Tag Archives: SEC Commissioners

Chamber of Commerce Report Details Concerns with SEC Enforcement and Proposed Reforms

On July 15, 2016, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a lengthy and detailed report discussing a range of shortcomings in the SEC’s law enforcement investigative and adjudicative processes.  Little of what was said is new, in the sense that it raises issues or presents ideas not previously discussed by parties or commentators.  But it may be the most comprehensive discussion of SEC enforcement issues in recent years.  It discusses how and why the scope and nature of SEC law enforcement has changed over the years, and, importantly, dwells on why rules, procedures, policies, and practices developed or adopted in the past have become obsolete in light of the changed scope and nature of both the SEC’s enforcement actions and the vastly changed information-storage environment which now dominates all forms of litigation.

The report makes 28 wide-ranging recommendations for revised SEC practices, policies, and oversight of the enforcement process.  Many of these focus upon and address the increased scope and use of administrative courts to pursue SEC enforcement actions, but they also address issues of fairness, efficiency and cost of the Division of Enforcement’s investigative process, the development and presentation of enforcement recommendations to the Commission, the standards to be used by the Commission in making enforcement prosecutorial decisions, the management and oversight of the enforcement activities of the Division of Enforcement, and the coordination of SEC enforcement with that of other law enforcement agencies.  The full report can be read here: Examining U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Enforcement: Recommendations on Current Processes and Practices.

There is a lot of material here in wide-ranging areas.  But by all appearances, the driving force behind the publication of the report is the festering issue of the untethered use of administrative proceedings to pursue SEC enforcement actions of all types, and the increasingly obsolete and unfair tilt of those proceedings in ways that plainly favor the Enforcement Division and impair the ability of respondents to defend themselves.

The tone of the report is measured, and its points are made with context and analysis. The in-depth discussion of fairness issues in SEC administrative proceedings, in light of the antiquated set of rules and procedures governing those proceedings, stands in contrast with the conclusory, and ill-supported, claims of the SEC’s Director of Enforcement that the SEC administrative process gives respondents an equal shot at prevailing over the Division.  It also spotlights the particular unfairness of a set of policies and procedures that grants the Division the right to pursue its actions before a jury if it wishes to do so, while respondents are powerless to do so, even though the Supreme Court has made it clear that in many such cases brought in federal court, there is a constitutional right to trial by jury.  The discussion also takes the Division of Enforcement to task for the analysis and explanation of its newly-adopted pseudo-policy for determining whether cases should be brought administratively or in court, noting that all of the factors weighed in that document are limited to the vantage point of the Enforcement Division; none of the considerations of fairness, efficiency, and public interest take into account impacts on the persons accused of law violations in these cases.

The report is also useful in reminding us that where we stand now is the artifact of the Gerry-built history of SEC law enforcement powers.  As a result, it is not surprising, but to be expected, that there is an ill fit between the peculiarities of the SEC’s administrative court proceedings and the design of a fair and efficient law enforcement process.

Hopefully, the report can serve as a catalyst for the SEC to get past the current no holds barred effort to beat back litigation efforts to balance the litigation playing field and turn to serious, genuine, adult consideration and resolution of the underlying fairness issues.  If not, perhaps the report can get lawmakers to do that if the SEC commissioners continue to turn a blind eye to the problem.

Some aspects of the report may assist in turning what has been a vacuum of policy discussion into a productive effort to make things better.  First, is the report’s emphasis on the difference between the SEC’s role as the steward of our securities and capital markets and capital, which differs significantly from the prosecutorial role of the Division of Enforcement — and least since that prosecutorial arm moved in recent years from a focus on the public interest to one of wielding crippling punitive sanctions.  Second, is the report’s reminder of how the SEC’s enforcement process got to where it is today, and how the development of steroid-like bulking up of SEC enforcement powers outstripped the quaint procedural concepts that of the SEC’s administrative courts, as well as the managerial means of guiding and controlling the army of enforcement lawyers seeking to flex those new muscles.

The report reminds us that the SEC needs to keep in mind that its goal is broader and more complex than just to win enforcement actions.

The report rightly starts out with a discussion of what the SEC should be trying to accomplish as it considers its enforcement program generally, and the specific aspects of that program that are causing controversy.:

The Division of Enforcement, as the prosecutor, should consider the different aspects and implications of the two forums in making its recommendation to the Commission.  However, the Commissioners acting as a decisional body should not view their role in the same way as a prosecutor.  The Commission has a responsibility to consider the broader statutory questions of what is “necessary and appropriate in the public interest for the protection of investors.”  More broadly, it must also adhere to its multiple statutory mandates to protect investors, promote capital formation, and ensure fair and orderly markets.  Accordingly, the Commission should predicate its forum selection decisions solely upon a clear determination that its choices uphold and further its responsibility as a government agency to promote the public interest and the protection of investors, while respecting the important rights of those whose conduct the SEC chooses to scrutinize.

