Over the past year, the SEC and other regulatory agencies have initiated an increasing number of investigations into companies based on allegations of inadequate internal controls and/or a system for reporting those controls. For more on internal controls and a discussion of recent regulatory activity in this area, see Jason M. Halper & Jonathan E. Lopez, et al., Assessing the Increased Regulatory Focus on Public Company Internal Control and Reporting, Bloomberg BNA: Securities Regulation & Law Report, Oct. 6, 2014.
For the first time in the nearly five years since Dodd-Frank went into effect, the SEC last week took action against a company over concerns that the company was preventing its employees from potentially blowing the whistle on illegal activity. The action is significant because the SEC was targeting seemingly innocuous language in a confidentiality agreement and there were no allegations that the company, KBR, Inc., was otherwise breaking the law.
In an amicus brief filed earlier this month in Berman v. Neo@Ogilvy LCC, the SEC asked the Second Circuit to defer to the Commission and hold that individuals who report misconduct internally are covered by the anti-retaliation protections of the Dodd-Frank Act of 2002, regardless of whether they report the information to the SEC.
Corporations facing federal securities suits can sometimes avoid liability by claiming that their forward-looking statements were so vague or indefinite that they could not have affected the company’s stock price and are therefore not material. Such statements are not actionable because courts consider them “puffing,” famously described by Judge Learned Hand nearly 100 years ago as “talk which no sensible man takes seriously.” Though we cannot know today what Judge Hand would think of the civil complaint recently filed by the SEC against several marijuana-company stock promoters, it’s safe to say that this isn’t the kind of ‘puffing’ he had in mind.
The defendants in the SEC civil action are all stock promoters, most of whom operate websites where they promote stocks, including microcap or so-called “penny” stocks. The SEC alleges that the defendants promoted shares in microcap companies related to the marijuana industry. For example, one of the companies, Hemp Inc., claims to be involved with medical marijuana. According to the SEC, three of the defendants bought and sold more than 40 million shares in Hemp Inc. in order to give the appearance that there was an active market in the company’s stock. In reality, the transactions allegedly consisted of wash trades and matched orders. A wash trade occurs when a security is traded between accounts, but with no actual change in beneficial ownership, while a matched order entails coordinating buy and sell orders to create the appearance of trading activity. As the defendants were allegedly generating trading activity, they were also allegedly promoting the stock on the Internet, touting “a REAL Possible Gain of OVER 2900%” in Hemp Inc. stock. Wow, that is high.
A lack of sweaty models trying on yoga pants may be problematic, but does it give rise to securities fraud? Not in the Southern District of New York. In In re lululemon Securities Litigation, decided on April 18, 2014, Judge Katherine B. Forrest dismissed in its entirety a class action complaint against lululemon based on sheer yoga pants alleging violations of Section 10(b) and Section 20(a) of the Exchange Act and SEC Rule 10b-5. As summarized by the court, lead plaintiff alleged, “if only lululemon had someone try on its black luon yoga pants before they shipped, it would have realized they were sheer; similarly, if lulumeon had only had someone exercise in certain athletic wear (enough to produce sweat), it would have realized that the colors bled.” Based on these purported shortcomings, plaintiff alleged that statements touting the high quality of the company’s products were materially false and misleading. The court, however, disagreed: “This narrative requires the Court to stretch allegations of, at most, corporate mismanagement into actionable federal securities fraud. This is not the law.” 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
The Supreme Court in U.S. v. Windsor held that the federal Defense of Marriage Act’s (DOMA) section defining marriage as between a man and woman is unconstitutional because it violates the Fifth Amendment’s equal protection clause. Under Section 3 of DOMA a person could only be considered a spouse under federal law if they were married to a person of the opposite sex.
The term “spouse” appears several times in the Securities and Exchange Act Rules. Exchange Act Rule 10b5-2 provides a non-exclusive definition of circumstances in which a person has a duty of trust or confidence for purposes of the misappropriation theory of insider trading. The misappropriation theory expands the traditional view of insider trading to cases where a person misappropriates confidential information in breach of a duty owed to the source of the information.
Subsection (b)(3) of Rule 10b5-2 enumerates circumstances where this duty is presumed to exist and includes circumstances when “a person receives or obtains material nonpublic information from his or her spouse[.]” Because Rule 10b5-2’s enumerated list is non-exclusive it’s possible a duty of trust and confidence could be found between domestic partners regardless of the Windsor ruling. However, the expanded definition of spouse post-Windsor shifts the burden, creating a rebuttable presumption that such a duty exists between same-sex couples in states where they are legally married for the purposes of the misappropriation theory of insider trading.
There are other instances where the term spouse may be significant under the securities laws, including beneficial reporting requirements for Section 16 insiders and Audit Committee independence rules.
In a split vote last week, the SEC adopted new rules designed to increase protections for customers who invest money and securities with broker-dealers. Recent rulemaking and statements made by the SEC have highlighted the fact that broker-dealer regulation is becoming a growing area of SEC interest. In connection with last Wednesday’s vote, SEC Chair Mary Jo White stated that “[i]nvestors need to feel confident that their money is safe when it’s being held by their broker-dealers… [and] these rules will strengthen the audit requirements for broker-dealers and enhance [the SEC’s] oversight of the way they maintain custody over their customer’s needs.”
The new rules amend the broker-dealer reporting and notification rules codified in Section 17 and Rules 17a-5 and 17a-11 of the Exchange Act. Currently, a broker-dealer is required to file an annual report with the SEC and the SRO designated to examine that broker-dealer. The report must contain audited financial statements conducted by an independent public accountant registered with the PCAOB. Under the new requirements, a broker must file a quarterly report telling the SEC whether and how it maintains control over its client’s funds. The new rules also require that the broker-dealer let the SEC review the work-papers of the accountant, if requested. 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
The SEC issued a release today confirming that companies can use social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to announce information in compliance with Regulation FD (“Reg FD”) so long as investors have been alerted in advance about which social media will be used to send the information.
The SEC’s release grows out of an inquiry involving the CEO of a major Internet television network. The CEO posted on his Facebook page that his company’s online viewing had exceeded a key milestone for the first time. His Facebook statement was not accompanied or preceded by any company press release or 8-K. The stock jumped substantially, and the SEC came knocking.
The SEC’s release confirms that companies are permitted to announce material news through social media, provided investors know when and where to expect it. In response to the SEC’s latest release on Reg FD, we expect that public companies will update their social media protocols and, as appropriate, integrate investor relations communications more closely with links to sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.