SCOTUS Says You Must Tell the SEC

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court settled an important question for the SEC’s whistleblower program. That program awards you money for reporting corporate misdeeds to the Commission. It also protects you from retaliation because you can sue to recover your position, double your back pay, and accrued interest, legal fees, and litigation costs.

Well, the Court said you can’t sue for retaliation if you only report something internally at your company. You have to tell the Commission, too, or you’re not a whistleblower under the law. Sounds simple enough, except the SEC had promulgated a rule to the contrary. Here’s the Wall Street Journal’s take on it.

The case was brought by a man who said his company fired him after he reported some accounting problems up the chain.

He didn’t go to the SEC, but he did sue for retaliation, and the company moved to dismiss.

Both the trial court and the appeals court denied that motion. They ruled that even if the man wasn’t entitled to money as a whistleblower, he could sue under the anti-retaliation sections of the law if he was fired for reporting wrongdoing.

But the high court unanimously reversed, saying you can’t sue for retaliation as a whistleblower unless and until you tell the SEC. The statute that created the whistleblower program, the Dodd-Frank law, defines whistleblower as a person who provides information “to the Commission.” And that supports the law’s core purpose, which is to spur people to tell the SEC. There’s another federal law, Sarbanes-Oxley, that protects you from retaliation for reporting something internally. But that law requires you to file a complaint with the Labor Department within six months before you can sue in court. And you only get simple back pay. The Dodd-Frank law lets you sue directly in federal court within six to ten years, and you get double back pay. But only if you tell the SEC.

A Tale of Two Memos for White-Collar Cases and Whistleblowers

In the past month, the U.S. Justice Department has released two memoranda that will affect civil enforcement generally and the False Claims Act specifically.

The first memo confirms that DOJ will more actively dismiss the whistleblower cases it turns down rather than let them run their course. The memo follows a surprise announcement in October that we covered here. It’s an internal memo, but it’s already been published in the legal press. Here’s a summary.

Under the False Claims Act, the government may move to dismiss a case over a whistleblower’s dissent as long as it gives notice of the motion and there’s a hearing on it.

In exercising this power, the memo calls on civil prosecutors to consider these factors:

  1. Whether the case clearly lacks merit at the outset or after investigation.
  2. Whether it piggybacks off an existing government investigation but adds nothing to it.
  3. Whether it interferes with the government’s policies and programs in that sector or industry.
  4. Whether it interferes with the government’s goals for litigation brought on its behalf.
  5. Whether it poses a risk to national security from disclosure of classified information.
  6. Whether it will cost the government more in time, labor, dollars, or lost opportunities than it will return on the investment.

Three more points. First, these factors are not mutually exclusive, so more than one may apply at a time. Second, they’re not exhaustive, so the government can move to dismiss for other reasons, too. Third, it ain’t all or nothing, so the government can move to dismiss some claims or defendants but not others.

The second memo says something more profound for enforcement generally. Effective January 25, civil prosecutors may no longer treat an agency’s “guidance” as a set of binding rules whose violation means a violation of law. That’s because an agency’s guidance can’t create binding rules beyond what exists by statute or regulation. For one thing, it doesn’t go through the same process as formal regulations do, where an agency will give notice of a proposed rule to stakeholders and afford them a chance to comment. (Which makes for better rules). Sometimes, it doesn’t even emanate from the agency but a contractor. Because guidance doesn’t have the force of law, the fact that a person or business didn’t comply with it doesn’t prove or even presume that they violated the law.

The memo defines such guidance as “any agency statement of general applicability and future effect, whether styled as ‘guidance’ or otherwise, that is designed to advise parties outside of the federal Executive Branch about legal rights and obligations.” The memo expressly applies, for example, when the government enforces the False Claims Act by alleging that someone falsely certified their compliance with statutes or regulations.

New Year’s Resolutions

Speaking of compliance, here are two businesses that ended the year resolving charges they violated U.S. trade sanctions by dealing with blocked countries, people, or entities.

Both cases show how the government enforces its sanctions regime, and they illustrate how an ounce of prevention can beat a pound of cure. Both cases were brought by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, which is an agency within the Department of Treasury.

The first case concerns a dental-supply company that agreed to pay $1.2 million to settle charges that it violated the Iranian Transactions and Sanctions Regulations. The government alleged that, from the end of 2009 through the middle of 2012, the company exported 37 shipments of dental equipment to distributors in other countries knowing, or having reason to know, they would end up in Iran.

According to the government, it wasn’t an egregious case because the exports were likely eligible for a license if the company had only applied for one. But it didn’t, and that ended up costing it a lot more on the back end.

The second case concerns a luxury-goods company that agreed to pay $300,000-plus to settle charges that it violated the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Sanctions Regulations. The government alleged that, from October 2010 to April 2011, the company exported four shipments of jewelry to a Hong Kong entity that was on OFAC’s list of blocked persons and interests. The blocked entity’s name and address squarely matched those of the ship-to party, but the company didn’t flag the transaction before shipping the goods.

According to the government, this wasn’t an egregious case either, but if you add up the settlement costs and legal fees, it sure does eat into the margin.

Happy 2018, California

Let’s celebrate because the new year marks the dawn of the state’s licensing program for commercial, recreational cannabis. It follows the voters’ approval of Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which we wrote about last year.

But hold your horses, too, because it’s just the beginning. Earlier this month, the state launched its online application system, and two weeks ago, it issued its first batch of temporary licenses to retailers, distributors, microbusinesses, and testing laboratories. These licenses go effective January 1 and allow previously accredited businesses to do business while they complete the application process.

So far, only a few cities and counties are ready to go on January 1. Others, like Los Angeles, have been getting ready and will start taking applications within days or weeks. Some have opted out entirely. And most haven’t decided one way or another.

It’s a work in progress, then, and the best advice for now is to cover your backside. Run your business by the book, and invest in high-quality legal research, analysis, and representation. Invest in compliance, in other words, because it’s the only sustainable way in the end.

In the meantime, seven more states are poised to join the growing majority that has chosen to legalize, regulate, and tax medical or recreational pot.

So it may just be the beginning, but the new year looks bright.

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.

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.

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.

When It Sounds Too Good To Be True

Last week, it was the SEC; this week, it’s the FTC or Federal Trade Commission. That’s the agency that, among other things, enforces federal laws against unfair or deceptive business acts or practices, including false advertising.

So what happened?

The FTC settled a lawsuit against a chiropractor who sold a “breakthrough” weight-loss system for $1,895 a pop. He also licensed and franchised the system to other chiropractors and professionals to sell.

Although the defendant didn’t admit or deny the allegations, he agreed to stop making the following claims about his system:

  1. That you could lose twenty to forty pounds, or more, in forty days.
  2. That you could do that safely and without cutting calories or exercising.
  3. That you could burn between 2,000 and 7,000 calories per day.
  4. That you could treat diabetes, psoriasis, and other conditions.

I’m no doctor, but as far as I know, it’s not possible to lose that much weight or burn that many calories without starving yourself or exercising like you’re on meth. According to the complaint, the people who bought the system were told—only after the fact—to eat about 500 calories per day. To put that in perspective, the bowl of cereal you had this morning was at least 200 calories. Good luck getting through the rest of the day.

The defendant also agreed to pay $2 million in refunds; to pay $30 million more if he violates the settlement agreement; to stop presenting friends, relatives, or business partners as satisfied customers who endorsed his system; and to stop using a non-disparagement clause in his contract that punished people for criticizing the system.

Buyer, beware: All that glitters ain’t gold, and there’s no substitute for good nutrition, exercise, and sleep.

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