Tag Archives: petition for rehearing

Chiasson Opts for Mocking Tone in U.S. v. Newman Brief

Counsel for defendant Anthony Chiasson used a rhetorical mocking tone in the appellate brief filed on his behalf in response to the DOJ’s petition for rehearing en banc in United States v. Newman.  The brief opens by likening the DOJ to “Chicken Little” screaming “the sky is falling,” arguing that the Government’s rehearing petition “echoes Chicken Little’s complaint.”  It then declares that the DOJ’s “tone is less that of a frightened hen and more that of a petulant rooster whose dominion has been disturbed.”  The brief later takes a rhetorical shot at the SEC: “The SEC, like “Turkey Lurkey” in the “Chicken Little” folk tale, joins in the lament that the regulatory “sky is falling.”  (Dropping a footnote to explain who Turkey Lurkey is seems more than a little self-indulgent.)  A copy of the Chiasson brief can be found here: Brief of Anthony Chiasson in opposition to DOJ Petition for Rehearing en banc in U.S. v. Newman and Chiasson.

An appellate brief is not a blog post (where we have in the past taken the Government for “sky is falling” arguments: see SEC’s Amicus Brief in U.S. v. Newman Fails To Improve on DOJ’s Effort).  Rhetoric rarely is the winning play in an appellate brief, and ridicule is a dangerous way to play the upper hand in an appellate dispute with the Government.  That is especially so when a “just the facts ma’m” approach seems well-tailored to win the day.

Fortunately, the Chiasson brief does come back down to earth to present compelling arguments in favor of denying the rehearing petition.  The brief does point out in its first section that “contrary to the government’s argument, the Opinion leaves intact the rule that the government can prevail if it shows that the tipper made a gift of material nonpublic information to a friend, anticipating and intending that the friend would trade on the information and earn trading profits. . . .  However, the mere existence of a friendship, and the disclosure of information to a friend, is not enough.  There must be either the expectation of a quid pro quo or the intention that the recipient trade on the information and reap profits.  This analysis is faithful to Dirks and its progeny.”  Chiasson Brief at 6-7.  And it also captures the key flaw in the DOJ’s approach to the “personal benefit” requirement: “In its Petition, as in its prior briefing, the government ignores the central point of Dirks, which identifies the tipper’s exploitation of confidential information for personal benefit as the gravamen of culpable insider trading.  Rather than accepting this rule of law, which has been stated more than once by the Supreme Court, the government apparently wishes to water down the meaning of ‘personal benefit’ so that, as a practical matter, it can bring insider trading charges whenever someone trades on material nonpublic information that is disclosed without authorization by a company insider.”  Id. at 7-8.

Most importantly, the brief emphasizes that an insider trading section 10(b) violation must be anchored in fraud, noting that conduct that “may violate corporate policy or the SEC’s Regulation FD” but still not be “fraudulent self-dealing under Dirks and its progeny, and does not open the door to prosecution for insider trading.”  Id. at 8.  They might have added that the “personal benefit” requirement is what converts the conduct to fraud, which requires deceit to obtain property or its equivalent.

All of this harkens back to the decision in Dirks v. SEC itself.  The DOJ and SEC arguments in Newman effectively seek a Second Circuit imprimatur that they may elide the Dirks opinion.  The Dirks Court noted that the requirement was critical to assure there were limits on the breadth of insider trading enforcement actions, which the DOJ and SEC are now trying desperately to avoid: “Determining whether an insider personally benefits from a particular disclosure, a question of fact, will not always be easy for courts.  But it is essential, we think, to have a guiding principle for those whose daily activities must be limited and instructed by the SEC’s inside trading rules, and we believe that there must be a breach of the insider’s fiduciary duty before the tippee inherits the duty to disclose or abstain.  In contrast, the rule adopted by the SEC in this case would have no limiting principle.”  Dirks v. SEC, 463 U.S. 646, 664 (1983).  Lest this not be perfectly clear, the Dirks Court added by footnote: “Without legal limitations, market participants are forced to rely on the reasonableness of the SEC’s litigation strategy, but that can be hazardous, as the facts of this case make plain.”  Id. n.24.  Chiasson or Newman might well add: “as the facts of this case make plain as well.”

The Chiasson brief goes on to explain why the DOJ provides no valid reason for a rehearing to reconsider the analysis of the evidence of personal benefit in the panel decision.  This is especially so as to the lack of any evidence of knowledge by Messrs. Newman or Chiasson of any possible personal benefit that may have flowed to the original tippers.  As the brief points out: “The government now explicitly declines to challenge” the key holding “that a tippee must know that an insider has disclosed material nonpublic information in exchange for personal benefit in order to commit insider trading.”  Id. at 2.

