Tag Archives: Chiasson

Supreme Court Filings in U.S. v. Newman and Chiasson Leave Serious Doubts on Grant of Certiorari

With all of the publicity, hubbub, and hype surrounding the Second Circuit’s decision in United States v. Newman and Chiasson, a grant of writ of certiorari at the Government’s request is a foregone conclusion, right?  In a word, “no.”  The filings on the Government’s motion seeking certiorari make it pretty clear that if you remove the publicity, hubbub, and hype – and consider what the Newman opinion says, and not just what the Government portrays it as saying – the Supreme Court’s normal standards for hearing a case simply are not satisfied.  Let me explain.

(The filings on the petition for certiorari can be read here: Petition for Writ of Certiorari in US v. Newman; Newman Opposition to Cert. Petition; Chiasson Opposition to Cert. Petition.

The Government’s entire push for Supreme Court review turns on two arguments: (1) the Second Circuit amended the Supreme Court’s decision in Dirks v. SEC by mandating that a tippee exchange tangible value for tipped material nonpublic information from the tipper, when Dirks says that “gifts” of such information by the tipper to the tippee can be sufficient to create liability; and (2) the Second Circuit’s revision threatens the integrity of the securities markets by undermining investors’ belief in the fairness of those markets.  The briefing on certiorari, however, leaves little doubt that the Government cannot (or at least does not) provide support for either of these arguments.  Instead, these arguments are based on (i) a reading of the opinion that ignores what the court said, and is not how the courts have treated the Newman opinion since it was issued; and (ii) ipse dixit assertions by the Government about the terrible consequences of Newman on markets and law enforcement, which lack any substantiation.

But beyond this, the briefing makes it clear that Newman simply is not the kind of case that the Supreme Court normally would review, for three reasons: (1) the ruling the Government asks for would not, in fact, change the result – Messrs. Newman and Chiasson will be not be prosecutable in any event because the Government does not seek review of determinative aspects of the Second Circuit opinion that prevent any conviction; (2) the aspect of the Newman decision that the Government does challenge is an evidentiary issue – not an important issue of law – that is limited in its impact, other than in support of the view that the actual evidence presented in a case matters, which the Supreme Court is unlikely to countermand; and (3) the ruling the Government asks for would make it difficult for investors and their advisers to gather and use information in ways the Dirks court sought to protect as critical to the functioning of an efficient marketplace.

The Supreme Court Usually Doesn’t Review Cases To Provide an Advisory Opinion

Let’s start with what should be the most important issue for a cert. petition: will Supreme Court review actually make a difference in the case.  The answer here plainly is that it would not.  Why? Well, the Government presents for review only a single question: “whether the court of appeals erroneously departed from this Court’s decision in Dirks by holding that liability under a gifting theory requires ‘proof of a meaningfully close personal relationship that generates an exchange that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.’”  Cert. Pet. at (I).  But the Second Circuit reversed the convictions of Messrs. Newman and Chiasson for another, totally independent reason: that because this is a criminal case, a conviction required proof that the defendants knew that the information they used to trade securities was obtained through a breach of duty by an insider, and there was no evidence from which a reasonable juror could make such a finding.  Because of this, even if the Supreme Court were to agree with the Government on its question presented, the defendants’ convictions would still be overturned.  The Supreme Court typically does not accept cases in which its opinion, in effect, becomes an advisory opinion on the law and does not impact the determination of the case before it.

Here is how the Newman cert. opposition discusses this point:

The central legal holding in the court below was that insider trading liability requires a tippee to know that the tipper received a personal benefit.  While the government opposed such a requirement in the trial court and on appeal, it does not challenge that ruling now. Instead, the Petition seeks review of a single, fact-based sufficiency determination regarding whether there was a personal benefit in the first place.  Notably, the government’s articulation of the question presented addresses only the type of evidence required to prove a personal benefit; it does not implicate the court of appeals’ independent holding that Newman committed no crime because he did not know of the benefit.  Accordingly, even if this Court were to agree with the government that the Second Circuit misstated the type of evidence required to support an inference of a benefit, the decision dismissing the indictment on the independent ground that Newman did not know of any benefit would stand.

The government understands, of course, that the Supreme Court does not grant review to issue advisory opinions.  To overcome that obstacle, the government proposes that this Court “correct” the Second Circuit’s analysis of what evidence may be used to prove a personal benefit and then remand to the Second Circuit for reconsideration of both the sufficiency of whether there was a benefit and whether Newman knew of the benefit.  Pet. 29-31.  This attempted sleight of hand is unconvincing.  The Second Circuit determined that, “[e]ven assuming that the scant evidence . . . was sufficient to permit the inference of a personal benefit,” the proof was insufficient to establish knowledge of any benefit because the defendants “knew next to nothing” about the insiders or the circumstances of their disclosures, and the government “presented absolutely no testimony or any other evidence that Newman and Chiasson knew . . . that those insiders received any benefit in exchange for such disclosures . . .” . . . .  This conclusion was not based on a nuanced view of how personal benefit should be defined; it was based on the utter lack of evidence that the defendants knew of any benefit, however defined, or even the basic circumstances under which the disclosures were made.  No decision by this Court on the narrow issue presented for review would change the ultimate disposition of this case.

Newman Cert. Opp. at 1-3.

The Second Circuit Decision Is Inaccurately Portrayed by the Government

Let’s turn now to the guts of the Government argument, and show why it fails because it is founded on a reading on the Newman opinion that is inaccurate and misleading.

The Government’s core argument is that the Second Circuit broke from Dirks by refusing to allow a “gift” from the tipper to the tippee to be considered a basis for the required breach of duty to support an insider trading violation:

The court of appeals’ decision is irreconcilable with Dirks.  In the guise of interpreting this Court’s opinion, the court of appeals crafted a new, stricter personal-benefit test, stating that “[t]o the extent Dirks suggests that a personal benefit may be inferred from a personal relationship between the tipper and tippee, where the tippee’s trades ‘resemble trading by the insider himself followed by a gift of the profits to the recipient,’ *** we hold that such an inference is impermissible in the absence of proof of a meaningfully close personal relationship that generates an exchange that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.” . . .

That new “exchange” formulation erases a form of personal benefit that this Court has specifically identified.  Under Dirks, an inference of a personal benefit to the insider arises in two situations: when the insider expects something in return for the disclosure of the confidential information, or when the insider freely gives a gift of information to a trading friend or relative without any expectation of receiving money or valuables as a result. . . .  The Second Circuit purported to recognize that second form of personal benefit . . . but then rewrote the concept of a “gift” so as to eliminate it.  The court held that an insider cannot be liable on a gift theory unless he receives something from the recipient of information “that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature” . . .  But such an “exchange” is, by definition, not the same thing as a “gift”; rather, it is a quid pro quo, “something for something.”

Cert. Pet. at 18-19.

This argument should fail because the Supreme Court Justices – and their clerks – should easily see that the Second Circuit decision does not say what the Government argument describes.  The Government accepts that the entire discussion of “personal benefit” occurred as the Second Circuit “considered the sufficiency of the evidence that the . . . insiders personally benefitted from disclosing confidential corporate information,” and that in doing so, the court of appeals “acknowledged that in [Dirks, the Supreme] Court stated that ‘personal benefit’ includes reputational benefit and ‘the benefit one would obtain from simply making a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend.’”  Cert. Pet. at 11 (emphasis added).

The problem was that the Government introduced no evidence showing that in either of the two instances of alleged tipping (involving communications between insiders at Dell and NVIDIA with industry analysts they knew), the tipper either (a) received a tangible benefit in return, or (b) provided the information as a “gift.”  Instead, the Government relied on the mere circumstances of the relationship between the alleged tippers and the alleged tippees to provide a sufficient inference of a “gift” to satisfy the breach of duty requirement laid out in Dirks.  The Second Circuit rejected this effort because a review of the evidence showed no meaningful relationships between these people that would suggest that the insiders transferred information as an intended “gift” to the analysts.

