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.
Posts Tagged ‘Gibson Dunn’
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.
Spin-offs continue to be a prominent feature of the deal landscape; new transactions are announced on an almost weekly basis. For example, Barnes & Noble recently said that it plans to spin off its Nook business, eBay said that it would spin off PayPal, and Hewlett Packard announced that it would spin off its printer and computer business. A total of approximately 51 separation transactions have been announced so far this year. The tally was not quite as high in 2013, but still robust; approximately 42 transactions were announced.
When market analysts seek to explain this apparently never-ending stream of separation transactions, they reason that the stock market rewards pure-play companies focused on a single line of business with higher stock prices than conglomerates. They also observe that activists have added momentum to the transaction flow by encouraging companies that operate several lines of business to consider separation opportunities. In addition, they observe that separation transactions can result in improved management focus, enable the implementation of more efficient capital structures and compensation programs, and result in the creation of a new equity currency.
As companies prepare for the second year of filings under the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (“SEC”) new conflict minerals rule, many companies are looking for guidance from the first annual filings, which were due June 2, 2014. As expected, the inaugural Form SD and conflict minerals report filings reflect diverse approaches to the new compliance and disclosure requirements. We offer below some observations based on the first round of conflict minerals filings for companies to consider as they address their compliance programs and disclosures for the 2014 calendar year. It is important to note, however, that the shape of future compliance and reporting obligations will be impacted by the outcome of the pending litigation challenging the conflict minerals rule, which also is discussed below, and any subsequent action by the SEC.
M&A practitioners are well aware of the several standards of review applied by Delaware courts in evaluating whether directors have complied with their fiduciary duties in the context of M&A transactions. Because the standard applied will often have a significant effect on the outcome of such evaluation, establishing processes to secure a more favorable standard of review is a significant part of Delaware M&A practice. The chart below identifies fact patterns common to Delaware M&A and provides a preliminary assessment of the likely standard of review applicable to transactions fitting such fact patterns. However, because the Delaware courts evaluate each transaction in light of the transaction’s particular set of facts and circumstances, and due to the evolving nature of the law in this area, this chart should not be treated as a definitive statement of the standard of review applicable to any particular transaction.
On September 10, 2014, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced an unprecedented enforcement sweep against 34 companies and individuals for alleged failures to timely file with the SEC various Section 16(a) filings (Forms 3, 4 and 5) and Schedules 13D and 13G (the “September 10 actions”).  The September 10 actions named 13 corporate officers or directors, five individuals and 10 investment firms with beneficial ownership of publicly traded companies, and six public companies; all but one settled the claims without admitting or denying the allegations. The SEC emphasized that the filing requirements may be violated even inadvertently, without any showing of scienter. Notably, among the executives targeted by the SEC were some who had provided their employers with trading information and relied on the company to make the requisite SEC filings on their behalf.
It almost goes without saying that the first half of 2014 brought with it the most significant development in securities litigation in decades: the U.S. Supreme Court decided Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc.—Halliburton II. In Halliburton II, the Court declined to revisit its earlier decision in Basic v. Levinson, Inc.; plaintiffs may therefore continue to avail themselves of the legal presumption of reliance, a presumption necessary for many class action plaintiffs to achieve class certification. But the Court also reiterated what it said 20 years ago in Basic: the presumption of reliance is rebuttable. And the Court clarified that defendants may now rebut the presumption at the class certification stage with evidence that the alleged misrepresentation did not affect the security’s price, making “price impact” evidence essential to class certification.
On June 25, 2014, the UK Government published the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill  which, among other things, proposes that all UK companies (other than publicly traded companies reporting under the Disclosure and Transparency Rules (DTR5)) be required to maintain a register of people who have significant control over the company. The Bill is part of the UK Government’s initiative to implement the G8 Action Plan to prevent the misuse of companies and legal arrangements agreed at the Lough Erne G8 Summit in June 2013, which we discussed in our client alert entitled “Through the Looking Glass: The Disclosure of Ultimate Ownership and the G8 Action Plan” (June 20, 2013).  In broad terms, the G8 Action Plan is designed to ensure the integrity of beneficial ownership and basic company information and the timely access to that information by law enforcement and tax authorities.
Our mid-year report one year ago presented an exciting opportunity to discuss a time of great change at the SEC. A new Chair and a new Director of Enforcement had recently assumed the reins and begun making bold policy pronouncements. One year later, things have stabilized somewhat. The hot-button issues identified early in the new SEC administration—admissions for settling parties, a growing number of trials (and, for the agency, trial losses), and a renewed focus on public company accounting—remain the leading issues a year later, albeit with some interesting developments.
As the debate continues over whether and how to punish companies for unlawful conduct, U.S. federal prosecutors continue to rely significantly on Non-Prosecution Agreements (“NPAs”) and Deferred Prosecution Agreements (“DPAs”) (collectively, “agreements”). Such agreements have emerged as a flexible alternative to prosecutorial declination, on the one hand, and trials or guilty pleas, on the other. Companies and prosecutors alike rely on NPAs and DPAs to resolve allegations of corporate misconduct while mitigating the collateral consequences that guilty pleas or verdicts can inflict on companies, employees, communities, or the economy. NPAs and DPAs allow prosecutors, without obtaining a criminal conviction, to ensure that corporate wrongdoers receive punishment, including often eye-popping financial penalties, deep reforms to corporate culture through compliance requirements, and independent monitoring or self-reporting arrangements. Although the trend has been robust for more than a decade, Attorney General Eric Holder’s statements in connection with recent prosecutions of financial institutions underscore the dynamic environment in which NPAs and DPAs have evolved.