Danielle Van Wert, a senior associate in the Silicon Valley office, is a member of the Securities Litigation Group. Danielle's practice focuses on securities litigation and white collar criminal defense.
She represents companies and individuals in securities-related regulatory investigations, including SEC and FINRA matters, and also represents special committees in internal investigations. In addition, Danielle's practice focuses on shareholder derivative actions and actions brought under federal and state securities laws.
Prior to joining the firm, Danielle was an associate at DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary.
Danielle's significant involvement in recent cases include the following.
- Representation of a former CFO of a technology company in action brought by the SEC alleging revenue recognition and accounting fraud.
- Representation of multiple board special committees in connection with internal investigations arising out of stock options issues.
- Representation of a former manager of a brokerage company in FINRA investigation.
On February 7, 2018 the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) announced its 2018 National Exam Priorities. The priorities, formulated with input from the Chairman, Commissioners, SEC Staff and fellow regulators, are mostly unchanged from years past (New Year, Similar Priorities: SEC Announces 2017 OCIE Areas of Focus, Orrick.com). However, the publication itself is presented in a more formal wrapper that begins with a lengthy message from OCIE’s leadership team describing the Office’s role and guiding principles, including that they are risk-based, data-driven and transparent, and that they embrace innovation and new technology.
OCIE’s principal 2018 priority, not surprisingly, appears to be the protection of retail investors, including seniors and those saving for retirement. OCIE specifically stated that it will focus on the disclosure of investment fees and other compensation received by financial professionals; electronic investment advisors – sometimes known as “robo-advisors”; wrap fee programs in which investors are charged a single fee for bundled services; and never-before-examined investment advisors. As to the latter, OCIE indicated that in the most recent fiscal year, it examined approximately 15 percent of all investment advisors, up from 8 percent five years before. It remains to be seen whether that increasing trend will continue.
Noting that the cryptocurrency and initial coin offering (ICO) markets “present a number of risks for retail investors,” OCIE included them as a priority for the first time. Examiners will focus on whether financial professionals maintain adequate controls and safeguards over the assets, as well the disclosure of investment risks.
Other 2018 priorities are compliance and risks in critical market infrastructure; cybersecurity protections, which OCIE states are critical to the operation of our markets; and anti-money laundering programs. In addition, OCIE has prioritized its examinations of FINRA and MSRB to ensure that those entities continue to operate effectively as self-regulatory organizations subject to the SEC’s oversight. READ MORE
Last Friday, the SEC issued two releases regarding guidance on revenue recognition, along with a related Staff Accounting Bulletin. These releases are notable for all SEC registrants, as they update prior revenue recognition guidance.
First, the SEC updated its guidance for criteria to be met in order to recognize revenue when delivery has not occurred, i.e., bill-and-hold arrangements. The SEC’s guidance now follows that of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (“FASB”) Accounting Standards Codification (“ASC”) Topic 606, Revenues from Contracts with Customers. Per ASC Topic 606, revenue may be recognized when or as the entity satisfies a performance obligation by transferring a promised good or service to a customer, and a good or service is transferred when the customer obtains control of that good or service. In the context of bill-and-hold arrangements, ASC Topic 606 provides specific guidance that certain indicators must be met to show that control has been transferred, including: (i) a substantive reason for such an arrangement where the customer has declined to exercise its right to take physical possession of that product; (ii) the product must be identified separately as belonging to the customer; (iii) the product currently must be ready for physical transfer to the customer; and (iv) the entity cannot have the ability to use the product or direct it to another customer. Until a registrant adopts ASC Topic 606, however, it should continue to follow the older guidance for revenue recognition. In conjunction with the SEC’s release, the SEC’s Office of the Chief Accountant and Division of Corporate Finance also released a bulletin that brings existing SEC staff guidance into conformity with ASC Topic 606.
