Earlier this month, the SEC (the “Agency”) announced that it initiated a record-breaking 868 enforcement actions in fiscal year 2016. This figure – along with other milestones – reflect the Agency’s commitment to expanding the scope and reach of its enforcement programs to pursue an array of federal securities law violations.
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 27, 2016, SEC Administrative Law Judge Carol Fox Foelak dismissed the Division of Enforcement’s charges against IRA custodian Equity Trust Company in connection with the company’s processing of investments marketed by two convicted fraudsters. Judge Foelak’s decision—a complete defense victory for Equity Trust—shows that while the Division of Enforcement may still win most of its cases in administrative proceedings, it doesn’t win them all.
On June 1, the Second Circuit in Tilton et al. v. SEC, No. 15-2103 (2d. Cir. Jun. 1, 2016), echoed recent Seventh and D.C. Circuit decisions (respectively, Bebo v. SEC, No. 15-1511 (7th Cir. Aug. 24, 2015), cert. denied, 136 S. Ct. 1500 (Mar. 28, 2016), and Jarkesy v. SEC, No. 14-5196 (D.C. Cir. Sept. 29, 2015)) in finding that constitutional or other challenges to SEC proceedings cannot go forward in court until the administrative proceeding ends; review can only be sought as an appeal from a final decision by the Commission. The Second Circuit’s decision in Tilton creates unanimity among the circuit courts that have addressed the issue to date, although, as we previously reported, the Eleventh Circuit is likely to rule on the issue sometime this year in Hill v. SEC, No. 15-12831. Unless the Eleventh Circuit bucks this trend and creates a circuit split, it now looks unlikely that the Supreme Court will weigh in on this issue (particularly because the Supreme Court previously denied a petition to review the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Bebo).
Last week, the SEC’s Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) released its semiannual report to Congress, which details the OIG’s independent and objective audits, evaluations, investigations and other reviews of the SEC’s programs and operations in order to prevent and detect fraud, waste and abuse in SEC programs and operations, and other vulnerabilities the SEC faces. In the most recent report, the OIG was critical of various programs, but most notably: (1) recommended a new framework to increase the Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations coverage of registered investment advisors, and (2) informed Congress it was conducting a further evaluation on the SEC’s enforcement investigations to ensure that investigations are coordinated internally and across SEC divisions and offices.
On March 28, 2016, the Supreme Court denied a petition for certiorari review brought by Laurie Bebo, the former CEO of Assisted Living Concepts Inc., who challenged the constitutionality of proceedings conducted in an SEC administrative tribunal. Although the Court denied review, there are many more cases like it winding their way through the federal system, and in the likely event a split develops among the circuits, the Supreme Court may be inclined to address the issue, especially given the amount of attention the issue has received. Indeed, Bebo’s petition itself attracted the notice of celebrity entrepreneur Mark Cuban, who filed an amicus brief in her case arguing that the SEC’s administrative tribunal is a “farce” and unconstitutional.
The Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of the Inspector General (“OIG”) recently released findings from its extensive investigation into allegations of potential bias against respondents in SEC administrative proceedings. The OIG report comes at a time when the fairness of the SEC’s in-house administrative forum is under scrutiny from both inside and outside of the agency.
The leaders of the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC” or “Commission”) addressed the public on February 19-20 at the annual SEC Speaks conference in Washington, D.C. The presentations covered an array of topics, but common themes included the Commission’s ongoing effort to carry out the rulemaking agenda set forth in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, its increasing focus on cyber issues including its use of new technology to surveil and root out harmful practices in the modern and increasingly-complex market, and its continued focus on the conduct of gatekeepers. From a litigation and enforcement perspective, key takeaways from the conference include the following:
SEC Chair Mary Jo White began her remarks by touting the “unprecedented number of enforcement cases” brought by the Commission in 2015, which produced “an all-time high for orders directing the payment of penalties and disgorgement”—a trend that she stressed would continue in 2016. READ MORE
On September 29, 2015, the D.C. Circuit, the second federal appellate court to recently weigh in on the ongoing debate over SEC administrative actions, ruled in favor of the SEC in Jarkesy v. SEC, holding that federal courts do not have subject matter jurisdiction over challenges to ongoing SEC administrative enforcement proceedings. Notably, and in accord with the Seventh Circuit’s recent decision in Bebo v. SEC, the D.C. Circuit’s decision was narrowly tailored – focusing only on the issue of subject-matter jurisdiction – but not the substantive viability of Jarkesy’s constitutional challenges. The three-judge panel unanimously held that a party to a pending administrative proceeding must first defend against that proceeding, and only once the SEC proceeding concludes may the party seek review by a federal court.
In what will surely not be the last word on this continuing controversy, on September 3, 2015, a majority of the members of the Securities and Exchange Commission held that the appointment process for the Commission’s administrative law judges (“ALJ”) does not violate the Constitution. As we reported just last month, a federal judge in the Southern District of New York preliminarily enjoined a separate SEC administrative proceeding based in part on the judge’s view that the SEC ALJ appointment process is likely unconstitutional. In light of the key role ALJs play in SEC proceedings and the number of administrative cases brought each year, the question is likely to be addressed at the appellate level and could have significant implications for the securities defense bar.