Posted by Kathy Bazoian Phelps
The Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) plays an active role in protecting the rights of investors. Its own mission statement is:
The mission of the Securities and Exchange Commission is to protect investors; maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets; and facilitate capital formation.
Yet, in the high-profile Ponzi scheme case of R. Allen Stanford and Stanford Financial Bank, the SEC is finding itself aligned both for and against efforts to recover funds for the benefit of the defrauded victims. Positions taken by the SEC in two different pending litigation matters in the Stanford case may have polar opposite effects on the financial outcome for defrauded investors.
One case, SEC v. SIPC, now pending in the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, involves a battle between the SEC and the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC) over whether the defrauded victims are “customers” under the Securities Investor Protection Act (SIPA) and therefore entitled to payment from SIPC. This is the first time that the SEC has ever commenced an action seeking SIPC coverage for investors. The lower court found that the Stanford investors are not entitled to SIPC coverage, but the SEC continues to champion the cause of the investors in the Circuit Court seeking SIPC coverage for them.
The other case, Chadbourne & Park LLP v. Troice et al., involves an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court over the issue of whether Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act of 1998 (SLUSA) bars lawsuits by a class of victims against third parties to recover their losses from alleged wrongdoers. The Fifth Circuit held that the claims against two law firms, an insurance brokerage firm and a financial services firm could proceed despite SLUSA. The U.S. Government, on behalf of the SEC and other agencies, filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court arguing that the investor claims should be barred under SLUSA. If the Government’s position prevails, defrauded victims will be denied recovery on their claims.
In what would be a worst case scenario for the investors, the SEC will lose in SEC v. SIPC so that investors will be denied “customer” status and protection, and the Government’s position in the Chadbourne & Park case will prevail, denying investors the ability to use self-help to sue alleged wrongdoers.
At a quick glance, it seems that the SEC is on the wrong side of the SLUSA fight in Chadbourne & Park, given the potentially adverse consequences for investors if the SEC’s position is adopted. But perhaps the issue has more do with the way that the applicable statutes are written and interpreted than with any intent on the part of the SEC.
In Chadbourne & Park, the principal question to be considered by the Supreme Court is:
Does the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act of 1998 (“SLUSA”), 15 U.S.C. 77p(b), 78bb(f)(1), prohibit private class actions based on state law only where the alleged purchase or sale of a covered security is “more than tangentially related” to the “heart, crux or gravamen” of the alleged fraud?
SLUSA prohibits a state law class action alleging a purchase or sale of a covered security “in connection with” an untrue statement or omission of material fact. A “covered class action” is a lawsuit in which damages are sought on behalf of more than 50 people, and a “covered security” is a nationally traded security that is listed on a regulated national exchange. So the question remaining is: What does “in connection with” mean?
The target defendants in the litigation at issue argue that “in connection with” covers the following two factual scenarios that touch “covered securities” in the Stanford case: (1) that Stanford lied to purchasers of CDs and told them that the CDs were backed by investments in stocks; and (2) that some of the CD purchasers must have liquidated stocks in order to purchase the CDs.
The Fifth Circuit did not agree that either of these two scenarios were sufficient to bar claims under SLUSA, holding that the purchase or sale of a covered security must be more than tangentially related “to the ‘heart,’ ‘crux,’ or ‘gravamen’ of the defendants’ fraud.” The Fifth Circuit held that the claims against the defendants could proceed.
The Government, on the other hand, has taken the position in its amicus brief to the Supreme Court that the relevant language of SLUSA was taken from the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and should be read consistently with similar language in Section 10(b) of the Act. In urging a broad reading of the words “in connection with,” the Government contends that:
[A] broad reading is essential to the achievement of Congress’s purpose in enacting both Section 10(b) and SLUSA. Under Section 10(b), it enhances the SEC’s ability to protect the securities markets against a variety of different forms of fraud. Under SLUSA, it furthers Congress’s objective of preventing the use of state-law class actions to circumvent the restrictions by the PSLRA [Private Securities Litigation Reform Act] and by this Court’s decisions constraining private securities-fraud suits.
In an amicus brief taking the contrary position, 16 law professors directly challenge the concept of broadening the application of SLUSA to include the certificates of deposit purchased by the Stanford investors. They note that the certificates of deposit are not themselves covered securities and argue that therefore SLUSA should be “interpreted in a way that does not preclude investors from using state courts to pursue claims seeking traditional state law remedies for acts that do not involve covered securities within the meaning of the federal securities laws.”
To stress their position that SLUSA should not apply to non-covered bank-issued securities that may be potentially backed by covered securities, the 16 law professors float the following hypothetical class action claims, among others, that they contend would improperly be prohibited under SLUSA if interpreted that broadly:
- “A car dealer who lies to customers about the terms of a car loan, where the car loans are securitized in a pool and interests in the pool are sold off as covered securities.”
- “A credit card company that securitizes credit card balances fails to pay appropriate wages to telephone operators and answering card holder questions, and the operators file a state class action alleging violations of state wage and hour laws.”
- “A nationally-traded securities clearing firm engages in sex discrimination in compensating clerical workers for work done in the securities office, and the workers file a sex discrimination class action law suit.”
In summary, where the Supreme Court draws the lines on the application of SLUSA could have a significant impact on a variety of state law claims that may or may not have much to do with securities. The SEC stands behind a broad reading of SLUSA under the pretense of protecting the securities market, but its position appears to have the consequence of harming, not helping, defrauded victims by blocking state law damage claims.
The issues are undoubtedly complicated, and there are a variety of competing considerations. From the investors’ perspective, however, they can just add this to the list of roadblocks to getting their money back.