Tag Archives: scienter

First Circuit Rebuffs SEC in Flannery and Hopkins Case and Vacates SEC Order

The SEC suffered a stunning loss in the First Circuit in a December 8, 2015 decision ruling that the SEC’s findings of securities law violations by two executives in connection with the operation of a State Street Bank bond fund lacked substantial supporting evidence.  The Commission had, by a 3-2 divided vote, overturned a decision by one of its administrative law judges that no violations had occurred, and in doing so wrote a highly controversial opinion in which it staked out aggressive positions on a variety of securities law issues.  See SEC Majority Argues for Negating Janus Decision with Broad Interpretation of Rule 10b-5; New, Thorough Academic Analysis of In re Flannery Shows Many Flaws in the Far-Reaching SEC Majority Opinion; and SEC not entitled to deference in State Street fraud appeal – law prof.

The First Circuit panel found, however, that the underlying evidence simply failed to support the finding of any violation on any  theory, even the aggressive interpretations set forth by the Commission in its opinion.  As a result, the First Circuit never ruled on the validity or invalidity of several important legal issues raised by the Commission in its overreaching opinion.  Therefore, the key issue whether the SEC’s attempt at aggressive revisions of the scope of the law are entitled to deference or acceptance was not reached.  The end result, however, which vacates the SEC Order, leaves no SEC precedent in place to support those aggressive opinions.

The First Circuit’s opinion is available here: 1st Circuit Decision in Flannery v. SEC.  The now-vacated SEC opinion is available here: In re Flannery Majority Opinion.

Perhaps the most stunning aspect of the First Circuit opinion is the way in which the court schooled the SEC — the supposed experts on securities —  by explaining why the evidence the SEC found compelling (despite a contrary ruling by its ALJ) was in fact deeply flawed.  Where the Commission majority found evidence of material intentional and negligent misrepresentations, the appellate court found no substance whatever.  What does this say about the competence of the SEC and its staff to consider such issues?  If you read the opinion, you will see that the SEC’s willingness to stretch minimal evidence into supposed violations of law, and to disregard the lack of real evidence of materiality and state of mind proffered during the trial, seems a lot like the strained efforts of plaintiffs’ lawyers to find securities fraud everywhere.  And that is the reality faced by those being investigated and prosecuted by the SEC: the investigation and prosecution proceeds on the basis of a distorted view of what constitutes important information, and intentional or negligent behavior, that puts almost every decision in the SEC’s cross-hairs based largely on backward-looking, “fraud by hindsight” reasoning.

 The First Circuit opinion is based on an analysis of the specific evidence in the record, and therefore is not easily summarized.  The case turned on two sets of events.

The case against Mr. Hopkins turned on a short presentation to investors in which he participated, and, indeed, a single power-point slide in that presentation.  That slide set forth various parameters of the bond fund at issue (State Street’s Limited Duration Bond Fund, hereafter “the Fund”) under the heading “Typical Portfolio Exposures and Characteristics.”  It never purported to lay out the exact characteristics of the Fund at the time of the presentation, although Mr. Hopkins had that information available if any investor asked about them.  The SEC charged Mr. Hopkins with fraud for discussing this power-point slide without providing the exact information about the Fund at that time, which in some respects differed from the “typical” slide, and in others did not.  In particular, the percentage of holdings of different types of asset-backed securities — ABS (asset-backed securities, included residential mortgage-backed securities), CBS (commercial-backed securities), MBS (mortgage-backed securities), and other designations — at the time varied from the “typical” slide by having heavier ABS holdings.

The case against Mr. Flannery focused on two letters sent by State Street to investors regarding the impact of the 2007 financial crisis on the Fund and steps being taken to respond to that.  Mr. Flannery signed one of those letters, but not the other.  Many State Street officials participated in the drafting of these letters, including its General Counsel.  The SEC contended that Mr. Flannery negligently participated in a “course of business” that “operated as a fraud” in his role in connection with these letters.  The alleged misrepresentations in the letters related to whether steps taken to divest the Fund of certain bonds were properly described as lessening its exposure to risk.

As you can see, these are “in the weeds” issues to which the SEC should be able to bring sophistication and expertise.  Instead, they pursued a blunderbuss case that ignored the context of the disclosures, the realities of these types of communications (what they are intended to communicate and what not), and the actual language used.  The SEC essentially waved its hands around and said “this is bad; this is bad” and “look how badly the funds did when the mortgage-backed securities market tanked.”  But it failed to present evidence that what was said was wrong, or that the aspect that it contended was wrong was even important to investors, and ignored substantial evidence to the contrary.

Here is some of what the court said with respect to the case against Mr. Hopkins:

Questions of materiality and scienter are connected. . . .  “If it is questionable whether a fact is material or its materiality is marginal, that tends to undercut the argument that defendants acted with the requisite intent or extreme recklessness in not disclosing the fact.” . . .

Here, assuming the Typical Portfolio Slide was misleading, evidence supporting the Commission’s finding of materiality was marginal.  The Commission’s opinion states that “reasonable investors would have viewed disclosure of the fact that, during the relevant period, [the Fund’s] exposure to ABS was substantially higher than was stated in the slide as having significantly altered the total mix of information available to them.”  Yet the Commission identifies only one witness other than Hopkins relevant to this conclusion. . . .

[T]he slide was clearly labeled “Typical.”  [The witness and his firm] never asked … for a breakdown of the [Fund’s] actual investment….  Further, the Commission has not identified any evidence in the record that the credit risks posed by ABS, CMBS, or MBS were materially different from each other, arguing instead that the percent of investment in ABS and diversification as such are important to investors.  Context makes a difference.  According to a report [the witness] authored the day after the meeting, the meeting’s purpose was to explain why the [Fund] had underperformed in the first quarter of 2007 and to discuss its investment in a specific index that had contributed to the underperformance.  The Typical Portfolio Slide was one slide of a presentation of at least twenty. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the slide was not mentioned in [the witness’s] report.

Hopkins presented expert testimony . . . that “[p]re-prepared documents such as . . . presentations . . . are not intended to present a complete picture of the fund,” but rather serve as “starting points,” after which due diligence is performed.  [The expert] explained that “a typical investor in an unregistered fund would understand that it could specifically request additional information regarding the fund.”  And not only were clients given specific information upon request, information about the [Fund’s] actual percent of sector investment was available through the fact sheets and annual audited financial statements.  The … fact sheet … six weeks prior to the … presentation [said] the [Fund] was 100% invested in ABS.  The [fact sheet one-month after the presentation said] the [Fund] was 81.3% invested in ABS. These facts weigh against any conclusion that the Typical Portfolio Slide had “significantly altered the ‘total mix’ of information made available.” …

This thin materiality showing cannot support a finding of scienter here….  Hopkins testified that in his experience investors did not focus on sector breakdown when making their investment decisions and that [Fund] investors did not focus on how much of the [Fund] investment was in ABS versus MBS….  He did not update the Typical Portfolio Slide’s sector breakdowns because he did not think the typical sector breakdowns were important to investors.  To the extent that an investor would want to know the actual sector breakdowns, Hopkins would bring notes with “the accurate information” so that he could answer any questions that arose.  We cannot say that these handwritten notes provide substantial evidence of recklessness, much less intentionality to mislead — particularly in light of Hopkins’s belief that this information was not important to investors….

We conclude that the Commission abused its discretion in holding Hopkins liable under Section 17(a)(1), Section 10(b), and Rule 10b-5.

Slip op. at 21-24 (footnotes omitted).

The court said in a footnote: “… We do not suggest that the mere availability of accurate information negates an inaccurate statement.  Rather, when a slide is labeled ‘typical,’ and where a reasonable investor would not rely on one slide but instead would conduct due diligence when making an investment decision, the availability of actual and accurate information is relevant.”  Slip op. at 22 n.8.

And here is some of the discussion about the case against Mr. Flannery:

… At the very least, the August 2 letter was not misleading — even when considered with the August 14 letter — and so there was not substantial evidence to support the Commission’s finding that Flannery was “liable for having engaged in a ‘course of business’ that operated as a fraud on [Fund] investors.”

The Commission’s primary reason for finding the August 2 letter misleading was its view that the “[The Fund’s] sale of the AAA-rated securities did not reduce risk in the fund.  Rather, the sale ultimately increased both the fund’s credit risk and its liquidity risk because the securities that remained in the fund had a lower credit rating and were less liquid than those that were sold.” At the outset, we note that neither of the Commission’s assertions — that the sale increased the fund’s credit risk and increased its liquidity risk — are supported by substantial evidence.

First, although credit rating alone does not necessarily measure a portfolio’s risk, the Commission does not dispute the truth of the letter’s statement that the [Fund] maintained an average AA-credit quality. Second, expert testimony presented at the proceeding explained that the July 26 AAA-rated bond sale reduced risk because these bonds “entailed credit and market risk that were substantially greater than those of cash positions. In addition, a portion of the sale proceeds was used to pay down [repurchase agreement] loans and reduce the portfolio leverage.”

Further, testimony throughout the proceeding indicated that the [Fund’s] bond sales in July and August reduced risk by decreasing exposure to the subprime residential market, by reducing leverage, and by increasing liquidity, part of which was used to repay loans.

To be sure, the Commission maintained that the bond sale’s potentially beneficial effects on the fund’s liquidity risk were immediately undermined by the “massive outflows of the sale proceeds . . . to early redeemers.”  But this reasoning falters for two reasons. First, the Commission acknowledged that between $175 and $195 million of the cash proceeds remained in the LDBF as of the time the letter was sent; it offered no reason, however, why this level of cash holdings provided an insufficient liquidity cushion.  Second and more fundamentally, even if the Commission was correct that the liquidity risk in the [Fund] was higher following the sale than it was prior to the sale, it does not follow that the sale failed to reduce risk.  Rather, to treat as misleading the statement in the August 2 letter that State Street had “reduced risk,” the Commission would need to demonstrate that the liquidity risk in the LDBF following the sale was higher than it would have been in the counterfactual world in which the financial crisis had continued to roil — and in which large numbers of investors likely would have sought redemption — and the [Fund] had not sold its AAA holdings. But the Commission has not done this.