Finally, the brief does a good job of laying waste to the Government’s contention that the Newman decision “threatens the integrity of the securities markets” (albeit with unnecessary recurring references to Chicken Little).  The brief points out that virtually all of the DOJ’s and SEC’s traditional insider trading cases are unaffected by the Newman decision.  It goes on: “It is only recently that the government has decided to push the doctrinal envelope, and bring cases in which tippers have not been charged with criminal acts and the defendants are remote tippees who are ignorant of the circumstances attending the tippers’ disclosure of material nonpublic information.  To the extent that convictions are jeopardized because the government cannot prove that the tippees knew that the tippers were receiving a personal benefit . . . the government is not in a position to complain.  The Court has determined that such knowledge is required, and the government has explicitly decided not to contest this holding on rehearing.”  Id. at 19.

In the finale, Chaisson argues that “there is no indication” that the Government intends to abide by the law as stated by the Supreme Court.  It chastises the DOJ for taking conflicting positions in its insider trading cases, which “reflects either its confusion about insider trading doctrine or, worse, its inclination to take whatever legal position serves its immediate interest in a particular case.  At best, it illustrates that the government’s legal analysis about the subtleties of insider trading jurisprudence should be taken with a considerable grain of salt. The law as depicted in the brief that the government filed in this case—on a point with which this Court agreed—is now portrayed as something that is not the law and never was the law!” (Violating the sound practice that one never, never uses an exclamation point in an appellate brief.)

The conclusion is as it should be, pointing out that any “confusion” in the law could and should easily be handled by the SEC in its rulemaking capacity: “[T]o the extent that the government and the SEC do sincerely believe that their enforcement agendas are threatened by the decision in this case, the SEC can promulgate a regulation either implementing a different formulation of the ‘personal benefit’ requirement or defining what constitutes fraudulent insider trading.  Having failed for more than 50 years to issue a regulation that defines insider trading, it is remarkable that the agency now comes before this Court to complain about ‘confusion’ in insider trading jurisprudence.  If there is any ‘confusion,’ it results mainly from the SEC’s refusal to use its authority to promulgate an appropriate regulation.  It has been content instead to leave the job of defining insider trading to the courts, basking in the freedom to bring cases on a ‘we know fraud when we see it’ basis.  Having left to the courts the job of articulating the meaning of insider trading, the SEC should not now be heard to complain about ‘confusion’ when it gets a result that it does not like.”

One hopes and expects that the Second Circuit judges will look past the questionable rhetorical flourishes and focus on the strong substantive arguments laid out in the Chiasson brief.

Straight Arrow

February 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Straight Arrow

February 11, 2015

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SEC’s Amicus Brief in U.S. v. Newman Fails To Improve on DOJ’s Effort

Earlier this week, the SEC filed an amicus brief in support of the DOJ’s petition for rehearing en banc of the panel decision overturning two insider trading convictions in United States v. Newman.  The Newman decision is discussed here: US v. Newman: 2d Circuit Hands Government Stunning, Decisive, and Far-Reaching Insider Trading DefeatThe DOJ’s petition for en banc review is discussed here: DOJ Petition for En Banc Review in Newman Case Comes Up Short.  The SEC’s amicus filing did little to show why the Second Circuit should take the extraordinary step of reviewing en banc the unanimous panel decision.  The SEC’s brief can be found here: SEC Amicus Brief in US v Newman.

The SEC started from the same flawed foundation as the DOJ, contending that existing law mandated that an insider “engages in prohibited insider trading” merely by “disclosing information to a friend who then trades.”  SEC Brief at 1.  That supposedly is “because that is equivalent to the insider himself profitably trading on the information and then giving the trading profits to the fried.”  Id.  This makes me want to scream out loud: Just because you say something over and over again does not make it true!  This proposition leaves out the key requirement in the law, flowing directly from the language of the Supreme Court in Dirks v. SEC, that a tipper-insider must “personally … benefit … from his disclosure” (463 U.S. at 662), and that this benefit could arise out of “a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend”  463 U.S. at 664 (emphasis added).  The DOJ and SEC continue to pretend that every disclosure of confidential information to a friend is of necessity, a “gift,” and therefore no further evidence is required to show that a “gift” was intended.  In other words, the required “personal benefit” flowing to the tipper is conclusively presumed whenever the tippee is a “friend.”  No aspect of Dirks suggests such a result.

The holding of the Newman court was not an extraordinary extension or expansion of the “personal benefit” requirement.  The court did no more than examine the evidence – or actually, lack of evidence – of any real benefit flowing to the tippers in the case, and insist that there actually be such evidence before there is tippee liability, because, as Dirks made clear, there can be no tippee liability if there is no tipper liability.

