After first announcing a change on June 18 of this year to demand more admissions in SEC actions, an SEC leader recently made further comments echoing that same sentiment, as well as referencing the SEC’s intended use of stiffer monetary penalties. On October 1, at a Practising Law Institute conference, SEC Enforcement Division Co-Director Andrew Ceresney discussed the new SEC regime’s motto of strict enforcement and provided concrete, practical advice for defense lawyers on how to effectively interact with the SEC’s enforcement personnel.
Given the SEC’s ongoing commitment to deter current and future violations, Mr. Ceresney stated that the SEC will continue to increase penalties in an aggressive bid to deter misconduct. He stated that “[t]here is room for bolder actions” and monetary penalties are a deterrent that everyone understands. Mr. Ceresney also advised defense lawyers on how to handle meetings with SEC enforcement personnel. He stated that defense lawyers should focus on a case’s broad policy or legal arguments, including the circumstances surrounding the case, the client’s settlement position, and any flaws in the legal theory and policy implications of the case. Most importantly, stated Mr. Ceresney, defense lawyers must answer the SEC’s questions, must be trustworthy, and must not attempt to intimidate the SEC. Read More
Two victories for employers last week in Dodd-Frank and SOX whistleblower cases may provide a basis for at least a sliver of optimism among employers and whistleblower defense lawyers hammered by a recent series of employee-favorable decisions under the two main federal statutes covering whistleblowing activity.
Banko v. Apple
In Banko v. Apple Inc., Case No. 3:13-cv-02977-RS, a Northern District of California judge dismissed a Dodd-Frank retaliation claim where the employee only made a complaint internally to management and never complained to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The court followed the reasoning of the Fifth Circuit in Asadi v. G.E. Energy (USA), L.L.C. (see Orrick’s prior blog post on Asadi) and rejected a broader interpretation of the Act adopted by four district courts and the SEC that Dodd-Frank covers internal reporting protected by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) as well as reports to the SEC. Read More
Today the SEC announced that it is issuing a whistleblower award of over $14 million to a whistleblower who provided information that resulted in the recovery of investor funds. The significant whistleblower award comes after many critics have questioned the success of the SEC’s whistleblower award program which, to date, has only issued two much smaller awards since the program’s inception in 2011. The first award payment was issued in August 2012 for approximately $50,000. The second award, paid to three whistleblowers for information that stopped a sham hedge fund, has paid out approximately $25,000 with an expected total payout of $125,000. Read More
That was the Second Circuit’s message to companies in a September 25, 2013 order by upholding dismissal of claims against defendant Royal Bank of Scotland (“RBS”) for alleged failure to disclose enough information about its exposure to subprime mortgages. In so doing, the Court reaffirmed longstanding principles at the heart the securities laws and issued an opinion as applicable to technology companies as it is to banks.
RBS had issued five offering documents in 2005 and 2006, which plaintiff alleged contained a number of misstatements and omissions. Among others, the complaint alleged RBS had misstated its exposure to subprime mortgages, falsely claimed it had effective risk controls, and failed to disclose an inadequate capital base. Read More
Executive compensation decisions are core functions of a board of directors and, absent unusual circumstances, are protected by the business judgment rule. As Delaware courts have repeatedly recognized, the size and structure of executive compensation are inherently matters of business judgment, and so, appropriately, directors have broad discretion in their executive compensation decisions. In light of the broad deference given to directors’ executive compensation decisions, courts rarely second-guess those decisions. That is particularly so when the board or committee setting executive compensation retains and relies on the advice of an independent compensation consultant.
Nevertheless, despite the high hurdle to challenging compensation packages, shareholder plaintiffs continue to aggressively challenge executive compensation decisions, in particular at companies that have performed poorly and received negative or low say-on-pay advisory votes. Read More
On September 26, SEC Chair Mary Jo White gave an important speech to the Council of Institutional Investors in Chicago. The speech, entitled “Deploying the Full Enforcement Arsenal,” provides the first detailed roadmap to the Commission’s enforcement priorities in the White administration. While some of the SEC’s enforcement program going forward will involve a continuation and reinforcement of efforts begun during the administration of former Chair Mary Schapiro and former Enforcement Director Robert Khuzami, much of it will entail new initiatives. The bottom line is that — not surprisingly — Chair White, a former U.S. Attorney, is committed to a vigorous, prosecutorial-minded enforcement program.
