On August 31, 2016, the SEC caught a break when a Ninth Circuit panel reversed Judge Manuel L. Real’s bench trial verdict for defendants, former corporate officers of the now-defunct Basin Water, Inc., finding that the SEC was wrongfully denied its shot at a jury trial in a securities fraud action involving alleged false reporting of millions of dollars in unrealized revenue. The panel vacated the judgment and remanded for a jury trial, noting that the SEC had not consented to the defendants’ withdrawal of their jury demand, and in fact, consistently demonstrated its objection to a bench trial, preserving its objection all the way to the appellate court. READ MORE
In what will surely not be the last word on this continuing controversy, on September 3, 2015, a majority of the members of the Securities and Exchange Commission held that the appointment process for the Commission’s administrative law judges (“ALJ”) does not violate the Constitution. As we reported just last month, a federal judge in the Southern District of New York preliminarily enjoined a separate SEC administrative proceeding based in part on the judge’s view that the SEC ALJ appointment process is likely unconstitutional. In light of the key role ALJs play in SEC proceedings and the number of administrative cases brought each year, the question is likely to be addressed at the appellate level and could have significant implications for the securities defense bar.
Last week, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced an award payout of between $475,000 and $575,000 to a former company officer who reported information about an alleged securities fraud. While this is by no means the largest of the 15 payouts the SEC has made since the inception of the whistleblower program in fiscal year 2012 (the SEC awarded approximately $14 million to a whistleblower in October 2013, and roughly $30 million to a foreign whistleblower almost a year later), it is the first time that the SEC provided a whistleblower bounty award under the new program to an officer who learned about the alleged fraud through another employee, rather than firsthand.
Corporate merger negotiations are typically conducted under a veil of secrecy, with public disclosure withheld until the end when a definitive agreement has been signed. The fear is that premature disclosure of preliminary merger talks will negatively impact the deal. For example, early disclosure might encourage speculative investment in the target company’s stock, driving up the price and diminishing shareholders’ perception of the offered premium, or even cause potential bidders to be reluctant to make an offer in the first place. In light of these problematic scenarios, courts widely recognize that typically there is no duty to disclose merger negotiations prior to the execution of a definitive merger agreement. See, e.g., Thesling v. Bioenvision, Inc., 374 F. App’x 141, 143 (2d Cir. 2010) (there is “no express duty [that] requires the disclosure of merger negotiations, as opposed to a definitive merger agreement”); Williams v. Dresser Indus., Inc., 120 F.3d 1163, 1174 (11th Cir. 1997) (“In the context of sales of stock while negotiations for merger or acquisitions were pending, courts have found no duty to disclose the negotiations”). READ MORE
Some things are better left unsaid. Especially, it seems, when they involve political intelligence shared by a congressional aide with a lobbyist linked to a political intelligence firm serving Wall Street traders.
The sharing of political-insider scoop has recently caused Congress to be subpoenaed for an insider trading investigation that will likely test recent legislation enacted to curb trading on non-public political information. The SEC subpoenaed Rep. David Camp (R., Mich.) for records, and the Justice Department subpoenaed Camp’s aide Brian Sutter, staff director of the House Ways and Means Committee’s healthcare subpanel, to testify before a federal grand jury. READ MORE
On June 18, 2014, Judge Victor Marrero of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York approved the SEC’s no-admit, no-deny consent decrees in its insider trading case against CR Intrinsic Investors, LLC and affiliated entities. In approving the decrees, however, the court called on the SEC to take a “wait and see” approach in cases involving parallel criminal actions arising out of the same transactions alleged in its complaint.
The decision follows the much-anticipated opinion in SEC v. Citigroup Global Markets (“Citigroup IV”), in which the Second Circuit vacated Judge Rakoff’s order refusing to approve a no-admit, no-deny consent decree between the SEC and Citigroup. The Second Circuit found that district courts are required to enter proposed SEC consent decrees if the decrees are “fair and reasonable,” and if the public interest is not disserved. A court must focus on whether the consent decree is procedurally proper, and cannot find that a proposed decree disserves the public based on its disagreement with the SEC’s use of discretionary no-admit, no-deny settlements.
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 March 31, 2014, the Securities and Exchange Commission brought insider trading charges against Ching Hwa Chen, the husband of a corporate insider, alleging that he misappropriated financial information from his wife and then shorted her employer’s stock, netting $138,000 in ill gotten gains. SEC v. Chen, No. 5:14-cv-01467 (N.D. Cal). The SEC’s allegations (taken from its complaint) are as follows: Chen’s wife was the Senior Tax Director of Informatica, a data integration company. In late June 2012, Informatica learned it would miss its revenue guidance for the first time in 31 consecutive quarters. That miss caused the defendant’s wife to work more than usual as the company scrambled to close its books and prepare for a potential pre-release of its quarterly revenues. Over the next several days, the defendant overheard his wife’s phone calls addressing the revenue miss, including on a four-hour drive to Reno, Nevada where his wife fielded calls from the passenger seat as he drove. Early the next week, convinced that Informatica’s stock would lose value, Chen bet heavily against the company, shorting its stock, buying put options, and selling call options. In early July, after announcing the miss, Informatica’s stock price fell 27% from $43 to $31. Chen closed out all of his positions that same day. READ MORE
High profile schemes perpetrated by Bernie Madoff, Allen Stanford, Nevin Shapiro, and others have brought, or at least reinforced, a general understanding of the term “Ponzi scheme” into the public lexicon. But what, legally, is a Ponzi scheme? In SEC v. Management Solutions, Inc., 2013 WL 4501088 (D. Utah Aug. 22, 2013), Judge Bruce Jenkins endeavored to answer that question and, in the process, authored an encyclopedic account of the term and key court opinions, from seven federal circuits, that have construed it.
Management Solutions was an SEC enforcement action against a father-and-son team that had allegedly raised over $200 million through a “classic Ponzi scheme.” According to the SEC’s complaint, investors in the scheme were sold “membership interests” in an apartment-flipping business and were guaranteed a return of five to eight percent. In reality, the funds were allegedly deposited into a general account and were used to pay a variety of expenses, including returns to other investors. Each of the defendants in the SEC case settled without admitting or denying the allegations.
A hearing was held in 2013 to determine whether, as argued by the court-appointed receiver, the scheme was properly classified as a “Ponzi scheme” and, if so, at what point that designation became applicable. The receiver sought such a finding in order to obtain the so-called “Ponzi presumption,” which is sufficient to establish actual intent to defraud. 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