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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where the Parties Start Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The SEC’s New Proposed Discovery Rules Are Plainly Unfair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Charles Demuth - The Figure 5 in Gold

Charles Demuth – The Figure 5 in Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Straight Arrow

November 5, 2015

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SEC Proposes Amended Rules of Practice in Recognition of Unfair Procedures

Today, September 24, 2015, the SEC issued proposed amendments to the Rules of Practice governing SEC administrative proceedings.  You can read them here.

This comes 15 months after the SEC’s General Counsel Anne Small noted that the existing rules were archaic, and insufficient to handle the complex cases being sent to the SEC’s administrative courts.  See SEC Administrative Case Rules Likely Out Of Date, GC Says.  (Ms. Small said it was fair for attorneys to question whether the SEC’s rules for administrative proceedings were still appropriate, with the rules last revised “quite some time ago” when the SEC’s administrative proceedings dealt with different kinds of cases than the more complex administrative matters it now takes on or expects to take on — given the commission’s expanded authority under the Dodd-Frank Act — such as insider-trading actions.  It was “entirely reasonable to wonder” if those rules should be updated to reflect the changed situation, for instance by allowing more flexibility on current limits to trial preparation time or allowing for depositions to be taken.  “We want to make sure the process is fair and reasonable, so [changing] procedures to reflect the changes makes a lot of sense.”)

Since then, the challenges to SEC administrative proceedings have been fast and furious.  Some arguments that alleged that the appointment of the ALJs themselves was constitutionally invalid under the Constitution’s Article II Appointments Clause have been received favorably by some courts.  See SEC Hit with Double Whammy Rulings Barring It from Commencing Challenged Administrative Proceedings.  Others that made more fundamental challenges to the entire fairness of the administrative proceeding process have not yet gained judicial footholds.  But the disparate treatment of alleged violators in federal court and the SEC courts was so obvious, and became the focus of so much criticism, that some action was required.  See Former SEC Enforcement Leaders Urge SEC To Reform Administrative Enforcement Process.  The repeated statements by SEC Enforcement officials that the existing process was fair and provided no disadvantages to alleged violators were transparently wrong (see Ceresney Presents Unconvincing Defense of Increased SEC Administrative Prosecutions).  The Commission was forced to act when the Wall Street Journal reported on the plain advantage that the SEC had when it sent cases to its administrative court.  See Fairness Concerns About Proliferation of SEC Administrative Prosecutions Documented by Wall Street Journal (credit to WSJ reporter Jean Eaglesham for playing a major role in moving the SEC toward reform).  Then, judges like N.D. Ga. Judge Leigh Martin May and SDNY Judge Richard Berman began to note in their opinions on the Appointments Clause issue that there were overall fairness issues raised that went beyond the alleged Article II violations.  Thank goodness the Commission saw that a stonewalling strategy that lasted almost two years had to be revised.

We now need to examine these proposals, and see if they adequately handle the procedural problems in the administrative court that give the SEC staff an unacceptable advantage in prosecutions that place respondents’ assets, and ability to do business and earn a living, at issue.  Not having reviewed the proposal yet, I can’t comment on the extent to which they address those problems.  But my bet is that there are at least some key advantages held by the SEC staff that are not yet addressed (since the staffers drafting the changes have been arguing for months that respondents are not really at a disadvantage).  That will be the subject of future blog posts, and, of course, what are likely to be voluminous responses during the comment period.

Straight Arrow

September 24, 2015

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

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

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

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

Judge Richard Berman - NYLJ/Rick Kopstein 100614

Judge Richard Berman – NYLJ/Rick Kopstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne Small -- SEC General Counsel

Anne Small — SEC General Counsel

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

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

Straight Arrow

September 18, 2015

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SEC Inspector General Reveals Investigation into Possible Bias of SEC ALJs

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

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

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

The Interim Report says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Straight Arrow

August 10, 2015

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SEC Bumbles Efforts To Figure Out How Its Own Administrative Law Judges Were Appointed

The SEC’s handling of the controversy over whether its administrative law judges were properly appointed under the Appointments Clause of Article II of the Constitution continues to amuse, or horrify, depending on your point of view.  Putting aside the actual substance of the Appointments Clause issue itself, which will work its way through the courts, when it comes to the mere disclosure of the underlying facts at issue about the appointment of the SEC’s ALJs, the SEC staff has acted with questionable competence, and apparent insubordination.  That’s a strong statement, so you can decide for yourself, based on recent events in the In the Matter of Timbervest, LLC administrative proceeding.

