Tag Archives: equal protection

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

This is the third in a series of posts addressing the SEC’s proposals for revising the Rules of Practice in its administrative court.  These proposals purport to modernize antiquated procedures in that forum.  Our first two posts addressed two blatant inadequacies in the SEC’s proposals: (1) requiring that respondents plead in their answers certain defense theories that are not “affirmative defenses” required to be pled in response to complaints filed by the SEC in the federal courts; and (2) providing for a discovery process limited to a maximum of 5 depositions, requiring that those be shared among multiple respondents, allowing the Division of Enforcement an equal number of depositions (in addition many investigative depositions taken before the case was filed), and limiting the scope of witnesses that respondents could depose within the tiny allotment provided.  You can review these comments here (Part I), and here (Part II), respectively.

Before we turn to the third respect in which the SEC’s proposals continue and expand the unfairness of the SEC’s administrative forum, we pause to report that SEC Chair Mary Jo White publicly embarrassed herself by insisting that the current forum is perfectly fair and needs only to be “modernized,” whatever that actually means.  As reported in the Wall Street Journal, here is what she said about the new proposals:

The SEC chief said that the commission recently proposed rules to modernize the administrative law proceedings and submitted a draft for public comment.  The proposal came amid calls for overhauling the system, which critics say is biased toward the agency and provides few protections to defendants.  The proposed change, she noted, includes allowing for additional time and discovery depositions before the trials.

Ms. White described the administrative law judge system as “very fair proceedings” that offer even more due-process rights to defendants than district court.  The 2010 Dodd-Frank financial overhaul law allowed the SEC to handle a broader range of cases in the in-house court.  Still, she acknowledged that the agency needs to critically examine the system for the sake of both fairness and appearance because “the rules haven’t been modernized for almost 10 years.”

SEC’s White Defends In-House Courts, but Sees Need to Modernize.

As an experienced defense counsel, Ms. White certainly knows that what she is saying is false.  There is no conceivable way that one could describe the SEC’s current administrative litigation process as offering “even more due-process rights to defendants than district court.” Similar statements in disclosures by public companies would be prosecuted as section 10(b) frauds by the SEC itself, if they were material.  Perhaps she could beat the fraud charge on the theory that her misstatements were “mere puffery” (a defense the SEC staff itself rarely accepts).  It is sad, indeed, that such an eminent lawyer in private practice has fallen into lock-step acceptance of the SEC mantra that it is gloriously clothed and everything is really fine, when the outside world knows the opposite is true: the SEC enforcement process is clothed in rags and the administrative enforcement forum is badly in need of reform.

Now we turn to the third respect in which the SEC’s regulatory proposal for its court is grossly inadequate: The new proposals do nothing to cure the extreme unfairness of the current Rules of Practice regarding the issuance of subpoenas to the SEC and third parties.

Remember the starting point for the respective parties when a case is commenced.  The SEC staff starts after having conducted years of investigation, in which it is able to obtain virtually limitless information from any person it chooses to subpoena, or ask for a “voluntary” production of materials.  The defense, on the other hand, typically has no access to information from third parties, and may only have had at best limited access to information from co-respondents, including other respondents who settled rather than litigate the charges against them (e.g., in many cases, the company they work for).  Thus, at the start of the case, the SEC itself is in possession, custody, or control of many potentially relevant materials, and the respondent typically has very little access to most of the materials the SEC has.

In cases filed in federal court, this imbalance between the parties can be remedied by means of aggressive use of the document production and subpoena powers available under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

First, because the SEC is a party, it is subject to discovery as a civil litigant, including requests for documents in its possession, custody, or control.  Although the SEC struggles mightily in these cases to avoid discovery that typically occurs against other civil litigants, and it succeeds before some pro-government judges, the general rule is that once it files its case, it is a civil litigant under the federal rules just like any other civil litigant, and therefore subject to the same discovery rules as other plaintiffs.  In a well-publicized discovery decision by Judge Shira Scheindlin in SEC v. Collins & Aikman Corp., the judge noted tersely that “[w]hen a government agency initiates litigation, it must be prepared to follow the same discovery rules that govern private parties.”  See Case Study: SEC v. Collins & Aikman Corp. (Law 360).

Second, Fed. R. Civ. P. 45 allows defendants to issue subpoenas directly to third parties for relevant evidence, or for other information likely to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.  There is no “gateway” procedure for these subpoenas – the party need not convince the judge to issue a subpoena; it can do so itself.  The burden then falls on the subpoenaed party to figure out how to respond, knowing that the courts usually take the view that discovery should be permitted unless it plainly imposes an undue burden or obviously seeks information not calculated to lead potentially useful evidence.  What happens following the issuance of these subpoenas is predictable.  In some, but few, cases, the third party will simply comply.  In some, but also few, cases, the third party will seek to quash the subpoena in its entirety.  In the vast majority of cases, the party issuing the subpoena and the third party will enter into discussions during which they reach some agreement about what material will be provided in response to the subpoena and which requests will be withdrawn.  The end result is that the defendant can gather what he or she considers important information from third parties without having to defend that view before a judge, but also typically agrees to accept less than he or she might get if the issue were fully litigated before a judge.

