Tag Archives: DOJ

SEC Broadens Constitutional Inquiry into Its Own Administrative Judges in Timbervest Case

On May 27, 2015, the SEC agreed to expand its own consideration of constitutionality challenges to its administrative law adjudicative process.  It issued an order asking for further briefing on whether the appointment of its administrative law judges conforms to the Constitution’s Appointments Clause.  The order, which was issued in the administrative proceeding In the Matter of Timbervest LLC et al., File No. 3-15519, is laid out below.  We previously discussed the briefing of constitutional issues before the SEC in the Timbervest case here: Briefing of ALJ Constitutionality Before SEC Leaves Resolution in Doubt.

This new development was set in motion by the May 7, 2015 Wall Street Journal article by Jean Eaglesham reporting on questions being raised about the fairness and constitutionality of the SEC’s use of its own administrative courts to prosecute securities enforcement actions for severe penalties, especially against people who were not otherwise subject to SEC regulatory oversight.  See Fairness Concerns About Proliferation of SEC Administrative Prosecutions Documented by Wall Street Journal.  Among other things, that article quoted a former SEC administrative law judge about pressure that had been placed on her to favor the SEC in her rulings.  That revelation spurred respondents in SEC actions to seek further information from the SEC about possible bias or other taints to the SEC’s administrative law proceedings.  In the proceeding In the Matter of Charles L. Hill, Jr., administrative law judge James Grimes approved a subpoena to the SEC staff for the production of documents relating to the matters discussed in the Wall Street Journal article.  See SEC ALJ James Grimes Issues Important Discovery Order Against SEC.  The respondents in the Timbervest proceeding, which is now under review by the Commission itself after an Initial Decision against the respondents by ALJ Cameron Elliot, also asked for discovery into the matters raised in the WSJ article in a filing that can be read here: Respondents’ Motion To Allow Submission of Additional Evidence and Motion for Leave To Adduce Additional Evidence.  That led to the May 27 SEC order:

On May 20, 2015, Respondents filed a Motion to Allow Submission of Additional Evidence and for Leave to Adduce Additional Evidence.  Based on that motion, the Respondents now appear to be asserting that the manner of appointment of the administrative law judges who presided over this matter violates the Appointments Clause of the Constitution.

The Commission’s consideration of the Appointments Clause challenge would be assisted by the submission of additional material for inclusion in the record and by the submission of additional briefing.

Accordingly, it is ORDERED that the Division of Enforcement shall by June 4, 2015 file and serve on the parties an affidavit from an appropriate Commission staff member, with supporting exhibits if appropriate, setting forth the manner in which ALJ Cameron Elliot and Chief ALJ Brenda Murray were hired, including the method of selection and appointment.

It is further ORDERED that the parties shall file simultaneous supplemental briefs . . . limited to the following two issues: (1) whether, assuming solely for the sake of argument that the Commission’s ALJs are “inferior officers” within the meaning of Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution, their manner of appointment violates the Appointments Clause; and (2) the appropriate remedy if such a violation is found.

In a footnote, the Commission said it was not yet deciding the Timbervest motion, including “the materiality of the discovery sought.”  The order in its entirety can be found here: Order Requesting Additional Submissions and Additional Briefing.

The SEC is treading carefully here.  We know, of course, that there is no chance the Commission will rule that its own administrative proceedings are unconstitutional in any respect, but Mary Jo White is a good enough lawyer to know she has to make a record that will not undercut the appearance of fairness in this entire process, or suggest any SEC bias in its own favor.  Just saying that shows how absurd the process is: the SEC is obviously conflicted in considering whether the prosecutions it sent to its administrative judges are unconstitutional.  That, among other reasons, is why this issue needs to be thrashed out fully before actual Article III judges in Article III courts.  Nevertheless, federal district court judges, with one exception, have ruled they lack the jurisdiction to consider the issue.  See Court Dismisses “Compelling and Meritorious” Bebo Constitutional Claims Solely on Jurisdictional Grounds; SEC Wins First Skirmish on Constitutional Challenge to Chau Administrative Proceeding.  The one exception led to a decision in the SEC’s favor that lacked the substance to serve as a compelling precedent: see In Duka v. SEC, SDNY Judge Berman Finds SEC Administrative Law Enforcement Proceedings Constitutional in a Less than Compelling Opinion.

