SEC

Supreme Court Likely to Decide Whether to Hear SEC ALJ Issue This Term

As the U.S. Supreme Court commenced a new term last week, one issue of substantial interest to many readers of this blog is whether the Court will address the constitutionality of the Securities & Exchange Commission’s use of administrative law judges (“ALJs”) to adjudicate enforcement proceedings. The issue, which we have covered extensively in past posts, essentially comes down to whether SEC ALJs are Officers subject to the Constitution’s Appointments Clause, or whether they are merely employees, who do not require appointment by the President or a Presidential appointee. The SEC currently selects ALJs through an internal administrative process, pursuant to 5 USC 3105.

Advocates on both sides of a clear circuit split have already filed petitions for writ of certiorari. Most recently, on September 29, 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice Solicitor General’s office filed a certiorari petition on behalf of the SEC asking the Court to review the Tenth Circuit’s December 2016 holding in Bandimere v. SEC. That holding, which was denied en banc review by the Tenth Circuit in May, found that SEC ALJs were “inferior Officers” and thus are subject to the Appointments Clause. After the Tenth’s Circuit ruling in Bandimere, the SEC stayed all administrative ALJ proceedings that could be appealed to the Tenth Circuit pending resolution of the issue by the Supreme Court or further order of the Commission.

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SEC Chairman Testifies About SEC’s Direction and 2016 Cyberattack

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:

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Cryptocurrencies: Are They Securities?

Cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin, have been in the news a lot lately, but many people still don’t know what they are—or whether they’re regulated.  Here’s a quick rundown.

What Are Cryptocurrencies?

Cryptocurrencies are decentralized digital cash systems.  Eschewing centralized control, such as a bank or government, cryptocurrencies instead rely on pseudonymous peer-to-peer networks—think Napster of yore—in which all actors in the network must recognize and reflect a transaction.  To illustrate how this works, if Person A has an apple and trades it to Person B for her orange, Person A cannot thereafter trade that apple to Person C because everyone knows from a public ledger that Person A has already traded his one apple.

The security of the public ledger is then of paramount importance—so how do cryptocurrencies ensure ledger security?  They rely on people called miners.  Miners are basically the bookkeepers of the public ledger, and anyone with the time, energy, and equipment can be a miner.  When a transaction occurs, it is not immediately added to the public ledger; instead, a miner must first confirm it.  To do so, miners generate a complicated code that: (1) memorializes the data relating to the transaction; (2) refers to the previous confirmed transaction in the system (a sequential timestamp of sorts); and (3) complies with the particular cryptocurrency’s specific requirements.  This is a challenging and necessary task that protects the public ledger—a transaction won’t be confirmed if a code can’t be generated that aligns with previous ledger entries.  Using the earlier example, once Person A’s apple-orange trade has been confirmed, he can’t trade the apple again because any code generated after that reflects that he has already traded his apple.  Without an acceptable code, no new transaction can be confirmed.

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“It’s Complicated:” The Evolving Case Law on How Relationships Impact Insider Trading Liability

Last Wednesday, former SAC Capital Advisors manager Mathew Martoma lost a bid to overturn his 2014 insider trading conviction in the Second Circuit.  United States v. Martoma, No. 14-3599, 2017 WL 3611518 (2d Cir. Aug. 23, 2017).  Martoma, the latest in a string of important insider trading decisions, is significant because the Second Circuit departed from the “relationship test” that had been central to Second Circuit insider trading cases in recent years.  See United States v. Newman, 773 F.3d 438 (2d Cir. 2014).  The departure was based on a 2016 Supreme Court decision, Salman v. U.S., in which the Court rejected the “relationship test” as set forth in Newman, and reaffirmed the standard set in Dirks v. SEC, 463 U.S. 646, 103 S. Ct. 3255, 77 L. Ed. 2d 911 (1983), holding that where a close relationship exists between the tipper and tippee, the government is not required to show that the insider received a benefit of a “pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.”  Martoma had appealed his conviction before Salman was issued, and relied heavily on the Second Circuit’s relationship test outlined in Newman.

In Newman, the Second Circuit overturned the insider trading convictions of two portfolio managers who were “remote tippees,” individuals who traded on inside information but with one or more layers of individuals between them and the insider who originally provided the information.  The insiders in Newman were friends with the tippees but did not gain any personal benefit in exchange for the information provided.  The government argued in that case that it only needed to show that the tippees traded on “material, nonpublic information they knew insiders had disclosed in breach of a duty of confidentiality.”  However, the Second Circuit rejected that argument, explaining that the government was required to show that the insider shared confidential information in exchange for a personal benefit, and that the remote tippees were aware of that fact.  The Second Circuit also held that where there is no quid pro quo exchange for confidential information given by a tipper to a tippee, such information only amounts to a “personal benefit” when the tipper has a “meaningfully close personal relationship” with the tippee.  To meet the test, that relationship must “generat[e] an exchange that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.”  (Emphasis added.)  Essentially, if there was no potential for financial gain resulting from the gift of information, no personal benefit existed under Newman.  In the immediate aftermath of Newman, many insider trading prosecutions within the Second Circuit became untenable and were dropped.

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SEC Updates Revenue Recognition Guidance for Bill-and-Hold Arrangements

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.

Chairman Clayton Sets New SEC Agenda

On Wednesday July 12, 2017, in his first public speech as Chairman of the SEC, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton laid out a set of eight priorities that will guide his SEC Chairmanship.[1] He said his priorities are consistent with and complimentary to the seven “core principles” set forth in President Donald Trump’s February 3, 2017 executive order regarding the regulation of the U.S. financial system.

