Trading on Tips: SEC May Seek Disgorgement from Trader for Gains in Investment Fund

A trader who uses material nonpublic information to execute trades but does not personally benefit from the resulting gains may nonetheless face disgorgement of all profits, according to a recent Second Circuit opinion.  In Securities Exchange Commission v. Contorinis, No. 12-1723, the Second Circuit affirmed a judgment from the Southern District of New York requiring defendant Joseph Contorinis, a former hedge fund manager at Jeffries & Co., to disgorge nearly $7.3 million in profits realized through an investment fund he had managed.  The court rejected the argument a person can only disgorge profits that are personally enjoyed and instead found that disgorgement may also apply unlawful gains that flow to third parties.  Relying on a principle that the limit for disgorgement is the total amount of gain flowing from illegal action, the Second Circuit concluded that district courts may impose disgorgement liability for gains that flow to third parties. Read More

SEC Speaks, Cuban Tweets

The leaders of the Securities and Exchange Commission addressed the public on February 21-22 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 role as an enforcement body post-financial crisis, its increasing utilization of technology, and its renewed focus on the conduct of gatekeepers.  In a surprise appearance, Dallas Mavericks owner and former insider trading defendant Mark Cuban attended the first day of the conference.  During his time at the conference, Mr. Cuban shared his thoughts on a number of the presentations via his Twitter account.

From a litigation and enforcement perspective, key takeaways from the conference include the following: Read More

Investors Get a Voice at the Regulator: SEC Names Its First Head of the Office of the Investor Advocate

Though investors might have assumed that the entire Securities and Exchange Commission was their advocate to begin with, on February 12th the agency announced that it had hired Rick Fleming to be its very first Investor Advocate in the recently created Office of the Investor Advocate (“OIA”).

In hiring Fleming, the SEC is implementing Title IX of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which amended the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 by creating, among other things, an Investor Advisory Committee, the OIA, and an ombudsman to be appointed by the Investor Advocate.  Fleming comes to the SEC from his most recent job as Deputy General Counsel at the North American Securities Administrators Association where he advocated for state securities regulators in matters before Congress and the SEC.  Fleming previously spent several years in Kansas state government, including some fifteen years in the state’s Office of the Securities Commissioner. Read More

You Better Forum-Shop Around . . . While You Still Can

On January 31, 2014, Chevron Corporation moved to certify to the Delaware Supreme Court the question of whether exclusive forum bylaws are valid under Delaware law.  Chevron filed its motion before the Honorable Jon S. Tigar of the Northern District of California.  If Judge Tigar certifies the question, it seems likely that the Delaware Supreme Court will affirm a recent Delaware Court of Chancery decision finding such bylaws to be valid under statutory and contractual law, given that the author of that decision, then-Chancellor Leo E. Strine, is now Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court.

In 2013, plaintiffs filed suit in both the Delaware Court of Chancery and the Northern District of California challenging Chevron’s board-adopted forum exclusivity bylaw.  The case in the Northern District was stayed pending the outcome of the Delaware case, since both involved questions of Delaware state law.  The Delaware plaintiffs argued that the forum exclusivity bylaw was statutorily invalid under Delaware General Corporation Law (DGCL), and contractually invalid because it was adopted unilaterally without shareholder consent.  In June 2013, the Delaware Court of Chancery – in a decision by then-Chancellor Strine – found that the bylaw was enforceable, and that the Delaware Court of Chancery should be the sole and exclusive forum for (1)any derivative action brought on behalf of the Corporation, (2) any action asserting a claim of breach of a fiduciary duty, (3) any action asserting a claim arising pursuant to any provision of the DGCL, or (4) any action asserting a claim governed by the internal affairs doctrine. Read More

The SEC Scores Another Admission: Scottrade Acknowledges That It Broke Recordkeeping Rules

Last week, Scottrade Inc. became the latest entity to admit wrongdoing in connection with settling SEC charges.  In a January 29, 2014 administrative order, the brokerage firm not only agreed  to a $2.5 million penalty, but also admitted that it violated federal securities laws when it failed to provide the SEC with complete and accurate “ blue sheet” trading data.  This settlement marks the fourth such admission since the Commission’s June 2013 modification to its “no admit/no deny” settlement policy.

Most civil law enforcement agencies – including the SEC –  generally do not require entities or individuals to admit or deny wrongdoing in order to reach a settlement.  The SEC regularly utilizes this “no admit/no deny” policy, finding it an effective tool to facilitate settlements.  In June 2013, however, the Commission announced a revision to this longstanding policy, indicating that it would require public admissions of wrongdoing in selected cases, including those involving “egregious” fraud or intentional misconduct, as well as those involving significant investor impact or that are otherwise highly visible.  Since then, the Commission has obtained admissions in three previous settlements. Read More

For Whom the Whistle Tolls in 2014

Momentum for the SEC’s Dodd Frank whistleblower program is growing, and 2014 can be expected to bring continued expansion of the program and the number and types of whistleblower actions initiated by the SEC.  The SEC’s annual report to Congress reported that 3,238 whistleblower tips were received in 2013, up almost 10% from 2012, and awards to whistleblowers who provide information to the SEC are increasing as more substantive tips are received.