The revelation of possible pressure on SEC ALJs to favor the SEC would be a game-changer if it is substantiated.  That introduces new elements of due process and fundamental fairness concerns beyond the separation of powers and appointments clause issues that have been the focus of most of the challenges to date.  How the Commission could question the “materiality” of that information is hard to fathom.  As we previously wrote, the only appropriate response to such a “red flag” is to commence a fully independent review of issue.  That is, of course, what the SEC would demand if a similar event were to occur in a public company, in order to avoid a later charge by the SEC and its staff of “reckless disregard” of “red flags.”  But apparently different rules govern the Commission, which seems to be placing itself above the law.

Straight Arrow

May 28, 2015

Contact Straight Arrow privately here, or leave a public comment below:

Advertisements

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

SEC Wages Desperate Battle To Limit Newman in SEC v. Payton and Durant

In addition to joining the DOJ in the effort to get the panel decision in United States v. Newman reconsidered en banc, the SEC continues to pursue arguments in lower courts to emasculate the substance of the Newman decision.  The latest example of that is in SEC v. Payton and Durant, No. 14-cv-4644 (S.D.N.Y.), which is the SEC civil enforcement action that parallels DOJ criminal actions in U.S. v. Durant and U.S. v. Conradt.

These cases all involve the same factual circumstances – trading by alleged tippees in possession of inside information about a future IBM acquisition of SPSS, a software company.  A law firm employee allegedly learned about the impending IBM acquisition of SPSS and improperly communicated that information to a friend.  The friend told his roommate and friend about the SPSS deal, who then allegedly told Durant and Payton about the deal.  We discussed the criminal cases against Durant and Conradt in earlier posts about the impact of the Newman decision here (U.S. v. Durant: DOJ Argument that Newman Reasoning Does Not Apply to Misappropriation Theory Misses the Mark) and here (First Post-Newman Shoe Drops: Insider Trading Guilty Pleas Vacated in U.S. v. Conradt).

The SEC’s civil action was originally filed against Payton and Durant in June 2014, well before the Second Circuit’s December 2014 Newman decision.  The allegations were essentially as follows. Michael Dallas, a lawyer at the Cravath firm, learned about the IBM transaction from his work at the firm and discussed the impending IBM transaction with his close friend, Trent Martin.  Dallas and Martin supposedly had a close confidential relationship, and Martin supposedly knew the information was to be kept confidential. Martin nevertheless traded securities based on that nonpublic information, which the SEC alleges was a “misappropriation” of the information.  Martin also conveyed the information to his roommate, Thomas Conradt, but there was no allegation that Martin received anything for the information, told Conradt how he obtained the information, or intended it as a gift to Conradt.  Conradt traded on the information and also shared the information with co-workers Payton and Durant.  There was no allegation that Conradt told Payton or Durant how Martin learned the information.  The original complaint can be found here: Original Complaint SEC v. Payton.

In short, defendants Payton and Durant are alleged to be tippees several times removed from the original source, Dallas, the Cravath lawyer.  The SEC pleads Martin’s communication of the information as a “misappropriation,” but it was effectively an unauthorized transfer of information from Dallas.  In any event, Payton and Durant were alleged to have no involvement in, or knowledge of, the circumstances of the Dallas to Martin information transfer, or the Martin to Conradt information transfer.

The allegations about the transfer of information from Conradt to Payton and Durant were slim, indeed.  They all were alleged to be co-workers and friends, and then the complaint alleges:

  1. On or prior to July 20, 2009, Conradt disclosed to both Durant and Payton the Inside Information, including the names of the parties to the impending transaction, the price, and that the deal would occur soon.
  2. At the time Conradt disclosed this information to Durant and Payton, he also  informed them that his friend and roommate had disclosed the information to him.