Independently, the Commission has misread the letter. The August 2 letter did not claim to have reduced risk in the [Fund].  The letter states that “the downdraft in valuations has had a significant impact on the risk profile of our portfolios, prompting us to take steps to seek to reduce risk across the affected portfolios” (emphasis added).  Indeed, at oral argument, the Commission acknowledged that there was no particular sentence in the letter that was inaccurate. It contends that the statement, “[t]he actions we have taken to date in the [Fund] simultaneously reduced risk in other [State Street] active fixed income and active derivative-based strategies,” misled investors into thinking [State Street] reduced the [Fund’s] risk profile.  This argument ignores the word “other.”  The letter was sent to clients in at least twenty-one other funds, and, if anything, speaks to having reduced risk in funds other than the [Fund].

Even beyond that, there is not substantial evidence that [State Street] did not “seek to reduce risk across the affected portfolios.”  As one expert testified, there are different types of risk associated with a fund like the [Fund], including market risk, liquidity risk, and credit or default risk.  The [Fund] was facing a liquidity problem, and … the Director of Active North American Fixed Income, explained that “[i]t’s hard to predict if the market will hold on or if there will be a large number of withdrawals by clients.  We need to have liquidity should the clients decide to withdraw.” Flannery noted that “if [they didn’t] raise liquidity [they] face[d] a greater unknown.”  … [The Fund’s] lead portfolio manager, noted that selling only AAA-rated bonds would affect the [Fund’s] risk profile.  After discussion of both of these concerns, the Investment Committee ultimately decided to increase liquidity, sell a pro-rata share to warrant withdrawals, and reduce AA exposure. And that is what it did.…  The August 2 letter does not try to hide the sale of the AAA-rated bonds; it candidly acknowledges it. At the proceeding, Flannery testified that selling AAA-rated bonds itself reduces risk, and here, in combination with the pro-rata sale, was intended to maintain a consistent risk profile for the [Fund].  [Another witness] testified that the goal of the pro-rata sale was to treat all shareholders — both those who exited the fund and those who remained — as equally as possible and maintain the risk-characteristics of the portfolio to the extent possible.  These actions are not inconsistent with trying to reduce the risk profile across the portfolios.

Finally, we note that the Commission has failed to identify a single witness that supports a finding of materiality….  We do not think the letter was misleading, and we find no substantial evidence supporting a conclusion otherwise. 

We need not reach the August 14 letter…. Even were we to assume that the August 14 letter was misleading, in light of the SEC’s interpretation of Section 17(a)(3) and our conclusion about the August 2 letter, we find there is not substantial evidence to support the Commission’s finding that Flannery engaged in a fraudulent “practice” or “course of business.”

Slip op. at 25-30 (footnotes omitted).

As noted above, it is obvious that the court’s decision turned on a close examination of the evidence, and an understanding of what the statements made by Hopkins and Flannery really meant, within their context.  The generalized power-point slide used by Mr. Hopkins, in the context of a broader presentation, and the availability of specific information on request, was so close to immaterial that Mr. Hopkins’ understanding that investors would not place significant weight on the “typical” data could not be reckless.  And the State Street letters to investors in which Mr. Flannery participated were not inaccurate because the SEC did not understand that the transaction described was, in fact, a means of reducing risk exposure.  That last point is a killer: the SEC could not even understand how to evaluate the risk exposures of these types of portfolios!  How good does that make you feel about the Commissioners that are responsible for understanding and protecting our capital markets?

This is a huge loss for the Commission because so much effort was made to make this case a showpiece for enforcement against individuals for supposed securities violations in the sale of the mortgage-backed securities that were devastated in the financial crisis.  The SEC was loaded for bear to hold some individuals responsible, regardless of the evidence.  Thank goodness a court was ultimately available to return us to the true rule of law.

Straight Arrow

December 9, 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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Supreme Court Filings in U.S. v. Newman and Chiasson Leave Serious Doubts on Grant of Certiorari

With all of the publicity, hubbub, and hype surrounding the Second Circuit’s decision in United States v. Newman and Chiasson, a grant of writ of certiorari at the Government’s request is a foregone conclusion, right?  In a word, “no.”  The filings on the Government’s motion seeking certiorari make it pretty clear that if you remove the publicity, hubbub, and hype – and consider what the Newman opinion says, and not just what the Government portrays it as saying – the Supreme Court’s normal standards for hearing a case simply are not satisfied.  Let me explain.

(The filings on the petition for certiorari can be read here: Petition for Writ of Certiorari in US v. Newman; Newman Opposition to Cert. Petition; Chiasson Opposition to Cert. Petition.

The Government’s entire push for Supreme Court review turns on two arguments: (1) the Second Circuit amended the Supreme Court’s decision in Dirks v. SEC by mandating that a tippee exchange tangible value for tipped material nonpublic information from the tipper, when Dirks says that “gifts” of such information by the tipper to the tippee can be sufficient to create liability; and (2) the Second Circuit’s revision threatens the integrity of the securities markets by undermining investors’ belief in the fairness of those markets.  The briefing on certiorari, however, leaves little doubt that the Government cannot (or at least does not) provide support for either of these arguments.  Instead, these arguments are based on (i) a reading of the opinion that ignores what the court said, and is not how the courts have treated the Newman opinion since it was issued; and (ii) ipse dixit assertions by the Government about the terrible consequences of Newman on markets and law enforcement, which lack any substantiation.

But beyond this, the briefing makes it clear that Newman simply is not the kind of case that the Supreme Court normally would review, for three reasons: (1) the ruling the Government asks for would not, in fact, change the result – Messrs. Newman and Chiasson will be not be prosecutable in any event because the Government does not seek review of determinative aspects of the Second Circuit opinion that prevent any conviction; (2) the aspect of the Newman decision that the Government does challenge is an evidentiary issue – not an important issue of law – that is limited in its impact, other than in support of the view that the actual evidence presented in a case matters, which the Supreme Court is unlikely to countermand; and (3) the ruling the Government asks for would make it difficult for investors and their advisers to gather and use information in ways the Dirks court sought to protect as critical to the functioning of an efficient marketplace.

The Supreme Court Usually Doesn’t Review Cases To Provide an Advisory Opinion

Let’s start with what should be the most important issue for a cert. petition: will Supreme Court review actually make a difference in the case.  The answer here plainly is that it would not.  Why? Well, the Government presents for review only a single question: “whether the court of appeals erroneously departed from this Court’s decision in Dirks by holding that liability under a gifting theory requires ‘proof of a meaningfully close personal relationship that generates an exchange that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.’”  Cert. Pet. at (I).  But the Second Circuit reversed the convictions of Messrs. Newman and Chiasson for another, totally independent reason: that because this is a criminal case, a conviction required proof that the defendants knew that the information they used to trade securities was obtained through a breach of duty by an insider, and there was no evidence from which a reasonable juror could make such a finding.  Because of this, even if the Supreme Court were to agree with the Government on its question presented, the defendants’ convictions would still be overturned.  The Supreme Court typically does not accept cases in which its opinion, in effect, becomes an advisory opinion on the law and does not impact the determination of the case before it.

Here is how the Newman cert. opposition discusses this point:

The central legal holding in the court below was that insider trading liability requires a tippee to know that the tipper received a personal benefit.  While the government opposed such a requirement in the trial court and on appeal, it does not challenge that ruling now. Instead, the Petition seeks review of a single, fact-based sufficiency determination regarding whether there was a personal benefit in the first place.  Notably, the government’s articulation of the question presented addresses only the type of evidence required to prove a personal benefit; it does not implicate the court of appeals’ independent holding that Newman committed no crime because he did not know of the benefit.  Accordingly, even if this Court were to agree with the government that the Second Circuit misstated the type of evidence required to support an inference of a benefit, the decision dismissing the indictment on the independent ground that Newman did not know of any benefit would stand.

The government understands, of course, that the Supreme Court does not grant review to issue advisory opinions.  To overcome that obstacle, the government proposes that this Court “correct” the Second Circuit’s analysis of what evidence may be used to prove a personal benefit and then remand to the Second Circuit for reconsideration of both the sufficiency of whether there was a benefit and whether Newman knew of the benefit.  Pet. 29-31.  This attempted sleight of hand is unconvincing.  The Second Circuit determined that, “[e]ven assuming that the scant evidence . . . was sufficient to permit the inference of a personal benefit,” the proof was insufficient to establish knowledge of any benefit because the defendants “knew next to nothing” about the insiders or the circumstances of their disclosures, and the government “presented absolutely no testimony or any other evidence that Newman and Chiasson knew . . . that those insiders received any benefit in exchange for such disclosures . . .” . . . .  This conclusion was not based on a nuanced view of how personal benefit should be defined; it was based on the utter lack of evidence that the defendants knew of any benefit, however defined, or even the basic circumstances under which the disclosures were made.  No decision by this Court on the narrow issue presented for review would change the ultimate disposition of this case.

Newman Cert. Opp. at 1-3.

The Second Circuit Decision Is Inaccurately Portrayed by the Government

Let’s turn now to the guts of the Government argument, and show why it fails because it is founded on a reading on the Newman opinion that is inaccurate and misleading.

The Government’s core argument is that the Second Circuit broke from Dirks by refusing to allow a “gift” from the tipper to the tippee to be considered a basis for the required breach of duty to support an insider trading violation:

The court of appeals’ decision is irreconcilable with Dirks.  In the guise of interpreting this Court’s opinion, the court of appeals crafted a new, stricter personal-benefit test, stating that “[t]o the extent Dirks suggests that a personal benefit may be inferred from a personal relationship between the tipper and tippee, where the tippee’s trades ‘resemble trading by the insider himself followed by a gift of the profits to the recipient,’ *** we hold that such an inference is impermissible in the absence of proof of a meaningfully close personal relationship that generates an exchange that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.” . . .

