SEC’s disgorgement authority examined during Supreme Court oral arguments
On March 3, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Liu v. SEC. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the principal question at issue in this case is whether the SEC’s authority to seek “equitable relief” permits it to seek and obtain disgorgement orders in federal court. Petitioners—a couple found to have defrauded investors and ordered to disgorge $26.7 million by a California federal court—argued that disgorgement is not a form of “equitable relief” available to the SEC. Respondent SEC contended that Congress enacted several statutes that anticipated the SEC’s use of disgorgement, including the Securities Exchange Act and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, and that historically, disgorgement has been used as an equitable remedy to deny wrongdoers of their ill-gotten gains.
Counsel for the petitioners made three primary arguments before the Court: (i) the SEC is only authorized to use the powers conferred upon it by Congress and disgorgement is not one of them; (ii) though the statute allows the SEC to seek equitable relief, disgorgement as the SEC has used it is akin to a penalty and “penalties are not equitable relief.”; and (iii) “Congressional silence…does not give an agency any authority to act, much less the authority to punish” in a manner that exceeds its existing statutory authority
Petitioners’ counsel fielded questions from Justices Ginsburg, Alito, and others that probed the limits of the petitioners’ position. The justices asked, among other things, whether disgorgement could ever be ordered by the SEC; whether it could be ordered if the profits are paid out to injured parties; and whether the Court’s holding in Kokesh v SEC, that disgorgement as a penalty should be controlling only when determining the applicable statute of limitations, which was the issue presented in that case. Petitioner’s counsel stated that “the rule should be, if you’re giving the money back to the investors, then [the SEC] can take it and not otherwise, because…then it’s just a punishment.”
Respondent’s counsel argued that the Court’s ruling in Kokesh was limited to determining the applicability of the statute of limitations. He also urged that “courts should continue to order disgorgement but compute it in accordance with traditional general equitable rules, not in accordance with any SEC-specific formula.” In response to a question from Justice Sotomayor regarding the proper recipient of disgorged funds, respondent’s counsel said that if the defrauded investors can be located, the SEC’s practice it to return disgorgement amounts to them. However, he noted that sometimes, such as in FCPA actions, there are no obvious victims to whom the money could be returned. Justice Kavanaugh asked if it would be proper for the Court to insist that the amounts received from a disgorgement order be returned to defrauded investors if at all possible. Respondent’s counsel conceded this would be within the Court’s authority, but added that the “core purposes of disgorgement are to prevent the wrongdoer from profiting from its own wrong and to deter future violations, and disgorgement can serve those traditional purposes, regardless of where the money ends up.”
On rebuttal, petitioner’s counsel asserted that “the scope of disgorgement has grown over time in part because it is not grounded in statutory text.” He contended that “there is no precedent for using an accounting to compel funds to be paid to the Treasury.” Justice Ginsburg pressed petitioner’s counsel regarding statutes that appear to be predicated on disgorgement being available. Petitioner’s counsel suggested those statutes might show that Congress was aware that courts were ordering disgorgement, but that was “not an authorization, and authorization is what’s needed…to inflict a penalty.” He closed by asking the Court to reverse the case, saying that the petitioners were already responsible to pay their entire gains from the fraud, and “anything more would go beyond the equitable principle that no individual should be permitted to profit from his or her own wrong.”