Category: Litigation

SEC and DOJ conducting Rule 10b5-1 probe

As the SEC mulls its 10b5-1 proposal (see this PubCo post), neither its Enforcement Division nor the DOJ are waiting around to see what happens.  According to Bloomberg, they are using data analytics “in a sweeping examination of preplanned equity sales by C-suite officials.” The question is whether executives “been gaming prearranged stock-sale programs designed to thwart the possibility of insider trading”?  Of course, there have been countless studies and “exposés” of alleged 10b5-1 abuse over the years, the most recent being this front-page analysis of trading by insiders under Rule 10b5-1 plans in the WSJ (see this PubCo post).  While these concerns have been percolating for quite some time, no legislation or rules have yet been adopted (although several bills have been introduced and the SEC proposed new regs at the end of 2021).  Bloomberg reports that these investigations by Enforcement and the DOJ are consistent with the recent “tougher line on long-standing Wall Street trading practices during the Biden era. Federal officials requested information from executives early this year, said one person. They’re now preparing to bring multiple cases, said two other people.”

SEC reports Enforcement stats—the “risk-reward calculation is not what it was”

The SEC has announced its fiscal 2022 Enforcement stats, which hit new records. According to the press release, during the year, the SEC filed 760 total enforcement actions, representing a 9% increase over the prior year.  That total included 462 new, or “stand-alone,” enforcement actions, which “ran the gamut of conduct, from ‘first-of-their-kind’ actions to cases charging traditional securities law violations.”  The SEC also recovered a record $6.4 billion in civil penalties, disgorgement and pre-judgment interest in SEC actions, an increase of 68% from $3.8 billion in the prior year. Civil penalties, at $4.2 billion, were also the highest on record.  The press release emphasized that the increase in penalties is intended to “deter future misconduct and enhance public accountability.” In a number of cases, the SEC “recalibrated penalties for certain violations, included prophylactic remedies, and required admissions where appropriate” to make “clear that the fines were not just a cost of doing business.” According to Director of Enforcement Gurbir Grewal, the SEC doesn’t “expect to break these records and set new ones each year because we expect behaviors to change. We expect compliance.” Interestingly, disgorgement, at $2.2 billion, declined 6% from last year. As reported by the WSJ, Grewal, speaking at a recent conference, highlighted the fact that the SEC imposed more penalties than disgorgements, which, in his view, “demonstrated that ‘the potential consequences of violating the law are significantly greater than the potential rewards.’… He added that the SEC ordered more than twice as much in disgorgements as it did in penalties for the five fiscal years before the last one.  ‘So while disgorgement was slightly down from the prior year…it is the first time that the amount ordered to be paid in penalties has been double the amount ordered to be paid in disgorgement,’ he said. ‘The increased penalty-to-disgorgement ratio nonetheless demonstrates that the risk-reward calculation is not what it was even a few years ago.’” 

Final climate rules are months away, reports Bloomberg

Here’s a big scoop from Bloomberg: the “SEC is months away from finalizing expansive new climate disclosure requirements as the agency juggles investor demands for more transparency, tech glitches and a tough Republican legal threat.”   Are you really surprised though? That was a substantial, complex undertaking that elicited thousands of comments and a lot of pressure from opponents and proponents. Then, in July, came another challenge, as SCOTUS handed down West Virginia v EPA, which, although not directly addressing the SEC’s climate proposal, sure seemed to put a bull’s eye on it. (See this PubCo post.) Not to mention the SEC’s technical glitch, which led to a reopening of the comment period for a couple of weeks until November 1. (See this PubCo post.) That alone would have been enough to smoke the October target date set in the most recent SEC agenda.  (See this PubCo post.)  But what is real timeframe? Well, who knows. According to Bloomberg, SEC Chair Gary “Gensler has declined to give a timeline for finishing the climate regulations in recent public appearances, repeatedly pointing to thousands of comments that still need to be reviewed.” Bloomberg also reports that SEC “officials in private conversations have given no indication they’ll finish the rules this year, according to several people in contact with the agency.”