That new “exchange” formulation erases a form of personal benefit that this Court has specifically identified.  Under Dirks, an inference of a personal benefit to the insider arises in two situations: when the insider expects something in return for the disclosure of the confidential information, or when the insider freely gives a gift of information to a trading friend or relative without any expectation of receiving money or valuables as a result. . . .  The Second Circuit purported to recognize that second form of personal benefit . . . but then rewrote the concept of a “gift” so as to eliminate it.  The court held that an insider cannot be liable on a gift theory unless he receives something from the recipient of information “that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature” . . .  But such an “exchange” is, by definition, not the same thing as a “gift”; rather, it is a quid pro quo, “something for something.”

Cert. Pet. at 18-19.

This argument should fail because the Supreme Court Justices – and their clerks – should easily see that the Second Circuit decision does not say what the Government argument describes.  The Government accepts that the entire discussion of “personal benefit” occurred as the Second Circuit “considered the sufficiency of the evidence that the . . . insiders personally benefitted from disclosing confidential corporate information,” and that in doing so, the court of appeals “acknowledged that in [Dirks, the Supreme] Court stated that ‘personal benefit’ includes reputational benefit and ‘the benefit one would obtain from simply making a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend.’”  Cert. Pet. at 11 (emphasis added).

The problem was that the Government introduced no evidence showing that in either of the two instances of alleged tipping (involving communications between insiders at Dell and NVIDIA with industry analysts they knew), the tipper either (a) received a tangible benefit in return, or (b) provided the information as a “gift.”  Instead, the Government relied on the mere circumstances of the relationship between the alleged tippers and the alleged tippees to provide a sufficient inference of a “gift” to satisfy the breach of duty requirement laid out in Dirks.  The Second Circuit rejected this effort because a review of the evidence showed no meaningful relationships between these people that would suggest that the insiders transferred information as an intended “gift” to the analysts.

The actual evidence showed that the relationship between the Dell insider and the analyst he spoke to was no more than that they knew each other at business school, spoke on limited occasions when they both worked at Dell, and that the analyst gave career advice to the insider that was not terribly meaningful.  The evidence also showed that the communications between them were consistent with the insider’s job responsibilities to develop relationships with financial firms that could be a source for possible investors, and the insider was never told anyone was trading on information he provided.  The NVIDIA insider attended the same church as the analyst he spoke to and sometimes had lunch with him.  While the analyst said he sometimes traded NVIDIA stock, he never said he would use information they discussed to trade.

Based on this evidence, the Second Circuit proceeded to try to implement the Dirks duty standard, not revise that standard.  As the Newman cert. opposition says: “the Second Circuit’s refusal to accept the mere fact of friendship as per se evidence that a tipper intended to bestow a gift on a tippee is consistent with, and indeed compelled by, Dirks.”  Newman Cert. Opp. at 20.

Dirks said that “there may be a relationship between the insider and the recipient that suggests a quid pro quo . . . or an intention to benefit the particular recipient,” but said no more about the parameters of such a relationship.  See Dirks, 463 U.S. at 663.  The Dirks Court also said that an inference of personal gain to the tipper that would evidence the required breach of duty could flow “when an insider makes a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend” (id.), but said nothing about how to determine if such an inference is reasonable, except that such a circumstance could “resemble trading by the insider himself followed by a gift of profits to the recipient.”  Id.  The Dirks Court left it to lower courts to figure out how best to implement these principles.  See id.  The Second Circuit plainly was trying to work out when it might be reasonable to conclude that a communication of information is intended as a “gift” based solely on the nature of the parties’ relationship.

The Government’s argument turns on the appellate court’s use of the term “exchange”:

The court reinterpreted this Court’s holding that an insider personally benefits when he “makes a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend,” . . . to require “proof of a meaningfully close personal relationship that generates an exchange that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.” . . .  That holding cannot be reconciled with Dirks, which did not require an “exchange” to find liability for a gift of inside information and did not impose amorphous standards for the relationships that can support liability.

. . . .

Under Dirks, an inference of a personal benefit to the insider arises in two situations: when the insider expects something in return for the disclosure of the confidential information, or when the insider freely gives a gift of information to a trading friend or relative without any expectation of receiving money or valuables as a result. . . .

The Second Circuit purported to recognize that second form of personal benefit . . . but then rewrote the concept of a “gift” so as to eliminate it.  The court held that an insider cannot be liable on a gift theory unless he receives something from the recipient of information “that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature” . . . .  But such an “exchange” is, by definition, not the same thing as a “gift”; rather, it is a quid pro quo, “something for something.” . . .  If the personal-benefit test cannot be met by a gift-giver unless an “exchange” takes place, then Dirks’s two categories of personal benefit are collapsed into one—and the entire “gift” discussion in Dirks becomes superfluous.

Cert. Pet. at 14.

This argument intentionally ignores the gist, and the actual language, of the Newman opinion.  It begins by ignoring the paragraphs leading up to the quoted passage, which emphasize that the intent to gift confidential information to another person can be sufficient, but there needs to be evidence proving it.  If that evidence is nothing more than the nature of the relationship between the parties, then that relationship has to be strong enough to warrant a reasonable inference that the information exchange was intended as a gift.  Here is what the court said:

The circumstantial evidence in this case was simply too thin to warrant the inference that the corporate insiders received any personal benefit in exchange for their tips.  As to the Dell tips, the Government established that Goyal and Ray were not “close” friends. . . .  The evidence also established that Lim and Choi were “family friends” that had met through church and occasionally socialized together.  The Government argues that these facts were sufficient to prove that the tippers derived some benefit from the tip.  We disagree.  If this was a “benefit,” practically anything would qualify.

We have observed that “[p]ersonal benefit is broadly defined to include not only pecuniary gain, but also, inter alia, any reputational benefit that will translate into future earnings and the benefit one would obtain from simply making a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend.” . . .  This standard, although permissive, does not suggest that the Government may prove the receipt of a personal benefit by the mere fact of a friendship, particularly of a casual or social nature.  If that were true, and the Government was allowed to meet its burden by proving that two individuals were alumni of the same school or attended the same church, the personal benefit requirement would be a nullity.  To the extent Dirks suggests that a personal benefit may be inferred from a personal relationship between the tipper and tippee, where the tippee’s trades “resemble trading by the insider himself followed by a gift of the profits to the recipient,” see 643 U.S. at 664, we hold that such an inference is impermissible in the absence of proof of a meaningfully close personal relationship that generates an exchange that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.  In other words . . . this requires evidence of “a relationship between the insider and the recipient that suggests a quid pro quo from the latter, or an intention to benefit the [latter].”. . .

United States v. Newman, slip op. at 21-22 (emphasis added and some cites omitted).

This quote makes it apparent that to justify its argument, the Government badly, and misleadingly, truncates the Second Circuit discussion on this issue.  The Government’s argument ignores language that makes it clear that the Second Circuit did not limit the “gift” concept to a tangible “exchange.”  Instead, in the very paragraph the Government quotes, the court twice says that evidence showing a tipper’s intent to gift information to a tippee would be sufficient to satisfy the Dirks personal benefit standard — (i) including “the benefit one would obtain from simply making a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend” as sufficient to show a personal benefit, and (ii) using the disjunctive “or” in describing the need for evidence of “a relationship . . . that suggests a quid pro quo . . . or an intention to benefit the [tippee].”

This makes it plain that the court was not excluding from the range of potentially sufficient evidence an “exchange” in which the tipper’s value received was consummating an “intention to benefit” the tippee.  But there still needs to be evidence of that intention to benefit, and if that evidence is solely the relationship between the parties, proof of a “meaningfully close relationship” is important because relying solely on evidence of a “friendship . . . of a casual or social nature” would undermine the Dirks “personal benefit requirement” by making it an effective “nullity.”

(By the way, this explains why the Second Circuit reached a different result in Newman than the Ninth Circuit did in U.S. v. Salman.  In Salman, there was direct evidence that the transfer of information was made with an intent to benefit the tippee, and even beyond this, the tipper and tippee where brothers, which is well beyond the kind of “casual” friendships at issue in Newman.  In truth, Salman is not even a close case under the Newman standard.  See In U.S. v. Salman, Judge Rakoff Distinguishes Newman in 9th Circuit Opinion Affirming Insider Trading ConvictionThe Government’s argument that this represents a split in the Circuits is, with respect, laughable.)

This is how the Newman cert. opposition addressed this key point:

Dirks recognized that “[d]etermining whether an insider personally benefits from a particular disclosure, a question of fact, will not always be easy for courts.” 463 U.S. at 664.  By characterizing the inquiry as “a question of fact” the Court appreciated that lower courts would need to formulate rules for weighing the evidence in the particular circumstances before them.  That is exactly what the Second Circuit did here.  The court of appeals’ assessment of what kind of proof would support a factual inference is the type of evidence-based analysis that Dirks recognized would be within the province of the lower courts to develop.

Dirks also recognized that a personal benefit in the form of a gift is not simply a matter of whether a tipper gives inside information to a friend or relative.  The Court repeatedly emphasized that it is the purpose of the disclosure that is determinative.  E.g., 463 U.S. at 662 “Whether disclosure is a breach of duty therefore depends in large part on the purpose of the disclosure.”). . . .  The Court’s focus on the purpose of a disclosure would be undermined if a jury were permitted to infer a personal benefit from the bare fact that two people knew each other.  That is because it is not reasonable to presume that the purpose of communicating financial information between casual acquaintances is to provide a gift.  Casual acquaintances typically do not give each other the kind of gifts contemplated by Dirks, i.e. the equivalent of the insider trading stock and gifting the proceeds to someone else.  On the other hand gifts, especially of money, are much more likely among people who take a deep personal interest in each other’s lives, such as close friends or relatives.  The Second Circuit’s evidentiary formulation is thus consistent with the gift theory as articulated in Dirks because it limits the inference of an intentional gift of trading proceeds to circumstances that reasonably support that conclusion.

Newman Cert. Opp. at 20-21.

So, what the Government cert. petition comes down to is a request that the Supreme Court re-examine the evidentiary record to determine whether the agreed-upon Dirks standard was satisfied in this case, even though that issue is not even case-determinative.  That’s not the resolution of an important securities law issue, it is an effort to get the High Court to relieve the Justice Department of the embarrassment of being shot down for an overly-aggressive prosecution fueled more by ambition than evidence.  That’s not cert.-worthy in my book.

