Few can ignite a legal firestorm like U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York. Last week, in a mortgage fraud suit against Bank of America and Countrywide, Judge Rakoff refused to dismiss a novel claim for civil penalties under the obscure Financial Institutions Reform Recovery Enforcement Act (“FIRREA”). The ruling will surely encourage civil prosecutors to make wider use of FIRREA, which provides a generous ten-year statute of limitations and low burden of proof, in pursuing financial fraud cases.
FIRREA was enacted in response to the Savings and Loan debacle of the 1980s, as well as the fraud scandals that emerged during that era. The statute includes a clause imposing a civil penalty for mail and wire fraud and other violations “affecting a federally insured financial institution.” Until recently the civil penalty provision has been ignored by prosecutors, leaving courts without occasion to decide what exactly the statute means by “affecting” a financial institution. Read More
In any change-of-control business transaction, the decision by the target company’s board of directors to approve the deal is subject to heightened scrutiny by the courts. These days, virtually every M&A deal is sure to attract at least one strike suit challenging the board’s decision, so it is essential that the board’s decision-making process be robust and untainted by any conflicts of interest.
One way in which a board can insulate its decision-making process is to employ a special committee of independent, outside directors to evaluate and negotiate any potential sale. Although boards are not required by law to use special committees when brokering change of control transactions, Delaware courts have repeatedly held that the use of a special committee can be powerful evidence of a fair and adequate process. That is especially true where (i) the contemplated transaction is with a controlling stockholder or (ii) a majority of the directors are conflicted, two situations where courts will employ the even-more exacting “entire fairness” standard of review. As the Delaware Supreme Court recently noted, “the effective use of a properly functioning special committee of independent directors” is an “integral” part “of the best practices that are used to establish a fair dealing process.” Read More
Yesterday the SEC filed an Order Instituting Cease and Desist Proceedings against the City of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for violations of Rule 10b-5. The City consented to entry of a Cease and Desist Order. The SEC also issued a Report of Investigation under Section 21(a) discussing “Potential Liability of Public Officials With Regard to Disclosure Obligations in the Secondary Market.”
The headline message from this proceeding is that the SEC found that the City had violated the securities laws through public statements made by public officials, as well as budget documents released during a certain time period, which allegedly failed to disclose material information about the City’s dire financial condition (primarily related to its obligations on certain waste-to-energy project bonds which the City had guaranteed). The reason these statements were deemed so significant is that during this period the City had fallen far behind in releasing its Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (“CAFRs”), so that investors had no other available current financial information. The SEC used this proceeding and its Report of Investigation to re-emphasize the statements made in its 1994 Interpretive Guidance on the obligations of participants in the municipal securities markets, and its 1996 Report following the bankruptcy of Orange County, California, that statements made by public officials which might be “reasonably expected to reach investors and the trading markets” can be subject to antifraud rules, even when such statements are not part of a specific securities offering. Read More
Almost two years after the Supreme Court issued its momentous decision in Janus Capital Group, Inc. v. First Derivative Traders, 131 S. Ct. 2296 (2011), lower courts continue to reach significantly different conclusions concerning its scope. The Supreme Court held that, for purposes of SEC Rule 10b-5, “the maker of a statement is the person or entity with ultimate authority over the statement, including its content and whether and how to communicate it.” Id. at 2302. Specifically, in Janus, the Supreme Court held that an investment advisor could not be liable for statements in prospectuses filed by a related, but legally separate entity. Because the investment advisor did not “make” the statements—that is, did not have “ultimate authority” over them—it could not be liable as a primary violator of Rule 10b-5 for any misstatements or omissions contained therein.
Janus established a bright-line rule. But the Southern District of New York, in particular, has split over whether Janus applies beyond the context of private actions brought under Rule 10b-5(b). In the most recent decision from that district to address the issue, SEC v. Garber, No. 12 Civ. 9339, 2013 WL 1732571 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 22, 2013), Judge Shira A. Scheindlin deepened this divide. Read More
What makes a director “independent”? That question is important, not only to investors who want to ensure that boards of directors exercise objective judgment on corporate affairs, but also to companies, who need assurance that their boards will not run afoul of exchange listing requirements, and to directors themselves, for protection against shareholder lawsuits challenging board decisions.
Listing requirements for both the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ provide basic checklists for directors independence, and state generally that directors cannot be employed by the company, cannot have family members who are employed by the company and cannot have a controlling interest in the company’s substantial business partners. But the exchanges’ listing requirements also contemplate that the question of independence is far broader than any checklist. The NYSE’s listing requirements further note that directors should have “no material relationship” with the Company; NASDAQ’S requirements state directors should have no relationship which “would interfere with the exercise of independent judgment in carrying out the responsibilities of a director.” Read More
Putting an end to shareholder derivative litigation arising from News Corp.’s phone-hacking scandal, the company’s directors agreed last week to a record-breaking $139 million cash settlement. According to the plaintiffs’ lawyers, the deal is the “largest cash derivative settlement on record.” The settlement will be funded by directors’ and officers’ insurance proceeds.
