Tag Archives: discovery in administrative proceedings

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

This is the fourth and final post discussing 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 three posts addressed three unacceptable aspects of 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; (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; and (3) the proposals continue to handcuff the respondents with respect to third party discovery and discovery from the SEC itself by maintaining highly restrictive rules limiting the issuance of subpoenas, while the SEC staff has essentially unlimited access to these sources of evidence.  You can review these comments here (Part I), here (Part II), and here (Part III), respectively.

The last part of the SEC proposed rule changes we will discuss involves the administrative trial itself.  Many commentators have noted the unfairness of the current SEC administrative proceedings with respect to the court’s acceptance of unreliable information into evidence.  The Federal Rules of Evidence do not apply in this forum, and administrative law judges, who effectively control the record, accept into evidence testimony and exhibits that would not be admitted into evidence in federal court.  As with almost all of the exercises of discretion by the SEC ALJs, this freedom to introduce into evidence material that would not be permitted in a court proceeding usually advantages the SEC staff.  The SEC ALJs treat the SEC staff with deference, lessening the usual standards under the theory that the staff is presumptuously acting in good faith.  That is one of the fundamental, hidden differences between SEC administrative proceedings and SEC court proceedings: the ALJs are accorded more discretion than judges with respect to evidentiary matters, and their use of that discretion tends to favor the litigant they presume is acting in the public interest – the Division of Enforcement and its lawyers.

The SEC’s proposed changes to Rules of Practice 235 and 320 would make what is already an unfair aspect of these proceedings even worse.  Rule 235 addresses when “a prior, sworn statement of a witness, not a party, otherwise admissible in the proceeding” may accepted into evidence.  It allows such evidence to be admitted when witnesses are dead, out of the country, incompetent to testify, cannot be subpoenaed, or “it would be desirable, in the interests of justice, to allow the prior sworn statement to be used.”  The SEC proposes that Rule 235 be expanded to cover “sworn deposition [testimony in the case], investigative testimony, or other sworn statement or a declaration pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 1746, of a witness, not a party, otherwise admissible in the proceeding.”  It further proposes that an “adverse party” may use any such prior statements of “a party or anyone who, when giving the sworn statement or declaration, was the party’s officer, director, or managing agent” may be used “for any purpose,” apparently without any showing of unavailability.  The latter change is presumably intended to benefit only the SEC staff, not respondents, because it seems unlikely that the adverse party to respondents in these proceedings – the Division of Enforcement – would have made any “sworn statements” relevant to the proceeding.

Rule 320 currently provides that the ALJ “may receive relevant evidence and shall exclude all evidence that is irrelevant, immaterial or unduly repetitious.”  The SEC’s proposed changes would require the exclusion of “unreliable” evidence, but would add specifically that “evidence that constitutes hearsay may be admitted if it is relevant, material, and bears satisfactory indicia of reliability so that its use is fair.”  Now, apparently, the Division can obtain mere declarations from some important witnesses like current or former officers, directors, or agents of the respondent — crafted by the SEC lawyers themselves — and submit them as evidence proposed under new Rule.  No court in the land would permit that.

As a result of the current lax standards governing admissibility of evidence, the ALJs already allow many forms of hearsay into the record.  That allows the SEC staff to make much of its case in administrative proceedings with evidence that would not be permitted in federal court. Among the most consistent and worst use of hearsay evidence in these cases is the general acceptance into evidence of transcripts of investigative testimony taken by the SEC staff. Because these examinations are conducted by the Enforcement Division’s lawyers, and are statements made under oath, the ALJs typically accept them into evidence without serious inquiry into their reliability.  However, they often are not reliable. There are several reasons for this:

  • First, these examinations take place in a context in which witnesses are often blindsided with inquiries about things that occurred years before with limited, if any, access to materials that could allow them to refresh their recollection of those dated events.  Sometimes, basic aspects of the subject matter the staff intends to inquire into are not known in advance.
  • Second, these questions and answers take place at a time when the primary goal of the witness is to try to convince the same staff not to take an adverse action against the witness.  This causes the witness to try as hard as possible to please the examiners.  That includes being reticent to tell them when the questions do not make sense, or are based on assumptions that are not valid, or reflect a lack of understanding (sometimes a very basic understanding) of the business matters or transactions involved.  Even defense counsel often resist criticizing questions or tactics for fear that the staff lawyers will become more antagonistic as a result.
  • Third, these examinations often are conducted in a manner that is more in the nature of an inquisition than an examination. It is not unusual for two, three, or four lawyers and sometimes accountants to act like a tag team, taking turns at the examination.  And often the staff is trying to create a record that implicates the witness or others and pressures the witness into providing its desired response, lest the witness otherwise be perceived as uncooperative or recalcitrant.
  • Fourth, the staff lawyers often formulate confusing and ambiguous questions, including regularly misusing technical terms.  That is sometimes because of lack of skill, sometimes lack of experience, and sometimes in an effort to cajole the witness into making statements that can later be portrayed as admissions when they are nothing of the kind.  No judge, magistrate, or even senior SEC official is there to prevent this, and objections by counsel are feckless, because the staff need do nothing to respond to those objections.  The end result is often a transcript that leaves open multiple interpretations of what the testimony actually says.
  • Fifth, the staff will often use limited materials during the examination that do not allow the witness to put documents or events in context, because the context is not made available. That often occurs with the misleading use of emails to portray one picture of events when other emails are not used that create a very different context.
  • Sixth, there is no real right to cross-examine the witness, nor an incentive for the defense counsel to do so.  Defense counsel is given the opportunity to ask questions, but typically lacks the materials that would allow useful questions to be formulated.  And without knowing where the investigation is headed, the defense counsel typically is loathe to get back into matters that may be ambiguous on the record, knowing there should be opportunities at later times to discuss the subject matters addressed with the staff, when a greater knowledge of entire record is possible and the direction the staff may be headed is more clear.

