Securities Fraud

The Potential Declawing of the SEC: The Financial CHOICE Act

Gavel and Hundred-Dollar Bill

The Financial CHOICE Act (or “CHOICE Act 2.0”), which would significantly narrow the SEC’s ability to bring enforcement actions and make it more challenging for it to prevail in such actions, is inching its way towards becoming law. On May 4, 2017, the Financial Services Committee passed the Act and it is now slated to be introduced to the House in the coming weeks. As part of the push by the current administration to deregulate, this bill aims to repeal key provisions of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, including those directed towards the SEC.  Although the Act has a long way to go before it is enacted, many of its provisions would have far-reaching consequences and would change the way the SEC operates as we know it.

Should the CHOICE Act 2.0 become law, the following are some of the more important effects it would have on the SEC’s enforcement abilities:

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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

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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The Call for a Statutory Insider Trading Law

Judge Jed S. Rakoff (S.D.N.Y.) recently made headlines after urging lawyers to draft and advocate for a more straightforward insider trading statute to replace judicially-created insider trading law. During his keynote speech at the New York City Bar’s annual Securities Litigation & Enforcement Institute, Judge Rakoff explained that the law has become overly-complicated since courts were forced to define insider trading by shoehorning the concept into the fraud provisions of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. As a result, increasingly suspect theories have been developed to address potential insider trading in an expanding variety of scenarios.

In promoting a statutory solution for insider trading law, Judge Rakoff pointed to the Europe Union (“EU”) as an example. He explained that the EU defined insider trading by statute in simple and broad terms, and avoided relying on the framework of fraud.  Considering Judge Rakoff’s influence and expertise in securities law, inquiry into the EU’s approach to insider trading is warranted.

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SEC Reportedly Centralizing Authority to Issue Formal Investigation Orders

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the acting Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission has centralized authority to issue formal orders of investigation – a critical authority that triggers the ability of SEC staff attorneys to issue subpoenas.  The move, which was not publicized by the SEC, would curb existing powers of the Commission’s enforcement staff.

Since 2009, the power to issue formal orders of investigation had been “sub-delegated” to about 20 senior attorneys within the SEC’s Enforcement Division. However, according to the Journal report, acting SEC Chairman Michael Piwowar ordered the authority to be centralized exclusively with the Director of Enforcement. READ MORE

New Year, Similar Priorities: SEC Announces 2017 OCIE Areas of Focus

On January 12, 2017 the SEC announced its Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) priorities for the year, including areas of focus for Retail Investors, Senior Investors and Retirement Investments, Market-wide risks, FINRA oversight, and cybersecurity.  These priorities reflect an extension of previous years’ commitments, in particular with regard to focus on the retirement industry and cybersecurity.  The “Regulation Systems Compliance and Integrity” (Regulation SCI) adopted by the SEC in November 2014 will also be a continued focus.

Once again, protection of retail investors is of primary concern for the OCIE. Among the detailed areas of focus are examining risks related to electronic investment advice, “wrap fee” programs where investors are charged a single fee for bundled advisory and brokerage services, and “Never-before examined” Investment advisers, an initiative that was started in 2014 to engage with newly-registered advisers that had never-before been examined.  Examination of Exchange-Traded funds (ETFs) and continuation of the ReTIRE initiative are two carryovers from 2016 priorities .  The OCIE previously identified ETFs, which are sometimes seen as alternatives to mutual funds, for examination related to compliance with the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and the Investment Company Act of 1940. ReTIRE, launched in June 2015, places particular focus on those SEC-registered investment advisers and broker dealers who offer retirement-oriented investment services to retail investors, including examining whether there is a reasonable basis for the recommendations made.  This year, the SEC will expand ReTIRE to include “assessing controls surrounding cross-transactions, particularly with respect to fixed income securities.”

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

court decision

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

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

Building

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

Keep Looking Forward: Federal Court Holds Company’s Bad Legal Predictions Protected by PSLRA’s Safe Harbor

Gavel and Hundred-Dollar Bill

In a comprehensive tour of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act’s (“PSLRA”) safe-harbor provisions, on November 22, 2016, a federal court in Massachusetts dismissed a shareholder class-action lawsuit against Neovasc, Inc.  In holding that Neovasc’s ultimately faulty predictions concerning the outcome of a trade secrets lawsuit fell within the PSLRA’s safe harbor, the court rejected the plaintiff’s attempts to import a scienter requirement into the safe-harbor inquiry, among other things, and dismissed the complaint without leave to amend.

This putative class-action came on the heels of a $70 million jury verdict against Neovasc in May 2016. In that case, a jury found that Neovasc misappropriated certain trade secrets from CardiAQ Valve Technologies after CardiAQ had severed its manufacturing relationship with Neovasc, and Neovasc had patented a competing product.  Neovasc’s stock price fell approximately 75 percent when the jury verdict was announced.  Shortly after the verdict and stock decline, shareholders filed the class action, alleging securities fraud under Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 10b-5 thereunder.  The plaintiff alleged, among other things, that prior to the verdict, Neovasc CEO Alexei Marko mischaracterized the lawsuit as “baseless,” and that Neovasc had misstated that the suit was “without merit” in the company’s SEC filings.

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