Report at 3 (footnotes omitted).

This gets to the heart of the Commission’s failure over the last year to show that it is willing to confront and discuss, in a serious, adult, way, how its enforcement policies may be undercutting, rather than achieving, important broader goals, including respect for its decisiion making process.

The report makes it clear that the history of the growth of SEC enforcement powers shows the current model is founded on happenstance, not design.

The report provides a history lesson about how the SEC got to where it is now.  That history shows repeated efforts to enhance and expand SEC enforcement powers and flexibility, but no effort whatsoever to build an managerial and procedural infrastructure necessary to assure that these new-founded powers are used in ways that achieve the SEC’s broader mission.  Here is some of that discussion:

Since the SEC’s creation, it has had the authority to bring administrative proceedings to address violations of the securities laws.  The scope of its authority to bring an administrative proceeding and the sanctions that can be ordered in an administrative proceeding have grown dramatically over time.

Early in the history of the SEC, the administrative proceeding was limited to proceedings to halt an offering of securities to the public, a so-called stop order, under section 8 of the Securities Act, and proceedings to reject an application for or revoke the registration of a broker-dealer or investment adviser.  Administrative proceedings were adjuncts of the Commission’s authority to register securities and register broker-dealers, investment advisers, and investment companies.  When the occasion arose to deny a registration or to revoke one, the administrative proceeding was the vehicle to provide the affected entity with a right to hearing prior to Commission action.

In 1964, Congress amended the Exchange Act and provided the Commission with the authority to institute administrative proceedings to censure, place limitations on the activities of, suspend for a period up to 12 months, or bar associated persons of broker-dealers.  The grounds for denying or revoking a broker-dealer registration or other disciplinary sanction were also expanded.  These new bases included willful violations of the Investment Company Act or the Investment Advisers Act, willful aiding or abetting violations, and importantly, a broker-dealer’s failure reasonably to supervise a person who commits a violation. In 1970, Congress amended similarly the Investment Advisers Act. Comparable authority is also contained in the Investment Company Act.  This authority has become a staple of the SEC Enforcement Program.

In 1990, Congress enacted the Securities Enforcement Remedies and Penny Stock Reform Act of 1990 (the Remedies Act).  The Remedies Act dramatically expanded the nature of SEC administrative proceedings.  For the first time, the Commission could proceed administratively against persons and entities not directly registered with the Commission and, also for the first time, it could impose monetary penalties on registered entities and associated persons.  It authorized the Commission to enter a cease and desist order against any person who is violating, has violated, or is about to violate any provision of the securities laws or any rule or regulation thereunder.  In a cease and desist proceeding, the Commission can order a party to take steps to comply with its rules, to provide an accounting, and to disgorge profits gained or losses avoided.  This Act also created a proceeding to enable the SEC to issue a temporary cease and desist order.  While the Commission has used its cease and desist authority extensively, it has brought only one proceeding under its temporary cease and desist authority.

The Remedies Act also expanded the remedies that the SEC can order in an administrative proceeding against broker-dealers, investment advisers, investment companies, and persons associated with these registered entities.  The SEC can order disgorgement and civil penalties comparable to those available in an injunctive action.  The Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) expanded the remedies available in a cease and desist proceeding by authorizing the SEC to bar an individual from serving as an officer or director of a public company if they violated the antifraud provisions of the Securities Act or Exchange Act. Section 602 of SOX added section 4C to the Exchange Act and provided explicit statutory authority for administrative proceedings against an attorney, an accountant, or other professional such as an engineer or geologist, engaging in improper professional conduct. This codified Commission rule 102(e).

Section 925 of the Dodd-Frank Act (Dodd-Frank) further expanded the Commission’s sanctioning power to include a “collateral” bar from association under all of the securities laws.  It also provided the authority to impose money penalties against persons or entities not registered with the Commission.  In effect, the Commission could, in an administrative proceeding, impose substantially the same penalties available in a civil injunctive action. The substantial expansion in administrative proceeding authority, both in the scope of who may be charged in an administrative proceeding (AP) and in the penalties available in an AP, has coincided with a dramatic increase in the total number of administrative proceedings brought by the SEC.  While the controversy over this shift in policy has been largely focused on the period following Dodd-Frank, and in particular the past two years, the increased reliance on administrative proceedings has been growing steadily for more than two decades.

Report at 11-12 (footnotes omitted).

