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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

2nd Circuit: SEC within authority to bring actions for SAR failings

Courts Appellate SEC Second Circuit Financial Crimes Department of Treasury Bank Secrecy Act SARs


On December 4, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the SEC in an action brought by the agency against a penny stock broker-dealer, concluding the agency has the authority to bring an action under Section 17(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (Exchange Act) and Rule 17a-8 promulgated thereunder for failure to comply with the Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) provisions of the Bank Secrecy Act (BSA). According to the opinion, the SEC filed an action against the broker-dealer for violating the Exchange Act and Rule 17a-8’s reporting, recordkeeping, and record-retention obligations by failing to file SARs as required by the BSA. Both parties moved for summary judgment, with the broker-dealer arguing that the SEC was improperly enforcing the BSA. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the SEC in part (deferring “its resolution of categories of allegedly deficient SARs pending discovery and additional briefing”) and denied summary judgment for the broker-dealer, concluding that the SEC had authority to bring the action under the Exchange Act. After discovery and additional briefing, the SEC moved for summary judgment on the Rule 17a-8 violations and the district court granted summary judgment as to nearly 3,000 violations on the basis of the broker-dealer’s SARs-reporting and recordkeeping practices and imposed a $12 million civil penalty.

On appeal, the 2nd Circuit agreed with the district court, rejecting the broker-dealer’s argument that the SEC is attempting to enforce the BSA, which only the U.S. Treasury Department has the authority to do. The appellate court noted that the SEC is enforcing the requirements of Rule 17a-8, which requires broker-dealers to adhere to the BSA in order to comply with requirements of the Exchange Act, which does not constitute the agency’s enforcement of the BSA. Moreover, the appellate court concluded that the SEC did not overstep its authority when promulgating Rule 17a-8, as SARs “serve to further the aims of the Exchange Act by protecting investors and helping to guard against market manipulation,” and that the broker-dealer did not meet its “‘heavy burden’ to show that Congress ‘clearly expressed [its] intention’ to preclude the SEC from examining for SAR compliance in conjunction with FinCEN and pursuant to authority delegated under the Exchange Act.” In affirming the $12 million civil penalty, the appellate court stated that the district court acted “within its discretion to impose the [] penalty” considering the broker-dealer’s “systematic and widespread evasion of the law.”

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