SEC

What to Watch for From the New SEC Chairman

Last Thursday, Jay Clayton was officially sworn in as the new Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.  As the new Chairman takes office, here are a few things we’re keeping an eye on:

Will Chairman Clayton take a position on the recently introduced bipartisan bill that would increase civil monetary penalties in SEC enforcement actions?  The “Stronger Enforcement of Civil Penalties Act of 2017” would significantly increase civil monetary penalties in enforcement actions to as much as $1 million per violation for individuals and $10 million per violation for entities, or three times the money gained in the violation or lost by the victims.  The current maximum civil monetary penalties are $181,071 and $905,353 per violation for individuals and entities, respectively.

Will the new Chairman preserve the directive reportedly issued by former Acting Chairman Michael Piwowar to re-centralize authority to issue formal orders of investigation?  In 2009, the SEC adopted a rule that delegated authority to issue formal orders initiating investigations to the Director of Enforcement, who then “sub-delegated” it to regional and associate directors and unit chiefs within the Enforcement Division.  In February, Piwowar reportedly revoked the “sub-delegated” authority, ordering it re-centralized exclusively with the Director of Enforcement.

Will enforcement actions against public companies increase or decrease after hitting their highest level since 2009 last year?  A recent report issued by the NYU Pollack Center for Law & Business and Cornerstone Research found that the 92 actions the SEC brought against public companies and their subsidiaries in 2016 is more than double the level of enforcement activity from just three years prior. READ MORE

Congress May Significantly Increase SEC Civil Penalties Up To $10 Million Per Violation

On March 30, 2017, a bipartisan group of Senators introduced a bill called “Stronger Enforcement of Civil Penalties Act of 2017” (the “SEC Penalties Act”) to “crack down on Wall Street fraud” that would significantly increase civil monetary penalties in SEC enforcement actions up to $1 million per violation for individuals and $10 million per violation for entities, or three times the money gained in the violation or lost by the victims.  Currently, the maximum civil monetary penalties in SEC enforcement actions are $181,071 per violation for individuals and $905,353 per violation for entities.[1]

The SEC Penalties Act raises the maximum penalties under all three penalty tiers, would tie penalties to the scope of harm and associated investor losses, triple the maximum penalty caps under each tier for recidivists who have been held criminally or civilly liable for securities fraud within the preceding five years, and provide the SEC with authority to seek disgorgement of ill-gotten gains in SEC administrative actions (currently disgorgement is only available in federal district court actions). The legislation would not alter the current three-tier penalty structure or the standards for establishing a penalty under each tier, and does not define how administrative law judges and federal district courts should interpret the “each act or omission” language in the penalty statutes.[2]

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2016 Could Be Peak SEC

2016 was a high-water mark for SEC enforcement activity; however, with the uncertainties associated with the new administration’s enforcement regime, we could be seeing a downturn going forward. According to a recent report issued by the NYU Pollack Center for Law & Business and Cornerstone Research, the SEC’s 2016 fiscal year (spanning October 1, 2015 – September 30, 2016) saw the highest number of enforcement actions brought against public companies and their subsidiaries since 2009, the year the Pollack Center and Cornerstone Research first began tracking information on such actions.  The 92 actions brought against public companies and their subsidiaries last year is more than double the level of enforcement activity from just three years ago and represents the latest in a continuing upward trend of enforcement actions.  Also consistent with recent trends, the vast majority of these actions have been brought as administrative enforcement proceedings before SEC ALJs, rather than civil actions in federal court.

The SEC continues to focus most heavily on issuers’ reporting and disclosure obligations, which comprised more than a quarter of the enforcement actions initiated last year. The SEC has consistently emphasized issuer disclosures as an area of enforcement priority and its pattern of activity has, to date, backed that up.  Last year also brought enhanced focus on investment advisors and investment companies, with the SEC initiating more actions against those defendants in 2016 than in the previous three years combined.  Allegations of foreign corrupt practices and actions against companies making initial or secondary securities offerings also resulted in an increased rate of enforcement activity over prior periods.