The SEC also published new guidance with respect to accounting for sales of vaccines and bioterror countermeasures to the Federal Government for placement into the pediatric vaccine stockpile or the strategic national stockpile. In light of the updated ASC Topic 606 referenced above, the SEC states that vaccine manufacturers should now recognize revenue and provide disclosures when vaccines are placed into Federal Government stockpile programs because control of the enumerated vaccines (i.e., childhood disease, influenza and others) will have been transferred to the customer.
2016 was a high-water mark for SEC enforcement activity; however, with the uncertainties associated with the new administration’s enforcement regime, we could be seeing a downturn going forward. According to a recent report issued by the NYU Pollack Center for Law & Business and Cornerstone Research, the SEC’s 2016 fiscal year (spanning October 1, 2015 – September 30, 2016) saw the highest number of enforcement actions brought against public companies and their subsidiaries since 2009, the year the Pollack Center and Cornerstone Research first began tracking information on such actions. The 92 actions brought against public companies and their subsidiaries last year is more than double the level of enforcement activity from just three years ago and represents the latest in a continuing upward trend of enforcement actions. Also consistent with recent trends, the vast majority of these actions have been brought as administrative enforcement proceedings before SEC ALJs, rather than civil actions in federal court.
The SEC continues to focus most heavily on issuers’ reporting and disclosure obligations, which comprised more than a quarter of the enforcement actions initiated last year. The SEC has consistently emphasized issuer disclosures as an area of enforcement priority and its pattern of activity has, to date, backed that up. Last year also brought enhanced focus on investment advisors and investment companies, with the SEC initiating more actions against those defendants in 2016 than in the previous three years combined. Allegations of foreign corrupt practices and actions against companies making initial or secondary securities offerings also resulted in an increased rate of enforcement activity over prior periods.
Judge Jed S. Rakoff (S.D.N.Y.) recently made headlines after urging lawyers to draft and advocate for a more straightforward insider trading statute to replace judicially-created insider trading law. During his keynote speech at the New York City Bar’s annual Securities Litigation & Enforcement Institute, Judge Rakoff explained that the law has become overly-complicated since courts were forced to define insider trading by shoehorning the concept into the fraud provisions of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. As a result, increasingly suspect theories have been developed to address potential insider trading in an expanding variety of scenarios.
In promoting a statutory solution for insider trading law, Judge Rakoff pointed to the Europe Union (“EU”) as an example. He explained that the EU defined insider trading by statute in simple and broad terms, and avoided relying on the framework of fraud. Considering Judge Rakoff’s influence and expertise in securities law, inquiry into the EU’s approach to insider trading is warranted.
On January 12, 2017 the SEC announced its Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (OCIE) priorities for the year, including areas of focus for Retail Investors, Senior Investors and Retirement Investments, Market-wide risks, FINRA oversight, and cybersecurity. These priorities reflect an extension of previous years’ commitments, in particular with regard to focus on the retirement industry and cybersecurity. The “Regulation Systems Compliance and Integrity” (Regulation SCI) adopted by the SEC in November 2014 will also be a continued focus.
Once again, protection of retail investors is of primary concern for the OCIE. Among the detailed areas of focus are examining risks related to electronic investment advice, “wrap fee” programs where investors are charged a single fee for bundled advisory and brokerage services, and “Never-before examined” Investment advisers, an initiative that was started in 2014 to engage with newly-registered advisers that had never-before been examined. Examination of Exchange-Traded funds (ETFs) and continuation of the ReTIRE initiative are two carryovers from 2016 priorities . The OCIE previously identified ETFs, which are sometimes seen as alternatives to mutual funds, for examination related to compliance with the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and the Investment Company Act of 1940. ReTIRE, launched in June 2015, places particular focus on those SEC-registered investment advisers and broker dealers who offer retirement-oriented investment services to retail investors, including examining whether there is a reasonable basis for the recommendations made. This year, the SEC will expand ReTIRE to include “assessing controls surrounding cross-transactions, particularly with respect to fixed income securities.”
