ATTORNEY: J. Alexander Hood II
POMERANTZ MONITOR SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2018
Several years ago, in Stoneridge Partners, Pomerantz persuaded the Supreme Court to rule that people who engage in schemes to defraud can be liable for securities fraud, even if they themselves made no misstatements to investors, under a theory known as “scheme liability.”
On June 18, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in SEC v. Lorenzo, which presents the question of where the boundaries are between scheme liability (which is actionable) and aiding and abetting (which is not). The D.C. Circuit had affirmed the SEC’s imposition of sanctions against Lorenzo under scheme liability. Dissenting in that case was Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s pending nominee for the Supreme Court.
Unlike Justice Gorsuch, whose hostility towards securities law enforcement has been well documented, Judge Kavanaugh has had relatively few opportunities to rule on securities fraud cases, which are typically litigated in the judicial district in which the defendant company is headquartered. Accordingly, his judicial paper trail is less than illuminating with respect to some of the legal questions most frequently at issue in those cases. However, a review of his 2017 dissent in Lorenzo v. SEC suggests that a Justice Kavanaugh would try to define scheme liability out of existence.
Lorenzo concerns communications by Francis Lorenzo, the director of investment banking at Charles Vista, LLC, a registered broker-dealer, to potential investors, concerning the company Waste2Energy Holdings, Inc. (W2E). In September 2009, W2E, in dire need of financing, commenced a $15 million convertible debenture offering, for which Charles Vista would serve as the exclusive placement agent. While W2E’s most recent SEC filings at that time contained no indication of any possible devaluation of the company’s assets, on October 1, 2009, following an audit, W2E filed an amended Form 8-K, in which it disclosed a significant impairment of its intangible assets. On that same day, W2E filed a quarterly report valuing its total assets for the second quarter of 2009 as only $660,408. Lorenzo was aware of W2E’s filings of October 1, and in fact received an email from W2E’s Chief Financial Officer several days later that explained the reasons for the significant devaluation of the company’s intangible assets. Nevertheless, on October 14, Lorenzo sent emails to two potential investors conveying “several key points” about W2E’s debenture offering. His emails failed to disclose the devaluation, and instead assured both investors that the offering came with “3 layers of protection.”
In February 2013, the SEC commenced cease-and-desist proceedings against Lorenzo, charging him with violations of three securities law provisions: Section 17(1)(1) of the Securities Act of 1933, Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, and Rule 10b-5 promulgated thereunder. An administrative law judge concluded that Lorenzo had “willfully violated the antifraud provisions” of the statutes at issue “by his material misrepresentations and omissions concerning W2E in the emails” to the two potential investors. She found that Lorenzo had sent the emails without thinking about their contents, but that doing so amounted to recklessness, satisfying the scienter requirement. Upon review, the SEC sustained the ALJ’s decision, including her “imposition of an industry-wide bar, a cease-and-desist order, and a $15,000 civil penalty.” Specifically, the SEC found that Lorenzo had violated Rule 10b-5(b), which prohibits the making of materially false and misleading statements in connection with the purchase or sale of securities, because he knew that each of the key statements in his emails “was false and/or misleading when he sent them.” Lorenzo petitioned for review by the D.C. Circuit.
Contrary to the SEC’s conclusions, the D.C. Circuit ruled that Lorenzo did not “make” the statements at issue within the meaning of Rule 10b-5(b), finding that he had simply transmitted statements devised at the direction of his superiors. It nonetheless “conclude[d] that his status as a non-“maker” of the statements at issue does not vitiate the [SEC]’s conclusion that his actions violated the other subsections of Rule 10b-5 as well as Section 17(a)(1).” While Rule 10b-5(b) states that it is unlawful to “make any untrue statement of a material fact … in connection with the purchase or sale of any security,” the other securities law provisions at issue do not contain such more general terms of “employ[ing],” “us[ing],” or “engag[ing]” in deceptive conduct in connection with securities transactions. Accordingly, a majority of the court concluded that “Lorenzo, having taken stock of the emails’ content and having formed the requisite intent to deceive, conveyed materially false information to prospective investors about a pending securities offering.” As such, they found that Lorenzo had engaged in deceptive conduct and had acted with scienter. Accordingly the court upheld the previous findings with respect to his liability.
