In a heavily redacted decision issued on April 5, 2016, the SEC approved the claim of one whistleblower and denied the claim of another for providing information related to an unidentified enforcement action. The SEC awarded $275,000 to the primary claimant (Claimant 1) but offset that amount by the monetary obligations due related to a separate Final Judgment. Although the April 5 order was heavily redacted, the publicly available information confirms that the $275,000 award was based on a percentage of the monetary sanctions from both the SEC case and a related criminal action. This is the first time an SEC order has required a tipster to spend whistleblower proceeds to settle a court-ordered debt.
Speaking last week at the SEC’s and Rock Center’s Silicon Valley Initiative at Stanford Law School, SEC Chair Mary Jo White cautioned Silicon Valley’s start-up companies regarding their potential lack of internal controls. In particular, she warned that unicorns—nonpublic start-up companies valued north of one billion dollars—may warrant special scrutiny into whether their corporate governance and investor disclosures are keeping pace with their growing valuations. Ms. White repeatedly warned that the prestige of obtaining “unicorn” status may drive companies to inflate their valuations.
On March 28, 2016, the Supreme Court denied a petition for certiorari review brought by Laurie Bebo, the former CEO of Assisted Living Concepts Inc., who challenged the constitutionality of proceedings conducted in an SEC administrative tribunal. Although the Court denied review, there are many more cases like it winding their way through the federal system, and in the likely event a split develops among the circuits, the Supreme Court may be inclined to address the issue, especially given the amount of attention the issue has received. Indeed, Bebo’s petition itself attracted the notice of celebrity entrepreneur Mark Cuban, who filed an amicus brief in her case arguing that the SEC’s administrative tribunal is a “farce” and unconstitutional.
On March 22, 2016, the Supreme Court issued a decision permitting class plaintiffs to rely on “representative” or “sample” evidence to satisfy the prerequisites to class certification and certain elements of their claims. See Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, No. 14-1146, 2016 WL 1092414 (Mar. 22, 2016). This is one of the relatively few recent class action decisions by the Court that could be construed as something other than a victory for class defendants. As Justice Thomas stated in dissent, the decision arguably is inconsistent with the Court’s pro-defendant decisions in Wal-Mart and Comcast. We have previously discussed the Supreme Court’s recent class action jurisprudence, including the Wal-Mart and Comcast decisions.
Shortly into his tenure as United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara announced a crackdown on insider trading, indicating that it would be his office’s “top criminal priority” and that investigations would utilize novel and “covert methods” to achieve convictions, including using wiretaps and informants. According to Bharara, “every legitimate tool should be at our disposal.” Over the next several years, federal prosecutors in Manhattan initiated nearly 100 insider trading cases against some of Wall Street’s leading names, and secured more than 80 convictions, many through guilty pleas. For his work, Time magazine featured Bharara on its February 13, 2012 cover under the headline: “This Man is Busting Wall Street.”
On March 4, 2016, the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of two related securities actions against Sanofi Pharmaceuticals, its predecessor Genzyme Corporation, and three company executives (collectively, “Sanofi”). In doing so, the Second Circuit offered its first substantial interpretation of the Supreme Court’s March 2015 decision in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers District Council Construction Industry Pension Fund, 135 S. Ct. 1318 (2015), which addresses how plaintiffs can allege securities claims based on statements of opinion.
On February 29, 2016, the Supreme Court denied certification in Harman International Industries Inc. et al. v. Arkansas Public Employees Retirement System et al., thereby leaving unanswered a number of questions related to the Safe Harbor provision of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act (PSLRA). The petitioners, defendant Harman International Industries Inc. (“Harman” or “the Company”) and related individual defendants, argued that the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals erred when it reversed the district court’s decision granting Harman’s motion to dismiss. In declining to hear the case, the Supreme Court failed to resolve a circuit split concerning the relevance of state of mind to the efficacy of cautionary language.
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.