Tag Archives: Third Circuit

Supreme Court Should Take Action To Rehabilitate Brady Rule in Georgiou v. United States

Justice requires that the Supreme Court shore up the foundations of one of its landmark due process cases, Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963).  Otherwise, Brady, one of the seminal due process cases of the 20th Century, will be “more honor’d in the breach than the observance.”

In Brady, the Court ruled that prosecutors could not hide material exculpatory evidence from defendants. It is founded on the simple concept that a fair trial requires that a jury be presented with unbiased evidence, and the Government cannot, consistent with due process, prevent important exculpatory evidence from reaching the jury.

Over the years, prosecutors have largely resisted the concept that they share evidence in their possession that could assist the defense.  This reflects a fundamentally flawed approach to the criminal justice process – too many prosecutors view winning a prosecution as the ultimate goal, when in fact achieving justice – win or lose – is the sine qua non of the criminal justice system of which they are part and parcel.

It is well-known that obtaining exculpatory evidence from prosecutors can be like pulling their teeth, and it has been documented that the failure to follow the simple Brady mandate is a common occurrence.  The courts, which are entrusted to assure the Brady rule is followed, have been unduly neglectful of this key oversight role, showing an unseemly willingness to accept Brady violations under a range of rationalizations.

One of the key rationalizations for permitting Brady violations has been the so-called “due diligence” rule adopted by some courts, under which even the intentional failure of the prosecution to share important exculpatory evidence is ignored if the court develops a hindsight theory of how defense counsel could have uncovered similar information through its own investigations.  The “due diligence” concept finds no support in Brady or other Supreme Court decisions, and, as is readily apparent, flies in the face of the very concept of Brady, which is about the State’s duty to assure a fair trial, not the relative diligence or acumen of the defense lawyers.

This issue has now been placed squarely before the Court in a petition for certiorari in Georgiou v. United States, No. 14-1535.  Some time ago we wrote about some ill-conceived decisions by the Third Circuit in United States v. Georgiou, 777 F.3d 125 (3d Cir. 2014).  The 3rd Circuit first misapplied the Supreme Court decision in Morrison v. National Australia Bank Ltd., 561 U.S. 247 (2010), by ruling that transactions that touched the United States in only the most ephemeral way were subject to extraterritorial jurisdiction.  See Third Circuit Adopts “Craven Watchdog” Standard for Extraterriorial Reach of Securities Laws in U.S. v. Georgiou.  Then, the court sunk a spear into the heart of Brady by ruling that the prosecutors’ intentional withholding from the defense of key exculpatory evidence was not a Brady violation because the defense lawyers could have figured out how to gain access to that information themselves.  See U.S. v. Georgiou: 3rd Circuit Panel Decision Makes a “Mockery” of Brady Disclosures and Jencks Act Compliance.  The Third Circuit opinion is available here: US v Georgiou.

It is well-documented that prosecutorial violations of the Brady rule – which is critically important to both actual and apparent fairness in criminal prosecutions – are common.  This is one of the shameful aspects of our current criminal justice system that most courts blithely ignore.  It is bad enough that non-compliance with Brady is rife; it is even worse that our courts not only conjure up reasons to allow prosecutors to get away with this, but also, like the Third Circuit in Georgiou, create new rules to provide non-compliant prosecutors with a safe harbor to avoid the appropriate consequences – reversal and retrial – for deciding not to comply with the core fairness principles Brady endorsed and imposed.

The cert. petition in Georgiou and three supporting amicus briefs show (i) the Brady rule is often circumvented by prosecutors, mostly with no consequences; (ii) that is what happened in the Georgiou prosecution; and (iii) the post-hoc absolution of prosecutorial misconduct by focusing on hypothetical defense failures to cure that violation is contrary to Supreme Court precedent, antithetical to Brady, and fosters a prosecutorial mindset that the risk of such due process violations is worth taking in order “win” a conviction.

The Georgiou cert. petition is available here: Cert. Petition in Georgiou v. US.  The three amicus briefs in support of that petition are available here: Georgiou v. US Amicus Brief of Former Prosecutors; Georgiou v. US Center on Administration of Criminal Law Amicus Brief; and Georgiou v. US Amicus Brief of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice.