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Changing the Game, Again: Supreme Court Could Limit SEC’s Authority to Seek Disgorgement

This week, the Supreme Court heard argument regarding whether the SEC’s actions to disgorge ill-gotten gains are subject to a five-year statute of limitations for “any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture.”

The appeal stems from an SEC action alleging that between 1995 and 2006, Charles Kokesh, a New Mexico-based investment adviser, misappropriated a staggering $35 million from two investment advisory companies that he owned and controlled, squandering the money of tens of thousands of small investors. While Kokesh moved into a gated mansion and bought himself a personal polo court (complete with a stable of 50 horses), he allegedly concealed his massive ill-gotten earnings by distributing false proxy statements to investors and filing dozens of false reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In 2009, the SEC brought a civil enforcement action against Kokesh in the District of New Mexico alleging violations of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, and the Investment Company Act of 1940. The jury found violations of all three acts, and the district court ordered Kokesh to disgorge the $35 million he misappropriated (plus interest) and pay a $2.4 million civil monetary penalty for the “egregious” frauds he committed within the prior five years.  While the district court ordered disgorgement of all of Kokesh’s ill-gotten gains since 1995, the civil monetary penalty it imposed was constrained by the five-year statute of limitations found in 28 U.S.C. § 2462, which applies to claims throughout the U.S. Code for “any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture.” READ MORE

Hold the Phone: SEC Takes One Last Stand Before the Tenth Circuit regarding the Constitutionality of the SEC’s Administrative Law Judges

Last week, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission filed a petition for rehearing en banc with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, imploring the court to reconsider a divided panel’s ruling on the unconstitutionality of its administrative law judges in Bandimere v. SEC.  In that ruling (detailed here), the Tenth Circuit overturned the Commission’s sanctions against Mr. Bandimere because the SEC administrative law judge (“ALJ”) presiding over Mr. Bandimere’s case was an inferior officer who should have been constitutionally appointed (rather than hired) to the position, in violation of the Appointments Clause of the United States Constitution.

Primarily relying on its prior submissions and Judge Monroe G. McKay’s dissent in the panel’s original ruling, the SEC argues that the original decision reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of ALJs and Supreme Court precedent, and risks throwing essential features of the agency into disarray. In particular, the SEC questioned the majority’s opinion that Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U.S. 868 (1991), was dispositive in equating special trial judges of tax court to the ALJs to find that the ALJs are inferior officers who must be constitutionally appointed.  The SEC distinguishes the roles of its ALJs from those of the special tax court trial judges by noting differences in their power and function.  First, the special trial judges are vested with authority, including the power to enforce compliance with their orders, that is different in degree and kind from the powers given to ALJs.  For example, both the special trial judges and ALJs have the power to issue subpoenas, but unlike the special trial judges, ALJs have no authority to enforce subpoenas.  ALJs can only request the Commission to seek enforcement of the subpoenas in district court.  In addition, unlike the special trial judges, ALJs cannot use contempt power—a hallmark of a court—to enforce any order it may issue.  Second, the function between the special trial judges and ALJs differ because the Tax Court in Freytag was required to defer to the special trial judge’s factual finding unless “clearly erroneous, whereas the SEC decides all questions of fact and law de novo.

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Circuit Split on Whistleblower Protections Widens

On March 8, 2017, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion in Somers v. Digital Realty Trust Inc. that further widened a circuit split on the issue of whether the anti-retaliation provisions in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act apply to whistleblowers who claim retaliation after reporting internally or instead only to those who report information to the SEC.  Following the Second Circuit’s 2015 decision in Berman v. [email protected] LLC, the Ninth Circuit panel held that Dodd-Frank protections apply to internal whistleblowers.  By contrast, the Fifth Circuit considered this issue in its 2013 decision in Asadi v. G.E. Energy (USA), LLC and found that the Dodd-Frank anti-retaliation provisions unambiguously protect only those whistleblowers who report directly to the SEC.

