SEC Chair Offers Advice on Bitcoin and Its Ilk

This week, the chair of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission weighed in on crypto-currencies as well as ICOs or initial coin offerings. With the price of bitcoin nearing $20,000, it probably comes at the right time. You may have been wondering yourself: What are the rules for this stuff? Are they being followed? And what are the risks in these markets?

Here is a summary of his advice for both Main Street and Wall Street.

For Main Street

These are the folks at home who may be tempted to jump on the bandwagon.

  1. Understand that, for now, it’s the Wild West out there. The SEC hasn’t approved any crypto-currency-related funds or products for listing and trading, and no one has registered an ICO with the Commission. Don’t let anyone today tell you otherwise.
  2. Do your homework. If you choose to invest in these things, ask plenty of questions and demand clear answers. The Chair’s statement includes a list of sample questions to consider. Be especially careful if a pitch sounds too good to be true or you’re pressured to act quickly.
  3. Understand that these markets cross borders, so your money may travel overseas even without your knowledge. Once there, you may not ever be able to get it back.

For Wall Street

These are market professionals like brokers, dealers, lawyers, advisers, accountants, and exchanges.

  1. Although ICOs can be effective ways to raise money, you have to follow the securities laws if it constitutes an offering of securities. So ask yourself: Is this offering a security? Is it an investment contract? Is it, in other words, an investment of money in a pooled venture that expects to derive profit from the efforts of others? If you’re not clear on this then you need a lawyer because the Commission will look past the form of a transaction to its substance. So just calling it a currency doesn’t settle the question. We blogged recently about this fact-intensive inquiry here.
  2. If you handle transactions in crypto-currency, you should treat them as if cash were being handed from one party to the other. You should know your customer and mind anti-money-laundering laws whenever you allow payments in crypto-currencies, allow their purchase on margin, or otherwise use them to facilitate securities transactions.

New DOJ Policy on Foreign Business Bribery

On the eve of the fortieth anniversary of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the Justice Department has unveiled a policy that strongly encourages businesses to self-report any violations to the government on their own.

Those that do can presume that the government won’t prosecute them criminally as long as they fix the problem timely and cooperate fully. That’s probably good for shareholders and boards of directors, among others, but less so for managers, executives, or foot soldiers who get thrown under the bus.

The new policy was announced last week at a conference on the FCPA. It’s been added to the official policy manual for federal prosecutors. It takes most parts of the government’s recent pilot program and makes them permanent.

What does it mean to self-report voluntarily, cooperate fully, and remediate timely? It means a company must report a violation promptly and before the government gets wind of it. Also, it must share everything it knows about anything and anyone involved. Then it must create a sound compliance program based on its size and resources. And it must return all the money or property that’s subject to restitution, forfeiture, or disgorgement.

The government may still prosecute if aggravating factors make the business more culpable. That may happen, for example, if executive management was involved, or the conduct was widespread, or the company made a lot of money from it, or it’s happened before.

But even then, if the business has voluntarily self-reported, fully cooperated, and timely remediated, the government will recommend a criminal fine that’s at least 50% lower than it otherwise might be (unless the business is a repeat offender). Also, if the business has created an effective compliance program, the government likely won’t require the appointment of an outside monitor.

Finally, if a business doesn’t self-report but later cooperates and remediates fully, the government will recommend a fine that’s at least 25% lower than it otherwise might be.

The Greatest Generation, Indeed

Harry Pregerson passed away on Saturday, and if you haven’t heard of him, he’s worth learning about and remembering. If you’re like me, you never met him, but you knew who he was because you practiced law in Los Angeles (or California, for that matter, and a lot of other states, too). And if you’re like me, you’ll miss him because you think the world needs more people like him, and you wonder if we’ve got it in us.