The Georgiou cert. petition presents these key facts relating to the Brady issue:

The charges arose out of an alleged scheme to artificially inflate the prices of several stocks on the over-the-counter securities market. . . .  According to the indictment, Georgiou and his co-conspirators caused the stocks’ prices to rise by engaging in manipulative trading. . . .

. . . . The Government’s star witness was Kevin Waltzer, an alleged coconspirator.  Waltzer was the only witness who could provide what the Government described as “an insider[’]s view into this stock ring by one of its participants.” . . .  And during the trial, Waltzer testified directly to Georgiou’s mens rea, telling the jury that Georgiou “basically” admitted to him that Georgiou “kn[ew] that the public is going to get fleeced.” . . .

Following trial, Georgiou obtained critical material from Waltzer’s own criminal proceedings. Waltzer himself had been charged with wire fraud and other federal crimes. . . .  [M]ore than a year before the start of Georgiou’s trial . . . a [bail report] regarding whether Waltzer should be released on bail . . . stated that Waltzer had “been diagnosed in the past with Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder and Substance Abuse Disorder.” . . .  And it noted that he had been taking Paxil for the last ten years for his anxiety. . . .  Georgiou obtained a copy of this bail report for the first time after the end of his trial.

Georgiou also obtained, for the first time following his trial, a copy of the transcript of Waltzer’s arraignment and guilty plea hearing.  During that hearing, in the presence of an assistant U.S. attorney, Waltzer acknowledged “see[ing] a psychiatrist, psychologist or mental health provider * * * in connection with depression and anxiety.”

The Government had failed to disclose either the bail report or the plea transcript prior to Georgiou’s trial, even though Georgiou had requested “any and all evidence” that “a government witness or prospective government witness * * * is or was suffering from any mental disability or emotional disturbance.” . . .  Georgiou had also requested any “[i]nformation concerning Mr. Waltzer’s * * * current or past psychiatric treatment or counseling.”

Cert. petition at 4-8.

The petition also describes how the availability of that evidence would have permitted the defendant to learn that this key witness was an admitted drug addict, and that his medication had known side-effects of memory impairment.  Id. at 6-7 & notes 2-3.  The Third Circuit ruled that the prosecutors’ intentional withholding of this evidence about the state of mind of the Government’s star witness was not a Brady violation because with greater diligence, the defense could have obtained those materials themselves.  It also found they were not “material” evidence under Brady.

The Georgiou case struck a nerve among both defense lawyers and prosecutors.  This is reflected in the three amicus briefs filed in support of granting the writ of certiorari and reversing Georgiou. One was filed by the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, one by the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law, and one by an unusual, large group of former federal prosecutors, Department of Justice, and other Government officials.  Those officials include: a former Attorney General and federal district judge, two former Acting Attorneys General, a former White House Counsel, four former Deputy Attorneys General, five former U.S. Attorneys, and an assortment of other former high-level federal criminal justice officials.

These three amicus briefs agree that the exception to the Brady rule adopted by the Third Circuit is wrong as a matter of law under Supreme Court precedent, and dangerous as a matter of policy because of its harmful effects on due process.  They also agree that the documented trend of prosecutors ignoring Brady will continue and worsen if the Supreme Court fails to step in to make it clear that the rule is not just a heuristic concept with no serious consequences if (actually, when) it is ignored, but is mandated by principles of fundamental fairness, due process, and the administration of justice, and must be enforced vigorously and without exception.

The impressive group of former DOJ leaders, prosecutors, and government officials wrote:

As the Supreme Court recognized in Brady v. Maryland, the failure to disclose favorable evidence “violates due process … irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution.” 373 U.S. 83, 87 (1963); see also United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683, 709 (1974) (“The very integrity of the judicial system and public confidence in the system depend on full disclosure of all the facts, within the framework of the rules of evidence.”).  While this affirmative duty is above and beyond the demands of the “pure adversary model,” United States v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667, 675 n.6 (1985), it is grounded in an understanding of the prosecutor’s “‘special role … in the search for truth in criminal trial,’” Banks v. Dretke, 540 U.S. 668, 696 (2004).  From their years of combined experience, amici appreciate the challenging judgment calls prosecutors face on a daily basis, but they also deeply believe that fundamental fairness and public confidence in our justice system relies on prosecutors taking their disclosure obligations seriously and fulfilling this duty capaciously.