SEC charges Compass Minerals with disclosure violations resulting from “deficient disclosure process”

Toward the end of last month, the SEC announced settled charges against Compass Minerals International, Inc., for alleged disclosure violations that were “the consequence of a deficient disclosure process.”   In the Order, the SEC alleged that Compass misrepresented the impact of a technology upgrade at its Goderich mine—the world’s largest underground salt mine—which the company had claimed would lead to cost savings, but actually led to increased costs and below-expectation results.  Central to the case, however, was the purported failure of the company’s disclosure controls that resulted in the misleading statements: “statements to investors were not reviewed by personnel who were sufficiently knowledgeable about both Compass’s operations and its disclosure obligations.” The company was also charged with failing to disclose the potential financial risks arising out of the company’s contamination of a river in Brazil with excessive discharges of mercury, a failure the SEC also attributed to inadequate disclosure controls.  According to Melissa Hodgman, Associate Director of the Division of Enforcement, “[w]hat companies say to investors must be consistent with what they know. Yet Compass repeatedly made public statements that did not jibe with the facts on—or under—the ground at Goderich….By misleading investors about mining costs in Canada and failing to analyze the potential financial consequences of its environmental contamination in Brazil, Compass fell far short of what the federal securities laws require.” Compass agreed to pay $12 million to settle the charges. 

NAM celebrates victory over SEC on non-enforcement of proxy advisory firm rules—what did it really win?

Last week, in an action by the National Association of Manufacturers against the SEC and Chair Gary Gensler, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas held that the SEC violated the Administrative Procedure Act when, in June 2021, Corp Fin stated that it would not recommend enforcement of the 2020 proxy advisory firm rules while those rules were under reconsideration. In 2022, however, the SEC formally adopted new amendments to the 2020 rules reversing some of the key provisions and, at the same time, rescinding Corp Fin’s non-enforcement statement. You might think that the adoption of the new 2022 rules and rescission of the non-enforcement statement would make NAM’s suit moot?  At least, that’s what the SEC seemed to think when it moved to dismiss NAM’s complaint in August 2022, contending that the relief NAM sought would now be “meaningless.” But, in mid-September, the Court denied the SEC’s motion—citing West Virginia v. EPA—and late last week, the same Court granted NAM’s summary judgment motion for declaratory and injunctive relief: the SEC’s “suspension” of the rules was vacated because it violated the APA, and the SEC was enjoined from refusing to acknowledge or recognize the 2020 rule’s compliance date.  NAM declared victory.  But was it a hollow victory? Not according to NAM.

The “737 MAX is as safe as any airplane that has ever flown the skies”— Boeing settles antifraud charges with SEC

In a kind of sad coda to the litany of claims, charges, investigations and litigation surrounding the tragic crashes in 2018 and 2019 of two Boeing 737 MAX airplanes and the heartbreaking deaths of 346 passengers, the SEC announced last week, as discussed in this Order, that the Boeing Company had agreed to pay $200 million to settle charges that it made materially misleading statements following the crashes, including statements assuring the public that the 737 MAX airplane was “as safe as any airplane that has ever flown the skies.”  (As discussed in this order, the CEO will pay $1 million to settle charges.) Of course, that settlement pales against the $2.5 billion settlement agreed on last year with Department of Justice to resolve a criminal charge related to a conspiracy to defraud the FAA in connection with the FAA’s evaluation of the Boeing’s 737 MAX airplane.  Also last year, as reported by the NYT, Boeing’s directors reached a $237.5 million settlement of Caremark claims filed in Delaware, which asserted that, as a result of the directors’ “complete failure to establish a reporting system for airplane safety,” and “their turning a blind eye to a red flag representing airplane safety problems,” the board consciously breached its fiduciary duty and violated corporate responsibilities and, as a result, should bear some responsibility for Boeing’s losses. (For a discussion of that case, see this PubCo post.) According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, “[t]here are no words to describe the tragic loss of life brought about by these two airplane crashes….In times of crisis and tragedy, it is especially important that public companies and executives provide full, fair, and truthful disclosures to the markets. The Boeing Company and its former CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, failed in this most basic obligation. They misled investors by providing assurances about the safety of the 737 MAX, despite knowing about serious safety concerns. The SEC remains committed to rooting out misconduct when public companies and their executives fail to fulfill their fundamental obligations to the investing public.” How do these things happen? The facts of the Boeing case may be instructive.

SEC charges executives with insider trading— purported 10b5-1 plan provided no defense

It may look like just another run-of-the-mill insider trading case, but there’s one difference in this settled SEC Enforcement action: according to the SEC, it involved sales under a purported 10b5-1 trading plan while in possession of material nonpublic information. As you probably know, to be effective in insulating an insider from potential insider trading liability, the 10b5-1 plan must be established when the insider is acting in good faith and not aware of MNPI. Creating the plan when the insider has just learned of MNPI, as alleged in this Order, well, kinda defeats the whole purpose of the rule.  That’s not how it’s supposed to work, and the two executives involved here—the CEO and President/CTO of Cheetah Mobile—found that out the hard way, with civil penalties of $556,580 and $200,254. The company’s CEO was also charged with playing a role in the company’s misleading statements and disclosure failures surrounding a material negative revenue trend.  According to the Chief of the SEC Enforcement Division’s Market Abuse Unit in this press release, “[w]hile trading pursuant to 10b5-1 plans can shield employees from insider trading liability under certain circumstances, these executives’ plan did not comply with the securities laws because they were in possession of material nonpublic information when they entered into it.”

