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.
The NASDAQ Stock Market recently submitted a proposed rule change that would require all companies listed on the NASDAQ to maintain an internal audit function. The function would “provide management and the audit committee with ongoing assessments of the Company’s risk management processes and system of internal control.” In addition, the company’s audit committee would be required to meet periodically with the internal auditors and oversee the internal audit function. If implemented, the rule would require companies listed prior to June 30, 2013 to establish the internal audit function by December 31, 2013. Companies listed after June 30, 2013 would have to establish the function prior to listing.
The purpose of the proposed rule is to ensure that listed companies have a mechanism to regularly review and assess their internal controls and ensure management and audit committees receive information about risk management. The NASDAQ also believes the internal audit function will assist companies in complying with Rules 13a-15 and 15d-15, which require management to evaluate a company’s internal controls on a quarterly basis.
Despite the rule’s requirement of an internal audit function, the proposed language permits companies “to outsource this function to a third party service provider other than its independent auditor.” So, while the rule permits the internal audit work to be done by an outside third party, the company cannot engage the same auditing firm as both its internal and external auditor. In other words, the company needs both an independent outside auditor that cannot act as the inside auditor and an inside auditor that can be an outside auditor as long as it’s not the independent outside auditor.
Although most companies listed on the NASDAQ already have an internal audit function, the proposed rule would bring the NASDAQ into alignment with the New York Stock Exchange, which already requires its listed companies to have an internal audit function. See NYSE Listed Company Manual Section 303A.07(c).
The deadline for comments on the proposed rule is March 29, 2013.
On September 6, the Second Circuit expanded class standing in a mortgage-backed securities class action suit for alleged misrepresentations in a shelf registration statement. NECA-IBEW Health & Welfare Fund v. Goldman Sachs & Co., No. 11-2763 (2d Cir. Sept. 6, 2012). The plaintiff, an investment fund, sued Goldman Sachs & Co. (“Goldman”) and GS Mortgage Securities Corp. (“GS”) alleging violations of Sections 11, 12(a)(2), and 15 of the Securities Act of 1933 on behalf of a putative class of persons who acquired mortgage-backed certificates underwritten by Goldman and issued by GS. The plaintiff alleged that a single shelf registration statement connected with 17 separate offerings sold by 17 separate trusts contained false and misleading statements concerning underwriting guidelines, property appraisals, and risks and that these alleged misstatements were repeated in prospectus supplements.
The lower court had granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, holding that the plaintiff—who had purchased securities from only two of the seventeen trusts—lacked standing to bring claims on behalf of purchasers of securities of the other fifteen trusts.
The Second Circuit disagreed that the plaintiff lacked class standing. Although the plaintiff had individual standing only as to the securities it purchased from the two trusts, the court held that the analysis for class standing is different. According to the court, to assert class standing, a plaintiff has to allege (1) that he personally suffered an injury due to the defendant’s illegal conduct and (2) that the defendant’s conduct implicates the “same set of concerns” as the conduct that caused injury to other members of the putative class. Read More
Imagine a plaintiff who buys stock in a company that subsequently discloses a misstatement in its financial statements that existed at the time plaintiff invested. The stock price drops upon the initial disclosure, and then rebounds back above the purchase price. Can that plaintiff plead economic loss, as is required under Dura Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Broudo, 544 U.S. 336 (2005)? According to the Second Circuit, the answer is yes. Read More
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has revived a federal securities class action against Grant Thornton LLP regarding its unqualified 1999 audit opinion indicating that Winstar Communications Inc.’s 1999 financial statements was in conformity with generally accepted accounting principles. The Second Circuit’s opinion is notable because it finds that, despite an apparently thorough audit (in terms of hours spent and documents reviewed) a fact finder could still find enough evidence of a conscious disregard of signs of fraud to support an inference of recklessness. In other words, even where an auditor does a significant amount of work on an audit, such work will not necessarily immunize the auditor from securities claims. Read More
Courts have been making slow but steady progress in testing the limits of the 2010 Supreme Court case Morrison v. Nat’l Australian Bank Ltd., 130 S.Ct. 2869 (2010). In Morrison, the Court held the federal securities laws apply only to purchases or sales made “in connection with the purchase or sale of a security listed on an American stock exchange, and the purchase or sale of any other security in the United States.” Id. at 2888. The Second Circuit has held that the “purchase and sale” of a security occurs when “irrevocable liability” occurs and the parties are bound to the transaction. Absolute Activist Value Master Fund v. Ficeto, 677 F.3d 60 (2d Cir. 2012) Read More
Relying on a lesser-known U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rule, the Southern District of New York dismissed over forty underwriter and director defendants from a securities action against General Electric Co. on April 18, 2012. Shareholders alleged that GE made false statements in connection with a $12 billion secondary stock offering in 2008, including misrepresentations about its ability to sell commercial paper. GE, which was mostly financed by 30-day commercial paper, encountered difficulties in funding its operations after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.
District Judge Denise Cote ruled that older statements incorporated by reference into the offering documents were modified and superseded by subsequent statements under SEC Rule 412, and that statements made by GE in its Forms 10-K between 2004 and 2007, expressing confidence in its commercial paper position, could not be relied upon to state a Securities Act claim. Citing SEC Rule 412, Judge Cote found that the 2008 offering’s prospectus supplement warned of potentially impaired access to the commercial paper market, and thus “directly modif[ied] and replace[d] the earlier statements” of GE. Judge Cote also rejected lead plaintiff’s argument that the newer statements were merely standardized “boilerplate.”
The ruling modified a January 2012 opinion from District Judge Richard Holwell in one of his last opinions before retiring from the bench. Upon reassignment of the matter Judge Cote granted defendants’ pending motions for reconsideration of the January opinion with respect to all surviving claims under the Securities Act and Exchange Act. Judge Cote’s ruling did not dispose of the entire action, keeping intact the Exchange Act claims against GE and its chief financial officer for alleged misstatements about the quality of the company’s loan portfolio.
In re: General Electric Co. Securities Litigation, case number 1:09-cv-01951, United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.
The SEC came under scrutiny, including from U.S. Senator Charles Grassley, following an April 25, 2012 front page article in the Wall Street Journal which reported that the Agency had inadvertently revealed the identity of a whistleblower during an inquiry into his former employer.
The investigation involved Pipeline Trading Systems LLC, which runs stock trading platforms under its new name, Aritas Securities LLC. According to the article, an SEC Staff Attorney showed a notebook belonging to the whistleblower to a Pipeline executive during an interview. The executive recognized the handwriting regarding trades, meetings, and phone calls. Pipeline settled with the SEC on October 24, 2011. Read More
Recently, Sean McKessy, chief of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) Office of the Whistleblower, reported on the increase in whistleblower tips that have come rolling into his newly created department. The SEC began monitoring these tips eight months ago when the final provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act enacted the whistleblower provisions in Section 21F of the Securities Exchange Act. Section 21F of the Exchange Act directs the SEC to make monetary awards to whistleblowers that voluntarily provide original information that leads to successful enforcement action resulting in the imposition of monetary sanctions exceeding $1,000,000. Qualifying whistleblowers can reap between 10 percent and 30 percent of the monetary sanctions. Read More
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