CLOSE X
RSS Feed LinkedIn Instagram Twitter Facebook
Search:
FMG Law Blog Line

Posts Tagged ‘Securities and Exchange Commission’

Duties of Care and Loyalty Coming to Investments Near You

Posted on: June 28th, 2019

By: Matthew Jones

The approval of Regulation Best Interest by the Securities and Exchange Commission last month continues to spark debate and controversy, and the future of the Rule remains uncertain.  The Rule’s implementation was set for June 30, 2020. However, on June 27, 2019, the United States House of Representatives passed a bill that would strip the SEC of its ability to implement the Regulation Best Interest package. The bill would prohibit the SEC from spending funds for Regulation Best Interest and the other items included in the Regulation. It is unclear whether the bill will pass both the Senate and White House, but the initial reaction is that the President will likely be advised to veto the bill.

Perhaps anticipating this potential obstacle, last week, Massachusetts released its own proposed fiduciary rule and is accepting comments until July 26, 2019. Its proposed rule requires that advice must be provided in the best interest of the customers without regard to the interests of the broker-dealer, advisory firm, or its personnel. The proposed standard permits the payment of transaction-based fees if the fee is reasonable, is the best of the reasonably available fee options, and the “care” obligation is complied with. This proposal applies to recommendations, advice, and the selection of account types. The stated goal of this standard is to protect the public interest and investors alike. This idea is nothing new, as the SEC’s Regulation Best Interest was designed to address and prevent similar issues. However, Massachusetts points out that the SEC Regulation fails to establish a strong and uniform fiduciary standard and fails to define the term “best interest.”

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Matthew Jones at [email protected].

The SEC Seeks to Enhance the Quality and Transparency of Investors’ Relationships; Approves the Regulation Best Interest Rule

Posted on: June 17th, 2019

By: Joseph Suarez

On June 5, 2019, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) approved its Best Interest Rule (the “Rule”) package requiring broker-dealers, and investment advisors, to act in their retail clients’ “best interests.” The SEC states the Rule, “will impose a materially heightened standard of conduct for broker-dealers when serving retail clients.” Broker-dealers must begin complying with the new rule, and broker-dealers and investment advisers must prepare, deliver to retail investors, and file a “relationship summary” by June 30, 2020.

The Rule is designed to enhance investor protections while preserving retail investor access and choice in: (1) the type of professional with whom they work, (2) the services they receive, and (3) how they pay for these services. In order to satisfy the new best interest standard of care, a broker-dealer who makes recommendations to a retail customer must fulfill four obligations: 1) a “disclosure obligation”; 2) a “duty of care” obligation; 3) a “conflicts of interest” obligation; and, 4) a “compliance obligation.” The duty of care obligation requires a broker-dealer to exercise reasonable “diligence, care and skill” when making investment recommendations. This obligation is similar to FINRA’s suitability rules. In order to satisfy the best interest obligation, a broker-dealer must understand and communicate the “risk, rewards and costs of any recommendation;” have a reasonable basis to believe that the recommendation is in the best interest of the customer; and refrain from making “excessive” recommendations, given the customer’s investment profile.

Regardless of whether a retail investor chooses a broker-dealer or an investment adviser, the retail investor will be entitled to a recommendation (if (s)he chooses a broker-dealer) or advice (if (s)he uses an investment adviser) that is in the retail investor’s best interest and that does not place the interests of the firm or the financial professional ahead of the retail investor’s interests. Nonetheless, the Rule’s perceived uncertainty is cause for division. The SEC claims the Rule is designed to enhance the quality and transparency of retail investors’ relationships with broker-dealers and advisors. Proponents say the Rule will elevate the standard for what is considered an investor’s best interest, specifically, that broker-dealers will need to make substantial changes to enhance investor protection. Opponents argue the Rule is too vague and retains a muddled standard that will not change any practices in the brokerage industry.