The short version is that he was a state and federal judge in L.A. for over fifty years, but that doesn’t begin to cover it. He was born and raised in L.A. and was a member of the Greatest Generation if there ever was one. He was student-body president in high school and college, but he left college early to join the Marines during World War II. He could’ve stayed in school, I imagine, but lucky him, he enlisted in time for the Battle of Okinawa, where he was severely wounded in both legs. He then finished college, studied law, and by all accounts, spent the rest of his life trying to help as many people as he could. His daughter nicknamed him “the rescue machine” when she was a teenager.

Ask those who knew him, and they’ll tell you he saw the law for what it meant to people’s flesh-and-blood lives, not as a set of abstract ideas. He saw it as a means to achieve justice, and he took on the problems of others as if they were his own. No matter who they were.

Asked what he would do if the law ever violated his conscience, he famously told the United States Senate, “My conscience is a product of the Ten Commandments, the Bill of Rights, the Boy Scout Oath, and the Marine Corps Hymn. If I had to follow my conscience or the law, I would follow my conscience.”

And that was at a hearing to decide if he would be confirmed as a judge. Needless to say, he was confirmed.

Judge Pregerson is survived by his wife, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. You can read tributes and obituaries everywhere from the L.A. Times to the New York Times to the Great Falls Tribune in Montana.

A memorial service will be held Friday at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

Reasonable Minds Can Differ

But they will usually find more to agree on.

Case in point: this short interview with the junior U.S. senator from Utah.

He’s considered one of the more conservative members of Congress, but he’s also part of a bipartisan group that’s pushing to reform our criminal justice system.

As a former federal prosecutor, he’s asked how he feels about the justice system and what’s changed for him over time.

He points to one case in particular that, presumably, he didn’t charge. The defendant was a man with two young children. He sold very small amounts of marijuana to an informant three times. He also owned a gun at the time, though he didn’t use it or brandish it during any of the sales. Based on those facts and the way he was charged, the man received a mandatory sentence of 55 years.

Even the sentencing judge openly criticized the sentence, but he wrote that his hands were tied under the law. He also said that it was a problem only Congress could fix.

The senator remembered those words when he got to Congress, and now he’s trying to do something about it.

Why is he doing this when he’s supposed to be a conservative Republican? That’s exactly why he’s doing it, he says.

DOJ Will Clear Out Weak Qui Tam Cases

In a surprise announcement, the U.S. Justice Department says it will start moving to dismiss weak whistleblower cases brought under the False Claims Act rather than let them run their course. The announcement was made at a recent conference by the Director of Commercial Litigation for the Fraud Section of the Department’s Civil Division. I wasn’t at the conference, but this gentleman was, and he sheds light on the new policy.

Up to this point, the government has let whistleblowers litigate cases on their own even when it didn’t think they were any good. As we’ve explained before, the government always gets a first look at these cases. If it likes what it sees, it will take over the case and throw its weight behind it. If it doesn’t, it will decline to intervene but allow the case to proceed if the whistleblower (and his or her lawyers) is willing to do the work. Often, the government’s decision not to intervene will prompt whistleblowers to dismiss the case themselves. But now, it seems, the government will sometimes make that decision for them.

Don’t Keep The Change, Doc

Meaning, don’t just pocket the difference when the government overpays you for healthcare goods or services.

Recently, a medical group agreed to pay $450,000 to settle allegations that it refused to return $175,000 in overpayments that it received from federal healthcare programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Here’s the government’s press release.

The overpayments at issue tend to happen in medical practices when two insurers share responsibility for a payment, and one pays too much.

But the thing is, you have to return the surplus, whether it’s big or small; you can’t keep it, and you can’t dawdle, either. If you do, you may incur significant liability under the False Claims Act, as we’ve explained before.

The rule is that you have sixty days to return the money once you know (or should know) about the overpayment. For more on the 60-day rule, see here.

In this case, the government alleged that the medical group failed to return the money despite repeated warnings, until it learned the Justice Department was investigating. Apparently, it didn’t know that one of its employees had filed a whistleblower lawsuit, which the government joined and took over. (For more on that process, see here.) The former employee will receive $90,000 of the settlement proceeds, or twenty percent.

This isn’t the first time the feds have moved to enforce the 60-day rule, and it sure won’t be the last. They’re just getting started.