I believe that in contested cases in federal court, one significant reason for the SEC’s greater percentage of losses at trial is the unreliability of the investigative testimony the staff (and Commission) rely upon when a case is brought.  At trial, often the picture that is revealed by court testimony varies in significant ways from the record the staff created during the investigative testimony.  That in turn results in the staff having difficulty proving the Commission’s allegations.  When investigative transcripts are used to try to impeach witnesses by showing a supposed difference between the earlier statements and trial testimony, the infirmities of the investigative testimony undercut staff efforts to challenge the witness’s credibility, and in some cases serve only to impeach the credibility of the SEC and its lawyers.

The SEC’s new proposed Rules 235 and 320 are designed to codify the ALJ practice of treating investigative transcripts as a reliable form of “sworn statement,” as well as to codify the acceptability of hearsay evidence more generally, apparently without regard to a realistic examination of reliability.  Proposed new Rule 235 explicitly calls out investigative transcripts as proper forms of evidence, and allows their use against respondent parties “for any purpose.” And proposed Rule 320, specifically approves the use of hearsay evidence as long as it “bears satisfactory indicia of reliability.”  Having previously defined investigative transcripts as having “satisfactory indicia of reliability” in proposed Rule 235, the proposed new rules assure that ALJs will continue the unseemly and harmful process of using staff-controlled investigative transcripts as valid evidence.

That is the opposite of what should have been done.  There are strong reasons why hearsay evidence is permitted only under specific exceptions in the Federal Rules of Evidence.  A long history of evidentiary theory, thought, and practice, produced explicit understandings of when it is fair to allow out of court statements to be used to prove a case at trial.  Instead of endorsing a broad swath of hearsay evidence as acceptable, the SEC should have taken note of that history and careful thought.  It should have started with the assumption that the federal evidentiary rules are cogent and well-conceived, and departed from those rules only as necessary to achieve specific goals unique to its administrative proceedings that the federal rules impede.  If this standard were applied, I have little doubt that most of the Federal Rules of Evidence would be incorporated into the SEC administrative process.  There is no indication that any such analysis was done by the Commission, which in my view makes its evidentiary choices in the proposed rules arbitrary and capricious.

In fact, this same fundamental flaw in the way the Commission formulated its new proposed Rules of Practice infects the entire proposal.  There is an existing system of procedures, discovery, and evidence, that is in place in the federal courts which has been examined and refined over the years with enormous experience and attention.  In contrast, the SEC’s administrative process is broken and desperately needs repair.  But instead of using the federal court experience as a valuable benchmark for SEC administrative rules, the Commission decided to make only marginal changes — at best — to its broken system.  Why it chose this approach is not clear, because that analysis, if it occurred, is never discussed in the proposal.  My guess is that the bureaucrats took control of the process and desperately sought to avoid any major changes.  But for whatever reason, the SEC failed to use the many years of federal court practice and experience to generate a new, better set of rules for its administrative forum.

The Commission should have started from what we know to be fair and due process in the federal courts and replicated that process to the extent possible and appropriate in the context of an administrative proceeding.  It should have used the many years of federal court practice and experience to generate a new, better set of rules for the administrative forum.  If it perceived specific flaws in the federal court discovery or evidentiary process that could cause undue delay or expense, it should explain those, and make only those changes that would improve the process for all of the parties, not just the SEC.

Instead, it is painfully apparent that little effort was made to make the SEC administrative court a fairer forum for those prosecuted.  Minor changes were made in the timing of cases and the availability of discovery – changes transparently insufficient to accomplish any fairness goal. And these were accompanied by granting to the SEC staff several “goodies” from the Division of Enforcement wish list – e.g., requiring additional pleading of defenses and expressly permitting the use of hearsay evidence and investigative transcripts – that, in the end, probably make the administrative forum even more biased in favor of the SEC prosecutors, and against the respondents, than it is now.

The SEC Needs To Be More Transparent and Forthcoming To Recover Any Credibility

One final note.  The degree of disingenuousness by the SEC during this whole process has been shameful.  All along, both the Division of Enforcement and the SEC Chair have been touting the high degree of fairness in the SEC administrative courts in ways that do not pass the “ha ha” test.  See, for example, Ceresney Presents Unconvincing Defense of Increased SEC Administrative Prosecutions.  SEC Chair Mary Jo White was a capable – indeed, admired – private practitioner, and she must fully understand the huge advantage the SEC staff has in SEC administrative proceedings.  But she nevertheless maintains the bureaucratic fiction that everything is just fine there.  And she does so with statements that are obviously, embarrassingly, wrong.

The latest statement along these lines was Ms. White’s cynical performance in a recent Wall Street Journal interview.  See Mary Jo White explains the new SEC rules.  Here is what she said about SEC administrative proceedings:

One of the things that I think was a good thing for us to do was put out public guidelines as to what factors are considered in choosing the forum [in which to bring a case].  The commission, by the way, has to approve the choice of venue in every single case.  It isn’t up to the enforcement division.

There have been questions raised.  For example, I think in one year, if you look at the win rates in administrative proceedings versus district court, you’ll see a higher win rate.  But again, it’s cyclical to some degree.  If you look at this past year, we have a nearly 100% win in district court, and a lesser success rate in administrative proceedings, which have unique due-process rights.  For example, you have to turn over what’s called Jencks and Brady material in administrative proceedings, which is essentially exculpatory information, to the respondent, the defendant.  You don’t have that requirement in district court.  Recently we’ve put out for comment [proposed rules] to modernize our administrative proceedings. Should there be more discovery?  Should there be more time provided before there’s a hearing? . . .