Amici do not believe that Supreme Court precedent recognizes an exception to the Brady rule for lack of diligence by the defense and are concerned that the decisions of several federal circuits, including the Third Circuit, have undermined Brady by shifting focus away from the prosecutor’s affirmative obligation to disclose. We submit this brief to emphasize that the introduction of an antecedent “due diligence” inquiry focused on the defendant is inconsistent not only with Supreme Court precedent but also principles codified in the codes of ethical conduct for prosecutors.

Petitioner George Georgiou’s case presents a straightforward question about the appropriateness of conditioning Brady disclosures on a defendant’s exercise of due diligence.  According to the government, Georgiou and his co-conspirators engaged in a scheme that inflated the prices of four securities through various trading strategies and then fraudulently used those manipulated securities as collateral to obtain large loans. . . .  The prosecution relied on the testimony of Kevin Waltzer, Georgiou’s former business partner and alleged co-conspirator. . . .  Waltzer’s testimony corroborated certain physical evidence collected by the government . . . and undergirded the government’s contention that Georgiou acted “wilfully” and had the “intent to defraud.”. . .

Recognizing the importance of Waltzer’s testimony, Georgiou made a pre-trial request that the government turn over any Brady information that would “reflect upon the credibility, ompetency, bias or motive of government witnesses,” including with respect to any mental health problems or substance abuse issues Waltzer might have had. . . .  The government provided limited information regarding Waltzer’s drug use responsive to this request. . . .

Yet the government had been aware from Waltzer’s own criminal proceedings that he had an extensive history of substance abuse and mental health problems, and possessed two pieces of evidence at issue on appeal that it failed to disclose: A Bail Report provided to the government a year before Georgiou’s trial by pretrial services . . . and the transcript of Waltzer’s arraignment and guilty plea hearing . . . .  Both documents contained specific information about the timeline of Waltzer’s mental health and substance abuse issues, as well as the medication and treatment he was receiving in the period leading up to his testimony.  This information might have informed Georgiou’s defense strategy and advanced his efforts to undermine Waltzer’s credibility. . . .

The Third Circuit affirmed the conviction. The court held that the evidence had not been suppressed because Georgiou failed to exercise “reasonable diligence” in seeking evidence of Waltzer’s mental health history. . . .  In particular, the court reasoned that the Bail Report and the Minutes, as public records, were equally available to Georgiou and the prosecution.  . . .

By adopting this circumscribed view of a prosecutor’s obligations under Brady, the Third Circuit has joined a growing list of courts departing in this way from Supreme Court precedent and the fundamental principles that undergird the Brady doctrine.  Where prosecutors are aware of this sort of information, they should disclose it to the defense, and their obligations to the truth-seeking process and principles of fairness are not discharged on the theory that the defendant could seek it out for himself.  Such an approach contributes to a harmful notion that the criminal justice system is a game, and that victory rather than justice is a prosecutor’s goal.

. . . . The Third Circuit has diminished this constitutional and ethical requirement by introducing a rule that excuses a prosecutor from fulfilling her obligation if the defendant could have but did not find the favorable evidence himself.  Rather than ask whether the prosecution has withheld from the defendant evidence that, “if made available, would tend to exculpate him or reduce the penalty,” Brady, 373 U.S. at 87-88, the Third Circuit asks whether the defendant could have obtained the evidence “from other sources by exercising reasonable diligence,” United States v. Perdomo, 929 F.2d 967, 973 (1991).  Such a rule is tantamount to saying that a “‘prosecutor may hide, defendant must seek,’” which this Court in Banks v. Dretke made clear “is not tenable in a system constitutionally bound to accord defendants due process.”  540 U.S. 668, 696 (2004) . . . .  It is also at odds with standards of prosecutorial conduct.