In other words, all that was alleged was that Conradt disclosed the information to Payton and Durant, and that he learned the information from his friend and roommate.  There can be little doubt that this falls short of the Newman requirement that tippees must have specific grounds to believe that the original information transfer was fraudulent.

Thus, it seems pretty plain that the original complaint failed to support an insider trading claim under the Newman standards.  But after Newman was decided, the SEC chose not to amend its complaint.  On February 23, 2015, the defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, laying out the reasons why the allegations did not support a claim of insider trading fraud against either Payton or Durant.  The memorandum in support of that motion is here: Motion To Dismiss in SEC v. Payton.

The SEC did not bother to defend the original complaint.  After the motion to dismiss was filed, it amended the complaint.  (See here: Amended Complaint SEC v. Payton.)  This is not unusual.  Like many plaintiffs, the SEC often files relatively minimalist complaints, hoping it can get by with only minimal factual allegations.  That causes the defendants to incur costs on a motion to dismiss, and allows the plaintiff to learn from the motion papers, and respond by filing an amended complaint, without even trying to oppose the motion.  (Other plaintiffs have the excuse that they often lack access to key information needed to draft a more complete complaint. But the SEC has no such excuse – it fully investigates the facts with subpoena power before a case gets filed.)  Here, the legal insufficiency of the original complaint should have been obvious after Newman was decided.  The SEC lawyers should not have caused the defendants the substantial expense of preparing motion papers on the original allegations if they knew – as they must have – that they would amend the complaint if a motion were filed.  In a fair world, the costs of preparing that motion would be charged to the SEC.

In its amended complaint, the SEC expanded its discussion of the nature of the interactions between Martin and Conradt, including alleging that Conradt helped Martin with some legal problems, and Martin was grateful for the help.  However, not much was added in the amended complaint about how much Payton and Durant knew about the Martin-Conradt interactions, or about how Martin came by the information.  Here is what the amended complaint says on that issue:

  1. Both defendants Payton and Durant had experience in the securities industry prior to their employment at the Broker. Accordingly, Payton and Durant often assisted Conradt in his duties at the Broker. Among other things, Payton and Durant gave Conradt advice on good Broker-approved stocks for clients, helped him with work problems, and provided him leads for new clients. For example, in mid-June 2009 an issue arose regarding commissions Conradt felt he was owed by Broker. Conradt turned to Payton and Durant for their advice and Payton interceded with Conradt’s supervisor. Conradt thanked Payton and Durant for their help and wrote to Payton, “I owe you one.”
  1. Prior to July 20, 2009, Conradt had discussed both his apartment and his roommates with defendants Payton and Durant. Both Payton and Durant knew that Martin was Conradt’s roommate and friend, and that Martin worked at a securities firm. Additionally, Conradt told Payton about Martin’s assault arrest near Grand Central Station.
  2. On or before June 24, 2009, Conradt told RR1 the Inside Information. On June 25, 2009, RR1 purchased 20 July SPSS call options with a strike price of $35.
  3. On or before July 1, 2009, Conradt learned that RR1 had told defendant Durant the Inside Information that Conradt had previously told RR1. Conradt then personally told defendants Payton and Durant that his roommate Martin had told him that SPSS was likely going to be acquired. Knowing that Conradt was Martin’s roommate, Payton and Durant did not ask Conradt why Martin told Conradt the Inside Information and did not ask Conradt how Martin learned this information.

In other words, there is no allegation that Payton or Durant were told anything about the nature, propriety, or impropriety, of the transfer of information from Dallas to Martin, or the reason why the information was transferred by Martin to Conradt.  The best the SEC could do on those points was alleged that they “did not ask why Martin told Conradt the Inside Information and did not ask Conradt how Martin learned this information.”