The actual evidence showed that the relationship between the Dell insider and the analyst he spoke to was no more than that they knew each other at business school, spoke on limited occasions when they both worked at Dell, and that the analyst gave career advice to the insider that was not terribly meaningful.  The evidence also showed that the communications between them were consistent with the insider’s job responsibilities to develop relationships with financial firms that could be a source for possible investors, and the insider was never told anyone was trading on information he provided.  The NVIDIA insider attended the same church as the analyst he spoke to and sometimes had lunch with him.  While the analyst said he sometimes traded NVIDIA stock, he never said he would use information they discussed to trade.

Based on this evidence, the Second Circuit proceeded to try to implement the Dirks duty standard, not revise that standard.  As the Newman cert. opposition says: “the Second Circuit’s refusal to accept the mere fact of friendship as per se evidence that a tipper intended to bestow a gift on a tippee is consistent with, and indeed compelled by, Dirks.”  Newman Cert. Opp. at 20.

Dirks said that “there may be a relationship between the insider and the recipient that suggests a quid pro quo . . . or an intention to benefit the particular recipient,” but said no more about the parameters of such a relationship.  See Dirks, 463 U.S. at 663.  The Dirks Court also said that an inference of personal gain to the tipper that would evidence the required breach of duty could flow “when an insider makes a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend” (id.), but said nothing about how to determine if such an inference is reasonable, except that such a circumstance could “resemble trading by the insider himself followed by a gift of profits to the recipient.”  Id.  The Dirks Court left it to lower courts to figure out how best to implement these principles.  See id.  The Second Circuit plainly was trying to work out when it might be reasonable to conclude that a communication of information is intended as a “gift” based solely on the nature of the parties’ relationship.

The Government’s argument turns on the appellate court’s use of the term “exchange”:

The court reinterpreted this Court’s holding that an insider personally benefits when he “makes a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend,” . . . to require “proof of a meaningfully close personal relationship that generates an exchange that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.” . . .  That holding cannot be reconciled with Dirks, which did not require an “exchange” to find liability for a gift of inside information and did not impose amorphous standards for the relationships that can support liability.

. . . .

Under Dirks, an inference of a personal benefit to the insider arises in two situations: when the insider expects something in return for the disclosure of the confidential information, or when the insider freely gives a gift of information to a trading friend or relative without any expectation of receiving money or valuables as a result. . . .

The Second Circuit purported to recognize that second form of personal benefit . . . but then rewrote the concept of a “gift” so as to eliminate it.  The court held that an insider cannot be liable on a gift theory unless he receives something from the recipient of information “that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature” . . . .  But such an “exchange” is, by definition, not the same thing as a “gift”; rather, it is a quid pro quo, “something for something.” . . .  If the personal-benefit test cannot be met by a gift-giver unless an “exchange” takes place, then Dirks’s two categories of personal benefit are collapsed into one—and the entire “gift” discussion in Dirks becomes superfluous.

Cert. Pet. at 14.

This argument intentionally ignores the gist, and the actual language, of the Newman opinion.  It begins by ignoring the paragraphs leading up to the quoted passage, which emphasize that the intent to gift confidential information to another person can be sufficient, but there needs to be evidence proving it.  If that evidence is nothing more than the nature of the relationship between the parties, then that relationship has to be strong enough to warrant a reasonable inference that the information exchange was intended as a gift.  Here is what the court said:

The circumstantial evidence in this case was simply too thin to warrant the inference that the corporate insiders received any personal benefit in exchange for their tips.  As to the Dell tips, the Government established that Goyal and Ray were not “close” friends. . . .  The evidence also established that Lim and Choi were “family friends” that had met through church and occasionally socialized together.  The Government argues that these facts were sufficient to prove that the tippers derived some benefit from the tip.  We disagree.  If this was a “benefit,” practically anything would qualify.

We have observed that “[p]ersonal benefit is broadly defined to include not only pecuniary gain, but also, inter alia, any reputational benefit that will translate into future earnings and the benefit one would obtain from simply making a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend.” . . .  This standard, although permissive, does not suggest that the Government may prove the receipt of a personal benefit by the mere fact of a friendship, particularly of a casual or social nature.  If that were true, and the Government was allowed to meet its burden by proving that two individuals were alumni of the same school or attended the same church, the personal benefit requirement would be a nullity.  To the extent Dirks suggests that a personal benefit may be inferred from a personal relationship between the tipper and tippee, where the tippee’s trades “resemble trading by the insider himself followed by a gift of the profits to the recipient,” see 643 U.S. at 664, we hold that such an inference is impermissible in the absence of proof of a meaningfully close personal relationship that generates an exchange that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.  In other words . . . this requires evidence of “a relationship between the insider and the recipient that suggests a quid pro quo from the latter, or an intention to benefit the [latter].”. . .

United States v. Newman, slip op. at 21-22 (emphasis added and some cites omitted).

This quote makes it apparent that to justify its argument, the Government badly, and misleadingly, truncates the Second Circuit discussion on this issue.  The Government’s argument ignores language that makes it clear that the Second Circuit did not limit the “gift” concept to a tangible “exchange.”  Instead, in the very paragraph the Government quotes, the court twice says that evidence showing a tipper’s intent to gift information to a tippee would be sufficient to satisfy the Dirks personal benefit standard — (i) including “the benefit one would obtain from simply making a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend” as sufficient to show a personal benefit, and (ii) using the disjunctive “or” in describing the need for evidence of “a relationship . . . that suggests a quid pro quo . . . or an intention to benefit the [tippee].”

This makes it plain that the court was not excluding from the range of potentially sufficient evidence an “exchange” in which the tipper’s value received was consummating an “intention to benefit” the tippee.  But there still needs to be evidence of that intention to benefit, and if that evidence is solely the relationship between the parties, proof of a “meaningfully close relationship” is important because relying solely on evidence of a “friendship . . . of a casual or social nature” would undermine the Dirks “personal benefit requirement” by making it an effective “nullity.”

(By the way, this explains why the Second Circuit reached a different result in Newman than the Ninth Circuit did in U.S. v. Salman.  In Salman, there was direct evidence that the transfer of information was made with an intent to benefit the tippee, and even beyond this, the tipper and tippee where brothers, which is well beyond the kind of “casual” friendships at issue in Newman.  In truth, Salman is not even a close case under the Newman standard.  See In U.S. v. Salman, Judge Rakoff Distinguishes Newman in 9th Circuit Opinion Affirming Insider Trading ConvictionThe Government’s argument that this represents a split in the Circuits is, with respect, laughable.)

This is how the Newman cert. opposition addressed this key point:

Dirks recognized that “[d]etermining whether an insider personally benefits from a particular disclosure, a question of fact, will not always be easy for courts.” 463 U.S. at 664.  By characterizing the inquiry as “a question of fact” the Court appreciated that lower courts would need to formulate rules for weighing the evidence in the particular circumstances before them.  That is exactly what the Second Circuit did here.  The court of appeals’ assessment of what kind of proof would support a factual inference is the type of evidence-based analysis that Dirks recognized would be within the province of the lower courts to develop.

Dirks also recognized that a personal benefit in the form of a gift is not simply a matter of whether a tipper gives inside information to a friend or relative.  The Court repeatedly emphasized that it is the purpose of the disclosure that is determinative.  E.g., 463 U.S. at 662 “Whether disclosure is a breach of duty therefore depends in large part on the purpose of the disclosure.”). . . .  The Court’s focus on the purpose of a disclosure would be undermined if a jury were permitted to infer a personal benefit from the bare fact that two people knew each other.  That is because it is not reasonable to presume that the purpose of communicating financial information between casual acquaintances is to provide a gift.  Casual acquaintances typically do not give each other the kind of gifts contemplated by Dirks, i.e. the equivalent of the insider trading stock and gifting the proceeds to someone else.  On the other hand gifts, especially of money, are much more likely among people who take a deep personal interest in each other’s lives, such as close friends or relatives.  The Second Circuit’s evidentiary formulation is thus consistent with the gift theory as articulated in Dirks because it limits the inference of an intentional gift of trading proceeds to circumstances that reasonably support that conclusion.

