Pomerantz LLP

Second Circuit Rains on Preet Bhahara’s Insider Trading Parade

ATTORNEY: Jennifer Sobers

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has dedicated the last five years to cracking down on insider trading, putting dozens of Wall Street traders behind bars. He has had a nearly undefeated record, with over 80 convictions. But then, in December, came U.S. v. Newman, which reversed two convictions directly, led to the dismissal of four guilty pleas, and threatens to make future insider trading convictions far more difficult to obtain.

It seems inconceivable that in 2015 there is still no statute expressly prohibiting insider trading. Instead, courts have analyzed insider trading as a species of securities fraud. 

The Supreme Court has espoused two theories of insider trading – the classical and misappropriation theories. The classical theory applies when a corporate insider trades on, or discloses, confidential company information, in violation of his fiduciary duty to the company and its shareholders. This rule prevents corporate insiders from taking unfair advantage of uninformed shareholders.

The misappropriation theory applies when outsiders, who do not have any fiduciary duty or other relationship to a corporation or its shareholders, gain access to confidential corporate information and trade on it or leak it to others. If, for example, an employee of Company A learns that it intends to acquire company B, and misappropriates that information to trade in shares of Company B, he is culpable even though he owed no duty to shareholders of Company B. That is because he breached his fiduciary duty to his own company, the source of the information, by misusing it for his own purposes.

Courts have expanded insider trading liability to reach situations where the insider or misappropriator in possession of material nonpublic information (“tipper”) discloses the information to another person (“tippee”) who then trades on the basis of the information before it is publicly disclosed. Courts have held that the elements of tipping liability are the same regardless of whether the tipper’s duty arises under the classical or the misappropriation theory. A tipper must have breached a fiduciary duty and must have received an improper benefit in exchange for leaking the information. Tippees, who are often Wall Street brokers, traders, and hedge fund executives, can also be liable for trading on leaked material non-public information if they knew that the leak was a breach of fiduciary duty. Some question remained, however, as to whether they also had to know that the tipper had received an improper benefit.

In Newman, decided in December, the Second Circuit rocked the insider trading legal landscape. The case involves tippees who were several layers removed from the original leak. The three-judge panel held that in order for a tippee in a “classic” insider trading case to be convicted she must have known not only that an insider disclosed the confidential information, but also that she received, in exchange, a significant personal benefit. In finding that evidence lacking here, the Court reversed the convictions of former Level Global Investors L.P. manager Anthony Chiasson and former Diamondback Capital Management, LLC manager Todd Newman, finding that there was no evidence they knew they were trading on information from insiders, or that those insiders received any benefit in exchange for such disclosures. And in a fairly bold step, the Second Circuit instructed the district court on remand to dismiss the Newman and Chiasson indictments with prejudice, as oppose to conducting a new trial.

The case turned on the fact that Newman and Chiasson were three or four levels removed from the corporate insiders who improperly leaked Dell and NVIDIA’s earnings numbers, and claimed that they had no idea that the information came from insiders, much less that those insiders had breached any duty by disclosing the information, or that they had received an improper benefit for disclosing it.

The district court did not instruct the jury that Newman and Chiasson, to be convicted, had to have known about a personal benefit received by the insider. The jury returned a verdict of guilty on all counts. The Second Circuit held that this was error, holding that the tippee had to know that the tipper disclosed confidential information in exchange for personal benefit. In rejecting the government’s position as a “doctrinal novelty,” the court concluded that disclosing confidential information, even if in breach of a fiduciary duty, is not enough, because “although the Government might like the law to be different, nothing in the law requires a symmetry of information in the nation’s securities markets.”

Newman will be a significant obstacle in many future prosecutions, particularly where, as in these cases, the tip was passed along by the original tippee to others both inside and outside the tippee’s organization. These recipients may have no idea who the original source of the information is, much less his motivations for leaking that information.