This passage from Dirks makes that clear: “Determining whether an insider personally benefits from a particular disclosure, a question of fact, will not always be easy for courts.  But it is essential, we think, to have a guiding principle for those whose daily activities must be limited and instructed by the SEC’s inside trading rules, and we believe that there must be a breach of the insider’s fiduciary duty before the tippee inherits the duty to disclose or abstain.  In contrast, the rule adopted by the SEC in this case would have no limiting principle.”  Dirks v. SEC, 463 U.S. 646, 664 (1983).  As for the wisdom of allowing law enforcement authorities decide the lines to be drawn for enforcement actions, the Dirks Court wrote: “Without legal limitations, market participants are forced to rely on the reasonableness of the SEC’s litigation strategy, but that can be hazardous, as the facts of this case make plain.”  Id. n.24.

True to this Supreme Court insight, ever since Dirks was decided, the SEC and DOJ have been trying to water down the “personal benefit” element of tipper liability to the point that they now argue that this element has no substance at all – mere proof of “friendship” – which, by the way, is itself an extraordinarily stretched concept, in the SEC and DOJ view – is all you need to show “beyond a reasonable doubt” that a tipper personally benefited from a disclosure.  The law enforcement authorities have tried over many years to negate Dirks (and its predecessor decision Chiarella v. United States, which provided the foundation for Dirks) by stretching “personal benefit” to the point of near infinite elasticity if a “friend” is involved, and stretching the concept of “friend” to be the equivalent of “acquaintance.”  The Newman panel simply said, in no uncertain terms, they’d had enough of this.

In this context, it is more than a little “rich” for the SEC to argue that the “panel decision also creates uncertainty about the precise type of benefit … an insider who tips confidential information must receive to be liable.”  SEC Brief at 2.  For years, the SEC has tried, mostly successfully, to make the standards of insider trading liability as amorphous as possible, and has resisted efforts to develop precise definitions.  Its explanation for this is that if you give a precise definition, you allow someone to evade liability with sharp practices that fall outside of the definition.  In the SEC’s view, the Commission and the Division of Enforcement should decide which trading practices should be unlawful, almost always in after-the-fact enforcement actions.  They view themselves as “keepers of the faith,” who, of course, will always act in the public interest, and therefore do not need precise legal standards to govern their enforcement actions.  Suffice it to say that many of us who have represented clients on the other side of SEC investigations do not have quite this level of confidence in the SEC staff’s determination of the “public interest.”  That is in part because the Division of Enforcement is a huge aggregation of weakly-managed lawyers whose judgments on these issues are usually deferred to, but many of whom exercise questionable judgment, and give more weight to their personal views of the world than the actual evidence in the case.  See, e.g., SEC Insider Trading Cases Continue To Ignore the Boundaries of the Law, and SEC Enforcement Takes Another Blow in SEC v. Obus.

Hence, the SEC believes that an argument for rehearing the Newman decision is that the SEC has brought many enforcement actions “where the only personal benefit to the tipper apparent from the decisions was providing inside information to a friend” and Newman’s insistence on evidence of “personal benefit” to the tipper beyond this would “impede enforcement actions.”  SEC Brief at 12.  But what if those prosecutions were overly aggressive under the law, as laid out in Dirks?  The SEC is always trying to stretch the law so that it has increased discretion to determine what to prosecute “in the public interest” (and to get added leverage in efforts to force settlements of enforcement actions with questionable factual support).  One example of this is the recent extraordinary effort of the Commission in In re Flannery and Hopkins to expand the scope of Rule 10b-5 by edict (not by rulemaking), and thereby negate the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus Capital Group v. First Derivative Traders, as discussed here: SEC Majority Argues for Negating Janus Decision with Broad Interpretation of Rule 10b-5.)  The attempt to negate the “personal benefit” requirement, and expand the Dirks reference to “a trading relative or friend” beyond reasonable recognition, are part and parcel of that “we know it when we see it” approach to the law.  But, especially in criminal cases, there is no place for allowing prosecutors such discretion and providing citizens no reasonable notice of the parameters of the law.

U.S. v. Newman does not represent a significant limit on the ability of the DOJ or SEC to bring meritorious insider trading claims.  It merely requires that before tippees are held criminally liable, or subjected to severe civil penalties and employment bars, law enforcement authorities present evidence sufficient to support a finding that a tipper-insider actually benefitted from the tip, and that the defendants had the requisite scienter.  If, as the SEC argues, friendship and “gifting” are almost inevitably synonymous, this is not a high burden, especially in SEC enforcement actions, which need only satisfy a “preponderance of the evidence” standard of proof.

Straight Arrow

January 29, 2015

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