A recent petition for certiorari filed in the United States Supreme Court asks the Court to clarify what an aggrieved investor must plead to state a claim for securities fraud under the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 (the “Exchange Act”). The petition focuses on the “loss causation” element, which requires plaintiffs to prove a direct causal link between the alleged fraud and the loss in value for which they seek to recover. In a typical fraud in-the-market case, plaintiffs allege loss causation by showing that they bought the defendant’s securities at prices artificially inflated by fraud, and then had those securities lose value after a “corrective disclosure” revealed the fraud to the public. If the Supreme Court decides to grant certiorari, it will have the opportunity to lift certain barriers to pleading loss causation in some jurisdictions.
Petitioners, three New England funds (“Funds”) that own stock in Health Management Associates, Inc. (“HMA”), seek to reverse the Eleventh Circuit’s decision that they failed to establish loss causation as a matter of law. The Funds alleged that HMA’s stock price fell precipitously following two disclosures to the market: (1) an announcement that the government had begun an investigation into HMA for fraud, and (2) an analyst report publicizing a whistleblower case filed by a former employee against HMA three months earlier. A panel for the Eleventh Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision that neither event could form the basis of a securities fraud claim. First, the panel held that the announcement of a government investigation could not raise an inference of loss causation at the pleading stage because there had been no finding of “actual wrongdoing.” Second, the panel held that the analyst report was not a “corrective disclosure” because it reported on a publicly-filed case that, although it hadn’t been reported on until then, was already disclosed to the market. READ MORE
On August 2, 2016, U.S. District Judge Edward Chen dismissed a shareholder lawsuit brought against children’s educational toymaker LeapFrog Enterprises, Inc. (“LeapFrog”) for failure to adequately plead statements were false or misleading, or made with requisite intent. Plaintiffs’ suit, which was consolidated in 2015, alleged that LeapFrog and its executives hid demand and inventory problems from investors. The judge disagreed, finding that the investors had been sufficiently warned of problems with LeapFrog’s product lines and that the allegedly misleading statements were forward-looking and cautionary, and therefore fell within the PSLRA’s safe harbor. Defendants’ public statements about many of the allegedly misleading topics helped drive home that Plaintiffs’ theory amounted to classic “fraud by hindsight.”
On June 9, 2016, the Securities and Exchange Commission (‘SEC”) awarded the second largest whistleblower bounty – $17 million – granted under the Dodd-Frank whistleblower rules to date. Previously, the highest whistleblower awards were a $30 million award in September 2014 and a $14 million award in October 2013. The $17 million award comes on the heels of $26 million in whistleblower awards given to five anonymous individuals over the last month alone. These awards serve as a warning to companies that the SEC takes its whistleblower program seriously and will continue to encourage and reward company insiders for coming forward with information that leads to successful enforcement actions. As Sean X. McKessy, Chief of the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower – a department created by the SEC to give whistleblowers a place to submit their tips – said, “[W]e hope these substantial awards encourage other individuals with knowledge of potential federal securities law violations to make the right choice to come forward and report the wrongdoing to the SEC.”
On April 13, 2016, the SEC published a concept release discussing and seeking public comment on modernizing certain business and financial disclosures required by Regulation S-K, which lays out reporting requirements for various public company SEC filings. The release focuses on whether the disclosure requirements – many of which have seen little change in decades – continue to elicit the information that investors need for investment and voting decisions, and whether any of the relevant rules have become outdated or unnecessary. It also seeks input on how registrants can most effectively present material information, including how the Commission can assist with improving the readability and navigability of SEC filings. As SEC Chair Mary Jo White explained in an April 13, 2016 statement regarding the release, “[w]e want to make sure that [the Commission’s disclosure] rules are facilitating both timely, material disclosure by companies and shareholders’ access to that information. And we want to make sure that our requirements are as efficient as they can be.”
On March 4, 2016, the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of two related securities actions against Sanofi Pharmaceuticals, its predecessor Genzyme Corporation, and three company executives (collectively, “Sanofi”). In doing so, the Second Circuit offered its first substantial interpretation of the Supreme Court’s March 2015 decision in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers District Council Construction Industry Pension Fund, 135 S. Ct. 1318 (2015), which addresses how plaintiffs can allege securities claims based on statements of opinion.