There Is No Basis To Expect Harmful Market Consequences from the Newman Decision

The Government’s last argument in support of certiorari – that absent Supreme Court reversal the securities markets and securities law enforcement will be devastated by the purportedly “new,” limited scope of the insider trading prohibition adopted in Newman – fails for multiple reasons.

First, as discussed above, The Newman court did not limit the scope of the law as stated by Dirks.  It tried its best to articulate an evidentiary standard for satisfying the Dirks “personal benefit” standard in the narrow circumstances where there was no quid pro quo from tippee to tipper, and there was no evidence of an intended “gift” from the tipper to the tippee apart from the nature of their relationship.

Second, the Government cited no empirical data even suggesting that requiring evidence of a “meaningfully close relationship” between tipper and tippee to prove insider trading fraud in such cases would harm investor confidence or undermine the overall integrity or efficiency of the securities markets.  Both the Newman and Chiasson cert. oppositions lay out the facts showing that since the Newman decision, Government insider trading cases have not failed because of Newman.  See Newman Cert. Opp. at 27-30; Chiasson Cert. Opp. at 30-33.  Such unsupported “sky is falling” predictions are hardly the grounds for granting certiorari.  In fact, Dirks itself undermines this Government argument, because the Dirks opinion warned against low standards for proving insider trading fraud based on communications with securities analysts, whose purpose is to ferret out information and incorporate it into the market:

Imposing a duty to disclose or abstain solely because a person knowingly receives material nonpublic information from an insider and trades on it could have an inhibiting influence on the role of market analysts, which the SEC itself recognizes is necessary to the preservation of a healthy market.  It is commonplace for analysts to ‘ferret out and analyze information,’ . . . and this often is done by meeting with and questioning corporate officers and others who are insiders.  And information that the analysts obtain normally may be the basis for judgments as to the market worth of a corporation’s securities.  The analyst’s judgment in this respect is made available in market letters or otherwise to clients of the firm.  It is the nature of this type of information, and indeed of the markets themselves, that such information cannot be made simultaneously available to all of the corporation’s stockholders or the public generally.

Dirks, 463 U.S. at 658-59 (footnotes and cites omitted).  Dirks makes it clear that “objective facts and circumstances” must provide evidence of misconduct, especially when we are dealing with communications of information between businesses and analysts.  The Newman opinion is a step in the direction Dirks espoused, made with due regard for the fact that communications of the nature involved in Newman provide the foundation for efficient securities markets.

In Contrast, the Government’s Proposed Rule Would Undermine the Securities Markets

As we have written before, it has long been the Government’s view that the securities laws should be interpreted to mandate equal access of information to all investors, even though that concept is inconsistent with market efficiency, and even market fairness.  (Market efficiency depends on dissemination of information.  Market fairness is undermined when preventing the dissemination of information causes securities transactions to be completed on the basis of incomplete information, and the consequential mispricing of the securities traded.)  See The Myth of Insider Trading Enforcement (Part I), and SEC Insider Trading Cases Continue To Ignore the Boundaries of the Law.  The Government’s cert. petition continues to reflect this bias, notwithstanding the fact that the Supreme Court has rejected this view repeatedly, including this quote from Dirks itself:

Here, the SEC maintains that anyone who knowingly receives nonpublic material information from an insider has a fiduciary duty to disclose before trading.  In effect, the SEC’s theory of tippee liability in both cases appears rooted in the idea that the antifraud provisions require equal information among all traders.  This conflicts with the principle set forth in Chiarella that only some persons, under some circumstances, will be barred from trading while in possession of material nonpublic information.  Judge Wright correctly read our opinion in Chiarella as repudiating any notion that all traders must enjoy equal information before trading: ‘[T]he ‘information’ theory is rejected. Because the disclose-or-refrain duty is extraordinary, it attaches only when a party has legal obligations other than a mere duty to comply with the general antifraud proscriptions in the federal securities laws.’ . . .  We reaffirm today that “[a] duty [to disclose] arises from the relationship between parties . . . , and not merely from one’s ability to acquire information because of his position in the market.”

Dirks, 463 U.S. at 656-58 (footnotes and cites omitted).

This bias is reflected in the Government’s revisionist view that Dirks was consistent with the view that communications between what the Second Circuit called “casual” friends should be sufficient to satisfy the “breach of duty” requirement, and suggesting that in such cases, the burden should shift to the accused to show that “selective disclosures” had “a valid business purpose” or were a “mistake.”  That view, if accepted, would greatly impact the nature of communications between and among securities analysts, and would undermine market efficiency and fairness by presuming every communication of information between acquaintances is unlawful absent their ability to prove otherwise.  This is what the Government says:

Dirks recognizes that not all selective disclosures of confidential information trigger the disclose-or-abstain-from-trading rule. . . .  It explains that if an insider has a valid business purpose for selective disclosure (for instance, supplying data to another company in the course of merger talks), or mistakenly believes that information is not material or is already in the public domain, disclosure does not violate the insider’s fiduciary duties. . . .  The fact that analysts (or others) may be friends with company insiders does not automatically preclude such a legitimate business reason for disclosure.”

Cert. Pet, at 21.

In fact, Dirks makes it crystal clear that the burden falls on the Government to prove that even communications between friends or acquaintances rise to the level of a breach of duty that could support an insider trading fraud finding.  The Chiasson cert. opposition addresses this attempted Government sleight-of-hand:

Finally, at the close of its discussion of Dirks, the Government tips its hand. The Government’s problem is not really with the decision below; it is with Dirks itself.  The Government asserts (at 21) that an insider violates his fiduciary duty by disclosing information unless the insider “has a valid business purpose for selective disclosure” or “mistakenly believes that information is not material or is already in the public domain.” But that turns Dirks on its head. Dirks does not require the insider to prove some “legitimate” reason for his disclosure to avoid liability. . . .  To the contrary, under Dirks, an insider is not liable unless the Government proves that “the insider personally will benefit, directly or indirectly, from his disclosure. Absent some personal gain, there has been no breach of duty to stockholders.” . . .  And the circumstances under which an insider may disclose information without receiving a personal benefit are hardly limited to the two scenarios the Government acknowledges. The Court in Dirks made clear that mistaken disclosures were only an “example” of the type of disclosure that would not constitute a breach. . . .  Even disclosures that violate company policy or confidentiality obligations are not necessarily made for the insider’s personal benefit. . . .  The Government may wish to pursue prosecutions that go beyond what Dirks contemplated, but that is no reason to revisit precedent that has been on the books since the Burger Court.

Chiasson Cert. Opp. at 19-20.

It seems especially strange that the Government is pursuing this argument in the context of a case with facts that seem so close to the kind of communications that Dirks wanted to protect.  The evidence here is that securities analysts were discussing company performance with company officials.  That’s what analysts are supposed to do.  The evidence is also that for at least one of these companies — Dell — the insider’s job was to stay in touch with, and develop relationships with, market analysts who could ultimately be a source of investors.  The communications were not known to be for the purpose of trading.  This strikes me as precisely the kind of communications between company insiders and outside analysts that Dirks wanted to enshrine, not attack.  It truly seems like it is the Government that is trying to alter Dirks, not the Second Circuit.

*                      *                      *

The flaws in the Government’s argument in support of granting the writ of certiorari are manifold and serious.  One normally expects the Justices and their clerks to recognize this, even when the proponent of the writ is the Government.  Yet, it remains possible that all of the brouhaha over the Newman decision – much of which can be traced to the Government’s own hissy fit over losing these cases (which are certainly marginal at best) – will drive the Court towards granting cert.  This person’s view is that if this happens, the Government will regret the decision to elevate this case.  There is much more potential for downside for the Government than upside, because when the Court further specifies the elements of insider trading fraud under section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5, the Government’s discretion to pursue its favored “equality of information” policies is likely to become more, rather than less, constrained.

Straight Arrow

September 3, 2015

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Why Judge Rakoff’s Decision in SEC v. Payton Should Not Have a Lasting Impact

Several commentators have speculated that Judge Rakoff’s denial of the defendants’ motion to dismiss in SEC v. Payton potentially stripped the Second Circuit’s U.S. v. Newman decision of significant impact in SEC insider trading enforcement proceedings.  See, for example, Remote Tippees Beware: Even if the DOJ Can’t Reach You After Newman, The SEC Can, and Insider Trading: Does Payton Begin the Erosion of the Newman Tipping Test?  Are they correct?  The short answer from this writer’s perspective is “No.”  I have two reasons for saying this.  First, it is a decision on a motion to dismiss, and almost all of the positions taken in it flow from the extremely low bar set for sufficiency of complaints, especially when the plaintiff is the government.  Second, the opinion is fundamentally flawed by the failure to perform the kind of analysis that Newman – and its doctrinal ancestors Chiarella v. United States and Dirks v. SEC – mandate.  Judge Rakoff’s opinion is available here: Denial of Motion To Dismiss in SEC v. Payton.

This Was Only a Ruling on a Motion To Dismiss.

First, the opinion addressed a motion to dismiss.  All such motions face steep obstacles, especially when the plaintiff is the government (I doubt if 0.1% of the motions to dismiss SEC actions are successful.)  The SEC knew that its amended complaint had to make allegations to get past a motion, and it was designed to do so.  Whether the evidence will support those allegations is another story entirely.

Judge Rakoff’s opinion is, as it must be, dependent on accepting all possible inferences that may be drawn from facts alleged in the complaint.  So, after reciting the allegations, he writes: “drawing (as required) every reasonable inference in plaintiff’s favor,” he finds the allegations of the tippers “intent to benefit” sufficient. Slip op. at 13.  He continues: “More generally, taking all the facts in the complaint as true and drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the SEC, the amended Complaint more than sufficiently alleges that [the tipper and tippee] had a meaningfully close personal relationship and that [the tipper] disclosed the inside information for a personal benefit sufficient to satisfy the Newman standard.”  Id.  Likewise, his later discussion of allegations relating to the scienter of the downstream tippees who are the defendants in the action, Messrs. Payton and Durant, concludes: “Thus, taking these allegations as true and drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of the SEC, the Amended Complaint more than sufficiently alleges that defendants knew or recklessly disregarded that [the tipper] received a personal benefit in disclosing information to [the tippee], and that [the tipper] in doing so breached a duty of trust and confidence to the owner of the information.”  Slip op. at 16.