Plaintiff Paul Somers alleged that Digital Realty Trust fired him after he made several reports to senior management regarding possible securities law violations. Somers only reported these possible violations internally at the company, and not to the SEC.  After his employment was terminated, Somers sued Digital Realty, alleging violations of state and federal securities laws, including violations of the whistleblower protections under Dodd-Frank.  Digital Realty moved to dismiss on the ground that Somers was not a “whistleblower” under Dodd-Frank.  The district court denied the motion, deferring to the SEC’s interpretation that internal reporters are also protected from retaliation under Dodd-Frank.

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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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Not So Fast: The Tenth Circuit Creates a Split by Denying the Constitutionality of the SEC’s Administrative Law Judges

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Just before the clock struck 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit weighed in on the constitutionality of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission’s (“SEC” or “Commission”) administrative law judges. In Bandimere v. SEC, the Tenth Circuit overturned Commission sanctions against Mr. Bandimere because the SEC administrative law judge (“ALJ”) presiding over Mr. Bandimere’s case was an inferior officer who should have been constitutionally appointed to the position in violation of the Appointments Clause of the United States Constitution.

The SEC originally brought an administrative action against Mr. Bandimere in 2012, alleging he violated various securities laws. An SEC ALJ presided over the fast paced, “trial-like” hearing, and the ALJ ultimately found Mr. Bandimere liable, barred him from the securities industry, imposed civil penalties and ordered disgorgement.  The SEC reviewed that decision and reached the same result.  Mr. Bandimere, therefore, appealed the SEC’s decision to the Tenth Circuit. READ MORE

Going After the (Little) Bad Guys: SEC Announces More Actions Against Penny Stock Gatekeepers

The SEC last week announced that it has sanctioned several market participants in the penny stock industry, including attorneys who wrote offering documents as well as stock transfer agents, for their roles in various sham IPOs of microcap stocks.  These are the latest in a string of penny stock enforcement actions since outgoing SEC Chair Mary Jo White announced the implementation of the Commission’s “broken windows” policy in 2013. That policy targeted both large and small issuers and market participants.  The strategy has resulted in the SEC racking up its largest-ever volume of enforcement cases in fiscal year 2016.

In the first enforcement actions, the SEC alleged that a California-based securities lawyer wrote false and misleading registration statements in connection with five microcap IPOs, which were part of a scheme to transfer unrestricted shares to offshore market participants. The SEC also alleged that the CFO of American Energy Development Corp. (AEDC), one of the issuers in question, and the attorney who wrote opinion letters for the offerings made false and misleading statements.  The market participants were barred from any further penny stock activity, and the attorneys were permanently suspended from appearing and practicing before the SEC.  The SEC also suspended trading in shares of ADEC.

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Stockholders Petition the Supreme Court to Liberalize Eleventh Circuit Rules for Pleading Securities Fraud

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A recent petition for certiorari filed in the United States Supreme Court asks the Court to clarify what an aggrieved investor must plead to state a claim for securities fraud under the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 (the “Exchange Act”).  The petition focuses on the “loss causation” element, which requires plaintiffs to prove a direct causal link between the alleged fraud and the loss in value for which they seek to recover.  In a typical fraud in-the-market case, plaintiffs allege loss causation by showing that they bought the defendant’s securities at prices artificially inflated by fraud, and then had those securities lose value after a “corrective disclosure” revealed the fraud to the public.  If the Supreme Court decides to grant certiorari, it will have the opportunity to lift certain barriers to pleading loss causation in some jurisdictions.

Petitioners, three New England funds (“Funds”) that own stock in Health Management Associates, Inc. (“HMA”), seek to reverse the Eleventh Circuit’s decision that they failed to establish loss causation as a matter of law. The Funds alleged that HMA’s stock price fell precipitously following two disclosures to the market: (1) an announcement that the government had begun an investigation into HMA for fraud, and (2) an analyst report publicizing a whistleblower case filed by a former employee against HMA three months earlier.  A panel for the Eleventh Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision that neither event could form the basis of a securities fraud claim.  First, the panel held that the announcement of a government investigation could not raise an inference of loss causation at the pleading stage because there had been no finding of “actual wrongdoing.”  Second, the panel held that the analyst report was not a “corrective disclosure” because it reported on a publicly-filed case that, although it hadn’t been reported on until then, was already disclosed to the market. READ MORE