The close of 2014 saw the SEC’s Division of Enforcement take a victory lap. Following the release of the statistics for the fiscal year ended September 30, Division Director Andrew Ceresney touted a few records—the largest number of enforcement actions brought in a single year (755); the largest total value of monetary sanctions awarded to the agency (over $4 billion); the largest number of cases taken to trial in recent history (30). As Ceresney noted, numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. And it is in the details that one sees just how aggressive the Division has become, and how difficult the terrain is for individuals and entities caught in the crosshairs of an SEC investigation under the current administration.
Archive for the ‘Securities Litigation & Enforcement’ Category
In my forthcoming article in the Journal of Legal Studies, I empirically test a claim made by institutional investors in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Morrison v. National Australia Bank Ltd. In Morrison, the Supreme Court limited investors’ ability to bring private 10b-5 securities fraud actions to cases where the securities at issue were purchased on a United States stock exchange or were otherwise purchased in the U.S. Because many foreign firms’ securities trade simultaneously on non-U.S. venues and on U.S. exchanges, institutional investors claimed after Morrison that, such was the importance of the 10b-5 private right of action, they would look to such firms’ U.S-traded securities to preserve their rights under 10b-5.
The U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) continue to deploy DPAs and NPAs aggressively. This past year left no doubt that such resolutions are a vital part of the federal corporate law enforcement arsenal, affording the U.S. government an avenue both to punish and reform corporations accused of wrongdoing. In early December, for example, U.S. Assistant Attorney General for DOJ’s Criminal Division, Leslie Caldwell, highlighted the importance of negotiated resolutions that allowed DOJ to “impose reforms, impose compliance controls, and impose all sorts of behavioral change.” She concluded: “In the United States system at least [settlement] is a more powerful tool than actually going to trial.” DOJ and the SEC have used negotiated resolutions, including DPAs and NPAs, to require companies to implement an effective compliance program. In 2014 we witnessed a number of notable developments in negotiated resolutions that demonstrate that the traditional hallmarks of DPAs and NPAs, including post-settlement compliance and reporting obligations, are here to stay.
A tenet of corporate law is that directors—not shareholders—manage a company’s business and affairs. Recognizing that proposals adopted through the Rule 14a-8 process could allow shareholders to intrude on matters traditionally within the directors’ discretion and control, Rule 14a-8(i)(7) permits the exclusion of shareholder proposals from a company’s proxy statement that relate to a “company’s ordinary business operations.” This ordinary business exception to Rule 14a-8 is an acknowledgement that certain “tasks are so fundamental to management’s ability to run a company on a day-to-day basis that they could not, as a practical matter, be subject to direct shareholder oversight.”
In interpreting Rule 14a-8(i)(7), the staff of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has found that proposals otherwise related to an ordinary business matter may not be permissibly excluded from a company’s proxy statement where they also relate to a significant social policy issue. In this circumstance, the SEC’s staff will not provide its concurrence (in the form of a no-action letter) with a company’s decision to exclude a shareholder proposal on the basis of the ordinary business exception if the staff determines that the issue “transcend[s] the day-to-day business matters and raise[s] policy issues so significant that it would be appropriate for a shareholder vote.” The line between a proposal related to ordinary business and one related to a significant social policy issue is often blurry, and it is the subject of intense debate between companies and shareholder proponents.
A unanimous Delaware Supreme Court yesterday reaffirmed the ability of Delaware companies to organize corporate litigation in the Delaware courts. United Technologies Corp. v. Treppel, No. 127, 2014 (Del. Dec. 23, 2014) (en banc).
The case involved an action to produce corporate books and records under Section 220 of the Delaware General Corporation Law, an increasingly frequent preliminary battleground in derivative litigation. Following a familiar pattern, stockholder plaintiffs demanded access to certain books and records of United Technologies Corporation, allegedly to assist in their consideration of potential derivative litigation. UTC asked that all demanding stockholders agree to restrict use of the materials obtained in the inspection to cases filed only in Delaware, pointing out that litigation had already been filed relating to the same matters in the Delaware courts and that any derivative lawsuit would be governed by Delaware law. Then, further evincing its concern to organize corporate governance litigation in the courts of Delaware, UTC’s board adopted a forum selection bylaw during the pendency of the Section 220 lawsuit.
In December, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority entered into settlement agreements with a number of the major banking firms in response to allegations that their equity research analysts were involved in impermissibly soliciting investment banking business by offering their views during the pitch for the Toys “R” Us IPO (which was never actually completed). FINRA rules generally prohibit analysts from attending pitch meetings  and prospective underwriters from promising favorable research to obtain a mandate.  In this situation, no research analyst attended the pitch meetings with the investment bankers and none explicitly promised favorable research in exchange for the business. However, FINRA announced an interpretation of its rules that took a broad view of a “pitch” and the “promise of favorable research.” FINRA identified a so-called “solicitation period” as the period after a company makes it known that it intends to conduct an investment banking transaction, such as an IPO, but prior to awarding the mandate. In the settlement agreements, FINRA stated its view that research analyst communications with a company during the solicitation period must be limited to due diligence activities, and that any additional communications by the analyst, even as to his or her general views on valuation or comparable company valuation, will rise to the level of impermissible activity. The settlements further suggested that these restrictions apply not only to research analysts, but also to investment bankers that are conveying the views of their research departments to the company. The practical result of these settlements will be to dramatically reduce the interaction between research analysts and companies prior to the award of a mandate.
