Investment Management

Posted on Monday, June 12 2017 at 11:00 am by

Fiduciary Rule Creates Breach of Contract Claim, But No Private Right of Action

By Paul Foley and John I. Sanders

The first part of the DOL’s Conflict of Interest Rule (the “Fiduciary Rule”) went into effect on Friday, June 9th.  A large group of newly-defined “fiduciaries” are now subject to certain requirements of the Best Interest Contract (“BIC”) exemption,[1] a portion of the Fiduciary Rule that according to some commentators creates a private right of action for investors.

The creation of a private right of action is one of the investment industry’s chief concerns with the Fiduciary Rule.  Industry leaders claim that the BIC exemption creates a private right of action because it enables investors to bring breach of contract claims and class actions against the fiduciaries with whom they contract.  However, a federal judge from the Northern District of Texas flatly rejected this claim in Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America v. Hugler.[1]

The plaintiff in Hugler claimed, among other things, that the BIC exemption created a private right of action in violation of Alexander v. Sandoval, a Supreme Court case holding that only Congress, not an administrative agency, can create a private right of action under federal law.[2]  But the judge in Hugler sided with the DOL, finding that the BIC exemption does not create a private right of action, and so does not violate Sandoval.[3]  The judge reasoned that any lawsuit resulting from the breach of a BIC exemption contract would be brought under state contract law rather than federal ERISA law.[4]  The judge also noted that it is not a new concept for federal regulations to require entities to enter into written contracts with mandatory provisions; annuity owners already have enforceable contract rights against insurers, and multiple other agencies require that their regulated entities enter into written agreements with mandatory terms.[5]

Yet articles from leaders in the legal and investment industries continue to label the BIC exemption’s litigation risk as a private right of action for investors.  Fiduciaries reading these articles should keep in mind that a private right of action cannot exist under the BIC exemption because the Supreme Court’s ruling in Sandoval only allows a private right of action to be created by Congress.  Also, it is unlikely that any court will block the Fiduciary Rule on the grounds that the BIC exemption impermissibly creates a private right of action because, as pointed out by the judge in Hugler, any claims brought as a result of BIC exemption contracts would be brought under state law rather than federal law.  However, fiduciaries should be aware that the Fiduciary Rule still exposes them to litigation risk as investors can use BIC exemption contracts (which are not required to be used until January 1, 2018) to file state breach of contract claims and, potentially, class actions.

Paul Foley is a partner with Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton’s Winston-Salem and New York offices.  John I. Sanders is an associate based in the firm’s Winston-Salem office.

[1] For more information on current Fiduciary Rule and BIC Exemption requirements, see Paul Foley & John Sanders, DOL Puts Advisors on Notice: Fiduciary Rule Will be Effective June 9th, Kilpatrick Townsend: Inv. Mgmt. Blog (May 25, 2017, 9:32 PM), http://blogs.kilpatricktownsend.com/investmentmanagement/?p=321.

[1] Chamber of Commerce of the United States of Am. v. Hugler, 3:16-CV-1476-M, 2017 WL 514424 (N.D. Tex. Feb. 8, 2017).

[2] Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275, 286 (2001) (citing Touche Ross & Co. v. Reddington, 442 U.S. 560, 578 (1979)).

[3] Hugler, 3:16-CV-1476-M, 2017 WL 514424, at *20.

[4] Id..

[5] Id.

Posted on Tuesday, June 6 2017 at 12:13 pm by

Kokesh v. SEC:  The U.S. Supreme Court Limits SEC Disgorgement Powers

By Paul Foley and John I. Sanders

Since the 1970s, courts have regularly ordered disgorgement of ill-gotten gains in SEC enforcement proceedings.[1]  According to the SEC, this was done as a means to both “deprive . . . defendants of their profits in order to remove any monetary reward for violating” securities laws and “protect the investing public by providing an effective deterrent to future violations.”[2]  Disgorgement has been one of the SEC’s most powerful tools in recent years.[3]  Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued an opinion that significantly limits the SEC’s ability to disgorge ill-gotten gains.[4]

The question before the Supreme Court in Kokesh v. SEC was whether disgorgement, as it has been used by the SEC, constitutes a “penalty.”[5]  Under federal law, a 5-year statute of limitations applies to any “action, suit or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture, pecuniary or otherwise.”[6]  The SEC has long argued that disgorgement does not constitute a “penalty” and, therefore, is not subject to a 5-year statute of limitations.  The Supreme Court unanimously rejected the SEC’s position by holding that disgorgement constitutes a “penalty.”[7]  As a result, the SEC will be precluded from collecting ill-gotten gains obtained by the defendant more than five years before the date on which the SEC files its complaint.[8]

In the Kokesh case, the Supreme Court’s decision means that the defendant may retain $29.9 million of the $34.9 million of allegedly ill-gotten gains because that amount was received outside of the 5-year state of limitations.[9]  The Kokesh decision is also likely to have a significant long-term impact on SEC enforcement proceedings by reducing the leverage the SEC can apply while negotiating settlements.