VMware charged with failure to disclose “backlog management practices”

Last week, the SEC brought a settled action against VMware, a provider of cloud-storage software and services, alleging that it misled shareholders by failing to disclose material information about its “managed pipeline” of orders in quarterly and annual Exchange Act reports, on earnings calls and in earnings releases during its 2019 and 2020 fiscal years.   According to the press release, the company used its “backlog management practices” to “push revenue into future quarters by delaying product deliveries to customers, concealing the company’s slowing performance relative to its projections.”  Interestingly, the charges in the SEC’s Order were not about funny accounting or even that favorite Enforcement standby, failure to maintain and comply with adequate disclosure controls and procedures. As VMware noted in a statement, the “SEC’s findings do not include any findings that the Company failed to comply with generally accepted accounting principles.”  Rather, the charges were about the disclosures about the accounting. “Although VMware publicly disclosed that its backlog was ‘managed based upon multiple considerations,’” the SEC said, “it did not reveal to investors that it used the backlog to manage the timing of the company’s revenue recognition.” VMware was ordered to cease and desist and pay a civil penalty of $8 million.  According to an Associate Director in the Division of Enforcement, “by making misleading statements about order management practices, VMware deprived investors of important information about its financial performance….Such conduct is incompatible with an issuer’s disclosure obligations under the federal securities laws.” 

SEC v. AT&T headed to trial—is Reg FD constitutional?

Reg FD cases rarely get to court, but here’s one that, barring a settlement, appears to be headed to trial. In a 129-page opinion in SEC v. AT&T, 9/08/22, the federal district court for the SDNY denied summary judgment for both sides in a case the SEC brought in March of 2021 against AT&T and three members of its Investor Relations Department for violations of Reg FD. (See this PubCo post.) The SEC alleged that, in March 2016, AT&T learned that, as a result of a “steeper-than-expected decline in smartphone sales,” AT&T’s first quarter revenues would fall short of analysts’ estimates by over a $1 billion.  Given that AT&T had missed consensus revenue estimates in two of the three preceding quarters, AT&T, it was alleged, embarked on a “campaign” to beat consensus revenue estimates for Q1: the three defendant IR employees were asked by the CFO and IR Director to contact the analysts whose estimates were too high to “walk” them down. As part of that campaign, the SEC alleged, they selectively disclosed the  company’s “projected or actual total revenue, and internal metrics bearing on total revenue, including wireless equipment revenue and wireless equipment upgrade rates.” The campaign worked.  But—and it’s a big but—it also led the SEC to bring claims against AT&T for violating Reg FD, and against the three IR employees for aiding and abetting that violation. As to AT&T and the other defendants, the Court was not persuaded by their arguments that there was insufficient evidence to support the SEC’s claims of a Reg FD violation, nor did the Court agree that Reg FD was “invalid” under the First Amendment. And, as to the SEC, while the Court viewed as “formidable” the evidence showing that the information at issue was material, nonpublic and selectively disclosed, the question of scienter was a closer one, and a reasonable jury could find for the defendants on that point.  

SEC adopts amendments to whistleblower program

On Friday, the SEC, without holding an open meeting, adopted two amendments to the whistleblower program that had been proposed in February. The vote was three to two.  Under the SEC’s whistleblower program, the SEC may “make monetary awards to eligible individuals who voluntarily provide original information that leads to successful SEC enforcement actions resulting in monetary sanctions exceeding $1 million and certain successful related actions.”  Awards must be in the range of 10% to 30% of the monetary sanctions collected.  The two new amendments relate to changes that had been adopted in 2020 regarding awards under related programs and award amounts. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, the amendments will “help enhance the whistleblower program. The first amendment expands the circumstances in which a whistleblower who assisted in a related action can receive an award from the Commission for that related action rather than from the other agency’s whistleblower program. The second amendment concerns the Commission’s authority to consider and adjust the dollar amount of a potential award. Under today’s amendments, when the Commission considers the size of the would-be award as grounds to change the award amount, it can do so only to increase the award, and not to decrease it. This will give whistleblowers additional comfort knowing that the Commission would not decrease awards based on their size….I think that these rules will strengthen our whistleblower program. That helps protect investors.”  The amendments to the whistleblower rule will become effective 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.