In contrast, in an SEC administrative proceeding, the respondents have no subpoena power.  That is so even though their opponent – the SEC staff – was accorded essentially unlimited subpoena power during the investigative stage, and typically uses that power to gather information that would support a potential charge, not defend against one.  (That is why production of the “investigative file” is often far from sufficient for adequate trial preparation by the respondent.)  The Rules do provide for the possible issuance of subpoenas, to third parties and the SEC itself, but only by application to the administrative law judge, who decides whether the subpoena will be issued.  The ALJ places the burden on the respondent to show that the subpoena is warranted, often asking for supporting information about the materials sought in the subpoena that is not, and cannot, be known by the respondent.  The ALJ also typically sets a higher bar for discovery than the standard in federal court.  The SEC staff almost always objects to the issuance of these subpoenas because they are focused on winning, not on seeking the truth.

SEC Rule of Practice 232 governs this process.  It says:

[A] party may request the issuance of subpoenas requiring . . . the production of documentary or other tangible evidence. . . .

Standards for Issuance.  Where it appears to the person asked to issue the subpoena that the subpoena sought may be unreasonable, oppressive, excessive in scope, or unduly burdensome, he or she may, in his or her discretion, as a condition precedent to the issuance of the subpoena, require the person seeking the subpoena to show the general relevance and reasonable scope of the testimony or other evidence sought.  If after consideration of all the circumstances, the person requested to issue the subpoena determines that the subpoena or any of its terms is unreasonable, oppressive, excessive in scope, or unduly burdensome, he or she may refuse to issue the subpoena, or issue it only upon such conditions as fairness requires. . . .

. . . Any person to whom a subpoena is directed, or who is an owner, creator or the subject of the documents that are to be produced pursuant to a subpoena, or any party may . . . request that the subpoena be quashed or modified. . . .

If compliance with the subpoena would be unreasonable, oppressive or unduly burdensome, the hearing officer or the Commission shall quash or modify the subpoena, or may order return of the subpoena only upon specified conditions. . . .

This sets up the ALJ as a gatekeeper for all subpoenas.  And history shows that the ALJs are, at the prodding of the SEC staff prosecuting the case, stingy gatekeepers indeed. The end result is the inverse of the environment for document discovery in the federal courts.  Instead of giving the party the authority to commence the process to obtain documents, which gives the opposing party, or the third party recipient, the burden of having to negotiate a resolution or appear in court to defend its intransigence, the respondent must plead for the issuance of a subpoena and bear the initial burden of convincing the ALJ to do so.  Even if that happens and the subpoena is issued, the recipient (or other persons) still can move to quash the subpoena.

As a result of this highly restrictive set of rules governing subpoenas by respondents – compared to almost no restrictions for subpoenas issued by the SEC staff during the investigative process – very modest document discovery is possible in SEC administrative proceedings.

Recent cases show that an ALJ will issue a subpoena to the SEC, but only a narrow one and only in rare circumstances.  In In the Matter of Charles L. Hill, Jr., the respondent sought discovery relevant to his defense that the administrative process was biased and the administrative prosecution violated his constitutional rights.  Mr. Hill asked for a subpoena to the SEC for ten categories of materials.  ALJ James Grimes issued a subpoena for two of those categories – materials on administrative prosecutions of similar cases and reflecting allegations by a former ALJ of internal communications encouraging favoring the SEC staff in these cases.  See SEC ALJ James Grimes Issues Important Discovery Order Against SEC.  But he refused to allow other aspects of the subpoena, which included materials sought to support contentions of equal protection and due process infringements.  That order turned on a detailed judgment that the materials sought could not assist those defenses based on a merits analysis, which is a far more demanding standard than the discovery standard in federal court – whether the material could possibly lead to admissible evidence.  See Order Denying in Part Subpoena Request in In the Matter of Charles L. Hill, Jr..

In In the Matter of Ironridge Global Partners, LLC, ALJ Grimes refused to issue a subpoena for materials bearing on the respondents’ defenses of bias and constitutional infringements (see Decision by SEC ALJ James Grimes on Motion for Issuance of Subpoenas in In the Matter of Ironridge Global Partners).  He also refused to permit a subpoena of the notes of SEC staff witness interviews “to the extent those portions relate to the facts and circumstances of this case, [and] the portions do not reflect attorney-opinion work product.”  He rejected this request — which seeks factual material that has often been ordered produced in federal courts — because he found the respondents had not sufficiently shown the need to obtain those materials, including because they were unable to show specifically how portions of the materials they had never seen could be useful in defending the case.  That is a standard far beyond what would apply in federal court.  In a federal court, at the worst, on a motion to compel production, the court would perform an in camera review of the materials and typically mandate production of the factual portions of those materials.  More likely, the court would try to force the parties to negotiate a compromise.  Amazingly, ALJ Grimes ruled that the respondents’ argument that it was important that they learn what fact witnesses told the SEC about the very practices at issue in the case was not a sufficient showing of need because “Respondents necessarily already know how they conducted their business. . . .  They therefore already possess information about the facts addressed in the Division’s interview notes.”  See Third Order on Subpoenas in In re Ironridge Partners, LLC.  The notion that the need to learn about actual evidence to be presented in the case fails to satisfy the burden for supporting a subpoena shows the unreasonably narrow scope used by SEC ALJs in ordering discovery against the SEC.

