On November 15, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in the case of Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., No. 13-317, raising the prospect that the Court will overrule or significantly limit the legal presumption that each member of a securities fraud class action relied on the statements challenged as fraudulent in the lawsuit. Without this so-called “fraud-on-the-market” presumption, putative class action plaintiffs will be unable to maintain a securities fraud class action unless they can clear the logistically difficult hurdle of proving that each individual shareholder actually relied on the challenged statements when making its purchase or sale of securities. At least four Justices have recently indicated that the Court should reconsider the validity of that doctrine, suggesting that the ultimate opinion in Halliburton could lead to a significant change in securities class action law. Even if the Court ultimately affirms fraud-on-the-market or some variant of the doctrine, the Court may expand defendants’ ability to defeat what in practice has evolved into a virtually irrefutable presumption of reliance. Furthermore, the uncertainty caused by the pendency of the Halliburton appeal may warrant staying securities class actions and may reduce the settlement value of pending cases.
Archive for the ‘Securities Litigation & Enforcement’ Category
It has been more than six years since the onset of the credit crisis and we have documented for the first time in the past few months a significant increase in the number and size of settlements. Meanwhile, the pace of new filings has slowed as housing markets continue to improve and delinquencies and defaults decline. However, litigation arising from the credit crisis is far from over.
In this post, we discuss the recent trends of settlement activity and review some of the major settlements in credit crisis litigation. We also discuss mortgage settlements that are related to repurchase demands mainly between mortgage sellers and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. We then examine the current trends in filings, including the types of claims made, the nature of defendants and plaintiffs in the litigation, and the financial products involved.
Our main findings, which are discussed in greater detail below, include the following:
It is a great honor to have been asked to give the Fifth Annual Judge Thomas A. Flannery Lecture. And it is especially meaningful to be joined tonight by Tom Flannery’s daughter Irene, son Tom, and so many friends, colleagues, and former law clerks who knew and served with him.
I unfortunately did not have the privilege of knowing and working with Judge Flannery. But one of the great benefits of being asked to speak tonight is that it gave me the opportunity to come to know him a little—through learning about his many impressive career accomplishments and through reading his own words and those of others about him. I wish I had known him. He was indeed a remarkable man, lawyer, and judge.
As all here know, Judge Flannery was a highly-respected Assistant United States Attorney, United States Attorney, trial lawyer, and jurist on this court for over 35 years. In fact, he spent most of his life within a few miles of this courtroom.
As part of the Historical Society’s Oral History Project for this Circuit, Judge Flannery gave an interview in 1992. It is a fascinating account of his professional life and the life of this court. Judge Flannery said that his view of the justice system was shaped in great part by watching police court trials here in Washington as a law student.
On Nov. 12, 2013, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Lawson v. FMR LLC, a case in which the Court is expected to clarify whether the whistleblower protections of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (“SOX”) cover employees of private companies that contract with public companies. Section 806 of SOX prohibits a publicly-traded company—or any officer, employee, contractor, subcontractor, or agent of a publicly-traded company—from retaliating against an “employee” who reports suspected violations of Securities and Exchange Commission rules or federal fraud laws. The word “employee” in the statute is not defined. The issue before the Court is whether the whistleblower protections are limited to employees of public companies or extend as well to employees of privately held contractors and subcontractors of public companies.
The Lawson Case
The defendants are privately-held companies that, by contract, provide advisory and management services to the Fidelity family of mutual funds. The Fidelity Funds are publicly-held entities organized under the Investment Company Act of 1940. The Fidelity Funds have no employees of their own but rather are overseen by a board of trustees that rely on private companies such as the defendants to provide advisory and management services. Plaintiffs are two putative whistleblowers who were employees of the defendant advisors and managers. After plaintiffs raised concerns about the management of Fidelity Funds, one plaintiff was terminated and the other plaintiff resigned claiming a constructive discharge of their employment.
On November 15, 2013, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that could, depending upon its outcome, dramatically change private securities litigation. The case is Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., No. 13-317, and it presents the question of whether the Court should reconsider the fraud-on-the-market presumption of reliance that applies in class actions under Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act and SEC Rule 10b-5.
The case is of enormous potential significance. Adopted in 1988 in Basic v. Levinson, the fraud-on-the-market presumption effectively eliminated the need for plaintiffs to individually prove reliance on alleged misstatements in cases involving securities that trade on “efficient” markets. By dispensing with proof of individualized reliance, Basic makes possible the certification of massive Section 10(b) class actions. Without the presumption, classes could not be certified under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3), because individual reliance questions would predominate over common questions affecting the class as a whole.
