Pomerantz LLP

Kokesh v. SEC: A Door Is Closed, But Windows Are Opened

Attorney: Justin Solomon Nematzadeh
Pomerantz Monitor September/October 2017

In Kokesh v. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Supreme Court recently applied the five-year statute of limitations to claims by the SEC for disgorgement of ill-gotten profits from violations of the federal securities laws. Dealing a blow to the SEC’s enforcement powers, the Court held that the disgorgement remedy is not primarily remedial but more closely resembles a “punishment” subject to the five-year limitation period. By forcing the SEC to move more quickly in these cases, the Kokesh opinion has actually helped plaintiffs in class actions and individual lawsuits. It should motivate the SEC to file actions at an earlier date, and thereby expose securities law violations sooner, better enabling private plaintiffs to file their own actions within the five-year statute of limitations that private plaintiffs face in bringing class actions and individual lawsuits.

In 2009, the SEC commenced an enforcement action against Charles Kokesh, who owned two investment advisory firms, seeking civil monetary penalties, disgorgement, and an injunction. The SEC alleged that between 1995 and 2009, Kokesh misappropriated $34.9 million from four business development companies and concealed this through false and misleading SEC filings and proxy statements. After a five-day trial, the jury found that Kokesh violated securities laws. The district court decided that $29.9 million of the disgorgement request resulting from Kokesh’s violations outside the limitations period was proper because disgorgement was not a “penalty” under §2462. The Tenth Circuit affirmed this decision, agreeing that disgorgement is neither a penalty nor forfeiture, so §2462 did not apply. The Court granted certiorari to resolve a circuit split on this issue, and in a unanimous decision authored by Justice Sotomayor, the Court reversed the Tenth Circuit.

Beginning in the 1970s, courts ordered disgorgement in SEC enforcement actions to deprive “‘defendants of their profits in order to remove any monetary reward for violating securities laws and to ‘protect the investing public by providing an effective deterrent to future violations.’” The Court had already applied the five-year statute of limitations for any “action, suit or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture, pecuniary or otherwise,” when the SEC sought statutory monetary penalties. Disgorgement would also fall under this if deemed a “fine, penalty, or forfeiture.” A “penalty” is a “punishment, whether corporal or pecuniary, imposed and enforced by the State, for a crime or offen[s]e against its laws.” Whether disgorgement is a penalty hinged on two factors: first, whether the wrong to be redressed is one to the public or to an individual; and second, whether the sanction’s purpose is punishment and to deter others from offending in a like manner, as opposed to compensating a victim for her loss.

First, the Court decided that SEC disgorgement is imposed by courts as a consequence of public law violations. The remedy is sought for violations against the United States—rather than an aggrieved investor. This is why a securities-enforcement action may proceed even if victims do not support it nor are parties. Even the SEC conceded that when “the SEC seeks disgorgement, it acts in the public interest, to remedy harm to the public at large, rather than standing in the shoes of particular injured parties.”

Second, the Court decided that disgorgement is a punishment. Disgorgement aims to protect the investing public by deterring future violations: “[C]ourts have consistently held that ‘[t]he primary purpose of disgorgement orders is to deter violations of the securities laws by depriving violators of their ill-gotten gains.’” Sanctions imposed to deter public law infractions are inherently punitive because deterrence is not a legitimate nonpunitive governmental objective. Moreover, disgorgement is not compensatory. Disgorged profits are paid to the district court, and it is within the court’s discretion how and to whom to distribute the money. District courts have required disgorgement regardless of whether the funds will be paid to investors as restitution: some disgorged funds are paid to victims; other funds are dispersed to the U.S. Treasury.

The Court found unpersuasive the SEC’s primary response that disgorgement is not punitive but instead remedial in lessening a violation’s effect by restoring the status quo. According to the Court, it is unclear whether disgorgement simply returns a defendant to the place occupied before having broken the law, as it sometimes exceeds profits gained from violations. For example, disgorgement is sometimes ordered without considering a defendant’s expenses that reduced the illegal profit. SEC disgorgement is then punitive, not simply restoring the status quo, but leaving the defendant worse off. Although disgorgement can serve compensatory goals, it can also serve retributive or deterrent purposes and be a punishment.

This decision puts limits on the SEC’s use of a favored tool—in recent years, the SEC secured nearly $3 billion in disgorgements, more than double what it received in penalties. But the decision should open doors for civil plaintiffs in class actions and individual lawsuits for violations of the federal securities laws. Within the five-year statute of limitations imposed on private civil plaintiffs, the SEC would now have to reveal to investors securities-law violations by companies and individuals who would be defendants in private lawsuits. This will better equip private civil plaintiffs to sue those defendants in a timely fashion. In any case, disgorgement is not a common remedy for private civil plaintiffs in securities lawsuits. Further, defendants who pay relatively less disgorgement in SEC enforcement actions may have more funds to satisfy parallel private civil lawsuits. Through closing the door on an element of the SEC’senforcement powers, the Court has opened several windows for private civil plaintiffs.