Given the current uncertainty, the question becomes: will the Rule cause more litigation? Given the near immediate scrutiny, the answer may be in the affirmative. The Plaintiff’s Bar will likely argue that the Rule now provides customers with a higher standard of care than the suitability standard in furtherance of asserting claims against broker-dealers. In any event, the Rule’s lack of clarity will surely stir debate over the next year before its implementation.

For more information, please contact Joseph Suarez at [email protected].

SEC Holds Public Forum as Part of Increasing Efforts to Regulate Digital Assets, Cryptocurrency Exchanges, and ICOs

Posted on: March 28th, 2019

By: Jennifer Lee

The Securities and Exchange Commission will be hosting a public forum on distributed ledger technology and digital assets in Washington DC on May 31, 2019. This is a part of the SEC’s increasing efforts to regulate cryptocurrency exchanges and initial coin offerings (ICOs) that have been proliferating unchecked until very recently.

Since digital assets are still an emerging concept, regulators, such as the SEC and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), a bureau of the U.S. Department of Treasury, have been struggling to figure out how the existing regulatory framework applies to cryptocurrencies, exchanges, and ICOs. However, as established financial institutions, such as Fidelity, begin to enter the digital asset space, the SEC has ramped up its efforts to ensure that companies are aware of and are in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations. Depending on the nature of the services provided, companies may be subject to the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, Bank Secrecy Act, and states’ money transmitter licensing statutes.

The push for more oversight over cryptocurrencies comes at the heels of high-profile scandals involving cryptocurrency exchanges and ICOs that left consumers and investors alike with nothing but questions after losing their fiat and digital currencies.

The very first incident involved Mt. Gox, a bitcoin exchange based in Tokyo, Japan that operated between 2010 and 2014. Cryptocurrency exchanges allow its users to exchange fiat currency (e.g., U.S. Dollars) into cryptocurrency and provide digital wallets for users to store their cryptocurrency. At its heyday, it was handling over 70% of all bitcoin transactions worldwide. However, it ran into a host of problems in 2013 continuing on to 2014 until it stopped operations and filed for bankruptcy. During the litigation that ensued, it was revealed that Mt. Gox somehow lost approximately 750,000 of its customers’ bitcoins, valued at around $473 million at that time.

More recently, in February 2019, the cryptocurrency exchange QuadrigaCX announced that it was missing approximately $145 million in digital assets. Its executives, consumers, and law enforcement are in a frenzy to determine what happened to the missing digital assets as the only person who had access was QuadrigaCX’s founder Gerry Cotten, who had passed away the month prior.

These incidents are not limited to cryptocurrency exchanges, especially as ICOs have become more popular in recent years. ICOs are similar to IPOs in the sense that investors can buy a stake in a particular cryptocurrency (referred to as a token), but unlike IPOs, a token’s value is not tied to the value or performance of an underlying company. In November 2018, the SEC settled charges against professional boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. and singer/producer DJ Khaled for failing to disclose payments they received for promoting investments in ICOs. This suggests that despite the decentralized nature of cryptocurrencies and ICOs, the SEC has assumed jurisdiction over the space and its players.

Accordingly, broker-dealers and investment advisory firms looking to get involved in the digital asset space, including operating cryptocurrency exchanges, providing trading platforms for cryptocurrencies, or facilitating ICOs, must ensure that they are in compliance with all existing laws and regulations that govern traditional financial transactions and investments.

For more information or to inquire about the firm’s services related to digital currencies, please contact Jennifer Lee at [email protected].

Is the SEC Mortal After All?

Posted on: August 27th, 2018

By:Ted Peters

The Securities and Exchange Commission, created through the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, is without a doubt one of the most powerful regulatory agencies in the free world.  According to its website, the SEC’s mission is “to protect investors, maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and facilitate capital formation.” Since its inception, the Commission has wielded great power, and in many instances has pushed the envelope to expand that power. But, as reflected in a handful of recent landmark cases, courts around the country and even this nation’s highest court have pushed back making clear that the Commission’s authority is not unlimited.