The current Rules of Practice support and encourage the ALJs’ niggardly approach to granting subpoenas.  They also fundamentally alter the balance of discovery in these cases as compared to those filed in federal court.  Discovery against the SEC in the administrative forum is very difficult and always very limited.  The ALJs believe that the limited scope of materials specifically made available to respondents under Rule 230 (which is limited to the so-called “investigative file”) operates against discovery from the SEC of other sorts of materials.  The federal courts do not generally hold the same view — they note that the federal rules of discovery apply equally to all parties.  And in federal court, the ability of a defendant to cause a third party to negotiate document production by issuing a subpoena directly to that party provides access to a much wider range of material than could possibly be available by seeking approval from ALJs, who apply discovery standards far more stringent than those used in federal court, and focus excessively on adhering to the Commission-set schedule (since that is what the Commission requires them to do).

The SEC’s proposed changes to the Rules of Practice do nothing to cure this fundamental, and deeply consequential, bias allowing the SEC staff far greater access to evidence or potential evidence than respondents.  In fact, there is no discussion at all of how well or poorly Rule 232 has operated, nor any discussion of whether some changes to that rule might enhance fairness or efficiency in the administrative court.

The only material change proposed for Rule 232 is to add another reason to quash a subpoena.  No effort is made to try to equalize access to evidence or potential evidence, or to try to equalize subpoena rights between federal court and the administrative court.  But for some reason the SEC found it necessary to grant ALJs additional grounds for quashing subpoenas previously approved, adding as a new reason for quashing a subpoena whether it “would unduly delay the hearing.”  As a result, even if the ALJ found the subpoena appropriate when first sought, and it is not oppressive or excessive, he or she must (“shall”) quash the subpoena if it will “unduly delay the hearing.”  This is yet another respect in which the Commission views compliance with its (arbitrary and artificial) schedule to be more important than giving respondents a fair and just proceeding.

The document discovery process in SEC administrative proceedings is unfair, unjust, and a major reason why targets of SEC prosecutions do better in federal courts than in the administrative forum.  Since the SEC seems not to care much about any of those things, no reforms were proposed.  That is our third reason why the proposed rule changes are woefully inadequate and should be rejected as arbitrary and capricious.

Straight Arrow

November 18, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where the Parties Start Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The SEC’s New Proposed Discovery Rules Are Plainly Unfair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Charles Demuth - The Figure 5 in Gold

Charles Demuth – The Figure 5 in Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Straight Arrow

November 5, 2015

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Bloomberg View: No Kangaroo Courts at the SEC, Please!

The editors of Bloomberg View published the following important editorial comment on the SEC’s administrative prosecution of alleged securities law violations.  A consensus seems to be growing that fairness and due process trump claimed “efficiencies” is prosecuting these cases.  Recognizing that this is a serious problem (which the SEC has not yet done) is the first step in moving toward a solution.

Here is what Bloomberg View said:

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission wants to show it can be trusted with a potent weapon: the ability to act as prosecutor, judge and jury in its pursuit of financial miscreants. The real question is why it should have such power in the first place.

In the U.S., the judicial branch doesn’t have a monopoly on dispensing justice. Myriad regulatory agencies, including the SEC, have their own in-house proceedings. Originally, these were designed to handle misconduct involving people who chose to enter the regulators’ remit — say, by registering as brokers or investment advisers. Punishments were mostly limited to disciplinary measures, such as revoking registrations. The idea was to handle routine business more quickly and efficiently than federal courts.

Over the past few decades, though, the SEC’s powers have expanded immensely. The Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 gave the agency’s judges authority to impose large monetary penalties on anyone who violated federal securities laws — not just on regulated people and companies. The SEC no longer had to go to federal civil court to pursue many securities-fraud and insider-trading cases. A janitor who passed on a stock tip could end up being tried and fined hundreds of thousands of dollars without ever setting foot in a real court.

That’s a problem. The SEC’s proceedings differ from federal civil trials in important ways. The agency hires, pays and shares offices with the administrative judges. The defense has no access to a jury trial, little time to prepare its case, and no power to get its own pretrial depositions from witnesses. Appeals go to the same SEC commissioners who approved the filing of charges in the first place — and then to federal courts that tend to defer to the SEC’s judgment.

Not surprisingly, an initial push by the SEC to send more cases to its administrative judges provoked a backlash. Defendants have challenged the system’s constitutionality. Legal experts are concerned that it will usurp the federal judiciary’s role of construing and elaborating the law. To its credit, the SEC has pulled back in recent months and offered some changes for public debate. Among other things, the agency proposes giving the defense more time to prepare and the ability to obtain depositions from as many as five witnesses.

That isn’t enough — but it’s hard to see what would be, without defeating the purpose. If the SEC had to give defendants most of the rights they enjoy in federal court, it would no longer be able to deal with cases quickly.

There’s another way. If the SEC’s administrative proceedings are equitable, as the agency insists they are, both sides should prefer their speed in cases that don’t require the fuller examination of a federal court. So why not let defendants — at least, those not regulated by the SEC — choose the system in which their cases will be heard? If the SEC won’t allow it, Congress can. Such an option needn’t increase miscreants’ chances of escaping justice, and it would give the SEC an added incentive to keep its process fair.

Some have likened the SEC’s quasi-judicial system to a kangaroo court. Even if it isn’t, it has the potential to become one. It should be restrained before it does too much damage.

See The SEC’s Kangaroo Courts.

