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.