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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.”
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.”
On January 15, the SEC filed a brief in a pending U.S. Supreme Court action, Liu v. SEC. The question presented to the Court asks whether the SEC, in a civil enforcement action in federal court, is authorized to seek disgorgement of money acquired through fraud. The petitioners were ordered by a California federal court to disgorge the money that they collected from investors for a cancer treatment center that was never built. The SEC charged the petitioners with funneling much of the investor money into their own personal accounts and sending the rest of the funds to marketing companies in China, in violation of the Securities Act’s prohibitions against using omissions or false statements to secure money when selling or offering securities. The district court granted the SEC’s motion for summary judgment, and ordered the petitioners to pay a civil penalty in addition to the $26.7 million the court ordered them to repay to the investors. The petitioners appealed to the Supreme Court and in November, the Court granted certiorari.
The petitioners argued that Congress has never authorized the SEC to seek disgorgement in civil suits for securities fraud. They point 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 is a penalty and not an equitable remedy. Under 28 U.S.C. § 2462, this makes disgorgement subject to the same five year statute of limitations as are civil fines, penalties and forfeitures (see previous InfoBytes coverage here). The petitioners also suggested that the SEC has enforcement remedies other than disgorgement, such as injunctive relief and civil money penalties, so loss of disgorgement authority will not hinder the agency’s enforcement efforts.
According to the SEC’s brief, historically, courts have used disgorgement to prevent unjust enrichment as an equitable remedy for depriving a defendant of ill-gotten gains. More recently, five statutes enacted by Congress since 1988 “show that Congress was aware of, relied on, and ratified the preexisting view that disgorgement was a permissible remedy in civil actions brought by the [SEC] to enforce the federal securities laws.” The agency notes that the Court has recognized disgorgement as both an equitable remedy and a penalty, suggesting, however, that “the punitive features of disgorgement do not remove it from the scope of [the Exchange Act’s] Section 21(d)(5).” Regarding the petitioner’s reliance on Kokesh, the brief explains that “the consequence of the Court’s decision was not to preclude or even to place special restrictions on SEC claims for disgorgement, but simply to ensure that such claims—like virtually all claims for retrospective monetary relief—must be brought within a period of time defined by statute.”
In addition to the brief submitted by the SEC, several amicus briefs have been filed in support of the SEC, including a brief from several members of Congress, and a brief from the attorneys general of 23 states and the District of Columbia.
On December 13, the FTC filed a brief in a U.S. Supreme Court action that is currently awaiting the Court’s decision to grant certiorari. The question presented to the Court asks whether the FTC is empowered by Section 13(b) of the FTC Act to demand equitable monetary relief in civil enforcement actions. The petitioners, who include a Kansas-based operation and its owner, filed the petition for a writ of certiorari in October, appealing a December 2018 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (covered by InfoBytes here), which upheld a $1.3 billion judgment against the petitioners for allegedly operating a deceptive payday lending scheme. Among other things, the 9th Circuit rejected the petitioners’ argument that the FTC Act only allows the court to issue injunctions, concluding that a district court may grant any ancillary relief under the FTC Act, including restitution. The 9th Circuit also rejected the petitioners’ request to revisit those precedents in light of the Court’s 2017 holding in Kokesh v. SEC—which limited the SEC’s disgorgement power to a five-year statute of limitations period applicable to penalties and fines under 28 U.S.C. § 2462 (previously covered by InfoBytes here)—concluding that the district court did not abuse its discretion in calculating the award. Additionally, the 9th Circuit referenced the Court’s statement in Kokesh that noted “[n]othing in [its] opinion should be interpreted as an opinion on whether courts possess authority to order disgorgement in SEC enforcement proceedings.”
In response to the petition, the FTC asked the Court to delay reviewing the appeal, stating that the Court should hold the petition pending the disposition in a matter that was recently granted cert “to decide whether district courts may award disgorgement to the [SEC] under analogous provisions of the securities laws.” The FTC acknowledged that while the “relevant statutory schemes are not identical, and the FTC’s and the SEC’s authority to seek monetary relief will not necessarily rise and fall together,” the questions presented in both cases overlap.
On November 18, the U.S. House passed the Investor Protection and Capital Markets Fairness Act (H.R. 4344) by a vote of 314-95. The bill, which was received in the Senate, would overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Kokesh v. SEC, which limits the SEC’s disgorgement power and subjects the agency to the five-year statute of limitations applicable to penalties and fines. (Previously covered by InfoBytes here.) As discussed in a recent Buckley article, in Kokesh’s wake, H.R. 4344 would amend the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 by specifically authorizing the SEC to seek disgorgement and restitution, putting to rest the threshold question of whether the SEC has the authority to seek disgorgement. Notably, on November 1, the Court granted certiorari in Liu v. SEC to answer this very question. If signed into the law, H.R. 4344 would allow the SEC 14 years to pursue disgorgement in federal court under the statute of limitations.
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