In several recent decisions we have covered (here and here), Federal Circuit Courts have unanimously ruled that respondents in an SEC enforcement action cannot bypass the Exchange Act’s review scheme by filing a collateral lawsuit in federal district court challenging the administrative proceeding on constitutional grounds. However, those prior opinions all were based on the narrow ground that district courts did not have jurisdiction to hear collateral challenges, and did not reach the merits of the constitutional challenge. In Raymond James Lucia Cos. Inc. v. SEC, No. 15-1345 (D.C. Cir. Aug. 9, 2016), the D.C. Circuit became the first federal appellate court to consider the merits and ruled in favor of the SEC. The court held that SEC administrative law judges are merely employees, rather than officers of the United States, and thus need not be appointed pursuant to the Appointments Clause of the Constitution. Their appointment satisfied constitutional scrutiny and could not provide grounds to throw out the results of the proceedings before them.
On August 2, 2016, U.S. District Judge Edward Chen dismissed a shareholder lawsuit brought against children’s educational toymaker LeapFrog Enterprises, Inc. (“LeapFrog”) for failure to adequately plead statements were false or misleading, or made with requisite intent. Plaintiffs’ suit, which was consolidated in 2015, alleged that LeapFrog and its executives hid demand and inventory problems from investors. The judge disagreed, finding that the investors had been sufficiently warned of problems with LeapFrog’s product lines and that the allegedly misleading statements were forward-looking and cautionary, and therefore fell within the PSLRA’s safe harbor. Defendants’ public statements about many of the allegedly misleading topics helped drive home that Plaintiffs’ theory amounted to classic “fraud by hindsight.”
On July 28, 2016, the Delaware Chancery Court allowed claims of unfair dealing against the Board of property management company Riverstone National Inc. to survive where the directors facilitated a merger that forestalled a derivative suit against them. The court held that by orchestrating a merger that extinguished a possible derivative action, the director defendants obtained a special benefit for themselves. As a result, the directors were interested in the transaction, thereby rebutting the presumption of the business judgment rule, and triggering application of the “entire fairness” doctrine.
Last week, several securities industry groups filed critical responses to the SEC’s plan for an audit trail. While most groups that commented on the SEC’s proposed regulation supported implementing the proposal, several had concerns regarding the cost for investors and firms, and the protection of private data.
In a move that will make Securities and Exchange Commission administrative proceedings look more like civil litigation in federal court, on July 13, 2016, the SEC announced that it had adopted amendments to its rules of practice. These rules appear similar to those the Commission proposed last September. For critics of the amendments, they may not go far enough, but the expanded discovery and clarifications regarding dispositive motion practice may address some of the issues previously raised regarding the Commission’s perceived home-court advantage.
On July 7, 2016, Judge Paul A. Magnuson of the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota granted Defendants’ Motions to Dismiss a shareholder class action that had been initiated following a 2013 holiday season data breach involving customers of Target Corporation (“Target,” or “the Company”). The data breach, which resulted in the release of information of approximately 70 million consumer credit and debit cards, made headlines as one of the biggest privacy hacks at the time. Initially disclosed to the public in December 2013, with an estimated 40 million credit and debit cards affected, Target subsequently revealed a little less than a month later that additional consumer data, including customers’ names, mailing addresses, phone numbers and email addresses, were also stolen, and increased its initial estimate to 110 million.
On June 27, 2016, SEC Administrative Law Judge Carol Fox Foelak dismissed the Division of Enforcement’s charges against IRA custodian Equity Trust Company in connection with the company’s processing of investments marketed by two convicted fraudsters. Judge Foelak’s decision—a complete defense victory for Equity Trust—shows that while the Division of Enforcement may still win most of its cases in administrative proceedings, it doesn’t win them all.
On June 30, 2016, the Delaware Chancery Court extended the Supreme Court’s holding in Corwin v. KKR Financial Holdings LLC, 125 A.3d 304 (Del. 2015), to two-step mergers under DGCL § 251(h). The Chancery Court concluded that acceptance of a first-step tender offer by a fully informed and uncoerced majority of disinterested stockholders insulates a two-step merger from challenge except on the ground of waste, even if a majority of directors were not disinterested and independent. See In re Volcano Corp. S’holder Litig., C.A. No. 10485-VCMR. In this situation, the business judgment rule is “irrebutable” and dismissal is typically appropriate given the high bar for proving “waste” and the unlikelihood that a majority of informed stockholders would approve such a transaction. In re Volcano is the latest decision underscoring the critical importance of securing an uncoerced and fully informed majority vote of disinterested stockholders if boards wish to benefit from this extremely deferential standard of review.
After four failed attempts at persuading federal appellate courts to hear constitutional challenges to SEC administrative courts, it is increasingly clear that defendants in SEC in-house proceedings will not be able to pursue an early out because of the manner in which SEC administrative judges are appointed. The latest loss came on June 17, when the Eleventh Circuit in consolidated cases Gray Financial Group Inc. et al. v. SEC, No. 15-13738 (11th Cir. Jun. 17, 2016), and Charles L. Hill v. SEC, No. 15-12831 (11th Cir. Jun. 17, 2016), agreed with the Second Circuit’s decision of three weeks ago in Tilton v. SEC, No. 15-2103 (2d. Cir. Jun. 1, 2016) (which we covered here) in ruling that respondents in an SEC administrative enforcement cannot bypass the Exchange Act’s review scheme by filing a collateral lawsuit in federal district court challenging the administrative proceeding on constitutional grounds. A different decision from the Eleventh Circuit would have created a circuit split and a heightened possibility of Supreme Court review, but instead it joined the Second, Seventh, and D.C. Circuits in an approach that is unanimous among the circuit courts to have considered the question. The constitutional legitimacy of SEC administrative law judges is thus likely to continue unchallenged, at least for now.
On June 9, 2016, the Securities and Exchange Commission (‘SEC”) awarded the second largest whistleblower bounty – $17 million – granted under the Dodd-Frank whistleblower rules to date. Previously, the highest whistleblower awards were a $30 million award in September 2014 and a $14 million award in October 2013. The $17 million award comes on the heels of $26 million in whistleblower awards given to five anonymous individuals over the last month alone. These awards serve as a warning to companies that the SEC takes its whistleblower program seriously and will continue to encourage and reward company insiders for coming forward with information that leads to successful enforcement actions. As Sean X. McKessy, Chief of the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower – a department created by the SEC to give whistleblowers a place to submit their tips – said, “[W]e hope these substantial awards encourage other individuals with knowledge of potential federal securities law violations to make the right choice to come forward and report the wrongdoing to the SEC.”