In a strongly worded dissent, Judge Kavanaugh vehemently disagreed, blasting the actions of the SEC. First, he concluded that the SEC, similarly to his colleagues in the majority, had failed to “heed the administrative law judge’s factual conclusions” concerning Lorenzo’s “not thinking about” the accuracy of the information his boss had sent him and which he forwarded to the investors. He bitterly criticized the SEC for having “simply manufactured a new assessment of Lorenzo’s credibility and rewrote the [administrative law] judge’s factual findings.” Yet, despite the ALJ’s conclusion that Lorenzo had “not thought about” the accuracy of the emails, she did specifically find that Lorenzo had acted with scienter – presumably because it is, in fact, extremely reckless to send information to investors without thinking about whether it was true or not. Judge Kavanaugh’s dissent makes no mention of that fact.
Of wider import, however, is the dissent’s savaging of the SEC, while sympathizing with a broker’s actions in conveying to investors information that he knew was false and misleading. In his view, this case was just another example of the SEC’s efforts, over a period of decades, to evade the Supreme Court’s prohibition of liability under the securities laws for “aiders and abettors.” In his view, this case involves “nothing more” than the making of false statements, and since Lorenzo did not himself “make” the false statements he should not be held accountable for them under any theory of liability.
The majority opinion creates a circuit split by holding that mere misstatements, standing alone, may constitute the basis for … willful participation in a scheme to defraud--even if the defendant did not make the misstatements. …Other courts have instead concluded that scheme liability must be based on conduct that goes beyond a defendant’s role in preparing mere misstatements or omissions made by others.
Judge Kavanaugh thinks that it was incongruous to conclude both that: (i) Lorenzo had not “made” any statements, but merely transmitted the emails at issue; and (ii) “Lorenzo nonetheless willfully engaged in a scheme to defraud solely because of the statements made by his boss.” The granting of certiorari in this case indicates that the Supreme Court is interested in this issue, and that this is going to be an important case for establishing the contours of scheme liability.
In our view, Judge Kavanaugh got it wrong. He seems to have concluded that whenever a false or misleading statement is made, no one can be liable except the person who made it, and that any other rule would eviscerate the prohibition of aiding and abetting liability. In support of this conclusion he relied on several previous Circuit Court decisions which, he argues, held that a defendant cannot be held liable under a theory of scheme liability where the case involved “nothing more” than false statements. In one of those cases, KV Pharmaceuticals, the complaint alleged, in conclusory fashion, that a corporate securities filing was false and misleading and that two of the company officers knew about it. The court held that, to be liable in such a case, a complaint had to allege that the defendants did something more than merely know that their company had made a false filing. It concluded that “the investors do not allege with specificity (or otherwise) what conduct Van Vliet and Bleser engaged in beyond having knowledge of the misrepresentations and omissions.” The court did not mention aiding and abetting; it merely held that scheme liability must entail actions beyond mere awareness that someone else had made a misstatement.
In another case, Luxembourg Gamma Three, the scheme liability claim was simply another label plaintiffs had applied to a classic non-disclosure case against the same people who had themselves made the false and misleading statements. As the court said, “the fraudulent scheme allegedly involved the Defendant-Appellees planning together to not disclose the Founders’ sale of securities in the secondary offering, and then not disclosing those sales; fundamentally, this is an omission claim.”
In Lorenzo the claims against the defendant went beyond “making” a false or misleading statement. Lorenzo sent the false information, under his own name, to investors, and implicitly vouched for its accuracy. If that is not enough to establish scheme liability, what is?
Judge Kavanaugh’s dissent reflects his hostility towards the SEC itself, confirming the Trump administration’s statement nominating him to SCOTUS. There it specifically touted the fact that he has “overruled federal agency action 75 times.” He is, in fact, widely regarded by commentators on both the left and the right as hostile to the “administrative state.” His dissent in Lorenzo is a prime example of this. First he mocked the agency’s determination that Lorenzo acted with scienter, which he claimed contradicted the findings of the ALJ even though the ALJ held that Lorenzo had acted with scienter. Then he lashed out at the agency for what, in his view, amounted to trying to make an end run around Supreme Court case law that sharply distinguishes between primary and secondary liability. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, in his view, the SEC is a rogue agency that simply has to be reined in.
If he is confirmed, it will be another sad day for investors.