The wisdom of Judge Rakoff’s tough and controversial decisions taking issue with the decades-long SEC practice of entering into settlements in which companies admit to no wrongdoing is becoming apparent. This is the essence of Rakoff’s beef, as represented in his latest ruling on this topic:
[T]he Court is forced to conclude that a proposed Consent Judgment that asks the Court to impose substantial injunctive relief, enforced by the Court’s own contempt power, on the basis of allegations unsupported by any proven or acknowledged facts whatsoever, is neither reasonable, nor fair, nor adequate, nor in the public interest.
It is not reasonable, because how can it ever be reasonable to impose substantial relief on the basis of mere allegations? It is not fair, because, despite Citigroup’s nominal consent, the potential for abuse in imposing penalties on the basis of facts that are neither proven nor acknowledged patent. It is not adequate, because, in the absence of any facts, the Court lacks a framework for determining adequacy. And, most obviously, the proposed Consent Judgment does not serve the public interest, because it asks the Court to employ its power and assert its authority when it does not know the facts.
Now we’ll put aside the issue that the SEC could enter into settlements that merely provide for monetary damages (ie, the reason Rakoff reviewed the settlement was that it also included provisions that offered injunctive relief). We’ll assume the SEC deems this to be useful (presumably for the incremental PR generated by having a court approve the decision, and/or that injunctive relief can be used to fill the gap between how much the SEC would want in pure monetary terms versus what the presumed miscreant is willing to pay). Rakoff basically says that he can’t decide if any settlement makes any sense if he has no facts, and raises concerns of fairness and public purpose.
Alison Frankel at Reuters highlights a new New York appellate court decision where JP Morgan is being hoist on the Rakoff petard. Bear Stearns, which is now owned by JP Morgan, entered into a $250 million settlement in 2006 over allegations that it cheated customers by engaging in impermissible market timing. The agreement contained standard SEC “without admitting wrongdoing or denying” language. The payment broke down into $160 million of disgorgement and $90 million of penalties.
What may surprise many readers is that the $160 million disgorgment was covered by insurance, or at least JP Morgan thought it was. Per Frankel:
The insurance agreements said the bank was covered for damages awards and charges incurred by regulatory investigations, with one catch: The policies excluded claims “based upon or arising out of any deliberate, dishonest, fraudulent, or criminal act or omission,” if there were a final adjudication reflecting that wrongdoing.
The insurers said no dice, and JP Morgan took them to court to try to force them to pay. The lower court decided in favor of JP Morgan, but the appeals court reversed. And the logic is revealing:
But a ruling Tuesday by the New York state Appellate Division, First Department, suggests the boilerplate language that Ramos cited — and Rakoff has derided — may no longer offer defendants much benefit even without judges specifically rejecting it….
But the decision’s implications may be broader than that. In an opinion written by Justice Richard Andrias, the state judges simply didn’t pay much heed to the SEC “neither admit nor deny” boilerplate. “Read as a whole,” the decision said, “the offer of settlement, the SEC Order … and related documents are not reasonably susceptible to any interpretation other than that Bear Stearns knowingly and intentionally facilitated illegal late trading for preferred customers, and that the relief provisions of the SEC Order required disgorgement of funds gained through that illegal activity.” Moreover, in a footnote, the opinion referred explicitly to Rakoff’s criticism of SEC boilerplate in SEC v. Vitesse Semiconductor.
Putting on a public policy, rather than a legal hat, insurance that has the effect of letting companies and boards buy their way out of the economic consequences of bad conduct is a terrible idea. Even though it is widely accepted that no one would become a director of a public company ex directors and officers insurance, the consequences are detrimental. Why should, for instance, the directors of Lehman not be sued into penury? If we didn’t have D&O insurance, companies would have to pay directors a prince’s ransom to do the job, and a director would have to work really really hard at oversight. That would mean he could probably only sit on one board (ending the board as high level social club phenomenon, another plus) and would do a vastly better job. You’d also see an end to directors who serve as mere decoration (nice enough people, say college presidents or heads of heavyweight not for profits) but add bupkis in terms of monitoring management.
Now I’ll admit we have not seen all the implications of the Rakoff decision, but this first one seems entirely salutary. I suspect on balance, the effect will be to give companies fewer “get out of jail free” cards, which is something that everyone but the SEC and public company executive should welcome.