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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

U.S. Supreme Court upholds SEC’s disgorgement authority with limits

Courts U.S. Supreme Court Appellate Liu v. SEC SEC Disgorgement

Courts

On June 22, in an 8-1 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s judgment in Liu v. SEC, holding that the SEC may continue to collect disgorgement in civil proceedings in federal court as long as the award does not exceed a wrongdoer’s net profits, and that such awards for victims of the wrongdoing are equitable relief permissible under §78u(d)(5). The ruling impacts petitioners who were ordered by a California federal court to disgorge $26.7 million in money collected from investors for a cancer treatment center that was never built, with the related SEC investigation finding that more than $20 million was spent on ostensible marketing expenses and salaries, far in excess of what the offering memorandum permitted. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Court examined whether the SEC’s statutory authority to seek “equitable relief” permits it to seek and obtain disgorgement orders in federal court. The petitioners asked the Court to bar the SEC from seeking court-ordered disgorgement (covered by InfoBytes here), arguing that Congress never authorized the SEC to seek disgorgement in civil suits for federal securities fraud as a form of equitable relief or otherwise. The petitioners pointed to the Court’s 2017 decision in Kokesh v. SEC, in which the Court reversed the ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit when it unanimously held that disgorgement operates as a penalty under 28 U. S. C. §2462, which establishes a 5-year limitations period for “an action, suit or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture.”

The Court rejected the petitioners’ argument, noting that equity practice has “long authorized courts to strip wrongdoers of their ill-gotten gains,” although “to avoid transforming an equitable remedy into a punitive sanction, courts restricted the remedy to an individual wrongdoer’s net profits to be awarded for victims.” As such, the Court determined that the SEC’s disgorgement remedy must be limited in various ways. The Court discussed three limits: (i) the “profits remedy” must return the defendant’s wrongful gains to those harmed by the defendant’s actions, as opposed to depositing them in the Treasury; (ii) disgorgement under the statute requires a factual determination of whether petitioners can, consistent with equitable principles, be found liable for profits as partners in wrongdoing or whether individual liability is required; and (iii) disgorgement must be limited to “net profits” and therefore “courts must deduct legitimate expenses before ordering disgorgement” under the statute. The Court vacated the judgment against the petitioners and remanded to the lower court to examine the disgorgement amount in light of its opinion.

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, however, stating that he would have barred the SEC from seeking disgorgement in federal court under the statute rather than limiting the remedy, because while 15 U. S. C. §78u(d)(5) allows the SEC to seek equitable relief that may be appropriate or necessary for the benefit of investors, “disgorgement is not a traditional equitable remedy.”

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