At a later point, the report discusses some of the current procedural rules governing the administrative proceedings, and makes the telling point that these rules were adopted long before the Commission (or anyone else) had any conception that this process would be used to try to adjudicate complex enforcement cases that went well beyond the areas subject to SEC regulation:

Commission rule 360 provides that “Under the 300-day timeline, the hearing officer shall issue an order providing that there shall be approximately 4 months from the order instituting the proceeding to the hearing, approximately 2 months for the parties to obtain the transcript and submit briefs, and approximately 4 months after briefing for the hearing officer to issue an initial decision.”  At the time they were adopted, the Division was not bringing complex matters administratively, and there was little experience with the explosion of electronic documents that is commonplace today.  As such the time periods in Rule 360 never considered the possibility that litigants in some matters would be forced to review in four months literally millions of pages of documents turned over by the staff.  Of course in 1994, when the Commission last completed a material update of its Rules of Practice, it also did not consider the possibility of complex litigation in an AP.  This explains why the rules provide only the most limited forms of discovery and depositions for respondents.  The lack of adequate discovery opportunities and sufficient time to prepare for trials are serious disadvantages that raise fundamental issues as to the efficacy of bringing complex litigation under the existing Rules of Practice.

Report at 16-17 (footnotes omitted).

And later:

The most significant difference between an administrative proceeding and a civil action is in the area of pre-trial discovery.  Through its investigation and the use of investigative subpoenas, the Commission’s staff will have developed an extensive investigative record over a significant period of time, before instituting an enforcement action.  The Division of Enforcement effectively has had extensive discovery.  While the current Rules of Practice
create a possibility for issuance of subpoenas by an ALJ, the rigorous deadlines for completion of a proceeding often result in ALJ reluctance to delay a hearing by approving the issuance of subpoenas.  The disparity in discovery rules between Commission administrative proceedings and federal litigation is a sore point with SEC defense counsel.

The Commission’s Rules of Practice have not been significantly amended since 1993.  The comprehensive review at that time reflected the substantial changes in authority and sanctions contained in the Remedies Act.  Since the new authority was in its infancy, there was limited experience to provide a benchmark.  It was also not possible to anticipate the additional expansions affected by SOX and Dodd-Frank.  As such the project was an
effort to anticipate what would be needed to ensure that administrative proceedings would be conducted and adjudicated in a timely, fair, and impartial manner. It is fair to conclude that no member of the Task Force working on that project envisioned what the norm is more than 20 years later.  For this reason, the Commission should update and review its Rules of Practice.  This should not be a controversial recommendation, given that the current
general counsel of the SEC has publicly suggested that it is time for a review.

Report at 20-21 (footnotes omitted).

The report puts to rest the bona fides of the ill-conceived response from the Enforcement Director arguing that the rules and procedures governing administrative actions do not favor the Division as prosecutor, and the memorandum from the Division of Enforcement purporting to rationalize the Division’s forum-choice decisions.

When the Director of Enforcement acknowledged a new policy of using the administrative forum more frequently to pursue enforcement cases even in complex actions involving unregulated persons, there was an outcry that this was an effort to stack the deck unfairly in the Enforcement Division’s favor (is there a way to stack a deck fairly?).  See, for example, SEC Enforcement Director Announces Future Plans To Avoid Jury Trials, and Former SEC Enforcement Leaders Urge SEC To Reform Administrative Enforcement Process.   Instead of acknowledging a problem that needed to be discussed and resolved, Enforcement Director Andrew Ceresney gave a premeditated, yet ludicrous, response that respondents were not harmed at all by being forced into the administrative forum.  See Ceresney Presents Unconvincing Defense of Increased SEC Administrative Prosecutions.

When this plainly incorrect response failed to quell the sense of outrage, the Division of Enforcement published a memorandum purportedly explaining how it decided, and would decide, which forum to use in a prosecution, presumably in an effort to show that those decisions were not arbitrary.  See SEC Attempts To Stick a Thumb in the Dike with New Guidelines for Use of Administrative Court, and Upon Further Review, SEC Memo on Use of Administrative Courts Was Indeed a Fumble.

The report lays waste to each of these efforts to avoid the key substantive fairness issues raised by the increased use of the administrative forum in its current form.  It hopefully puts to rest any serious contention that respondents are significantly disadvantaged when the Commission chooses to file a complex case administratively at the same time it dissects the Division of Enforcement memorandum to show it is written without adequately considering impacts of this policy outside of the Division itself, and often relies on false premises:

In early May 2015, the Division of Enforcement posted on its page on the SEC website a document titled Division of Enforcement Approach to Forum Selection in Contested Actions.  As the title indicates, the document provides an explanation of the factors that the Division will consider when making a forum recommendation to the Commission. . . .

