Tag Archives: Eleventh Circuit

7th Circuit Rules for SEC, Affirming Dismissal of Bebo Case on Jurisdictional Grounds

On August 24, 2015, the Seventh Circuit handed the SEC a major victory in the ongoing battle over alleged constitutional infirmities of the SEC’s administrative judicial process.  It agreed with the lower court that Laurie Bebo’s federal court challenge to her administrative proceeding cannot be heard in the case filed by her seeking injunctive relief against an SEC administrative proceeding.  The court found that the circumstances of Bebo’s case were such that she was required to wait to present her constitutional objections before a federal appellate court on review of whatever action the SEC might ultimately take against her.  The opinion can be read here: 7th Circuit Decision in Bebo v. SEC.

The court found that the Bebo case — and presumably others like hers — was not like the PCAOB case in which the Supreme Court decided the constitutional challenge could be heard immediately, in Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, 561 U.S. 477 (2010).  The court summarized: “It is ‘fairly discernible’ from the statute that Congress intended plaintiffs in Bebo’s position ‘to proceed exclusively through the statutory review scheme’ set forth in 15 U.S.C. § 78y.  See Elgin v. Dep’t of Treasury, 567 U.S. —, 132 S. Ct. 2126, 2132–33 (2012).  Although § 78y is not ‘an exclusive route to review’ for all types of constitutional challenges, the relevant factors identified by the Court in Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, 561 U.S. 477, 489 (2010), do not adequately support Bebo’s attempt to skip the administrative and judicial review process here.  Although Bebo’s suit can reasonably be characterized as ‘wholly collateral’ to the statute’s review provisions and outside the scope of the agency’s expertise, a finding of preclusion does not foreclose all meaningful judicial review. . . .  And because she is already a respondent in a pending administrative proceeding, she would not have to ‘‘bet the farm … by taking the violative action’ before ‘testing the validity of the law.’’ . . .  Unlike the plaintiffs in Free Enterprise Fund, Bebo can find meaningful review of her claims under § 78y.”

The court then addressed the arguments in greater detail:

The statutory issue here is a jurisdictional one: whether the statutory judicial review process under 15 U.S.C. § 78y bars district court jurisdiction over a constitutional challenge to the SEC’s authority when the plaintiff is the respondent in a pending enforcement proceeding.  Where the statutory review scheme does not foreclose all judicial review but merely directs that judicial review occur in a particular forum, as in this case, the appropriate inquiry is whether it is “fairly discernible” from the statute that Congress intended the plaintiff “to proceed exclusively through the statutory review scheme.” Elgin v. Dep’t of Treasury, 567 U.S. —, 132 S.Ct. 2126, 2132–33 (2012). 

This inquiry is claim-specific.  To find congressional intent to limit district court jurisdiction, we must conclude that the claims at issue “are of the type Congress intended to be reviewed within th[e] statutory structure.”  Free Enterprise Fund, 561 U.S. at 489, quoting Thunder Basin Coal Co. v. Reich, 510 U.S. 200, 212 (1994).  We examine the statute’s text, structure, and purpose. . . .

. . . .  Our focus in this appeal is whether Bebo’s case is sufficiently similar to Free Enterprise Fund to allow her to bypass the ALJ and judicial review under § 78y.  Based on the Supreme Court’s further guidance in Elgin, we believe the answer is no.

. . . .

Read broadly, the jurisdictional portion of Free Enterprise Fund seems to open the door for a plaintiff to gain access to federal district courts by raising broad constitutional challenges to the authority of the agency where those challenges (1) do not depend on the truth or falsity of the agency’s factual allegations against the plaintiff and (2) the plaintiff’s claims do not implicate the agency’s expertise.  That’s how Bebo reads the case.  She argues that Free Enterprise Fund controls here because her complaint raises facial challenges to the constitutionality of the enabling statute (§ 929P(a) of Dodd-Frank) and to the structural authority of the agency itself, and the merits of those claims do not depend on the truth or falsity of the SEC’s factual claims against Bebo or implicate the agency’s expertise.  While Bebo’s position has some force, we think the Supreme Court’s more recent discussion of these issues in the Elgin case undermines the broader reading of the jurisdictional holding of Free Enterprise Fund.

. . . .

[T]he Elgin Court specifically rejected the plaintiffs’ argument, advanced by Bebo in this appeal and by the dissent in Elgin, that facial constitutional challenges automatically entitled the plaintiffs to seek judicial review in the district court. . . .