This would appear to fall well short of the Newman requirement that distant tippees have a factual basis to believe the earlier information transfers were fraudulent.  Payton and Durant are alleged to have known nothing about those transfers – for all they knew, Martin’s knowledge and transfer of the information was not unlawful, nor was Conradt’s. The complaint tries to turn that lack of knowledge into an asset, on the apparent theory that Payton and Durant had a duty to learn the answer to those questions before trading on the information.  If this theory of liability were accepted, Newman would be effectively nullified.  Even without knowledge, distant tippees would become liable for not inquiring into the basis for information communicated to them.  Here is the SEC’s memorandum arguing that the amended complaint is sufficient: Opposition to Motion To Dismiss in SEC v. Payton.

Judge Jed Rakoff, who is presiding over the case, had a hearing with counsel after the SEC amended its complaint.  Presumably, at that hearing the court adopted a schedule for defendants to file a new motion to dismiss the amended complaint and supporting memorandum that addresses the new allegations in the amended complaint.  I look forward to seeing how defense counsel treat the SEC’s latest legerdemain on stating insider trading fraud claims under section 10(b).

Straight Arrow

March 11, 2015

Contact Straight Arrow privately here, or leave a public comment below:

Law Professors Argue that Newman Panel Decision Enhances Market Integrity

Professors Stephen Bainbridge (UCLA Law School), M. Todd Henderson (Chicago Law School), and Jonathan Macey (Yale Law School) jointly filed an amicus brief in opposition to the DOJ’s petition for rehearing en banc of the panel decision in United States v. Newman. The sole point of the professors’ submission was to contest the contention of the DOJ and the SEC that the Newman decision threatened the integrity of the United States securities markets.  The professors argued that, to the contrary, the panel’s application of the “personal benefit” standard stated by the Supreme Court in Dirks v. SEC enhanced the integrity of the securities markets by reducing the “chilling effect” on lawful disclosures of a vague rule favoring government flexibility in determining when disclosures are unlawful.  The amicus brief is available here: Amicus Brief of Professors Bainbridge, Henderson and Macey in U.S. v. Newman.

As they summarized at the outset of the brief: “Far from endangering the integrity of the markets, the Newman opinion correctly applies the Supreme Court’s personal benefit test—a test founded in the Supreme Court’s explicit determination that the market must be protected from the chilling effects of standardless liability for insider trading.  The threat to market integrity comes not from Newman’s correct application of the personal benefit test, but from the government’s and the SEC’s campaign to make Dirks’s ‘personal benefit requirement . . . a nullity.’  Newman op. at 22.”  Professors’ Brief at 3.

The professors argued that the Supreme Court’s adoption of the “personal benefit” requirement in Dirks was specifically aimed at finding a way to differentiate between lawful and unlawful disclosures of nonpublic information in order to assure that lawful disclosures, which enhance marketplace efficiency and integrity, are not “chilled” by creating an uncertain prospect of liability for such disclosures under a less than clear standard.  The Dirks Court drew the line with the “personal benefit” standard: “The distinction between fraudulent disclosure, in breach of that duty, and permissible disclosure, turns on the purpose for which disclosure is made.  [Citing Dirks v. SEC, 463 U.S. 646, 662 (1983).]  The ‘personal benefit’ test is the litmus test used to gauge the underlying purpose that motivates the insider to disclose information.  Unless the insider ‘personally benefits’ from the disclosure, there is no breach of duty, and so no derivative liability if the recipient of the information trades.”  Professors’ Brief at 4.

The Dirks standard was founded on precedent and the language of the statute, but also “on an explicit policy determination to protect the market from the threat of prosecutorial over-reaching.”  Id.  The “SEC advocated for a far broader liability rule than the Supreme Court was willing to countenance.”  The Dirks Court rejected the SEC’s broader standard of illegality “on the explicit policy ground that the SEC’s rule would impair ‘the preservation of a healthy market.’”  Id., quoting Dirks, 463 U.S. at 658.  The Dirks court was explicitly protecting the ability of market analysts to “ferret out” information from insiders, which “enables more accurate pricing in capital markets and helps to assure that capital will ultimately be allocated to the highest value users.”  Professors’ Br. at 5-6, citing Dirks, 463 U.S. at 658-59.  Accordingly, “Broad prohibitions against trading based on material, non-public information—such as the SEC’s proposed interpretation of Section 10(b) in Dirks—ultimately damage the overall health of the market, because they limit the incentives of market participants to seek out information on which to trade.”  Id. at 6.