They May Be Intelligent, But Are They Wise?

Speaking of fair shakes, here is a wise word of caution about the emerging, expanding use of computer programs to evaluate people in the justice system, whether at bail hearings, sentencings, or elsewhere.

The author is a former software engineer at Facebook who’s now studying law at Harvard. Her point isn’t that we shouldn’t use or consult these programs, but we should know what we’re getting into and proceed with caution. It’s troubling, for example, if we use programs that no one in the field fully understands—not judges, not lawyers, not probation—because the manufacturer won’t disclose a proprietary algorithm.

She says we turn to computers in part to control for our own biases, “[b]ut shifting the … responsibility to a computer doesn’t necessarily eliminate bias; it delegates and often compounds it.” That’s because these programs mimic the data we use to train them, so even the ones that accurately reflect our world will necessarily reflect our biases. Plus, they work on a feedback loop, so if they’re not constantly retrained, they lean in toward those biases and drift even further from reality and fairness. So they don’t just parrot our own biases; they amplify them. She saw this phenomenon time and again as a software engineer.

She agrees that algorithms can work for good. They’ve reportedly helped New Jersey reduce its pretrial jail population, for example.

But let’s proceed with caution, she says:

“Computers may be intelligent, but they are not wise. Everything they know, we taught them, and we taught them our biases. They are not going to un-learn them without transparency and corrective action by humans.”

California’s New Law of Fair Shakes

Whether you’re an employer or an employee, take note.

Earlier this month, California enacted the Fair Chance Act.

This means that, beginning next year, many employers can no longer ask about or look into criminal convictions until they’ve decided a person is right for the job. That means they can’t ask about convictions anymore on a job application. It also means they can’t run a background check until they’ve made a conditional offer of employment.

Also, once employers make a conditional offer and run someone’s record, they can’t deny the job based on a conviction unless they first analyze the relationship between the job and conviction. What kind of job is it, after all? Does it have anything to do with the conviction? How long ago was that, anyway? There must be a “direct and adverse” relationship between the two to justify the decision.

Employers don’t have to share their analysis with applicants, but they must advise of their decision in writing. When they do, they must identify the relevant conviction, attach a copy of the report they ran on the person, and explain that he or she has at least five business days to show why the report isn’t accurate or why they should still get the job based on rehabilitation or mitigating circumstances. Employers must consider any evidence they submit. If they still decide to deny the job, they must let the person know in writing, refer him or her to any existing procedure they have for challenging it, and give them notice of the right to file a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

What hasn’t changed? Employers still can’t consider arrests that didn’t lead to conviction, unless charges are still pending or the arrest was for certain drug or sex offenses and the job is in a healthcare facility that requires access to drugs or patients. Nor can employers consider convictions that have been sealed, dismissed, or otherwise expunged.

The law will apply to employers with five or more employees. It exempts those who must conduct background checks by law. For more on the new law and its passage, see here and here. For the text itself, see here.

Commemorating a Courtroom Legend

One of the great professional experiences of my life was the year I spent working for a federal trial judge in Los Angeles. Fresh out of law school in 2005, I served as a law clerk to the Honorable Manuel Real, who was appointed by President Johnson in 1966 and has presided there in the district court since. He’s a walking, living legend of the law.

Judicial clerkships are sought-after jobs for good reason. You learn more about litigation in that year than you ever could by practicing law in any other capacity. It’s because you read and analyze a lot of briefs, and you watch and listen to a lot of lawyers. You see it all from good to run-of-the-mill to bad, and it’s not always what, or whom, you’d expect.

Last year, I was asked to write a piece to commemorate Judge Real’s fiftieth year on the bench, and recently, it was published in the newsletter of the Federal Bar Association in Orange County. Here’s a link to the newsletter if you’re interested, and you’ll find my profile of Judge Real on page ten. Or you can just keep reading below. You’ll hear about bank robberies, business litigation, and even a little gardening.


What do you say when someone celebrates fifty years on the bench?