I think they’re very fair proceedings. But you always want to critically examine what you’re doing so that you’re conveying not only in reality the fairness of a particular forum, but the appearance of it, too.

What nonsense.  And Ms. White is a good enough lawyer and securities litigator to know it.  With this statement, she reduced herself to rote adoption of the bureaucratic party line.

First, the statement that the SEC “put out public guidelines as to what factors are considered in choosing the forum,” as if there is some binding and useful guidance on that issue, is wrong, and she knows it.  She must know it because virtually every person and law firm to comment on that release recognized that it provided no useful information about the forum selection process, and essentially said no more than that the Commission has total discretion to choose whatever forum it prefers.  See SEC Attempts To Stick a Thumb in the Dike with New Guidelines for Use of Administrative Court; SEC’s New Guidance on the Use of Administrative Proceedings: “It’s Up to Us.”.

Second, the argument that the administrative forum provides greater rights to the persons sued because the Division of Enforcement is required “to turn over what’s called Jencks and Brady material in administrative proceedings, which is essentially exculpatory information, to the respondent, the defendant, and “[y]ou don’t have that requirement in district court” is both misleading and false.  To begin, the SEC staff’s determination of what is Brady and Jencks material is notoriously narrow.  In the staff’s view, if a document does not itself say that the respondent is innocent, it is not exculpatory – which leaves out many documents that are building blocks in proving the respondent’s innocence (for example, materials that show that a key SEC witness is lying would not be delivered).  Likewise, unless a document is a verbatim recording of what a witness said previously, it is not delivered as Jencks material.  That leaves out important summaries of interviews that report on many important things that were said in unrecorded interviews.  In addition, in both Brady and Jencks disclosures, the staff withholds anything it considers to be work product or subject to the so-called deliberative process privilege, which excludes large amounts of important information.  And there is no effective review of these decisions.  The ALJs almost uniformly accept the staff’s determinations on these disclosures because they assume the SEC staff acts in good faith (which is itself a breach of their duty to serve as neutral judges).  As a result, they are nearly useless in helping a respondent get true Brady and Jencks production.

In contrast, in federal court, a defendant can issue a document request for all Brady and Jencks material, and much more, and force the staff to produce all useful materials for the defense of the case.  When (not if) the SEC lawyers fail to deliver all of the relevant material, they can bring the issue to an independent judge who will treat both parties equally and not defer to the SEC staff’s determinations (at least in most cases).  So how exactly are an accused’s Jencks and Brady rights better in the administrative forum better than a federal court?  They are not.  Ms. White certainly understands that, but chooses to say otherwise.

If the SEC is ever going to reform its administrative forum, and make it into a fair alternative to the federal courts, it must recognize the problems in the current system, speak honestly about them, and make a genuine effort to produce new rules that flatten the playing field.  At the behest of SEC bureaucrats, Ms. White and her fellow Commissioners have plainly decided to avoid that route and make proposals that do not move perceptibly in the direction of fairness, but instead defer to the preferences of the SEC staff.  As a result, the proposals are grossly inadequate, and the SEC’s credibility on the issue is in shreds.

The proposed changes to the SEC Rules of Practice should be rejected.  Because the Commission has shown it is effectively captive to its staff, the best way to proceed is to appoint a committee of well-regarded SEC litigators to put together proposals for new Rules of Practice.  The Commission often seeks the assistance of professionals to address key regulatory issues, and the fairness of its administrative forum is no less important than those.  Of course, the SEC staff would fight tooth and nail to avoid this, so don’t hold your breath.

Straight Arrow

December 3, 2015

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

Today we present Part II of our discussion on the proposed changes offered by the SEC to the Rules of Practice governing its administrative proceedings.  Those proposals can be reviewed here.  They purported to be an effort to modernize rules adopted many years ago, long before significant changes to both the nature of litigated proceedings (based primarily on the enormous increase in evidentiary material available in the digital era), and the nature of the specific proceedings before the SEC’s administrative courts (based on jurisdictional changes over time, most recently the addition of new authority under the Dodd-Frank Act).

The proposals are patently inadequate to address the current problems in the administrative court, virtually all of which have the effect of tilting those proceedings against respondents and in favor of the prosecutor, which is the SEC’s Division of Enforcement.  The reasons why the current procedural rules are unfair have been discussed at length over the past two years, including on several occasions in this blog.  (See Ceresney Presents Unconvincing Defense of Increased SEC Administrative Prosecutions, and Opposition Growing to SEC’s New “Star Chamber” Administrative Prosecutions.)  The reasons why these proposed changes fail to come close to solving those fairness problems are the subject of the multi-part discussions here.

In Part I, we described one of the more blatant flaws in the proposal, by which the SEC actually seeks to increase the advantage the Division of Enforcement has in the administrative court versus federal court proceedings – the proposed new requirement that in their Answers, respondents must disclose certain defense theories even though they are not “affirmative defenses,” including defenses based on “reliance.”  See Why the SEC’s Proposed Changes to Its Rules of Practice Are Woefully Inadequate — Part I.