You may recall that the Timbervest administrative enforcement action was tried to SEC ALJ Cameron Elliot, who issued an Initial Decision finding for the Division of Enforcement in all respects except that he concluded two of the individual respondents lacked the scienter required for aiding and abetting the firm’s violations, and that the five-year statute of limitations in 28 U.S.C. § 2462 precluded the associational bars sought against the individuals and the revocation of Timbervest’s adviser’s license.  Both sides petitioned for review by the Commission, which was granted.  Before the Commission itself, the respondents pressed their constitutional challenges to the administrative proceeding, and the Commission asked for further briefing on those issues.  See Briefing of ALJ Constitutionality Before SEC Leaves Resolution in Doubt.

Then the Wall Street Journal published a blockbuster article discussing potential issues of fairness in the SEC’s administrative court, including statements by former SEC ALJ Lillian McEwen that she had been pressured to issue rulings more favorable to the SEC staff.  See Fairness Concerns About Proliferation of SEC Administrative Prosecutions Documented by Wall Street Journal.  On the basis of that article, the Timbervest respondents sought to pursue additional discovery to obtain evidence relevant to its constitutional challenges.  The precise request made is not clear from the record because the SEC failed to post this motion on its docket.  But it is apparent that the information sought included data about SEC ALJs Cameron Elliot and Brenda Murray (who was the original ALJ designated to hear the case before it was transferred to Mr. Elliot), as well as information about the allegations made by Ms. McEwen.  The Commission responded with an Order Requesting Additional Submissions and Additional Briefing, stating that “The Commission’s consideration of the Appointments Clause challenge would be assisted by the submission of additional material for inclusion in the record and by the submission of additional briefing.”  It then “ORDERED that the Division of Enforcement shall . . . file . . . an affidavit from an appropriate Commission staff member, with supporting exhibits if appropriate, setting forth the manner in which ALJ Cameron Elliot and Chief ALJ Brenda Murray were hired, including the method of selection and appointment.”

A week later, the Commission issued another Order Concerning Additional Submission and Protective Order, in which it “invited” ALJ Elliot to provide an affidavit addressing whether he was ever aware of ALJs being subjected to such pressures.  See SEC “Invites” ALJ Cameron Elliot To Provide Affidavit on Conversations “Similar” to Those Described by Former ALJ.

The responses to these Orders were remarkable.  In response to the second Order, Mr. Elliot declined to provide the affidavit “invited” by the Commission.  That certainly raised the possibility that the content of such an affidavit would be problematic.  See SEC ALJ Cameron Elliot Declines To Submit Affidavit “Invited” by the Commission.  But that at least was consistent with the SEC’s Order, which made it clear it was not mandating that ALJ Elliot provide the affidavit.

The Division of Enforcement’s response to the first Order was even more extraordinary.  It refused to provide the ordered “affidavit . . . setting forth the manner in which ALJ Cameron Elliot and Chief ALJ Brenda Murray were hired, including the method of selection and appointment,” instead providing an affidavit only containing “the factual information the Division believes legally relevant to resolving Respondents’ Article II-based constitutional claims,” which said only that “ALJ Elliot was not hired through a process involving the approval of the individual members of the Commission.”  In further explanation, the Division justified failing to comply with the Commission’s Order because “the Division believes that the facts set forth in the affidavit — i.e., facts relating to ALJ Elliot’s hiring — are sufficient for the Commission’s consideration of Respondents’ Appointments Clause challenge.”  The precise language of the affidavit was: “Based on my knowledge of the Commission’s ALJ hiring process, ALJ Elliot was not hired through a process involving the approval of the individual members of the Commission.”  See Division’s Notice of Filing, with Attached Affidavit of Jayne L. Seidman.

The Division described “the hiring process for Commission ALJs,” as administered by OPM, and told the Commission: “It is the Division’s understanding that the above process was employed as to ALJ Elliot, who began work at the agency in 2011.  As for earlier hires, it is likely the Commission employed a similar, if not identical, hiring process.  But the Division acknowledges that it is possible that internal processes have shifted over time with changing laws and circumstances, and thus the hiring process may have been somewhat different with respect to previously hired ALJs. For instance, Chief ALJ Murray began work at the agency in 1988 and information regarding hiring practices at that time is not readily accessible.”

