April 20, 2019

Archives for March 26, 2019

Tenth Circuit: SEC Asserted Sufficient Evidence that Defendants Were Operating Ponzi Scheme

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Securities and Exchange Commission v. Traffic Monsoon, LLC on Thursday, January 24, 2019.

The district court ordered the appointment of a receiver and granted a preliminary injunction enjoining Defendants from continuing business. On interlocutory appeal, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s preliminary rulings.

Traffic Monsoon is a Utah-based company that allegedly makes most of its money selling internet advertising packages to its members. Members who purchase the “Adpack” package also qualify to share in Traffic Monsoon’s revenue. Approximately 90% of Traffic Monsoon’s members reside outside the United States, and presumably bought the Adpacks while in their home countries.

The SEC alleged that the sale of the Adpacks constituted an illegal Ponzi scheme in violation of § 10(b) of the Exchange Act and § 17 of the Securities Act. The SEC asserted that, regardless of where the transactions had occurred, the Dodd-Frank amendments allowed the SEC to pursue its claims based on significant, allegedly wrongful conduct in the United States.

The SEC obtained from the district court an order for the appointment of a receiver over Defendants’ business and assets, and a preliminary injunction enjoining Defendants from continuing business. On interlocutory appeal, Defendants challenged the district court’s preliminary rulings on three theories.

First, Defendants argued that the antifraud provisions of the federal securities acts do not reach Traffic Monsoon’s sales of, or offers to sell, Adpacks to people living outside the U.S., which amounted to 90% of Traffic Monsoon’s Adpack sales.

The Court noted that while the originally enacted federal securities acts did not address the extraterritorial reach of the acts’ antifraud provisions, courts had historically applied the acts’ antifraud provisions extraterritorially when the “conduct-and-effects” test was satisfied, and treated the issue as a matter of subject-matter jurisdiction. However, Morrison v. National Australia Bank limited the substantive scope of the federal securities laws to U.S. based transactions, and held that the extraterritorial extent of U.S. law is not a jurisdictional issue, instead the issue goes to the substance of the securities laws.

The Court noted that the initial versions of the Dodd-Frank amendments had been drafted before the Morrison decision, and while Congress is deemed to be familiar with Supreme Court precedent when it enacts legislation, in the instant case it was more reasonable to assume that Morrison was issued too late in the legislative process to reasonably permit Congress to react to it.

The Court concluded that Congress had intended the Dodd-Frank amendments to allow the SEC and the United States to sue based on conduct or effects within the United States, regardless of where the securities transactions occurred. In other words, the SEC may bring an enforcement action based on allegedly foreign securities transactions involving non-U.S. residents if sufficient conduct occurred in the United States. The Court therefore applied the “conduct-and-effects” test, and concluded that the SEC’s allegations satisfied the test. Defendants had operated in the United States while allegedly defrauding foreign investors.

Second, Defendants argued that Adpacks are not “securities” and are therefore not subject to federal securities laws. The Court first found that the Adpack is an investment because it offered its purchasers an opportunity to share in Traffic Monsoon’s revenue in addition to the purchased advertising service, and the revenue sharing was in fact the primary drive for purchasing the Adpack. Next, the Court found that the Adpack is a common enterprise, because the shared revenue was generated from the sale of Traffic Monsoon’s advertising services. Finally, the Court found that the revenue Adpack purchasers share is derived almost exclusively from Defendants’ efforts to sell advertising services. The Court therefore concluded that the Adpacks qualified as securities because they met the three-part test for investment contracts.

Finally, Defendants argued that the SEC could not show that Defendants engaged in a fraudulent securities scheme with the requisite scienter. The Court rejected this argument, and found that the SEC had presented sufficient evidence that Defendants were operating an illegal Ponzi scheme with the required scienter, as Defendant’s were operating a Ponzi scheme, which is inherently deceptive because it gives the false appearance of profitability by using money from new investors to generate returns for earlier investors.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Briscoe rejected the premise that the Adpacks were foreign sales outside of the U.S., abating the need to address whether the antifraud provisions of the securities act apply extraterritorially. Instead, the SEC’s allegations satisfied Morrison’s transactional test, because Defendants had sold their products over the internet and had incurred irrevocable liability in the United States to deliver the products to the buyers, wherever located. Therefore, the SEC had sufficiently established that the Defendants sold securities in the United States in violation of the antifraud provisions of the securities acts.