Today we address another one of the major shortcomings of the new proposal – the proposed limits on depositions of witnesses or potential witnesses.  The proposal is described by the SEC as follows:

Rule 233 currently permits parties to take depositions by oral examination only if a witness will be unable to attend or testify at a hearing.  The proposed amendment would allow respondents and the Division to file notices to take depositions.  If a proceeding involves a single respondent, the proposed amendment would allow the respondent and the Division to each file notices to depose three persons (i.e., a maximum of three depositions per side) in proceedings designated in the proposal as 120-day cases (known as 300-day cases under current Rule 360).  If a proceeding involves multiple respondents, the proposed amendment would allow respondents to collectively file notices to depose five persons and the Division to file notices to depose five persons in proceedings designated in the proposal as 120-day cases (i.e., a maximum of five depositions per side).  Under the amendment, parties also could request that the hearing officer issue a subpoena for documents in conjunction with the deposition.

This proposal lacks any reasoned support — and really any attempt to provide reasoned support.  It ignores historic practices in federal courts, which have had to address this issue for many years.  Instead of adopting a flexible set of principles or guidelines that can be applied in different ways under varying facts and circumstances, it picks a magic number of depositions that applies to all cases without regard to variations in cases.  But alas, the magic of the number is never described.  And it makes assumptions about how the magic number is to be applied that (a) fly in the face of reality, and (b) act as a potential severe hardship on the defense when there are multiple defending respondents, without any discussion whatsoever of those issues.  The only apparent guiding principle is to assure that the SEC staff’s well-known — and now documented (see Fairness Concerns About Proliferation of SEC Administrative Prosecutions Documented by Wall Street Journal) — advantage in the administrative court will continue.  The proposal is successful in only one respect: it provides a textbook case of arbitrary and capricious rulemaking.

Where the Parties Start Matters

To evaluate this proposal, we need to consider some context.  We need to understand that when an enforcement proceeding of any type – judicial or administrative – begins, the parties are not even close to equally prepared to litigate the case.  That is because one party – the Division of Enforcement – has already been gathering and examining evidence for years, while those accused of violating the law have had very limited access to information, and have been focused on avoiding an enforcement action, not litigating one.  Any set of litigation rules that ignores this basic fact is destined to be biased in favor of the party given a multi-year head start.

An SEC enforcement proceeding, whether brought in federal court or the SEC’s administrative court, occurs only after an extensive investigation by the Division of Enforcement.  That investigation may last years, and usually does.  In that investigation, the SEC staff has virtually unlimited subpoena power, both to seek documents to obtain sworn investigative testimony from anyone the staff chooses.  It is not unusual for serious investigations involving contested issues to go on for more than three years.  Lots of documents may be produced – in corporate cases, often millions of pages of materials are produced to the SEC by various parties.  Many persons may be required to testify – 15 to 30 would not be unusual – and several of them will be required to testify on multiple occasions.  In addition to this, the SEC staff will interview other witnesses or potential witnesses without recording their testimony.

The “investigative testimony” is controlled by the SEC staff.  It often is not clear whether individuals are being targeted for possible action, and if so, which ones.  As a result, witnesses are vulnerable to manipulation because their objective is to avoid being accused of violations, and they are concerned that appearing combative and “pushing back” on questions will undercut that goal.  And manipulation does occur.  Witnesses may be (and are) bombarded by questions from several examiners at once; questions may be (and are) leading; questions may be (and are) deceptive, in an effort to induce responses the staff may be looking for; witnesses are not given advance access to materials to allow them refresh their memory or think about (or look for) other relevant materials that could place documents in their proper context; the examiners pick and choose the exhibits they use, and often do so as a means of influencing the testimony (e.g., they will use an email out of context when the broader context shows the content in a very different light); the examiners may (and do) suggest answers and pressure witnesses to change their testimony when the answers they receive do not match their perceptions or contentions; and the examiners do not typically pursue lines of examination designed gather information about defenses to possible violations.  Defense counsel is given an opportunity to ask questions, but without access to the evidence is limited in doing so.  The end result of these examinations is often a transcript of testimony that is designed to support the staff’s “going in” theory of violations of law that they are considering to pursue with the Commission.

[To those who may be skeptical that these questionable practices really occur, I can only say that I witnessed each of them on many occasions as a practicing securities defense counsel.  Not all SEC enforcement staff lawyers do these things, but many do, and they are not subject to meaningful controls by their supervisors.]

The only outside person who may be given a copy of testimony by the staff is the person testifying.  Even that occurs under rules set by the SEC, and a transcript can be denied to a witness if the staff objects, although that is rare.  Only to the extent that witnesses agree to share transcripts might they be able to get an understanding of the testimony of other witnesses.  That often occurs among witnesses with parallel interests, but it is rare that those being investigated have anything approaching a complete record of what people said before a case is brought.

When a case is brought, the SEC staff turns over to the accused what they consider to be non-privileged portions of the formal investigative file.  That normally includes all transcripts of investigative testimony, and all documents obtained by subpoena or other staff solicitations, but not records of witness interviews or compilations of relevant materials gleaned from all of the produced documents, which the staff almost always treats as privileged.  The investigative file is also narrowly defined as the materials specifically developed for the case against the accused.  It does not include other relevant documents that may be in the SEC’s possession that were obtained in other ways – perhaps, for example, in the course of other investigations on the same general subject matter.  For example, if the SEC staff is investigating a particular accounting practice and decides to bring an enforcement action alleging the practice was wrong, or even fraudulent, the “investigative file” produced would exclude all materials the SEC gathered about the use of that same accounting practice by other persons, whether or not they might provide valuable evidence in the specific proceeding brought.  But the SEC staff always has access to that additional data to the extent they choose to use it.