Plenty in Judge Real’s case if you ask me, and since someone did, here’s my piece.

Who am I? Well, I was the Judge’s 62nd law clerk: one of two during the 2005-06 term, and one of 82 now overall. A lot of those clerks feel the way about him that I do, so I’m delighted to help commemorate this very special jubilee; it’s a deep and sentimental honor for me.

The Judge hired me when I was 26 years old, and he made a big impression on me from the beginning.

For one thing, he seemed like the strongest 82 year old in the world. I remember we flew to Arizona once to sit by designation, and at the airport, I found myself scampering ten or fifteen feet behind him because he was tearing along at a brisk pace with all of his luggage in tow. It was the gait of a man who knew where he was going. A lot of folks have marveled at his vitality over the years, and the Judge will often attribute it to his gardening, but I’m not sure you’d grasp what he means by that if you haven’t seen some of the gardening he’s done.

Here’s a story for you. A few years ago, I went to visit him at home, and when I got there, he was all by himself; no Mrs. Real, no family. He asked me to give him a hand with something, so we headed back toward the garden, and I saw that he was already in the middle of some heavy-duty project. Before I knew it, he brought over a ladder and power saw, and he said we were going to clear out some tree branches and foliage. That sounded good to me in the abstract, but then I found myself at the foot of a very tall ladder, staring up at my 86-year-old former boss, who happened to be a federal judge, perched on the penultimate rung. And above him, the tree branches loomed large and thick. It would’ve been a tough job for someone half his age.

Suddenly, I was pretty worried. And I didn’t like my options. I couldn’t ask him to come down from there any more than I could’ve told him not to go up in the first place. Not to someone like Judge Real, and not in his own house, anyway. But my mind was running and my adrenaline pumping. All I could think about — in addition to his falling and hurting himself — was how in the world I would account for that afterward to his family, or the world.

So I held onto that ladder as best I could and braced myself to break his fall or do whatever else.

But you know what? I didn’t need to worry. The Judge climbed that ladder to the top, stood firmly at its crest, and starting mowing down branches like nobody’s business. Before I knew it, I was getting covered down there with leaves and branches. At some point, he came down to take a break, and I offered to go a round. He didn’t go up again after that, and that was the end of it. But boy, what a moment that was.

And I have to tell you, I was astonished by that. I really couldn’t believe he did something like that at his age, and there was never a moment while he was up there that he seemed unsteady or precarious. The whole thing just blew me away.

But then the Judge is impressive in a lot of ways.

I remember a patent case we had that went to trial. It was a difficult, esoteric case, and the jurors had a hard time following along or even trying to. I found my own thoughts wandering, and I was supposed to be the apprentice law clerk. The Judge, however, actively presided over the trial and lobbed incisive questions from the bench. In the fog of a dry witness examination, he would get the testimony moving again with a series of short, focused questions. The longer I practice, the more I’m impressed by that case and how the Judge exerted the same energy and attention that one might summon in, say, a bank robbery.

Speaking of bank robberies, I remember one of those went to trial, too. The defendant was a middle-aged man who’d walked into a bank and passed a note. It was, like many bank robberies, a nonviolent act of turmoil and desperation. The guy had lost his job, his wife had left him, and his life was falling apart. So he went and robbed a bank. No gun or other alarming facts, just a guy with a note. It was sad and pitiable. He got caught, and now he was looking at a serious term of imprisonment under the federal sentencing guidelines.

There was no jury this time, and the case was tried to the court. I do recall the evidence was sufficient to convict the man, but then I wasn’t the trier of fact, though I’m not sure I would’ve come out differently if I was.

Well, the Judge acquitted him. I’m not saying the evidence was overwhelming, but there was plenty of room to convict if he wanted to. Although I’ve never asked the Judge about it, I believe it was a pure, unsung display of mercy and judgment by a judge whom no one would characterize as easy or soft. Mind you, the law of federal sentencing was in a state of upheaval at the time. The Supreme Court had just declared the guidelines to be advisory, not mandatory, but there was a lot of commotion about it, and the dust hadn’t settled like it has since.