The Elgin Court also read the jurisdictional portion of Free Enterprise Fund narrowly, distinguishing it on grounds directly relevant here. . . .  [In Elgin, b]ecause the [controlling statute] provided review in the Federal Circuit, “an Article III court fully competent to adjudicate petitioners’ claims [of unconstitutionality],” the statutory scheme provided an opportunity for meaningful judicial review.

. . . .

Elgin established several key points that undermine Bebo’s effort to skip administrative adjudication and statutory judicial review here.  First, Elgin made clear that Bebo cannot
sue in district court under § 1331 merely because her claims are facial constitutional challenges.  Second, it established that jurisdiction does not turn on whether the SEC has authority to hold § 929P(a) of Dodd-Frank unconstitutional, nor does it hinge on whether Bebo’s constitutional challenges fall outside the agency’s expertise.  Third, Elgin showed that the ALJ’s and SEC’s fact-finding capacities, even if more limited than a federal district court’s, are sufficient for meaningful judicial review.  Finally, Elgin explained that the possibility that Bebo might prevail in the administrative proceeding (and thereby avoid the need to raise her constitutional claims in an Article III court) does not render the statutory review scheme inadequate.

. . . .  We think the most critical thread in the case law is the first Free Enterprise Fund factor: whether the plaintiff will be able to receive meaningful judicial review without access to the district courts.  The second and third Free Enterprise Fund factors, although relevant to that determination, are not controlling, for the Supreme Court has never said that any of them are sufficient conditions to bring suit in federal district court under § 1331.  We therefore assume for purposes of argument that Bebo’s claims are “wholly collateral” to the administrative review scheme.  Even if we give Bebo the benefit of that assumption, we think it is “fairly discernible” that Congress intended Bebo to proceed exclusively through the statutory review scheme established by § 78y because that scheme provides for meaningful judicial review in “an Article III court fully competent to adjudicate petitioners’ claims.”

. . . .

Bebo’s counter to this way of synthesizing the cases is that the administrative review scheme established by § 78y is inadequate because, by the time she is able to seek judicial review in a court of appeals, she will have already been subjected to an unconstitutional proceeding. The Supreme Court rejected this type of argument in FTC v. Standard Oil Co., 449 U.S. 232, 244 (1980), holding that the expense and disruption of defending oneself in an administrative proceeding does not automatically entitle a plaintiff to pursue judicial review in the district courts, even when those costs are “substantial.”

This point is fundamental to administrative law. Every person hoping to enjoin an ongoing administrative proceeding could make this argument, yet courts consistently require plaintiffs to use the administrative review schemes established by Congress. . . .  It is only in the exceptional cases, such as Free Enterprise Fund and McNary, where courts allow plaintiffs to avoid the statutory review schemes prescribed by Congress. This is not
such a case.

Although several courts have now reached differing conclusions on this jurisdictional issue (see In Duka v. SEC, SDNY Judge Berman Finds SEC Administrative Law Enforcement Proceedings Constitutional in a Less than Compelling Opinion, and Court Issues Preliminary Injunction Halting Likely Unconstitutional SEC Proceeding), the Seventh Circuit is the first appellate court to do so, and that alone is likely to carry weight elsewhere.  But this is also a strongly-stated opinion, which examines seriously and in depth the somewhat varying Supreme Court precedent.  The fact that the court takes on Ms. Bebo’s arguments directly and rejects them on the basis of its interpretation of the Supreme Court precedent makes it even more likely to be influential.

The D.C. and Eleventh Circuits may be the next appellate courts to consider the jurisdictional issue.  The D.C. Circuit heard argument on this jurisdictional issue in Jarkesy v. SEC, and it may issue the next appellate opinion.  See Appeals panel considers SEC’s use of in-house courts.  And the 11th Circuit has already received the SEC’s brief on appeal in Hill v. SEC, which it appealed from the preliminary injunction issued by Judge Leigh May in the Northern District of Georgia.  See SEC 11th Circuit Appeal Brief in Hill v. SEC.  Because Judge May decided her court had jurisdiction, and then went on to find a likely constitutional violation, The 11th Circuit briefs will address both the jurisdictional issue and the merits of some of the constitutional arguments.  If the 11th Circuit agrees with the 7th Circuit that there is no jurisdiction to bring these cases, however, it will vacate the preliminary injunction and not address the merits of Mr. Hill’s claim.