As noted, the SEC staff is typically involved in an investigation for years.  But the persons sued learn that they are targets only when they are asked for a “Wells Submission” (or sometimes a “pre-Wells Submission”). (A pre-Wells Submission is a relatively recent practice in which the staff advises a target of a potential action and gives an opportunity to respond, but does not label it a so-called “Wells Call.”  That happens because many companies now treat the formal request for a Wells Submission as an event that should be disclosed publicly, and even the SEC staff understands that it might be irresponsible to take steps requiring the public disclosure of possible violations identified in the midst of an investigative process.)  The Wells Submission process is one in which the staff informs targets of its conclusion that violations of law occurred and intent to seek approval from the Commission to prosecute, describes the alleged violations, and gives the accused persons a chance to prepare a submission that would accompany that memorandum to the Commission.  In practice, the Wells (or pre-Wells) Submission also serves as the first chance for a target to try to convince the staff that he or she did not violate the law as alleged by the staff.  The Wells Submission process is mandatory – the staff cannot avoid it.  But when the Wells Submission is drafted, the accused only has access to whatever materials he or she has been able to gather without any subpoena authority – either from those that may have submitted them to the SEC, if they choose to share them, or those the SEC staff agrees to allow them to see.

(As an aside, historically, Wells Submissions “back in the day” were often helpful in convincing the staff not to move forward with the charges, or least to mitigate them.  But in more recent years, Wells Submissions are much less likely to succeed at avoiding a proceeding along the lines originally proposed by the staff.  In fact, many experienced members of the securities defense bar now advise that no submission be made because it mostly provides the staff with a roadmap of a future defense of the accused.)

The end result is that when an enforcement proceeding is commenced, the SEC staff has already, usually for several years, been: (1) reviewing a large amount of relevant evidence; (2) developing an “investigative record” molded to support their charges; (3) producing witness testimony that often is slanted in favor of the staff’s theories because of the way those examinations are conducted; (4) gathering information about likely testimony of potential additional witnesses in secret interviews that are not transcribed; and (5) obtaining information about the likely defenses of the accused violators through the Wells Submission process.  In contrast, the accused violators have limited information. Indeed, in many cases, their defense counsel was often not even involved in the investigation because it was not until a late stage (a Wells Call) that the actual targets were identified, and often only at that time do they obtain separate counsel to defend the threatened case against them.

The SEC’s New Proposed Discovery Rules Are Plainly Unfair

This context makes it painfully clear that the current discovery provisions for administrative proceedings in the SEC’s Rules of Practice are designed to handcuff defense counsel and prevent a fair opportunity to develop a reasonable defense.  We won’t here belabor the shortcomings of those existing rules.  The facts speak for themselves.  Defense counsel are given an extremely limited period to learn the record and develop a defense, even in cases in which millions of pages of documents were produced, and the SEC staff has had years to sift through and analyze them. Defense counsel has no right to depose any witness except in very limited circumstances.  Investigative transcripts are typically admitted into evidence with no right to cross examination on the fiction that they provide a reliable picture of the facts.  The SEC staff is rarely required to provide access to its non-transcribed interviews, and often is not even required even to identify the people that were interviewed.  Relevant evidence in the SEC’s possession is rarely required to be produced if it lies outside the narrow confines of the so-called “investigative record,” even when the SEC staff has access to plainly relevant materials located elsewhere.  None of these limitations applies if the case is brought in federal court.

The new proposed rules do almost nothing to remedy this.  They allow an arbitrary number of depositions that is divorced from any analysis of what cases really require, and from any recognition that these are far from “one size fits all” cases.  They allow only modest and plainly insufficient increases in time to prepare the case for trial.  The periods chosen fail to take account of the fact that the SEC staff has years to prepare a case and the defense merely months.  They also reflect no effort to analyze the trial preparation needs of these cases in federal courts, at least as a baseline for figuring out what might be reasonable in the administrative forum.  Amazingly, no effort is made to analyze whether the demonstrable advantage the SEC staff has in access to evidence and witnesses, and in preparation time, may impact the fairness of the proceedings.  These failures are quintessential examples of arbitrary and capricious decision-making under the Administrative Procedure Act.

This post is focused on the inadequacy of the proposed revisions to Rule of Practice 233 with regard to the provision for depositions.  The proposed new Rule 233 would allow depositions as follows:

(1) “If the proceeding involves a single respondent . . . , the respondent may file written notices to depose no more than three persons, and the Division of Enforcement may file written notices to depose no more than three persons”; and

(2) “If the proceeding involves multiple respondents, the respondents collectively may file joint written notices to depose no more than five persons, and the Division of Enforcement may file written notices to depose no more than five persons. The depositions . . . shall not exceed a total of five depositions for the Division of Enforcement, and five depositions for all respondents collectively.”

This proposed provision is arbitrary, capricious, and blatantly unfair in several respects.

First, without any consideration or analysis of the imbalance between the SEC staff and the respondents in case preparation and access to evidence and potential witnesses, it assumes that the SEC staff and the respondents (as a group) should be entitled to an equal number of depositions.  By ignoring the fact that the SEC staff previously had access to many witnesses, perhaps on multiple occasions, and the defense had no such access, the proposal’s determination that an equal number of depositions for the prosecution and defense is appropriate is purely arbitrary, lacking any supporting analysis or explanation.  Indeed, it is not clear, nor discussed, why the SEC staff needs to take any depositions after having had unrestricted access to subpoenaed, sworn witness testimony during the entire investigative process.

Second, apart from that fundamental shortcoming, the determination that in cases with multiple respondents, the SEC staff should be entitled to five depositions while the respondents as a group must split five depositions (i) lacks any basis or analysis; (ii) places respondents in a position of having to compete for limited depositions without any discussion of why this is appropriate; (iii) assumes – without support in either theory or common practice – that the respondents as a group will be able to agree on how to divide the five depositions, and fails to discuss the impact of potential conflicts among the respondents; and (iv) ignores a wealth of experience about fair ways to divide limited numbers of depositions among a plaintiff and multiple defendants.  It also chooses an approach that differs greatly from what typically is adopted in the courts in similar situations, without any indication that the Commission has even considered those precedents, or why, if that consideration occurred, the judicial precedents were ignored.  The notion that in a proceeding brought by the SEC against five respondents, the SEC staff is entitled to five depositions while each respondent is entitled to only one defies logic or common sense, and the Commission attempts to provide no reasoned explanation for this arbitrary decision.

