The SEC suffered a blow very recently when Judge James Lawrence King of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida entered summary judgment dismissing the entirety of its alleged Ponzi scheme case on statute of limitations grounds. SEC v. Graham, 2014 WL 1891418 (S.D. Fla. May 12, 2014). The court’s order is a significant application of last year’s Supreme Court decision in Gabelli v. SEC, 133 S. Ct. 1216 (2013), in that (i) it applies the applicable statute of limitations to sanctions that have usually been considered equitable, rather than punitive, in nature; and (ii) it holds that the applicable statute of limitations is a jurisdictional threshold on which the SEC bears the burden, not an affirmative defense on which the defendant bears the burden.
In Graham, the SEC alleged that five defendants defrauded nearly 1,400 investors of more than $300 million by marketing unregistered securities as real estate investments and guaranteeing an immediate 15% profit and future rental revenue on certain resort properties. According to the SEC, the defendants were using the new deposits to pay earlier investors in a classic Ponzi-scheme. After the defendants abandoned their efforts with the collapse of the real estate and credit markets in 2007, the SEC embarked on a seven-year investigation, and ultimately brought suit in January of 2013. The SEC alleged five counts of violations of federal securities laws, and sought not only civil penalties but also injunctive relief and disgorgement of all ill-gotten gains. The defendants moved for summary judgment on the ground that the five-year statute of limitations under 28 U.S.C. § 2462 time-barred all of the SEC’s claims. Section 2462 states, “Except as otherwise provided by Act of Congress, an action, suit or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture, pecuniary or otherwise, shall not be entertained unless commenced within five years from the date when the claim first accrued ….”