Brief of Former Prosecutors and Officials at 2-7.

The Center for the Administration of Criminal Law (CACL) provided similar views, and focused on the harmful impact of fashioning rules that allow departures from Brady obligations:

Prosecutors’ duty under Brady to disclose exculpatory evidence to defendants is a core component of prosecutors’ ethical duty to seek justice rather than victory.  Nonetheless, many prosecutors fail to live up to the obligations that Brady imposes on them.  Because of the public perception that prosecutorial misconduct is widespread, public confidence in prosecutors’ integrity and the overall fairness of the criminal justice system is in decline.

The Third Circuit’s recognition of a “due diligence” exception to Brady not only undermines defendants’ constitutional right to due process, but also fosters conditions likely to further erode public confidence in the system.  While a legal doctrine excusing Brady violations might appear to be an attractive option for prosecutors, in fact it harms both prosecutors and defendants.  It muddies an otherwise clear ethical obligation to disclose exculpatory information, which is central to prosecutors’ duty to seek justice.  It burdens prosecutors by requiring speculation about information available to their adversaries through due diligence – a determination that prosecutors are ill-equipped to make for myriad reasons.  By undermining defendants’ confidence in the information they receive from prosecutors, it discourages plea bargaining, which is essential to the efficient functioning of today’s criminal justice system.  By undercutting public confidence in prosecutors generally, it hampers their ability to obtain the cooperation of witnesses and the trust of jurors.  And ultimately, it undermines the public’s interest in ensuring that the guilty are convicted and the innocent exonerated, because those outcomes depend on a robust adversarial system in which both sides have actual knowledge of the material facts.

CACL Brief at 3-4.

The CACL brief also focused on the growing problem of non-compliance with Brady:

Unfortunately, Brady’s promise of full disclosure often has not been realized in practice.  In a recent frank opinion, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit observed that “Brady violations have reached epidemic proportions in recent years, and the federal and state reporters bear testament to this unsettling trend.”  United States v. Olsen, 737 F.3d 625, 631 (9th Cir. 2013) (Kozinski, J., dissenting from denial of reh’g en banc) (collecting cases).  Some commentators are even more critical.

Empirical studies confirm that Chief Judge Kozinski’s statement was no exaggeration.  According to a study by the Veritas Initiative, prosecutors withheld or delayed disclosing favorable evidence in roughly one-third of the cases sampled.  [Citation omitted.]  Yet in 2001, “[a] nationwide study of all reported cases involving discipline for prosecutorial misconduct found only twenty-seven instances in which prosecutors were disciplined for unethical behavior that compromised the fairness of a trial.”  [Citations omitted.]  Recognizing a due diligence exception, and thereby increasing uncertainty about Brady’s scope, threatens to exacerbate these problems by suggesting judicial sanction for prosecutors’ noncompliance.

. . . .

Disclosing exculpatory evidence helps to “justify trust in the prosecutor,” and supplies legitimacy enabling the prosecutor to fulfill his or her mandate. . . .  By excusing failures to disclose Brady material that might be discovered through “reasonable diligence” . . ., the exception both weakens prosecutors’ disclosure obligations and reduces transparency.  In short, it undermines trust in prosecutors by minimizing their duty to disclose exculpatory evidence.

Id. at 6-7, 10.

The CACL brief goes on to discuss at length why presenting prosecutors with the option to game the Brady rule by speculating about what defense “due diligence” might reveal – thus negating their own obligation to reveal exculpatory evidence they know exists – undermines the rule, and places even good faith prosecutors in an untenable position to make decisions based on guesses or suppositions that they are ill-fitted to make.  Id. at 13-18.

