ATTORNEY: LOUIS C. LUDWIG
Pomerantz Monitor, March/April 2013
In a decision heard around the world – or at least around Wall Street – in December of 2011, Federal District Judge Jed S. Rakoff famously rejected a settlement between the SEC and Citigroup. The SEC claims that, during the waning days of the housing bubble, Citi misrepresented facts when it sold investors over $1 billion of risky mortgage bonds that it allegedly knew would decline in value. Investors allegedly lost about $600 million on this deal. The same day the SEC filed its complaint, in October, 2011, it also filed a proposed “consent judgment”, a settlement agreement resolving those claims. The proposed deal called for $160 million in disgorgement (of fees and profits made by Citi on the deal), plus $30 million in interest and a civil penalty of $95 million. The settlement agreement did not require Citi to admit to any wrongdoing, allowing it to “neither admit nor deny” the charges, a staple provision of government settlement agreements. In addition to the financial penalties, the settlement would permanently restrain and enjoin Citigroup from future securities laws violations and would impose court-supervised “internal measures” designed to prevent recurrence of the type of securities fraud that (allegedly) occurred here.
In deciding whether to approve a settlement between agencies and private parties, courts typically defer to the judgment of a federal agency, and rejections of settlements are rare. But Judge Rakoff is an exception to this rule: he is no rubber stamp for SEC settlements, and has used settlements to express his disdain for the SEC’s efforts to police the securities industry. Two years earlier, in 2009, he rejected a settlement between the SEC and Bank of America.
In his decision in the Citi case, announced on November 28, 2011, Judge Rakoff did it again. He did not accept the “no admit, no deny” provision, and held that the settlement failed to provide the court with enough facts relating to the merits of the case “upon which to exercise even a modest degree of independent judgment.” He also noted that “there is an overriding public interest in knowing the truth,” and the reminded the SEC that it “has a duty ... to see that the truth emerges.” These comments leave the distinct impression that the judge was looking for a more or less definitive resolution of the allegations against Citi, as a price of a settlement. The opinion also rejected the $285 million in financial penalties, deriding it as mere “pocket change” for a bank Citi’s size, a penalty that would not deter future misconduct.
The ruling has roiled the securities bar, to say the least. Any across-the-board requirement that defendants admit wrongdoing, or that the “truth” be established in order to settle a case, would make many cases almost impossible to settle. Such admissions or determinations could then be used by investors to recover even more in private lawsuits. Some have argued that, forced to try almost every case, federal agencies would be overwhelmed and the wheels of justice would come to a grinding halt.
Others (the author included) have viewed the ruling as a long-overdue comeuppance to an agency that has not done enough to punish the miscreants who precipitated the financial crisis. The penalties imposed by the settlement would have no chance at all of reining in Citi’s bad behavior.
Both the SEC and Citi appealed Judge Rakoff’s ruling to the Second Circuit. In his October 2011 ruling, Judge Rakoff had directed the parties to be ready for trial on July 16, 2012. On December 27, 2011, the SEC, joined by Citigroup, asked him to stay all proceedings, including the upcoming trial, pending determination of their appeals. When he denied the motions, Citi and the SEC appealed that decision as well; and in March 2012, the Second Circuit not only granted the stay, it expedited the appeals, chiding Judge Rakoff: “The district court believed it was a bad policy, which disserved the public interest, for the S.E.C. to allow Citigroup to settle on terms that did not establish its liability. It is not, however, the proper function of federal courts to dictate policy to executive administrative agencies[.]”
In August, 2012, at the court’s direction, an attorney for Judge Rakoff filed a brief with the Second Circuit on his behalf, contending that he had never sought definitive proof of wrongdoing or an admission of Citigroup’s “liability” (as the court of appeals put it) but simply wanted to see some evidence before rendering a decision on a proposed settlement allegedly backed up by that same evidence.
On February 8, 2013, the Second Circuit heard final argument on the merits, and comments from the judges seemed to confirm the impression that the Court intends to approve the settlement. The SEC – clearly emboldened by the first ruling in its favor – characterized the lower court’s ruling as being at odds with a century of judicial practice. Federal agencies’ decisions to settle cases, the SEC said, have historically been entitled to – and received – great deference. Citigroup agreed, arguing that, with respect to federal agencies, “the scope of a court’s authority to second-guess an agency’s discretionary and policy-based decision to settle is at best minimal.” At one point Judge Raymond Lohier “asked about deference and why an Article III judge would question the judgment of an executive agency that presumably reached its decision based on a sound review of the evidence.” When Judge Rakoff’s lawyer responded that the SEC was entitled to deference – but only to the point that they are wrong – his comment did not go over well.
This appeal has thus largely turned into a referendum on how much deference a trial court should give to an agency proposing a settlement, and the extent to which the trial court can and should do its own review of the underlying evidence in the case, to test whether the agency has abused its discretion.
Judge Rakoff’s ruling has spurred some federal judges elsewhere to demand more information before signing off on settlements brokered by the SEC and other government agencies, and even to question whether the “neither admit nor deny” clause is appropriate. And in the wake of Judge Rakoff’s ruling the SEC itself announced that it would no longer allow defendants to “neither admit nor deny” civil fraud or insider trading charges when, at the same time, they admit to or have been convicted of criminal violations. While this policy shift would have no impact on the Citigroup case – which lacked accompanying criminal charges – observers, including Edward Wyatt, writing in The New York Times, immediately noted a connection to Rakoff’s decision, which was then less than two months old.
While the appeal was pending, Judge Rakoff presided over a jury trial of the agency’s claims against former Citigroup executive Brian Stoker in connection with in the same transaction that sparked the SEC’s initial complaint against Citi. After a full trial on the merits of these claims, the jury cleared Stoker of all wrongdoing. At this point, Judge Rakoff had more than enough information to evaluate the SEC’s settlement with Citigroup. By then, however, the significance of the case had moved well beyond the settlement itself to the role the courts are going to play in evaluating settlements proposed by the SEC and other agencies.
The one silver lining here should be the existence – and persistence – of a vigorous plaintiff’s bar championing the rights of defrauded investors. Despite roadblocks like the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (devised as a “filter” to “screen out lawsuits”), the private shareholder class action remains investors’ – and the public’s – best hope of curtailing the financial sector’s worst excesses. The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Amgen v. Connecticut Retirement Plans bodes well for the future ability of investors to pool their limited resources to seek results the federally-designated “watchdogs” at the SEC appear either unwilling or unable to attain, a situation not likely to improve through the proposed handcuffing of the very courts meant to mete out justice.