Four factors are identified and discussed:

• The availability of the desired claims, legal theories, and forms of relief in each forum (factor 1);
• Whether any charged party is a registered entity or an individual associated with a registered entity (factor 2);
• The cost-, resource-, and time-effectiveness of litigation for the Commission in each forum (factor 3); and
• Fair, consistent, and effective resolution of securities law issues and matters (factor 4).

Factor one acknowledges that certain causes of action are unique to each forum. . . .

Factor two restates the long-standing use of the AP process for actions against registered entities and associated persons. . . .

Factor three describes additional time and resource benefits that the staff derive from each type of forum, under certain circumstances.  These time and resource considerations
highlight the benefits exclusive to the Division.  No recognition or consideration is given to the impact of the forum decision on the parties charged.  In this respect, the policy is most troubling.  While the apparent efficiency of an administrative proceeding may be a benefit to the Division, it may be a serious and inequitable impediment to the person charged.  As a factual matter, the claimed rapidity of an administrative proceeding over a federal court action may also be incorrect.

The speed of the AP process is largely a byproduct of two factors.  One factor is the limited availability of pre-hearing discovery.  The second factor is the time limits imposed by Commission rule on the length of the process.

The lack of pre-hearing discovery adversely affects the respondent rather than the SEC staff. This is because the staff has been able to compile its evidentiary record, including sworn depositions, through its investigation process.  In effect, the staff is able to conduct its prehearing discovery before beginning the proceeding.  The respondents in an administrative proceeding have no comparable opportunity.  While they may be provided with the staff’s investigative record, this does not provide them with an opportunity to ask their own questions of witnesses  or seek documentation to support their position.  More important, they may have only a very short amount of time in which to review an investigative file, compiled over years of investigation and encompassing literally millions of pages of material.  The unequal impact of this limitation is discussed further below, under the discussion of factor three.

The second factor, specific time deadlines, may not result in the level of efficiency that the Division suggests. . . .  Factoring in the extended time period for completion of the Commission’s review suggests that the overall period for completion of an administrative proceeding is likely slower than the time required to complete a trial in district court.

Factor three also refers to the costs and benefits arising from the “additional time and types of pre-trial discovery available in federal court.”  While the current AP rules may provide benefits to the staff in terms of resources, they affirmatively disadvantage the respondents in these proceedings. . . .   At the time [these rules] were adopted, the Division was not
bringing complex matters administratively, and there was little experience with the explosion of electronic documents that is commonplace today. . . .  The lack of adequate discovery opportunities and sufficient time to prepare for trials are serious disadvantages that raise fundamental issues as to the efficacy of bringing complex litigation under the existing Rules of Practice. . . .

The fourth factor broadly raises these fundamental considerations of fairness and efficacy.  The only aspects of it that are discussed in the Division’s statements are the traditional statement concerning the superior expertise and experience of ALJs and the Commission, and the benefits that may come from having these experts be the first to examine and interpret the law, subject to appellate review.

Notably absent from this factor is the issue of the right to a jury trial.  One of the core constitutional protections is the right of persons to demand a jury trial.  The Supreme Court
has held that a defendant is entitled to a jury every time the government demands a civil penalty. . . .   Ironically, under the new forum choice process, instead of the defendant controlling the right to request a jury, through the choice of forum the government will have complete control over the right to a jury.  If the Division believes a jury would be advantageous, then it can file in district court.  If the Division prefers not to have a jury hear a case, then it can file an administrative proceeding.  Of all the consequences of the choice of forum controversy, it is likely that most objective persons would view this usurpation of a defendant’s right to request a jury as the most objectionable consequence.

Other fairness issues are also worthy of examination.  As previously explained, the lack of time and lack of discovery options also raise serious fairness issues.  In addition, one should be careful not to overstate the superior expertise that resides with the Commission’s adjudicators. Under the procedure governing the appointment of ALJs, direct substantive expertise in the applicable law is a minor consideration.  The dominating factor in the selection process is experience as an ALJ in the federal government.  During the past 30 years, the SEC has not hired a single ALJ who had directly relevant experience or expertise related to the federal securities laws.  While one may reasonably assume that each ALJ will, over time, acquire this expertise, currently only two of the six SEC ALJs have been at the Commission for more than two years.

This lack of substantive experience is particularly relevant when one considers the different standard for appellate review of SEC opinions compared to federal district court decisions….  This limited standard of review applies even in matters in which the Commission interprets the law differently from judicial interpretation. . . .

Report at 14-17 (footnotes omitted).

