Legal Developments in Securities Law

Update: SEC Appeals Judge Rakoff’s Ruling Denying Proposed Settlement

One of our earlier blog posts referenced Judge Rakoff’s criticism of the SEC’s proposed settlement with Citigroup – found here. Unsurprisingly, Judge Rakoff rejected the parties’ proposed settlement. The SEC has now filed an appeal, citing legal error and claiming that, “We believe the district court committed legal error by announcing a new and unprecedented standard that inadvertently harms investors by depriving them of substantial, certain and immediate benefits,” as set forth in a statement by Robert Khuzami, the S.E.C.’s director of enforcement (see the New York Times article on this issue here).

The SEC’s appeal is certainly not unprecedented, as the New York Times notes that the agency has indeed appealed such rulings in the past, and in fact won such an appeal in S.E.C. v. Randolph. The SEC’s decision to appeal Judge Rakoff’s decision, which reasoned that the proposed settlement simply was not in the public interest and that more facts were necessary to approve such a settlement, suggests a reluctance to fight Wall Street. One could reason that the SEC may treat larger institutions that are repeat offenders, like Citigroup, less harshly than the “little guys,” or individuals and small companies involved in SEC enforcement actions.

Certainly, the resources involved in litigating against a large institution like Citigroup in federal court are not minimal, but given that investors experienced over $700 million in losses, a settlement amount of $285 million concerning charges of securities law violations pales in comparison to the harm caused. By comparison, the “little guys” cannot afford lengthy litigation against the SEC, and perhaps the SEC can use that as leverage to obtain a settlement that fully disgorges the defendant’s ill-begotten gains. Settlements, however, do involve a case of give and take – the SEC may not get the full amount requested and the defendant agrees to a sum that may be lower than the potential outcome in litigation. With an institution like Citigroup, the SEC may be additionally motivated to settle the matter more expeditiously to avoid a lengthy trial and potential failure in court. With the “little guys,” the SEC holds the upper hand, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the SEC would appeal a Judge’s ruling rejecting a settlement with such an individual.

It is no surprise that the reaction among members of the public toward the SEC has been one of outrage concerning the SEC’s decision to appeal Judge Rakoff’s decision. Dennis M. Kelleher, of Better Markets, Inc., wrote in the Huffington Post:

No one should be surprised that the risk-adverse, Wall Street friendly SEC chose not to litigate against Citigroup for pocketing more than $600 million from its $1 billion fraudulent subprime mortgage scheme that cost its customers more than $700 million. Instead, the SEC decided to litigate against the one federal judge who had the audacity to scrutinize their proposed settlements. As the Wall Street Journal headline correctly captured it, “SEC Cops Want to Fight U.S. Judge.”

Ironically, in the eyes of the SEC, Judge Rakoff is a repeat offender (first, Bank of American and now Citigroup!), but Citigroup is literally a repeat offender, having been toothlessly sanctioned by the SEC 5 times in the last 8 years for violations of the securities laws. Judge Rakoff had the nerve to ask the SEC what was the point of slapping their wrist one more time given that the prior five slaps appeared not to make much of an impression. (Such repeated toothless “sanctions” is common for the SEC.)

View Mr. Kelleher’s article here. The Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog featured a piece by Neal Lipschutz that stated:

Here’s a quote from Judge Rakoff’s decision, which I have cited before, that gets to the crux of the matter. “An application of judicial power that does not rest on facts is worse than mindless, it is inherently dangerous … If its deployment does not rest on facts – cold, hard, solid facts, established either by admissions or by trials — it serves no lawful or moral purpose and is simply an engine of oppression.”

Khuzami said in part Thursday: “In fact, courts have routinely approved settlements in which a defendant does not admit or even expressly denies liability, exactly because of the benefits that settlements provide.”

But just because something happens a lot doesn’t mean it’s correct. Here’s hoping the power of Rakoff’s apparently singular argument sets a new precedent.

The Wall Street Journal Law Blog post can be found here.

Although it is certainly true that settlements routinely include language in which the defendant neither admits nor denies liability, it appears that perhaps Judge Rakoff took issue with that language in the Citigroup proposed settlement because the institution has been sanctioned multiple times in the last eight years. If the “little guys” commit multiple securities law violations, they would face injunctions and bars from practicing their profession which hit them much harder than a nominal monetary settlement for a large institution. If a large institution can pay only a nominal settlement without admitting or denying liability, what would prevent that institution from carrying on illegal activity that results in a profit? In this situation, Citigroup allegedly made around $600 million from its fraudulent scheme, but tried to settle the matter for $285 million – a $315 million profit. Even if the SEC’s recent actions are not out of the ordinary, appealing Judge Rakoff’s decision has not improved the agency’s image.

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