The overarching themes in Chairman Clayton’s speech are that he is focused primarily on capital formation, modernizing the trading and markets system, and he favors a disclosure and market-based approach to federal securities regulation . Given the kind words for former Chair Mary Jo White and multiple references of areas of agreement, it is difficult to determine how much of a shift one can expect from the Commission under Chairman Clayton. Nevertheless, the following are a few key takeaways from the speech.

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Report Shows 2016 Record-Setting Year for Class Action and SEC Settlements

Last week, proxy advisory firm Institutional Shareholders Services (“ISS”) published its semi-annual report of the top 100 U.S. securities class action settlements and top 50 SEC settlements of all time, as of December 31, 2016. The report adds thirteen new class action settlements from last year – making 2016 the most represented year in the report’s settlement rankings – along with two new top SEC settlements.

The ISS report ranks, among other things, the top 100 shareholder class action settlements ever reached in the U.S. for actions filed on or after January 1, 1996, when the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act was implemented. ISS’s June 2017 report reflects that there were 137 court-approved securities class action settlements in the US in 2016, remaining steady with 2015. Notably, however, 13 of the 137 class action settlements were among the top 100 shareholder class action settlements, resulting in a total approved settlement fund of over $5.6 billion, the largest in a single year. The largest of these 13 settlements was in Lawrence E. Jaffe Pension Plan v. Household International, Inc., et al., Case No. 02-CV-05893 (N.D. Ill.), which was based on claims of fraudulent misrepresentations concerning allegedly illegal sales techniques, predatory lending practices, and accounting manipulations. In December 2016, the Northern District of Illinois approved a final settlement fund of $1.58 billion, resulting in the seventh largest securities class action settlement in U.S. history. READ MORE

Supreme Court Unanimously Limits the SEC’s Ability to Seek Disgorgement

This week, the United State Supreme Court finally resolved a circuit split and unanimously held that SEC actions seeking to disgorge ill-gotten gains are subject to a five-year statute of limitations on civil fines, penalties or forfeitures under 28 U.S.C. § 2462.  This decision is expected to dramatically reduce the SEC’s ability to collect disgorgement in enforcement actions.

The decision arose out of an SEC enforcement action brought in 2009 that alleged between 1995 and 2006, Charles Kokesh, a New Mexico-based investment adviser, misappropriated $35 million from two investment advisory companies he owned and controlled, thereby squandering the money of tens of thousands of small investors. Kokesh was ultimately found liable at trial and the trial court ordered him to disgorge the entire $35 million he was found to have misappropriated plus interest, and pay a civil monetary penalty.  Kokesh subsequently challenged the disgorgement order before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, arguing that the SEC’s claim for disgorgement was subject to the five year statute of limitations period codified in Section 2462, and therefore the $35 million disgorgement amount should be significantly reduced by eliminating any ill-gotten gains received prior to 2004—five years prior to the initiation of the SEC enforcement action.  A three judge circuit court panel of the Tenth Circuit unanimously disagreed, and upheld the disgorgement order on the basis that disgorgement is not a “penalty” or “forfeiture” as defined in Section 2462, but rather was “remedial” and “does not inflict punishment” because it leaves the wrongdoer “in the position he would have occupied had there been no misconduct.”  On this basis, the Tenth Circuit held that Section 2462’s limitations period was inapplicable to disgorgement. READ MORE

Government Leaks Lead to Landmark Insider Trading Case

On May 24, 2017, the SEC for the first time brought charges based on allegations of insider trading on confidential government information. The alleged insider trading scheme involved tips related to three announcements by the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) regarding non-public rate changing decisions affecting the stock of issuers in the healthcare industry.

The complaint alleges that from May 2012 to November 2013, Christopher Worrall, a health insurance specialist in the Center for Medicare (“CM”), the CMS component that administers Medicare’s national payment systems and determines Medicare reimbursement rates, tipped his long-time friend David Blaszczak about internal deliberations and planned actions of CMS.  Blaszczak is a consultant specializing in healthcare policy issues and a former CMS employee. READ MORE

What to Watch for From the New SEC Chairman

Last Thursday, Jay Clayton was officially sworn in as the new Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.  As the new Chairman takes office, here are a few things we’re keeping an eye on:

Will Chairman Clayton take a position on the recently introduced bipartisan bill that would increase civil monetary penalties in SEC enforcement actions?  The “Stronger Enforcement of Civil Penalties Act of 2017” would significantly increase civil monetary penalties in enforcement actions to as much as $1 million per violation for individuals and $10 million per violation for entities, or three times the money gained in the violation or lost by the victims.  The current maximum civil monetary penalties are $181,071 and $905,353 per violation for individuals and entities, respectively.

Will the new Chairman preserve the directive reportedly issued by former Acting Chairman Michael Piwowar to re-centralize authority to issue formal orders of investigation?  In 2009, the SEC adopted a rule that delegated authority to issue formal orders initiating investigations to the Director of Enforcement, who then “sub-delegated” it to regional and associate directors and unit chiefs within the Enforcement Division.  In February, Piwowar reportedly revoked the “sub-delegated” authority, ordering it re-centralized exclusively with the Director of Enforcement.

Will enforcement actions against public companies increase or decrease after hitting their highest level since 2009 last year?  A recent report issued by the NYU Pollack Center for Law & Business and Cornerstone Research found that the 92 actions the SEC brought against public companies and their subsidiaries in 2016 is more than double the level of enforcement activity from just three years prior. READ MORE