On July 23, FINRA announced that the SEC approved a new rule prohibiting FINRA-supervised firms and registered representatives from conditioning settlement of a customer dispute on—or otherwise compensating a customer for—the customer’s agreement to consent to, or not to oppose, the firm’s or representative’s request to expunge such information from the Central Registration Depository (CRD) system. The CRD system is an online registration and licensing system for the securities industry, which contains information regarding members and registered representatives, such as personal information, registration, and employment history, as well as disclosure information including criminal matters, regulatory and disciplinary actions, civil judicial actions, and information relating to customer complaints and disputes. The information FINRA makes public through BrokerCheck is derived from CRD. Brokers who wish to have a customer dispute removed from the CRD system and, thereby, from BrokerCheck, must obtain a court order confirming an arbitration award recommending expungement relief. FINRA will announce the effective date of the new rule in a regulatory notice to be published shortly.
On July 24, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) sent a letter to Attorney General Holder raising questions about the DOJ’s “inclination to enter into settlement agreements with respect to mortgage securities fraud” claims. The Chairman notes that large RMBS settlements to date have been predicated on violations of FIRREA, which allows the DOJ to initiate lawsuits seeking civil money penalties. The letter suggests the DOJ’s decision not to litigate or secure a criminal plea diverges from the agency’s strategy in other contexts. Chairman Issa asks the DOJ to produce, by August 14, all documents and communications since January 2011 referring or relating to two recent major RMBS settlements, as well as any policies in effect during that time governing the decision to conclude pre-suit negotiations.
On July 14, the DOJ, the FDIC, and state authorities in California, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York, announced a $7 billion settlement of federal and state RMBS civil claims against a large financial institution, which was obtained by the RMBS Working Group, a division of the Obama Administration’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force. Federal and state law enforcement authorities and financial regulators alleged that the institution misled investors in connection with the packaging, marketing, sale, and issuance of certain RMBS. They claimed, among other things, that the institution received information indicating that, for certain loan pools, significant percentages of the loans reviewed as part of the institution’s due diligence did not conform to the representations provided to investors about the pools of loans to be securitized, yet the institution allowed the loans to be securitized and sold without disclosing the alleged failures to investors. The agreement includes a $4 billion civil penalty, described by the DOJ as the largest ever obtained under FIRREA. In addition, the institution will pay a combined $500 million to settle existing and potential claims by the FDIC and the five states. The institution also agreed to provide an additional $2.5 billion in borrower relief through a variety of means, including financing affordable rental housing developments for low-income families in high-cost areas. Finally, the institution was required to acknowledge certain facts related to the alleged activities.
On July 8, FINRA released a targeted examination letter it sent to 10 firms to assess their compliance with requirements related to order routing and execution quality of customer orders in exchange listed stocks during the period of January 1, 2014 to present. The letters include numerous requests for information, including requests that each firm explain: (i) how it uses reasonable diligence to ascertain the best market for orders that the firm routes for execution to an exchange, or broker-dealer, so that the resultant price is as favorable as possible for its customer under prevailing market conditions; (ii) how the firm’s exchange order-routing decisions are made for customer non-marketable, customer market, and marketable limit orders; and (iii) how the firm reviews the execution quality of such orders. The letters also include requests related to each firm’s use of the “Smart Order Router.”
New York AG Civil Suit Targets International Bank’s “Dark Pool”, Relationships With High-Frequency Traders
On June 25, New York Attorney General (AG) Eric Schneiderman announced the filing of a civil suit against a large international bank alleging that, from 2011 to the present, the bank violated the Martin Act by making false statements to clients and the investing public about how, and for whose benefit, the bank operates its private securities trading venue, i.e. its dark pool. The AG claims that the bank actively sought to attract high frequency traders to its dark pool, and provided such traders advantages over others trading in the pool, while telling clients and investors that it implemented special safeguards to protect them from such high-frequency traders. Specifically, the AG alleges that the bank: (i) falsified marketing materials purporting to show the extent and type of high frequency trading in its dark pool; (ii) falsely marketed the percentage of high frequency trading activity in its dark pool; (iii) made a series of false representations to clients about its “Liquidity Profiling” service; (iv) falsely represented that it routed client orders for securities to trading venues in a manner that did not favor its own dark pool; and (v) secretly provided high frequency trading firms informational and other advantages over other clients trading in the dark pool. The suit seeks an order requiring the bank to pay damages, disgorge amounts obtained in connection with the alleged activities, and make restitution of all funds obtained from investors in connection with the alleged acts.
