My weekend reading over the Memorial Day holiday included a hefty selection from the stack of law firm memos that accumulated in my inbox in recent weeks. Many of the most recent memos related to the Senate’s passage of its version of the financial reform legislation, but the memos also reflected a variety of other developments, including recent significant case developments and the passage of the UK bribery bill. I have set out below some of the more noteworthy recent law firm memos that have crossed my desk.
The Senate Financial Reform Bill
The Senate’s passage of the Restoring American Financial Stability Act of 2010 has triggered a flood of law firm memos. Though many of the memos have attempted to provide an overall description of the sweeping legislation, some have concentrated on focused on a narrow part of the bill. Several law firms have released memos focused just on the bill’s proposed corporate governance.
A May 24, 2010 memo from Sullivan & Cromwell provides an overview of the bill’s corporate governance reforms, including the bill’s provisions relating to majority voting for directors, "say on pay," executive compensation clawbacks, compensation committee independence and disclosures, and limitations on broker non-votes. The Sullivan & Cromwell memo points out that a number of the provisions in the bill – whistleblower protections, amendments relating to whistleblowers, private placement provisions and broker voting—would apply to non-U.S. issuers.
A May 28, 2010 memo from the Bingham McCutchen law firm also discusses the bill’s corporate governance reforms. Of particular interest, the Bingham memo contains an extensive discussion of the proposed "say on pay" reforms, with particular emphasis on concerns about "the amount of power the change would place in the hanks of proxy advisory firms," which provide compensation guidelines in connection with the proxy advice.
The Morgan Lewis firm also issued a May 27, 2010 memo about the Senate bill, here. The Morgan Lewis firm memo has an interested in discussion about the provision in the Senate bill that would require the securities exchanges to include the adoption of a compensation clawback policy as a listing requirement (by which incentive based compensation would be clawed-back from company officials in the event of a financial restatement of the financial statement of prior periods to which the compensation relations). The memo details the way that this provision the existing clawback requirements promulgated by SOX.
A May 27, 2010 memorandum from the Sidley Austin firm also provides an overview of the corporate governance reforms in the bill, and notes that that the bill contains additional compensation limitations for bank holding companies, and a separate provision requiring public companies to file a special SEC report of they using certain specified mineral products that may have originated in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Senate bill contains provisions designed to encourage corporate employees to blow the whistle on securities fraud. A May 21, 2010 Morgan Lewis memo (here) points out that these new provisions "give whistleblowers significant enhanced incentives to make a report" as part of the SEC’s new whistleblower program, and also provides extensive additional retaliation protections. The provisions would allow whistleblowers to receive rewards of between 10% and 30% of the monetary recovery. The provisions would also allow the whistleblower claiming retaliation to bypass existing administrative procedure requirements and proceed directly in federal court. The provisions also proposed a much longer statute of limitations and would create a double-back-pay remedy for retaliation claims, which created an incentive to bring retaliation claims.
Finally, a May 25, 2010 memo from the Faegre & Benson firm reports that the Senate’s financial reform bill "may give plaintiffs little to celebrate," noting that Congress "largely has chosen not to empower private parties" to enforce the rules. Indeed, the House bill’s provisions that would create the new consumer protection agency specifies that "nothing" in the provision establishing the new consumer protection "shall be construed to create a private right of action."
The Faegre & Benson memo does note that both the House and the Senate versions of the bill have "carved out a role for private litigants" to "help safeguard the integrity of the rating process" by allowing investors to sue credit rating agencies for securities fraud. The two versions disagree on the standard of liability to be required. Though the two versions must now be reconciled, some allowance private civil litigation against the rating agencies seems likely.
Securities Law Case Developments
A number of law firms have written memoranda discussing the Second Circuit’s April 27, 2010 opinion in the Pacific Investment Management Co. v. Meyer Brown case. Though the case outcome, in which the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the securities fraud lawsuit against Refco’s lawyer, may have been unsurprising given the Supreme Court’s decision in Stoneridge, the law firm memos make the point that we may not have heard the last of the case.
As detailed in Arnold & Porter’s May 2010 memo about the case (here), the Second Circuit rejected the "creator theory" that both the plaintiffs and the SEC (in an amicus brief) had urged the court to adopt and instead held that "a secondary actor can only be held liabile for false statements in a private damages action for securities fraud only if the statements are attributed to the defendant at the time the statements are disseminated."
The Arnold & Porter memo points out that the decision, adopting the attribution test and rejecting the creator theory, has "two crucial limitations"; that is that it relates only to private civil actions under Rule 10b-5 and "does not speak" to government enforcement actions; and the Second Circuit refrained from addressing the question whether attribution is required for claims against corporate insiders.
The memo also notes that "perhaps most significant" is the fact that the decision was accompanies by Judge Barrington Parker’s concurring opinion, essentially calling for en banc review and even inviting the Supreme Court to weigh in on the matter. In other words, the memo notes, the Second Circuit’s recent opinion may not be the "final word on the subject."
Finally, a May 26, 2010 memo from the Pillsbury Winthrop law firm discusses the Second Circuit’s May 18, 2010 decision in Slayton v. American Express , in which the Second Circuit held that even though forward-looking statements in the defendant’s SEC filing was not accompanied by meaningful cautionary disclosure, the plaintiffs failed to show that the statements were made with actual knowledge that they were misleading.
The Pillsbury firm memo identifies two "key takeaways" from the case: first, that "meaningful cautionary language must be specifically tailored to the statement at issue," as "boilerplate disclosure can be turned against a registrant because of its inherent lack of specificity." The Second Circuit’s holdings confirm the importance of "regularly reviewing the cautionary statements and risk factor disclosures contained in their public filings to ensure that the disclosure continue to be current and meaningful."
Second, the Second Circuit considered it to be a close call whether the plaintiffs had carried the burden of proving actual knowledge of falsity, "executive officers should remain vigilant and thoughtful when evaluating whether they have a reasonable basis for a particular forward-looking statement."
The U.K.’s Bribery Act 2010
The Morgan Lewis firm has a May 2010 memo entitled "The New UK Regime on Bribery" (here) describing the "far reaching implications" of the U.K.’s Bribery Act 2010. Among other things, the memo notes that the new law expands the scope of behavior that is targeted; no longer limited just to bribes paid to foreign officials, the new law applies to all bribes including purely commercial bribes, and applies to both the person paying and the person accepting the bribe.
Even more significant, the Act’s new Section 7 creates a new strict liability offense for organizations if a person associated with the organization bribes another person with the intent of benefiting the organization. However, organizations have a defense if they can show that they have in place "adequate procedures" to prevent bribery. In essence, the new Act is mandating compliance programs, to create controls against improper payments.
The Act has what the memo describes as a "wide territorial scope," applying of an act or omission forming part of the violation occurs in the U.K, or if in is carried out by a person with a "close connection" to the U.K.