million dollar payout suggests that the SEC’s whistleblower program is in full swing, and that legal representation of whistleblowers may be on the rise.
In United States v. Salman, the Ninth Circuit recently held that a remote tippee could be liable for insider trading in the absence of any “personal benefit” to the insider/tipper where the insider had a close personal relationship with the tippee. This opinion is significant in that it appears at first glance to conflict with the Second Circuit’s decision last year in United States v. Newman, in which the court overturned the conviction of two remote tippees on the grounds that the government failed to establish first, that the insider who disclosed confidential information in that case did so in exchange for a personal benefit, and second, that the remote tippees were aware that the information had come from insiders. Read More
In recent months, issues related to internal control systems and reporting have taken on an increased profile and significance. For example, as previously noted by the authors here and here, the SEC has sought to prioritize compliance with internal controls by initiating a growing number of investigations into companies based on allegations of inadequate internal controls.
Last week, the SEC scored a victory in its battle to defend the use of administrative proceedings in enforcement actions seeking penalties against unregulated entities or persons. On June 30, 2015, Southern District of New York Judge Ronnie Abrams denied Plaintiffs Lynn Tilton, Patriarch Partners LLC, and affiliated entities’ motion for a preliminary injunction halting the SEC’s administrative proceedings against them. Judge Abrams’ decision in Tilton v. SEC is the latest in a string of challenges to the SEC’s use of administrative proceedings in enforcement actions (also discussed in earlier posts from July 31, 2014 and October 28, 2014). As we have written, the SEC has faced mounting scrutiny for its increasing use of administrative proceedings, including criticism that the Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) presiding over the proceedings are biased in favor the SEC’s Enforcement Decision and that defendants subjected to administrative proceedings are entitled to fewer due process protections, including limited discovery and no right to a jury trial. The SEC began increasing its use of administrative proceedings after the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act enabled the Commission to file actions against unregulated entities or persons in its in-house forum, rather than in federal courts, as it had traditionally been required to do.