Here are the key takeaways from the speech:
Individuals First. Perhaps most importantly, Chair White stated that the “core principle of any strong enforcement program is to pursue responsible individuals wherever possible.” Accordingly, she has “made it clear that the staff should look hard to see whether a case against individuals can be brought. I want to be sure we are looking first at the individual conduct and working out to the entity, rather than starting with the entity as a whole and working in.” She also indicated that the Commission is likely to seek more industry and officer-and-director bars against individuals. Chair White described this focus on individuals first as a “subtle” shift in approach, but it is one that, if followed in practice, will have significant consequences, particularly when paired with some of the other initiatives described below. Read More
“Life settlements” are financial transactions in which the original owner of a life insurance policy sells it to a third party for an up front, lump sum payment. The amount paid for the policy is less than the death benefit on the policy, yet greater than the amount the policyholder would otherwise receive from an insurance company if the policyholder were to surrender the policy for its cash value. For the life settlement investor that buys the policy, the anticipated return is the difference between the death benefit and the purchase price plus the amount paid in premiums to keep the policy in force until the death benefit is payable.
Some commentators have deemed life settlements as essentially a “bet” on the life of the insured. The longer the insured lives, the lower the rate of return on the investment. Critics of life settlements are quick to point out that investors have a financial interest in the early demise of the insured person. The life settlement industry has been subject to extensive litigation for several years.
An important and as yet unsettled question is whether life settlements are “securities” as defined under federal and state securities law. This basic question has important ramifications for how life settlement contracts will be treated by courts and regulators. Read More
On September 18, 2013, the SEC voted to propose a new rule that would require public companies to disclose the ratio of compensation of its CEO to the median compensation of its employees.
The new rule, required under the Dodd-Frank Act, gives companies flexibility to determine the median annual total compensation of its employees in any way that best suits their particular circumstances when calculating the ratio. SEC Chair, Mary Jo White stated that the SEC is very interested in receiving comments to the proposed approach and the flexibility it provides.
SEC Commissioner Michael S. Piwowar, in a strongly worded statement, expressed his dissatisfaction with the proposed rule. Quoting from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities – “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” – Piwowar declared that the pay ratio disclosure proposal “represents what is worst about our current rulemaking agenda.” Piwowar’s concerns were twofold. First, that the pay ratio disclosure could harm investors. Piwowar expressed his concern that investors using pay ratios to compare companies risked being distracted from material investment information and mislead by the conclusions offered by the ratios. Additionally, he noted that investors may also be harmed if pressure to maintain a low pay ratio curtails expansion of business operations into regions with lower labor costs. Second, he was troubled by his observation that the pay ratio rule could have a negative effect on compensation, efficiency, and capital formation because the competitive impacts of the disclosure would disproportionally fall on U.S. companies with large workforces and global operations and could influence how companies structure their business, leading to inefficiencies, higher cost of capital and fewer jobs. Read More
The Ninth Circuit recently reversed a ruling by the U.S. District Court of Nevada granting summary judgment in favor of the SEC in a case alleging violations of Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933 in connection with the sale of unregistered securities. The SEC’s complaint alleged that 1st Global Stock Transfer LLC (“Global”), a transfer agent, and Global’s owner, Helen Bagley (collectively “Defendants”), assisted in the sale of unregistered securities for CMKM Diamonds, Inc. (“CMKM”), a purported diamond and gold mining company. The SEC’s complaint further alleged that CMKM had no legitimate business operations but instead the Company concocted false press releases and distributed fake maps and videos of mineral operations to its investors. While CMKM was one of several defendants in the action, the SEC only moved for summary judgment against Global, Bagley, and CMKM’s attorney. The District Court granted the SEC’s motion for summary judgment against the three defendants, but only Global and Bagley appealed that ruling.
In perpetrating the scheme, CMKM’s attorney was alleged to have provided hundreds of false opinion letters supporting the issuance of unregistered stock without restrictive legends to indicate that the stock was unregistered. Relying on these opinion letters, Global and Bagley issued additional CMKM stock without restrictive legends, believing that the issuance was legal. After a year and a half of this practice, Bagley became suspicious and asked a second law firm to confirm the opinion letters. The second law firm, however, relied on the first attorney’s opinion letters and also issued an opinion letter stating that the issuance of additional CMKM stock was valid. Based on the additional opinion letter, Global and Bagley continued to issue CMKM shares without restrictive legends. Read More
In August, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (“PCAOB”) issued a proposal that calls for enhanced communication from Auditors—in addition to the traditional Pass/Fail opinion—in Audit Reports (PCAOB Release No. 2013-005). If this proposal is approved, it would be the first significant change to the audit report in more than 70 years, according to PCAOB Chairman James Doty. The proposed changes are based on the premise that investors and financial statement users want more information from auditors, and these changes would represent a huge landscape change for the audit profession.