New, Thorough Academic Analysis of In re Flannery Shows Many Flaws in the Far-Reaching SEC Majority Opinion

One of the most important actions by the SEC over the past year was the far-reaching majority opinion of three commissioners in In the Matter of Flannery and Hopkins, SEC Release No. 3981, 2014 WL 7145625 (Dec. 15, 2014). That opinion can be read here: In re Flannery Majority Opinion.

Soon after Flannery was decided, we discussed the extraordinary nature of this opinion in an administrative enforcement action, in which the majority sought to create new, precedential legal standards for the critical antifraud provisions of the Securities Act of 1933 (section 17(a)) and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (section 10(b)).  In many respects, the standards they espoused departed significantly from judicial precedent, including Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals decisions.  The majority specifically invoked the doctrine of deference under Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resource Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984), as a means of pressing for the courts to defer to these expressed views instead of continuing to develop the parameters of these statutes through judicial standards of statutory analysis.  See SEC Majority Argues for Negating Janus Decision with Broad Interpretation of Rule 10b-5.

Since that time, some commentators have addressed aspects of the Flannery decision.  See, for example, ‘‘We Intend to Resolve the Ambiguities’’: The SEC Issues Some Surprising Guidance on Fraud Liability in the Wake of JanusThe decision is currently being briefed on appeal in the First Circuit under the caption Flannery v. SEC, No. 15-1080 (1st Cir.).  You can read the appellant’s brief here: Flannery Opening Appeal Brief in Flannery v. SEC, and the SEC’s opposition brief here: SEC Opposition Brief in Flannery v. SEC.  An amicus brief filed on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce can be read here: Chamber of Commerce Amicus Brief in Flannery v. SEC.

For an opinion this far-reaching, and attempting to make such extraordinary changes in the interpretation and application of two key statutes, there has been sparse commentary and analysis overall.  Perhaps this is because the majority opinion was so expansive in what it addressed (often unnecessarily, purely in order to lay down the SEC’s marker) that it was difficult to analyze comprehensively.  Fortunately, this is about to change.  The first sophisticated and in-depth analysis of key aspects of the Flannery opinion is in the final stages, written by Andrew Vollmer, a highly- experienced former SEC Deputy General Counsel, former private securities enforcement lawyer, and current Professor of Law at the University of Virginia Law School and Director of its Law & Business Program.  Professor Vollmer released a current version of an article (still being revised) on SSRN.  It is worth reading in its entirety, and is available here: SEC Revanchism and the Expansion of Primary Liability Under Section 17(a) and Rule 10(b)(5).

Professor Vollmer had the wisdom to realize that the best in enemy of the good, and limited the scope of his article to analysis of the majority opinion’s effort to expand primary liability under section 17(a) and section 10(b) and its claimed entitlement to Chevron deference.  Other provocative aspects of the opinion are left for hoped-for future analysis (by Professor Vollmer or others).  But the important issues of the majority’s attempt to alter the trajectory of judicial legal developments governing section 17(a) and section 10(b) liability, and the majority’s assertion that its views on these issues are worthy of Chevron deference by the courts, are examined with a depth and sophistication lacking in any other publication to date known to us, and well beyond the level of analysis given to these issues by the Commission majority itself.

For those who want a flavor of Professor Vollmer’s views without delving into the entire 60-page comment, I will quote at some length portions of his useful executive summary:

An exceedingly important question for those facing the possibility of fraud charges in an enforcement case brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission is the scope of primary liability under the two main anti-fraud provisions, Section 17(a) of the Securities Act and Rule 10b-5 of the Securities Exchange Act.  That subject has received close attention from the Supreme Court and lower courts, and recently the SEC weighed in with a survey of each of the subparts of Section 17(a) and Rule 10b-5 in a decision in an administrative adjudication of enforcement charges.

In the Flannery decision, a bare majority of Commissioners staked out broad positions on primary liability under Rule 10b-5(a) and (c) and Section 17(a)(1), (2), and (3) . . . .  The Commission not only advanced expansive legal conclusions, but it also insisted that the courts accept the agency’s legal interpretations as controlling.

The SEC’s decision in Flannery raises thought-provoking issues about the role of administrative agencies in the development, enforcement, and adjudication of federal law. The purpose of this article is to discuss two of those issues.

The first concerns the consistency of Flannery with the Supreme Court and lower court decisions defining the scope of primary liability under Rule 10b-5 and Section 17(a).  This article explains that much about Flannery is not consistent with, and is antagonistic to, a series of prominent Supreme Court decisions that imposed meaningful boundaries around aspects of primary liability under Rule 10b-5.  Those decisions are Central Bank of Denver, NA v. First Interstate Bank of Denver, NA, Stoneridge Investment Partners, LLC v. Scientific-Atlanta, Inc., and Janus Capital Group, Inc. v. First Derivative Traders.

The Commission in Flannery sought to confine and distinguish those precedents, but Part II.A below questions the SEC’s reading of the cases and explores the reasoning and analysis in Stoneridge and Janus to determine whether the opinions were, as the Commission said, limited solely to the reliance element in private cases or to subpart (b) of Rule 10b-5.  That review reveals that the effort of the Supreme Court in the cases was to draw a crisper line between primary liability and aiding and abetting and to define a primary violator as the separate and independent person with final control and authority over the content and use of a communication to the investing public.  The Court’s rationales ran to both Rule10b-5 and Section 17(a).

