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.
Coming on the heels of the SEC’s first wave of settlements with underwriters as part of its Municipalities Continuing Disclosure Cooperation (“MCDC”) initiative, the agency has brought yet another precedent-setting enforcement action against an underwriter in the municipal bond market. On August 13, 2015, the SEC brought a settled enforcement action against the brokerage firm Edward Jones, in which the firm agreed to pay more than $20 million to settle charges that it overcharged customers in connection with the sale of municipal bonds in the primary market. Edward Jones settled without admitting or denying the SEC’s findings.
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.