This submission was a stunning act of insubordination, bordering on contempt.  It plainly declined to address the specific issues ordered by the Commission, and did so on the presumptuous basis that “the Division believes” the information ordered by the Commission was not necessary for the Commission to decide the issues raised by the respondents.  If the Division wanted relief from the Order, it should have moved for it to be revised.  It was impermissible to ignore the command based on what the Division — at this point simply a party in the proceeding — believed should have been requested.  But even beyond this, the affidavit the Division provided was misleading.  It did not even attempt to state the facts of Mr. Elliot’s hiring.  Instead, it was only “based on” “knowledge of the Commission’s ALJ hiring process,” and the Division’s Notice was founded on an unsupported “understanding” that the normal process was used.  So, even in the single respect the Division responded to the Order, it did so based on presumption, not investigation.  The combination of brazenly ignoring the Order, and then providing an affidavit not founded on facts, is conduct that should be reprimanded, if not sanctioned.  If a respondent had acted this way in response to a Commission Order, there would be more than silence from the Commission.

That isn’t the end of the story, because it turns out the assumption used to support the affidavit, and the Division’s purported “understanding” of what occurred, was unfounded, which could have been learned with only a modicum of effort.  ALJ Elliot is now presiding over another case being challenged on constitutional grounds, In the Matter of Laurie Bebo and John Buono.  In that case, at a hearing on June 18, 2015, ALJ Elliot raised the issue of the circumstances of his hiring, and the Division’s filing in Timbervest,  and noted the “the Division’s description of how I was hired was erroneous.”  He went on, “The crucial language is in the first full paragraph on page 2. . . .  I have informed the chief ALJ.  I brought it to her attention that it was wrong.  Of course she knew because she hired me, so she already knew that it was wrong.  I also informed Jayne Seidman, who is the woman who gave the affidavit.”  He went on, “I certainly don’t want the Division to be, you know, embarrassing themselves by saying things that are wrong. . . .”

The next day, the parties asked that ALJ Elliot state “what you believe the inaccuracies to be.”  He explained that the SEC’s affidavit assumed he was newly hired as an ALJ by the SEC, but that was not correct because he had been an ALJ in the Social Security Administration.  That meant that he was hired “through the process that essentially everyone else goes through,” responding to a posting on the federal government’s job-posting website.  “I saw a posting on USA Jobs when I was at Social Security.  I sent in my resume, I had an interview, I got an offer; it’s as simple as that.  What’s described in the Division’s notice of filing in Timbervest is if you’ve never been an ALJ before.  And as I said, I did in fact go through that process, just not when I was hired by the SEC.”  He went on, “I think when I was hired by the SEC, the Office of Personnel Management did have to approve my transfer from Social Security to SEC. . . .  So OPM does actually get involved in every ALJ’s hiring, to my knowledge.”  When asked with whom he interviewed, he responded: “I interviewed with Judge Murray, with Jayne Seidman, . . . and an attorney with the general counsel’s office, whose name escapes me at the moment.”  He also said “I pulled out one of my forms that I got from HR, and it appears that someone in HR did sign off on my hiring. . . .  I’m not saying that the person who signed the paper itself was my appointment. . . .  Whether that constitutes my appointment or not, I don’t know.”  When asked if he knew who appointed him, or the actual act that constituted his appointment, he responded: “I would have to say no, I don’t know.  I have an educated guess, but it’s really just an educate guess.  No, I don’t know the answer.”

This response makes it clear that records available at the SEC, could have informed the Division that the affidavit it provided was inaccurate.  Numerous people knew that ALJ Elliot was initially hired to serve at the Social Security Administration, apparently including the affiant, Ms. Seidman, but this fact was ignored.  Presumably the Division did not find it convenient actually to search the SEC’s own HR records before submitting the erroneous affidavit.  The difference here may not be material, which was ALJ Elliot’s stated view, but that is surely not within the Division’s purview to decide.  When asked for the facts, the Division (a) declined to seek them out, and (b) made an inaccurate filing instead.

The Division finally corrected the record in the Timbervest case on June 23, with the filing of an additional Notice: SEC June 23 Notice in Timbervest Administrative Proceeding.  That Notice attached the transcript of comments made by ALJ Elliot in the Bebo hearing, but otherwise said the Division still had not taken steps to confirm whether these recollections were accurate, including, apparently, not even seeking to obtain documents that could clarify the record.  Interestingly, although the Division’s original, inaccurate, Notice is posted on the docket, the mea culpa corrective Notice, with the excerpted portions of the Bebo transcript, is strangely missing, just like Timbervest’s original motion for discovery.