Depending on what these appellate courts do, and whether they concur in the 7th Circuit’s analysis, the door to injunctive relief in the federal courts for these alleged constitutional violations may slam shut.  That would focus attention on the merits of the claims in cases decided by the SEC on a petition for review from an administrative decision.  The case likely to be the first such SEC decision that could be appealed would seem to be In the Matter of Timbervest, LLC, in which the SEC is still receiving supplemental briefing addressing constitutional and discovery issues.  See SEC Broadens Constitutional Inquiry into Its Own Administrative Judges in Timbervest Case and Division of Enforcement Continues To Refuse To Comply with SEC Orders in Timbervest Case.

Stay tuned.

Straight Arrow

August 24, 2015

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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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Let’s Get Real: When SEC “Disgorgement” Remedy Is Used as Punishment It Should Be Treated that Way

Virtually every SEC enforcement proceeding includes a request for so-called “disgorgement” relief.  Once upon a time, “disgorgement” meant that a wrongdoer should be denied benefits he or she gained from misconduct.  As a matter of justice or fairness, that seemed hard to argue about.  There seems no good reason why someone found liable for misconduct should be entitled to retain the benefits of that misconduct.  And there would seem to be good reasons why that shouldn’t happen: otherwise one could argue we leave in place an economic incentive to commit wrongdoing, if the proceeds of misconduct exceed penalties imposed once liability is found (plus other costs of the proceeding).

But where the rubber meets the road, things get more complex.  How exactly should we figure out what the “ill-gotten gains” really are?  How do we take into account potential ongoing civil liabilities for that conduct?  Is it really “disgorgement” of ill-gotten gains if victims of the misconduct can recover those amounts in civil actions, perhaps benefited by application of collateral estoppel against the wrongdoer on the issue of liability?  Is it “disgorgement” to cause multiple liabilities for the same “ill gotten gains”?  What about other possible governmental liability for the “ill-gotten gains”?  If another governmental entity has a claim to recover some or all of those amounts, how many times should the government get to recover the gains, plus impose “penalties”?  What if there are parallel criminal and civil government enforcement actions?  Is it “piling on” to impose a “disgorgement” on top of a  criminal fine, possible criminal forfeiture, and civil penalties, which together are much larger than any possible “ill-gotten gains”?

It gets even more complex.  What rights does an accused have when he faces government actions for “disgorgement,” on top of civil penalties and other possible forms of relief?  An accused has a right to a jury trial in any criminal action, but also has a Seventh Amendment right to a jury in many civil actions.  As a relic of history, there is no Seventh Amendment right to a jury in a civil action that would, in former days, have been tried in courts of “equity.”  Should disgorgement be treated as an “equitable” remedy for which there is no right to jury trial?  Does that seem right (might one say “equitable”?) if the “disgorgement” calculation proposed by the government could result in a liability that vastly exceeds any possible civil penalty that is permitted by statute?  Indeed, does it ever really make sense to allow a “disgorgement” theory that results in findings of liability that dwarf the statutory limits on penalties that can be awarded in a case?  And what about time limits on seeking disgorgement relief?  There are statutes of limitation for criminal and civil actions, but, again as a vestige of judicial history, those statutory time limits don’t apply to actions for so-called “equitable relief.”  If actions for civil penalties are time-barred, should it really be possible to pursue stale liability claims solely for “disgorgement”?  How about if the stale claims for “disgorgement” seek amounts that vastly exceed the possible penalties that are time-barred?

These are complicated and nuanced questions, which have multiple layers of issues of fairness and public policy.  Unfortunately, the SEC has little patience for any such considerations.  It not only takes a knee-jerk position that what it calls “disgorgement” should be pursued in every case, but it opposes any meaningful restriction on how it should calculate such “disgorgement,” and opposes allowing an accused procedural rights to fight disgorgement like other civil liabilities.  Not only that, the SEC has also decided that “disgorgement” doesn’t really mean that a wrongdoer must give up his or her ill-gotten gains; to the SEC, it means that the wrongdoer must also pay amounts gained and retained by other persons as a result of the misconduct.  (As an example, just look at the SEC’s most recent effort in SEC v. McGee to get an insider trader to be responsible for “disgorgement” that includes not only the $292,000 he earned in alleged illegal profits, but also more than $1 million in alleged profits earned not by him, but by the “downstream” tippees who traded.)  And as to the calculation of “ill-gotten gains,” let’s just say that the only principle the SEC accepts in doing such calculations is that “more is better.”