The rubber meets the road with the introduction of evidence, and its consideration by the trier of fact.  Judge Rakoff’s opinion says, and can say, little about that.  Especially if the trier of fact is a jury, the jurors’ willingness to find the tippee’s “intent to benefit” the tipper, and the remote tippees’ intent to engage in a fraud, based on the relatively meager facts alleged is another thing entirely.  Some people may think that Judge Rakoff’s willingness to draw those inferences from the allegations is powerful because he is a bright, outspoken, and well-regarded district court judge.  But they should first consider his background as a former prosecutor, and then recall that his most notable recent decisions involving SEC cases criticize the SEC for (i) not prosecuting aggressively enough, and (ii) accepting settlements without sufficient justification in support of the agreed-upon terms.  It is hardly surprising that his review of the complaint reflects a pro-prosecution frame of mind.

In the end, allegations about benefits allegedly flowing between tippers and tippees are bound up in the facts and circumstances of each case.  That Judge Rakoff found those allegations sufficient here says little about what another judge will say about other facts elsewhere, or what anyone, even Judge Rakoff, would do when faced with evidence, not allegations.  More important is the mindset that should be used to evaluate the sufficiency of such allegations.  It is in that respect that Judge Rakoff’s decision misses the mark, and why it should not be accorded future deference.

The Opinion Misses the Mark Because It Fails To Focus on Whether Fraud Is Alleged

Judge Rakoff seems so interested in exploring how the SEC might satisfy the “intent to benefit” standard laid out in U.S. v. Newman that he ignores the more critical issue raised by the allegations, and focused upon in Chiarella and Dirks.  He starts out on the wrong track, and never addresses the core, important issue.  His statement of the driving factors behind insider trading violations is wrong, and he immerses himself in issues that, while perhaps interesting from a jurisprudential standpoint, make little difference to the claims asserted in the complaint.  He fails to ask the most important question in these cases: accepting the allegations as stated, do they provide grounds for inferring that the defendants engaged in fraud in connection with their purchases or sales of securities.  The entire discussion of the facts alleged never once seeks to answer that question.

The opinion reflects this flaw from the outset.  Here is what Judge Rakoff says in his first paragraph:

As a general matter, there is nothing esoteric about insider trading. It is a form of cheating, of using purloined or embezzled information to gain an unfair trading advantage. The United States securities markets — the comparative honesty of which is one of our nation’s great business assets – cannot tolerate such cheating if those markets are to retain the confidence of investors and the public alike.

Slip op. at 1.

This may sound good, but it is wrong.  Insider trading is not “a form of cheating”; it is a form of “fraud” in the context of securities transactions.  Even if we give the judge the benefit of the doubt and assume that in his mind “cheating” and “fraud” are equivalents, the error of his statement is apparent in the remainder of that sentence, because insider trading certainly is not “using purloined or embezzled information to gain an unfair trading advantage.”  That is wrong in two respects.  The use of “purloined” information is not enough to support an insider trading violation because it lacks the aspect of deceit required to prove fraud.  (“Purloined” is a fancy way of saying “stolen.”)  And insider trading is not at all about having a “trading advantage,” fair or unfair.

In a “classical” insider trading case, one might argue that the transaction is “unfair” because the counter-party can theoretically expect an insider, under the law, to disclose material information before trading, but the real point is the breach of the disclosure duty (which constitutes fraud), not the fairness or unfairness of the transaction.  In a “misappropriation” case, this description makes no sense at all, because in such cases, the victim of insider trading fraud is the owner of the information, who was deceived into sharing that information with someone who used it for an unauthorized purpose.  The notion that the counter-party to the trade was a victim of an “unfair” transaction reflects acceptance of an equality of information standard in the marketplace, which plainly is not the law.  The securities transaction itself need not be “unfair,” and it probably is not, because the counter-party is a willing participant getting the price he wants in a transaction with a stranger.

I focus on this only to show that from the very outset, Judge Rakoff is using language and a mindset that is inconsistent with the law, as laid out by the Supreme Court.  As Judge Rakoff points out, there is no statute that prohibits insider trading, no less attempts to define it.  Instead, insider trading violates section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 if, and only if, the transaction is accomplished by means of fraud.  This fundamental difference, between focusing on a concept of “fairness” rather than a concept of “fraud,” infects Judge Rakoff’s analysis.

Fraud, as we know, requires intentional deceit. Judge Rakoff says that because the Second Circuit’s opinion in Newman came in a criminal case, it may not control SEC civil cases because there may be instances where conduct that does not constitute criminal “insider trading” may still be considered “insider trading” in an SEC civil action.  To be sure, the state of mind requirement for a criminal conviction – “willfulness” – does not apply to SEC civil cases.  But even if one engages in a “reckless” fraud (if that concept makes sense, an issue not yet decided by the Supreme Court), it must nonetheless be a “fraud.”

To understand where Judge Rakoff’s opinion flies off the rails, we need to review the facts alleged in the complaint.  Defendants Payton and Durant, are what is known as “remote tippees.”  In this case, quite remote.

  • The “owner” of the information.  The information in question was a planned acquisition by IBM of another company, SPSS, Inc.  The “insider,” and “owner” of that nonpublic information was IBM and SPSS.  But no one at IBM or SPSS traded, or shared information with others for the purpose of trading.
  • The original “tipper” and original “tippee” of the information.  Instead, the information was learned by a lawyer at the Cravath law firm, Michael Dallas.  Mr. Dallas obtained the information lawfully; there is no suggestion he did so deceitfully.  Dallas had a close friend, Trent Martin.  They engaged in many allegedly confidential conversations, although Dallas surely must have understood that he was not supposed to share client information with a third party, even a close friend.  It is alleged that “Martin and Dallas had a history of sharing confidences such that a duty of trust and confidence existed between them. . . .  They each understood that the information they shared about their jobs was nonpublic and both expected the other to maintain confidentiality.”  Dallas allegedly shared specific information about the IBM/SPSS merger with Mr. Martin on several occasions.  There is no allegation that the conduct of either Dallas or Martin relating solely to the sharing of this information between them was fraudulent.  Since Dallas gained possession of the information as part of his work, he would not be a “tippee.”  But there is no apparent authorization for communicating the information to Martin, so Martin should be considered a “tippee.” That would make Dallas the original “tipper,” and Martin the original “tippee.”  Judge Rakoff calls Martin the “tipper”; that is right in the sense that he transferred the information to a second-level tippee, but Dallas plainly makes the first “tip,” although it was not alleged to be fraudulent, and Martin is not alleged to have traded SPSS securities.
  • The second-level tippee. Martin shared housing with Thomas Conradt.  It is alleged that “They shared a close, mutually-dependent financial relationship, and had a history of personal favors.”  Focusing on pleading facts that will pass muster under Newman, the complaint describes several respects in which they assisted or did favors for each other.  It also alleges that Martin, “in violation of his duty of trust and confidence to Dallas, tipped inside information about the SPSS acquisition to Conradt,” who bought SPSS securities.  This makes Mr. Conradt a “second-level tippee.”
  • The third-level tippee.  Conradt worked at the same brokerage firm as a registered representative identified as “RR1.”  Conradt allegedly told RR1 about the SPSS transaction.  That makes RR1 a “third-level tippee.”
  • The fourth-level tippees.  Defendants Payton and Durant also worked at the same brokerage firm as Conradt and RR1.  It is alleged that Conradt “learned that RRl had, in turn, shared the inside information with defendants Payton and Durant.”  That makes the defendants “fourth-level tippees.”  The complaint also alleges that after hearing about this, Conradt told Payton and Durant that he got the information about SPSS from his roommate, Martin.  “On the basis of the inside information they learned from RRl and Conradt, defendants purchased SPSS securities.”

The SEC cause of action is against Payton and Durant.  So the question to ask is: How do the allegations try to show that Payton and Durant committed acts of fraud in connection with their purchases of SPSS securities?  Judge Rakoff says the following: (1) They knew that Martin was Conradt’s roommate, and that the information about SPSS went from Martin to Conradt to RR1; (2) Conradt told Payton that Martin had been arrested for assault; (3) they never asked Conradt why Martin had given him information about SPSS or how Martin had learned the information; (4) after the IBM/SPSS merger was disclosed to the public, they met with Conradt, RR1 and another Conradt tippee “to discuss what they should do if any of them were contacted by the SEC or other law enforcement,” and they “agreed not to discuss the trading with anyone and to contact a lawyer if questioned”; (5) Payton took steps to hide his transactions; and (6) after receiving an SEC subpoena, they lied to their employer about the origin of their interest in SPSS securities.

These alleged facts simply do not add up to adequate allegations of fraudulent conduct by defendants Payton and Durant, and certainly not under the strict pleading requirements for stating fraud claims under Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b), which applies to this claim.

Why not?  To put it simply, there is no allegation of any deceptive act by the defendants leading up to, and consummating, their purchases of SPSS securities.  The bulk of Judge Rakoff’s opinion focuses on the relationships and reasons for communications between Dallas, Martin, and Conradt.  Dallas and Martin allegedly had a close confidential relationship, and Martin and Conradt allegedly had “a close, mutually-dependent financial relationship” and “a history of personal favors.”  But Conradt is not alleged to have had any special relationship with RR1 or the defendants, and RR1 is not alleged to have had any special relationship with the defendants.  Nor are there any allegations that the defendants (Payton and Durant) knew about the existence of the source of the information, Dallas, or anything about nature of the relationship between Dallas and Martin, or Martin and Conradt, other than that Martin and Conradt were roommates and Martin had been arrested for assault.