Perhaps this will cause some folks at the SEC to reconsider whether the marginal (at best) proposed changes to its Rules of Practice are an appropriate response to serious due process and fairness issues at stake here.  Or if not, maybe Congress will step in to cure the problem it started in the Dodd-Frank Act by handing the SEC jurisdiction over many more cases than it should have.  We can only keep the drums beating and hope someone listens.

Straight Arrow

October 27, 2015

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

On September 24, 2015, the SEC proposed changes to its Rules of Practice governing administrative proceedings, which Chair Mary Jo White said “seek to modernize our rules of practice for administrative proceedings.”  After resisting immediate comment pending a careful review of the proposals and underlying explanations, a considered evaluation can now be made.  Unfortunately, this proposal represents so feeble an effort at modernizing the Commission’s dated Rules of Practice that only one judgment is justified.  If the provision of fair and “due” process to respondents in these actions is the standard, the Commission’s grade is an “F+.”  If providing a reasoned and rational explanation for the proposals is the standard (i.e., do they pass muster under the Administrative Procedure Act), the Commission’s grade is an “F.”  In fact, the only way this set of proposals gets anything more than a “D+” is if the objective was to create a proposal that could act as a Potemkin Village for arguments that the Commission is acting responsibly, and even in that regard, what the Commissioners came up with was a pretty shoddy Potemkin Village.

The proposals do not even begin to analyze or address in any substantive way the issues raised in depth by commentators over the 15 months since the SEC’s General Counsel acknowledged the existing rules are plainly insufficient to adjudicate complex cases.  See, for example, Chamber of Commerce Report Details Concerns with SEC Enforcement and Proposed Reforms.

The proposed revisions to the Rules of Practice can be reviewed here: Proposed amendments to SEC Rules of Practice.

Far from representing a good faith attempt to provide procedures that would allow fair proceedings on a somewhat more expedited basis than most federal courts, the proposals do nearly nothing to alter the pro-prosecution tilt that currently exists. That tilt is well-understood by the securities bar, and was documented statistically by the Wall Street Journal.  See Fairness Concerns About Proliferation of SEC Administrative Prosecutions Documented by Wall Street Journal.  Virtually nothing in these proposals changes that.  In fact, there are as many changes designed to give even greater advantages to the SEC prosecutorial staff as there are even minor attempts to give respondents a fighting chance.

The next several Securities Diary blogs will address various aspects of the SEC’s proposal and explain why (1) they do not represent a good faith effort at creating a modernized administrative adjudicative process designed to be fair to all parties, including respondents; (2) they are not supported by anything approaching reasoning or analysis that shows the changes proposed are well-designed to achieve identified goals, but instead represent fiats by the Commission that have no support beyond an arbitrary or capricious Commission determination; and (3) they include “goodies” for the benefit of SEC prosecuting staff that achieve no meaningful goal other than to make it easier for the Division of Enforcement to win.

Today we will start with an example so egregious that it is astonishing it got past whatever (apparently feckless) legal quality control was used to winnow out staff requests for new “goodies” that cannot be reasonably justified.

One of the SEC proposals is to amend Rule 220 of the Rules of Practice to mandate that “a respondent must affirmatively state in an answer whether the respondent is asserting any avoidance or affirmative defense, including but not limited to res judicata, statute of limitations, or reliance.” Proposal at 17.  The Commission explains: “This proposed amendment would not change the substantive requirement under the current rule to include affirmative defenses in the answer.  Instead, it is intended to clarify that any theories for avoidance of liability or remedies, even if not technically considered affirmative defenses, must be stated in the answer as well.  Timely assertion of affirmative defenses or theories of avoidance would focus the use of prehearing discovery, foster early identification of key issues and, as a result, make the discovery process more effective and efficient.”  Id.

Current Rule 220 says this about pleading affirmative defenses: “A defense of res judicata, statute of limitations or any other matter constituting an affirmative defense shall be asserted in the answer.”  This provision is roughly consistent with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which require that a defendant’s Answer notify the plaintiff of all affirmative defenses he intends to present.  Importantly, “affirmative defenses” include only those on which the defendant bears the burden of proof, like res judicata, assumption of risk, statute of limitations, and the like.  In court, a defendant is not required to identify the ways in which he intends to introduce evidence counteracting elements on which the plaintiff has the burden of proof.

The SEC’s new proposal seeks to change this long-standing pleading standard by requiring that defendants identify not only “affirmative defenses” (on which they have the burden of proof), but also inform the SEC staff of the ways in which they intend to defend against the charges by refuting elements on which the Division of Enforcement has the burden of proof.  The Commission describes these as “theories for avoidance of liability or remedies, even if not technically considered affirmative defenses.”  This is an insidious “goody” to provide the prosecuting staff with (a) the right to learn defense theories of defense in advance, and (b) presumably the right to preclude certain defense theories if they are not disclosed in advance.

It is not clear what “theories for avoidance of liability” this meant to include, with one exception – the specific reference to requiring that a respondent plead in his answer any defense theory of “reliance.” This is the “tell” that shows you that the SEC staff provided a list of substantive “goodies” it wanted out of this supposed reform of obsolete procedures.  Forgive me, but understanding why this is so requires a little background.