The report makes many recommendations for action by the Commission.  Many are fairly obvious for laying a foundation of fairness in this process.  Others may ask too much.  But each is a serious proposal meriting thought, analysis, and discussion, beyond the scope of this article.  The point to be made first is that the report leaves little doubt that it is time for the SEC commissioners to join in a “conversation” about how best to reform the SEC’s enforcement and administrative process, rather than mutely filing briefs in the administrative and federal courts that do their best to try to prevent anyone from causing meaningful reform.

Straight Arrow

July 16, 2015

 

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SEC Strengthens Appointments Clause Challenge to ALJs by Admitting It Was Not Responsible for at Least One ALJ Appointment

Court filings indicate that the SEC made a significant admission relevant to the constitutionality of its administrative law court during a hearing in the case brought by Lynn Tilton to enjoin the administrative proceeding brought against her.  A letter sent to Judge Richard Berman, who is presiding over the similar action brought by Barbara Duka, Duka v. SEC, No. 15-cv-357 (SDNY), lays out what happened with a quote from a hearing transcript in Tilton v. SEC, No. 5-cv-02472 (SDNY). The letter was sent by the Justice Department, and it lays out the parties’ positions on the significance of what occurred in the Tilton case.  (You can read a copy here: Letter to Judge Berman in Duka v. SEC.

The letter quotes relevant portions of the hearing in the Tilton case before Judge Ronnie Abram, in which counsel for the SEC admitted that the administrative law judge in the administrative action brought against Ms. Tilton, Carol Foelak, was not appointed by the SEC Commissioners, and that this strengthens the argument that, as to at least cases before that judge, SEC proceedings may violate the Appointments Clause in Article II on the Constitution.  That clause states:

[The President] shall nominate, and, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

This would appear to mandate that “inferior Officers” of the United States may be appointed, with Congress’s approval, only by the President, the Courts of Law, or “the Heads of Departments.”  The only way that could be satisfied as to the SEC ALJs (if they are “inferior Officers”) is if the SEC Commissioners are a “Head of Department” and they make the appointments of their ALJs.

Here is the quoted portion of that hearing transcript:

THE COURT: Can I ask you the factual question that I asked of Mr. Gunther? Who exactly appoints SEC ALJs? Can you tell me more about the appointment process?

MS. LIN: Your Honor, those facts are not in the record here, but we acknowledge that the commissioners were not the ones who appointed, in this case, ALJ [Foelak], who is the ALJ presiding –

THE COURT: There is no factual dispute, okay.

THE COURT: Let me just back up for a minute and ask you a question. If I find that the ALJs are inferior officers, do you necessarily lose?

MS. LIN: We acknowledge that, your Honor, if this Court were to find ALJ [Foelak] to be an inferior officer, that that would make it more likely that the plaintiffs can succeed on the merits for the Article II challenge, at least with respect to the appointments clause challenge.

In the letter to Judge Berman, Ms. Duka argues “this the first time the SEC has ever acknowledged that SEC Commissioners do not appoint SEC ALJs in some or all administrative proceedings” (emphasis in original), and seeks to amend her complaint to add an Appointments Clause violation as grounds for the injunctive relief she seeks.  She also argues that in his previous decision denying a preliminary injunction, Judge Berman wrote “[t]he Supreme Court’s decision in Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U.S. 868 (1991) … would appear to support the conclusion that SEC ALJs are also inferior officers,” and the “[b]ased on SEC’s admissions,” a ruling to that effect “would mean that Plaintiff is likely to succeed on the merits of her claim.”  See In Duka v. SEC, SDNY Judge Berman Finds SEC Administrative Law Enforcement Proceedings Constitutional in a Less than Compelling Opinion.

 The SEC consented to the amendment of the complaint, but argued that its ALJs are “not Constitutional officers, and therefore the Appointments Clause is not applicable,” and that the amendment should not be grounds for new briefing of the motion for preliminary injunction.

As noted in an earlier blog post, the SEC itself asked for briefing on the Appointments Clause issue in its review of the Iniital Decision in In the Matter of Timbervest, LLC.  See SEC Broadens Constitutional Inquiry into Its Own Administrative Judges in Timbervest Case.

Straight Arrow

June 1, 2015

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SEC Majority Argues for Negating Janus Decision with Broad Interpretation of Rule 10b-5

On December 15, 2014, in a far-reaching opinion arguably extending well beyond what was required to decide the case, three of the five Commissioners of the SEC adopted extensive arguments for a broad reading of Rule 10b-5 and section 17(a) in the enforcement proceeding In re Flannery and Hopkins, File No. 3-14081.  A copy of the majority opinion can be read here: In re Flannery Majority Opinion.  Two Commissioners dissented, but no dissenting opinion was published as of December 18.