Third, even apart from the division of depositions among the parties, no rationale or reasoned explanation is given for the number of depositions permitted.  One would expect that a reasoned process would develop data about the historic need for deposition discovery in comparable cases in federal court, along with analysis of whether reductions in those numbers could be justified in the name of efficiency without sacrificing fairness.  There is no indication by the Commission that it undertook any such analysis or made any such considerations.  In fact, in factually challenging cases, it would not be unusual to have ten to thirty fact depositions in a federal court case, followed by at least two expert depositions per side.  Perhaps some of these could be avoided, but there is no analysis of either the common practice in federal court, or how that could be improved upon in the administrative court.

Out of curiosity, I did a little research to see how many depositions are permitted by the courts — usually based on a stipulation between the SEC and defendants — in SEC enforcement actions in federal court.  As noted above, this certainly is an analysis the Commission should have done before picking its own number.  My research was limited to a few of the enforcement cases reported to have been litigated by the SEC in recent years.  I did not find any case that did not permit at least 10 fact depositions for each side (expert depositions would be additional).  The number could be much larger.  In SEC v. Cuban (N.D. Tex.), each side was permitted 10 fact depositions, by mutual agreement; in SEC v. Steffes (N.D. Ill.), each side was permitted to depose “more than ten witnesses”; in SEC v. Kovzan (D. Kan.), each side was permitted 15 fact depositions; in SEC v. Anselm Exploration (D. Col.), each side was permitted 20 depositions, by mutual agreement; in SEC v. Collins & Aikman Corp. (S.D.N.Y.), the parties proposed that the SEC could notice 25 depositions and multiple defendants could notice 50, and the court allowed 15 fact depositions by the SEC and 20 fact depositions by defendants; in SEC v. Jensen (C.D. Cal.), each side was permitted 30 fact depositions, by joint agreement; in SEC v. Moshayedi (C.D. Cal., each side was allowed 25 fact depositions, by joint agreement; and in SEC v. Mudd (S.D.N.Y.), each side was permitted 75 fact depositions by joint agreement, plus as many expert depositions as there were experts designated.

Another possible approach, would be to look at the number of investigative witnesses examined by the SEC staff in these cases, plus the number of witnesses subject to informal SEC interviews, as a starting point for figuring out how many examinations the defense should be permitted.  There is no indication that the Commission did any such analysis, or even took that factor into account.

So where, exactly, is origin for the notion that five depositions (including expert depositions) is fair and sufficient?   We don’t know, because no effort is made to explain, or justify, the choice.  There is simply a number (the number 5) plucked out of the air.  Perhaps a commissioner was a fan of the famous William Carlos Williams poem “The Great Figure”:

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
firetruck
moving
tense
unheeded
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

 

Or perhaps a commissioner was fond of the painting by Charles Demuth in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “The Figure 5 in Gold,” made in homage to the Williams poem (see Where Paint and Poetry Meet).  I could understand that, because that was my favorite artwork as a kid.

Charles Demuth - The Figure 5 in Gold

Charles Demuth – The Figure 5 in Gold

Whatever may have occurred to yield the number 5, nothing we have been told suggests anything other than purely arbitrary decision-making.

Fourth, choosing a number as small as five for the number of depositions permitted (and even fewer per respondent for multiple respondents) obviously advantages the party with more access to information and witnesses outside of the deposition process, which is the SEC staff.  If a larger, and more reasonable, number were chosen, at least the defense might have an opportunity to catch up to the SEC in access to possible witnesses, learning the facts and evidence, and preparing for trial, by taking full advantage of its allocation.  But with at most five depositions permitted, this will almost never occur because most of these cases have many more potential fact witnesses (not to mention experts).

Fifth, even within the limited number of depositions, the proposed new rules also hamstring the defense of cases by limiting the witnesses the defense may subpoena.  Remember, the SEC staff has free-ranging access to witnesses during its investigation using its subpoena power, without having to sustain the burden of showing why those witnesses should be examined.  But the Commission’s proposed limit on who can be deposed places a burden and limitation on the defense, even beyond the meager numbers, because it requires that motions to quash deposition subpoenas be granted unless the party can show that the proposed deponent (i) “was a witness of or participant in any event, transaction, occurrence, act, or omission that forms the basis for any claim asserted by the Division of Enforcement, or any defense asserted by any respondent in the proceeding”; (ii) “is a designated as an ‘expert witness’” [sic]; or (iii) “has custody of documents or electronic data relevant to the claims or defenses of any party.”  The rationale given for this limitation is that: “This provision should encourage parties to focus any requested depositions on those persons who are most likely to yield relevant information and thereby make efficient use of time during the prehearing stage of the proceeding.”  But the limited number of depositions already creates ample pressure to make the best use of them, and if the defense values a deposition sufficiently to use a precious slot on a deponent even if he or she is not “a witness or participant” in the matters at issue, or a designated expert, the Commission provides no rational reason why that should not be permitted.