Tenth Circuit: Prejudicial Nature of Prosecutor’s Improper Conduct Did Not Significantly Affect Outcome of Proceedings

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Simpson v. Carpenter on Thursday, December 27, 2018.

Oklahoma prisoner Kendrick Simpson sought federal habeas relief from his death sentence for two counts of first-degree murder. The district court denied Simpson’s petition and on appeal, the Court of Appeals found no reversible error and affirmed.

Following an altercation in a night club, Mr. Simpson had fired multiple shots at a moving vehicle containing three passengers. Two of the three passenger victims died at the scene from their gunshot wounds. The State of Oklahoma charged Mr. Simpson with the first-degree murders of the two passenger victims, and with discharging a firearm with intent to kill the third passenger. The prosecution sought a penalty of death for each murder.

The jury convicted Mr. Simpson of two counts of first-degree murder, and sentenced him to death. Mr. Simpson appealed his convictions and sentences, and sought federal post-conviction relief. The district court granted a Certificate of Appealability (“COA”) on two of Mr. Simpson’s eighteen grounds for relief, and the Tenth Circuit subsequently granted a COA on five additional issues.

Mr. Simpson first asserted he was entitled to federal habeas relief because the trial court erroneously excluded expert testimony regarding his PTSD diagnosis and dissociative episodes. Mr. Simpson claimed the testimony was necessary to support the defense that he was incapable of forming the specific intent necessary to commit first-degree murder, and that the Oklahoma Criminal Court of Appeals’ (“OCCA”) determination that the PTSD evidence was irrelevant was both contrary to and an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law. The State countered that the claims were unexhausted, and therefore Mr. Simpson was barred from presenting the arguments on appeal.

The Court rejected the State’s argument that Mr. Simpson’s PTSD claim was unexhausted, concluding instead that although his claim was now more refined, the core of his argument was the same. However, his argument with respect to the dissociative episodes resulting from his PTSD were new. The Court therefore found that Mr. Simpson had properly exhausted his PTSD argument, but that he had failed to properly preserve his argument concerning his dissociative episodes. Turning to the merits, the Court found that the expert testimony regarding Mr. Simpson’s PTSD diagnosis was devoid of any detail on the impact Mr. Simpson’s PTSD had on his ability to form the intent to kill as well as the interactive effects of PTSD and intoxicants. The Court therefore found that the OCCA was reasonable in its determination that the expert testimony regarding Mr. Simpson’s PTSD was irrelevant.

Mr. Simpson next asserted an alleged Brady violation by the prosecutor’s withholding of impeachment evidence as to a jailhouse informant, which he argued was critical to support the Continuing Threat Aggravator. The OCCA had ruled Mr. Simpson’s Brady claim had been waived because Mr. Simpson did not present his Brady claim until his second application for post-conviction relief, in violation of state procedural rules.

Focusing on whether Mr. Simpson was prejudiced by the suppressed evidence, the Court found that the State’s other evidence presented at trial was strong enough to support the Continuing Aggravating Threat factor, even without their reliance on the testimony of the jailhouse informant. The Court concluded that there was no reasonable probability that the jury would have returned a different verdict had the testimony been impeached, therefore the evidence was not material under Brady, and Mr. Simpson could not demonstrate prejudice. Accordingly, the Court held Mr. Simpson’s Brady claim was precluded from federal habeas review, as he could not establish both cause and prejudice as necessary to overcome the state procedural bar.    