Most of the major cases the SEC litigates involve allegations of fraud.  Fraud requires proof of scienter, that is a state of mind showing that the respondent knowingly violated the law.  The SEC, and all federal appellate courts other than the Supreme Court (which has not ruled on the issue), allow proof of “reckless” conduct to establish the required intent.  But in all instances it is the prosecutor’s (or plaintiff’s) burden to prove scienter.  It is not an “affirmative defense” because it is not a defense on which the respondent bears the burden of proof.  The prosecutor or plaintiff, here the SEC Division of Enforcement, must introduce evidence that the respondent acted with intent, and in the end, the court (or jury) can rule against the respondent only if a preponderance of all of the evidence on that issue supports a finding that the respondent acted with scienter.

The SEC staff often lacks direct evidence showing the respondent acted with scienter.  In those cases, the staff relies on their portrayal of the circumstances to show that a respondent acted with scienter, typically arguing that under the circumstances (as they portray them), the respondent “must have” acted with intent because it was obvious that they were engaging in wrongful conduct, or ignoring whether the conduct was right or wrong.  But the Staff often is faced with a problem: evidence, usually developed by the people it prosecutes (the SEC staff rarely tries to develop a complete record on this during its investigation) that (a) they did not know they were violating the law, and (b) they acted on the basis of information or advice received from others which in fact allowed them to believe reasonably that what they were doing was lawful.  Such evidence undercuts the staff’s circumstantial arguments and tips the scale against finding that the respondent knowingly or recklessly violated the law.

One, but certainly not the only, way this occurs is when respondents want to offer proof that they received legal advice that gave them comfort that what they were doing did not violate the law.  This sometimes is referred to by the staff as a “reliance on counsel” defense, but in fact it is nothing more than introducing additional circumstantial evidence that may weigh in favor of concluding that the respondent did not intentionally violate the law.  The same type of evidence could involve advice or communications from accountants or other professionals, communications from government officials (including SEC officials themselves), and even information conveyed by people with whom the respondent worked, and who could reasonably be expected to provide accurate or reliable information or advice.

(As an aside, the Commission proposal says in footnote 28: “some might argue that ‘reliance on counsel’ is not a formal affirmative defense, but a basis for negating liability.”  That is a blatant misstatement of the law.  This is not a “some might argue” issue.  There is no doubt in the law that “reliance on counsel” is not an affirmative defense – formal or informal.  Accordingly, there is no obligation in federal court to include “reliance on counsel” in the affirmative defenses in the Answer to a Complaint.  Indeed, such a purported affirmative defense could be stricken as improper.  Reliance on counsel is a form of evidence providing a strong inference that the defendant did not act with scienter because he received, and acted in conformity with, advice provided by well-informed legal counsel.)

In court, no aspect of this type of defense needs to be included in the Answer to the Complaint.  And the same is (or should be) true under the current formulation in SEC Rule of Practice 220.  But the staff hates that.  They want to know what theories the defense will use to undermine scienter, but most especially what evidence might be used to show that the respondent reasonably relied on input from another person to believe he was acting properly.  So, lo and behold, a requirement to notify the staff of any such intended theory of “reliance,” gets included in the proposed revised Rules of Practice.  Voila! One of the SEC staff’s greatest banes is removed – poof!

And what is the reasoning provided for making this major change that advantages the SEC staff in these cases?  Try this: “Timely assertion of affirmative defenses or theories of avoidance would focus the use of prehearing discovery, foster early identification of key issues and, as a result, make the discovery process more effective and efficient.”  Proposal at 17.  That is pure blather.  More of a rationale – much more of a rationale – is needed to support a basic, significant change in pleading burden for respondents that gives a major tactical advantage to the prosecution (which we know in these proceedings hardly needs additional advantages).

Slipping this change into the proposed Rules of Practice is an insidious effort to put an additional thumb on the scale in favor of the prosecution in SEC administrative cases.  If adopted in the final rules, it should challenged as, at a minimum, a significant departure from long-standing procedures that is designed to assist the SEC prosecutorial staff but lacks any grounding in a valid objective of the Rules of Practice, and hence is arbitrary and capricious.

Next time: why allowing a maximum of three depositions in a complex case (or five in a case with multiple respondents) (a) fails to achieve any semblance of fairness, (b) is proposed without any supporting analysis suggesting it accomplishes any stated goal, and (c) therefor is arbitrary and capricious as proposed.

Straight Arrow

October 8, 2015

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SEC Hit with Double Whammy Rulings Barring It from Commencing Challenged Administrative Proceedings

On the afternoon of September 17, 2015, the SEC was rebuffed by two federal courts in separate cases challenging the constitutionality of the SEC’s administrative law enforcement proceedings.  As reported here, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit granted Lynn Tilton an order barring the SEC from proceeding with an administrative trial on charges against her, pending that court’s resolution of a dispute over whether the federal courts have jurisdiction to consider her complaint that the administrative proceeding would violate Article II of the Constitution.  At roughly the same time, New York federal district court Judge Richard Berman rejected a motion by the SEC to allow it to proceed with an administrative action against Barbara Duka while it appealed (to the Second Circuit) Judge Berman’s preliminary injunction barring that proceeding from moving forward, on the very same constitutional grounds.  Judge Berman’s preliminary injunction order can be read here: Order Issuing Preliminary Injunction in Duka v. SEC; and his order denying the SEC’s stay motion can be read here: Decision and Order in Duka v. SEC.

The result is that two more administrative proceedings are now barred by court orders, joining two others that were barred by orders of Judge Leigh May in the federal district court in Atlanta.  See Court Issues Preliminary Injunction Halting Likely Unconstitutional SEC Proceeding, and Order Enjoining SEC in Gray Financial Group v. SEC.