Of course, as ALJ Elliot noted, at a minimum the Division of Enforcement is “embarrassing themselves by saying things that are wrong.”  If this weren’t the government seeking to impose major penalties and other sanctions, we could dismiss them as “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight” (credit to Jimmy Breslin, RIP).

Jimmy Breslin - The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight

Jimmy Breslin – The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight

But what happened here is much worse.  The Commission, sitting in its adjudicatory capacity, ordered that the Division provide certain information.  The Division refused to do so, declined to seek relief from the order, and instead substituted erroneous information, which a modest amount of diligence would have shown was certainly incomplete, if not inaccurate.  If the Division were held to the standards of performance it routinely applies to those it investigates and prosecutes, there would be meaningful repercussions, if not outright accusations of reckless misconduct.

I won’t hold my breath.

Straight Arrow

June 30, 2015

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SEC “Invites” ALJ Cameron Elliot To Provide Affidavit on Conversations “Similar” to Those Described by Former ALJ

In the administrative proceeding In the Matter of Timbervest, LLC et al., File No. 3-15519, the SEC issued an order “inviting” ALJ Cameron Elliot to provide an affidavit “addressing whether he has had any communications or experienced any pressure similar to that alleged in the May 6, 2015 The Wall Street Journal article, ‘SEC Wins With In-House Judges,’ and whether he is aware of any specific instances in which any other Commission ALJ has had such communications or experienced such pressure.”  See Order Concerning Additional Submission and Protective Order.  This in response to a motion by Timbervest for discovery into the conversation reported in the Wall Street Journal between former ALJ Lillian McEwen and current Chief Administrative Law Judge Brenda Murray some years ago before Ms. McEwen’s retirement, in which ALJ Murray allegedly said Ms. McEwen’s rulings were not as favorable to the SEC staff as they should be.  See SEC Broadens Constitutional Inquiry into Its Own Administrative Judges in Timbervest Case and Fairness Concerns About Proliferation of SEC Administrative Prosecutions Documented by Wall Street Journal.

The Commission appears still not to have acted on Timbervest’s motion for discovery into the alleged McEwen conversation, as the most recent order says it does not express the Commission’s views on the disposition on that motion.  But it appears that the Commission is striving to find a way to deny the discovery request by “inviting” ALJ Elliot to deny he ever had such conversations or was aware of similar conversations or “pressures,” after which they will likely deny the request for discovery because it has no bearing on the specific case before them.  Such reasoning would be a wholly inadequate way to address the issue because it relies solely on a voluntary submission by ALJ Elliot without any supporting record, and does address the broader issue of a potential systemic bias that could infect the SEC’s administrative law process.  It would be a grave mistake for the SEC to ignore the “red flag” raised by former ALJ McEwen on the theory that even if the conversation occurred, it is mere history and not relevant unless a presiding ALJ acknowledges to having had a similar discussion.

Instead of taking an open and transparent approach to this issue, the Commission seems to be circling its wagons, looking for any excuse not to examine a serious potential concern about its administrative enforcement process.  This is exacerbated by the unusual step of ordering that any affidavit from ALJ Elliot — which the SEC says he is free not to provide if he prefers not to — must “be maintained under seal in order to provide the affiant confidentiality.”  What need for confidentiality could there be on the issue of whether the presiding ALJ in this case participated in, or is aware of, discussions that suggest ALJs act favorably to the SEC staff in administrative proceedings?

The Commission continues to take the wrong approach here.  It should, like Caesar’s wife, be “above suspicion.”  By failing to pursue this issue thoroughly and openly, and instead trying as hard as possible to cloak it in secrecy, the Commission leaves the sore to fester.

Straight Arrow

June 4, 2015

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SEC Broadens Constitutional Inquiry into Its Own Administrative Judges in Timbervest Case

On May 27, 2015, the SEC agreed to expand its own consideration of constitutionality challenges to its administrative law adjudicative process.  It issued an order asking for further briefing on whether the appointment of its administrative law judges conforms to the Constitution’s Appointments Clause.  The order, which was issued in the administrative proceeding In the Matter of Timbervest LLC et al., File No. 3-15519, is laid out below.  We previously discussed the briefing of constitutional issues before the SEC in the Timbervest case here: Briefing of ALJ Constitutionality Before SEC Leaves Resolution in Doubt.