The California Attorneys for Criminal Justice likewise argue that removing the uncertainty of the products of “due diligence” from the Brady disclosure equation is necessary to achieve Brady’s key fairness goals:

The “due diligence” exception adopted by the Third Circuit in this case, and by other circuits and state courts around the country, should be rejected because it undermines the animating principle of Brady and imposes on prosecutors and courts the unavoidably speculative analysis of whether a particular piece of evidence would be meaningfully “available” to a diligent defendant.  The exception also invites prosecutorial mischief, as complex rules that rest on speculative inquiries are far more vulnerable to mistakes, or abuse, than clear and simple commands.  The exception also imposes onerous and inefficient limitations on counsel to indigent defendants, who often do not have resources to conduct fulsome investigations.

. . . .

As Brady itself recognized, “[s]ociety wins not only when the guilty are convicted but when criminal trials are fair; our system of the administration of justice suffers when any accused is treated unfairly.”  373 U.S. at 87. . . .  The “due diligence” rule applied by the Third Circuit in this case undermines these goals. . . .  The due diligence exception has no place in the Brady analysis, and in fact operates only to undermine the promise of fair trials.  As applied by the Third Circuit and other courts, the exception affects the outcome of the Brady analysis only when the defendant has established the failure to disclose evidence that has a reasonable probability of affecting the outcome of a case.  That is, it preserves a conviction precisely, and only, when there is substantial doubt that the defendant was “convicted on the basis of all the evidence which exposes the truth.”

. . . .

The Third Circuit’s opinion in this case relied on the assumption that the undisclosed evidence “could have been accessed through his exercise of reasonable diligence.” . . .  Even if that assumption were warranted here, in many cases a prosecutor’s determination whether evidence is reasonably accessible to defendants will require speculation regarding both the availability of evidence and the resources available to the defendant and his counsel.  And more importantly, even when a defendant might have access to information via rumors or innuendo, a prosecutor might well have access to reliable, admissible documents with far more persuasive value.  Due Process cannot condone withholding admissible, exculpatory evidence on the grounds that a defendant, through the exercise of due diligence, could have had access to inadmissible hearsay.

. . . .

If speculation as to the fruitfulness of “pre-trial depositions and other discovery” is sufficient to establish the “availability” of evidence in an undisclosed police report, and is therefore sufficient to excuse a Brady violation, the result will be that Brady violations, including intentional suppression of exculpatory evidence, will be excused.  And on a practical level, such a rule invites a prosecutor to engage in the same speculation in seeking to determine whether to disclose plainly exculpatory evidence under Brady.  The question of “availability” of evidence therefore becomes yet another opportunity for subjective analysis by prosecutors creating a corresponding risk of error—or temptation into gamesmanship.

California Attorneys for Criminal Justice Brief at 3-5, 8, 10.

Ironically, the lack of equivalence the California Attorneys point to between actual exculpatory evidence known to prosecutors, and the hypothetical prospect that defense counsel might obtain access to some form of similar information in the exercise of so-called “due diligence,” is one that is often addressed under the securities laws — the same laws under which Mr. Georgiou was convicted.  Under the securities laws, however, the availability of material information through exercise of due diligence by investors does not relieve companies or company officials of duties they may have to disclose that same information.  That rule applies for good reason, because obtaining hard information from a reliable company source with a duty to disclose it is different from ferreting out what may be the same information by means that may lack the same provenance.  It is a bizarre world where the duties of corporate officers to disclose business information could be more onerous and inflexible than the duties of public prosecutors to maintain a fair criminal process.

The Georgiou case gives the Supreme Court an opportunity to stem the growing trend of Brady non-compliance, and the creation of exceptions to the Brady rule that ignore its core message and effectively impede its goals.  The fairness of criminal proceedings is not a discretionary concept to be toyed with by aggressive prosecutors or judges unwilling to put teeth behind core due process requirements.  The Georgiou cert. petition should be granted, and the Supreme Court should send a clear message to the lower courts that some concepts are sacred.