The ability of corporate directors to exercise effective judgment and oversight will be aided by an awareness of emerging white collar enforcement trends of the federal government.
These trends are primarily reflected in a notable series of significant speeches and other public comments made this fall by representatives of the Department of Justice. These include speeches made by senior officials of DOJ’s Criminal and Antitrust Divisions, as well as Attorney General Holder. Collectively, these trends may help to inform boards with respect to transactional planning, risk evaluation and compliance oversight, among other critical matters.
It’s been a busy year for securities regulators. The SEC recently reported that in FY 2014 new investigative approaches and innovative use of data and analytical tools contributed to a record 755 enforcement actions with orders totaling $4.16 billion in disgorgement and penalties. By comparison, in FY 2013 it brought 686 enforcement actions with orders totaling $3.4 billion in disgorgement and penalties. We do not yet have FINRA’s fiscal year 2014 enforcement action totals, but we know that FINRA too has taken a more aggressive approach to enforcement—in 2013 FINRA barred 135 more individuals and suspended 221 more individuals than it did in 2012. Moreover, like the SEC, FINRA increasingly is relying on data and analytical tools to make its enforcement program more effective. FINRA’s proposed Comprehensive Automated Risk Data System (CARDS) is a further step in that direction. CARDS will help FINRA more quickly identify patterns of transactions and monitor for excessive concentration, lack of suitability, churning, mutual fund switching, and other potentially problematic misconduct. Both broker-dealers and investment advisers now find themselves in a position in which, from an enforcement perspective, regulators often have far better data and analytical tools than the firms have.
What would happen to shareholder litigation if the class action disappeared? In my article, Shareholder Litigation Without Class Actions, forthcoming in the Arizona Law Review as part of its symposium on Business Litigation and Regulatory Agency Review in the Era of the Roberts Court, I sketch out some possible futures of post-class action shareholder litigation. For now, such litigation persists despite recent existential challenges, most notably the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year in Erica P. John Fund v. Halliburton. While these actions may continue in their current form, sustained criticism from sectors of the academy, and from business lobbies, suggest that existential threats to these suits will continue. Such threats have already re-emerged in the form of mandatory arbitration provisions and “loser pays” (more accurately, “plaintiff pays”) fee-shifting provisions in corporate bylaws or certificates of incorporation. While it is possible that such provisions will not spread widely—perhaps because of organized shareholder opposition—the rapid adoption of fee-shifting provisions suggests the possibility that mandatory arbitration or “plaintiff pays” or both could become ubiquitous. If so, either type of provision could eliminate the shareholder class action, or at least drastically reduce its prevalence. As I describe in greater detail in the article, mandatory arbitration provisions requiring bilateral arbitration of claims and barring consolidation of such claims would eliminate the class action in either litigation or arbitration form. (Importantly, even if Delaware were to try to curb arbitration provisions, such action could be preempted by federal law under the Supreme Court’s recent Federal Arbitration Act decisions). Similarly, fee-shifting provisions would greatly increase the risk to plaintiffs generally, and to entrepreneurial plaintiffs’ lawyers in particular, who bear the risks and costs of this litigation, potentially threatening the existence of the plaintiffs’ bar itself and restricting class actions to only a small handful of the most egregious cases. I discuss arbitration and fee shifting provisions in the article, and in the summary below, but I do not confine my analysis to these provisions. Rather, my focus is to assess what would happen to shareholder litigation if the class action disappeared, regardless of the particular mechanism of its demise.
After a year of “first ever” actions targeting private equity, fund managers should be vigilant, even about seemingly small issues.
In reviewing the results of SEC Enforcement’s fiscal year that ended on September 30, the agency congratulated itself on its comprehensive approach to enforcement and its “first-ever” cases. Private equity fund managers should consider a number of important takeaways.
The SEC Continues to Pursue a Broken Windows/Zero Tolerance Approach
Although the Enforcement Division announced a record number of enforcement actions, and the largest aggregate financial recovery, 2014, unlike in years past, did not include a headline-grabbing case such as Enron, Worldcom or Madoff. More recently, the agency has chosen to emphasize its pursuit of smaller cases as a way of improving compliance in the industry. SEC Chair Mary Jo White and Enforcement Director Andrew Ceresney have each touted the agency’s “broken windows” approach to enforcement. A “broken windows” strategy means that the SEC will pursue even the smallest violations on the theory that publicly pursuing smaller matters will reduce the prevalence of larger violations. Ceresney has described “broken windows” as a zero tolerance policy. This past year illustrated the agency’s commitment to applying enforcement sanctions to what some might consider “foot fault” incidents. For example, in September 2014, the SEC announced a package of three dozen cases involving a failure to promptly file Section 13D and Section 13G reports, as well as Forms 3 and 4. Many of the filers charged were just days or weeks late in disclosing their positions. In announcing the cases, Ceresney emphasized that inadvertence was not a defense to late filings.