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 ‘Securities fraud’
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.
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.
On July 30, 2014, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) advanced a novel theory of fraud against the former CEO (Marc Sherman) and CFO (Edward Cummings) of Quality Services Group, Inc. (“QSGI”), a Florida-based computer equipment company that filed for bankruptcy in 2009. The SEC alleged that the CEO misrepresented the extent of his involvement in evaluating internal controls and that the CEO and CFO knew of significant internal controls issues with the company’s inventory practices that they failed to disclose to investors and internal auditors. This case did not involve any restatement of financial statements or allegations of accounting fraud, merely disclosure issues around internal controls and involvement in a review of the same by senior management. The SEC’s approach has the potential to broaden practical exposure to liability for corporate officers who sign financial statements and certifications required under Section 302 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (“SOX”). By advancing a theory of fraud premised on internal controls issues without establishing an actionable accounting misstatement, the SEC is continuing to demonstrate that it will extend the range of conduct for which it has historically pursued fraud claims against corporate officers.
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.
The last thing hedge funds need is another wake up call about the risks of liability for trading on the basis of material nonpublic information. But if they did, a July 17 article in the Wall Street Journal would provide it. According to the article, the SEC is investigating nearly four dozen hedge funds, asset managers and other firms to determine whether they traded on material nonpublic information concerning a change in Medicare reimbursement rates. If so, it appears that the material nonpublic information, if any, may have originated from a staffer on the House Ways and Means Committee, was then communicated to a law firm lobbyist, was further communicated by the lobbyist to a political intelligence firm, and finally, was communicated to clients who traded. According to an April 3, 2013 Wall Street Journal article, the political intelligence firm issued a flash report to clients on April 1, 2013 at 3:42 p.m.—18 minutes before the market closed and 35 minutes before the government announced that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services would increase reimbursements by 3.3%, rather than reduce them 2.3%, as initially proposed. Shares in several large insurance firms rose as much as 6% in the last 18 minutes of trading.
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.
The announcement of the Credit Suisse guilty plea on May 19, 2014 marks the first time in more than a decade that a large financial institution has been convicted of a financial crime in the United States. For this reason alone, some will herald it a watershed moment in the history of corporate criminal liability. But the government’s well-publicized efforts to mitigate the collateral consequences resulting from the plea will likely limit the plea’s practical significance for companies that find themselves in the unenviable position of negotiating a resolution of criminal allegations with the government. This post will explore the potential implications of the Credit Suisse guilty plea for corporate criminal liability.
Although US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) enforcement actions related to financial fraud and issuer disclosures have been on a decline since 2007, recent statements and actions suggest that the SEC is likely to re-focus its efforts on detecting, pursuing, and preventing accounting fraud.  Since her confirmation as Chair of the SEC, Mary Jo White has made it clear that her administration will focus on identifying and investigating accounting abuses at publicly-traded companies.  Among the recent initiatives announced by the SEC are the increased focus on the whistle blower program and the establishment of the Financial Reporting and Audit Task Force, the Microcap Fraud Task Force, and the Center for Risk and Quantitative Analytics. 
The number of accounting case settlements in 2013 increased for the second year in a row, but remained low compared with the previous 10 years, according to Cornerstone Research’s latest report, Accounting Class Action Filings and Settlements—2013 Review and Analysis. While the number of securities class action filings that included accounting allegations (47) remained relatively constant in 2013 compared with 2012, the market capitalization losses associated with these filings more than doubled.