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 January 14, 2016, the SEC entered into two no-admit, no deny settlements regarding an alleged pay-to-play scheme to obtain contracts from the Treasury Office for the State of Ohio. The first was with State Street Bank and Trust Company (“State Street” or “the Bank”) – a custodian bank that provides asset servicing to institutional clients, and the second with Vincent DeBaggis, a former State Street executive. On the same day, the SEC filed suit against attorney Robert Crowe for his role in the scheme which allegedly involved causing concealed campaign contributions to be made to the Ohio Treasury Office to influence the awarding of contracts to State Street. Mr. Crowe is a partner at the law firm of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough and a former lobbyist for the Bank.
A federal court’s recent dismissal of Securities Exchange Act claims against the auditor of a Chinese company prompted us to examine the state of recent U.S. civil securities litigation against accounting firms that audited China-based companies that were listed on US exchanges.
On December 16, 2014, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the U.S. District Court of Arizona’s dismissal of a Section 10(b) class action against Apollo Education Group, Inc., a for-profit education company, and several of its officers and directors. In doing so, the Ninth Circuit held that the heightened pleading standard of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 9(b) applies to all elements of a securities fraud action, including loss causation.
In a long-awaited opinion issued on August 15 in Parkcentral v. Porsche, the Second Circuit limited the extraterritorial reach of the U.S. securities laws, affirming the dismissal of securities claims brought by parties to swap agreements that were entered into in the United States but were based on the price of foreign securities. Although the Parkcentral opinion offers an important interpretation of the Supreme Court’s 2010 opinion in Morrison v. National Australia Bank, the Second Circuit declined to set forth a bright-line rule for determining when a securities fraud claim based on domestic transactions in foreign securities is sufficiently “domestic” to be subject to U.S. securities laws, thereby leaving the door open to future litigants to confront this issue in securities cases involving foreign elements.
In Morrison, the Supreme Court found that Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act does not apply extraterritorially based on a lack of congressional intent to overcome the strong presumption against the extraterritorial application of domestic laws. In so holding, the Court rejected a long line of Second Circuit cases that allowed the application of Section 10(b) to claims involving foreign securities so long as the claims involved either significant conduct in the U.S. or some effect on U.S. markets or investors. The Supreme Court reasoned that the Second Circuit’s so-called “conduct test” and “effects test” improperly extended the geographic reach of the U.S. securities laws beyond Congress’s intent, and would interfere with foreign countries’ own securities regulations. Instead, the Court adopted a new “clear test,” holding that Section 10(b) applies only to claims based on: (1) “transactions in securities listed on domestic exchanges” or (2) “domestic transactions in other securities.”
Securities fraud actions are often filed on the heels of an announcement of an internal or SEC investigation. A recent Ninth Circuit decision, Loos v. Immersion Corp., may make it easier for company executives to sleep at night following such an announcement. The Ninth Circuit has joined a growing number of circuits holding that the announcement of an internal investigation, standing alone, is insufficient to show loss causation at the pleading stage. READ MORE
On August 8, 2013, the Second Circuit vacated the SEC’s $38 million fine against hedge fund Pentagon Capital Management PLC, holding that the Supreme Court’s decision in Gabelli v. SEC required the case to be remanded for recalculation of the civil penalty. This case is one of several SEC enforcement actions affected by the Gabelli ruling since the Court issued its decision less than six months ago. The Second Circuit’s decision highlights the limiting effect Gabelli will have on civil remedies available to the SEC for securities law violations that occurred more than five years before the agency initiated its enforcement action.
In Gabelli, the Court held that the five-year statute of limitations for filing civil enforcement actions seeking penalties for fraud begins to run from the date of the alleged violation, not when the SEC discovers, or reasonably should have discovered, the violation. Citing Gabelli, the Second Circuit in SEC v. Pentagram Capital Management PLC found that any profits Pentagon earned more than five years before the SEC filed its suit could not be included in the penalty. The parties agreed that remand on the issue was required.
The SEC alleged that Pentagon and its owner, Lewis Chester, committed securities fraud under Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933, Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, and Rule 10b-5 by engaging in late trading of mutual funds. Late trading involves placing and executing orders as if they occurred at or before the time the mutual fund price was determined. Such trading allows the purchaser to profit from information released after the mutual fund price is fixed each day, but before it can be adjusted the following day. The SEC alleged that Pentagon engaged in late trading through its broker dealer, Trautman Wasserman & Co., from February 2001 through September 2003. 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
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