The SEC settled claims against a registered investment adviser (the “Adviser”), its affiliated broker-dealer (the “Broker-Dealer”), and the founder, owner, and president of each (the “CEO”) that related to (1) investments in Class A shares of underlying funds made by funds managed by the Adviser (the “Funds”) and (2) commissions paid by the Funds to the Broker-Dealer for trades in exchange-traded funds (“ETFs”). Without admitting or denying its findings, the Respondents agreed to the settlement order (the “Order”), available here, which this post summarizes.
In our paper, Do Fraudulent Firms Engage in Disclosure Herding?, which was recently made publicly available on SSRN, we present two new hypotheses regarding the strategic qualitative disclosure choices of firms involved in potentially fraudulent activity. First, these firms have incentives to herd with industry peers in order to escape detection. Second, these firms have incentives to locally anti-herd with the same peers on specific aspects of disclosure consistent with achieving fraud-driven objectives. We use text-based analysis of firm disclosures and compare disclosures across firms involved in SEC enforcement actions to benchmarks based on industry, size and age, and also to each firm’s own disclosure before and after SEC alleged violations.
We hypothesize that firms involved in potentially fraudulent activity face tensions when providing qualitative disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the agency tasked with enforcing anti-fraud laws. Our focus is on the Management’s Discussion and Analysis section of the 10-K, which is where managers have a high level of discretion to describe the key issues facing their firms and to describe their performance in detail. A primary motive is to escape detection, and managers who assume that the SEC is less likely to scrutinize disclosures that resemble industry peers, or that such disclosure is less likely to raise red flags, have incentives to herd with industry peers. On the other hand, the same objectives that lead managers to commit fraud may also provide incentives to anti-herd in their disclosure from industry peers. However, these latter incentives are likely more localized, and anti-herding would be predicted only on disclosure dimensions that might help managers to achieve these objectives.
In wake of ethics opinion, lawyers in New York—if not elsewhere—must think hard before considering whether to participate in the Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Award Program.
A recent SEC whistleblower award of $14 million may offer a persuasive incentive for lawyers to blow the whistle on a client’s perceived wrongdoing. However, a subsequent ethics opinion from the Committee on Professional Ethics of the New York County Lawyers’ Association will give lawyers pause. As the SEC whistleblower award program gains momentum, New York lawyers may be well-advised to wait for the courts to determine whether the SEC’s rules can pre-empt state rules of professional conduct.
SEC Commissioner Luis Aguilar recently spoke against a policy statement concerning corporate penalties that was issued in 2006 by the then-sitting Commissioners. The 2006 statement emphasized two principal considerations: (1) did the corporation receive a benefit from the misconduct; and (2) will a penalty recompense or further harm injured shareholders? Commissioner Aguilar characterized the 2006 statement as “fatally flawed” and noted approvingly that SEC Chair Mary Jo White recently noted that it is not a binding policy. Commissioner Aguilar argued that considering whether there was a benefit to the corporation distracts a penalty analysis from its proper focus—namely, the nature of the misconduct. While the nature of any misconduct is always a relevant and important consideration in determining the appropriate penalty, the statute authorizing penalties does make it relevant to consider whether the corporation received a benefit.
As we have noted before, the Commission’s civil penalty authority is limited by statutory language. The statute provides for three tiers of penalties in escalating amounts. In a time when corporate penalties in the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars are criticized as inadequate or worse, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that the maximum corporate penalty under the statute is currently $775,000 per violation. While the “per violation” language is where creative SEC math can sometimes come into play, as we have noted, some federal judges in litigated cases have followed a more measured approach. See our memo, SEC Penalties: Getting Tougher, and Remembering Some History, from October 17, 2013.
On September 30, 2013, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)—quietly, and with little fanfare—released an informal statement of policy in the form of frequently asked questions (FAQ), in which it addressed its recent case against Ted Urban.  In doing so, the SEC shed light on when and how the agency will seek to hold legal and compliance personnel responsible for failing to supervise employees on the business side.
As many will recall, the Urban case was closely watched by securities legal and compliance professionals, who worried that a decision by the commissioners could be used by enforcement staff to make such professionals easier targets in future enforcement actions. Ultimately, the commissioners dismissed the case. That said, given the circumstances surrounding the case’s dismissal, legal and compliance officers were left with little guidance as to whether the case against Urban could be used against them to establish supervisor liability.