Newman Cert. Opp. at 20-21.

So, what the Government cert. petition comes down to is a request that the Supreme Court re-examine the evidentiary record to determine whether the agreed-upon Dirks standard was satisfied in this case, even though that issue is not even case-determinative.  That’s not the resolution of an important securities law issue, it is an effort to get the High Court to relieve the Justice Department of the embarrassment of being shot down for an overly-aggressive prosecution fueled more by ambition than evidence.  That’s not cert.-worthy in my book.

There Is No Basis To Expect Harmful Market Consequences from the Newman Decision

The Government’s last argument in support of certiorari – that absent Supreme Court reversal the securities markets and securities law enforcement will be devastated by the purportedly “new,” limited scope of the insider trading prohibition adopted in Newman – fails for multiple reasons.

First, as discussed above, The Newman court did not limit the scope of the law as stated by Dirks.  It tried its best to articulate an evidentiary standard for satisfying the Dirks “personal benefit” standard in the narrow circumstances where there was no quid pro quo from tippee to tipper, and there was no evidence of an intended “gift” from the tipper to the tippee apart from the nature of their relationship.

Second, the Government cited no empirical data even suggesting that requiring evidence of a “meaningfully close relationship” between tipper and tippee to prove insider trading fraud in such cases would harm investor confidence or undermine the overall integrity or efficiency of the securities markets.  Both the Newman and Chiasson cert. oppositions lay out the facts showing that since the Newman decision, Government insider trading cases have not failed because of Newman.  See Newman Cert. Opp. at 27-30; Chiasson Cert. Opp. at 30-33.  Such unsupported “sky is falling” predictions are hardly the grounds for granting certiorari.  In fact, Dirks itself undermines this Government argument, because the Dirks opinion warned against low standards for proving insider trading fraud based on communications with securities analysts, whose purpose is to ferret out information and incorporate it into the market:

Imposing a duty to disclose or abstain solely because a person knowingly receives material nonpublic information from an insider and trades on it could have an inhibiting influence on the role of market analysts, which the SEC itself recognizes is necessary to the preservation of a healthy market.  It is commonplace for analysts to ‘ferret out and analyze information,’ . . . and this often is done by meeting with and questioning corporate officers and others who are insiders.  And information that the analysts obtain normally may be the basis for judgments as to the market worth of a corporation’s securities.  The analyst’s judgment in this respect is made available in market letters or otherwise to clients of the firm.  It is the nature of this type of information, and indeed of the markets themselves, that such information cannot be made simultaneously available to all of the corporation’s stockholders or the public generally.

Dirks, 463 U.S. at 658-59 (footnotes and cites omitted).  Dirks makes it clear that “objective facts and circumstances” must provide evidence of misconduct, especially when we are dealing with communications of information between businesses and analysts.  The Newman opinion is a step in the direction Dirks espoused, made with due regard for the fact that communications of the nature involved in Newman provide the foundation for efficient securities markets.

In Contrast, the Government’s Proposed Rule Would Undermine the Securities Markets

As we have written before, it has long been the Government’s view that the securities laws should be interpreted to mandate equal access of information to all investors, even though that concept is inconsistent with market efficiency, and even market fairness.  (Market efficiency depends on dissemination of information.  Market fairness is undermined when preventing the dissemination of information causes securities transactions to be completed on the basis of incomplete information, and the consequential mispricing of the securities traded.)  See The Myth of Insider Trading Enforcement (Part I), and SEC Insider Trading Cases Continue To Ignore the Boundaries of the Law.  The Government’s cert. petition continues to reflect this bias, notwithstanding the fact that the Supreme Court has rejected this view repeatedly, including this quote from Dirks itself:

Here, the SEC maintains that anyone who knowingly receives nonpublic material information from an insider has a fiduciary duty to disclose before trading.  In effect, the SEC’s theory of tippee liability in both cases appears rooted in the idea that the antifraud provisions require equal information among all traders.  This conflicts with the principle set forth in Chiarella that only some persons, under some circumstances, will be barred from trading while in possession of material nonpublic information.  Judge Wright correctly read our opinion in Chiarella as repudiating any notion that all traders must enjoy equal information before trading: ‘[T]he ‘information’ theory is rejected. Because the disclose-or-refrain duty is extraordinary, it attaches only when a party has legal obligations other than a mere duty to comply with the general antifraud proscriptions in the federal securities laws.’ . . .  We reaffirm today that “[a] duty [to disclose] arises from the relationship between parties . . . , and not merely from one’s ability to acquire information because of his position in the market.”

Dirks, 463 U.S. at 656-58 (footnotes and cites omitted).

This bias is reflected in the Government’s revisionist view that Dirks was consistent with the view that communications between what the Second Circuit called “casual” friends should be sufficient to satisfy the “breach of duty” requirement, and suggesting that in such cases, the burden should shift to the accused to show that “selective disclosures” had “a valid business purpose” or were a “mistake.”  That view, if accepted, would greatly impact the nature of communications between and among securities analysts, and would undermine market efficiency and fairness by presuming every communication of information between acquaintances is unlawful absent their ability to prove otherwise.  This is what the Government says:

Dirks recognizes that not all selective disclosures of confidential information trigger the disclose-or-abstain-from-trading rule. . . .  It explains that if an insider has a valid business purpose for selective disclosure (for instance, supplying data to another company in the course of merger talks), or mistakenly believes that information is not material or is already in the public domain, disclosure does not violate the insider’s fiduciary duties. . . .  The fact that analysts (or others) may be friends with company insiders does not automatically preclude such a legitimate business reason for disclosure.”

Cert. Pet, at 21.

In fact, Dirks makes it crystal clear that the burden falls on the Government to prove that even communications between friends or acquaintances rise to the level of a breach of duty that could support an insider trading fraud finding.  The Chiasson cert. opposition addresses this attempted Government sleight-of-hand:

Finally, at the close of its discussion of Dirks, the Government tips its hand. The Government’s problem is not really with the decision below; it is with Dirks itself.  The Government asserts (at 21) that an insider violates his fiduciary duty by disclosing information unless the insider “has a valid business purpose for selective disclosure” or “mistakenly believes that information is not material or is already in the public domain.” But that turns Dirks on its head. Dirks does not require the insider to prove some “legitimate” reason for his disclosure to avoid liability. . . .  To the contrary, under Dirks, an insider is not liable unless the Government proves that “the insider personally will benefit, directly or indirectly, from his disclosure. Absent some personal gain, there has been no breach of duty to stockholders.” . . .  And the circumstances under which an insider may disclose information without receiving a personal benefit are hardly limited to the two scenarios the Government acknowledges. The Court in Dirks made clear that mistaken disclosures were only an “example” of the type of disclosure that would not constitute a breach. . . .  Even disclosures that violate company policy or confidentiality obligations are not necessarily made for the insider’s personal benefit. . . .  The Government may wish to pursue prosecutions that go beyond what Dirks contemplated, but that is no reason to revisit precedent that has been on the books since the Burger Court.

Chiasson Cert. Opp. at 19-20.

It seems especially strange that the Government is pursuing this argument in the context of a case with facts that seem so close to the kind of communications that Dirks wanted to protect.  The evidence here is that securities analysts were discussing company performance with company officials.  That’s what analysts are supposed to do.  The evidence is also that for at least one of these companies — Dell — the insider’s job was to stay in touch with, and develop relationships with, market analysts who could ultimately be a source of investors.  The communications were not known to be for the purpose of trading.  This strikes me as precisely the kind of communications between company insiders and outside analysts that Dirks wanted to enshrine, not attack.  It truly seems like it is the Government that is trying to alter Dirks, not the Second Circuit.