The SEC initiates enforcement actions in federal court when it determines that a violation of securities law has occurred. Like any other plaintiff, the SEC is subject to statutes of limitation.  The statute governing enforcement actions is five (5) years.  28 U.S.C. § 2462.  Section 2462 provides that, “an action, suit or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture, pecuniary or otherwise, shall not be entertained unless commenced within five years from the date when the claim first accrued.”

Historically, the Commission has acted with the belief that Section 2462 applied only to the specific enforcement actions enumerated therein.  The SEC’s own enforcement manual provides that “certain claims are not subject to the five-year statue of limitations under Section 2462, including claims for injunctive relief.” (See § 3.1.2 (Nov. 28, 2017)).

In Kokesh v. SEC, 137 S. Ct. 1635 (2017), the United States Supreme Court ruled that Section 2462 extends to disgorgement claims.  Prior to Kokesh, the Commission had taken the position that disgorgement claims could reach back indefinitely.  Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Sotomayor stated that “[d]isgorgement in the securities-enforcement context is a ‘penalty’ within the meaning of § 2462.”  The Court explained that disgorgement operates as a sanction because it redressed a wrong to the public, as opposed to an individual.  The Court rejected the SEC’s argument that disgorgement is remedial, finding instead that it was punitive because it “does not simply restore the status quo,” and often “leaves the defendant worse off.”

Prior to the Court’s decision in Kokesh, the SEC initiated an enforcement action in SEC v. Cohen, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 121164 E.D.N.Y. (Jul. 12, 2018), in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York.  In that action, the Commission asserted that between 2007-2012, the defendants participated in a scheme that involved making improper payments to government officials in a number of African countries.  As typical, the Commission sought recovery of monetary penalties, disgorgement and injunctive (follow-the-law) relief.  While the action was pending, Kokesh was decided.  Following Kokesh, the Cohen court held that Section 2462 also extended to actions for injunctive relief.  Finding that the SEC’s demand for injunctive relief would operate, at least in part, as a penalty, the court concluded that the claims were time-barred.

But not every court addressing injunctive relief has reached the same result.  In SEC v. Collyard, 861 F.3d 760 (8th Cir. 2017), a case decided after Kokesh, the Eighth Circuit, acknowledging a split of authority over whether an injunction can be a “penalty” for purposes of Section 2462, concluded that the at-issue injunction entered by the district court was not a penalty and, therefore, not subject to Section 2462.  That injunction enjoined the defendant from violating Securities Exchange Act § 15(a) and the district court concluded that the defendant was “reasonably likely to violate Section 15(a) again unless enjoined.”  Upholding that determination, the Eighth Circuit remarked that “[n]ot every injunction that specifically deters an individual is imposed to punish.”

After Kokesh, it is clear that SEC disgorgement actions fall within the limitations of Section 2462.  As for injunctive relief, district courts around the country remain split.  Given the importance of the SEC’s ability to seek injunctive relief, it is likely that the Supreme Court may be called upon to settle the split, perhaps through a possible certiorari of Cohen. Regardless, these recent decisions undeniably provide defendants with more leverage when facing the SEC.

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Ted Peters  at [email protected].

Supreme Court to Revisit Liability Under Rule 10b-5 – Will Prospective Justice Kavanaugh Weigh In?

Posted on: July 25th, 2018

By: Ted Peters

Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act, and Rule 10b-5 promulgated under it, makes certain conduct in connection with the purchase or sale of any security unlawful.  Specifically, Rule 10b-5(a) prohibits the use of any “device, scheme, or artifice to defraud.”  10b-5(b) prohibits the use of any “untrue statement of a material fact” or the omission of any “material fact necessary in order to make the statements… not misleading.”  And 10b-5(c) prohibits “any act, practice, or course of business which operates or would operate as a fraud or deceit upon any person.”