This is an extraordinary document.  It attempts to preempt judicial development of the scope of several aspects of the securities laws by interceding and applying “agency expertise” to interpret those laws and regulations extremely broadly.  On multiple occasions, these commissioners invoke the purported policy need to maintain as broad and malleable set of governing laws as possible to allow the Commission to address fraudulent conduct in whatever form it may appear.  The policy need to provide certainty to people about what their legal exposures are is not mentioned.

The opinion ranges far and wide in discussing the scope of SEC Rule 10b-5 and section 17(a).  It is difficult to summarize.  But essentially, these commissioners rule that Rule 10b-5(a) prohibits almost any form of participation in deceptive conduct relating to securities as long as a person participates in some form of deceptive act.  Although it does not say so outright, it represents an unveiled attempt to negate the Supreme Court decision in Janus Capital Group v. First Derivative Traders, 131 S. Ct. 2296 (2011).

There is much too much here to cover in a single blog piece.  The opinion will require multiple reads to understand the many ways in which the three commissioners use this relatively minor case to try to revise the law, essentially by fiat.  Some would say that taking such substantial steps to revise and expand the scope of a key regulation, and to interpret a key statutory provision, should occur only after a robust notice and comment process.  Instead, what we have is a questionable act of policy-making by a divided Commission with no public input.

The case had been tried to an administrative law judge, who ruled in the initial decision that Flannery and Hopkins did not violate section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933, section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, or SEC Rule 10b-5.  The Commission majority ruled otherwise, finding both Flannery and Hopkins liable for violations of some provisions, but also rejecting the Division of Enforcement’s appeal in other respects.

The case involved communications by Flannery and Hopkins with investors about the Limited Duration Bond Fund of State Street Bank and Trust Co. (“LDBF”).  LDBF was heavily invested in asset-backed securities, including residential mortgage-backed securities (“RMBS”), and by 2006-2007, its holdings became increasingly concentrated in subprime RMBS.  The claim asserted that in various communications with investors, the respondents provided misleading information about the extent of subprime RMBS holdings and the risk profile of the fund.

The Commission majority used this case as a vehicle to present its position on the proper scope of liability under Rule 10b-5 and section 17(a) following the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus.  In that case, the Court held that SEC Rule 10b-5(b)’s prohibition against “mak[ing] any untrue statement of a material fact” created liability only for persons with “ultimate authority” over the alleged false statement.  People who assist in the preparation of such statements do not “make” them, and therefore are not liable under that language of the Rule.

Since Janus, the courts have hotly debated the scope of liability under other provisions of Rule 10b-5 that do not prohibit only “making” a misrepresentation.  Rule 10b-5(a) prohibits the use  of a “device, scheme, or artifice to defraud,” and Rule 10b-5(c) prohibits an “act, practice, or course of business which operates or would operate as a fraud or deceit,” each in connection with a purchase or sale of securities.  Following Janus, SEC enforcement lawyers often took the position that people not liable under Rule 10b-5(b) under the Janus ruling nevertheless had so-called “scheme liability” under subparts (a) and (c) of Rule 10b-5 because they either used a “device” or “scheme” to pursue a fraud, or used acts that “operated” as a fraud, even if they did not make misrepresentations.  These arguments often were resisted because they tended to “prove too much” by creating “primary” liability under Rule 10b-5 for people who did no more than “assist” fraudulent conduct by others.  That distinction is important because part of the rationale of the Janus Court was that the broad application of Rule 10b-5 to create primary liability for people who were essentially aiders and abettors conflicted with the Supreme Court’s decision in Central Bank of Denver, N. A. v. First Interstate Bank of Denver, N. A., 511 U. S. 164 (1994), which held that Rule 10b–5’s private right of action did not include suits against aiders and abettors.  That case ruled that actions “against entities that contribute ‘substantial assistance’ to the making of a statement but do not actually make it” may be brought by the SEC, but not by private parties.  The Janus opinion noted:If persons or entities without control over the content of a statement could be considered primary violators who ‘made’ the statement, then aiders and abettors would be almost nonexistent.”  The Janus decision was plainly motivated in part by the importance of retaining a distinction between primary and secondary violators because the first are subject to private 10b-5 actions and the second are not under Central Bank.  This is reflected in the following passage in footnote 6: “[F]or Central Bank to have any meaning, there must be some distinction between those who are primarily liable (and thus may be pursued in private suits) and those who are secondarily liable (and thus may not be pursued in private suits).  We draw a clean line between the two—the maker is the person or entity with ultimate authority over a statement and others are not.”

