Last week, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit struck down the U.S. Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) “Fiduciary Rule,” a controversial measure that redefined exemptions to Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”) provisions concerning fiduciaries. The DOL’s rule, promulgated in April 2016, consisted of a package of seven interrelated rules, and it sparked controversy by redefining how brokers and other financial professionals serve consumers. First, the Fiduciary Rule reinterpreted the ERISA term “investment advice fiduciary,” heightening the fiduciary duty for these financial professionals to a “best interest” standard for their clients with ERISA plans and individual retirement accounts (“IRAs”). This “best interest” standard marked a significant departure from the prior standard for brokers, which required them to recommend investments that were merely “suitable” for their clients. Second, the Fiduciary Rule created a “Best Interest Contract Exemption,” which allowed financial professionals to avoid prohibited transactions penalties as long as they contractually affirmed their fiduciary status. READ MORE
On September 26, 2017, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton testified before the Senate’s Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee regarding the direction of the SEC under his Chairmanship. He also took the opportunity to address the 2016 cyberattack on EDGAR, the agency’s electronic filing system.
As in his first public speech as SEC Chair, in July 2017, Chairman Clayton’s testimony reveals his focus on issues related to cybersecurity, capital formation, and enforcement actions addressing traditional forms of fraud and misconduct. His testimony further reveals his position that regulations should be retroactively evaluated and relaxed as necessary, in order to account for the direct and indirect costs of compliance.
Below are key highlights of Chairman Clayton’s testimony:
Startups need funding, and most startups want to raise money with as little legal red tape as possible. But when a startup takes investment money, it is issuing securities, and federal securities laws generally require a company – or “issuer” – to register the offering and sale of any securities with the Securities Exchange Commission (“SEC”). The bad news is that most early-stage companies don’t have the legal resources to comply with the SEC’s registration and reporting requirements. The good news is that Congress and the SEC recognize this and so have created certain exemptions from the registration requirement.
The most commonly used exemptions derive from Sections 4(a)(2) and 3(b)(1) of the Securities Act of 1933. Section 4(a)(2) exempts issuer transactions “not involving any public offering,” while Section 3(b)(1) authorizes the SEC to create additional exemptions. The SEC adopted Regulation D (“Reg D”) in 1982 to clarify and expand the exemptions available under these two sections. The SEC further expanded Reg D in 2013 following passage of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act of 2012 (“JOBS Act”).
Until this year, Reg D included three rules – Rules 504, 505, and 506 – that provided specific exemptions from registration. Rules 504 and 505 exempted certain offerings up to $1 million and $5 million, respectively. Rule 506 spelled out two “safe harbors” – 506(b) and 506(c). If an offering met the conditions of either of Rule 506’s “safe harbors,” it would be deemed a transaction “not involving any public offering” and would be exempt under Section 4(a)(2). READ MORE
The House has approved major changes to signature aspects of Dodd-Frank. While those changes are unlikely to survive intact, they are certainly worthy of close attention. We’ve studied the nearly 600-page bill so you don’t have to.
On June 8, 2017, the House passed H.R. 10, entitled the Financial CHOICE Act of 2017. Sponsored by Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), the bill advances to the Senate after a largely party-line vote, 233 to 186. All but one Republican supported the bill, while all Democrats opposed.
The bill extensively amends the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the landmark 2010 legislation passed by a Democrat-controlled Congress in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse and ensuing financial crisis.
Key changes include:
The Financial CHOICE Act (or “CHOICE Act 2.0”), which would significantly narrow the SEC’s ability to bring enforcement actions and make it more challenging for it to prevail in such actions, is inching its way towards becoming law. On May 4, 2017, the Financial Services Committee passed the Act and it is now slated to be introduced to the House in the coming weeks. As part of the push by the current administration to deregulate, this bill aims to repeal key provisions of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, including those directed towards the SEC. Although the Act has a long way to go before it is enacted, many of its provisions would have far-reaching consequences and would change the way the SEC operates as we know it.
Should the CHOICE Act 2.0 become law, the following are some of the more important effects it would have on the SEC’s enforcement abilities:
On March 8, 2017, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion in Somers v. Digital Realty Trust Inc. that further widened a circuit split on the issue of whether the anti-retaliation provisions in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act apply to whistleblowers who claim retaliation after reporting internally or instead only to those who report information to the SEC. Following the Second Circuit’s 2015 decision in Berman v. Neo@Ogilvy LLC, the Ninth Circuit panel held that Dodd-Frank protections apply to internal whistleblowers. By contrast, the Fifth Circuit considered this issue in its 2013 decision in Asadi v. G.E. Energy (USA), LLC and found that the Dodd-Frank anti-retaliation provisions unambiguously protect only those whistleblowers who report directly to the SEC.
Plaintiff Paul Somers alleged that Digital Realty Trust fired him after he made several reports to senior management regarding possible securities law violations. Somers only reported these possible violations internally at the company, and not to the SEC. After his employment was terminated, Somers sued Digital Realty, alleging violations of state and federal securities laws, including violations of the whistleblower protections under Dodd-Frank. Digital Realty moved to dismiss on the ground that Somers was not a “whistleblower” under Dodd-Frank. The district court denied the motion, deferring to the SEC’s interpretation that internal reporters are also protected from retaliation under Dodd-Frank.
On August 23, 2016, the SEC entered into a settlement that reflects a continuation of its recent trend of increasingly active pursuit of private equity firms, particularly for failing to disclose conflicts of interests and other material information to investors. The SEC entered into a $52.5 million settlement with four private equity fund advisers affiliated with Apollo Global Management LLC (collectively “Apollo”) arising out of insufficient disclosures and supervisory failures.
In a move that will make Securities and Exchange Commission administrative proceedings look more like civil litigation in federal court, on July 13, 2016, the SEC announced that it had adopted amendments to its rules of practice. These rules appear similar to those the Commission proposed last September. For critics of the amendments, they may not go far enough, but the expanded discovery and clarifications regarding dispositive motion practice may address some of the issues previously raised regarding the Commission’s perceived home-court advantage.
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.”
In a move evidencing the SEC’s continued commitment to its whistleblower program, the Commission announced on Friday that it has awarded a whistleblower over $3.5 million for providing information that did not lead to a new investigation, but rather only served to bolster an ongoing investigation. This decision came after the SEC’s Claims Review Staff preliminarily determined that the SEC should deny the whistleblower claim because the information provided by the individual did not appear to “cause Enforcement staff to open the investigation or to inquire into different conduct, nor . . . to have significantly contributed to the success” of the action. But after reviewing the whistleblower’s written response for reconsideration, in addition to factual information from staff in the Division of Enforcement, the Commission changed course, determining that the information indeed “significantly contributed” to the success of the SEC’s action, and approving the award.