In Janus Capital Group, Inc. v. First Derivative Traders, 131 S. Ct. 2296 (2011), the United States Supreme Court addressed whether a mutual fund investment adviser could be held liable under Rule 10b-5 for false statements included in its client mutual funds’ prospectuses.  The Court concluded that the adviser could not be held liable under the rule because it did not make the statements in the prospectuses.

In Lorenzo v. Securities and Exchange Commission, 872 F.3d 578 (2017), the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeal considered whether a registered representative of a broker-dealer, who allegedly emailed false and misleading statements prepared by his boss to investors, could be found liable under Rule 10b-5.  Initially, the case was tried before an Administrative Law Judge who concluded that Lorenzo’s boss had drafted the emails in question; Lorenzo did not read the text of the emails; and Lorenzo had “sent the emails without even thinking about the contents.”  The judge also found that the emails were sent “at the request” of Lorenzo’s boss.  Notwithstanding these findings, the judge nevertheless concluded that Lorenzo had willfully violated securities laws (i.e., that Lorenzo had acted with an intent to deceive, manipulate or defraud).  As a sanction, the judge not only fined Lorenzo, but also imposed a lifetime suspension effectively barring him from the securities industry.

Lorenzo appealed the ruling before the Securities Exchange Commission.  The Commission affirmed, concluding that Lorenzo himself was “responsible” for the contents of the emails his boss asked him to send even though it was undisputed that Lorenzo’s boss had prepared the contents of the emails and that Lorenzo had simply “cut and pasted” the contents into the emails at issue.  Notably, the SEC found that Lorenzo’s conduct triggered liability under each of the subparts of Rule 10b-5, including 10b-5(b) which, under Janus, necessarily required an affirmative finding that Lorenzo had actually “made” the statements in question.

Lorenzo next appealed to the D.C. Circuit Court.  On September 29, 2017, a divided court upheld the SEC’s determination.  The court agreed that there was substantial evidence that the statements in Lorenzo’s emails were false or misleading and that Lorenzo possessed the requisite intent to mislead, deceive or defraud. However, the court disagreed with the SEC’s determination that Lorenzo was the “maker” of the statements as required by Rule 10b-5(b).  “We conclude that Lorenzo did not ‘make’ the false statements at issue for purposes of Rule 10b-5(b) because Lorenzo’s boss, and not Lorenzo himself, retained ‘ultimate authority’ over the statements.” [Citing Janus.]  On this basis, the court set aside the sanctions and remanded the case to enable the SEC to reassess appropriate penalties.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the current presidential nominee to fill the vacancy left by Justice Kennedy, penned a strongly worded dissent.  Kavanaugh criticized the conclusion reached by his colleagues that the “scheme liability” provisions of Rule 10b-5(a) and (c) may be used to find liability even where the defendant is not the “maker” of the statements (and thus not liable under 10b-5(b)).

On June 18, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court granted the petition for writ of certiorari.  The question before the Supreme Court is simple: Can a defendant be held liable under the so-called scheme liability provisions of Rule 10b-5(a) and (c) in connection with using false or misleading statements, even if that defendant is not the “maker” of the statements?  That the Court accepted certiorari certainly suggests that the Court desires to further define the scope and limitations of Rule 10b-5.

Should Kavanaugh be confirmed as the next Supreme Court Justice, it remains to be seen whether he will recuse himself on the grounds that he heard the case below.  If he does, then the Court could well end up with a 4-4 split, which would effectively affirm the lower court’s ruling.  The Court’s four more liberal justices (Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan) each dissented from Janus.  On the other hand, if Kavanaugh is confirmed and does not recuse himself, the majority of the Court will likely endorse a more restrictive interpretation of scheme liability under Rule 10b-5.

If you have questions or would like more information, please contact Ted Peters at [email protected].