Last week, the SEC scored a victory in its battle to defend the use of administrative proceedings in enforcement actions seeking penalties against unregulated entities or persons. On June 30, 2015, Southern District of New York Judge Ronnie Abrams denied Plaintiffs Lynn Tilton, Patriarch Partners LLC, and affiliated entities’ motion for a preliminary injunction halting the SEC’s administrative proceedings against them. Judge Abrams’ decision in Tilton v. SEC is the latest in a string of challenges to the SEC’s use of administrative proceedings in enforcement actions (also discussed in earlier posts from July 31, 2014 and October 28, 2014). As we have written, the SEC has faced mounting scrutiny for its increasing use of administrative proceedings, including criticism that the Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) presiding over the proceedings are biased in favor the SEC’s Enforcement Decision and that defendants subjected to administrative proceedings are entitled to fewer due process protections, including limited discovery and no right to a jury trial. The SEC began increasing its use of administrative proceedings after the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act enabled the Commission to file actions against unregulated entities or persons in its in-house forum, rather than in federal courts, as it had traditionally been required to do.
There’s No Place Like Home: The Constitutionality of the SEC’s In-House Courts
Until recently, it was extremely rare for the SEC to bring enforcement actions against unregulated entities or persons in its administrative court rather than in federal court. However, as a result of the Dodd-Frank Act (and perhaps the SEC’s lackluster record in federal court trials over the past few years), the SEC is committed to bringing, and has in fact brought, more administrative proceedings against individuals that previously would be filed in federal court. Many have questioned the constitutionality of these administrative proceedings. As U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff remarked in August 2014: “[o]ne might wonder: From where does the constitutional warrant for such unchecked and unbalanced administrative power derive?” Several recent SEC targets agree with Judge Rakoff, and have filed federal court suits challenging the constitutionality of the SEC’s administrative proceedings. (Notably, in a 2011 order regarding the SEC’s first attempt to use its expanded Dodd-Frank powers to bring more administrative cases, Judge Rakoff denied a motion to dismiss a constitutional challenge to the SEC’s decision to bring an administrative proceeding in an insider trading case against an unregulated person, following which the SEC terminated that proceeding and litigated in federal court.)
SEC Gives Itself the Home Court Advantage in an Accounting Fraud / Internal Controls Action Against a Corporate CEO
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
Fannie and Freddie Shareholders to US: 2008 Government Takeover of Mortgage Giants Good For the Country; Not So Much For Us
Can shareholders of a government-sponsored enterprise successfully challenge the constitutionality of a government takeover of the entity? Shareholders of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will try to do so in a $41 billion class action filed against the United States in the Court of Federal Claims on June 10, 2013. Plaintiffs allege that even though the Federal Housing Finance Authority’s 2008 takeover of the mortgage giants benefited the nation as a whole, it harmed the companies’ shareholders and violated their constitutionally protected private ownership rights.
Congress established Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to expand the nation’s secondary mortgage market by increasing the availability of funds to finance mortgages and home ownership. The government operated Fannie and Freddie until 1968 and 1989, respectively, when the companies were reorganized as “government-sponsored enterprises,” or federally chartered private corporations. Since then, both companies have operated as shareholder-owned, publicly traded corporations. But in 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis, both companies were placed under the conservatorship of FHFA, pursuant to the Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA).
Plaintiffs allege that prior to the 2008 takeover, the government adjusted the companies’ lending standards and capital restraints to encourage the companies to purchase a greater number of risky subprime securities. While this ultimately led to significant weaknesses in the companies’ portfolios, Plaintiffs contend that the companies nonetheless remained adequately capitalized and financially sound, and did not need the conservatorships. According to Plaintiffs, the government improperly bullied the companies’ boards into acquiescing in the takeover. READ MORE