The Second Circuit order was brief and straightforward.  But Judge Berman’s denial of the SEC’s application for a stay is filled with meaty discussions of key issues, including reiterating that several of the SEC’s positions on jurisdiction and the merits are wrong, suggesting that the SEC plays a little fast and loose with the positions it argues, and emphasizing that the SEC might want to be more proactive in addressing allegations of potential bias in its administrative court.

Judge Richard Berman - NYLJ/Rick Kopstein 100614

Judge Richard Berman – NYLJ/Rick Kopstein

On the jurisdictional issue, Judge Berman restated his belief that his court does have jurisdiction over the Duka constitutional challenge (“The Court is, respectfully, convinced that it made the correct finding of subject matter jurisdiction,” slip op. at 3), and took the time to address the contrary position recently reached by the Seventh Circuit in Bebo v. SEC, 2015 WL 4998489 (7th Cir. Aug. 24, 2015) (see 7th Circuit Rules for SEC, Affirming Dismissal of Bebo Case on Jurisdictional Grounds).  He openly disagreed with the Seventh Circuit’s view that the Supreme Court decision in Elgin v. Dep’t. of the Treasury, 132 S. Ct. 2126 (2012), was on point because the factual circumstances differed significantly.  See slip op. at 8-9.

Judge Berman also made pointed statements elsewhere in his opinion arguing that immediate consideration of the consitutional issue was consistent with Second Circuit law and the public interest.  For example: “The SEC argues unconvincingly that a party in Ms. Duka’s shoes ‘must patiently await the denouement of proceedings within the [administrative agency],” . . . .  But Second Circuit precedent appears to refute such a notion.  See Touche Ross & Co. v. S.E.C., 609 F.2d 570, 577 (2d Cir. 1979) (‘[T]o require appellants to exhaust their administrative remedies would be to require them to submit to the very procedures which they are attacking.’).”  Slip op. at 15-16 (some cites omitted).  And: “With respect to the public interest, the Court submits that it is of the utmost importance to the public that complex constitutional questions be resolved at the outset, with finality, and by application of the expertise of the federal courts.  See, e.g., Massaro v. United States, 538 U.S. 500,504 (2003); see also Pappas v. Giuliani, 118 F. Supp. 2d 433, 442 (S.D.N.Y. 2000) affd, 290 F.3d 143 (2d Cir. 2002) (‘Although often highly competent in their designated area of law, administrative decision-makers generally have neither the training nor the experience to adjudicate complex federal constitutional issues.’); Austin v. Ford, 181 F.R.D. 283, 286 (S.D.N.Y. 1998) (‘Public interest in finality of judgment encompasses the development of decisional law, the importance of the opinion to nonparties, and the deterrence of frivolous litigation.’).”  Slip op. at 16 (some cites and footnote omitted).

All of these points could be impactful as the Second Circuit considers the same jurisdictional issue in the Tilton v. SEC appeal.

On the merits, Judge Berman restated his belief that Supreme Court case law leaves little doubt that the SEC’s administrative law judges are “inferior officers” within the meaning of that term in Article II, and, as a result, their appointments are subject to limitations in Article II’s Appointments Clause.  His finding that the High Court reasoning and holding in Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U.S. 868 (1991), yields the conclusion that SEC ALJs are inferior officers because they exercised “significant authority pursuant to the laws of the United States” was not new – as he noted, he previously reached the same conclusion when he issued the preliminary injunction.  Slip op. at 9.  But it came within two weeks of the SEC reaching the opposite conclusion in its recent decision on the petition for review in In the Matter of Raymond J. Lucia Cos., Inc., File No. 15006 (see SEC Declares All Is Okay Because Its ALJs Are Just Employees and Not “Inferior Officers”), without even mentioning that decision or its analysis, suggesting Judge Berman found the SEC reasoning unpersuasive and sees no reason to defer to SEC views on the issue.  No doubt with knowledge of the specific analysis of the SEC in Lucia, he still wrote: “the SEC will not, in the Court’s view, be able to persuade the appellate courts that ALJs are not “inferior officers.”  Slip op. at 11.  Judge Berman’s bottom line: “Duka’s constitutional (Appointments Clause) challenge is (very) likely to succeed.”  Id. at 10.

On the SEC’s nimble willingness to revise its arguments to fit the circumstances, Judge Berman noted the “irony” of the SEC’s new-found emphasis on the compelling importance of judicial efficiency after it scoffed at Ms. Duka’s similar arguments in the original preliminary injunction hearing.  He wrote: “The Court’s reference to ‘irony’ [in an earlier ruling] refers to the fact that conservation of Duka’s resources was a core argument that she raised in objecting to participating in the SEC’s administrative proceedings prior to resolution of her constitutional challenge in federal court.  The SEC flatly opposed that argument, which it now appears firmly to embrace.”  He quoted his own statement during the oral argument that “I don’t understand why you reject that argument when Ms. Duka makes it but then at the same time in this Court you make the very same argument.”  Slip op. at 3 n.2.

