On Monday, November 9, 2015, the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) released results from its evaluation of investment adviser firms’ use of third parties for compliance functions, including outsourced chief compliance officers (“CCO”). Outside CCOs often perform important compliance responsibilities, including updating firm policies and procedures, preparing regulatory filings, and conducting annual compliance reviews. Despite the importance of these functions, the Risk Alert (“Risk Alert” or “Alert”) indicated that several of the outsourced CCOs examined had not implemented effective compliance programs. The Alert, available here, sends a cautionary signal to investment adviser firms considering outsourcing compliance functions. This warning is particularly timely since government agencies, including the SEC, have increased their focus on financial firms’ compliance programs, and on CCOs in particular.
On October 30, 2015, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) moved forward in implementing Title III of the JOBS Act and adopted new rules permitting companies to offer and sell securities to all potential investors through crowdfunding. Crowdfunding is the use of small amounts of capital from a large number of investors to finance new business ventures. This method of investment, typically conducted over the internet, is aimed at assisting smaller companies with capital formation by accessing a greater pool of potential investors. The SEC had previously opened crowdfunding investment to “accredited investors” (investors meeting certain net worth and/or investment experience criteria) but these rules permit non-accredited investors, i.e., everyone else, to participate while providing them with additional protection under the federal securities laws. Title III and these rules come in response to the enormous growth of equity crowdfunding through financing platforms such as GoFundMe, Kickstarter or Indiegogo.
Malfeasance by a corporate insider against his company has the potential to leave a gaping wound. Facing a securities lawsuit due to that malfeasance is like salt in that wound. Corporations targeted with such lawsuits have turned to the adverse interest exception to try to protect themselves from further liability stemming from the rogue executive’s wrongdoing. But on October 23, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a precedent-setting decision rendering that salve unavailable. In In re ChinaCast Education Corp. Securities Litigation, the court held that under the federal securities laws, an executive’s scienter is imputed to the corporation where he “acted with apparent authority on behalf of the corporation, which placed him in a position of trust and confidence and controlled the level of oversight of his handling of the business.” Slip op. at 4.
The SEC has rolled out its second wave of enforcement actions against 22 municipal underwriting firms for alleged securities violations in municipal bond offerings in connection with its Municipalities Continuing Disclosure Cooperation (MCDC) Initiative. As previously reported, the MCDC initiative was announced in March 2014 to address potential securities violations by municipal bond underwriters and issuers. Under this initiative, the SEC offered favorable settlement terms to those who self-reported by the end of 2014.
For the last few years, the SEC has been issuing guidance as to appropriate cybersecurity policies and procedures for financial firms. In a move that signal’s the regulator’s willingness to put muscle into its cybersecurity guidance, the SEC announced an agreement with St. Louis-based investment company, R.T. Jones Capital Equities Management (“R.T. Jones” or “the company”), to settle charges that the company failed to adequately safeguard the personal information (“PI”) of approximately 100,000 individuals. Consistent with this trend, the SEC has announced that its Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) would be conducting a second round of investigations into the cybersecurity practices of brokerage and advisory firms (the “Cybersecurity Examination Initiative”). These moves signal the SEC’s increasing scrutiny of investment firms’ information security practices and indicate the regulator’s willingness to enforce the guidance that it has issued.
On September 29, 2015, the D.C. Circuit, the second federal appellate court to recently weigh in on the ongoing debate over SEC administrative actions, ruled in favor of the SEC in Jarkesy v. SEC, holding that federal courts do not have subject matter jurisdiction over challenges to ongoing SEC administrative enforcement proceedings. Notably, and in accord with the Seventh Circuit’s recent decision in Bebo v. SEC, the D.C. Circuit’s decision was narrowly tailored – focusing only on the issue of subject-matter jurisdiction – but not the substantive viability of Jarkesy’s constitutional challenges. The three-judge panel unanimously held that a party to a pending administrative proceeding must first defend against that proceeding, and only once the SEC proceeding concludes may the party seek review by a federal court.
On September 16, 2015, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) adopted revisions to Rule 2a-7, the primary rule governing money market funds. The amendments implement provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act that require federal agencies to replace references to credit ratings in regulations with alternative standards of credit-worthiness, and are consistent with the SEC’s goal of reducing its reliance on credit ratings.
In what will surely not be the last word on this continuing controversy, on September 3, 2015, a majority of the members of the Securities and Exchange Commission held that the appointment process for the Commission’s administrative law judges (“ALJ”) does not violate the Constitution. As we reported just last month, a federal judge in the Southern District of New York preliminarily enjoined a separate SEC administrative proceeding based in part on the judge’s view that the SEC ALJ appointment process is likely unconstitutional. In light of the key role ALJs play in SEC proceedings and the number of administrative cases brought each year, the question is likely to be addressed at the appellate level and could have significant implications for the securities defense bar.
On September 10, 2015, a divided panel of the Second Circuit issued an opinion in Berman v. Neo@Ogilvy LLC, No. 14-4626 (2nd Cir. Sept. 10, 2015), creating a split with the Fifth Circuit on an issue that has also divided lower federal courts: whether the anti-retaliation provisions in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act apply to tipsters who claim retaliation after reporting internally, or only to those retaliated against after reporting information to the SEC. The Second Circuit, granting Chevron deference to SEC interpretive guidance, held that Dodd-Frank protections apply to internal whistleblowers. This stands in contrast to the Fifth Circuit’s holding in Asadi v. G.E. Energy (USA), LLC, 720 F.3d 620 (5th Cir. 2013), where that court found that on their face, the Dodd-Frank anti-retaliation provisions unambiguously limited protection to whistleblowers reporting to the SEC, and that, therefore, the SEC’s contrary guidance was not entitled to deference. Given this Circuit split, Supreme Court review is possible.
On September 2, 2015, the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) filed an amicus brief siding with Montana and Massachusetts in a bid to overturn the SEC’s new capital-raising rule, titled Regulation A but commonly referred to as Regulation A+. The NASAA, a non-profit association of state, provincial, and territorial securities regulators in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, includes securities regulators from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The organization’s purpose is to “protect investors from fraud and abuse in connection with the offer and sale of securities.”