Nothing about any of these facts suggests Payton and Durant defrauded anyone up to, and including, the consummation of their SPSS security purchases.  No facts suggest they owed a duty to disclose anything about what they knew (or, more accurately, were willing to bet on) about a possible IBM/SPSS merger before trading SPSS securities. They were not insiders, and, as alleged, had no knowledge that the information they learned originated with an insider.  As a result, there is no basis for finding a duty of disclosure from them to SPSS shareholders.  And they had no knowledge that the information they learned had been “misappropriated” from its owner – the only possible owner they knew about was Martin (they are not alleged to have known anything about the relationship of Dallas and Martin), and they had no reason to believe that Conradt misappropriated information from Martin.  In fact, the SEC complaint makes it clear that Mr. Conradt did not misappropriate the information from Mr. Martin, since it alleges that Martin intentionally “tipped inside information about the SPSS acquisition to Conradt.”

Judge Rakoff dwells on the alleged fact that neither Payton nor Durant asked Conradt about why Martin gave information to Conradt and how Martin got the information in the first place.  But no fact alleged suggests they were under any duty to ask such questions. To be sure, the “willful blindness” doctrine might preclude them from arguing lack of that knowledge in defending the scienter element, although willful blindness seems a stretch here, but Judge Rakoff provides no reason why they had any legal duty to ask such questions before trading on the information they learned from RR1 and Conradt.

So where is fraud alleged against Payton and Durant?  Whether an insider trading violation is viewed under the classical or misappropriation theory, it must be founded in deceiving someone by failing to disclose material nonpublic information in advance of trading, when such disclosure is required.  That is the fraud.  Under the classical theory, a prior disclosure of the information to the counter-party cures any claim of fraud because the disclosure duty is satisfied, eliminating any insider trading liability (the so-called “disclose or refrain from trading” requirement).  Under the misappropriation theory, a prior disclosure to the owner of the information of the intent to trade on the basis of the information eliminates the fraud, which is the undisclosed use of the information to trade (assuming the relationship with the owner created a duty to disclose).  In each instance, the insider trading liability flows from the deceptive breach of the duty of disclosure.

But no allegation in the complaint identifies any person to whom Payton and Durant owed a duty of disclosure.  There is no disclosure they could have made to allow them to go forward with the trades (to satisfy the “disclose or refrain” mandate) because there is no disclosure they were required to make to anyone, based on the allegations in the complaint.  Not to Dallas, whom they didn’t know existed; not to Martin, with whom they had no relationship, and to whom even Conradt owed no disclosure duty because he had been given the information without any promise of confidentiality; not to RR1 or Conradt, neither of whom is alleged to have had a special relationship with the defendants, and both of whom knew about their trading anyway; and not to any shareholder of SPSS, because the defendants were not insiders, or even “constructive” insiders by virtue of knowing their information was confidential and originated with insiders.

What about all the alleged post-trading conduct that supposedly evidences “guilty knowledge” or the like?  I would argue those allegations could be equally explainable by the defendants’ fear that the authorities or their employer would be concerned about, and would certainly investigate, the trades, even if they were not unlawful.  Does Judge Rakoff really believe that running away from the police is evidence of having committed a crime? Even a former prosecutor should be wary about making that connection.  In any event, no amount of allegedly incriminating post-trading conduct can turn a lawful trade into an unlawful one.  Such conduct would have a bearing on the issue of scienter, but all the scienter in the world doesn’t create a violation where there was none.  “Guilty knowledge” doesn’t count for much if the person is, based on the alleged facts, not guilty.

Judge Rakoff discusses none of this, and that is why the opinion is fundamentally flawed. One gets the sense that his overall objective is to try to make sure that people who he believes “cheated” would be held accountable because, as he says it: “The United States securities markets . . . cannot tolerate such cheating if those markets are to retain the confidence of investors and the public alike.”  But that is a legislative thought, not a judicial one.  He is bound to adjudicate within the strictures of section 10(b), which he does not do.  He is so focused on trying to show that the allegations could support an inference satisfying the Newman intent to benefit standard that he ignores the core meaning and analytical framework of Newman, and of Chiarella v. United States, and Dirks v. SEC as well: that fraud is what section 10(b) is all about, not supposedly unfair informational advantages or even sketchy opportunism by traders.  The whole point of Newman’s intent to benefit requirement is to assure that nonpublic information known to a trader is the result of fraudulent conduct, not something else, before that person can be found liable under section 10(b), criminally or civilly.  A tipper’s unauthorized and undisclosed transmission of information to a tippee simply is not fraudulent unless it is done to obtain some form of tangible benefit that was the object of fraud.

Judge Rakoff’s opinion does nothing to explain how these fourth-level tippees could have section 10(b) liability under the facts alleged.  Because the allegations in the complaint in SEC v. Payton fail to provide plausible inferences that their securities trades were founded on fraudulent conduct, not to mention particularized allegations of the fraud (which at least would require identifying the persons defrauded and how), the complaint fails to state a claim under section 10(b), and should have been dismissed.

Straight Arrow

April 22, 2015

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Some SEC Administrative Law Judges Are Thoughtful and Even Judicious

We have now on several occasions bemoaned the fate of Laurie Bebo, former CEO of Assisted Living Concepts, Inc., to be forced to litigate her professional future before SEC Administrative Law Judge Cameron Elliot, whom we believe to be, shall we say, not the brightest star in the firmament.  See SEC ALJ Cameron Elliot Shows Why In re Bebo Should Be in Federal Court; Bebo Case Continues To Show Why SEC Administrative Proceeding Home Advantage Is Unfair; and SEC ALJ in Bebo Case Refuses To Consider Constitutional Challenge and Denies More Time To Prepare Defense.  And we have argued that the SEC’s home administrative law court is not a fair forum for the resolution of career-threatening enforcement actions against non-regulated defendants, notwithstanding that the Dodd Frank Act permits such cases to go forward.  See Challenges to the Constitutionality of SEC Administrative Proceedings in Peixoto and Stilwell May Have Merit; Ceresney Presents Unconvincing Defense of Increased SEC Administrative Prosecutions; and Opposition Growing to SEC’s New “Star Chamber” Administrative Prosecutions.  That might make a reader think we believe that all SEC ALJs lack the ability or temperament to preside over and decide important cases.  So, to set that record straight, allow us to say that, like almost almost any other place, the SEC administrative law courts are administered by appointees with a range of abilities and demeanors.  It is not the lack of judicial ability that makes the SEC’s administrative courts a poor forum for such cases, it is that the forum is bereft of procedural protections that enhance the chance that a respondent will get a fair shake even when the presiding ALJ is one of poor judicial timber.

In federal court, there are also good judges, bad judges, and a range in between.  But the scales of justice have calibrating factors other than the judge.  In a federal court, equal access to potential evidence through liberal discovery; equal opportunity to develop familiarity with the record over a reasonable period of time; evidentiary rules designed to assure that unreliable evidence, and excessively prejudicial evidence, is excluded; and, of course, the fact that a jury sits to consider the evidence, and use their combined common sense to find facts, all combine to make it possible for a defendant to overcome poor judging.  There is a vacuum of such protections in the administrative law court.  That makes the quality, or questionable quality, of the judge/trier of fact, much more important.  When the judge fails to understand, or care, that he or she is essentially the only factor between a fair proceeding and one tilted in favor of the prosecutor, justice suffers.

So, in celebration of the new baseball season, I’d like to throw a change-up today and discuss an SEC administrative law judge who, although appointed only recently, is showing great potential to be worthy of his position.  I’ve not seen SEC ALJ Jason Patil in the courtroom, but I’ve been very impressed with his approach in some recent cases.  He’s shown he can act with independence, thoroughness, attention to detail, and a strong dose of common sense.  So this blog post is to give credit where credit is due.

All the more credit is due because Jason Patil is the proverbial “new kid on the block.”  He was appointed to the SEC’s ALJ bench on September 22, 2014, after receiving a Stanford degree in political science in 1995, a law degree from from the University of Chicago Law School in 1998, and an L.L.M, from Georgetown University Law Center in 2009.  He served at the Department of Justice for 14 years.

Fewer than 3 months after ALJ Patil started at the SEC, the Second Circuit rocked the boat of the DOJ and the SEC with its insider trading decision in United States v. Newman.  ALJ Patil had to consider the impact of that decision in a case before him: In the Matter of Bolan and Ruggieri.  The SEC’s enforcement lawyers made every effort to obtain an early, post-Newman ruling from ALJ Patil in that case that would limit the scope of the Newman opinion through the adoption of a standard that would not apply Newman‘s holding to insider trading cases based on the misappropriation theory, rather than the so-called “classical” insider trading theory on which the Newman and Chiasson prosecution was founded.  ALJ Patil resisted the SEC’s full-court press to make him an early adopter of an approach that essentially ignored key language in the Second Circuit opinion.  He rejected that effort, ruling that, as the Newman court said, the standard for liability was the same under either the classical or misappropriation insider trading theory.  See SEC ALJ in Bolan and Ruggieri Proceeding Rules Misappropriation Theory Mandates Proof of Benefit to Tipper.

That showed intelligence, independence, and, to be frank, guts, for a newly-appointed ALJ.  But it was a later decision that showed me that ALJ Patil seems to have the stuff of a good judge.  In the Matter of Delaney and Yancey, File No. 3-15873, was not a high profile insider trading case, but it was apparent from the Initial Decision he wrote that he was able and willing to evaluate cases fairly and decisively.  His decision in that case is available here: ALJ Initial Decision in the Matter of Delaney and Yancey.  In that case, he wrote a careful opinion, weighing the evidence, distinguishing between the roles and conduct of the respondents, weighing expert testimony, considering (and often rejecting) varying SEC legal theories, and applying a strong dose of common sense.

The case was a technical one, involving charges against two individuals, the President and CEO of a broker-dealer that was a major clearing firm for stock trades (Mr. Yancey), and that firm’s Chief Compliance Officer (Mr. Delaney).  The SEC alleged many violations by the firm of SEC regulations governing the settlement of trades.  Mr. Delaney was charged with aiding and abetting, and causing, numerous violations of SEC regulations by virtue of his conduct as the Chief Compliance Officer.  Mr. Yancey was charged with failing adequately to supervise Mr. Delaney and another firm employee, allowing the violations to occur.  ALJ Patil exhaustively reviewed the evidence to reach reasoned decisions, with cogent explanations supporting his views.  In doing so, he was not shy about chiding the SEC for fanciful theories and woefully unsupported proposed inferences.