Sometimes, the Judge disagreed with me, and those were the best lessons. One time, we got a motion for attorney’s fees after a disabled-access case had settled. The plaintiff’s lawyer was asking for $103,000, and the defendant, a restaurant, said it should be $13,000. I split the baby and recommended an award of $65,000. I argued that the lawyer’s hourly rate was reasonable and that the award, even if generous, would compensate him for the risk he took in bringing the case and his success in obtaining defendant’s compliance with the law. Or so I thought.

After the Judge reviewed my bench memo, he posed just one question: Could I research the court dockets for cases involving this plaintiff and lawyer? Sure thing, Judge. And so I did, and what I found was quite interesting. In the past three years, the plaintiff had filed at least 21 of these lawsuits in the California federal courts alone. In each case, his complaint made the same boilerplate claim that he’d fallen in a toilet at some restaurant. In two of these cases, he even alleged that it happened on the same day in two different restaurants — on opposite ends of the state. His lawyer in every case? You can take a wild guess.

The two had quite a racket going. They would file a lawsuit based on their boilerplate claims; bring in a consultant to identify every technical violation of disabled-access laws, few of which had anything to do with the plaintiff’s personal claim; settle the case for next to nothing but the defendant’s promise to bring itself into compliance; declare victory; and move for attorneys’ fees, which I suspect the two probably shared to some extent. But this wasn’t the Judge’s first rodeo, and needless to say, they didn’t get what they asked for.

There are a lot of things that you learn in a textbook, but when you learn by doing, and you peel back an onion that way, it tends to stay with you.

In that case, rather than acceding to the parties’ settlement, the Judge pursued a more just result, and he got it.

But that’s how he approaches work every day in my estimation. He’s a prototypical trial judge. During my clerkship, he would often remind us that, as a matter of fact, “we decide these cases.” He knows that it’s his job to decide them, and he understands that, while the court of appeals is there to review them, appellate review isn’t always an adequate remedy for injustice. He knows that, in nearly every case, the most important contest in the lives of those involved is the one decided in his court. And he knows that not everything that happens in a case or courtroom transfers to an appellate record, anyway. He wants to do justice.

Even generations of defendants whom he’s supervised on probation write to him, still — decades after he’s sentenced them or terminated their probation — to thank him for taking the time to judge them in a way that improved the balance of their lives.

That kind of stuff makes an impression on you, too.

In the end, everyone will have his or her critics — we all do — and fifty years of judging will earn you a few.

But I’ve learned that Judge Real cares only to do the best he can every day in law and in life. May we all do it so well.

His style may hark back to the brand of judge he used to appear before in his day, but his instincts are sound, his philosophy just, and his heart tucked securely in the right place. He is a good man in a preternatural sense, one of the very best I know, and I’m proud to call him a friend and mentor. Happy anniversary, Judge, and here’s to many more.

California’s New Sex-Offender Registry

Big news out of California last week.

Beginning in 2021, the state will replace its current sex-offender registry, which requires everyone to register for life, with a three-tiered system that distinguishes among low-risk, medium-risk, and high-risk offenders.

People in the first tier will be able to petition to end their registration after ten years. You’re in this tier if you were convicted of a misdemeanor or a non-violent, non-serious felony.

Those in the second tier will be able to petition after twenty years. This applies if you were convicted of a serious or violent offense but do not pose a high risk of reoffending.

Those in the third tier will continue to have to register for life. This applies to high-risk offenders, repeat offenders, and sexually-violent offenders.

For juveniles, there are two tiers. Those in the first tier can petition for removal after five years. Those in the second tier can do so after ten years.

In all cases, the district attorney can oppose your petition, and the court can deny it. If it’s denied, you can petition again, but you’ll have to wait at least one year and as many as five.

Almost everyone supported the new law, including law enforcement, which argued the current registry was so large that cops couldn’t focus effectively on the high-risk offenders.

For local and national press coverage, see here, here, and here.

For the text of the new law, see here.

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