SEC’s Broken Window Enforcement Program Gets a Boost from “Quantitative Analytics” and “Algorithms”

The SEC announced last week that it had charged, in settled administrative proceedings, 28 individuals and investment firms that failed to “promptly report information about their holdings and transactions in company stock” and six public companies that contributed to “filing failures by insiders or fail[ed] to report their insiders’ filing delinquencies.” See SEC Press Release: “SEC Announces Charges Against Corporate Insiders for Violating Laws Requiring Prompt Reporting of Transactions and Holdings.” The SEC obtained a total of $2.6 million in civil monetary penalties as a result of the filed charges. The individual amounts ranged from $25,000 to $150,000. These cases are the latest example of the SEC’s focus on strict liability violations of the federal securities laws.

All of the charges arise under Sections 13(d), 13(g), and 16(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. These sections require certain forms to be filed, irrespective of profits or the reasons for engaging in the stock transactions. Although the SEC does not need to establish that an individual or company engaged in insider trading (nor was there any finding that would suggest such) in order to prove any of the charged violations, legislative history indicates that Section 16(a) was motivated by a belief that “the most potent weapon against the abuse of inside information is full and prompt publicity” and by a desire “to give investors an idea of the purchases and sales by insiders[,] which may in turn indicate their private opinion as to prospects of the company.”

Pursuant to Section 16(a) and Rule 16a-3, company officers, directors, and certain beneficial owners of more than 10% of a registered class of a company’s stock (“insiders”) are required to file initial statements of holdings on Form 3 and to keep this information current by reporting transactions on Forms 4 and 5. Specifically, within 10 days after becoming an insider, the insider must file a Form 3 report disclosing his or her beneficial ownership of all securities of the issuer. To keep this information current, insiders must file Form 4 reports disclosing purchases and sales of securities, exercises and conversions of derivative securities, and grants or awards of securities from the issuer within two business days following the execution date of the transaction. In addition, insiders are required to file annual statements on Form 5 within 45 days after the issuer’s fiscal year-end to report any transactions or holdings that should have been, but were not, reported on Form 3 or 4 during the issuer’s most recent fiscal year and any transactions eligible for deferred reporting (unless the corporate insider has previously reported all such transactions).

Beneficial owners of more than 5% of a registered class of a company’s stock must use Schedule 13D and Schedule 13G to report holdings or intentions with respect to the respective company. According to legislative history, Section 13(d) is a key provision that allows shareholders and potential investors to evaluate changes in substantial shareholdings. The duty to file is not dependent on any intention by the stockholder to gain control of the company, but on a mechanical 5% ownership test. A Schedule 13D must be filed within ten days of the transaction, and a Schedule 13G must be filed within 10 to 45 days of the transaction, depending on the category of filer and the percentage of acquired ownership. Importantly, Section 16(a) also requires an investment adviser to file required reports of behalf of funds that it manages when the fund’s ownership or transactions in securities exceed the statutory thresholds.

Under Section 16(a), public companies are required to disclose in their annual meeting proxy statements or in their annual reports, “known” Section 16 reporting delinquencies by its insiders. This disclosure is commonly referred to as the Item 405 disclosure. The Item 405 disclosure of any late filings or known failures to file must (i) identify by name each insider who failed to file Forms 3, 4, or 5 on a timely basis during the most recent fiscal year or prior fiscal years and (ii) set forth the number of late reports, the number of late-reported transactions, and any known failure to file. An issuer does not have an obligation under Item 405 to research or make inquiry regarding delinquent Section 16(a) filings beyond the review specified in the item. Although insiders remain responsible for the timeliness and accuracy of their required Section 16(a) reports, the SEC has encouraged companies to assist their officers and directors to submit their filings, or even to submit the required form on the insiders’ behalf to ensure accurate and timely filing.

