Tag Archives: Division of Enforcement

SEC, Desperate To Avoid Judge May, Challenges Related Case Designation in Timbervest Action

The SEC really wants to avoid Judge Leigh Martin May — the Northern District of Georgia judge who ruled in Hill v. SEC that the appointment of SEC ALJ James Grimes violated the appointments clause of Article II of the Constitution — like the plague.  The Commission filed a motion in Timbervest, LLC v. SEC seeking nullification of the assignment of the Timbervest action to Judge May as a case related to Hill v. SEC because it does not properly fit the definition of a “related case.”  The Timbervest complaint was filed after another case in that district making the same constitutional argument, Gray Financial Group v. SEC, was reassigned to Judge May as a related case.  See Timbervest Files Complaint and TRO Motion To Halt SEC Proceeding.  Timbervest identified it as a case related to Hill and Gray Financial in the cover sheet for its complaint, and the Timbervest action was assigned to Judge May, but the SEC’s papers do not address the actual process and rationale leading to the assignment of the case to Judge May.  Instead, the SEC accused Timbervest of “judge shopping” by checking the “related case” box.  By all appearances, however, it is the SEC that is “judge shopping” with this motion — shopping for any N.D. Ga. judge other than Judge Leigh Martin May.

The SEC’s motion can be read here: SEC motion opposing related case designation in Timbervest case.  Plaintiff’s response can be read here: Plaintiff’s response to SEC reassignment motion in Timbervest.

The SEC’s argument is that cases are “related” for purposes of judicial assignment in the Northern District of Georgia only if they arise out of common facts (“Plaintiffs noted the supposed relationship between their case, on the one hand, and Hill and Gray on the other, by checking a box on their civil cover sheet allowing for the designation of cases as related if they ‘involve the same issue of fact or arise[] out of the same event or transaction included in an earlier numbered pending suit.’”)  But, the SEC argues, the court’s Internal Operating Procedures establish that “a case is NOT related if it has the same LEGAL issue. . . .”  (quoting Rule 905-2(a)).  The SEC contends that Hill, Gray Financial, and Timbervest all present a common legal issue about the validity of the appointment of ALJs, but they arise out of very different facts (i.e., the SEC’s factual contentions of law violations are different in each case): “the cases do not arise out of the same event or transaction. To the contrary, the cases arise out of different administrative proceedings involving different respondents.”

This argument conflates the facts relevant to the SEC’s charges in the administrative cases with those relevant to the plaintiffs’ complaints pending before the district court.  Each of these cases — that is, each of the federal court complaints — turn on essentially identical facts about the appointments of, powers granted to, and removal limitations for, the ALJs presiding over the proceedings.  The critical facts at issue are not the underlying violations of law charged by the SEC, but the nearly identical facts surrounding the appointment of the ALJs assigned to hear the three administrative cases, the President’s control (or lack thereof) over those ALJs, and the powers they exercise as ALJs.

In fact, the SEC itself previously argued to Judge May that the only relevant facts in the Hill case are the circumstances of the appointment of ALJ James Grimes (see SEC Says It Will Appeal Hill v. SEC Decision, Seek To Stay the Case, and Try To Prevent Discovery).  Since the Timbervest complaint alleges that the same circumstances apply to the appointment of ALJ Cameron Elliot, who presided over the Timbervest administrative trial, the SEC should be in agreement that the material issues in each of those cases “involve the same issue of fact.” 

But putting aside the merits of the SEC’s argument, it is difficult to understand why the SEC cares about whether the Timbervest case is assigned to the same or a different judge than the Hill and Gray Financial cases.  The SEC already informed Judge May that it will be appealing her preliminary injunction order to the 11th Circuit.  See SEC Says It Will Appeal Hill v. SEC Decision, Seek To Stay the Case, and Try To Prevent Discovery.  Given the fact that this issue is going up on appeal no matter what, why make a desperate motion to reassign a case turning on what is acknowledged to be an identical legal issue to another judge in the same district?  The legal issue is going to be heard de novo by the court of appeals; there is little or no value in trying to force another judge to labor on another opinion.  And even if the case were reassigned, the strong likelihood is that a different judge in the same district would defer to Judge May’s opinion — which, whether ultimately right or wrong, is thoughtful and certainly not off the wall — rather than labor through the complex analysis again, knowing that the 11th Circuit will be ruling soon in any event.