On June 23, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the long-standing “fraud-on-the-market” theory, on which securities class actions often are based. Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund Inc., No. 13-317, 2014 WL 2807181 (Jun. 23, 2014). Halliburton petitioned the Court after an appeals court relied on the theory to affirm class certification in a securities suit against the company, even after the appeals court acknowledged that no company misrepresentation affected its stock price. The theory at issue derives from the Court’s holding in Basic Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224 (1988) that a putative class of investors should not be required to prove that each individual actually relied in common on a misrepresentation in order to obtain class certification and prevail on the merits. The petitioner argued that empirical evidence no longer supports the economic theory underlying the Court’s holding in Basic allowing putative class members to invoke a classwide presumption of reliance based on the concept that all investors relied on the misrepresentations when they purchased stock at a price distorted by those misrepresentations. The Court declined to upset the precedent set in Basic, holding that the petitioner failed to show a “special justification” for overruling presumption of reliance because petitioner had failed to establish a fundamental shift in economic theory and that Basic’s presumption is not inconsistent with more recent rulings from the Court. The Court also declined to require plaintiffs to prove price impact directly at the class certification stage, but agreed with the petitioner that a defendant may rebut the presumption and prevent class certification by introducing evidence that the alleged misrepresentations did not distort the market price of its stock.
On June 16, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a Tenth Circuit holding that RMBS claims filed by the NCUA were timely and instructed the circuit court to reconsider that holding in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in an environmental case. National Credit Union Admin. Bd. v. Nomura Home Equity Loan, Inc., No. 13-576, 2014 WL 2675836 (U.S. Jun. 16, 2014). On June 9, the Court delivered its opinion in CTS Corp. v. Waldburger, an environmental case that addressed the difference between statutes of limitations and statutes of repose, which are both used to limit the temporal extent or duration of tort liability. In Waldburger, the Supreme Court held that under the environmental statute at issue, Congress intended to preempt state statutes of limitations but not statutes of repose. In light of that decision, the Court asked the Tenth Circuit to reconsider its holding that the federal extender statute supplants all other limitations frameworks, including both the one-year statute of limitations and the three-year statute of repose, included in the limitations provision of the Securities Act of 1933 and the similar state laws at issue in the case.
Wisconsin Federal Court Holds Dodd-Frank Whistleblower Protections Not Available For Reported Violations Of Banking Laws
On June 4, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin held that a former bank executive cannot pursue a claim that, when the bank terminated his employment, it violated the whistleblower-protection provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act because those protections apply only to individuals who report violations of securities laws and not to those who report alleged violations of other laws, such as banking laws. Zillges v. Kenney Bank & Trust, No. 13-1287, 2014 WL 2515403 (E.D. Wis. June 4, 2014). A former bank CEO sued the bank and certain affiliated companies and individuals, and claimed that they conspired to terminate his employment and prevent him from earning stock options after he observed conduct that he believed violated federal banking laws and reported the allegedly illegal conduct to the bank’s board of directors, the FDIC, and the FTC. The court held that in order to qualify as a whistleblower under Dodd-Frank, the disclosure must relate to a violation of securities laws. Accordingly, because the whistleblower disclosed alleged violations of only banking laws, the whistleblower provisions of Dodd-Frank did not apply. In doing so, the court explicitly side-stepped the question of whether a person is a whistleblower subject to Dodd-Frank protections if he or she makes a protected disclosure to someone other than the SEC. The court acknowledged the disagreement on that issue, which involves the interplay between the statutory definition of “whistleblower” and the protected actions listed in the statute, explaining that although the statute requires a person to provide information to the SEC in order to qualify as a whistleblower, some of the protected activities do not necessarily involve disclosures to the SEC. To date, some courts have reasoned that Congress could not have intended this result and have concluded that a person who makes a disclosure that falls within the protected activities, whether the disclosure is made to the SEC or not, is a “whistleblower” within the meaning of Dodd-Frank, while other courts have concluded that a person is a “whistleblower” only if the person makes the disclosure to the SEC.
