Why the SEC’s Proposed Changes to Its Rules of Practice Are Woefully Inadequate — Part III

This is the third in a series of posts addressing the SEC’s proposals for revising the Rules of Practice in its administrative court.  These proposals purport to modernize antiquated procedures in that forum.  Our first two posts addressed two blatant inadequacies in the SEC’s proposals: (1) requiring that respondents plead in their answers certain defense theories that are not “affirmative defenses” required to be pled in response to complaints filed by the SEC in the federal courts; and (2) providing for a discovery process limited to a maximum of 5 depositions, requiring that those be shared among multiple respondents, allowing the Division of Enforcement an equal number of depositions (in addition many investigative depositions taken before the case was filed), and limiting the scope of witnesses that respondents could depose within the tiny allotment provided.  You can review these comments here (Part I), and here (Part II), respectively.

Before we turn to the third respect in which the SEC’s proposals continue and expand the unfairness of the SEC’s administrative forum, we pause to report that SEC Chair Mary Jo White publicly embarrassed herself by insisting that the current forum is perfectly fair and needs only to be “modernized,” whatever that actually means.  As reported in the Wall Street Journal, here is what she said about the new proposals:

The SEC chief said that the commission recently proposed rules to modernize the administrative law proceedings and submitted a draft for public comment.  The proposal came amid calls for overhauling the system, which critics say is biased toward the agency and provides few protections to defendants.  The proposed change, she noted, includes allowing for additional time and discovery depositions before the trials.

Ms. White described the administrative law judge system as “very fair proceedings” that offer even more due-process rights to defendants than district court.  The 2010 Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law allowed the SEC to handle a broader range of cases in the in-house court.  Still, she acknowledged that the agency needs to critically examine the system for the sake of both fairness and appearance because “the rules haven’t been modernized for almost 10 years.”

SEC’s White Defends In-House Courts, but Sees Need to Modernize.

As an experienced defense counsel, Ms. White certainly knows that what she is saying is false.  There is no conceivable way that one could describe the SEC’s current administrative litigation process as offering “even more due-process rights to defendants than district court.” Similar statements in disclosures by public companies would be prosecuted as section 10(b) frauds by the SEC itself, if they were material.  Perhaps she could beat the fraud charge on the theory that her misstatements were “mere puffery” (a defense the SEC staff itself rarely accepts).  It is sad, indeed, that such an eminent lawyer in private practice has fallen into lock-step acceptance of the SEC mantra that it is gloriously clothed and everything is really fine, when the outside world knows the opposite is true: the SEC enforcement process is clothed in rags and the administrative enforcement forum is badly in need of reform.

Now we turn to the third respect in which the SEC’s regulatory proposal for its court is grossly inadequate: The new proposals do nothing to cure the extreme unfairness of the current Rules of Practice regarding the issuance of subpoenas to the SEC and third parties.

Remember the starting point for the respective parties when a case is commenced.  The SEC staff starts after having conducted years of investigation, in which it is able to obtain virtually limitless information from any person it chooses to subpoena, or ask for a “voluntary” production of materials.  The defense, on the other hand, typically has no access to information from third parties, and may only have had at best limited access to information from co-respondents, including other respondents who settled rather than litigate the charges against them (e.g., in many cases, the company they work for).  Thus, at the start of the case, the SEC itself is in possession, custody, or control of many potentially relevant materials, and the respondent typically has very little access to most of the materials the SEC has.

In cases filed in federal court, this imbalance between the parties can be remedied by means of aggressive use of the document production and subpoena powers available under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

First, because the SEC is a party, it is subject to discovery as a civil litigant, including requests for documents in its possession, custody, or control.  Although the SEC struggles mightily in these cases to avoid discovery that typically occurs against other civil litigants, and it succeeds before some pro-government judges, the general rule is that once it files its case, it is a civil litigant under the federal rules just like any other civil litigant, and therefore subject to the same discovery rules as other plaintiffs.  In a well-publicized discovery decision by Judge Shira Scheindlin in SEC v. Collins & Aikman Corp., the judge noted tersely that “[w]hen a government agency initiates litigation, it must be prepared to follow the same discovery rules that govern private parties.”  See Case Study: SEC v. Collins & Aikman Corp. (Law 360).