And Judge Berman was surely making a point when he dwelled, without any apparent need, on the SEC’s opaque handling of publicly-disclosed evidence that its own administrative court could have a latent, or even intentional, bias in favor of the prosecution.  His opinion includes the following striking paragraph:

The Court is aware of recent allegations of undue pressure said to have been applied to an SEC ALJ to cause her to make SEC-favorable rulings.  “Lillian McEwen, who was an SEC judge from 1995 to 2007, said she came under fire from [Chief Administrative Law Judge Brenda] Murray for finding too often in favor of defendants.”  See Jean Eaglesham, SEC Wins with In-House Judges, The Wall Street Journal, May 6, 2015. . . .  And, in In the Matter of Timbervest, respondents allegedly sought to depose presiding ALJ Cameron Elliot, who was then allegedly invited by the SEC “to file by July I, 2015 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.”. . .  On June 9, 2015, ALJ Elliot emailed the following response: “I respectfully decline to submit the affidavit requested.”  See Jean Eagelsham, SEC Judge Declines to Submit Affidavit of No Bias, The Wall Street Journal, June 11, 2015. . . .  On July 24,2015, Chief Administrative Law Judge Murray issued an Order Redesignating Presiding Judge, designating Administrative Law Judge James E. Grimes “in place and stead of the Administrative Law Judge [ALJ Cameron Elliot] heretofore designated, to preside at the hearing in these proceedings and to perform other and related duties in accordance with the Commissioner’s Rules of Practice.”  See In the Matter of Barbara Duka, File No. 3-16349 (SEC).

During the September 16, 2015 hearing, the Court noted that it was “aware that there is some sort of flap at the SEC with respect to some of the ALJs,” that it “want[ed] to get further clarification about that matter,” and that “in this very case, [ALJ] Cameron Elliot . . . has been reassigned because he was not able or would not submit an affidavit.”. . .  While acknowledging that ALJ Elliot was removed from the Duka matter, Ms. Lin contended that “Judge Elliot has a very busy docket . . . and there is no suggestion, no connection whatsoever about [The Wall Street Journal article], about that particular former ALJ’s accusations to Judge Elliot’s reassignment in this case. . . .  And it’s not true that there would be any kind of connection.”. . .  The Court assumes that the SEC will want fully to investigate these matters.

Slip op. at 14-15 (citations omitted and emphasis added).

Apparently Judge Berman is as perplexed as yours truly when the Commission seems more insouciant than concerned in its reaction to serious public questioning of the fairness of its own administrative judicial process.  See SEC Bumbles Efforts To Figure Out How Its Own Administrative Law Judges Were Appointed; and SEC “Invites” ALJ Cameron Elliot To Provide Affidavit on Conversations “Similar” to Those Described by Former ALJ.  Indeed — although Judge Berman made no mention of this — it is downright embarrassing that 15 months ago the SEC’s General Counsel acknowledged that the Rules of Practice governing SEC administrative proceeding are archaic and need revamping and nothing has yet been done to address that issue.  See SEC Administrative Case Rules Likely Out Of Date, GC Says.  (Ms. Small said it was fair for attorneys to question whether the SEC’s rules for administrative proceedings were still appropriate, with the rules last revised “quite some time ago” when the SEC’s administrative proceedings dealt with different kinds of cases than the more complex administrative matters it now takes on or expects to take on — given the commission’s expanded authority under the Dodd-Frank Act — such as insider-trading actions.  It was “entirely reasonable to wonder” if those rules should be updated to reflect the changed situation, for instance by allowing more flexibility on current limits to trial preparation time or allowing for depositions to be taken.  “We want to make sure the process is fair and reasonable, so [changing] procedures to reflect the changes makes a lot of sense.”)

Anne Small -- SEC General Counsel

Anne Small — SEC General Counsel

When all of the dust settles on the Appointments Clause and other Article II constitutional challenges to these administrative courts, we will still be left with what every practicing securities litigator knows are vastly diminished due process rights in the SEC’s administrative courts as compared to the federal courts.  Judge Berman certainly seemed concerned about this in his opinion.  He said: “during the September 16, 2015 hearing, the SEC argued that administrative proceedings would serve the public interest because ‘it is a much faster process and it expedites the consideration and the determination of whether the underlying security violations had actually occurred and, more importantly, to impose the kind of remedy that would then help to prevent future harm.’. . .  The Court responded that ‘faster is [not] necessarily better because faster means no juries, no discovery, no declaratory relief.  In federal court you can get that . . . there’s a whole lot of protections, Ms. Duka argues, that are available in federal courts that are not available before the Commission.'”  Slip op. at 16.

If the SEC continues to be empowered to exercise effectively uncontrolled discretion over which cases are directed to the administrative courts (as a result of the expanded jurisdiction of those courts under the Dodd-Frank Act), and it continues to ignore obvious needs to modernize and balance the procedures for those proceedings to eliminate their “Star Chamber” similarities, the controversy over these actions will be unabated.

Straight Arrow

September 18, 2015

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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 Inspector General Reveals Investigation into Possible Bias of SEC ALJs

The Inspector General of the SEC issued an Interim Report on August 7, 2015 which indicated that he is in the midst of an inquiry into allegations that SEC administrative law judges may have been subjected to pressure from other in the performance of their duties.  According to the Interim Report, the “investigation was initiated on June 30, 2015, based on information provided by Erica Williams, Deputy Chief of Staff, Office of the Chair, concerning alleged potential issues of fairness and bias in the SEC’s administrative proceedings, including those introduced in the Timbervest, LLC (Timbervest) matter.”  On receipt of this information, the “OIG determined it would investigate allegations of bias on the part of Administrative Law Judges (ALJ) in the Commission’s administrative proceedings.”