These actions make clear, however, that reliance on the company does not excuse violations as the insider retains ultimate responsibility for the filings. The majority of the charged individuals told the SEC that their delinquent filings resulted from the failure of the company to make timely filings on their behalf. In one case, disclosures in the company’s annual proxy statements relating to Section 16(a) compliance revealed that the filing of the insider reports was late because of “lack of staffing,” “late receipt of necessary information,” and “a change in the processing of these forms and delays caused by an email server malfunction.” The SEC still charged the insider because the insider took “ineffective steps to monitor whether timely and accurate filings were made” on his or her behalf by the company.

Without providing any details, the SEC claimed that it used “quantitative analytics” or algorithms to identifyindividuals and companies with especially high rates of filing deficiencies. The SEC’s filing of these actions underscores its willingness to devote resources to pursuing strict liability violations. It also demonstrates the SEC’s efforts to use quantitative analysis and algorithms to identify violations and to streamline the investigative process.

SEC Gives Insider Trader a $30,000 Slap On The Wrist

On April 23, 2014, the SEC agreed to settle insider trading charges against Chris Choi, a former accounting manager at Nvidia Corporation who allegedly set into motion a trading scheme that reaped nearly $16.5 million in illicit profits and avoided losses. Given the amount of the purported loss, the fact that Choi was the original “tipper,” and the fact that nearly every other member of the scheme has been indicted, the Choi settlement seems like nothing more than a slap on the wrist: a $30,000 penalty without admitting to the insider trading allegations. The Choi settlement also represents a notable departure from the SEC’s recent insider trading fines and penalties against “tippers.”

According to the SEC’s complaint, on at least three occasions during 2009 and 2010, Choi tipped material nonpublic information about Nvidia’s quarterly earnings to his friend Hyung Lim. SEC v. Choi, No. 14-cv-2879 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 23, 2014). Lim passed the information along to Danny Kuo, a hedge fund manager at Whittier Trust Company, who passed the information to his boss and to a group of managers at three other hedge funds.

Kuo and the other tippee-hedge fund managers used Choi’s information to trade in advance of Nvidia earnings announcements and reaped trading gains and/or avoided losses of approximately $16.5 million.

The SEC alleged that Choi was liable for this trading because he “indirectly caused trades in Nvidia securities that were executed” by the hedge funds and “did so with the expectation of receiving a benefit and/or to confer a financial benefit on Lim.” The SEC charged him with violations of Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act (and Rule 10b-5) and Section 17(a) of the Securities Act.

Choi, without admitting or denying the SEC’s allegations, agreed to settle the matter and to the entry of an order: (1) permanently enjoining him from violations of Section 10(b), Rule 10b-5, and Section 17(a); (2) barring him from serving as an officer or director of certain issuers of securities for five years; and (3) ordering him to pay a $30,000 penalty.

Not only is Choi’s settlement a significant departure from the resolutions obtained by his “downstream” tippees, a number of whom were convicted on criminal charges of insider trading, it is a departure from recent SEC “tipper” settlements. For example:

•   A former executive at a Silicon Valley technology company, who allegedly tipped convicted hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam with nonpublic information that allowed the Galleon hedge fund to make nearly $1 million profit, agreed to pay more than $1.75m to settle the SEC’s insider trading charges. See SEC Charges Silicon Valley Executive for Role in Galleon Insider Trading Scheme.

•   A physician who served as the chairman of the safety monitoring committee overseeing a clinical trial for an Alzheimer’s drug being jointly developed by two pharmaceutical companies, who allegedly tipped a hedge fund manager with safety data and eventually data about negative results in the trial approximately two weeks before they became public, which allowed the hedge fund to make nearly $276 million in gains, agreed to pay more than $234,000 in disgorgement and prejudgment interest to settle the SEC’s insider trading charges. The physician’s penalty may have been mitigated by the fact that he cooperated with and received a non-prosecution agreement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in a parallel criminal action. See SEC Charges Hedge Fund Firm CR Intrinsic and Two Others in $276 Million Insider Trading Scheme Involving Alzheimer’s Drug.