The Commission majority in Flannery emasculates Janus with the simple view that the Janus Court was expressly addressing only Rule 10b-5(b), which includes the “making” language, but made no determinations about Rule 10b-5(a) or (c), which does not have the same language.  In an extraordinary act of administrative legerdemain, the three commissioners negate Janus by ruling first, that its analysis does not apply outside of Ryle 10b-5(b), and second, that Rule 10b5(a) is so broad that it covers everything covered in Rule 10b5(b) plus other forms of deceptive conduct in connection with the purchase or sale of securities that are excluded from Rule 10b-5(b).  With apologies for the length of the quoted material, here is some of what the three commissioners say about Rule 10b-5:

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Janus Capital Group v. First Derivative Traders resolved some of the differences among the lower courts, as it clarified—and limited—the scope of liability under Rule 10b-5(b).  The decision was silent, however, as to Rule 10b-5(a) and (c) and Section 17(a), creating confusion in the lower courts as to whether its limitations apply to those provisions, as well.  Moreover, Janus’s narrowing of liability under Rule 10b-5(b) has shifted attention to Rule 10b-5(a) and (c), as well as Section 17(a), making the lower courts’ divergence of views on the scope of those provisions especially evident.  We appreciate the challenges lower courts have faced, and we recognize the ambiguity in Section 10(b), Rule 10b-5, and Section 17(a).  Further, we note that, to date, Commission opinions have provided relatively little interpretive guidance regarding the meaning and interrelationship of these provisions.  By setting out our interpretation of these provisions—which is informed by our experience and expertise in administering the securities laws—we intend to resolve the ambiguities in the meaning of Rule 10b-5 and Section 17(a) that have produced confusion in the courts and inconsistencies across jurisdictions. . . .

In Janus, the Supreme Court interpreted Rule 10b-5(b)’s prohibition against “mak[ing] any untrue statement of a material fact.”  After concluding that liability could extend only to those with “ultimate authority” over an alleged false statement, the Court held that an investment adviser who drafted misstatements that were later included in a separate mutual fund’s prospectus could not be held liable under Rule 10b-5(b).  The adviser could not be said to have “made” the misstatements, the Court reasoned. . . .

Unlike Rule 10b-5(b), Rule 10b-5(a) and (c) do not address only fraudulent misstatements.  Rule 10b-5(a) prohibits the use of “any device, scheme, or artifice to defraud,” while Rule 10b-5(c) prohibits “engag[ing] in any act, practice, or course of business which operates or would operate as a fraud or deceit.”  The very terms of the provisions “provide a broad linguistic frame within which a large number of practices may fit.”  We have explained that Rule 10b-5 is “designed to encompass the infinite variety of devices that are alien to the climate of fair dealing . . . that Congress sought to create and maintain.” . . .

 [W]e conclude that primary liability under Rule 10b-5(a) and (c) extends to one who (with scienter, and in connection with the purchase or sale of securities) employs any manipulative or deceptive device or engages in any manipulative or deceptive act. . . .   In particular, we conclude that primary liability under Rule 10b-5(a) and (c) also encompasses the “making” of a fraudulent misstatement to investors, as well as the drafting or devising of such a misstatement.  Such conduct, in our view, plainly constitutes employment of a deceptive “device” or “act.” . . .  We note that, contrary to what some district courts have suggested, Janus does not require a different result. In Janus, the Court construed only the term “make” in Rule 10b-5(b), which does not appear in subsections (a) and (c); the decision did not even mention, let alone construe, the broader text of those provisions. And the Court never suggested that because the “maker” of a false statement is primarily liable under subsection (b), he cannot also be liable under  subsections (a) and (c).  Nor did the Court indicate that a defendant’s failure to “make” a misstatement for purposes of subsection (b) precludes primary liability under the other provisions. . . .

The [Janus] Court began its analysis with a textual basis for its holding, concluding that one who merely “prepares” a statement necessarily is not its “maker,” just as a mere speechwriter lacks “ultimate authority” over the contents of a speech.  Our approach does not conflict with that logic: Accepting that a drafter is not primarily liable for “making” a misstatement under Rule 10b-5(b), our position is that the drafter would be primarily liable under subsections (a) and (c) for employing a deceptive “device” and engaging in a deceptive “act.”

