The Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) has the power and authority under the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 to bring enforcement actions against persons who violate the securities laws. Most of these actions are settled well before trial by the defendant agreeing to a court-ordered “obey the law” injunction, where the defendant neither admits nor denies the factual statements alleged by the SEC to support the injunction. The SEC has received significant criticism from commentators and legislators for entering into settlements without requiring the respondent to admit allegations against it. These have included significant criticisms by Hon. Jed. S. Rakoff (S.D.N.Y.) in his November 28, 2011 memorandum order denying a joint motion by the SEC and Citigroup for approval of a $285 million settlement of certain allegations by the SEC. (SEC v. Citigroup Global Markets, Inc.) This was discussed in more detail in the January 2012 Business Law Section Newsletter.
Obtaining settlements where the defendant “neither admits nor denies” the allegations is a practice that commenced long before 1972, but was formalized in 1972 (17 CFR § 205.5) with the additional SEC requirement that consent judgments be accompanied by a formal written agreement by the defendant “not to take any action or to make or permit to be made any public statement denying, directly or indirectly, any allegation in the complaint or creating the impression that the complaint is without factual basis.” This changed the prior practice by defendants who would deny the underlying facts immediately after entering into a consent decree with the SEC.
Perhaps as a result of the outcry from Judge Rakoff and others, in January 2012, the Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement announced that the Division would no longer permit those convicted or who otherwise admitted the facts in a parallel criminal action to settle with the SEC based on ““not admitting or denying” the facts.
On June 18, 2013, SEC Chair Mary Jo White further refined the SEC’s “neither admit nor deny” policy when she advised the investment community that even in non-criminal settings, the SEC may require admissions in cases “where heightened accountability or acceptance of responsibility through the defendant’s admission of misconduct may be appropriate” (as reported in the New York Times at page B-1, June 22, 2013). In those cases, the SEC enforcement staff has been advised to seek admissions or litigate the case. This may, of course, make litigation more frequent since many defendants may have believed in their innocence, but chose the “neither admit nor deny” settlement to avoid the time, expense, and uncertainty of litigation. Chair White anticipates that the admissions will be required in cases involving “particularly widespread harm to investors” and “egregious intentional misconduct.”
The SEC defense bar has raised a number of concerns about Chair White’s announcement and the anticipated effect of the new SEC practice. Among these concerns is whether this new policy might be subject to arbitrary application by staff. Equally significant, where a defendant is given the option of making admissions (which can then be used in subsequent shareholder litigation or even a criminal proceeding) or contesting the claims, defendants are more likely to contest the claims and seek vindication. Where settlements used to be simpler, the resulting litigation will likely involve a significantly greater amount of SEC resources to prosecute and corporate (that is, shareholder) resources to defend. Defense lawyers have also pointed out that the SEC’s recent track record on significant litigation has not been stellar.
Predictably, the plaintiffs’ attorneys applauded this change since they will now be able to use any admissions in their civil litigation. This fact, itself, will be a significant disincentive to targets of investigation to settle cases with admissions of wrongdoing.
It will be interesting to see how this new policy plays out.