So, even putting aside the questionable legal arguments made by the Commission, the problem with this motion to reassign the Timbervest case is that it just doesn’t make a lot of tactical, strategic, or common sense.  The filing of the motion, together with a bevy of other questionable recent decisions made by the Commission on the issues raised over the last year about the SEC’s administrative enforcement practices, leaves the impression that very little thought is being given to an overall plan for dealing with what is plainly an important problem.  (Three examples come immediately to mind: the publication without hearings or comment of slapdash and plainly meaningless guidelines for bringing cases administratively, which have been roundly ridiculed by commentators; the recent debacle where the Commission asked ALJ Elliot for an affidavit on bias issues and Mr. Elliot declined to do so; and the Commission’s apparent paralysis in responding to remarks by former ALJ Lillian McEwen about possible systemic biases in the administrative court.)  See Upon Further Review, SEC Memo on Use of Administrative Courts Was Indeed a Fumble; SEC ALJ Cameron Elliot Declines To Submit Affidavit “Invited” by the Commission; and Fairness Concerns About Proliferation of SEC Administrative Prosecutions Documented by Wall Street Journal.

Most everything the SEC is doing now with these cases, and on the critical issues raised by the Commission’s increased use of administrative enforcement actions, seems without rhyme or reason.  The Commission and its staff need to sit back, take a deep breath, and figure out how to get to a resolution of these serious concerns with minimal chaos and upheaval, both in the courts and in its own administrative court.  Right now, that is just not happening, and the resulting turmoil is saddening and a bit frightening.

Straight Arrow

June 17, 2015

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SEC ALJ Cameron Elliot Declines To Submit Affidavit “Invited” by the Commission

On June 4, 2015, we discussed the SEC’s Order in In the Matter of Timbervest LLC “inviting”  administrative Law judge Cameron Elliot to submit an affidavit “addressing whether he has had any communications or experienced any pressure similar to that alleged in the May 6, 2015 The Wall Street Journal article, ‘SEC Wins With In-House Judges,’ and whether he is aware of any specific instances in which any other Commission ALJ has had such communications or experienced such pressure.”  See SEC “Invites” ALJ Cameron Elliot To Provide Affidavit on Conversations “Similar” to Those Described by Former ALJ.  Well, ALJ Elliot either doesn’t think that fits his job description, or he just doesn’t like the idea of providing a sworn declaration to the SEC.  On June 9, after considering the matter for four days, he tersely declined the invitation, saying only “I respectfully decline to submit the affidavit requested.”  (This does suggest that, at least as to this ALJ, the President or his proxies at the Commission do not have much sway over an ALJ who has multiple layers of protection against being fired.)

That would seem to leave the SEC in a bit of a pickle.  The Commissioners obviously thought there would be some value in gathering information on the issue of pressure on ALJs to act favorably to the Commission, which was raised by former ALJ Lillian McEwen with Wall Street Journal reporter Jean Eaglesham.  See Fairness Concerns About Proliferation of SEC Administrative Prosecutions Documented by Wall Street Journal.  The invitation to ALJ Elliot to supply data specific to him has now been rejected.  The Commission apparently still has not acted on respondent Timbervest’s request for discovery on the issue.  So what next step can the Commission take that doesn’t smack of arbitrarily ignoring the question, even after acknowledging it could be relevant?  We can only wait and see.  The Wall Street Journal reported that in a recent interview, Ms. McEwen explained that a sitting SEC judge would have difficulty discussing whether he or she felt pressure to favor the SEC, but that she said “she would ‘of course’ be happy to give evidence about her own experience” to the commissioners “if the agency decided to ask her for that.”  See SEC Judge Declines to Submit Affidavit of No Bias.

We’ve called for the Commission to commence an open, independent, and transparent inquiry into what is now at least a potential appearance of bias in its administrative process.  If that kind of review is occurring, it certainly is not open and transparent to interested observers.  The outward appearance is that there is a strange paralysis on the issue.  The longer the silence prevails, the more the appearance of this being a real issue has a chance to develop.  With the courts now for the first time showing a willingness to scrutinize the SEC administrative law process in response to challenges raised by respondents (see Court Issues Preliminary Injunction Halting Likely Unconstitutional SEC Proceeding), paralysis — or stonewalling, if that’s what it is — would seem to encourage continued chaos.  (Speaking of chaos, doesn’t it seem a little strange that in the wake of Judge May’s decision in Hill v. SEC that the appointment of ALJ James Grimes violated the constitution’s appointments clause, the SEC has taken no steps to address that issue?  Instead, following Judge May’s ruling, ALJ Grimes was appointed to preside over a new proceeding: see Order Scheduling Hearing and Designating Presiding Judge in In the Matter of R. Scott Peden.)