Part II.B then compares the reasoning and analysis in the Supreme Court cases plus a selection of court of appeals decisions with the Commission’s approach in Flannery.  One point of comparison is that the Commission used a loose and unprincipled policy of interpreting the laws flexibly to achieve their remedial purpose.  The Supreme Court long ago discredited and refused to apply that policy, but Flannery wielded it repeatedly to reach outcomes that grossly exceed the boundaries the Court appeared to be setting in Stoneridge and Janus.

For example, the Commission would extend primary liability to a person who orchestrated a sham transaction designed to give the false appearance of business operations even if a material misstatement by another person creates the nexus between the scheme and the securities market.  According to the Commission, Section 17(a)(1) goes further and covers a person who entered into a legitimate, non-deceptive transaction with a reporting company but who knew that the public company planned to misstate the revenue. These constructions disregarded the lesson of Stoneridge.  A person entering into a transaction with a public company, even a deceptive transaction, that resulted in the public company’s disclosure of false financial statements did not have primary liability when the public company was independent and had final say about its disclosures.  The Commission would extend primary liability to a person who drafted, approved, or did not change a disclosure made by another, but Janus held that a person working on a public disclosure was not the primary actor when another independent person issued and had final say about the disclosure.

A reading of the Flannery decision leaves the definite impression that a majority of SEC Commissioners aimed to use the case as a vehicle to recover much of the territory lost in the enforcement area from the Supreme Court decisions and the lower federal courts that have been following the Supreme Court’s lead.  It was an effort to supersede the court judgments by re-interpreting and extending the prohibitions in Rule 10b-5 and Section 17(a).  If these concerns have merit, the actions of the SEC, an administrative agency within the Executive Branch, are unsettling.  They take the stare out of stare decisis, rattle the stability of legal rules, upset traditional expectations about the role of the courts in the development of the law, and head toward a society ruled by bureaucratic fiat rather than ordered by laws.

 The second issue discussed in this article is whether the courts must or should treat the SEC’s legal conclusions in an adjudication as controlling under Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, IncFlannery included an overt claim to Chevron deference.  Part III evaluates this bid for Chevron deference and concludes that the courts would have doctrinal and precedential grounds for refusing to accept the Flannery positions as controlling.  Part III.C goes through these reasons, starting with the text of the provision of the Administrative Procedure Act governing judicial review of agency actions and looking closely at the actual practice of the Supreme Court and courts of appeals when they review a legal conclusion in an agency adjudication.  Part III.E discusses particular features about Flannery that would justify a reviewing court in not giving controlling weight to the interpretations of Rule 10b-5 and Section 17(a).

The precedents identify good reasons for not granting Chevron deference to Flannery or similar agency adjudications in enforcement cases.  Giving controlling effect to the SEC’s decision in Flannery would allow the agency both to avoid the teachings of leading Supreme Court authorities and to trump the Supreme Court and other federal courts on significant matters of statutory interpretation.  It would empower the SEC to cut short and silence the normal process in the federal courts for testing and establishing the limits of liability provisions, and it would enable the SEC to tip the scales in enforcement cases by converting its litigating positions into non-reviewable legal interpretations.  The cumulative effect of an agency’s decision to roll back Supreme Court precedent and to consolidate for itself ultimate decision-making power over questions of law traditionally left to the courts would seriously alter a balance between agencies and courts long recognized in our system of government.

These two issues are not the only topics of interest in Flannery.  The Commission opinion raises many more.  Chief among them are the proper interpretations and coverage of each of the sub-parts of Section 17(a) and Rule 10b-5.  That was the main subject of Flannery, and it deserves careful study and analysis by courts, practitioners, and scholars.  The purpose of this article is not to propose conclusions on that important set of questions, although the discussion in Part II below will suggest some considerations and limitations that should bear on an appropriate construction of the statute and Rule.

Flannery touches on other points that are beyond the scope of this article. For example, the Commission majority suggested that the SEC does not need to prove either negligence or scienter for a violation of Section 17(a)(2) or (3).  Strict liability might exist, even though courts of appeals require the Commission to prove negligence.  Another example is the Commission’s position that Section 17(a)(3) prohibits pure omissions without a corresponding duty to disclose.  A third issue that deserves more attention is the Commission’s view that it could use a section of the Dodd-Frank Act to impose a monetary penalty in an administrative proceeding for conduct occurring before the enactment of the Dodd-Frank Act.  All in all, Flannery provides much fodder for rumination by the bench, bar, and academy.

Thanks to Professor Vollmer for picking up the gauntlet thrown down by three SEC commissioners in the Flannery opinion.  This is an important — a critical — battleground on which the scope of future liability for alleged securities fraud is now being fought.  Much of the commissioners’ expansive treatment of primary section 10(b) liability matters little to the SEC itself, because the SEC always has at its disposal allegations of aiding and abetting liability in its enforcement actions.  The crucial impact of the expanded scope of primary section 10(b) liability would be in private securities class actions.  The careful limits on securities class action strike suits against alleged secondary violators in the Supreme Court’s decisions in Central Bank, Stoneridge, and Janus would fall by the wayside under the majority’s expanded view of primary section 10(b) liability.  In no small respect, the three commissioners who penned the Flannery opinion are laying the foundation for the future wealth of the private securities plaintiffs’ bar more than they are creating meaningful enforcement precedent for the SEC itself.  Only the staunch, rigorous analysis of those like Professor Vollmer may stand in the way of that questionable redistribution of wealth.

Straight Arrow

July 9, 2015

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One thought on “New, Thorough Academic Analysis of In re Flannery Shows Many Flaws in the Far-Reaching SEC Majority Opinion

  1. Pingback: First Circuit Rebuffs SEC in Flannery and Hopkins Case and Vacates SEC Order | Securities Diary

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