Compounding this difficulty is the court’s analysis of what does, and does not, constitute a “personal benefit” that triggers insider trading liability. In the past, some courts have been satisfied with de minimus showing of benefits, including such things as “friendship” as a culpable motivation. The Second Circuit obviously now requires more. The personal benefits received in exchange for the Dell tips were such intangible things as: the tipper giving career advice and assistance to the tippee, a fellow business school alumnus, which included discussing the qualifying examination in order to become a financial analyst, and editing the tipper’s resume and sending it to a Wall Street recruiter. The Second Circuit found that the evidence of personal benefit was even more scant in the NVIDIA chain, where the tipper and tippee were merely casual acquaintances who met through church and occasionally socialized together, and the tippee even testified during cross examination that he did not provide anything of value to the tipper in exchange for the information.

The Second Circuit decided that these facts do not evidence a tangible quid pro quo between tipper and tippee. That is, an inference of personal benefit based on the personal relationship between the tipper and tippee is not permissible in the absence of proof of a meaningfully close personal relationship that generates an exchange that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature. The government may not prove the receipt of personal benefit by the mere fact of a friendship, or that individuals were alumni of the same school or attended the same church. To hold otherwise, the court reasoned would render the personal benefit requirement a nullity.

Moreover, the Second Circuit found it inconceivable to conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Newman and Chiasson were aware of a personal benefit, when tippees higher up in the tipping chains disavowed any such knowledge. The Court appeared even more skeptical about the liability of the tippees when the tippers themselves had not been criminally charged (and in the case of the Dell tipper, neither administratively nor civilly charged).

This Second Circuit decision may well lead to fewer insider trading prosecutions of remote tippees such as Newman and Chiasson. Already, a number of high-profile district court cases were put on hold awaiting this decision from the Second Circuit. For example, the sentencing of Danny Kuo, a former research analyst at Whittier Trust Co. who pleaded guilty to also trading on illegal tips and sharing information about Dell and NVIDIA, was adjourned on July 1 and rescheduled to within 48 hours of this Second Circuit decision. Kuo was two levels removed from the inside tipper in the NVIDIA chain, which although not as far down the chain as Newman and Chiasson, nevertheless, is remote enough to beg the question of whether Kuo knew the original tipper received a personal benefit from disclosing the insider information. To date, the parties are still considering the effects of the decision on Kuo’s case and have asked the judge for additional time to provide the court with a proposed course of action.

Most recently in January, a federal judge in Manhattan vacated the guilty pleas of four remote tippees charged with trading on inside information involving shares of IBM, and delayed the trial of a fifth man who pleaded not guilty, citing the Second Circuit opinion. Prosecutors in the case argued that because the confidential information came from an outside lawyer, the claim relied on the misappropriation theory of insider trading, to which the Newman decision did not apply. The judge disagreed, finding that the elements of tipping liability are the same, regardless of whether the tipper’s duty arises under the classical or the misappropriation theory. The district judge further stated that the Second Circuit’s unequivocal statement on the point is part of a “meticulous and conscientious effort by the Second Circuit to clarify the state of insider-trading in this Circuit” and as such, the opinion “must be given the utmost consideration.” Bharara, perhaps confident that the district judge would not apply what he called “Newman’s novel holding” to this misappropriation case, conceded in an earlier letter to the judge that if the court found that Newman applies, then the court should dismiss the indictments because the government’s otherwise-sufficient proof would no longer suffice under the Newman definition of a personal benefit. The district judge has yet to decide whether the charges in that case should be dismissed.

The ripple effects of the Second Circuit decision are being felt outside of New York, as defendants in insider trading cases in Boston and California have already tried to take advantage of the ruling. Courts around the country may increasingly have to grapple with Newman, as they often look to the Second Circuit for guidance on insider trading.

Undoubtedly, this turn of events is what led Bharara to recently challenge the Second Circuit ruling. He requested both that the same panel of judges that issued the ruling revisit its decision and, as an alternative, for every judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to hear the case, a process known as en banc review; and the SEC has also filed a brief supporting a reversal of Newman. In his petition, Bharara contended that the Court’s ruling “threatens the effective enforcement of the securities laws.” Specifically, he argued that the “panel’s erroneous definition of the personal benefit requirement will dramatically limit the government’s ability to prosecute some of the most common culpable and market threatening forms of insider trading.”

Some scholars are of the view that the insider trading landscape may be well-served by concrete laws. Courts very rarely grant en banc review, particularly where the panel’s decision was unanimous. It seems Bharara may welcome the Congressional support in his quest to prosecute inside traders at all levels.