Second, Fed. R. Civ. P. 45 allows defendants to issue subpoenas directly to third parties for relevant evidence, or for other information likely to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.  There is no “gateway” procedure for these subpoenas – the party need not convince the judge to issue a subpoena; it can do so itself.  The burden then falls on the subpoenaed party to figure out how to respond, knowing that the courts usually take the view that discovery should be permitted unless it plainly imposes an undue burden or obviously seeks information not calculated to lead potentially useful evidence.  What happens following the issuance of these subpoenas is predictable.  In some, but few, cases, the third party will simply comply.  In some, but also few, cases, the third party will seek to quash the subpoena in its entirety.  In the vast majority of cases, the party issuing the subpoena and the third party will enter into discussions during which they reach some agreement about what material will be provided in response to the subpoena and which requests will be withdrawn.  The end result is that the defendant can gather what he or she considers important information from third parties without having to defend that view before a judge, but also typically agrees to accept less than he or she might get if the issue were fully litigated before a judge.

In contrast, in an SEC administrative proceeding, the respondents have no subpoena power.  That is so even though their opponent – the SEC staff – was accorded essentially unlimited subpoena power during the investigative stage, and typically uses that power to gather information that would support a potential charge, not defend against one.  (That is why production of the “investigative file” is often far from sufficient for adequate trial preparation by the respondent.)  The Rules do provide for the possible issuance of subpoenas, to third parties and the SEC itself, but only by application to the administrative law judge, who decides whether the subpoena will be issued.  The ALJ places the burden on the respondent to show that the subpoena is warranted, often asking for supporting information about the materials sought in the subpoena that is not, and cannot, be known by the respondent.  The ALJ also typically sets a higher bar for discovery than the standard in federal court.  The SEC staff almost always objects to the issuance of these subpoenas because they are focused on winning, not on seeking the truth.

SEC Rule of Practice 232 governs this process.  It says:

[A] party may request the issuance of subpoenas requiring . . . the production of documentary or other tangible evidence. . . .

Standards for Issuance.  Where it appears to the person asked to issue the subpoena that the subpoena sought may be unreasonable, oppressive, excessive in scope, or unduly burdensome, he or she may, in his or her discretion, as a condition precedent to the issuance of the subpoena, require the person seeking the subpoena to show the general relevance and reasonable scope of the testimony or other evidence sought.  If after consideration of all the circumstances, the person requested to issue the subpoena determines that the subpoena or any of its terms is unreasonable, oppressive, excessive in scope, or unduly burdensome, he or she may refuse to issue the subpoena, or issue it only upon such conditions as fairness requires. . . .

. . . Any person to whom a subpoena is directed, or who is an owner, creator or the subject of the documents that are to be produced pursuant to a subpoena, or any party may . . . request that the subpoena be quashed or modified. . . .

If compliance with the subpoena would be unreasonable, oppressive or unduly burdensome, the hearing officer or the Commission shall quash or modify the subpoena, or may order return of the subpoena only upon specified conditions. . . .

This sets up the ALJ as a gatekeeper for all subpoenas.  And history shows that the ALJs are, at the prodding of the SEC staff prosecuting the case, stingy gatekeepers indeed. The end result is the inverse of the environment for document discovery in the federal courts.  Instead of giving the party the authority to commence the process to obtain documents, which gives the opposing party, or the third party recipient, the burden of having to negotiate a resolution or appear in court to defend its intransigence, the respondent must plead for the issuance of a subpoena and bear the initial burden of convincing the ALJ to do so.  Even if that happens and the subpoena is issued, the recipient (or other persons) still can move to quash the subpoena.

As a result of this highly restrictive set of rules governing subpoenas by respondents – compared to almost no restrictions for subpoenas issued by the SEC staff during the investigative process – very modest document discovery is possible in SEC administrative proceedings.

Recent cases show that an ALJ will issue a subpoena to the SEC, but only a narrow one and only in rare circumstances.  In In the Matter of Charles L. Hill, Jr., the respondent sought discovery relevant to his defense that the administrative process was biased and the administrative prosecution violated his constitutional rights.  Mr. Hill asked for a subpoena to the SEC for ten categories of materials.  ALJ James Grimes issued a subpoena for two of those categories – materials on administrative prosecutions of similar cases and reflecting allegations by a former ALJ of internal communications encouraging favoring the SEC staff in these cases.  See SEC ALJ James Grimes Issues Important Discovery Order Against SEC.  But he refused to allow other aspects of the subpoena, which included materials sought to support contentions of equal protection and due process infringements.  That order turned on a detailed judgment that the materials sought could not assist those defenses based on a merits analysis, which is a far more demanding standard than the discovery standard in federal court – whether the material could possibly lead to admissible evidence.  See Order Denying in Part Subpoena Request in In the Matter of Charles L. Hill, Jr..

