SEC

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

(Proxy) Voting Made Easy?

The SEC recently proposed amendments to the proxy voting rules to require parties in a contested election to use universal proxy cards that would include the names of all board of director nominees. This proposed change would eliminate the two “competing slates” cards and allow shareholders to vote for their preferred combination of board candidates, as they could if they voted in person.

The new rules would apply to all non-exempt votes for contested elections other than those involving registered investment companies and business development companies, would require management and dissidents to provide each other with advance notice of the names of their nominees, and would set formatting requirements for the universal proxy cars. As with any newly proposed SEC rule, there will be a comment period of 60 days to solicit public opinion.

Interestingly, the Commission’s vote to adopt the newly proposed rules was a split decision, with Commissioner Piwowar issuing a strongly worded dissent. According to Commissioner Piwowar, the proposed universal proxy rules “would increase the likelihood of proxy fights at public companies,” and would allow special interest groups to “use their increased influence to advance their own special interests at the expense of shareholders.” He also noted that under the new rules, dissidents are only required to solicit holders of shares representing a majority of those entitled to vote, meaning that many retail investors will not receive either the dissident’s proxy statement or disclosures about the dissident’s nominees.

SEC’s 2016 Activity Breaks Enforcement and Whistleblower Records

Earlier this month, the SEC (the “Agency”) announced that it initiated a record-breaking 868 enforcement actions in fiscal year 2016. This figure – along with other milestones – reflect the Agency’s commitment to expanding the scope and reach of its enforcement programs to pursue an array of federal securities law violations.

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Early and Often: DOJ Tells Companies to Cooperate Early or Pay the Price

An important issue for companies and their executives that are the subject of an investigation by the federal government is whether, and how early, to cooperate.

On September 27, 2016, Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Bill Baer delivered remarks at the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics Conference, where he laid out in some detail his views on the value of early cooperation with the federal government in financial cases, and the consequences for waiting. As the number 3 attorney in the Department of Justice who is charged with overseeing civil litigation, antitrust, and other large divisions, Baer’s words are significant, and are a further gloss on the so-called “Yates Memo”, which Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates released last September, detailing DOJ’s guidance on individual accountability for corporate wrongdoing.

Speaking specifically about cases against banks and the fallout from protracted litigation involving residential mortgage-backed securities, Baer said those cases could have been resolved more quickly if only the financial institutions “had decided early to cooperate.” Consequently, “each [institution] paid a lot more than it would have if it had cooperated early on.” Recalling that many of these same institutions had nonetheless sought “significant cooperation credit,” Baer stated that DOJ “dismissed the arguments quickly because they so lacked merit.”

So how early is early enough, and how can your company get credit for cooperating? Baer elaborated on recent “internal” guidance he has provided to his attorneys in civil enforcement matters.

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No Longer a Mirage: FCPA Compliance and Cooperation Has Its Benefits

On September 12, 2016, the SEC announced that it had reached a settlement with Jun Ping Zhang (“Ping”), a former executive of a Chinese subsidiary of Harris Corporation (“Harris”), regarding alleged violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”). The settlement was unusual, in that the SEC declined to also bring charges against Harris, an international communications and information technology company.

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