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
On March 30, 2017, a bipartisan group of Senators introduced a bill called “Stronger Enforcement of Civil Penalties Act of 2017” (the “SEC Penalties Act”) to “crack down on Wall Street fraud” that would significantly increase civil monetary penalties in SEC enforcement actions up to $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. Currently, the maximum civil monetary penalties in SEC enforcement actions are $181,071 per violation for individuals and $905,353 per violation for entities.
The SEC Penalties Act raises the maximum penalties under all three penalty tiers, would tie penalties to the scope of harm and associated investor losses, triple the maximum penalty caps under each tier for recidivists who have been held criminally or civilly liable for securities fraud within the preceding five years, and provide the SEC with authority to seek disgorgement of ill-gotten gains in SEC administrative actions (currently disgorgement is only available in federal district court actions). The legislation would not alter the current three-tier penalty structure or the standards for establishing a penalty under each tier, and does not define how administrative law judges and federal district courts should interpret the “each act or omission” language in the penalty statutes.
Last week brought more bad news for private blood testing company Theranos Inc., as San Francisco-based Partner Fund Management L.P. (“PFM”) launched a suit claiming that it was duped into making a $96.1 million investment in Theranos in February 2014. The complaint, filed in Delaware Court of Chancery, alleges common law fraud, securities fraud under California’s Corporations Code, and violations of Delaware’s Consumer Fraud Act and Deceptive Trade Practices Act, among other things, against Theranos, its Chief Executive Officer, Elizabeth Holmes, and its former Chief Operating Officer, Ramesh Balwani.
In a memorandum released on April 18, 2016, the private blood-testing company Theranos – once valued at over $9 billion – announced that it is under investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California, among other government agencies. The memorandum did not disclose the focus of the government investigations. Theranos’ announcement about the investigations comes on the heels of a series of October 2015 Wall Street Journal (“WSJ”) articles critical of the accuracy of the company’s blood-testing methods. The government investigations into Theranos are not surprising, particularly in light of recent remarks by SEC Chair Mary Jo White (“White”) at a March 31, 2016 address at Stanford University’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance, where White revealed the SEC’s focus on Silicon Valley’s privately held unicorns – private start-up companies with valuations exceeding $1 billion.
In a move that highlights both the increased focus on holding individuals accountable and the credit that can be earned through cooperation, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced last week that, for the first time, it entered into a deferred prosecution agreement (“DPA”) with an individual allegedly involved in a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”) case. On February 16, 2016, the SEC announced a DPA with Yu Kai Yuan, a former employee of software company PTC Inc.’s Chinese subsidiaries. The SEC agreed to defer civil FCPA charges against Yu for three years in recognition of his cooperation during the SEC’s investigation. PTC also reached a settlement with the SEC, in which the company agreed to disgorge $11.8 million. Prior to the Yu DPA, the SEC had entered into one DPA with an individual in November 2013, in a matter involving a hedge fund manager allegedly stealing investor assets. However, never before this time was a DPA with the SEC related to an FCPA case.