This new development was set in motion by the May 7, 2015 Wall Street Journal article by Jean Eaglesham reporting on questions being raised about the fairness and constitutionality of the SEC’s use of its own administrative courts to prosecute securities enforcement actions for severe penalties, especially against people who were not otherwise subject to SEC regulatory oversight.  See Fairness Concerns About Proliferation of SEC Administrative Prosecutions Documented by Wall Street Journal.  Among other things, that article quoted a former SEC administrative law judge about pressure that had been placed on her to favor the SEC in her rulings.  That revelation spurred respondents in SEC actions to seek further information from the SEC about possible bias or other taints to the SEC’s administrative law proceedings.  In the proceeding In the Matter of Charles L. Hill, Jr., administrative law judge James Grimes approved a subpoena to the SEC staff for the production of documents relating to the matters discussed in the Wall Street Journal article.  See SEC ALJ James Grimes Issues Important Discovery Order Against SEC.  The respondents in the Timbervest proceeding, which is now under review by the Commission itself after an Initial Decision against the respondents by ALJ Cameron Elliot, also asked for discovery into the matters raised in the WSJ article in a filing that can be read here: Respondents’ Motion To Allow Submission of Additional Evidence and Motion for Leave To Adduce Additional Evidence.  That led to the May 27 SEC order:

On May 20, 2015, Respondents filed a Motion to Allow Submission of Additional Evidence and for Leave to Adduce Additional Evidence.  Based on that motion, the Respondents now appear to be asserting that the manner of appointment of the administrative law judges who presided over this matter violates the Appointments Clause of the Constitution.

The Commission’s consideration of the Appointments Clause challenge would be assisted by the submission of additional material for inclusion in the record and by the submission of additional briefing.

Accordingly, it is ORDERED that the Division of Enforcement shall by June 4, 2015 file and serve on the parties an affidavit from an appropriate Commission staff member, with supporting exhibits if appropriate, setting forth the manner in which ALJ Cameron Elliot and Chief ALJ Brenda Murray were hired, including the method of selection and appointment.

It is further ORDERED that the parties shall file simultaneous supplemental briefs . . . limited to the following two issues: (1) whether, assuming solely for the sake of argument that the Commission’s ALJs are “inferior officers” within the meaning of Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution, their manner of appointment violates the Appointments Clause; and (2) the appropriate remedy if such a violation is found.

In a footnote, the Commission said it was not yet deciding the Timbervest motion, including “the materiality of the discovery sought.”  The order in its entirety can be found here: Order Requesting Additional Submissions and Additional Briefing.

The SEC is treading carefully here.  We know, of course, that there is no chance the Commission will rule that its own administrative proceedings are unconstitutional in any respect, but Mary Jo White is a good enough lawyer to know she has to make a record that will not undercut the appearance of fairness in this entire process, or suggest any SEC bias in its own favor.  Just saying that shows how absurd the process is: the SEC is obviously conflicted in considering whether the prosecutions it sent to its administrative judges are unconstitutional.  That, among other reasons, is why this issue needs to be thrashed out fully before actual Article III judges in Article III courts.  Nevertheless, federal district court judges, with one exception, have ruled they lack the jurisdiction to consider the issue.  See Court Dismisses “Compelling and Meritorious” Bebo Constitutional Claims Solely on Jurisdictional Grounds; SEC Wins First Skirmish on Constitutional Challenge to Chau Administrative Proceeding.  The one exception led to a decision in the SEC’s favor that lacked the substance to serve as a compelling precedent: see In Duka v. SEC, SDNY Judge Berman Finds SEC Administrative Law Enforcement Proceedings Constitutional in a Less than Compelling Opinion.

The revelation of possible pressure on SEC ALJs to favor the SEC would be a game-changer if it is substantiated.  That introduces new elements of due process and fundamental fairness concerns beyond the separation of powers and appointments clause issues that have been the focus of most of the challenges to date.  How the Commission could question the “materiality” of that information is hard to fathom.  As we previously wrote, the only appropriate response to such a “red flag” is to commence a fully independent review of issue.  That is, of course, what the SEC would demand if a similar event were to occur in a public company, in order to avoid a later charge by the SEC and its staff of “reckless disregard” of “red flags.”  But apparently different rules govern the Commission, which seems to be placing itself above the law.

Straight Arrow

May 28, 2015

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