The information that stirred the inquiry included the May 6, 2015 Wall Street Journal article by Jean Eaglesham, which reported that the SEC’s Division of Enforcement prevailed in about 90% of the cases sent to the SEC administrative law judges (see SEC Wins With In-House Judges: Agency prevails against around 90% of defendants when it sends cases to its administrative law judges), and a Securities Diary June 30, 2015 blog post entitled “SEC Bumbles Efforts To Figure Out How Its Own Administrative Law Judges Were Appointed.”  The Interim Report also referenced another, May 7, 2015 Securities Diary post “Fairness Concerns About Proliferation of SEC Administrative Prosecutions Documented by Wall Street Journal,” which reported on the content of the May 6 Wall Street Journal article.

Ms. Williams told the OIG that “Chair Mary Jo White requested an OIG investigation of the alleged bias issue because the identified concerns could impact all ALJs and the SEC administrative proceedings.  The Interim Report can be read here: Interim Report of Investigation by SEC Office of Inspector General into Possible SEC ALJ Bias.

The Interim Report says:

The OIG reviewed the Securities Diary and WSJ news articles that Williams identified, which included the following statements attributed to former ALJ McEwen: she thought the system was slanted against defendants at times; she came under fire from Chief ALJ Murray for finding too often in favor of defendants; Chief ALJ Murray questioned McEwen’s loyalty to the SEC; McEwen retired as a result of the criticism; and SEC judges were expected to work on the assumption that “the burden was on the people who were accused to show that they didn’t do what the agency said they did.”

The Interim Report discussed an OIG interview with ALJ Cameron Elliot, who presided over the Timbervest administrative trial, and described that interview as follows:

The OIG interviewed ALJ Elliot concerning allegations of potential issues of fairness and bias in the SEC’s administrative proceedings.  Elliot denied bias during his reviews and rulings and stated that he independently made his decisions.  Concerning his decision not to provide an affidavit after being invited to do so by a Commission order, Elliot said he received the invitation to provide an affidavit from the Office of the Secretary.  He said that he informed Chief ALJ Murray of the existence of the invitation.  However, he said he adhered to the instructions in the order which requested him to “not consult with anyone at the Commission in the preparation of his affidavit concerning the substance thereof.”  Elliot said that he strictly followed those instructions and that he informed Chief ALJ Murray of the existence of the instructions.  At an office meeting, he informed everyone in the Office of ALJ that he had responded to the order.  When asked, Elliot said he did not receive any direction or guidance from anyone, including Chief ALJ Murray, on how he should respond to the invitation.  Elliot said he had declined to provide an affidavit, stating he had “multiple reasons why [he] decided not to provide a response” but declined to provide any of those reasons to the OIG.  Furthermore, Elliot denied being influenced by anyone on “how to decide [his] cases or suggest or make [him] biased in any fashion.”

The OIG also interviewed ALJ Brenda Murray, who “denied influencing matters before the ALJs and explained that she is responsible only for assigning the ALJs’ workload.”  She also “stated that there was no merit to the allegations of bias as alleged in the WSJ article.”

Regarding the status of the investigation, the OIG reports that it “remains ongoing,” and it “is still gathering additional facts and completing investigative steps, and new information will be reported accordingly.”  At this point, however, “the OIG has not developed any evidence to support the allegations of bias in ALJs’ decisions in the Commission’s administrative proceedings.”

It is troubling, however, that there is no reference to any effort to interview former ALJ Lillian McEwen, who made the troubling statements to the Wall Street Journal.  Ms. McEwen later reportedly said that she would be willing to be interviewed on this matter by the Commissioners.  It is important for the OIG to lay out precisely what efforts have been made to flesh out her views on this issue before issuing any clean bill of health for the SEC’s administrative process.

In addition, the statistics showing an unusually high success rate for the Enforcement Division should be confirmed or rejected through a thorough analysis, and if a statistically significant higher success rate is found for administrative proceedings over the Division’s federal court prosecutions, it is essential that the OIG make every effort to determine that the source of that differential is not, even in part, attributable to inherent biases in either the ALJs themselves or the process they use to reach their results.  Anything short of this will not put the serious due process and fairness issues to rest.  The courts — including the Supreme Court in a key employment discrimination case this past term — often accept that a statistically provable disparate impact can provide evidence of underlying concerns.  That is certainly not a precise analogy for what may be happening here, but if there is a compelling statistical case (and a 90% win rate, or even 100% for some judges, suggests there may be), it should not be ignored.

This being said, it is encouraging that Chair Mary Jo White has seen fit to cause this inquiry to occur.  The apparent determination not to make the existence of the inquiry public is a little perplexing, given the publicity surrounding the accusations.  Nevertheless, she should get credit where it is due.  Those facing prosecution in a possibly biased forum argue, however, that it is not enough to turn to an in-house IG to investigate possible in-house bias.  Lynn Tilton, who is challenging the constitutionality of her administrative enforcement action, tweeted in response: “This defendant feels no comfort that the SEC’s Internal IG investigates bias by its own Judges in its own Courts.”  This skepticism that the SEC’s IG can perform a truly independent investigation must be met by an investigative process so thorough and informed that it is beyond reproach.

Straight Arrow

August 10, 2015

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