*                      *                      *

The flaws in the Government’s argument in support of granting the writ of certiorari are manifold and serious.  One normally expects the Justices and their clerks to recognize this, even when the proponent of the writ is the Government.  Yet, it remains possible that all of the brouhaha over the Newman decision – much of which can be traced to the Government’s own hissy fit over losing these cases (which are certainly marginal at best) – will drive the Court towards granting cert.  This person’s view is that if this happens, the Government will regret the decision to elevate this case.  There is much more potential for downside for the Government than upside, because when the Court further specifies the elements of insider trading fraud under section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5, the Government’s discretion to pursue its favored “equality of information” policies is likely to become more, rather than less, constrained.

Straight Arrow

September 3, 2015

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Some SEC Administrative Law Judges Are Thoughtful and Even Judicious

We have now on several occasions bemoaned the fate of Laurie Bebo, former CEO of Assisted Living Concepts, Inc., to be forced to litigate her professional future before SEC Administrative Law Judge Cameron Elliot, whom we believe to be, shall we say, not the brightest star in the firmament.  See SEC ALJ Cameron Elliot Shows Why In re Bebo Should Be in Federal Court; Bebo Case Continues To Show Why SEC Administrative Proceeding Home Advantage Is Unfair; and SEC ALJ in Bebo Case Refuses To Consider Constitutional Challenge and Denies More Time To Prepare Defense.  And we have argued that the SEC’s home administrative law court is not a fair forum for the resolution of career-threatening enforcement actions against non-regulated defendants, notwithstanding that the Dodd Frank Act permits such cases to go forward.  See Challenges to the Constitutionality of SEC Administrative Proceedings in Peixoto and Stilwell May Have Merit; Ceresney Presents Unconvincing Defense of Increased SEC Administrative Prosecutions; and Opposition Growing to SEC’s New “Star Chamber” Administrative Prosecutions.  That might make a reader think we believe that all SEC ALJs lack the ability or temperament to preside over and decide important cases.  So, to set that record straight, allow us to say that, like almost almost any other place, the SEC administrative law courts are administered by appointees with a range of abilities and demeanors.  It is not the lack of judicial ability that makes the SEC’s administrative courts a poor forum for such cases, it is that the forum is bereft of procedural protections that enhance the chance that a respondent will get a fair shake even when the presiding ALJ is one of poor judicial timber.

In federal court, there are also good judges, bad judges, and a range in between.  But the scales of justice have calibrating factors other than the judge.  In a federal court, equal access to potential evidence through liberal discovery; equal opportunity to develop familiarity with the record over a reasonable period of time; evidentiary rules designed to assure that unreliable evidence, and excessively prejudicial evidence, is excluded; and, of course, the fact that a jury sits to consider the evidence, and use their combined common sense to find facts, all combine to make it possible for a defendant to overcome poor judging.  There is a vacuum of such protections in the administrative law court.  That makes the quality, or questionable quality, of the judge/trier of fact, much more important.  When the judge fails to understand, or care, that he or she is essentially the only factor between a fair proceeding and one tilted in favor of the prosecutor, justice suffers.

So, in celebration of the new baseball season, I’d like to throw a change-up today and discuss an SEC administrative law judge who, although appointed only recently, is showing great potential to be worthy of his position.  I’ve not seen SEC ALJ Jason Patil in the courtroom, but I’ve been very impressed with his approach in some recent cases.  He’s shown he can act with independence, thoroughness, attention to detail, and a strong dose of common sense.  So this blog post is to give credit where credit is due.

All the more credit is due because Jason Patil is the proverbial “new kid on the block.”  He was appointed to the SEC’s ALJ bench on September 22, 2014, after receiving a Stanford degree in political science in 1995, a law degree from from the University of Chicago Law School in 1998, and an L.L.M, from Georgetown University Law Center in 2009.  He served at the Department of Justice for 14 years.

Fewer than 3 months after ALJ Patil started at the SEC, the Second Circuit rocked the boat of the DOJ and the SEC with its insider trading decision in United States v. Newman.  ALJ Patil had to consider the impact of that decision in a case before him: In the Matter of Bolan and Ruggieri.  The SEC’s enforcement lawyers made every effort to obtain an early, post-Newman ruling from ALJ Patil in that case that would limit the scope of the Newman opinion through the adoption of a standard that would not apply Newman‘s holding to insider trading cases based on the misappropriation theory, rather than the so-called “classical” insider trading theory on which the Newman and Chiasson prosecution was founded.  ALJ Patil resisted the SEC’s full-court press to make him an early adopter of an approach that essentially ignored key language in the Second Circuit opinion.  He rejected that effort, ruling that, as the Newman court said, the standard for liability was the same under either the classical or misappropriation insider trading theory.  See SEC ALJ in Bolan and Ruggieri Proceeding Rules Misappropriation Theory Mandates Proof of Benefit to Tipper.

That showed intelligence, independence, and, to be frank, guts, for a newly-appointed ALJ.  But it was a later decision that showed me that ALJ Patil seems to have the stuff of a good judge.  In the Matter of Delaney and Yancey, File No. 3-15873, was not a high profile insider trading case, but it was apparent from the Initial Decision he wrote that he was able and willing to evaluate cases fairly and decisively.  His decision in that case is available here: ALJ Initial Decision in the Matter of Delaney and Yancey.  In that case, he wrote a careful opinion, weighing the evidence, distinguishing between the roles and conduct of the respondents, weighing expert testimony, considering (and often rejecting) varying SEC legal theories, and applying a strong dose of common sense.

The case was a technical one, involving charges against two individuals, the President and CEO of a broker-dealer that was a major clearing firm for stock trades (Mr. Yancey), and that firm’s Chief Compliance Officer (Mr. Delaney).  The SEC alleged many violations by the firm of SEC regulations governing the settlement of trades.  Mr. Delaney was charged with aiding and abetting, and causing, numerous violations of SEC regulations by virtue of his conduct as the Chief Compliance Officer.  Mr. Yancey was charged with failing adequately to supervise Mr. Delaney and another firm employee, allowing the violations to occur.  ALJ Patil exhaustively reviewed the evidence to reach reasoned decisions, with cogent explanations supporting his views.  In doing so, he was not shy about chiding the SEC for fanciful theories and woefully unsupported proposed inferences.

The opinion is long, detailed, and more in the weeds than many of us like to get.  The aiding and abetting charge against Mr. Delaney required proof that he assisted the violations through either knowing or extremely reckless conduct (i.e., scienter).  The SEC enforcement staff is quick to accuse people of knowing or reckless misconduct, and is often willing to draw that inference with little in the way of supporting evidence.  ALJ Patil’s review of the evidence presented in support of the scienter element was precise and thorough.  He dissected the evidence piece-by-piece, in impressive detail.  Here is some of what he said:

The Division has failed to show that Delaney acted with the requisite scienter, and
therefore its aiding and abetting claim against Delaney fails.  As an initial matter, I note that the Division is unable to articulate or substantiate a plausible theory as to why Delaney would want to aid and abet [his firm’s violations].  While the Division correctly argues that motive is not a mandatory element of an aiding and abetting claim, numerous courts have noted its absence when finding that scienter has not been proven. . . .    The Division also failed to establish that Delaney had anything to gain from the alleged misconduct.  The Division’s original theory was a wildly exaggerated belief that [the] . . . violations resulted in millions of dollars of additional profits. . . .  The Division was forced to abandon that theory, and in the end agreed that the “only specifically quantified benefit” to [the firm] . . . was a meager $59,000.  I do not find that sum would have given Delaney any motive to aid and abet the . . . violation. . . .  Although the Division also argues that there would have been “substantial costs to [the firm] . . . that . . . could expose the firm to significant losses,” the Division produced no evidence to quantify the costs or losses, and the testimony to which the Division points is general and speculative. . . .  As the Division did not provide any evidence quantifying the purported costs or losses, I am unable to determine whether there were any.