Straight Arrow

June 11, 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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Former SEC Enforcement Directors Spank Current Enforcement Program

On November 6, 2014, at a PLI securities conference, three former SEC enforcement directors confirmed the views of many commentators that the Division of Enforcement has changed fundamentally in recent years, and not necessarily for the better.  Coming one day after Judge Jed Rakoff’s blockbuster speech questioning the wisdom of the SEC’s determination to expand the number of administrative prosecutions, this is an additional reminder that the Commission needs to give some serious thought to the direction of its enforcement program.

Three former directors of the enforcement division — William McLucas (director from 1989 to 1998), Richard Walker (director from 1978 to 1981), and Stephen Cutler (director from 2001 to 2005) – criticized several current SEC enforcement practices or policies and questioned the allocation of enforcement resources.  Each of these lawyers is now either defending enforcement investigations (McLucas at WilmerHale), or serving a major financial institution subject to SEC review (Walker at Deutsche Bank, and Cutler at J.P. Morgan Chase), so some might discount the criticism as parochial.  But they are each, at the core, former enforcement directors proud of the SEC’s tradition of a fair and effective enforcement program, and their views are much more a reflection of that mindset than of duties on their new turf.

McLucas identified two critical recent formative events as the source of changes: the SEC’s embarrassing miss on the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, and institution-shattering 2008 financial crisis.  The first left the Enforcement Division fearful of missing key violations in virtually every case, with the result that investigations are broader, more intrusive, longer,  less focused, and often considerably less productive than they used to be.  The second allowed the prevailing view to become a “hold no quarter” approach that makes the SEC more bellicose, accusative, and uncooperative in efforts to foster securities law compliance, looking instead to impose higher and higher penalties and debilitating sanctions in its cases.  Although this is supposed to yield greater deterrence, the overall impact is to make dealing with the SEC a form of hand-to-hand combat rather than an effort to increase overall compliance.  (My words, not his.)  Although the new “unforgiving” and “aggressive” approach (his words, not mine) may create a greater publicity splash, it reduces the overall effectiveness of the SEC’s huge enforcement staff (my words, not his).

Walker, who interacts often with regulated entities outside of the U.S., described how perplexing this all is to those folks.  They fail to understand the reason for huge penalties, rigid settlement postures, and the proliferation of enforcement agencies examining the same conduct over and over again.  That concern flows from the fact that the SEC sits idly by while other U.S. law enforcement organizations go after the same organizations for additional sanctions even after an SEC settlement – think here the somewhat bizarre notion that 51 different Attorneys General in the U.S. can make a financial institution’s life miserable even after issues are resolved with the SEC and the U.S. Justice Department (my words, not his).  He also noted that the SEC’s new focus on sometimes demanding admissions of law violations as part of SEC settlements fails to give adequate consideration to the plethora of potential collateral consequences (e.g., potential loss of licenses in a range of jurisdictions) from such an agreement.  McLucas added that the SEC staff appears to have adopted a bizarre view that once they ask for an admission in settlement they will accept nothing short of that — which exemplifies a rigidity by the staff that has unfortunately become common (my words). 

Cutler raised issues about the SEC’s new so-called “broken windows” policy under which minor violations of the law will be treated harshly to make a point that all securities law compliance is important.  The resources devoted to these kinds of violations seem way of whack, and they threaten the efficacy of the broader enforcement program.  This also has the effect of ratcheting up the sanctions needed when really harmful violations are encountered.  And, to be candid, it seems more than a little pissant in comparison to the Bernie Madoff miss, and the fact that so many serious frauds on investors are “uncovered” by the SEC only after-the-fact (definitely my words, not his).

Considering the fact that these three former directors have ongoing relationships they must maintain with the SEC enforcers, their public critique was undoubtedly considerably understated compared to their private views.

In short, the SEC’s Commissioners and Division of Enforcement need to do some self-examination of more than a few “broken windows” in their own facades, and some seriously tottering infrastructure, if the enforcement program is to get back to its once-sparkling level.

Straight Arrow

November 10, 2014

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