The opinion is long, detailed, and more in the weeds than many of us like to get.  The aiding and abetting charge against Mr. Delaney required proof that he assisted the violations through either knowing or extremely reckless conduct (i.e., scienter).  The SEC enforcement staff is quick to accuse people of knowing or reckless misconduct, and is often willing to draw that inference with little in the way of supporting evidence.  ALJ Patil’s review of the evidence presented in support of the scienter element was precise and thorough.  He dissected the evidence piece-by-piece, in impressive detail.  Here is some of what he said:

The Division has failed to show that Delaney acted with the requisite scienter, and
therefore its aiding and abetting claim against Delaney fails.  As an initial matter, I note that the Division is unable to articulate or substantiate a plausible theory as to why Delaney would want to aid and abet [his firm’s violations].  While the Division correctly argues that motive is not a mandatory element of an aiding and abetting claim, numerous courts have noted its absence when finding that scienter has not been proven. . . .    The Division also failed to establish that Delaney had anything to gain from the alleged misconduct.  The Division’s original theory was a wildly exaggerated belief that [the] . . . violations resulted in millions of dollars of additional profits. . . .  The Division was forced to abandon that theory, and in the end agreed that the “only specifically quantified benefit” to [the firm] . . . was a meager $59,000.  I do not find that sum would have given Delaney any motive to aid and abet the . . . violation. . . .  Although the Division also argues that there would have been “substantial costs to [the firm] . . . that . . . could expose the firm to significant losses,” the Division produced no evidence to quantify the costs or losses, and the testimony to which the Division points is general and speculative. . . .  As the Division did not provide any evidence quantifying the purported costs or losses, I am unable to determine whether there were any.

One of the SEC’s major points was the contention that Mr. Delaney’s knowing misconduct was apparent because he was shown to be a liar by misstatements in the Wells Submission submitted to the SEC on his behalf by his lawyers.  ALJ Patil forcefully torpedoed this theory:

I disagree with the Division’s conclusion that “Delaney has not been honest or
truthful” and “[i]nstead . . . has been evasive and inconsistent.”. . .  The Division’s
primary evidence for this alleged dishonesty are statements made in Delaney’s Wells
submission.  The Division argues, “either the statements Delaney approved about his knowledge and actions were lies to the Commission in his Wells submission or his repudiation of those statements are lies to the Court now.”. . .  Based on my careful review of that document, I conclude that it is primarily comprised of argument by counsel and grounded in incomplete information. . . .  It is based not just on Delaney’s understanding at that time, but on his counsel’s characterization of other evidence selectively provided to Delaney by the Division. . . . .  In contrast to that argumentative submission, Delaney testified five times under oath, including at the hearing. . . .  I find that Delaney’s testimony was overwhelmingly consistent, and the handful of inconsistencies alleged by the Division in such testimony either do not exist or are easily explained by the circumstances. . . .  In this case, where Delaney testified multiple times under oath at the Division’s request, as did other witnesses, I have decided to base my decision on that testimony and other documents in the record, which I find more probative than past characterizations made by Delaney’s counsel. . . .  I do not accept the Division’s insistence that everything in the [Wells Submission], particularly the statements in the legal argument section, should be taken, in essence, as testimony of Delaney.

Perhaps most telling was ALJ Patil’s careful review of supposed inconsistencies in testimony by Mr. Delaney.  His evaluation of that testimony reflected thoughtful consideration of the facts and circumstances both when the events at issue occurred, and when the testimony was given.  The decision took the SEC lawyers to task for arguing that testimony was inconsistent when the supposed inconsistencies were more plausibly explained by poor questioning by the SEC staff during their numerous examinations of him:

To the extent that Delaney’s testimony could be at all be characterized as “evasive” or
“inconsistent” . . . , it may be because he lacks a completely clear recollection of what
took place years ago regarding his alleged conduct.  Delaney credibly and convincingly
explained that his initial testimony was given with virtually no preparation or opportunity to
review documents, thus preventing him from having a full and fair recollection of the events he was asked about. . . .  While his conduct with respect to [the Rule at issue] is especially
important in the present action, at the time of such conduct, Delaney was in the business of
putting out “fires,” . . . and [the Rule], though undeniably important, was most assuredly not the top priority for the compliance department. . . .  [T]he Division argues that “Delaney quibbled about whether he had seen the release [for the Rule] in the same exact format as that in the exhibit used at the hearing and during his testimony.” . . .  Several exhibits copy or link to the text of the releases . . . with the appearance and formatting of each differing dramatically from the way the text of such releases is ultimately arranged in the printed version of the Federal Register, the document Delaney was shown at the hearing. . . .  When someone is testifying about a document that may not look anything like the version he had read, it is not “quibbling” to explain that one has never seen something that looks like the exhibit.  I in fact thought that the Federal Register version of the releases looked considerably different from the other copies and would have been hesitant to say I had read the exhibit without first looking it over. . . .  Despite his exasperation at the Division’s repeated insinuations that he was lying, I found Delaney a credible and convincing witness. My perception, that his hours of testimony were sincere and truthful, is consistent with the attestation of all the hearing witnesses regarding Delaney’s honesty and integrity.

Finally, the Division asserts that Delaney contradicted himself because, on the one hand,
in August 2012 he did not recall being concerned about the contents of [a FINRA letter] and, on the other hand, in July 2013 he testified that a disclosure in that letter would be a big deal for [his firm]. . . .  However, because Delaney was asked somewhat different questions on the two different occasions (as opposed to being asked the same question on both occasions), his answers were consistent.  In August 2012, Delaney was asked whether he was concerned about the letter, not the conduct at issue. . . .  When asked about the purported contradiction at the hearing, Delaney reasonably explained that he was not concerned about the letter disclosing the conduct, which was accurate as he understood it, but at the same time was concerned about the underlying rule violations. . . .  It is telling that the Division, who has had Delaney testify so often, seizes on such minor supposed contradictions.  I find all of the purported inconsistencies identified by the Division are
either immaterial or have been adequately explained by Delaney.  I found, on the whole,
Delaney’s testimony to be credible, with the exception, noted previously, that he may not recall comparatively minor events and discussions that took place up to six years before the hearing.

Having found no evidence of knowledge, ALJ Patil went on to reject the SEC staff’s suggestions that Mr. Delaney’s conduct was nevertheless “reckless.”  He carefully distinguished between evidence of negligence and “extreme recklessness.”  He then dissected individual emails presented by the staff as “red flags” to show, one-by-one, that they were no such thing.

ALJ Patil nevertheless found Mr. Delaney liable for “causing” some of the firm’s violations, based on his conclusion that Mr. Delaney acted negligently.  He found violations “because the evidence supports that Delaney contributed to [the firm’s] violations and should have known he was doing so.”  He did so on the basis of testimony “that according to SEC guidance, in situations ‘where
misconduct may have occurred’– as opposed to ‘conduct that raises red flags’ – compliance
officers should follow up to facilitate a proper response.”  He provided a lengthy and lucid explanation of why he reached the conclusion that Mr. Delaney faced such a situation and failed to act prudently.

The case against Mr. Yancey failed entirely.  ALJ Patil found that Mr. Yancey, as CEO, was Mr. Delaney’s supervisor, but the evidence did not show intentional conduct by Mr. Delaney, and a supervisory violation can occur only when “[t]he supervised person must have ‘willfully aided, abetted, counseled, commanded, induced, or procured’ the securities law violation.”  But even if Mr. Delaney had willfully aided an abetted the firm’s rules violations, “the Division has failed to show that Yancey did not reasonably supervise Delaney . . . because “[a] firm’s president is not automatically at fault when other individuals in the firm engage in misconduct of which he has no reason to be aware.”  He concluded: “Yancey had no reason to believe that any ‘red flags’ or ‘irregularities’ were occurring at [the firm] that were not already the subject of prompt remediation.  Given the absence of such evidence, I find that the Division did not prove that Yancey failed reasonably to supervise Delaney, even were such a claim viable here.”

As for the supervisory charge regarding the second firm employee, who was a registered representative who did act willfully, Yancey “persuasively dispute[d]” that the employee was not subject to the CEO’s “direct supervision.”  “[A]s an initial matter, a president of a firm ‘is responsible for the firm’s compliance with all applicable requirements unless and until he or she reasonably delegates a particular function to another person in the firm, and neither knows nor has reason to know that such person is not properly performing his or her duties.’ . . .   I find that Yancey is not liable for [the employee’s] intentional misconduct because the record supports that Yancey reasonably delegated supervisory responsibility over [him] . . . and then followed up reasonably.”  ALJ Patil rejected several theories of the SEC staff why Mr. Yancey should nevertheless be considered a supervisor.  He ultimately found no liability for Mr. Yancey.

On the issue of sanctions, ALJ Patil did not rubber stamp SEC staff requests.  He gave a reasoned explanation for issuing a cease and desist order against Mr. Delaney, found he could not issue a bar order against him because he did not act willfully, and imposed what seem to be reasonable civil penalties, totaling $20,000, for the conduct involved.  His order on the SEC’s disgorgement request was, perhaps unintentionally, amusingly tongue-in-cheek: “I have opted not to order disgorgement in this case, because the amount at issue is negligible. The Division contends, in effect, that Delaney must pay back the portion of his $40,000 in bonuses during the relevant time period that arose from the Rule 204T/204 violations.  The quantified benefit of the violations, $59,000, is approximately 0.008 percent of [the firm’s] revenue during that period. . . .  Even if all of Delaney’s bonuses were based on [the firm’s] performance (which, they are not, since the parties seem to be in general agreement that such performance was only one of three factors in bonuses), based on the preceding figures, the percentage of Delaney’s bonuses tied directly to the quantifiable benefit . . . is three dollars and twenty cents.  Even accounting for prejudgment interest, a disgorgement order is unwarranted.”

Kudos to ALJ Patil for what appears to be a fine job of adjudicating a tiresome case.  In a careful ruling, he handed the SEC a substantial defeat and a partial victory.  If he keeps this up in his tenure as an SEC ALJ, we should see some high-quality, thoughtful, and independent decisions penned by him.