Paul Foley is a partner with Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton’s Winston-Salem and New York offices.  John I. Sanders is an associate based in the firm’s Winston-Salem office.

 

[1] SEC v. Texas Gulf Sulphur Co., 312 F. Supp. 77, 91 (SDNY 1970), aff ’d in part and rev’d in part, 446 F. 2d 1301 (CA2 1971).

[2] Id. at 92.

[3] SEC, SEC Announces Enforcement Results for FY 2016 (Oct. 11, 2016), available at https://www.sec.gov/news/pressrelease/2016-212.html (illustrating that the SEC has obtained more than $4 billion in disgorgements and penalties in each of the three most recent fiscal years).

[4] Kokesh v. SEC, available at www.supremecourt.gov.

[5] Id. (“This case presents the question whether [28 U.S.C.] §2462 applies to claims for disgorgement imposed as a sanction for violating a federal securities law.”).

[6] 28 U.S.C. §2462 (2017).

[7] Kokesh v. SEC, supra note 4, available at www.supremecourt.gov.  (“SEC disgorgement thus bears all the hallmarks of a penalty: It is imposed as a consequence of violating a public law and it is intended to deter, not to compensate.”).

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

Posted on Thursday, May 25 2017 at 9:32 pm by

DOL Puts Advisers on Notice:  Fiduciary Rule Will Be Effective June 9th

By Paul Foley and John I. Sanders

On March 2, 2017, the DOL extended the applicability date of the Conflict of Interest Rule (the “Fiduciary Rule”) from April 10, 2017 to June 9, 2017.[1]  This week, with the extension drawing to a close, Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta has reported that the DOL “found no principled legal basis” to delay the applicability date beyond June 9.[2]  It is now a near-certainty that the Fiduciary Rule will “go live” on that date.

Despite DOL statements about a “transition period” and a “phased approach to implementation,” the heart of the Fiduciary Rule will be effective in just two weeks.[3]  Most importantly, “investment advice providers to retirement savers will become fiduciaries.”[4]  As fiduciaries, they must provide impartial advice in the customer’s best interest and cannot accept payments creating conflicts of interest (i.e., commissions and 12b-1 fees) unless they qualify for an exemption.[5]  Among exemptions, the Best Interest Contract Exemption is especially enticing before more stringent requirements for its use go into effect on January 1, 2018.[6]  Until January 1, 2018, the only conditions for the BIC Exemption are:  (i) investment advice is in the “best interest” of the retirement investor, meaning that it is both prudent and the advice is based on the interest of the investor rather than the adviser; (ii) no more than reasonable compensation is charged; and (iii) no misleading statements are made about the transaction, compensation or conflicts of interest.[7]  After January 1, 2018, an actual contract with particular terms will be required.[8]

For many investment advisers (as opposed to broker-dealers and their registered representatives), the impending applicability of the Fiduciary Rule is not a significant concern.  The DOL has stated that a fee based on assets under management (i.e., flat asset based fees or traditional wrap fee arrangements)  typically would not raise any issues under the Fiduciary Rule.[9]  However, for investment advisers not currently employing such fee arrangements, the Fiduciary Rule likely will require changes.[10]

In an effort to calm would-be fiduciaries that will not be able to meet the June 9th deadline for compliance with the Fiduciary Rule, the DOL issued a temporary enforcement policy on May 22nd stating that it would not take any enforcement action against “fiduciaries who are working diligently and in good faith to comply with the new rule and exemptions” until January 1, 2018.[11]  The DOL also promised an enforcement approach prior to January 1, 2018 “marked by an emphasis on compliance assistance (rather than citing violations and imposing penalties).”[12]  This policy only applies to DOL enforcement actions.  Investors may still bring private actions (i.e., fraud or breach of contract claims) against those who breach their fiduciary duties, and the IRS may still impose excise taxes or seek civil penalties.[13]

With applicability of the Fiduciary Rule just two weeks away, all investment advisers should assess its applicability to them and prepare accordingly.  At a minimum, this means working with compliance staff and legal counsel to determine whether all advice given to retirement investors is:  (i) in the client’s best interest (which investment advisers, as fiduciaries should already be doing), (ii) is impartial, and (iii) does not generate payments to the investment adviser giving rise to a conflict of interest.

