Earlier this summer, the US Supreme Court handed down a highly anticipated decision clarifying the powers of the Securities and Exchanges Commission in civil enforcement proceedings. The court ruled by a margin of 8 to 1 that the SEC can obtain disgorgement from a defendant because disgorgement is a form of equitable relief. As such, the remedy is based on district courts’ inherent powers to enter remedies based on fairness and equity. But we anticipate that the lower courts will still have difficulty in answering questions relating to the equitable remedy with uniformity, most likely resulting in those questions eventually coming back to the high court for resolution.
The case, Liu v. SEC, involved a lower court’s order that a married couple must pay $27 million in disgorgement as a result of the husband’s raising that amount from Chinese investors in a fraudulent EB-5 offering. The funds were ostensibly raised to fund a new cancer clinic, but ultimately the funds were misused. The husband funneled some of the money to the wife and some to other related companies. Both husband and wife were paid millions of dollars in salaries alone. The disgorgement award held both husband and wife jointly and severally liable for the full amount.
The trial court ordered the couple to disgorge the full amount raised in the fraudulent scheme as “ill-gotten gains.” The defendants challenged the amount of disgorgement imposed on several grounds, including that the amount should be offset by legitimate expenses incurred by the defendants. A disgorgement award that was not limited to net profits, they argued, constituted a penalty and therefore, could not be imposed consistent with other limitations on awards of civil penalties. Continue reading ›