One of the SEC’s major points was the contention that Mr. Delaney’s knowing misconduct was apparent because he was shown to be a liar by misstatements in the Wells Submission submitted to the SEC on his behalf by his lawyers.  ALJ Patil forcefully torpedoed this theory:

I disagree with the Division’s conclusion that “Delaney has not been honest or
truthful” and “[i]nstead . . . has been evasive and inconsistent.”. . .  The Division’s
primary evidence for this alleged dishonesty are statements made in Delaney’s Wells
submission.  The Division argues, “either the statements Delaney approved about his knowledge and actions were lies to the Commission in his Wells submission or his repudiation of those statements are lies to the Court now.”. . .  Based on my careful review of that document, I conclude that it is primarily comprised of argument by counsel and grounded in incomplete information. . . .  It is based not just on Delaney’s understanding at that time, but on his counsel’s characterization of other evidence selectively provided to Delaney by the Division. . . . .  In contrast to that argumentative submission, Delaney testified five times under oath, including at the hearing. . . .  I find that Delaney’s testimony was overwhelmingly consistent, and the handful of inconsistencies alleged by the Division in such testimony either do not exist or are easily explained by the circumstances. . . .  In this case, where Delaney testified multiple times under oath at the Division’s request, as did other witnesses, I have decided to base my decision on that testimony and other documents in the record, which I find more probative than past characterizations made by Delaney’s counsel. . . .  I do not accept the Division’s insistence that everything in the [Wells Submission], particularly the statements in the legal argument section, should be taken, in essence, as testimony of Delaney.

Perhaps most telling was ALJ Patil’s careful review of supposed inconsistencies in testimony by Mr. Delaney.  His evaluation of that testimony reflected thoughtful consideration of the facts and circumstances both when the events at issue occurred, and when the testimony was given.  The decision took the SEC lawyers to task for arguing that testimony was inconsistent when the supposed inconsistencies were more plausibly explained by poor questioning by the SEC staff during their numerous examinations of him:

To the extent that Delaney’s testimony could be at all be characterized as “evasive” or
“inconsistent” . . . , it may be because he lacks a completely clear recollection of what
took place years ago regarding his alleged conduct.  Delaney credibly and convincingly
explained that his initial testimony was given with virtually no preparation or opportunity to
review documents, thus preventing him from having a full and fair recollection of the events he was asked about. . . .  While his conduct with respect to [the Rule at issue] is especially
important in the present action, at the time of such conduct, Delaney was in the business of
putting out “fires,” . . . and [the Rule], though undeniably important, was most assuredly not the top priority for the compliance department. . . .  [T]he Division argues that “Delaney quibbled about whether he had seen the release [for the Rule] in the same exact format as that in the exhibit used at the hearing and during his testimony.” . . .  Several exhibits copy or link to the text of the releases . . . with the appearance and formatting of each differing dramatically from the way the text of such releases is ultimately arranged in the printed version of the Federal Register, the document Delaney was shown at the hearing. . . .  When someone is testifying about a document that may not look anything like the version he had read, it is not “quibbling” to explain that one has never seen something that looks like the exhibit.  I in fact thought that the Federal Register version of the releases looked considerably different from the other copies and would have been hesitant to say I had read the exhibit without first looking it over. . . .  Despite his exasperation at the Division’s repeated insinuations that he was lying, I found Delaney a credible and convincing witness. My perception, that his hours of testimony were sincere and truthful, is consistent with the attestation of all the hearing witnesses regarding Delaney’s honesty and integrity.

Finally, the Division asserts that Delaney contradicted himself because, on the one hand,
in August 2012 he did not recall being concerned about the contents of [a FINRA letter] and, on the other hand, in July 2013 he testified that a disclosure in that letter would be a big deal for [his firm]. . . .  However, because Delaney was asked somewhat different questions on the two different occasions (as opposed to being asked the same question on both occasions), his answers were consistent.  In August 2012, Delaney was asked whether he was concerned about the letter, not the conduct at issue. . . .  When asked about the purported contradiction at the hearing, Delaney reasonably explained that he was not concerned about the letter disclosing the conduct, which was accurate as he understood it, but at the same time was concerned about the underlying rule violations. . . .  It is telling that the Division, who has had Delaney testify so often, seizes on such minor supposed contradictions.  I find all of the purported inconsistencies identified by the Division are
either immaterial or have been adequately explained by Delaney.  I found, on the whole,
Delaney’s testimony to be credible, with the exception, noted previously, that he may not recall comparatively minor events and discussions that took place up to six years before the hearing.

Having found no evidence of knowledge, ALJ Patil went on to reject the SEC staff’s suggestions that Mr. Delaney’s conduct was nevertheless “reckless.”  He carefully distinguished between evidence of negligence and “extreme recklessness.”  He then dissected individual emails presented by the staff as “red flags” to show, one-by-one, that they were no such thing.

ALJ Patil nevertheless found Mr. Delaney liable for “causing” some of the firm’s violations, based on his conclusion that Mr. Delaney acted negligently.  He found violations “because the evidence supports that Delaney contributed to [the firm’s] violations and should have known he was doing so.”  He did so on the basis of testimony “that according to SEC guidance, in situations ‘where
misconduct may have occurred’– as opposed to ‘conduct that raises red flags’ – compliance
officers should follow up to facilitate a proper response.”  He provided a lengthy and lucid explanation of why he reached the conclusion that Mr. Delaney faced such a situation and failed to act prudently.

The case against Mr. Yancey failed entirely.  ALJ Patil found that Mr. Yancey, as CEO, was Mr. Delaney’s supervisor, but the evidence did not show intentional conduct by Mr. Delaney, and a supervisory violation can occur only when “[t]he supervised person must have ‘willfully aided, abetted, counseled, commanded, induced, or procured’ the securities law violation.”  But even if Mr. Delaney had willfully aided an abetted the firm’s rules violations, “the Division has failed to show that Yancey did not reasonably supervise Delaney . . . because “[a] firm’s president is not automatically at fault when other individuals in the firm engage in misconduct of which he has no reason to be aware.”  He concluded: “Yancey had no reason to believe that any ‘red flags’ or ‘irregularities’ were occurring at [the firm] that were not already the subject of prompt remediation.  Given the absence of such evidence, I find that the Division did not prove that Yancey failed reasonably to supervise Delaney, even were such a claim viable here.”

As for the supervisory charge regarding the second firm employee, who was a registered representative who did act willfully, Yancey “persuasively dispute[d]” that the employee was not subject to the CEO’s “direct supervision.”  “[A]s an initial matter, a president of a firm ‘is responsible for the firm’s compliance with all applicable requirements unless and until he or she reasonably delegates a particular function to another person in the firm, and neither knows nor has reason to know that such person is not properly performing his or her duties.’ . . .   I find that Yancey is not liable for [the employee’s] intentional misconduct because the record supports that Yancey reasonably delegated supervisory responsibility over [him] . . . and then followed up reasonably.”  ALJ Patil rejected several theories of the SEC staff why Mr. Yancey should nevertheless be considered a supervisor.  He ultimately found no liability for Mr. Yancey.

On the issue of sanctions, ALJ Patil did not rubber stamp SEC staff requests.  He gave a reasoned explanation for issuing a cease and desist order against Mr. Delaney, found he could not issue a bar order against him because he did not act willfully, and imposed what seem to be reasonable civil penalties, totaling $20,000, for the conduct involved.  His order on the SEC’s disgorgement request was, perhaps unintentionally, amusingly tongue-in-cheek: “I have opted not to order disgorgement in this case, because the amount at issue is negligible. The Division contends, in effect, that Delaney must pay back the portion of his $40,000 in bonuses during the relevant time period that arose from the Rule 204T/204 violations.  The quantified benefit of the violations, $59,000, is approximately 0.008 percent of [the firm’s] revenue during that period. . . .  Even if all of Delaney’s bonuses were based on [the firm’s] performance (which, they are not, since the parties seem to be in general agreement that such performance was only one of three factors in bonuses), based on the preceding figures, the percentage of Delaney’s bonuses tied directly to the quantifiable benefit . . . is three dollars and twenty cents.  Even accounting for prejudgment interest, a disgorgement order is unwarranted.”

