Recent developments within two of the three branches of the federal government portend significant potential changes in the SEC’s ability to obtain disgorgement of ill-gotten gains in civil actions brought by its enforcement arm. Early in November, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear an appeal of a Ninth Circuit case, SEC v. Liu, involving the issue of whether the SEC has statutory authority to obtain disgorgement at all. Then, not three weeks later, the U.S. House of Representatives responded by passing H.R. 4344, a bill explicitly codifying the SEC’s authority to obtain disgorgement. While the ultimate decision of the high court remains months away, and the House’s action has no legal significance until a companion bill in the Senate is acted upon and the two bills are passed by both chambers, these developments are of great significance to securities litigators and SEC-watchers alike.
Disgorgement has long been a powerful arrow in the SEC’s enforcement quiver, allowing it to obtain, on behalf of aggrieved investors, reimbursement of ill-gotten gains. However, despite it having obtained billions of dollars in disgorgement in civil actions over the last few decades, no statute explicitly confers the SEC with authority to seek this remedy. Rather, lacking any express authority, federal judges have implied it in scores of decisions dating back to the 1970s. Now, that entire foundation has come into question, prompted first by the Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Kokesh v. SEC, and now by the high court’s acceptance of the Liu appeal.