For the first time in the nearly five years since Dodd-Frank went into effect, the SEC last week took action against a company over concerns that the company was preventing its employees from potentially blowing the whistle on illegal activity. The action is significant because the SEC was targeting seemingly innocuous language in a confidentiality agreement and there were no allegations that the company, KBR, Inc., was otherwise breaking the law.
It is well-established that a shareholder-plaintiff may not assert derivative claims against a corporation’s officers or directors unless he or she makes a pre-suit demand on the corporation’s board of directors and alleges particularized facts showing that the demand was wrongfully refused, or alleges particularized facts showing that a demand on the board would have been futile. One question that frequently arises is whether the shareholder-plaintiff may obtain discovery from the corporation and its officers and directors in order to assist his or her compliance with this threshold pleading obligation.
On March 24, 2015, the Supreme Court issued its much anticipated decision in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers District Council Construction Industry Pension Fund, No. 13-435, 2015 WL 1291916 (Mar. 24, 2015). With some significant caveats (discussed below), the decision is largely protective of issuers: it enshrines the distinction between “opinions” and “facts,” and generally makes it difficult to hold issuers liable for securities fraud based on statements of opinion.
In brief, the Court held that issuers that include opinions in a registration statement may be liable under Section 11 of the Securities Act of 1933 (the “Securities Act”) for making an untrue statement of fact only when the issuer does not subjectively believe the stated opinion. In so holding, the Court rejected the Sixth Circuit’s view that an honestly-held opinion that was at the time or later proved to be untrue could subject the issuer to liability. As the Court put it, Section 11 “is not, as the Court of Appeals and the [plaintiffs] would have it, an invitation to Monday morning quarterback an issuer’s opinions.”
Echoing a famous epistemological observation from The Big Lebowski, the Supreme Court today rejected the argument, for the most part, that a statement of opinion stands on the same footing as a statement of fact. Read More
As we have previously discussed in prior posts, shareholder demands to inspect confidential corporate information are being made with increased frequency, and are forcing more and more companies to grapple with their legal obligations to respond. Earlier this month in Fuchs Family Trust v. Parker Drilling, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued further guidance, and explained why in certain cases, companies need not provide any information at all.
In a speech last Thursday, SEC Chair Mary Jo White publicly addressed the issue of whether the SEC has been too lax in granting waivers to large corporations that are subject to certain restrictions under the Well-Known Seasoned Issuer (“WKSI”) regulations or the so-called “Bad Actor Rule.”
The SEC classifies certain large widely followed issuers as WKSIs under Rule 405 of the Securities Act of 1933. Issuers with WKSI status benefit from greater flexibility in registration and investor communications. Most notably, registration statements filed by WKSIs become effective immediately and automatically upon filing. Certain categories of “ineligible issuers”—including those convicted of certain crimes and those determined to have violated the anti-fraud provisions of the securities laws—are precluded from qualifying for WKSI status. The SEC, however, can (and does) grant waivers to ineligible issuers upon a showing of good cause.
Last week, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced an award payout of between $475,000 and $575,000 to a former company officer who reported information about an alleged securities fraud. While this is by no means the largest of the 15 payouts the SEC has made since the inception of the whistleblower program in fiscal year 2012 (the SEC awarded approximately $14 million to a whistleblower in October 2013, and roughly $30 million to a foreign whistleblower almost a year later), it is the first time that the SEC provided a whistleblower bounty award under the new program to an officer who learned about the alleged fraud through another employee, rather than firsthand.
Companies should take notice of a new fraud scheme that has been making the rounds, targeting businesses that regularly make wire transfers. Known as the “Business E-mail Compromise,” or BEC, this scam targets employees responsible for wiring money, instructing them under false pretenses to wire large sums to fraudulent accounts. The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that the scam has claimed over 2,000 victims and resulted in losses totaling nearly $215 million since October 2013. In one version of the BEC fraud, the e-mail accounts of high-level business executives (CEO, CFO, CTO, etc.) are compromised by the creation of spoof e-mail addresses. The imposters then use the compromised executive’s e-mail account to send a request for a wire transfer to a second employee within the company who is responsible for processing such requests. This version of the scheme has been referred to as “CEO Fraud” or the “Business Executive Scam.” In another variation of the scam, businesses which have a long-standing relationship with a particular supplier or vendor (i.e. a landlord) receive a spoofed e-mail purportedly from that vendor directing the business to wire funds for invoice payment to an alternate, fraudulent account. This version of the scheme has been referred to as “The Bogus Invoice Scheme” or “The Supplier Swindle.”
On February 24, 2015, the SEC announced that it had reached an agreement with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (“Goodyear”) for Goodyear to disgorge more than $16 million to settle FCPA charges stemming from its Kenyan and Angolan subsidiaries. This settlement is notable because it focuses on bribery involving private companies as opposed to official corruption, which is typically prosecuted by the SEC. While the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions apply only to improper payments to foreign officials, the SEC charged Goodyear with violations of the FCPA’s books and records provisions, which have no such requirement and instead require a company to keep records that “accurately and fairly reflect the transactions and dispositions of the assets of the issuer” and to “devise and maintain a system of internal accounting controls” sufficient to ensure the integrity of the company’s financial records. This use of the books and records provisions is important because it signals the SEC’s intent and ability to use the FCPA to bring broad, far-reaching enforcement cases that have the potential to ensnare any public company.
Securities and Exchange Commission leadership and staff members addressed the public on February 20-21 at the annual “SEC Speaks” conference in Washington, D.C. Common themes among the numerous presentations included the Commission’s increasing use of data analytics, the Commission’s focus on gatekeepers such as accountants and attorneys, and the Commission’s still incomplete rulemakings mandated by both the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act.