 Our approach is also consistent with the Court’s second justification for its holding—that a drafter’s conduct is too remote to satisfy the element of reliance in private actions arising under Rule 10b-5.  Investors, the Court explained, cannot be said to have relied on “undisclosed act[s],” such as merely drafting a misstatement, that “preced[e] the decision of an independent entity to make a public statement.”  Again, our analysis fully comports with that logic.  Indeed, we do not suggest that the outcome in Janus itself might have been different if only the plaintiffs’ claims had arisen under Rule 10b-5(a) or (c).  As Janus recognizes, those plaintiffs may not have been able to show reliance on the drafters’ conduct, regardless of the subsection of Rule 10b-5 alleged to have been violated.  Thus, our interpretation would not expand the “narrow scope” the Supreme Court “give[s to] the implied private right of action.”  But to say that a claim will not succeed in every case is not to say that there is no claim at all.  In contrast to private parties, the Commission need not show reliance as an element of its claims.  Thus, even if Janus precludes private actions against those who commit “undisclosed” deceptive acts, it does not preclude Commission enforcement actions under Rule 10b-5(a) and (c) against those same individuals. . . .

Several courts have adopted [an] approach . . . effectively holding that any misstatement-related conduct is exclusively the province of subsection (b).  For multiple reasons, we disagree with those decisions. . . .  [W]e understand their approach to have arisen from a misunderstanding of the Supreme Court’s decision in Central Bank of Denver, N.A. v. First Interstate Bank of Denver.  In Central Bank, the Court explained that only defendants who themselves employ a manipulative or deceptive device or make a material misstatement may be primarily liable under Rule 10b-5; others are, at most, secondarily liable as aiders and abettors.  Lower courts appropriately read Central Bank to require that, in cases involving fraudulent misstatements, defendants could not be primarily liable under Rule 10b-5(a) or (c) merely for having “assisted” an alleged scheme to make a fraudulent misstatement.  But they then began to articulate this “more-than-mere-assistance” standard imprecisely, stating that primary liability under Rule 10b-5(a) and (c) must require proof of particular deceptive conduct “beyond” the alleged misstatements.  We cannot agree with this construction of our rule, particularly given how far removed it is from its origins in Central Bank.  And Central Bank itself certainly does not hold that primary liability under Rule 10b-5(a) and (c) turns on whether a defendant’s conduct is “beyond” a misstatement.  Moreover, we note that Janus also does not independently justify such a test.   As discussed, Janus does not address Rule 10b-5(a) or (c), let alone suggest that primary liability under those provisions is limited to deceptive acts “beyond” misstatements.  Indeed, reading Janus to require such an approach would be inconsistent with the decision’s own emphasis on adhering to the text of the rule.

Slip op. at 14-21.

No doubt about it, this is a slap in the face of the Supreme Court — an assertion that the Supreme Court should get its hands off of SEC regulatory matters and let the SEC decide what is and is not unlawful under the securities laws.  To be sure, Rule 10b-5 is an agency rule, not a statute, and the SEC should be able to interpret and apply its rules.  But Rule 10b-5 was adopted by the SEC in 1942 without anything approaching the consideration and parsing done by the three commissioners in Flannery.  It was originally approved without debate or comment, and it is reported that the full extent of consideration was Commissioner Sumner Pike’s comment: “Well, we are against fraud aren’t we?”  The creation of new agency positions on the meaning and scope of this rule without any rulemaking or public comment process, with the specific design to trump the Supreme Court, is risky business indeed.

The regulatory reason for biting off this issue remains less than clear.  Very little about what was said actually alters what the SEC can do in the way of enforcement actions.  That is because, as noted in the Central Bank decision, the SEC already has acknowledged enforcement authority to bring actions for secondary liability against aiders and abettors.  It doesn’t matter whether someone is sued by the SEC as an aider and abettor of a primary violation of Rule 10b-5(b) or a primary violator of Rule 10b5(a) (as the commissioners now hold can be done in many cases).  Either way, the SEC can pursue its enforcement goals.  The only material difference that would be caused by this new view of the scope of Rule 10b-5(a) and (c) is that it creates a new group of persons with primary liability who can be subjected to private securities actions.  Private securities plaintiffs have no cause of action against aiders and abettors, but they can sue primary violators using the implied section 10(b) private cause of action.  That difference was a significant aspect of the Central Bank decision, and was noted in the Janus decision as well.  Why are the SEC commissioners so keen on expanding the scope of liability in private actions?  We don’t know because that consideration wasn’t even mentioned in Flannery.

Much will be written about Flannery.  It certainly will go up on appeal, and if it stands there is a more than fair chance that the Supreme Court will consider it.  A majority of three commissioners is committed to providing the Commission and the Division of Enforcement maximum flexibility in attacking any conduct they choose to categorize as deceptive or fraudulent.  They believe the Nation should put its trust in the ability of SEC commissioners and enforcement lawyers and bureaucrats to decide what may and may not be done in the securities marketplace with as few restrictive parameters as possible.  Count me as dubious.

Straight Arrow

December 19, 2014

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