Securities Fraud

The SEC Enforcement Division 2017 Annual Report: Continued Focus on Individual Wrongdoers and Enhanced Protections for the “Main Street” Investor

Almost a year into the new administration, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s Division of Enforcement released its annual report last week, providing a recap of the SEC’s enforcement results over the past 12 months, as well as some insight into its direction for the coming year. Overall, the report suggests that the SEC will increase its focus on addressing harm to “Main Street” investors and that pursuing individuals will continue to be the rule, not the exception.

During fiscal year 2017, the SEC pursued 754 enforcement actions, 446 of which were “stand-alone” actions (as opposed to “follow-on” actions which seek to bar executives from practicing before the Commission or to deregister public companies). This represents a drop from the prior year in which the SEC pursued 784 enforcement actions, 464 of which were stand-alone actions. The bulk of the Division’s 446 stand-alone actions in FY 2017 focused on issuer advisory issues, issuer reporting, auditing and accounting, securities offerings, and insider trading—all areas that saw a relatively similar number of cases in FY 2016. Actions involving public finance abuse represented the only significant decrease in the number of cases versus the prior year. In FY 2016, the SEC brought nearly 100 public finance abuse actions compared to fewer than 20 in FY 2017. READ MORE

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.


The “Pharma Bro” Trial—Who Really Won?

After a five-week trial, a jury of five men and seven women convicted notorious pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli of securities fraud on August 4, 2017. Shkreli had been charged with two counts of securities fraud, three counts of conspiracy to commit securities fraud, and three counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud for operating a sophisticated Ponzi scheme in which he looted the assets of his pharmaceutical company to pay off defrauded investors in his hedge funds. The jury convicted Shkreli of two counts of securities fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud but acquitted him of five other counts, including the wire fraud charges.

Shkreli gained notoriety in 2015, when he was head of Turing Pharmaceuticals, for increasing the price of a life-saving drug from $13.50 to $750 per pill. However, Shkreli’s conviction stems from his time before Turing, when he managed two hedge funds, MSMB Capital Management and MSMB Healthcare Management. The government alleged that between 2009 and 2012, Shkreli induced investments of around $3 million from eight investors in MSMB Capital and $5 million from thirteen investors in MSMB Healthcare by misrepresenting key facts, including the funds’ performance and assets under management, and omitting key facts, such as significant trading losses at another fund Shkreli had previously managed. Shkreli allegedly also withdrew money from the funds for personal use and produced false performance reports touting profits as high as forty percent. MSMB Capital ceased trading after a series of trading losses in early 2011, and MSMB ceased operating in late 2012. In September 2012, Shkreli notified both funds’ investors that he was winding down the funds, that he had doubled their investments net of fees, and that investors could have their interests redeemed for cash, even though the funds had no money. At trial, Shkreli’s attorney argued that the hedge funds’ investors had not only received all of their money back but made significant profits. READ MORE

Time’s Up: Supreme Court Affirms Three-Year Deadline for Opting Out of Section 11 Class Actions

On June 26, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that will have a significant effect on securities class action litigation, changing the strategic calculus for both institutional plaintiffs and defendants. In California Public Employees’ Retirement System v. Anz Securities, Inc., No. 16-373, 582 U.S. ___ (2017) , the Court held that American Pipe tolling does not apply to the 3-year statute of repose for private damage claims under the Securities Act of 1933.  Thus, the filing of a class action complaint under Section 11 of the Securities Act of 1933 does not toll the three-year statute of repose for individual claims that may be brought by putative class members who later decide to opt out of a class-wide settlement.

CalPERS arose out of two public securities offerings issued by Lehman Brothers Holdings in 2007 and 2008.  In September 2008, with Lehman in bankruptcy, a Section 11 class action was filed against Anz Securities and other underwriters to the offerings, alleging that the registration statements included material misstatements or omissions.  The class action complaint was consolidated with other securities suits against Lehman into a single multidistrict class action in the Southern District of New York.  CalPERS, an unnamed member of the putative class, subsequently filed a separate complaint alleging identical causes of action against the respondents in the Northern District of California in February 2011—more than three years after the offerings closed.  CalPERS’ individual suit was transferred to the Southern District of New York and consolidated with the multidistrict litigation.  CalPERS opted out of the class only after the class action reached a settlement.


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

The Potential Declawing of the SEC: The Financial CHOICE Act

Gavel and Hundred-Dollar Bill

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:


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

Changing the Game, Again: Supreme Court Could Limit SEC’s Authority to Seek Disgorgement

This week, the Supreme Court heard argument regarding whether the SEC’s actions to disgorge ill-gotten gains are subject to a five-year statute of limitations for “any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture.”

The appeal stems from an SEC action alleging that between 1995 and 2006, Charles Kokesh, a New Mexico-based investment adviser, misappropriated a staggering $35 million from two investment advisory companies that he owned and controlled, squandering the money of tens of thousands of small investors. While Kokesh moved into a gated mansion and bought himself a personal polo court (complete with a stable of 50 horses), he allegedly concealed his massive ill-gotten earnings by distributing false proxy statements to investors and filing dozens of false reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In 2009, the SEC brought a civil enforcement action against Kokesh in the District of New Mexico alleging violations of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, and the Investment Company Act of 1940. The jury found violations of all three acts, and the district court ordered Kokesh to disgorge the $35 million he misappropriated (plus interest) and pay a $2.4 million civil monetary penalty for the “egregious” frauds he committed within the prior five years.  While the district court ordered disgorgement of all of Kokesh’s ill-gotten gains since 1995, the civil monetary penalty it imposed was constrained by the five-year statute of limitations found in 28 U.S.C. § 2462, which applies to claims throughout the U.S. Code for “any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture.” READ MORE

Hold the Phone: SEC Takes One Last Stand Before the Tenth Circuit regarding the Constitutionality of the SEC’s Administrative Law Judges

Last week, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission filed a petition for rehearing en banc with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, imploring the court to reconsider a divided panel’s ruling on the unconstitutionality of its administrative law judges in Bandimere v. SEC.  In that ruling (detailed here), the Tenth Circuit overturned the Commission’s sanctions against Mr. Bandimere because the SEC administrative law judge (“ALJ”) presiding over Mr. Bandimere’s case was an inferior officer who should have been constitutionally appointed (rather than hired) to the position, in violation of the Appointments Clause of the United States Constitution.

Primarily relying on its prior submissions and Judge Monroe G. McKay’s dissent in the panel’s original ruling, the SEC argues that the original decision reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of ALJs and Supreme Court precedent, and risks throwing essential features of the agency into disarray. In particular, the SEC questioned the majority’s opinion that Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U.S. 868 (1991), was dispositive in equating special trial judges of tax court to the ALJs to find that the ALJs are inferior officers who must be constitutionally appointed.  The SEC distinguishes the roles of its ALJs from those of the special tax court trial judges by noting differences in their power and function.  First, the special trial judges are vested with authority, including the power to enforce compliance with their orders, that is different in degree and kind from the powers given to ALJs.  For example, both the special trial judges and ALJs have the power to issue subpoenas, but unlike the special trial judges, ALJs have no authority to enforce subpoenas.  ALJs can only request the Commission to seek enforcement of the subpoenas in district court.  In addition, unlike the special trial judges, ALJs cannot use contempt power—a hallmark of a court—to enforce any order it may issue.  Second, the function between the special trial judges and ALJs differ because the Tax Court in Freytag was required to defer to the special trial judge’s factual finding unless “clearly erroneous, whereas the SEC decides all questions of fact and law de novo.


The Call for a Statutory Insider Trading Law

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.