Among those concepts is the admonition in Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78, 88 (1935), that the federal prosecutor “is the representative not of an ordinary party to a controversy, but of a sovereignty … whose interest, therefore, in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done.”  The prosecutor’s duty is not to win, but to “ensure that a miscarriage of justice does not occur,” and that includes complying with Brady by disclosing “evidence favorable to the accused that, if suppressed, would deprive the defendant of a fair trial.”  United States v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667, 675 (1985).  In Brady, the Court made it clear that it is in society’s broader interest “when criminal trials are fair,” and that “our system of the administration of justice suffers when any accused is treated unfairly.”  373 U.S. at 87.  A vague, unverifiable, and poorly-conceived “due diligence” exception to the Brady rule – which excuses even intentional prosecutorial efforts to prevent a fair trial — eviscerates that paramount need and requirement.

Straight Arrow

August 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Straight Arrow

March 3, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Straight Arrow

February 11, 2015

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Third Circuit Adopts “Craven Watchdog” Standard for Extraterriorial Reach of Securities Laws in U.S. v. Georgiou

In United States v. Georgiou, No. 10-4774 (Jan. 20, 2015), the Third Circuit recently applied the Supreme Court’s extraterritoriality ruling in Morrison v. National Australia Bank Ltd., 561 U.S. 247 (2010), to a criminal securities fraud conviction.  Georgiou was convicted of securities fraud, wire fraud, and conspiracy for a stock manipulation scheme orchestrated outside of the United States. The court affirmed the conviction, finding that even though the securities trading did not occur on a U.S. securities exchange, it was actionable under the U.S. securities laws because an aspect of the securities transactions was completed within the United States.  A copy of the opinion can be found here: US v Georgiou.

The case involved an alleged classic manipulative scheme to buy thinly-traded stocks, inflate their prices with matched trades, wash sales, and the like, and dump the stocks at the artificially high prices.  Georgiou used brokerage accounts in Canada, the Bahamas, and Turks and Caicos for the manipulative trading.  The stocks were traded over-the-counter on the OTC Bulletin Board (“OTCBB”) or the Pink OTC Markets (“Pink Sheets”).

In Morrison, the Supreme Court limited the application of section 10(b) to the use of “manipulative or deceptive device[s]” in securities transactions involving either (i) “the purchase or sale of a security listed on an American stock exchange,” or (ii) “the purchase or sale of any other security in the United States.”  Morrison , 561 U.S. at 273.  The Third Circuit sought to apply that standard to the Georgiou trades.

The court first considered whether securities listed on the OTCBB and the Pink Sheets are “listed on an American stock exchange.”  It noted that the SEC identifies 18 nationally registered securities exchanges, but does not include the OTCBB and the Pink Sheets.  It also noted that both the OTCBB and the Pink Sheets are self-described as trading mechanisms for securities not listed on any exchange.  Finally, it noted that the securities statutes themselves distinguish between “securities exchanges” and “over-the-counter markets.”  For those reasons, it found the transactions here were not the purchase or sale of a security on “an American stock exchange,” and therefore were not subject to U.S. securities laws on that basis. See slip op. at 13-15.

The analysis then moved to the second Morrison prong: whether these transactions were the purchase or sale of securities “in the United States.”  The court took note of the fact that Morrision involved a so-called “foreign-cubed” transaction – foreign plaintiffs suing a foreign issuer based on securities transactions in foreign countries.  In contrast, the securities in the Georgiou case were those of U.S. issuers, and the transactions involved the participation of “market makers” operating in the United States.

Morrison instructed that transactions are “domestic transactions” based not on “the place where the deception originated,” but the place where the purchases and sales occurred.  Morrison, 561 U.S. at 266-67.  It is the “location of the transaction” that determines the applicability of the U.S. securities laws.  See id. at 268.  The Georgiou court noted that the 2d, 9th, and 11th Circuits had previously found that a “domestic transaction” was one (i) where the parties became obligated to proceed in the U.S., or (ii) where the actual transfer of title occurred in the U.S.  Georgiou, slip op. at 16-17 (referring to Absolute Activist Value Master Fund Ltd. v. Ficeto, 677 F.3d 60, 69 (2d Cir. 2012); Quail Cruise Ship Mgmt Ltd. v. Agencia de Viagens, 645 F.3d 1307, 1310-11(11th Cir. 2011); SEC v. Levine, 462 Fed. App’x717, 719 (9th Cir. 2011)).  The court then “agreed” that “commitment” is “a simple and direct way of designating the point at which . . . the parties obligated themselves to perform . . . even if the formal performance of their agreement is to be after a lapse of time.”  Slip op. at 17 (quoting Absolute Activist, 677 F.3d at 68).  Accordingly, “the point of irrevocable liability” can be used to determine where a securities purchase or sale occurred; “territoriality under Morrison turns on ‘where, physically, the purchaser or seller committed him or herself’ to pay for or deliver a security.”  Slip op. at 17 (citations omitted).