Unfortunately, courts have been much too willing to accept aggressive SEC theories of “disgorgement,” which naturally has led to increasingly more outrageous SEC disgorgement calculations on the “more is always better” theory of law enforcement public policy.  The law in this area is now so prolix it is impossible to follow.  Somehow, we have reached the stage where, contrary to every sense of fairness and due process, a defendant is required by some courts to bear the burden of proving that a proposed SEC disgorgement calculation is incorrect, as long as the SEC proposal is deemed by the court to be plausible.  This judicial recognition of the concept “close enough for government work” as the rule of law in an enforcement proceeding is a mockery of due process, especially when what is at issue often may be amounts of supposed “disgorgement” that make the defendant bankrupt or destitute.  And, in a bizarre rejection of jurisprudence on the issue of causation, although the courts agree that for disgorgement not to be a form of punishment, it must be “causally connected” to the wrongdoing, some courts now accept that the proceeds of misconduct can be determined by mere “but for” causation, notwithstanding what may be, at best, strained proximity between the wrongdoing and the ultimate proceeds.  These are not just district court decisions, but influential appellate decisions in the Second and Third Circuits as well.  See SEC v. Contorinis, 743 F.3d 296 (2d Cir. 2014); SEC v. Teo, 746 F.3d 90 (3d Cir. 2014).  The SEC often takes the position that a company employee who commits or assists in a violation should “disgorge” all or portions of his or her salary, apparently on the bizarre (and, of course, unproven) theory that they were paid for the violations and not to perform actual duties as employees.  Some courts actually accept this nonsense.

In short, a combination of SEC over-exuberance, to be kind, and judicial acceptance, has resulted in bringing the securities “disgorgement” remedy far from its origins as a means of divesting a wrongdoer of his or her ill-gotten gains.  This departure raises serious questions about whether what is now labeled a “disgorgement” remedy is, in fact, a traditional form of equitable relief.  See The Equity Façade of SEC Disgorgement, and Thinking about SEC Disgorgement.  There is no doubt that Supreme Court consideration will ultimately be required.

The issue of disgorgement relief is so significant and complex, it is impossible to address in a single blog post.  On several previous occasions, we have discussed the issue in specific enforcement contexts.  The SEC v. Wyly enforcement action provided several opportunities to examine the issue.  In that case, Judge Scheindlin issued one decision describing the current state of the law of disgorgement in the Second Circuit, and then refusing to follow it because the result was so plainly inequitable.  See SEC v. Wyly: New Scheindlin Disgorgement Opinion Shows How SEC Remedy Has Gone Awry.  Judge Scheindlin also rejected some of the SEC’s more far-fetched theories of unlawful proceeds — including the notion that all of the increased value of stock the Wylys over a 13-year period should be disgorged when the only violation found was that they failed to disclose those holdings in section 13(d) disclosure filings, which certainly did not drive the increasing value of the stock.  See SEC v. Wyly III: SEC’s Overreach on Disgorgement Remedy Shot Down.  On the other hand, Judge Scheindlin ultimately awarded as a “disgorgement” for securities law violations a supposed unlawful tax avoidance that, if it truly was an unlawful tax avoidance, could be recovered by the IRS — and was actively being investigated by the IRS.  As a result, the defendants will be required to “disgorge” as supposed tax benefits either amounts the IRS do not allow them to retain (meaning there are no real “ill-gotten gains” to disgorge), or amounts the tax authorities determine were not, in fact and law, unlawful tax avoidances, in which case there also is no ill-gotten gain.  (Judge Scheindlin’s disgorgement order tried to address this issue by allowing disgorged amounts to be “credited towards any subsequent tax liability determined in an IRS civil proceeding as a matter of equity,” but the effect of that determination is far from clear, since the IRS is not a party to the SEC case.  She also tried to account for the possibility that tax was not really avoided by allowing a motion to vacate the judgment if another court rules that no taxes were owed — but not if the IRS itself determines not to assert any unlawful tax avoidance — which on its face is a half-baked approach to the issue, since much tax policy is determined without a court determination.)  This is “Alice in Wonderland” jurisprudence.  See Wyly Brothers Hit with More than $300 Million Securities Law Disgorgement Order for Unpaid Taxes.  As a result of the huge “disgorgement” imposed by Judge Scheindlin, Sam Wyly, once one of the wealthiest men in America as a result of growing a huge retail and securities empire with his now-deceased brother, is in bankruptcy.