Straight Arrow

April 14, 2015

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SEC Suffers Another Major Loss in Willie Gault Case

A jury ruled against SEC charges of fraud against former pro football player Willie Gault, another in a string of embarrassing high-profile litigation losses in cases tried by the SEC.  The jury found Gault liable for lesser charges of false SOX certifications and circumventing internal controls.  Director of the Division of Enforcement Andrew Ceresney gave a faux victory statement that he was “pleased with the jury’s verdict holding Willie Gault accountable for securities law violations.”  And perhaps the jury’s findings represent somewhat more than the defense counsel’s post-trial description of “the equivalent of a traffic ticket.”  But make no mistake, this is another troubling trial loss for the SEC because the fraud charges are what these cases are all about.  It is highly likely the case could have been settled a long time ago on the lesser charges (and at much less expense for both the Government and the defense).

The SEC’s use of major resources in the effort to “get” Gault on the fraud charges should be seriously re-examined by Ceresney and other key enforcement managers.  Instead, Ceresney may well chalk this up as another example of a flawed jury being unable to understand the evidence, or unwilling to see the case as the SEC staff does, and therefore representing another reason why such cases should be directed to the SEC’s administrative court to avoid independent fact-finding.

The case involved an alleged “pump and dump” of Heart Tronics, Inc. stock, orchestrated by the company’s former outside counsel, Mitchell Stein.  Stein was previously convicted of criminal securities fraud and is in prison.  The SEC contended that Stein “installed” Gault “as a figurehead co-CEO . . . in order to generate publicity for the company and foster investor confidence,” and “orchestrat[ed] a campaign of misinformation designed to inflate the price of Heart Tronics stock” before selling some of his wife’s stock in the company.  She owned 85% of the company’s stock.

The SEC’s complaint described in detail the steps of an elaborate scheme by Stein, but says precious little about Gault’s supposed role in the scheme.  In fact, the SEC’s theory against Gault with regard to the alleged pump and dump scheme seemed to be no more than the contention that he “rarely questioned Stein’s direction,” “abdicated [his] fiduciary responsibilities to Heart Tronics shareholders, ” and “signed, or unlawfully authorized to be signed, public Commission filings containing false statements about the Company’s purported sales.”  It appears that the only serious fraud theory against Gault was not participation in Stein’s extensive stock scheme, but that Gault allegedly assisted in an effort to induce a single investor to loan money to the company based on misrepresentations, and then diverted some of those funds for personal use.  Pre-trial motions to exclude these separate transactions from the case as not involving securities were denied by the district court.  A copy of the complaint can be found here: Complaint in SEC v. Heart Tronics et al.

One might question the wisdom of pursuing a fraud case against someone who could easily be argued to be a victim of the fraud, not one of its perpetrators.  If the SEC lacked any real evidence that Gault participated in the pump and dump fraud scheme, no case should have been brought on that theory.  Arguing to the jury that Gault was a fraudster without real evidence to support that charge could easily cause the jury to distrust the SEC and its trial counsel.  This may be another example of the SEC overcharging its case by imprudently focusing on fraud charges.  See SEC’s Single-Minded Focus on Fraud Theory Results in Loss on Appeal.  In any event, we know from our own experience that the SEC will move to trial on fraud cases with scant evidence that the defendant actually participated in a fraud, based on the personal views (or even pique) of enforcement lawyers, rather than a serious, disinterested evaluation of the evidence a jury will see.

Hopefully, we will learn over time more about why the jury didn’t buy the SEC’s case.  Often, an effort to prove fraud based solely on neglect and breach of fiduciary duty (neither of which constitutes “fraud”), based on an expansive theory of “recklessness,” will, and should, be unsuccessful.  And the specifics of Gault’s role in the one investor’s loan to the company may well have been less important than the SEC alleged, or the jury may just have questioned its significance in the context of a case focused on a broader alleged scheme in which Gault was not even alleged to be a meaningful participant.

Whatever the reason, the loss, along with other recent losses, should cause management in the SEC’s Division of Enforcement to engage in serious self-examination about the cases the Division brings to trial, and its process for deciding whether they are truly trial-worthy.  That would be a much more sensible reaction than simply trying to shift more cases to the administrative court in order to avoid the annoyance of independent juries.

Straight Arrow

March 19, 2015 

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4th Circuit Finds Section 10(b) Scienter Allegations Sufficient with No Motive in Zak v. Chelsea Therapeutics

In Zak v. Chelsea Therapeutics Int’l, No. 13-2370, a split Fourth Circuit panel found allegations of securities fraud sufficient in a putative section 10(b) class action.  The district court dismissed the complaint for failing to make allegations sufficient to support a strong inference of scienter under the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act (PSLRA) standard.  The majority of the panel reversed, despite an apparent lack of facts showing any real objective for the alleged fraud.  The opinion is available here: Zak v. Chelsea Therapeutics Intl.

The case involved a now-common fact situation in securities class actions against pharmaceutical companies.  Chelsea was trying to gain approval for a drug treatment for “symptomatic neurogenic orthostatic hypotension,” which is “a condition in which a dramatic drop in blood pressure occurs when a person stands.”  During the course of testing for the efficacy of the drug, Chelsea executives expressed optimism about how the tests were going, and for the prospect of getting the drug approved by the FDA.  At the same time, the actual testing showed mixed results.  One trial was successful and others were inconclusive.  All of the trial results were disclosed, however.  A meeting with FDA officials was also inconclusive — they indicated that the application for the drug could move forward on the basis of the one study, which was short-term, but that it was an obstacle to approval that other studies had not shown the drug’s efficacy over a longer period.  Management optimistically described this conversation as the officials agreeing that the application could move forward on the basis of the one successful trial.

There were other instances of management expressing overly-optimistic views on the approval of the drug, without also acknowledging that there were serious obstacles.  One of these included the contents of an FDA staff report.  Management received this report, in which a staffer recommended that the drug not be approved, 8 days before it was publicly disclosed.  The company’s published description of the report said it raised questions about the sufficiency of the support for approval of the drug, but failed to state that the staffer recommended against approval.  The stock price nevertheless declined 38%.  The press release also provided the web address to obtain to actual report when it was released by the FDA, which occurred 8 days later.  At that time, the stock price declined an additional 21%.

Three days later, an FDA advisory committee recommended approval of the drug in a non-binding recommendation.  The FDA itself, however, ultimately declined to approve the drug a little over a month later.

One interesting aspect of the case is the district court’s use of Chelsea’s public SEC filings in its consideration of whether these facts adequately pled scienter under the PSLRA.  The defendants submitted SEC proxy and Form 4 filings to show that there was no evidence that management or directors tried to take advantage of any arguably misleading statements by cashing out their stock.  Although the complaint did not plead insider stock sales as a motive for the fraud, the court took judicial notice of the SEC filings and based its decision in part on the lack of evidence of efforts to profit on any of the alleged misrepresentations or omissions in the complaint.

The entire 4th Circuit panel agreed that this was improper.  The opinion acknowledges the commonly accepted rule that on a motion to dismiss, the court can consider materials outside of the complaint if they are incorporated by reference or implicated by the allegations in the complaint.  But, since insider stock trading was never alleged in the complaint, it found judicial notice of materials addressed to that issue was improper.

The majority of the panel went on the conclude that the allegations of repeatedly optimistic statements about the drug approval process which left out key developments suggesting approval was in doubt were enough to support the required strong inference of scienter.  Two things are important about this.  First, it comes from the 4th Circuit, which rarely sees a class action complaint it thinks is sufficient.  Second, it allows a complaint to proceed on the basis of a fraud which, at least from the descriptions in the opinion, shows absolutely to motivation for committing the alleged fraud.  Usually, fraudulent misrepresentations or omissions are part of an effort to obtain some advantage from the misleading disclosures.  Here, there is no such apparent motive.  That may be why the district court went beyond the complaint to the trading data.  Surely a fraud must have an objective — but none is apparent here.  This is especially so as to the most troublesome of the alleged misleading disclosures: the misleading description of the staff report about possible approval of the drug.  Since the report itself was going to be published about a week after the company’s press release about it, and the press release provided the web address for someone to read the actual report one week later, what is the purported object of a fraudulent description of that document, which would last only a week.  There appears to be none, since no action during that period suggests an effort to take advantage of the misleading disclosure.

Perhaps this goes more to the issue of materiality than scienter, which, as we have seen before, can be interrelated (see 1st Circuit: Scienter Not Alleged Where Materiality Is Questionable and Regulatory Violations Remain in Doubt).  But it would seem to encompass both; how do you find a strong inference of intent to defraud in the absence of any apparent motive?

Dissenting Judge Thacker certainly had problems with finding fraudulent conduct alleged here.  He reminded the court that even if recklessness can be sufficient to support scienter — and he reiterated that the Supreme Court still has not accepted that theory (slip op. at 33 n.2) — in the 4th Circuit i”we insist that the recklessness must be ‘severe’ — that is, ‘a slightly lesser species of intentional misconduct.'”  Slip op. at 35.  He argued that the company’s statements were not “literally” inaccurate, and there was enough support for management to express an optimistic view without committing fraud.  He concluded : “Today’s decision clears the way for more litigation, heightening the risk that shareholders will exploit the judicial process to extract settlements from corporations they chose to fund. This is exactly what Congress sought to prevent when it enacted the PSLRA.”  Slip op. at 43.

This case is a very close call.  Based on the fact descriptions in the opinion, it looks like management erred on the side of optimism, and may have elevated wish above reality, putting the best light on everything while hoping for approval of the drug.  It should give us pause on the fraud issue that the advisory committee actually did recommend approval of the drug, even with the alleged shortcomings of the trial studies.  In the end, it is the absence of any apparent planned gain or advantage from the alleged misleading disclosures that suggests to me that whatever happened here, intentional fraud was not what it was about, especially under the high scienter pleading standard of the PSLRA.

In any event, the class plaintiffs seem to have some serious uphill fighting on the materiality front.

Straight Arrow

March 17, 2015

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