This is all largely consistent with previous decisions.  But here the Third Circuit took a detour. The court found the involvement of U.S.-based market makers in “facilitating” at least some of the otherwise foreign transactions made them “domestic transactions” under Morrison: “Here, at least one of the fraudulent transactions in each of the Target Stocks was bought and sold through U.S.-based market makers. . . .    [A]ll of the manipulative trades were ‘facilitate[d]’ by U.S.-based market makers, i.e., an American market maker bought the stock from the seller and sold it to the buyer. . . .  Therefore, some of the relevant transactions required the involvement of a purchaser or seller working with a market maker and committing to a transaction in the United States, incurring irrevocable liability in the United States, or passing title in the United States.”  Id. at 18.  The court concluded: “We now hold that irrevocable liability establishes the location of a securities transaction. Here, the evidence is sufficient to demonstrate that Georgiou engaged in ‘domestic transactions’ under the second prong of Morrison, i.e., transactions involving ‘the purchase or sale of any [] security in the United States.’  See Morrison, 561 U.S. at 273.  Thus, the District Court’s application of Section 10(b) to Georgiou’s transactions was proper.” Slip op. at 19.

The rationale adopted by the court is, at best, designed to satisfy Morrison’s letter rather than its spirit.  Although the opinion is somewhat opaque, it seems apparent that the court concluded that the mere involvement of a U.S. person as a market intermediary in a transaction that in all other respects was between foreign persons is sufficient to make the transaction one properly governed by the U.S. securities laws.  But to allow the apparently unknown involvement of U.S. market makers “as intermediaries for foreign entities” to serve as the basis for subjecting a transaction to U.S. law seems to violate both the language and spirit of the Morrison opinion.  It totally ignores the point made by the Morrison Court that the standard for applicability of U.S. law to a transaction could not be whether some aspect of the transaction touched upon the United States: “For it is a rare case of prohibited extraterritorial application that lacks all contact with the territory of the United States. But the presumption against extraterritorial application would be a craven watchdog indeed if it retreated to its kennel whenever some domestic activity is involved in the case.”  Morrison, 561 U.S. at 266.

The Morrison Court noted that the subject “purchase-and-sale transactions are the objects of the statute’s solicitude.” Id. at 267.  It did not look to see if the interstices of those transactions involved some other agreement (i.e., between the seller’s foreign broker and a U.S. market maker) that occurred in the United States, because any such “facilitating” transaction was not “the object of the statute’s solicitude.”  Instead, “it is parties or prospective parties” to the purported unlawful transaction that “the statute seeks to ‘protec [t].’”  Id.  In the Georgiou case, the U.S. market maker is not one of those parties.

If the acknowledged test for the locus of a transaction is, as the Third Circuit says, where the parties “irrevocably” “obligated” themselves to the transaction, then, by all appearances, in this case that was outside of the United States, where the buyer and seller made their purchase and sale commitments.  It is not faithful to Morrison to rule that because the market mechanism by which those commitments were implemented included a transaction by other unaffiliated persons within the U.S., the transaction at issue morphed into a “domestic transaction.”  In a globalized electronic marketplace, almost any securities transaction that parties commit to on foreign soil can involve an “intermediary” in the United States that “facilitates” its completion.  To allow that to trigger the extraterritorial reach of the U.S. securities lawyers would, in fact, make “the presumption against extraterritorial application . . . a craven watchdog . . . retreated to its kennel.” Morrison, 561 U.S. at 266.

Straight Arrow

January 23, 2015

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