Mr. Simpson also claimed that the trial court’s jury instructions and the prosecutor’s improper arguments unconstitutionally limited the jury’s consideration of mitigating evidence. The Court rejected Mr. Simpson’s argument as to the jury instructions, citing its decision in Hanson v. Sherrod,which addressed the constitutionality of the same instructions. The Court went on to explain that because the jury instructions permitted the jury to consider mitigating circumstances other than those enumerated for them, there was no reasonable likelihood the jury would have felt precluded from considering other mitigating evidence, and the OCCA was therefore reasonable in its finding of the same.

With respect to the prosecutor’s improper arguments, Mr. Simpson contended that the prosecutor not only argued that the evidence did not sufficiently mitigate the conduct, the prosecutor suggested that the evidence should not be considered by the jury at all, thus unfairly limiting the jury’s consideration of the mitigating evidence offered. While the Court noted that there were significant and troubling prosecutorial comments (and went so far as to chastise the conduct in a related footnote), the Court found the OCCA was reasonable in its decision that the jury was not precluded from considering the evidence offered by Mr. Simpson because of the language of the jury instructions.

Mr. Simpson next claimed that prosecutorial misconduct denied him a fundamentally fair sentencing proceeding. While the Court acknowledged that the prosecutorial statements at issue were improper, the Court relied on the State having presented significant aggravating evidence to conclude that the OCCA acted reasonably in deciding that the prejudicial impact of these comments did not render the sentencing trial fundamentally unfair.

Mr. Simpson also argued that there was insufficient evidence to support the heinous, atrocious, or cruel aggravating factor determination, and the finding was therefore unconstitutional and unreasonable. Although no evidence was presented with respect to how long the victim remained conscious after having been shot or as to whether the victim appeared to be in pain, the Court found that the jury could have reasonably inferred that the victim experienced conscious physical suffering based on the evidence about the victim’s wounds, therefore OCCA was reasonable in deciding there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding with respect to the HAC Aggravating factor.

Mr. Simpson also alleged his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective during both the guilt and sentencing stages of the trial. The Court disagreed, and discussed each instance of alleged ineffective counsel individually. First, with respect to the trial counsel’s alleged failure to investigate and present mitigating evidence, the Court concluded that the State had presented strong evidence in support of the death sentence, and the additional mitigating evidence would have done little if anything to undermine the jury’s findings. Second, the Court found that Mr. Simpson’s trial counsel was not required to request an instruction for second-degree murder, as the offense was not reasonably supported by the evidence. Third, with respect to the trial counsel’s failure to object to improper prosecutorial argument, the Court noted it had already been determined that the prosecutor’s misconduct did not deprive Mr. Simpson of a fundamentally fair sentencing trial, therefore Mr. Simpson could not show that he was actually prejudiced by counsel’s deficient performance. Finally, the Court concluded that the trial counsel did not perform deficiently in failing to object to the jury instruction on mitigation evidence because the mitigation instruction was a correct statement of law. The Court therefore concluded that the OCCA’s adjudication of Mr. Simpson’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim was reasonable.

Mr. Simpson’s final claim was that the cumulative errors in his trial denied him a fundamentally fair trail and sentencing proceeding. Despite the identified errors, the jury was presented with copious amounts of aggravating evidence, overwhelming evidence of guilt, and proper instructions from the trial court. The Court therefore found the OCCA was reasonable in its finding that the cumulative effect of the prosecutorial misconduct and instances of his counsel’s deficient performance was harmless.

Colorado Supreme Court: Announcement Sheet, 3/25/2019

On Monday, March 25, 2019, the Colorado Supreme Court issued one published opinion.

In re People v. Roina

The summary of this case is forthcoming.

Neither State Judicial nor the Colorado Bar Association provides case summaries for unpublished appellate opinions. The case announcement sheet is available here.

Tenth Circuit: Unpublished Opinions, 3/25/2019

On Monday, March 25, 2019, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued one published opinion and three unpublished opinions.

United States v. Chica-Orellana

United States v. Johnson

United States v. Hamilton

Case summaries are not provided for unpublished opinions. However, some published opinions are summarized and provided by Legal Connection.