•   A former executive director of business development at a pharmaceutical company located in New Jersey, who allegedly tipped a hedge fund manager (a friend and former business school classmate) with material nonpublic information regarding the company’s anticipated acquisition that allowed the manager to make nearly $14 million in gains, escaped criminal prosecution and agreed to pay a $50,000 penalty to settle the SEC’s insider trading charges. See SEC Charges Pharmaceutical Company Insider and Former Hedge Fund Manager for Insider Trading, Resulting in Approximately $14 Million in Profits.

There are a few reasons the SEC may have settled with Choi for such a small civil penalty. First, the SEC recently settled with Lim, the second chain in the insider trading scheme. Lim tentatively agreed to disgorgement or to pay a penalty once he has completed his cooperation with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and has been sentenced in its pending, parallel criminal action¾i.e., United States v. Lim, 12-cr-121 (S.D.N.Y.). It also could be Choi’s limited financial means. We likely will never know the reason for the SEC’s agreed-upon resolution, but the fact of the resolution may have some value to other defendants.

 

SEC Enters Into First NPA With An Individual

In 2010, the SEC implemented a Cooperation Initiative designed to encourage individuals and companies to cooperate with SEC investigations. See SEC Announces Initiative to Encourage Individuals and Companies to Cooperate and Assist in Investigations, SEC Press Release No. 2010-6 (Jan. 13, 2010). Although the Division of Enforcement authorized SEC staff to “use various tools to encourage individuals and companies to report violations and provide assistance to the agency,” including cooperation agreements, deferred prosecution agreements (“DPA”), and non-prosecution agreements (“NPA”), the staff has made limited use of the cooperation tools with individuals.

In fact, in April, the SEC announced its first NPA with an individual in connection with an insider trading case involving GSI Commerce Inc.’s (“GSIC”) merger with eBay. See SEC v. Saridakis,Civil Action No. 14-2397 (E.D. Pa.). According to the SEC, prior to GSIC’s public announcement of its merger with eBay, Inc., the CEO of its marketing solutions division, Christopher D. Saridakis, provided material nonpublic information about the transaction to friends and colleagues, and he suggested they immediately purchase GSIC stock. For example, according to the SEC’s complaint, co-defendant Jules Gardner received a series of text messages from Saridakis suggesting that he should “own” GSIC “shares” “soon.” Saridakis and Gardner shared this information with several other individuals who traded GSIC stock in or around the time of the merger and further passed along the confidential merger information to people the SEC referred to as “downstream” individuals. According to the SEC, on the day of the merger announcement, the closing price for the GSIC stock increased significantly, resulting in more than $300,000 in illegal profits to the individuals who traded on the insider information.

The SEC reached an agreement with Saridakis and a number of “downstream” individuals. To resolve the SEC’s complaint against them, Saridakis agreed to an officer-and-director bar and to a substantial monetary penalty while Gardner agreed to cooperate and to disgorge all the profits he obtained. The remaining individuals each settled in separate administrative proceedings on a neither admit nor deny basis. These individuals agreed, among other things, to disgorge profits and/or to pay civil monetary penalties.

The Saridakis case is another example of the SEC’s recent and ongoing efforts to encourage individuals to come forward with information relating to alleged securities violations and to cooperate with the SEC’s investigations of such violations. See, e.g., SEC Announces First Deferred Prosecution Agreement with Individual, SEC Press Release No. 2013-241 (Nov. 12, 2013); see also article in Business Law Today. The director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, Andrew J. Ceresney, explained, “The reduction in penalties for those tippees who assisted us, together with the non-prosecution agreement for one of the traders, demonstrate the benefits of cooperating with our investigations. The increased penalties for others highlight the risks of impeding our work.”

Although the SEC did not disclose the identity of the individual who received an NPA, it appears that he or she received the material nonpublic information third hand. In addition, Ceresney explained that the “individual provided early, extraordinary, and unconditional cooperation.” Unlike the DPA that the SEC entered into with an individual and the DPAs and NPAs that the SEC has entered into with entities, the SEC did not publicize this NPA, so it is difficult to evaluate what the SEC considered extraordinary cooperation. The fact that the SEC did not disclose the NPA may signal that the individual may be cooperating with the criminal authorities as well.

Expect more cooperation agreements with individuals to come.