In In the Matter of Ironridge Global Partners, LLC, ALJ Grimes refused to issue a subpoena for materials bearing on the respondents’ defenses of bias and constitutional infringements (see Decision by SEC ALJ James Grimes on Motion for Issuance of Subpoenas in In the Matter of Ironridge Global Partners).  He also refused to permit a subpoena of the notes of SEC staff witness interviews “to the extent those portions relate to the facts and circumstances of this case, [and] the portions do not reflect attorney-opinion work product.”  He rejected this request — which seeks factual material that has often been ordered produced in federal courts — because he found the respondents had not sufficiently shown the need to obtain those materials, including because they were unable to show specifically how portions of the materials they had never seen could be useful in defending the case.  That is a standard far beyond what would apply in federal court.  In a federal court, at the worst, on a motion to compel production, the court would perform an in camera review of the materials and typically mandate production of the factual portions of those materials.  More likely, the court would try to force the parties to negotiate a compromise.  Amazingly, ALJ Grimes ruled that the respondents’ argument that it was important that they learn what fact witnesses told the SEC about the very practices at issue in the case was not a sufficient showing of need because “Respondents necessarily already know how they conducted their business. . . .  They therefore already possess information about the facts addressed in the Division’s interview notes.”  See Third Order on Subpoenas in In re Ironridge Partners, LLC.  The notion that the need to learn about actual evidence to be presented in the case fails to satisfy the burden for supporting a subpoena shows the unreasonably narrow scope used by SEC ALJs in ordering discovery against the SEC.

The current Rules of Practice support and encourage the ALJs’ niggardly approach to granting subpoenas.  They also fundamentally alter the balance of discovery in these cases as compared to those filed in federal court.  Discovery against the SEC in the administrative forum is very difficult and always very limited.  The ALJs believe that the limited scope of materials specifically made available to respondents under Rule 230 (which is limited to the so-called “investigative file”) operates against discovery from the SEC of other sorts of materials.  The federal courts do not generally hold the same view — they note that the federal rules of discovery apply equally to all parties.  And in federal court, the ability of a defendant to cause a third party to negotiate document production by issuing a subpoena directly to that party provides access to a much wider range of material than could possibly be available by seeking approval from ALJs, who apply discovery standards far more stringent than those used in federal court, and focus excessively on adhering to the Commission-set schedule (since that is what the Commission requires them to do).

The SEC’s proposed changes to the Rules of Practice do nothing to cure this fundamental, and deeply consequential, bias allowing the SEC staff far greater access to evidence or potential evidence than respondents.  In fact, there is no discussion at all of how well or poorly Rule 232 has operated, nor any discussion of whether some changes to that rule might enhance fairness or efficiency in the administrative court.

The only material change proposed for Rule 232 is to add another reason to quash a subpoena.  No effort is made to try to equalize access to evidence or potential evidence, or to try to equalize subpoena rights between federal court and the administrative court.  But for some reason the SEC found it necessary to grant ALJs additional grounds for quashing subpoenas previously approved, adding as a new reason for quashing a subpoena whether it “would unduly delay the hearing.”  As a result, even if the ALJ found the subpoena appropriate when first sought, and it is not oppressive or excessive, he or she must (“shall”) quash the subpoena if it will “unduly delay the hearing.”  This is yet another respect in which the Commission views compliance with its (arbitrary and artificial) schedule to be more important than giving respondents a fair and just proceeding.

The document discovery process in SEC administrative proceedings is unfair, unjust, and a major reason why targets of SEC prosecutions do better in federal courts than in the administrative forum.  Since the SEC seems not to care much about any of those things, no reforms were proposed.  That is our third reason why the proposed rule changes are woefully inadequate and should be rejected as arbitrary and capricious.

Straight Arrow

November 18, 2015

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One thought on “Why the SEC’s Proposed Changes to Its Rules of Practice Are Woefully Inadequate — Part III

  1. Pingback: Why the SEC’s Proposed Changes to Its Rules of Practice Are Woefully Inadequate — Part IV | Securities Diary

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