Plaintiffs initially filed suit in the Delaware Court of Chancery in March 2011, asserting claims based on the company’s proposed acquisition (since completed) of Shine Group Ltd., a television and movie production company owned by the daughter of News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch. According to plaintiffs, the News Corp. directors breached their fiduciary duties by permitting the purchase of Shine at an excessive price. The court later consolidated various related cases, and plaintiffs’ allegations expanded to include claims that the company’s directors failed to properly investigate the UK phone-hacking allegations that led to the demise of News Corp.’s News of the World. Read More
On April 24, 2013, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board issued its inaugural “Policy Statement Regarding Credit for Extraordinary Cooperation in Connection with Board Investigations.” The Policy Statement reiterates many of the themes of the SEC’s “Seaboard Report,” and therefore many may view it as largely plowing over well-trodden ground. But, the Policy Statement merits close attention, because it is the first such statement the Board has issued since it was formed, it sets forth specific examples of conduct that is likely to earn credit for cooperation, and it focuses specifically on the auditing profession.
The Policy Statement identifies three forms of “extraordinary” cooperation that could result in audit firms and/or individuals receiving credit in enforcement investigations:
remedial or corrective action; and
According to the Board, “[a] firm or associated person may earn credit for self-reporting by making voluntary, timely and full disclosure of the facts relating to violations before the conduct comes to the attention of the Board or another regulator.” And, the sooner self-reporting is made, the more likely it will result in credit. The Board stressed, however, that self-reporting is “not eligible for cooperation credit” if it is “required by legal or regulatory obligations,” e.g., the auditor’s obligation under Section 10A of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 to report a client’s illegal acts. Read More
On April 16, 2013, Judge Victor Marrero conditionally approved a $600 million consent judgment between the SEC and CR Intrinsic Investors LLC (“CR”) where CR “neither admitted nor denied” the allegations brought against it. The settlement was on the heels of a highly publicized investigation and lawsuit regarding CR’s purported insider trading scheme involving S.A.C. Capital Advisors and former S.A.C. trader Mathew Martoma. Despite finding the proposed injunctive and monetary relief “fair, adequate, and reasonable, and in the public interest,” Judge Marrero questioned the appropriateness of the “neither admit nor deny” provisions because of the extraordinary public and private harm caused by CR’s alleged wrongful conduct.
Approval of the CR settlement was conditioned upon the outcome of the pending Second Circuit appeal in S.E.C. v. Citigroup Global Markets, Inc., 11-cv-5227 (2d Cir.). In Citigroup, Judge Rakoff (of the Southern District of New York) denied approval of the SEC’s proposed settlement of fraud charges against Citigroup. Rakoff’s opinion harshly critiqued the agency’s use of “no admission” settlements as imposing “substantial relief on the basis of mere allegations.” He questioned whether “no admission” settlements could be properly judged when the Court did not know the relevant facts and therefore “lack[ed] a framework for determining adequacy.” Both Citigroup and the SEC appealed Rakoff’s decision to the Second Circuit, where the decision remains pending. Read More
On April 8, 2013, Judge Shira A. Scheindlin of the Southern District of New York granted auditor Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu CPA’s (“DTTC”) motion to dismiss a shareholder class action, finding that plaintiffs failed to sufficiently allege scienter or any misstatements by DTTC pursuant Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5 of the Securities Exchange Act. Plaintiffs alleged that DTTC issued unqualified audit opinions on behalf of its client Longtop from 2009 to 2011. During that period, Longtop reported very strong financial results, which were later revealed to be fraudulently inflated.
In May 2011, DTTC released a public letter of resignation as Longtop’s auditor, disclosing that its second round of bank confirmations were cut short by Longtop’s deliberate interference, that Longtop’s CEO admitted the company’s books were fraudulent, and that DTTC had resigned due to that admission and Longtop’s deliberate interference with its audit. As a result, the NYSE stopped trading on Longtop’s securities and delisted the company.
In dismissing shareholder claims against DTTC, the court applied the stringent test for plaintiffs to meet when alleging scienter against an auditor. Because “an outside auditor will typically not have an apparent motive to commit fraud, and its duty to monitor an audited company for fraud is less demanding than the company’s duty not to commit fraud,” an auditor’s mere failure to identify problems with a company’s internal controls and accounting practices will not constitute recklessness. Read More
In a recent decision, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed the Court of Chancery in Pyott, et al. v. Louisiana Mun. Police Emp. Ret. Sys., et al., holding that a derivative suit against Botox-maker Allergan, Inc. should be dismissed because Allergan had already secured a judgment in its favor in a nearly identical suit in California. The decision will make it more difficult for plaintiffs’ lawyers to pursue duplicative derivative litigation in multiple jurisdictions.
Shortly after Allergan entered into a $600 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over alleged off-labeling marketing of Botox, separate groups of shareholders brought suit in Delaware and California. Before motions to dismiss in the Delaware derivative litigation were heard, a California Federal Court dismissed the California derivative suit, finding that plaintiffs could not support the inference that the Allergan directors conspired to violate the law, which prevented plaintiffs from showing that making a demand on the Board to investigate the matter would be futile. The Delaware Court of Chancery held that the California Judgment did not bar the Delaware action and denied Allergan’s motion to dismiss. The Court of Chancery’s decision that it was not required to give preclusive effect to the California judgment was based on two principles: first, under Delaware law, the shareholder plaintiffs in two jurisdictions were not in privity with each other, and second, the California shareholders were not adequate representatives of the corporation. Read More
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