On June 4, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated and remanded a district court’s decision to reject a proposed settlement between the SEC and a financial institution in a securities fraud suit. SEC v. Citigroup Global Markets Inc., No. 11-5227, 2014 WL 2486793 (2d Cir, Jun. 6, 2014). In November 2011, the SEC and the financial institution entered into a consent judgment to resolve allegations that the institution violated securities laws in connection with certain mortgage-backed securities. Consistent with the SEC consent judgment convention at the time, the institution did not admit or deny any of the allegations as part of the agreement. Judge Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York rejected the agreement and held that because the parties agreed to settle without the institution having to admit or deny any of the underlying factual allegations, the settlement would deprive the public “of ever knowing the truth in a matter of obvious public importance,” and the court lacked evidence sufficient to determine whether the agreement was in the public interest. On appeal, the Second Circuit held that the proper standard for reviewing a proposed enforcement agency consent judgment is whether the proposed consent decree is fair and reasonable, and in the event the agreement includes injunctive relief, whether “the public interest would not be disserved.” The court held that in evaluating whether an SEC consent decree is “fair and reasonable” one must review (i) the basic legality of the decree; (ii) whether the terms are clear; (iii) whether the decree resolves the actual claims in the complaint; and (iv) whether the decree is “tainted by improper collusion or corruption.” The court also ruled that the district court abused its discretion by requiring that the agreement establish the “truth” of the allegations, explaining that trials are meant to determine truth, while consent decrees are about “pragmatism.” Finally, the court held that the district court abused its discretion to the extent that it withheld approval of the settlement because it believes the SEC failed to bring the proper charges, which is the exclusive right of the SEC to decide.
On April 29, the U.S. House of Representatives passed by voice vote HR 4167, a bill that would exclude certain debt securities of collateralized loan obligations (CLOs) from the so-called Volcker Rule’s prohibition against holding an ownership interest in a hedge fund or private equity fund. Section 619 of the Dodd-Frank Act—the Volcker Rule—generally prohibits insured depository institutions and their affiliates from engaging in proprietary trading and from acquiring or retaining ownership interests in, sponsoring, or having certain relationships with a hedge fund or private equity fund. As implemented, that prohibition would cover CLOs, which banks and numerous lawmakers assert Congress never intended for the Volcker Rule to cover. Earlier in April, the Federal Reserve Board issued a statement that it intends to exercise its authority to give banking entities two additional one-year extensions, which would extend until July 21, 2017, to conform their ownership interests in, and sponsorship of, covered CLOs. HR 4167 instead would provide a statutory solution by exempting CLOs issued before January 31, 2014 from divestiture before July 21, 2017.
On April 15, the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations announced that it will be conducting cybersecurity examinations of more than 50 registered broker-dealers and registered investment advisers. The examinations will assess each firm’s cybersecurity preparedness and collect information about the industry’s recent experiences with certain types of cyber threats. Specifically, examiners will focus on (i) cybersecurity governance; (ii) identification and assessment of cybersecurity risks; (iii) protection of networks and information; (iv) risks associated with remote customer access and funds transfer requests; (v) risks associated with vendors and other third parties; (vi) detection of unauthorized activity; and (vii) and experiences with certain cybersecurity threats. The SEC included with the announcement a sample document and information request it plans to use in this examination initiative.
