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Financial Services Law Insights and Observations

5th Circuit affirms SEC’s victim awards

Courts SEC Fifth Circuit Appellate Liu v. SEC Disgorgement Securities Exchange Act Enforcement

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On October 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a district court’s nearly $2.4 million disgorgement order in an SEC case involving alleged penny stock fraud, marking the first time an appellate court has been asked to decide the “awarded for victims” question that arose out of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Liu v. SEC. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2020, the Court held 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 the Exchange Act, 15 U.S.C. §78u(d)(5). The Court’s decision 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. 

In the current action, the SEC brought a case against three individuals accused of allegedly selling unregistered securities and misleading investors during their operation of a penny stock company. The district court found the individuals liable on several of the claims and granted summary judgment in favor of the SEC. The district court also ordered (and later amended) disgorgement of the proceeds that the individuals obtained in the alleged fraud. The individuals appealed, challenging both the summary judgment decision (on the premise that “‘numerous’ disputed fact issues exist”) and the amended disgorgement remedy. Upon review, the 5th Circuit determined that that the district court’s disgorgement order satisfied the requirements laid out by the Court in Liu. The appellate court stated that the individuals’ appeal failed “to identify any disputed issues; nor does it sufficiently challenge the court’s analysis finding them liable based on undisputed facts.” Moreover, the 5th Circuit explained that the district court did not impose joint-and several liability, but rather individually assessed disgorgement amounts for each defendant based on the gains they received from the securities fraud, adding that the SEC has identified the victims of the fraud and created a process for the return of the disgorged funds. According to the 5th Circuit, “[u]nder the district court’s supervision, any funds recovered will go to the SEC, acting as a de facto trustee. The SEC will then disburse those funds to victims but only after district court approval.” “The disgorgement thus is being ‘awarded for victims.’”

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