For example, in cases involving allegations of scienter based on a theory that the respondent’s conduct was “reckless,” the critical issue in the case may be determining the appropriate industry standard against which the judge could compare the conduct proved to determine whether it departs from that standard so egregiously that it was “reckless.”  A key witness on that issue may be one who has knowledge of the industry standard or practice — not necessarily as an expert, but as an industry participant giving fact testimony.  In fact, the fact testimony of several such witnesses could be highly relevant, until they became unduly cumulative, by which time the key factual point would be made.  Under the SEC’s limitation, such a person, who was not “a witness or participant” in an act that forms the basis for the claim, could not be deposed.  But it is hard to imagine any rational reason why that deposition testimony should be barred.  Indeed, it would seem likely that providing such evidence to the ALJ by means of a deposition transcript would be much more efficient and economic than hearing the testimony live.

Finally, there is no discussion at all about why it is appropriate to choose a single number for depositions without regard to the nature of the case, the complexity of the facts, the number of experts to be used, the length and complexity of the investigation, or any of the myriad of factors that differentiate cases from one another.  In other words, the very decision of choosing a single maximum number of permitted depositions for all cases lacks any discussion or support.  It also flies in the face of reason, reality, and years of litigation experience.  There is a reason why the number of depositions in federal court civil cases is a discovery issue to be discussed by the parties and ultimately decided by the presiding judge.  As the precedents discussed above show, cases differ, and discovery needs differ with them.  The decision to choose a single maximum number for all cases regardless of their nature and needs is by all appearances a capricious choice, even without regard to the fact that the number chosen is unconscionably low.

There no doubt are more reasons why the arbitrary choice of five depositions, to be divided among all of the respondents, lacks any reasonable basis.  But the point is sufficiently made already.  The Commission’s proposal on depositions reflects more whim than anything else.  The level of analysis of the issue and reasoned consideration of the options is pathetic.  The retention of an inherently unfair process that favors the SEC staff and undermines the defense is so clear that one can only assume it was intended.  If adopted by the Commission in a final rule, it should be challenged, and should be overturned by the court of appeals.

In Part III of our analysis of the SEC proposal, we will examine some of the other respects in which the Commission’s proposed rule changes assure that the SEC staff will continue to have a distinct advantage over respondents in the SEC’s administrative proceedings.

Straight Arrow

November 5, 2015

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Upon Further Review, SEC Memo on Use of Administrative Courts Was Indeed a Fumble

Penalty Flag“Upon further review,” as they say in the NFL, was the SEC’s recent “Division of Enforcement Approach to Forum Selection in Contested Actions,” entitled to a better call than we gave it in our Friday post: SEC Attempts To Stick a Thumb in the Dike with New Guidelines for Use of Administrative Court?  The definitive answer is: “No.”  The SEC clearly fumbled the ball with this publication, and made itself look pretty silly doing it.  I’m going to add a penalty flag.

SEC Chair Mary Jo White (Courtesy Salon) Her approval is inexplicable and depressing

SEC Chair Mary Jo White (Courtesy Salon)
Her approval is inexplicable and depressing

Our Friday post did not discuss any of the SEC’s vague descriptions, all-encompassing caveats, prevarications, and self-congratulatory pats on the back (to itself) in this document, so we will address some of them here.  This SEC memo is the equivalent of one of those “what were they thinking?” moments we now see on the internet all of the time, like a selfie someone might take (and actually post for all to see) of the author grinning before some solemn background, like the Vietnam War Memorial.  It’s an embarrassment for what it says and what it fails to say about the serious issue of assuring due process and fair treatment in SEC enforcement actions, particularly as to non-regulated persons.

“When recommending a contested enforcement action to the Commission, the Division recommends the forum that will best Utilize the Commission’s limited resources to carry out its mission.”

A false and misleading statement in at least two respects.  The Director of the Division of Enforcement already admitted that the Division chooses its administrative forum to pressure targets into settlement (“I will tell you that there have been a number of cases in recent months where we have threatened administrative proceedings, it was something we told the other side we were going to do and they settled”), and that he believed federal court juries were not properly adhering to the required burden of proof (“Frankly, I think juries, while they’re instructed that we have a preponderance standard, I think apply a higher standard to us than preponderance”).  See SEC Could Bring More Insider Trading Cases In-House.  That has nothing to do with “best utilizing resources”; it has to do with maximizing the chance to win or force a settlement on SEC terms.  One of the key reasons for choosing the administrative forum is because it has a better chance of winning there, not to make careful use of enforcement resources.  And, as the Wall Street Journal recently documented, that is precisely the result.  The Division also makes no real effort to “best utilize” its resources in any other enforcement context.  It badly allocates its ample staff resources on investigative matters that have little overall public policy consequence.  That includes the  so-called “broken windows” approach to enforcement, which focuses staff attention on what the SEC itself describes as minor violations.  But it also includes expensive litigated cases involving trivial violations of law, even if all the allegations could be proved.  (See There They Go Again: SEC Wasting Taxpayer Dollars on Trivial Perquisite Enforcement Litigation in SEC v. Miller.)

“There is no rigid formula dictating the choice of forum.  The Division considers a number of factors when evaluating the choice of forum and its recommendation depends on the specific facts and circumstances of the case.  Not all factors will apply in every case and, in any particular case, some factors may deserve more weight than others, or more weight than they might in another case.  Indeed, in some circumstances, a single factor may be sufficiently important to lead to a decision to recommend a particular forum.  While the list of potentially relevant considerations set out below is not (and could not be) exhaustive, the Division may in its discretion consider any or all of the factors in assessing whether to recommend that a contested case be brought in the administrative forum or in federal district court.”