 The Professors note that the “personal benefit” test was the Supreme Court’s means of proving a “limiting principle” for investors and analysts using “objective criteria.”  Id. at 8.  In the professors’ view: “To effectively protect the socially beneficial activities of market participants operating under the eye of the SEC, requires definite and objective limits on the scope of insider trading liability.”  As the Dirks Court said, relying “on the reasonableness of the SEC’s litigation strategy” as the only assurance that activities will not be prosecuted “can be hazardous.”  Id. at 8, quoting Dirks, 463 U.S. at 664 n.24.

The professors argue that the Newman panel drew the right line.  “The Newman panel correctly recognize[ed] that the government would make ‘a nullity’ of the personal benefit rule.”  Professors’ Brief at 12.  “Newman protects the integrity of the market by placing a meaningful and objective limit on the scope of insider trading liability, allowing investors[,] analysts and insiders to function with reasonable certainty and security about whether their conduct violates the law.  In contrast, the government’s version of the personal benefit test fails to supply a standard to which market participants can reasonably conform their conduct.”  Id.

Straight Arrow

Feb. 26, 2015

Contact Straight Arrow privately here, or leave a public comment below:

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

Contact Straight Arrow privately here, or leave a public comment below:

Mark Cuban Amicus Brief Puts U.S. v. Newman Insider Trading Prosecution in Proper Context

Mark Cuban recently filed an amicus brief in the Second Circuit, addressing the DOJ petition for rehearing en banc, which provides helpful context amid the flurry of arguments made by the DOJ and SEC about the United States v. Newman panel decision.  The Cuban brief dismantles the prosecutors’ notion that the Supreme Court’s decision in Dirks v. SEC made every transfer of material inside information from one “friend” to another a sufficient basis for convicting the recipient for violating section 10(b) of the Securities Act of 1934 if there is a trade made in possession of that information.  We previously discussed the flaws in the DOJ and SEC contentions here: DOJ Petition for En Banc Review in Newman Case Comes Up Short, and here: SEC’s Amicus Brief in U.S. v. Newman Fails To Improve on DOJ’s Effort.  The Cuban brief is available here: Mark Cuban Amicus Brief in US v. Newman.

One very helpful aspect of the Cuban brief is to put insider trading law into its proper historical context.  We began to do this in one of our early posts: The Myth of Insider Trading Enforcement (Part I),  That post described how a statute that never barred insider trading was converted by SEC and judicial fiat into one that prohibited trading that the SEC thought was inequitable.  Regrettably, that discussion ends just before the critical Supreme Court decision in Chiarella v. United States, which represented the Supreme Court’s first effort to bring high-flying theories of insider trading liability endorsed by the SEC and the Second Circuit back to earth.  In particular, the long-standing effort of the SEC to found insider trading fraud on the concept of equal access to information, rather than conduct that constitutes fraud, was — or should have been — halted by the Chiarella decision.  The Cuban brief goes into some of this history, explaining how the SEC and DOJ have consistently tried to expand the scope of what is unlawful based on theories of equity among investors, rather than what section 10(b) actually does, which is to prohibit fraud in connection with securities trades.

In many respects, the Cuban brief follows and expands on our “Myth of Insider Trading” analysis (which perhaps explains why we like it):

While Congress was aware of concerns regarding insider trading at the time the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 was enacted, see, e.g., Donald Cook & Myer Feldman, Insider Trading under the Securities Exchange Act, 66 Harv. L. Rev. 385, 386 (Jan. 1953), the Act addresses only a narrow subspecies of insider trading – namely, where a director, beneficial owner, or officer personally achieves shortswing profits by using nonpublic information to make both a purchase and a sale of company stock within six months of each other.  Securities Exchange Act of 1934,404, tit. 1, § 16(b) (codified as amended at 15 U.S.C. § 74p(b)).  And even in that situation, only the company (or a shareholder acting derivatively on behalf of the company) may sue for disgorgement; there is no criminal liability, and the SEC may not bring an action to enforce the prohibition.  Id.

