On May 16, 2016, the United States Supreme Court handed down two decisions that may, in practice, limit the ability to access federal district courts. In Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, No. 13-1339, 578 U.S. ___ (2016), the Supreme Court rejected the Ninth Circuit’s conclusion that statutory violations are per se sufficient to confer Article III standing, and, in Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc. v. Manning, No. 14-1132, 578 U.S. ___ (2016), the Court concluded that jurisdiction under Section 27 of the Securities and Exchange Act (Exchange Act) is limited to suits brought under the Exchange Act and state law claims that turn on the plaintiff’s ability to prove the violation of a federal duty.
After the repeated challenges to the SEC’s in-house courts as previously reported, Mark Cuban joined the debate by filing an amicus curiae brief in support of petitioners Raymond J. Lucia Companies, Inc. and Raymond J. Lucia (collectively “Lucia”) in Lucia v. SEC. Cuban, describing himself as a “first-hand witness to and victim of SEC overreach” in a 2013 insider trading case brought against him in an SEC court, argued that the D.C. Circuit should grant the petitioners’ appeal because SEC in-house judges are unconstitutionally appointed.
On Friday June 5, 2015, the SEC made incremental progress toward finalizing the “pay ratio” rule required by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act by publishing a memo from the Division of Economic and Risk Analysis (DERA memo) that addresses questions about how that pay ratio will be calculated for the purposes of the law.
Even with the SEC’s home-court advantage in bringing enforcement actions in its administrative court rather than in federal court, the SEC will still criticize its own administrative law judges (“ALJ”) when an ALJ’s decision falls short of established legal standards. On April 23, 2015, the SEC found that an ALJ’s decision to bar Gary L. McDuff from associating with a broker, dealer, investment adviser, municipal securities dealer, municipal adviser, transfer agent or nationally recognized statistical rating organization was insufficient because it lacked enough evidence to establish a statutory requirement to support a sanctions analysis. The SEC then remanded the matter to the same ALJ – no doubt in an effort to encourage him to revise his initial opinion.
On March 24, 2015, the Supreme Court issued its much anticipated decision in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers District Council Construction Industry Pension Fund, No. 13-435, 2015 WL 1291916 (Mar. 24, 2015). With some significant caveats (discussed below), the decision is largely protective of issuers: it enshrines the distinction between “opinions” and “facts,” and generally makes it difficult to hold issuers liable for securities fraud based on statements of opinion.
In brief, the Court held that issuers that include opinions in a registration statement may be liable under Section 11 of the Securities Act of 1933 (the “Securities Act”) for making an untrue statement of fact only when the issuer does not subjectively believe the stated opinion. In so holding, the Court rejected the Sixth Circuit’s view that an honestly-held opinion that was at the time or later proved to be untrue could subject the issuer to liability. As the Court put it, Section 11 “is not, as the Court of Appeals and the [plaintiffs] would have it, an invitation to Monday morning quarterback an issuer’s opinions.”
Last week, Scottrade Inc. became the latest entity to admit wrongdoing in connection with settling SEC charges. In a January 29, 2014 administrative order, the brokerage firm not only agreed to a $2.5 million penalty, but also admitted that it violated federal securities laws when it failed to provide the SEC with complete and accurate “ blue sheet” trading data. This settlement marks the fourth such admission since the Commission’s June 2013 modification to its “no admit/no deny” settlement policy.
Most civil law enforcement agencies – including the SEC – generally do not require entities or individuals to admit or deny wrongdoing in order to reach a settlement. The SEC regularly utilizes this “no admit/no deny” policy, finding it an effective tool to facilitate settlements. In June 2013, however, the Commission announced a revision to this longstanding policy, indicating that it would require public admissions of wrongdoing in selected cases, including those involving “egregious” fraud or intentional misconduct, as well as those involving significant investor impact or that are otherwise highly visible. Since then, the Commission has obtained admissions in three previous settlements. READ MORE
In 2008, Rajat Gupta made a handful of short phone calls to his friend Raj Rajaratnam. The information that Gupta conveyed to Rajaratnam in those phone calls is now likely to cost Gupta millions of dollars, two years in prison, and the loss of his livelihood. These are the fateful consequences of the government’s use of wiretapping to uncover evidence of insider trading on Wall Street.
In June 2012, after a weeks-long trial and relying heavily on recorded conversations between Gupta and Rajaratnam, a jury convicted Gupta of three counts of federal securities fraud and one count of criminal conspiracy. The jury found that Gupta, a former director of Goldman Sachs, had provided Rajaratnam with material non-public information regarding Goldman’s then-unreported financial results and an imminent investment by Berkshire Hathaway at the height of the financial crisis. Though the court found that Gupta did not receive “one penny” in return for providing the information, he was convicted and ultimately sentenced by Judge Jed Rakoff to two years in prison and assessed a $5 million fine, a heavy penalty for his gratuitous generosity to his friend, Rajaratnam. To prove insider trading, the government is not required to prove that the “tippee” receive any direct financial benefit in recompense for transmitting material nonpublic information in violation of a duty of nondisclosure.
It is important to note that Gupta’s brief phone calls, which later became the key evidence used against Gupta in the criminal trial, were recorded by federal criminal prosecutors without Gupta’s knowledge or consent. (The SEC can seek to obtain wiretap evidence from criminal proceedings through civil discovery.) While the nation debates NSA snooping, this is a reminder that the Department of Justice could be listening to and recording your most sensitive domestic telephone conversations with court authorization. Gupta’s criminal prosecution was only possible because federal law enforcement officials had obtained warrants to record telephone communications of Gupta’s friend, Rajaratnam – telephone conversations that happened to include Gupta – based on evidence of possible insider trading. Gupta’s criminal conviction was then used to underpin his civil liability. The use of federal wire taps, previously the weapon of choice in organized crime prosecution, to generate the evidence needed to pursue both criminal and civil insider trading cases is a watershed moment in securities enforcement. READ MORE