On February 29, 2016, the Delaware Court of Chancery denied a motion to dismiss fiduciary duty claims against certain current and former directors of Halt Medical and a 26% stockholder, American Capital, arising out of a transaction that was allegedly designed to “squeeze out” minority stockholders. See Calesa Associates, L.P. v. American Capital, Ltd., C.A. No. 10557-VCG. Vice Chancellor Glasscock found that the plaintiffs had adequately alleged that American, despite owning only 26% of the company’s shares, exercised sufficient influence over the Halt Medical board such that it and certain affiliates could be deemed “controlling stockholders” owing fiduciary duties to other stockholders. Among other things, the decision in Calesa reaffirmed that majority stock ownership is not the sole criterion for determining “control.” The decision also sounded a cautionary note, however, by suggesting that, where plaintiffs remain minority stockholders in the company after the allegedly dilutive transaction at issue, they must plead demand futility even where, as here, only direct claims are asserted, or face dismissal at the pleading stage.
The ripple effects of the Second Circuit’s landmark insider trading decision, United States v. Newman, 773 F.3d 438 (2d Cir. 2014), were felt again last week. On Tuesday, February 23, 2016, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC” or the “Commission”) ruled that Former Neuberger Berman Analyst Sandeep “Sandy” Goyal, whom the SEC previously barred from the securities industry after he pled guilty to insider trading, could participate in the industry again. The SEC’s rare decision to lift an administrative bar order resulted from Newman, (previously discussed at length here), which led to Goyal’s criminal conviction being vacated and the civil claims against him being dropped by the SEC. Newman raised the bar for what prosecutors in tipper/tippee insider trading cases have to show by holding that tipper/tippee liability requires the tipper to receive a “personal benefit” amounting to a quid pro quo or pecuniary benefit in exchange for the tip and the tippee to know of that benefit. Despite the SEC’s decision to drop the administrative bar against Goyal in light of Newman, as recently as SEC Speaks on February 19-20, 2016, SEC Deputy of Enforcement Stephanie Avakian affirmed that insider trading cases “continue to be a priority” for the Commission. Nonetheless, the ripple effects of Newman continue to call the government’s ability to successfully bring both criminal and civil cases into question.
The Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of the Inspector General (“OIG”) recently released findings from its extensive investigation into allegations of potential bias against respondents in SEC administrative proceedings. The OIG report comes at a time when the fairness of the SEC’s in-house administrative forum is under scrutiny from both inside and outside of the agency.
The leaders of the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC” or “Commission”) addressed the public on February 19-20 at the annual SEC Speaks conference in Washington, D.C. The presentations covered an array of topics, but common themes included the Commission’s ongoing effort to carry out the rulemaking agenda set forth in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, its increasing focus on cyber issues including its use of new technology to surveil and root out harmful practices in the modern and increasingly-complex market, and its continued focus on the conduct of gatekeepers. From a litigation and enforcement perspective, key takeaways from the conference include the following:
SEC Chair Mary Jo White began her remarks by touting the “unprecedented number of enforcement cases” brought by the Commission in 2015, which produced “an all-time high for orders directing the payment of penalties and disgorgement”—a trend that she stressed would continue in 2016. Read More
In a move that highlights both the increased focus on holding individuals accountable and the credit that can be earned through cooperation, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced last week that, for the first time, it entered into a deferred prosecution agreement (“DPA”) with an individual allegedly involved in a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”) case. On February 16, 2016, the SEC announced a DPA with Yu Kai Yuan, a former employee of software company PTC Inc.’s Chinese subsidiaries. The SEC agreed to defer civil FCPA charges against Yu for three years in recognition of his cooperation during the SEC’s investigation. PTC also reached a settlement with the SEC, in which the company agreed to disgorge $11.8 million. Prior to the Yu DPA, the SEC had entered into one DPA with an individual in November 2013, in a matter involving a hedge fund manager allegedly stealing investor assets. However, never before this time was a DPA with the SEC related to an FCPA case.
After the repeated challenges to the SEC’s in-house courts as previously reported, Mark Cuban joined the debate by filing an amicus curiae brief in support of petitioners Raymond J. Lucia Companies, Inc. and Raymond J. Lucia (collectively “Lucia”) in Lucia v. SEC. Cuban, describing himself as a “first-hand witness to and victim of SEC overreach” in a 2013 insider trading case brought against him in an SEC court, argued that the D.C. Circuit should grant the petitioners’ appeal because SEC in-house judges are unconstitutionally appointed.
As previously discussed here, in 2015, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued a number of decisions calling for enhanced scrutiny of “disclosure-only” M&A settlements that involve no monetary benefits to a shareholder class. For example, the recent decision in In re Riverbed Technology, Inc. Stockholders Litigation expressly eliminated the “reasonable expectation” that a merger case can be settled by exchanging insignificant supplemental disclosures (and nothing more) for a broad release of claims. In In re Trulia, Inc. Stockholder Litigation, the Chancery Court demonstrated that its “increase[ed] vigilance” in this area is genuine, rejecting a disclosure-only M&A settlement and finding that the supplemental disclosures did not warrant the broad release of claims.
In a recent address, SEC Chair Mary Jo White stated that the SEC had focused its reinvigorated investigation and enforcement efforts on holding preparers and auditors accountable for their work on financial statements. She alerted the 2015 American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (“AICPA”) National Conference to the weighty responsibilities and challenges faced by auditors and preparers, as well as audit committee members, standard setters and regulators, when endeavoring to ensure high-quality, reliable financial reporting.
On January 14, 2016, the SEC entered into two no-admit, no deny settlements regarding an alleged pay-to-play scheme to obtain contracts from the Treasury Office for the State of Ohio. The first was with State Street Bank and Trust Company (“State Street” or “the Bank”) – a custodian bank that provides asset servicing to institutional clients, and the second with Vincent DeBaggis, a former State Street executive. On the same day, the SEC filed suit against attorney Robert Crowe for his role in the scheme which allegedly involved causing concealed campaign contributions to be made to the Ohio Treasury Office to influence the awarding of contracts to State Street. Mr. Crowe is a partner at the law firm of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough and a former lobbyist for the Bank.
On January 11, 2016, the SEC announced its Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) priorities for the year . The announcement included several new areas of focus, including liquidity controls, public pension advisers, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), product promotion, and variable annuities. Hedge fund and mutual fund managers, private equity firms, and broker-dealers – in particular those that deal with retirement investments – would be wise to take note of these new areas of interest. As in past years, enforcement actions in these areas are likely to follow.