Despite the lack of Congressional proscription (or even intent) regarding insider trading beyond the limited context of section 16(b), the SEC has not hesitated to argue that section 10(b)’s fraud provision and Rule 10b-5 broadly proscribe “insider trading.”  Addressing the issue in In the Matter of Cady, Roberts & Co., 40 S.E.C. 907 (1961), the SEC held that a trader committed a fraud – and thus violated Rule 10b-5 – whenever he or she traded while knowing material nonpublic information that the counterparty did not.  In effect, the SEC demanded a parity of information between traders: A trader either had to disclose his informational asymmetry or abstain from trading. See Chiarella v. United States, 445 U.S. 222, 227 (1980).

This expansive view of insider trading had little basis in the Exchange Act – indeed, it went well beyond Congress’s narrow proscription in section 16(b) against short-swing trades by a limited group of insiders.  The SEC nevertheless managed to convince lower courts – including this one – to adopt its “disclose or abstain” rule, and many successful (but baseless) insider trading actions were brought accordingly.  See, e.g., SEC v. Tex. Gulf Sulfur Co., 401 F.2d 833 (2d Cir. 1968).

The SEC pressed its flawed parity-of-information rule for nearly two decades. It jettisoned the rule only when the Supreme Court reversed a decision of this Court to hold that information parity is “inconsistent with the careful plan that Congress has enacted for regulation of the securities markets.”  Chiarella, 445 U.S. at 235.  The Chiarella Court explained that Congress did not outlaw all forms of insider trading but only those that constitute fraud.  IdTrading on nonpublic information is fraudulent only when the investor has an independent duty under the common law to disclose that information or abstain from trading. Id. By contrast, the SEC’s parity-of-information rule had created a “general duty between all participants in market transactions to forego actions based on material, nonpublic information” and thus “depart[ed] radically” from both the Exchange Act and established fraud doctrine.  Id. at 233.

Despite the setback in Chiarella, the SEC continued to press for expanded insider trading proscriptions.  Three years after Chiarella, the Supreme Court again took up the issue in Dirks v. SEC, 463 U.S. 646 (1983).  There, the SEC had charged an analyst with insider trading after he had received and passed on to traders information from insiders concerning corruption at a financial firm.  Id. at 648-49.  The SEC’s position was that the analyst automatically inherited the insiders’ common law duty not to trade on confidential information by virtue of having received information from those insiders . Id. at 655-56. In other words, the SEC believed that every tippee is subject to the parity-of-information rule. Id.

Once again, the Supreme Court rejected the SEC’s view of insider trading as overly expansive. After repeating Chiarella’s holding that there can be no liability for insider trading unless there is a fraud, id. at 666 n.27, the Court held that a tippee does not per se acquire a duty to disclose or abstain whenever he acquires insider information, id. at 659. To the contrary, a tippee “assumes a fiduciary duty to the shareholders of a corporation not to trade on material nonpublic information only when the insider has breached his fiduciary duty to the shareholders by disclosing the information to the tippee and the tippee knows or should know that there has been a breach.”  Id. at 660 (emphasis added); see also Bateman Eichler, Hill Richards, Inc. v. Berner, 472 U.S. 299, 313 (1985) (explaining that Chiarella and Dirks make clear that “a tippee’s use of material nonpublic information does not violate § 10(b) and Rule 10b-5 unless the tippee owes a corresponding duty to disclose the information”).

History thus demonstrates that the SEC and DOJ will relentlessly push to expand the outer limits of what constitutes insider trading until they are reined in. But expanding the reach of the insider trading laws is Congress’s purview. . . .  And time and again, Congress has declined to define insider trading.

Cuban Brief at 5-9 (footnotes and some citations omitted).