Paul Foley is a partner with Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton’s New York and Winston-Salem offices.  John I. Sanders is an associate based in the firm’s Winston-Salem office.

[1] Department of Labor,  Conflict of Interest Rule – Retirement Investment Advice; Proposed Rule; Extension of Applicability Date (March 1, 2017), available at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ebsa/laws-and-regulations/rules-and-regulations/completed-rulemaking/1210-AB32-2.

[2] Id.

[3] Department of Labor, Conflict of Interest FAQs (Transition Period) (May 2017), available at https://www.dol.gov/sites/default/files/ebsa/about-ebsa/our-activities/resource-center/faqs/coi-transition-period.pdf.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Conflict of Interest Rule, 81 Fed. Reg. 20946, 20992 (April 8, 2016) (to be codified at 29 CFR Parts 2509, 2510, and 2550) (The DOL has stated that if an investment adviser using a flat fee or wrap fee compensation model makes recommendations that would generate additional compensation for the adviser (e.g., adviser recommends rolling an IRA into an annuity that will generate fees for the adviser), then the adviser would need to rely on an exception.)

[10] Id.

[11] Department of Labor, Conflict of Interest FAQs (Transition Period) (May 2017), available at https://www.dol.gov/sites/default/files/ebsa/about-ebsa/our-activities/resource-center/faqs/coi-transition-period.pdf .

[12] Id.

[13] Conflict of Interest Rule, 81 Fed. Reg. 20946, 20653 (April 8, 2016) (to be codified at 29 CFR Parts 2509, 2510, and 2550).

Posted on Monday, May 8 2017 at 10:38 am by

General Solicitations of Certain Regulation D “Private” Securities Offerings:  SEC Affirms Zero-Tolerance Policy.

By Paul Foley and John I. Sanders

On March 29, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) issued a noteworthy opinion in In re KCD Financial Inc.,[i] a review of a FINRA disciplinary action.[ii]  While the opinion affirmed FINRA’s disciplinary action,[iii] it also affirmed the SEC’s zero-tolerance policy regarding general solicitations made in the course of certain Regulation D offerings.  Those relying on or contemplating relying on Regulation D exemptions from registration should review the SEC’s opinion.

Factual Background

KCD Financial, Inc. (“KCD”) is an independent broker-dealer.[iv]  In 2011, KCD signed an agreement with one of its affiliates (“Westmount”) under which it would solicit accredited investors for a particular private fund (the “Fund”) sponsored by Westmount.[v]  Westmount did not plan to register the offering.  Westmount instead planned to rely on a Rule 506(b) exemption from registration.[vi]

Prior to KCD selling any interest in the Fund, Westmount issued a press release describing the Fund.[vii]  Two Dallas newspapers published articles based on the press release and made the articles available on their respective public websites.[viii]  One of those newspaper articles was then posted on a public website belonging to a Westmount affiliate.[ix]  Westmount’s outside counsel informed Westmount that the newspaper articles constituted general solicitations, which are prohibited in Rule 506(b) offerings.[x]

After KCD and Westmount officers were told that the articles were general solicitations prohibited under Rule 506(b), they did not end the offering, register the securities, or seek to rely on an alternative exemption.  Instead, KCD’s CCO and Westmount’s Vice President of Capital Markets instructed the representatives to sell interests in the Fund only to (i) those with an existing relationship to KCD or Westmount and (ii) accredited investors who had not learned of the offering through the general solicitations.[xi]  Under those guidelines, at least one person was refused an opportunity to purchase interests in the Fund.[xii]

During a FINRA examination of KCD, the examiner found that the newspaper article about the offering had not been removed from a Westmount-affiliated website.[xiii]  Subsequently, FINRA filed a complaint against KCD alleging that the firm’s registered representatives sold securities that were unregistered and not qualified for an exemption from registration, thereby violating FINRA Rule 2010.[xiv]  FINRA also alleged that KCD failed to reasonably supervise the offering, thereby violating FINRA Rule 3010.[xv]  FINRA’s Hearing Panel found that KCD violated those rules.[xvi]  FINRA censured KCD and imposed a fine of $73,000.[xvii]  The National Adjudicatory Counsel affirmed FINRA’s decision.[xviii]  KCD then requested an SEC review.[xix]