Another example of disgorgement without bounds discussed in earlier posts is the SEC’s outrageous calculation of a $2 billion disgorgement in SEC v. Life Partners Holdings, Inc., which we discussed here: SEC Again Runs Amok, Seeking $2 Billion in Texas Case.  Fortunately, the district court rejected this absurd contention: see SEC Gets Reasonable Relief in Life Partners Case — but only 2.5% of $2 Billion Request.  The combined penalties and disgorgement issued in that case still forced the company into bankruptcy.  One wonders how “equitable” that felt to the company’s shareholders, whom the SEC presumably was trying to protect.

Which brings us to the disgorgement dispute du jour: whether the SEC’s effort to obtain “disgorgement” in SEC v. Graham should be permitted because, unlike the civil remedies found time-barred in that case, the five year statutory statute of limitations under 28 U.S.C. § 2462 does not apply to the portion of an enforcement action seeking disgorgement.  Section 2462 bars government civil claims for fines, penalties, or forfeitures, “pecuniary or otherwise” if they are not commenced “within five years from the date when the claim first accrued.”  For years, the SEC argued for a restrictive reading of section 2462 which would allow it to pursue claims for five years after they were “discovered,” rather than five years from when they accrued.  That position was finally put to rest by the Supreme Court in Gabelli v. SEC, 133 S. Ct. 1216 (2013).  Since then, the SEC has been searching for other ways to pursue enforcement actions after the five-year period expires.

In Graham, the SEC alleged a classic Ponzi scheme, in which the alleged perpetrators promised wealth-creating returns to purchasers of condominium units that were to be renovated and rolled into a large, nationwide resort.  As alleged, the returns paid to investors were funded by later purchases of new investors.  Because the last condominium sale occurred in 2007, however, and the SEC didn’t commence any action until 2013, the district court held that section 2462’s five-year statute of limitations barred all of the SEC’s claims.  District Judge King rejected the SEC’s argument that its claims should continue for the requested relief of disgorgement and an injunction because those were equitable claims and therefore not subject to any statute of limitations.  On the issue of disgorgement, Judge King wrote: the “disgorgement of ill-gotten gains . . . can truly be regarded as nothing other than a forfeiture (both pecuniary and otherwise),” which is expressly covered by section 2462.  “To hold otherwise would be to open the door to Government plaintiffs’ ingenuity in creating new terms for the precise forms of relief expressly covered by the statute in order to avoid its application.”  See his opinion here: SEC v. Graham.

In our discussion of this case at the time (see SEC v. Graham: SEC’s Delay in Filing Causes Ponzi Scheme Claims To Be Dismissed) we said: “This last ruling is dagger for the SEC.  Its litigation position is always that the non-penalty relief involves equities, not penalties, which relieves the SEC of unpleasant litigation burdens (including taking those issues away from a jury).  To be fair, most courts have historically agreed with that view, although the analysis is typically thin.  But in recent years the courts have tended to take a much more critical view of the relief the SEC always seeks because it often is highly punitive, even though the SEC portrays it as otherwise.  But that is an issue for another day.”  That other day has now arrived.  The SEC’s appeal is now before the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in SEC v. Graham, No. 14-13562-E.

Will the Eleventh Circuit look past SEC’s label of “disgorgement” and recognize that so-called “disgorgement” relief has, in reality, become a harsher form of penalty than the civil “penalties” the SEC is permitted to obtain by statute?  Will the court accept the SEC argument that the “disgorgement” remedy is no more than long-standing ancillary equitable relief forcing divestiture of ill-gotten gains, and therefore not a penalty or forfeiture and not covered by section 2462?  Or will the court take note of the myriad ways that the SEC has caused the disgorgement concept to mutate in one the most severe forms of punishment in its arsenal of punitive weapons?

The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA) is hoping it can convince the Eleventh Circuit court to see things as they are, not as they are labeled.  It filed an amicus brief in support of affirming the decision below, which seeks to explain why the SEC’s actions for these so-called “equitable” remedies are government enforcement actions that are, and should be, within section 2462’s actions for “civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture, pecuniary or otherwise.”  SIFMA’s brief is available here: SIFMA Amicus Brief in SEC v. Graham.

Whichever way the Eleventh Circuit goes on this, the many disgorgement issues mentioned above will remain, and will have to be resolved over time.  Let’s hope the courts will more consistently look at “disgorgement” on a case-by-case basis, and treat it in all respects for what it really is in each case, rather than allowing the SEC to label punishment as “disgorgement,” like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Straight Arrow

March 3, 2015

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