The Cuban brief also provides some history about the failure of Congress to provide any definition of what falls inside, and outside, of an insider trading prohibition.  Despite continuing uncertainty about what is and is not lawful conduct, no clarification of the law has ever occurred, although numerous unsuccessful efforts were made.  See the Cuban Brief at 9-12.  Of course, the SEC has always had it within its power to use the rulemaking process to create more clear parameters of what is and is not prohibited.  It has never done so, in no small part because the SEC has no desire to have a clear standard that would limit the ability of law enforcement authorities to exercise wide discretion effectively to legislate the scope of what is prohibited through enforcement actions.  See our post: SEC Insider Trading Cases Continue To Ignore the Boundaries of the Law.

The Cuban brief sums up well where this leaves the state of insider trading law:

[T]he ambitious stance of the Department of Justice (egged on by the SEC in its own cases) [is] to take every opportunity to seek an expansion of the parameters of prohibited insider trading by bringing claims based on novel theories for which there is no precedent.  Without definitive guidance as to what is a violation and what is not, well-meaning innocent individuals are left in the untenable position of having to worry that what is (and should be) a lawful transaction today will suddenly be alleged by the Government to violate the federal securities laws tomorrow.

The Government, in its ever-broadening campaign against insider trading, seems to have lost sight that its underlying goal should be to assure that the markets are fair and equitable so that companies and investors are able to participate with confidence, thus encouraging capital formation. Companies need capital to grow, and investors need to know that the companies in which they invest, and the markets in which they transact, will treat them fairly. Pursuing individuals under novel theories does nothing to improve the fairness of the markets.

Cuban Brief at 2-3 (footnote omitted).

Our previous posts on Newman explain that the panel decision did not open the floodgates for insider trading or impose any new great burden on the DOJ or SEC to prove violations of section 10(b).  But even if the DOJ’s and SEC’s “sky is falling” prediction in their rehearing filings with the Second Circuit were right, reconsidering the Newman decision is not the solution to that problem.  The solution is a studied effort to define what is and is not unlawful and provide certainty in this area of the law that prevents fraud but allows trading markets to function fairly and efficiently.

Straight Arrow

February 20, 2015

Contact Straight Arrow privately here, or leave a public comment below:

U.S. v. Georgiou: 3rd Circuit Panel Decision Makes a “Mockery” of Brady Disclosures and Jencks Act Compliance

We previously discussed the Third Circuit’s flawed analysis in United States v. Georgiou of the extraterritorial application of the federal securities laws to trading activity centered abroad, based solely on the fact that some trades entered into abroad were executed with the involvement of market makers in the United States.  See Third Circuit Adopts “Craven Watchdog” Standard for Extraterriorial Reach of Securities Laws in U.S. v. Georgiou.  We now turn to a different respect in which that panel decision disappoints.  The defendant in Georgiou recently filed a petition for rehearing en banc on different grounds, focusing on the panel’s use of invalid standards in applying Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963).  The issues raised in the brief are significant.  A copy of the motion for rehearing is available here: Georgiou Petition for Rehearing En Banc.

Brady is the landmark Supreme Court decision that ended the ability of the Government to hide from defendants exculpatory evidence in its possession.  Mr. Georgiou raises serious concerns that the panel improperly limited the Brady rule, in a manner inconsistent with previous Third Circuit (and other appellate court) holdings, by allowing the Government to avoid the consequences of failing to make required Brady disclosures based on whether the defendant acted diligently to try to obtain those materials himself.  By using this standard, the panel allowed the prosecutors to get away with withholding evidence that could have strongly undercut the credibility of the Government’s key witness.  The withheld information was revealed only in sentencing proceedings for that witness after the Georgiou trial was over.

As the brief in support of the Georgiou petition describes, the approach adopted by the Third Circuit panel allowed a blatant evasion of the obligations imposed on the Government to disclose exculpatory evidence in its possession.  The degree of diligence used by the defense to obtain that same information simply should not be relevant.  To be blunt, it is not too great a burden to demand that Government lawyers satisfy their duties to make required disclosures without permitting them to insulate their failures from consequences by making an issue of defense diligence.  Whether defense counsel is diligent or not, Government lawyers need to recognize their duties and perform them, period.  Anything less undermines the criminal justice process.