An investigation by the SEC into a whistleblower tip can take several years to culminate in an enforcement action, so the last year likely saw just the beginning of a wave of enforcement actions.  Despite the fact that over 6,000 tips have been received through 2013, the SEC has issued only six separate awards to tipsters.  Those awards have ranged from $125,000 to a record $14 million, representing 10 to 30 percent of the overall funds recovered by the SEC in these whistleblower cases. Read More

Are Confidential Witness Reforms Looming on the Horizon? Can the Plaintiff’s Bar Stop Them?

A decision is expected shortly in the highly publicized so-called confidential witness “scandal” involving the Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd law firm.  Judge Suzanne B. Conlon of the United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois, will decide whether to impose sanctions on the plaintiffs’ firm for its conduct regarding a confidential witness in the City of Livonia Employees’ Retirement System v. Boeing Company case, No. 1:09-cv-07143 (N.D. Ill.).  The decision could have a lasting impact over the use of confidential witnesses in securities fraud complaints.

Judge Conlon will decide this matter following the Seventh Circuit’s remand in late March 2013 on the narrow issue of whether to impose Rule 11 sanctions for (1) providing multiple assurances to the court that the confidential source in their complaint was reliable even though none of the lawyers had spoken to the source or (2) failing to investigate after plaintiffs’ investigators expressed qualms about the confidential source.  (Previous blog post here).  In remanding the case, the Seventh Circuit ruled that making “representations in a filing that are not grounded in an inquiry reasonable under the circumstance or are unlikely to have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for further investigation or discovery violate Rule 11.”  City of Livonia Empls.’ Ret. Sys. v. Boeing Co., 711 F.3d 754, 762 (7th Cir. 2013). Read More

Back to the Drawing Board: the SEC Loses Another Insider Trading Trial

On January 7, 2014 the SEC lost an insider trading bench trial before Judge William Duffey of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.  In a thorough opinion, Judge Duffey found the SEC’s case to be entirely circumstantial, founded on no more than a pattern of trades that were made in close proximity to communications between the purported tipper and tippee.  This case shows how difficult insider trading claims are to prove, especially without wire taps, and may give the Commission pause in bringing cases to trial that rest on such circumstantial evidence.

On trial was Larry Schvacho, a retiree who spent much of his free time investing.  The SEC alleged Schvacho had misappropriated material, nonpublic information from Larry Enterline, a long time friend, who was then CEO and director of Comsys IT.  Although Schvacho had traded in Comsys stock for many years, the SEC’s case focused on trades Schvacho made during the run-up to an acquisition of Comsys by Manpower in early 2010.  As the SEC established at trial, Schvacho and Enterline had repeatedly communicated and socialized together during the period, and there were numerous phone calls, text messages, car rides, sailing trips, and dinners where Enterline could have given Schvacho information about the acquisition.  When news of the acquisition was eventually made public to the market, Schvacho made over $500,000 on his trades. Read More

Halliburton’s Brief Asks The U.S. Supreme Court To Overturn The Not So Brief 25-Year-Old Fraud-On-The-Market Presumption

As discussed in a previous December 3, 2013 post, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Halliburton’s pitch to overrule or modify the decades old fraud-on-the-market presumption established in Basic Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224, 243-50 (1988).  This theory effectively allows shareholders to bring class action suits under Section 10 of the 1934 Act by presuming that plaintiffs, in purchasing stock in an efficient market, relied on alleged material misstatements made by defendants because such public statements were reflected in the company’s stock prices.

Urging the reversal of Basic, Halliburton filed its opening brief on December 30, 2013, in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, No. 13-317.  Halliburton makes several arguments in its brief in support of overturning Basic, including many familiar legal arguments relating to statutory interpretation, congressional intent and public policy objectives.  Perhaps most interesting, however, is the brief’s focus on the academic literature regarding the economic assumptions underlying Basic that may not be as familiar to practitioners.  Specifically, Halliburton argues that academics have discredited and rejected Basic’s key premise that the market price of shares traded on well-developed markets reflects all publicly available information.  In particular, Halliburton argues that: Read More

The Smack of IndyMac: Second Circuit’s Decision in IndyMac Creates Palpable Effect in SDNY

As noted in a previous blog, in Police & Fire Retirement Systems of City of Detroit v. IndyMac MBS, Inc., 721 F.3d 95 (2d Cir. 2013), the Second Circuit held that tolling under American Pipe – which plaintiffs had often used to revive claims by relying on earlier-filed class actions – does not apply to statutes of repose, including Section 13 of the ’33 Act.   The significance of IndyMac was felt in New Jersey Carpenters Health Fund, et al. v. Residential Capital, et al., No. 08 CV 8781, 08 CV 5093 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 18, 2013), where Hon. Harold Baer, Jr. was asked to reconsider his pre-IndyMac order denying defendants’ motion to dismiss a securities class action involving mortgage-backed securities.  Upon reconsideration, Judge Baer dismissed one of the defendants, Deutsche Securities Inc., and several claims against other defendants, finding that intervening plaintiffs did not have standing to sue because the claims were not filed within the ’33 Act’s three-year statute of repose.  As the case highlights, IndyMac’s effect will continue to be felt in pending cases – Judge Baer held that it should be applied retroactively – and will significantly limit the timing of future lawsuits.

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