SEC Review

KCD admitted that the Fund interests it offered were not registered, but argued that offers were made pursuant to Rule 506(b).[xx]  The SEC rejected KCD’s contention,[xxi] finding that where a party relying on the Rule 506(b) exemption makes a general solicitation, the exemption then is unavailable “regardless of the number of accredited investors or the knowledge and experience of the purchasers who were not accredited investors.”[xxii]  In this context, whether purchasers were accredited or had prior relationships with KCD and Westmount was “irrelevant to whether or not the newspaper articles constituted a general solicitation” and precluded reliance on Rule 506(b).[xxiii]

KCD also argued, assuming the newspaper articles constituted general solicitations, it could still rely on a Rule 506(b) exemption because “KCD did not generally solicit any of the actual investors in the [Westmount] Fund.”[xxiv]  This argument confused the notion of what is prohibited under Rule 506(b).  It is making an offer by general solicitation which precludes reliance on a Rule 506(b) exemption.[xxv]  Whether a sale results directly from the general solicitation is irrelevant.[xxvi]

Practical Implications

The SEC’s opinion affirms its view that exemptions from registration in securities offerings are narrowly construed and must be adhered to strictly.[xxvii]  Where, as here, the exemption prohibits a general solicitation, any general solicitation forever forfeits the issuer’s ability to rely on the exemption in making the offering (i.e., the toothpaste cannot go back into the tube).

Those making exempt offerings in reliance on Rule 504,[xxviii] Rule 505,[xxix] and Rule 506(b)[xxx] should review their sales practices in light of the KCD opinion.  In reviewing practices, issuers should look beyond the obvious means of making a general solicitation (e.g., a press release that is published by a widely-circulated newspaper).  Websites and social media accounts of those participating in the offerings are equally capable of precluding use of a valuable registration exemption.

Paul Foley is a partner with Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton’s New York and Winston-Salem, North Carolina offices.  John I. Sanders is an associate based out of the firm’s Winston-Salem office.

[i] In re KCD Financial, Inc., SEC Release No. 34-80340 (March 29, 2017), available at www.sec.gov/litigation/opinions/2017/34-80340.pdf (hereinafter, SEC Opinion).

[ii] In re KCD Financial, Inc., FINRA Complaint No. 2011025851501 (Aug. 3, 2016), available at http:www.finra.com (hereinafter, FINRA Opinion).

[iii] SEC Opinion, supra note 1, at p. 1.

[iv] Id., at p. 2.

[v] Id.

[vi] Id.

[vii] Id, at p. 3.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id. at p. 4.

[x] Id.

[xi] Id.

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Id.

[xvi] FINRA Opinion, supra note 2, at p. 4.

[xvii] Id.

[xviii] Id.

[xix] Id.

[xx] SEC Opinion, supra note 1, at 2.

[xxi] Id.

[xxii] Id. at 7.

[xxiii] Id. at 9.

[xxiv] Id at 10.

[xxv] Id.

[xxvi] Id. at 11

[xxvii] Id. at 7.

[xxviii] 17 CFR 230.504 (2017).

[xxix] 17 CFR 230.505 (2017).

[xxx] 17 CFR 230.506(b) (2017).

Posted on , May 8 2017 at 9:59 am by

SEC Amends Crowdfunding Rules

By Paul Foley and John I. Sanders

Under the Jumpstart our Business Startups Acts of 2012 (the “JOBS Act”), the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) adopted rules allowing for securities-based crowdfunding in 2015.[i]  The JOBS Act required the SEC to adjust dollar limits placed on the amount that could be invested or raised through securities-based crowdfunding at least every five years to account for inflation.[ii]  On April 5, 2017, the SEC issued a final rule adjusting those limits for the first time.[iii]  We encourage those interested in issuing securities through a securities-based crowdfunding offering to review the final rule and call us with any questions you may have.

Paul Foley is a partner with Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton’s New York and Winston-Salem, North Carolina offices.  John Sanders is an associate based out of the firm’s Winston-Salem office.

[i] SEC, Release No. 33-9974 (Oct. 9, 2015), available at https://www.sec.gov/rules/final/2015/33-9974.pdf.

[ii] Id. at 15.

[iii] SEC, Release No.33-10332 (April 5, 2017), available at https://www.sec.gov/rules/final/2017/33-10332.pdf.

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