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.
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On December 19, 2014, the Supreme Court of Delaware reversed the Delaware Court of Chancery’s November decision to preliminarily enjoin for 30 days a vote by C&J Energy Services stockholders on a merger with Nabors Red Lion Limited, to allow time for C&J’s board of directors to explore alternative transactions. The Supreme Court decision clarifies that in a sale-of-control situation, Revlon and its progeny require an effective, but not necessarily active, market check, and there is no “specific route that a board must follow” in fulfilling fiduciary duties.
On November 25, 2014, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued a decision in In Re Comverge, Inc. Shareholders Litigation, which: (1) dismissed claims that the Comverge board of directors conducted a flawed sales process and approved an inadequate merger price in connection with the directors’ approval of a sale of the company to H.I.G. Capital LLC; (2) permitted fiduciary duty claims against the directors to proceed based on allegations related to the deal protection mechanisms in the merger agreement, including termination fees potentially payable to HIG of up to 13% of the equity value of the transaction; and (3) dismissed a claim against HIG for aiding and abetting the board’s breach of fiduciary duty.
The case provides important guidance to directors and their advisors in discharging fiduciary duties in a situation where Revlon applies and in negotiating acceptable deal protection mechanisms. The decision also is the latest in a series of recent opinions addressing and defining the scope of third party aiding and abetting liability.
On November 24, 2014, the Delaware Court of Chancery preliminarily enjoined for thirty days a vote by C&J Energy Services stockholders on a merger with Nabors Red Lion Limited, to allow time for C&J’s board of directors to explore alternative transactions. In a bench ruling in the case, City of Miami General Employees’ & Sanitation Employees’ Retirement Trust v. C&J Energy Services, Inc., Vice Chancellor Noble concluded that “it is not so clear that the [C&J] board approached this transaction as a sale,” with the attendant “engagement that one would expect from a board in the sales process.” Interestingly, the Court called the issue a “very close call,” and indicated it would certify the question to the Delaware Supreme Court at the request of either of the parties (at this time it does not appear either party has made a request). The decision provides guidance regarding appropriate board decision-making in merger transactions, particularly where one merger party is assuming minority status in the combined entity yet also acquiring management and board control.
The SEC recently issued an investor alert to warn investors about potential fraudulent investment schemes involving popular social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, turning its eye towards investor fraud perpetuated via social media. The alert, issued by the SEC’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy, provides five tips to help consumers recognize and avoid investment fraud, easily made anonymous online, using social media websites and services: (1) be wary of unsolicited offers to invest; (2) look for “red flags,” e.g., offers that sound too good to be true or that “guarantee” returns; (3) look for “affinity frauds,” which are “investment scams that prey upon members of identifiable groups, such as religious or ethnic communities, the elderly or professional groups;” (4) be thoughtful about privacy and security settings; and (5) ask questions and investigate investment opportunities thoroughly. The alert also describes common investment scams that have used social media and the internet to gain traction, including “Pump-and-dump” schemes, fraudulent “research opinions” or “investment newsletters,” high-yield investment programs, and offerings that just fail to comply with applicable registration provisions of the federal securities laws.
On October 10, 2014, the Delaware Court of Chancery issued a decision awarding nearly $76 million in damages against a seller’s financial advisor. In an earlier March 7, 2014 opinion in the case, In re Rural/Metro Corp. Stockholders Litigation, Vice Chancellor Laster found RBC Capital Markets, LLC liable for aiding and abetting the board’s breach of fiduciary duty in connection with Rural’s 2011 sale to private equity firm Warburg Pincus for $17.25 a share, a premium of 37% over the pre-announcement market price. The recent decision reinforces lessons from the March 7 decision and provides new guidance for directors and their advisors in M&A transactions and related litigation.
Securities fraud actions are often filed on the heels of an announcement of an internal or SEC investigation. A recent Ninth Circuit decision, Loos v. Immersion Corp., may make it easier for company executives to sleep at night following such an announcement. The Ninth Circuit has joined a growing number of circuits holding that the announcement of an internal investigation, standing alone, is insufficient to show loss causation at the pleading stage. READ MORE
On August 5, 2014, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff reluctantly approved a$285 million settlement in the SEC’s enforcement action against Citigroup. In SEC v. Citigroup, the SEC alleged that after Citigroup realized in early 2007 that the market for mortgage-backed securities was beginning to weaken, it created a billion-dollar fund to sell some of these assets to investors without disclosing either that Citigroup had exercised significant influence in selecting the assets to include in the fund and had itself retained a $500 million short position in the assets it had helped select.
Judge Rakoff initially declined to approve the proposed consent judgment because he said it lacked “sufficient evidence to enable it to assess whether the agreement was fair, adequate, reasonable, and in the public’s interest.” He was forced to reconsider that position when the Second Circuit ruled, on appeal, that the “primary focus of the [district court’s] inquiry . . . should be on ensuring the consent decree is procedurally proper, . . . taking care not to infringe on the SEC’s discretionary authority to settle on a particular set of terms.” READ MORE
An otherwise mundane SEC announcement on July 30, 2014 of an enforcement action charging a public company CEO and CFO with accounting fraud and internal controls violations is significant because the SEC is proceeding against the non-settling individual (the CEO) in an administrative proceeding rather than in federal court. While not unprecedented, it has been, to date, exceedingly rare for the Commission to proceed against an unregulated entity or person administratively rather than in federal court. This decision reflects the Commission’s and Enforcement Division’s recently, but frequently, stated intent to bring more administrative proceedings that previously would have been brought in federal court, now that the Commission has expanded remedies under Dodd-Frank Act. The decision also raises significant due process issues.
The action itself charges Marc Sherman and Edward Cummings, CEO and former CFO, respectively, of QSGI Inc., a Florida-based computer equipment company, with violation of the antifraud and other provisions of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. According to the Commission’s press release, Sherman and Cummings claimed they had disclosed all significant deficiencies in internal controls over financial reporting to the company’s independent auditors, but in fact did not disclose or direct anyone else to disclose ongoing inventory and accounts receivable issues or improper acceleration of recognition and the resulting falsification of QSGI’s books and records. The Commission also alleges that the executives signed SEC filings and Sarbanes-Oxley certifications that were rendered false and misleading due to the above issues. Cummings entered into an administrative settlement with the SEC, agreeing to a cease and desist order, a $23,000 civil penalty, a 5-year officer and director bar, and a 5-year bar on appearing or practicing before the Commission as an accountant. Sherman did not settle, and will instead litigate against the Division of Enforcement in an administrative proceeding. READ MORE
On June 27, 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued an important, unanimous decision upholding the assertion of attorney-client privilege for an internal investigation. The decision is especially significant because it (a) forcefully reversed a growing trend in the D.C. federal district courts that had narrowly applied the attorney-client privilege to internal investigations and (b) confirmed that communications made during the course of an internal investigation – e.g., interviews and interview notes and reports – are privileged whenever a primary purpose of the communication was to obtain legal advice.
The case involves a False Claims Act claim against Kellogg, Brown & Root (“KBR”), a former Halliburton subsidiary, regarding alleged fraud and other unlawful conduct violating the company’s code of business conduct. The plaintiff sought various materials relating to KBR’s investigation of the alleged conduct. Non-lawyers, acting at the direction of in-house lawyers, conducted the interviews.