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.”
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
The SEC last week announced that it has sanctioned several market participants in the penny stock industry, including attorneys who wrote offering documents as well as stock transfer agents, for their roles in various sham IPOs of microcap stocks. These are the latest in a string of penny stock enforcement actions since outgoing SEC Chair Mary Jo White announced the implementation of the Commission’s “broken windows” policy in 2013. That policy targeted both large and small issuers and market participants. The strategy has resulted in the SEC racking up its largest-ever volume of enforcement cases in fiscal year 2016.
In the first enforcement actions, the SEC alleged that a California-based securities lawyer wrote false and misleading registration statements in connection with five microcap IPOs, which were part of a scheme to transfer unrestricted shares to offshore market participants. The SEC also alleged that the CFO of American Energy Development Corp. (AEDC), one of the issuers in question, and the attorney who wrote opinion letters for the offerings made false and misleading statements. The market participants were barred from any further penny stock activity, and the attorneys were permanently suspended from appearing and practicing before the SEC. The SEC also suspended trading in shares of ADEC.
On December 6, 2016, the United States Supreme Court affirmed an insider trading conviction in a case where the “insider” obtained no direct pecuniary benefit from the disclosure. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for a unanimous court, held that a recipient of insider information may still be criminally liable where the insider initially gave the information to a trading relative or friend and thereby received a “personal benefit.” The court heard oral arguments in October.
Salman v. United States concerned the prosecution of Bassam Salman, a recipient of insider tips from Michael Kara, his brother in law, who in turn received insider information from his brother, Maher Kara. Salman knew that Michael, who also traded on the information, was getting tips from Maher, a Citigroup banker working on various health care deals. Maher, the “tipper,” never received any financial or other concrete benefit in the exchange, but testified that he suspected Michael was trading on the information he provided and there was evidence the brothers had a close relationship. READ MORE
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
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.
The Ninth Circuit recently revived a securities class action against Arena Pharmaceuticals, issuing a decision with important guidance to pharmaceutical companies speaking publicly about future prospects for FDA approval of their advanced drug candidates. The court’s opinion reemphasizes the dangers of volunteering incomplete information, holding that a company that touts the results of trials or tests as supportive of a pending application for FDA approval must also disclose negative test results or concerns expressed by the FDA about those studies—even if the company reasonably believes the concerns are unfounded and are the product of a good faith disagreement.
The SEC recently proposed amendments to the proxy voting rules to require parties in a contested election to use universal proxy cards that would include the names of all board of director nominees. This proposed change would eliminate the two “competing slates” cards and allow shareholders to vote for their preferred combination of board candidates, as they could if they voted in person.
The new rules would apply to all non-exempt votes for contested elections other than those involving registered investment companies and business development companies, would require management and dissidents to provide each other with advance notice of the names of their nominees, and would set formatting requirements for the universal proxy cars. As with any newly proposed SEC rule, there will be a comment period of 60 days to solicit public opinion.
Interestingly, the Commission’s vote to adopt the newly proposed rules was a split decision, with Commissioner Piwowar issuing a strongly worded dissent. According to Commissioner Piwowar, the proposed universal proxy rules “would increase the likelihood of proxy fights at public companies,” and would allow special interest groups to “use their increased influence to advance their own special interests at the expense of shareholders.” He also noted that under the new rules, dissidents are only required to solicit holders of shares representing a majority of those entitled to vote, meaning that many retail investors will not receive either the dissident’s proxy statement or disclosures about the dissident’s nominees.
Earlier this month, the SEC (the “Agency”) announced that it initiated a record-breaking 868 enforcement actions in fiscal year 2016. This figure – along with other milestones – reflect the Agency’s commitment to expanding the scope and reach of its enforcement programs to pursue an array of federal securities law violations.
Last week brought more bad news for private blood testing company Theranos Inc., as San Francisco-based Partner Fund Management L.P. (“PFM”) launched a suit claiming that it was duped into making a $96.1 million investment in Theranos in February 2014. The complaint, filed in Delaware Court of Chancery, alleges common law fraud, securities fraud under California’s Corporations Code, and violations of Delaware’s Consumer Fraud Act and Deceptive Trade Practices Act, among other things, against Theranos, its Chief Executive Officer, Elizabeth Holmes, and its former Chief Operating Officer, Ramesh Balwani.