Recently, the FHFA announced the resolution of several lawsuits it filed against private label securities issuers. In 2011, the FHFA sued 18 financial institutions alleging federal securities law violations, and in some cases common law fraud, with regard to the sale of private label residential mortgage backed securities to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. On March 26, one financial institution agreed to pay $9.33 billion—including cash payments and a purchase of securities from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—to resolve a case filed against the institution and cases filed against two other institutions it had acquired. On March 21, a separate institution agreed to pay $885 million to resolve the FHFA’s allegations. The FHFA has claims remaining in seven of the 18 suits it filed.
Recently, the DOJ issued its first opinion release of 2014 regarding application of the FCPA. In this instance, an investment bank and securities issuer who was a majority shareholder of a foreign financial services company sought the DOJ’s opinion with regard to the bank’s purchase of the remaining minority interest from a foreign businessman who now serves as a senior foreign official. The DOJ determined that based on the facts and representations described by the requestor, the only purpose of the payment to the official would be consideration for the minority interest. The DOJ explained that although the FCPA generally prohibits an issuer from corruptly giving or offering anything of value to any “foreign official” in order to assist “in obtaining or retaining business for or with, or directing business to” the issuer, it does not “per se prohibit business relationships with, or payments to, foreign officials.” In this situation, the DOJ determined, based on numerous, fact-intensive considerations, that the transfer of value as proposed would not be prohibited under the FCPA. The DOJ found no indications of corrupt intent, citing, among other things, the proffered purpose to sever the parties’ existing financial relationship to avoid a conflict of interest, and the use of a reasonable alternative valuation model. The DOJ also determined the bank demonstrated that the parties would appropriately and meaningfully disclose their relationships before the sale closed, and that the bank would implement strict recusal and conflict-of-interest-avoidance measures to prevent the shareholder/foreign official from assisting the bank in obtaining or retaining business. As with all Opinion Releases under the FCPA, the DOJ cautioned that the opinion has no binding application to any other party.
On March 4, in a suit brought by former employees of private companies that advise or manage mutual funds, the U.S. Supreme Court held (6-3) that the Sarbanes-Oxley Act’s whistleblower protection provision covers employees of a public company’s non-public contractors and subcontractors. Lawson v. FMR LLC, No. 12-3, 2014 WL 813701 (Mar. 4, 2014). The Court held, “based on the text of [the statute], the mischief to which Congress was responding, and earlier legislation Congress drew upon, that the [whistleblower protection] provision shelters employees of private contractors and subcontractors, just as it shelters employees of the public company served by the contractors and subcontractors.” The Court reasoned that to hold otherwise would insulate nearly the entire mutual fund industry, since mutual funds are public companies that typically do not have their own employees. The Court determined that based on the ordinary meaning of the provision’s language, whistleblower protection under the Act extends to a contractor’s own employees. Further, according to the Court, “Congress’ concern about contractor conduct of the kind that contributed to Enron’s collapse” cast doubt on a “construction of [the provision] to protect whistleblowers only when they are employed by a public company, and not when they work for the public company’s contractor.” Finally, the Court determined that Congress drew the Act’s whistleblower protection provision from the 2000 Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century, which has been interpreted to cover employees of contractors. The Court thus reversed the First Circuit’s contrary holding and remanded the case for further proceedings.
On February 25, the SEC re-opened the comment period on two asset-backed securities proposals. Prior to passage of the Dodd-Frank Act, the SEC proposed to require that, with some exceptions, prospectuses for public offerings of asset-backed securities and ongoing Exchange Act reports contain specified asset-level information about each of the assets in the pool in a standardized tagged data format. In 2011, the SEC re-opened the comment period on those proposals given additional requirements included in the Dodd-Frank Act. During that comment period, some commenters raised concerns about the reporting of certain sensitive asset-level data. The SEC is now seeking additional comment on a potential method to address privacy concerns related to the dissemination of such information. The proposed method would require issuers to make asset-level information available to investors and potential investors through a Web site that would allow issuers to restrict access to information as necessary to address privacy concerns. Comments on the proposal are due by March 28, 2014.