Kudos to ALJ Patil for what appears to be a fine job of adjudicating a tiresome case.  In a careful ruling, he handed the SEC a substantial defeat and a partial victory.  If he keeps this up in his tenure as an SEC ALJ, we should see some high-quality, thoughtful, and independent decisions penned by him.

Straight Arrow

April 14, 2015

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Second Circuit Denies Petition for Rehearing En Banc in U.S. v. Newman

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit today denied the petition of the Department of Justice for reconsideration of the panel decision, or rehearing en banc, in United States v. Newman.  This is as we had predicted.  See DOJ Petition for En Banc Review in Newman Case Comes Up Short and SEC’s Amicus Brief in U.S. v. Newman Fails To Improve on DOJ’s Effort.

Will the Supreme Court grant a petition for writ of certiorari?

Here is the Order:

Newman Order on Petition for Rehearing En Banc

Newman Order on Petition for Rehearing En Banc

Straight Arrow

April 3, 2015

Chiasson Opts for Mocking Tone in U.S. v. Newman Brief

Counsel for defendant Anthony Chiasson used a rhetorical mocking tone in the appellate brief filed on his behalf in response to the DOJ’s petition for rehearing en banc in United States v. Newman.  The brief opens by likening the DOJ to “Chicken Little” screaming “the sky is falling,” arguing that the Government’s rehearing petition “echoes Chicken Little’s complaint.”  It then declares that the DOJ’s “tone is less that of a frightened hen and more that of a petulant rooster whose dominion has been disturbed.”  The brief later takes a rhetorical shot at the SEC: “The SEC, like “Turkey Lurkey” in the “Chicken Little” folk tale, joins in the lament that the regulatory “sky is falling.”  (Dropping a footnote to explain who Turkey Lurkey is seems more than a little self-indulgent.)  A copy of the Chiasson brief can be found here: Brief of Anthony Chiasson in opposition to DOJ Petition for Rehearing en banc in U.S. v. Newman and Chiasson.

An appellate brief is not a blog post (where we have in the past taken the Government for “sky is falling” arguments: see SEC’s Amicus Brief in U.S. v. Newman Fails To Improve on DOJ’s Effort).  Rhetoric rarely is the winning play in an appellate brief, and ridicule is a dangerous way to play the upper hand in an appellate dispute with the Government.  That is especially so when a “just the facts ma’m” approach seems well-tailored to win the day.

Fortunately, the Chiasson brief does come back down to earth to present compelling arguments in favor of denying the rehearing petition.  The brief does point out in its first section that “contrary to the government’s argument, the Opinion leaves intact the rule that the government can prevail if it shows that the tipper made a gift of material nonpublic information to a friend, anticipating and intending that the friend would trade on the information and earn trading profits. . . .  However, the mere existence of a friendship, and the disclosure of information to a friend, is not enough.  There must be either the expectation of a quid pro quo or the intention that the recipient trade on the information and reap profits.  This analysis is faithful to Dirks and its progeny.”  Chiasson Brief at 6-7.  And it also captures the key flaw in the DOJ’s approach to the “personal benefit” requirement: “In its Petition, as in its prior briefing, the government ignores the central point of Dirks, which identifies the tipper’s exploitation of confidential information for personal benefit as the gravamen of culpable insider trading.  Rather than accepting this rule of law, which has been stated more than once by the Supreme Court, the government apparently wishes to water down the meaning of ‘personal benefit’ so that, as a practical matter, it can bring insider trading charges whenever someone trades on material nonpublic information that is disclosed without authorization by a company insider.”  Id. at 7-8.

Most importantly, the brief emphasizes that an insider trading section 10(b) violation must be anchored in fraud, noting that conduct that “may violate corporate policy or the SEC’s Regulation FD” but still not be “fraudulent self-dealing under Dirks and its progeny, and does not open the door to prosecution for insider trading.”  Id. at 8.  They might have added that the “personal benefit” requirement is what converts the conduct to fraud, which requires deceit to obtain property or its equivalent.

All of this harkens back to the decision in Dirks v. SEC itself.  The DOJ and SEC arguments in Newman effectively seek a Second Circuit imprimatur that they may elide the Dirks opinion.  The Dirks Court noted that the requirement was critical to assure there were limits on the breadth of insider trading enforcement actions, which the DOJ and SEC are now trying desperately to avoid: “Determining whether an insider personally benefits from a particular disclosure, a question of fact, will not always be easy for courts.  But it is essential, we think, to have a guiding principle for those whose daily activities must be limited and instructed by the SEC’s inside trading rules, and we believe that there must be a breach of the insider’s fiduciary duty before the tippee inherits the duty to disclose or abstain.  In contrast, the rule adopted by the SEC in this case would have no limiting principle.”  Dirks v. SEC, 463 U.S. 646, 664 (1983).  Lest this not be perfectly clear, the Dirks Court added by footnote: “Without legal limitations, market participants are forced to rely on the reasonableness of the SEC’s litigation strategy, but that can be hazardous, as the facts of this case make plain.”  Id. n.24.  Chiasson or Newman might well add: “as the facts of this case make plain as well.”

The Chiasson brief goes on to explain why the DOJ provides no valid reason for a rehearing to reconsider the analysis of the evidence of personal benefit in the panel decision.  This is especially so as to the lack of any evidence of knowledge by Messrs. Newman or Chiasson of any possible personal benefit that may have flowed to the original tippers.  As the brief points out: “The government now explicitly declines to challenge” the key holding “that a tippee must know that an insider has disclosed material nonpublic information in exchange for personal benefit in order to commit insider trading.”  Id. at 2.

Finally, the brief does a good job of laying waste to the Government’s contention that the Newman decision “threatens the integrity of the securities markets” (albeit with unnecessary recurring references to Chicken Little).  The brief points out that virtually all of the DOJ’s and SEC’s traditional insider trading cases are unaffected by the Newman decision.  It goes on: “It is only recently that the government has decided to push the doctrinal envelope, and bring cases in which tippers have not been charged with criminal acts and the defendants are remote tippees who are ignorant of the circumstances attending the tippers’ disclosure of material nonpublic information.  To the extent that convictions are jeopardized because the government cannot prove that the tippees knew that the tippers were receiving a personal benefit . . . the government is not in a position to complain.  The Court has determined that such knowledge is required, and the government has explicitly decided not to contest this holding on rehearing.”  Id. at 19.

In the finale, Chaisson argues that “there is no indication” that the Government intends to abide by the law as stated by the Supreme Court.  It chastises the DOJ for taking conflicting positions in its insider trading cases, which “reflects either its confusion about insider trading doctrine or, worse, its inclination to take whatever legal position serves its immediate interest in a particular case.  At best, it illustrates that the government’s legal analysis about the subtleties of insider trading jurisprudence should be taken with a considerable grain of salt. The law as depicted in the brief that the government filed in this case—on a point with which this Court agreed—is now portrayed as something that is not the law and never was the law!” (Violating the sound practice that one never, never uses an exclamation point in an appellate brief.)

The conclusion is as it should be, pointing out that any “confusion” in the law could and should easily be handled by the SEC in its rulemaking capacity: “[T]o the extent that the government and the SEC do sincerely believe that their enforcement agendas are threatened by the decision in this case, the SEC can promulgate a regulation either implementing a different formulation of the ‘personal benefit’ requirement or defining what constitutes fraudulent insider trading.  Having failed for more than 50 years to issue a regulation that defines insider trading, it is remarkable that the agency now comes before this Court to complain about ‘confusion’ in insider trading jurisprudence.  If there is any ‘confusion,’ it results mainly from the SEC’s refusal to use its authority to promulgate an appropriate regulation.  It has been content instead to leave the job of defining insider trading to the courts, basking in the freedom to bring cases on a ‘we know fraud when we see it’ basis.  Having left to the courts the job of articulating the meaning of insider trading, the SEC should not now be heard to complain about ‘confusion’ when it gets a result that it does not like.”

One hopes and expects that the Second Circuit judges will look past the questionable rhetorical flourishes and focus on the strong substantive arguments laid out in the Chiasson brief.

Straight Arrow

February 22, 2015

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SEC’s Amicus Brief in U.S. v. Newman Fails To Improve on DOJ’s Effort

Earlier this week, the SEC filed an amicus brief in support of the DOJ’s petition for rehearing en banc of the panel decision overturning two insider trading convictions in United States v. Newman.  The Newman decision is discussed here: US v. Newman: 2d Circuit Hands Government Stunning, Decisive, and Far-Reaching Insider Trading DefeatThe DOJ’s petition for en banc review is discussed here: DOJ Petition for En Banc Review in Newman Case Comes Up Short.  The SEC’s amicus filing did little to show why the Second Circuit should take the extraordinary step of reviewing en banc the unanimous panel decision.  The SEC’s brief can be found here: SEC Amicus Brief in US v Newman.

The SEC started from the same flawed foundation as the DOJ, contending that existing law mandated that an insider “engages in prohibited insider trading” merely by “disclosing information to a friend who then trades.”  SEC Brief at 1.  That supposedly is “because that is equivalent to the insider himself profitably trading on the information and then giving the trading profits to the fried.”  Id.  This makes me want to scream out loud: Just because you say something over and over again does not make it true!  This proposition leaves out the key requirement in the law, flowing directly from the language of the Supreme Court in Dirks v. SEC, that a tipper-insider must “personally … benefit … from his disclosure” (463 U.S. at 662), and that this benefit could arise out of “a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend”  463 U.S. at 664 (emphasis added).  The DOJ and SEC continue to pretend that every disclosure of confidential information to a friend is of necessity, a “gift,” and therefore no further evidence is required to show that a “gift” was intended.  In other words, the required “personal benefit” flowing to the tipper is conclusively presumed whenever the tippee is a “friend.”  No aspect of Dirks suggests such a result.

The holding of the Newman court was not an extraordinary extension or expansion of the “personal benefit” requirement.  The court did no more than examine the evidence – or actually, lack of evidence – of any real benefit flowing to the tippers in the case, and insist that there actually be such evidence before there is tippee liability, because, as Dirks made clear, there can be no tippee liability if there is no tipper liability.

This passage from Dirks makes that clear: “Determining whether an insider personally benefits from a particular disclosure, a question of fact, will not always be easy for courts.  But it is essential, we think, to have a guiding principle for those whose daily activities must be limited and instructed by the SEC’s inside trading rules, and we believe that there must be a breach of the insider’s fiduciary duty before the tippee inherits the duty to disclose or abstain.  In contrast, the rule adopted by the SEC in this case would have no limiting principle.”  Dirks v. SEC, 463 U.S. 646, 664 (1983).  As for the wisdom of allowing law enforcement authorities decide the lines to be drawn for enforcement actions, the Dirks Court wrote: “Without legal limitations, market participants are forced to rely on the reasonableness of the SEC’s litigation strategy, but that can be hazardous, as the facts of this case make plain.”  Id. n.24.

True to this Supreme Court insight, ever since Dirks was decided, the SEC and DOJ have been trying to water down the “personal benefit” element of tipper liability to the point that they now argue that this element has no substance at all – mere proof of “friendship” – which, by the way, is itself an extraordinarily stretched concept, in the SEC and DOJ view – is all you need to show “beyond a reasonable doubt” that a tipper personally benefited from a disclosure.  The law enforcement authorities have tried over many years to negate Dirks (and its predecessor decision Chiarella v. United States, which provided the foundation for Dirks) by stretching “personal benefit” to the point of near infinite elasticity if a “friend” is involved, and stretching the concept of “friend” to be the equivalent of “acquaintance.”  The Newman panel simply said, in no uncertain terms, they’d had enough of this.

In this context, it is more than a little “rich” for the SEC to argue that the “panel decision also creates uncertainty about the precise type of benefit … an insider who tips confidential information must receive to be liable.”  SEC Brief at 2.  For years, the SEC has tried, mostly successfully, to make the standards of insider trading liability as amorphous as possible, and has resisted efforts to develop precise definitions.  Its explanation for this is that if you give a precise definition, you allow someone to evade liability with sharp practices that fall outside of the definition.  In the SEC’s view, the Commission and the Division of Enforcement should decide which trading practices should be unlawful, almost always in after-the-fact enforcement actions.  They view themselves as “keepers of the faith,” who, of course, will always act in the public interest, and therefore do not need precise legal standards to govern their enforcement actions.  Suffice it to say that many of us who have represented clients on the other side of SEC investigations do not have quite this level of confidence in the SEC staff’s determination of the “public interest.”  That is in part because the Division of Enforcement is a huge aggregation of weakly-managed lawyers whose judgments on these issues are usually deferred to, but many of whom exercise questionable judgment, and give more weight to their personal views of the world than the actual evidence in the case.  See, e.g., SEC Insider Trading Cases Continue To Ignore the Boundaries of the Law, and SEC Enforcement Takes Another Blow in SEC v. Obus.

Hence, the SEC believes that an argument for rehearing the Newman decision is that the SEC has brought many enforcement actions “where the only personal benefit to the tipper apparent from the decisions was providing inside information to a friend” and Newman’s insistence on evidence of “personal benefit” to the tipper beyond this would “impede enforcement actions.”  SEC Brief at 12.  But what if those prosecutions were overly aggressive under the law, as laid out in Dirks?  The SEC is always trying to stretch the law so that it has increased discretion to determine what to prosecute “in the public interest” (and to get added leverage in efforts to force settlements of enforcement actions with questionable factual support).  One example of this is the recent extraordinary effort of the Commission in In re Flannery and Hopkins to expand the scope of Rule 10b-5 by edict (not by rulemaking), and thereby negate the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus Capital Group v. First Derivative Traders, as discussed here: SEC Majority Argues for Negating Janus Decision with Broad Interpretation of Rule 10b-5.)  The attempt to negate the “personal benefit” requirement, and expand the Dirks reference to “a trading relative or friend” beyond reasonable recognition, are part and parcel of that “we know it when we see it” approach to the law.  But, especially in criminal cases, there is no place for allowing prosecutors such discretion and providing citizens no reasonable notice of the parameters of the law.

U.S. v. Newman does not represent a significant limit on the ability of the DOJ or SEC to bring meritorious insider trading claims.  It merely requires that before tippees are held criminally liable, or subjected to severe civil penalties and employment bars, law enforcement authorities present evidence sufficient to support a finding that a tipper-insider actually benefitted from the tip, and that the defendants had the requisite scienter.  If, as the SEC argues, friendship and “gifting” are almost inevitably synonymous, this is not a high burden, especially in SEC enforcement actions, which need only satisfy a “preponderance of the evidence” standard of proof.

Straight Arrow

January 29, 2015

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DOJ Petition for En Banc Review in Newman Case Comes Up Short

On January 23, 2015, the Department of Justice filed its petition for rehearing en banc in United States v. Newman.  A copy of that submission is available here: US v Newman Petition for En Banc Review.  Our previous discussion of the unanimous panel opinion can be read here: US v. Newman: 2d Circuit Hands Government Stunning, Decisive, and Far-Reaching Insider Trading Defeat.  The brief argues for review on several grounds.  Individually and together, they do not provide a basis for granting en banc review.  (On the standards for en banc review, see the linked article: Once More Unto The Breach — Rehearing In Newman?)

First, the DOJ argues that the 2d Circuit panel got it wrong because it misstated the appropriate standard for determining whether a tipper received a “benefit” in return for his or her tip:

The Panel’s holding on the definition of “personal benefit” in insider trading cases—specifically, that illegal insider trading has occurred only when an insider-tipper’s deliberate disclosure of material non-public information was for pecuniary gain or was  part of a “meaningfully close personal relationship that generates an exchange that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or  similarly valuable nature”—cannot be squared with governing Supreme Court precedent, conflicts with prior holdings of other circuits and this Court, and defies practical application.

Petition at 10-11 (citation omitted).

The support for this argument is founded entirely in the contention that the panel misread the Supreme Court’s decision in Dirks v. SEC, 463 U.S. 646 (1983).  The brief points to statements in Dirks that the required personal benefit may be “direct or indirect,” that it need not be monetary, that “there may be a relationship between the insider and the recipient that suggests a quid pro quo from the latter, or an intention to benefit the particular recipient,” and that it could be “a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend,” as “[t]he tip and trade resemble trading by the insider himself followed by a gift of the profits to the recipient.”  Petition at 11 (quoting from Dirks, 463 U.S. at 663-64).  The DOJ brief argues that although the panel decision acknowledges Dirks‘s language, “it added an unprecedented limitation” that effectively upended Dirks: “‘To the extent Dirks suggests that a personal benefit may be inferred from a personal relationship between the tipper and tippee,’ the Panel held, ‘such an inference is impermissible in the absence of proof of a meaningfully close personal relationship that generates an exchange that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.'”  Petition at 12 (quoting Newman).  The DOJ calls this “flatly inconsistent with Dirks.”  Id. at 13.

But the DOJ brief then departs from the actual Dirks language to make the argument that “the mere fact of friendship” could be enough to satisfy the Dirks requirement: “The Opinion says that Dirks ‘does not suggest that the Government may prove the receipt of a personal benefit by the mere fact of a friendship.’  But that is in fact precisely what Dirks says, see Dirks, 463 U.S. at 664 (benefit can be ‘a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend’).”  Petition at 13 (citation omitted).  The quote from Dirks does not support the view that a “mere fact of friendship” can satisfy the requirement —  the evidence of friendship must be accompanied by evidence that the transmittal of information was “a gift” to the tippee.  The difference between “mere facts of friendship” and evidence supporting a “gift” or “personal benefit” was critical to the Newman decision and, at least in this part of its discussion, the DOJ ignores it.

The DOJ argues in this section that the Newman court “nullifies” part of the Dirks  benefit test by “replacing it” “with a set of novel, confounding criteria for the type of ‘exchange’ that will now be required before an insider’s deliberate transmission of valuable inside information to a friend or relative could be punishable under the laws against insider trading.”  Petition at 14.  But the Newman opinion plainly does not “replace” the Dirks standard — it tries to explain how to apply the standard in the face of negligible evidence of either a “gift” or a “personal benefit.”  The Newman court’s statement that showing a benefit to the tipper requires a “meaningfully close personal relationship that generates an exchange that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature” is made in the context of no other evidence of a benefit to the tipper or an intent to “gift” the information to the tippee.  In that context, the language is perfectly consistent with the statements in Dirks that “there may be a relationship between the insider and the recipient that suggests a quid pro quo from the latter, or an intention to benefit the particular recipient,” and that the benefit requirement could be met by showing “a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend,” which would make the tip and trade “resemble trading by the insider himself followed by a gift of the profits.”

The DOJ petition does not address the key aspect of this portion of the Newman holding: that under Dirks, it was impermissible to allow a conviction for insider trading based on a “benefit” concept that is so broad and diffuse that it becomes no standard at all.  The court’s quoted language was an effort to make it clear that a real benefit must be shown, not just “the mere fact of friendship,” and that is plainly consistent with, and in furtherance of, the Dirks holding.  The DOJ’s brief paragraph on that issue essentially says nothing more than the DOJ’s view that it doesn’t think a broad and diffuse standard is a problem.  See Petition at 14-15No doubt that is so from the DOJ’s perspective, since the broader the standard, the more discretion the DOJ has to decide which conduct should be prosecuted and which should not.  But as a basis for imposing criminal sanctions — for imposing lengthy prison terms on purported violators — a broad standard that makes it difficult to determine what is lawful and what is not is no gift to society.

Second, the DOJ brief argues that the evidence against Newman and Chiasson was sufficient to show a true benefit to the respective tippers, as well as knowledge of that benefit by Newman and Chiasson.  This argues that the Second Circuit panel simply stated the evidence incorrectly by (i) failing to credit evidence showing benefits to the tippers, and (ii) failing to adopt a standard that allows a finding of knowledge of such benefits based on the mere fact that the information conveyed to the defendants by their subordinates was too accurate to have been obtained without giving a benefit to the original tipper.  See Petition at 15-22.  To begin, it seems highly unlikely that factual arguments that an undivided panel simply misread the record will be sufficient to induce the Second Circuit to grant en banc review.  But beyond this, the argument on knowledge seems particularly weak.  Although it appears to concede that proof of knowledge is, in fact, required (a concession not previously made in the district court or the court of appeals), it essentially asks that the Second Circuit rule that in this context the only evidence required to show such “knowledge” is that it is implausible that tippers give reliable tips without receiving some sort of benefit.  That is no more than a barely-veiled way to do away with the requirement altogether by conflating it with evidence that the tips were reliable (i.e., material).

Third, the DOJ makes a public policy argument that the Newman decision should not be permitted to stand because it uses a standard that would permit securities trading that would “threaten the integrity of the securities markets.”  See Petition at 22-25.  In the DOJ’s view, the Second Circuit should be deciding the breadth of section 10(b) by the DOJ’s (or the circuit court’s) view of what rule is most beneficial to the “securities markets.”  This is wrong in so many respects that it’s hard to know where to start.

First, it ignores the fact that the issue here involves two individuals’ criminal convictions.  Whether what they did was, or was not, criminal, should not be determined by what the DOJ or the courts may think is good or bad for the securities markets.  It must be determined by whether the statute in question bars the conduct proved, and does so with clarity, not what the DOJ or the courts think would be a desirable public policy to govern trading activity.

Second, the argument reflects a flawed core assumption by the DOJ about what section 10(b) is all about.  Strangely, in the entire DOJ brief, there is not a single discussion of the statute and why the panel decision misconstrues it.  The reason is clear: The Supreme Court has now held on multiple occasions that section 10(b) prohibits only fraudulent conduct in connection with securities trades.  It does not adopt any particular view about “fairness” of trading in the securities markets.  It certainly says nothing about whether securities markets are rendered “unfair” if some people trade with more information than others.  Indeed, as this blog previous made clear, section 10(b) was enacted at a time, and with an understanding, that it was not addressing the propriety of trading on nonpublic corporate information.  See The Myth of Insider Trading Enforcement (Part I).

Nevertheless, the DOJ argues that the panel decision should be rejected because it “significantly weakens protections against the abuse of inside information by market professionals with special access, and threatens to undermine enforcement efforts that are vital to fairness (and the perception thereof) in the securities markets.”  Petition at 23.  The short answer to this is that not all “abuses of inside information” are fraudulent, and therefore not all such “abuses” are prohibited by section 10(b).  See SEC Insider Trading Cases Continue To Ignore the Boundaries of the Law.  If the DOJ wants to criminalize all “abuses of inside information” — whatever that may mean — it should draft a statute doing so and get it enacted.  It should not ask the Second Circuit to define the boundaries of the law to achieve an end that the law never addresses.

Third, the DOJ argues (with no foundation) that somehow the issue of what is or is not a “personal benefit” to a tipper will impact “investor confidence”: “The consequences for investor confidence are plain: individuals will perceive that cozy relationships between  insiders and the most sophisticated traders allow exploitation of nonpublic information for personal gain.”  Petition at 24.  That argument makes the flawed assumption that is “plain” that “investors” are more interested in assuring that no one can “exploit” nonpublic information for personal gain than they are in assuring that to the extent possible, market prices for securities reflect the best available information, public or nonpublic.  The issue may be worthy of debate, but I seriously doubt that “investors” would prefer markets where better-informed people are barred from trading, with the result that securities are mispriced until information becomes “public.”  In any event, the securities laws contain no such requirement, and are founded instead on the paradigm of maximizing market efficiency, which is fundamentally different than the DOJ’s apparent concept of “fairness.”

Straight Arrow

January 26, 2015

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