SEC v. Jacobs May Signal Limit to Duty of Trust or Confidence Required to Prove Insider Trading Based on Misappropriation Theory

To prevail on an insider-trading claim pursuant to Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act and Rule 10b-5 thereunder based on the misappropriation theory, the SEC must prove that the defendant (1) misappropriated material, nonpublic information; (2) had a duty of trust or confidence; (3) breached that duty; (4) purchased or sold securities, or tipped another who purchased or sold securities, on the basis of that information; and (5) knew or should have known that he or she was trading or tipping others on inappropriately obtained information. Dirks v. SEC, 463 U.S. 646, 660 (1983). The SEC has identified three nonexhaustive circumstances that create a duty of trust or confidence; they are (1) when a person agrees to maintain information in confidence; (2) when there is a history, pattern, or practice of sharing confidences and the recipient knows or reasonably should know that the person communicating the information expects the recipient to maintain its confidentiality; and (3) when a person receives material, nonpublic information from his or her spouse, parent, child, or sibling. See 17 C.F.R. § 240.10b5-2(b).

The existence of “a duty of trust or confidence” and the SEC’s attempt to expand that duty beyond the traditional fiduciary relationship have been the subject of many a motion to dismiss. Courts, however, have routinely ruled that a duty of trust or confidence is not limited to traditional fiduciary relationships. For example, in United States v. Corbin, 729 F. Supp. 2d 607 (S.D.N.Y. 2010), the court acknowledged Rule 10b5-2’s presumption of a relationship of trust and confidence between spouses and held that the SEC adequately alleged that a husband and wife had a history of sharing business confidences that the wife obtained about impending acquisitions while working for a communications firm, and that the pair had a “domestic confidentiality policy” of sorts whereby the husband understood he could not share that confidential information. In United States v. McGee, 892 F. Supp. 2d 726 (E.D. Pa. 2012), the court concluded that the complaint adequately alleged a relationship of trust and confidence where the source of the information and the recipient had become friends through Alcoholics Anonymous and also had an agreement of confidentiality through their involvement with that organization. In SEC v. Conradt, 947 F. Supp. 2d 406 (S.D.N.Y. 2013), the Court concluded that the SEC adequately pleaded a relationship of trust and confidence by alleging that two friends over the course of eight months shared confidences regarding family illnesses, personal legal troubles, and work communications describing sensitive client holdings.

But two recent jury verdicts provide some hope to defendants. In SEC v. Jacobs, Case No. 13-cv-1289 (N.D. Ohio), the SEC alleged that Andrew and Leslie Jacobs violated Section 14 of the Exchange Act and Rule 14e-3, which pertains to insider trading specifically in the context of tender offers, and Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act and Rule 10b(5), which pertains to insider trading generally, when Leslie traded on information provided to Andrew by his close friend and brother-in-law, Blair Ramey. According to the complaint, although Ramey did not tell Andrew about the tender offer specifically, he was certain to have understood Ramey’s company was going to be acquired given the nature of the conversation. Ramey requested that Andrew keep their conversation confidential, and Andrew agreed to do so.

Although the jury found Andrew and Leslie liable under Section 14 of the Exchange Act and Rule 14e-3, it did not find them liable under Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act and Rule 10b(5). The distinction between these two claims is crucial—a finding of liability under Section 14 of the Exchange Act and Rule 14e-3 does not require the existence of a duty of trust or confidence while a finding under Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act and Rule 10(b)(5) does.

And, of course, the jury found entrepreneur Mark Cuban not liable for insider trading, even though the Fifth Circuit had concluded that the SEC adequately pleaded Cuban had a relationship of confidence because he agreed to keep confidential material, nonpublic information and also promised not to trade on the information, SEC v. Cuban, 620 F.3d 551 (5th Cir. 2010).

Notwithstanding the expansive interpretation given to the duty of trust or confidence element by the SEC and the courts, the Jacobs and Cuban verdicts serve as a reminder that the jury may not always accept the SEC’s formulation of liability, even when that formulation has been the basis for numerous successful oppositions to motions to dismiss.