A long-winded way of saying: “We are going to list a whole lot of factors below, but there is no way to know which ones we will decide are important, or whether we will decide other unmentioned factors are more important.  That is, the Division will choose a forum on whatever basis it thinks makes sense, and we are not going to give you any way of predicting or understanding that decision”

“The Division may in its discretion consider . . .  [t]he cost ‐ , resource ‐ , and time ‐ effectiveness of litigation in each forum. . . .  In general, hearings are held more quickly in contested administrative actions than in contested federal court actions. . . .   When a matter involves older conduct, this may allow for the presentation of testimony from witnesses who have a fresher recollection of relevant events.”

In other words, since administrative proceedings move more quickly, that can justify our choice of that forum in pretty much any case.  And in an “older case” — which means, by the way, cases that Division of Enforcement lawyers have sat on for years on end — because our dilatory investigation makes it virtually impossible for any witness to remember accurately what really happened, we will lean towards the administrative forum because, in our discretion, we now think it is important to move at a breakneck pace, and not allow the defense the time to develop a complete understanding of the record or what witnesses may say at trial.

“The additional time and types of pre‐trial discovery available in federal court may entail both costs and benefits, which should be weighed under the facts and circumstances of a case.  Although pre‐trial discovery procedures exist in both administrative proceedings and district court actions, the mechanisms of discovery are different.  For example, in administrative proceedings, the Division must produce to respondents all non‐privileged documents from its case file and the Division has Brady and Jencks obligations, requirements that do not exist in civil district court litigation.  On the other hand, depositions are available in district court but generally not in administrative proceedings.”

This is no more than a transparent effort to create the misleading impression that a sow’s ear could be something other than a sow’s ear.  No aspect of the discovery limits in administrative proceedings are beneficial to a respondent.  The restrictions on discovery may be the single-most unfair aspect of these proceedings, but the SEC portrays them here as cutting both ways.  Hogwash! (In keeping with the sow metaphor.)  The lack of depositions, the inability to pursue reasonable discovery against the SEC, the more restrictive approach to third-party discovery (including that every subpoena must get prior approval from the ALJ, inevitably over opposition from the Division), and the incredibly short time-frame for doing any independent development of evidence, all mire the administrative respondent in a sloppy mud pen.  The SEC, however, had many years to develop its own case (and now uses its own delay as a reason to avoid court!), and no obligation to do so in a way that actually makes a fair record (in investigative testimony, leading and misleading questions, hiding key evidence from witnesses, vague questions that can be later misconstrued, and avoiding any discussion of exculpatory evidence, are the norm).  So the much-touted production of “all non-privileged documents from its case file” is a laugher as a benefit to the respondent.  The same production would be required in court (and typically is made by the SEC at the outset without waiting for a request), and intelligent discovery requests will be able to garner all Brady and Jencks material as well.  Not to mention the fact that the Division’s concept of what is “non-privileged” means they often refuse to produce many materials based on privilege claims (attorney-client, work-product, and the all-encompassing “deliberative process privilege”) that would not (and do not) withstand challenge in court.  But administrative judges are much more reluctant to force discovery on the Division, or the SEC more broadly, than federal court judges.

“Administrative Law Judges, who adjudicate securities law cases, and the Commission develop extensive knowledge and experience concerning the federal securities laws and complex or technical securities industry practices or products. . . .  If a contested matter is likely to raise unsettled and complex legal issues under the federal securities laws, or interpretation of the Commission’s rules, consideration should be given to whether, in light of the Commission’s expertise concerning those matters, obtaining a Commission decision on such issues, subject to appellate review in the federal courts, may facilitate development of the law.”

The hubris!  This could be the most offensive factor of all.  It suggests that administrative law judges and SEC Commissioners are better-suited to decide “unsettled and complex legal issues” to “facilitate development of the law” than federal court judges.  Let me see if I have this right.  An appointee not required to meet anything close to the standards that apply to federal judges is better to decide complex issues and the development of the law?  And Commissioners, who have virtually no adjudicative experience at all when they are appointed, all of a sudden become better at considering “complex and unsettled legal issues” when they are confirmed?  I think not.  Nor does district judge Jed Rakoff, who gave the exact opposite view on this issue (moving cases from the federal courts to the SEC’s captive administrative court “hinders the balanced development of the securities laws”).  See Judge Rakoff Slams SEC for Increased Use of Administrative Proceedings.

The SEC was not content here to talk about technical applications of SEC rules in the securities industry — as to which they could at least have a theoretical basis for making such an argument based on supposed agency expertise.  They argue here that ALJs and Commissioners may be viewed as better able to decide complex legal issues wholly apart from technical SEC regulatory compliance issues — for example, whether a non-regulated corporate official engaged in fraud in some respect or another.  There is no way to support the argument that ALJs or SEC Commissioners are better situated to decide complex and unsettled issues involving fraud allegations than federal judges.  The obvious example is insider trading cases, as to which the law is so nuanced, and so bound up in considerations of fraud and fiduciary obligation, that federal court judges are much more likely to get it right.  (The exact view expressed by Judge Rakoff: see Judge Rakoff PLI Speech.)  That doesn’t even take into consideration the fact the federal judges (and juries) are not conflicted on these cases like the SEC Commissioners are.  Only after having first approved the filing of a prosecution, and likely having rejected a proffered settlement as insufficient, do the Commissioners decide these cases, including whether to adopt views of the facts or the law that may be inconsistent with their own decision to prosecute.

As an attempt to make public policy, this document is an embarrassment.  Its objective is not to determine when an administrative forum is a fairer and more appropriate forum in which to litigate enforcement actions against non-regulated persons.  It is to provide a justification for any decision the SEC may make about where to litigate its cases, and to be able to argue that those decisions deserve deference because they reflect a reasoned agency determination under an adopted set of guidelines

The fact that Chair Mary Jo White signed off on such an atrocity is depressing, and, frankly, inexplicable.

Straight Arrow

May 11, 2015

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