Unfortunately, there is a near-constant need to have the courts assure that prosecutors meet their obligations.  Prosecutors seem addicted to trying to win cases through sharp practices rather than a thorough presentation of the facts to the judge or jury.  It never ceases to amaze me that prosecutors consistently try to minimize the effect of Brady by avoiding the disclosure of potential exculpatory material in their possession.  An attempt to deprive the defendant of information that might be useful at trial reflects a prosecutor’s willful effort to prevent a fair and just trial.  It should not be tolerated by the senior lawyers that manage prosecution teams, and it should not be tolerated by the courts.  Indeed, a knowing avoidance of Brady obligations should expose prosecutors to court and bar sanctions, and in some instances be prosecuted as an obstruction of justice.  Prosecutors routinely take the narrowest view possible of Brady obligations, but why they do so is a mystery to me.  What do they think they are achieving by depriving the defendant of potentially relevant evidence?  Do they really think that their views that a defendant is guilty as charged are so reliable that the jury should not be permitted to consider all of the evidence?  The job of a prosecutor is not to engineer a conviction, but to try to assure that a fair adjudication occurs.  Instead of allowing prosecutors to play games to avoid Brady obligations, U.S. Attorneys should demand that their assistants err on the side of producing potentially exculpatory evidence.

Since that did not occur here, it was up to the courts to elevate justice above the prosecutors’ hubris, or their single-minded desire for a notch in the belt.  Alas, that did not occur.  Instead of casting a jaundiced eye on the prosecution’s questionable disclosure decisions, the Third Circuit panel bent over backwards to justify or exonerate those decisions.  It should have held the prosecutors’ feet to the fire, because adhering to principles that foster a fair and just adjudication is far, far more important than the result in a particular case.  The Third Circuit panel abdicated its role to hold overly-zealous prosecutors in check.

The petition points out another serious error by the Third Circuit panel.  The Government never produced to the defense notes of witness interviews by Government officials of the prosecution’s key witness.  Any such materials known to the prosecutors should have been produced under Brady if aspects of the interviews were exculpatory, and under the Jencks Act because they reflect previous statements of one of the Government’s witnesses.  The panel ruled that even though the SEC was in possession of notes of these interviews, they were not required to be produced by DOJ prosecutors because they were in the possession of the SEC, not the DOJ.  As a result, in the court’s view, these materials “were not within the possession of the prosecutorial arm of the government” and therefore prosecutors were absolved of the duty to produce them, even if they knew they existed and could easily have obtained them.  That is a truly absurd position which has been soundly repudiated by other courts.  Those courts rightfully recognize that accepting this fiction would make a “mockery” of the Brady and Jencks Act disclosure requirements. See, e.g., United States v. Gupta, 848 F. Supp. 2d 491, 493-95 (S.D.N.Y. 2012).

In this case, as in most criminal cases involving allegations of key securities violations, the DOJ worked hand-in-hand with the SEC, often jointly participating in interviews.  To permit avoidance of disclosures by the DOJ based on which government employee took or retained those notes — whether they were SEC officials, FBI agents, U.S. mail inspectors, or some other agency employee — is a gross elevation of form over substance.  All of the law enforcement agencies in these cases cooperate and work together, and all of them should be required to treat these notes as jointly-held materials.  To rule otherwise does, indeed, make a mockery of justice.

Mr. Georgiou faces an uphill battle in his effort to win reconsideration of the decision or en banc review, or, failing so, in getting a grant of certiorari from the Supreme Court.  But if the panel decision stands as written, it represents an embarrassment to criminal justice, regardless of whether Mr. Georgiou is guilty of the crimes charged.

Straight Arrow

February 11, 2015

Contact Straight Arrow privately here, or leave a public comment below: