By R. Tamara de Silva
November 29, 2011
This is the legal version of an NFL upset alert. On November 28, 2011, United States District Judge Jed S. Rakoff rejected what would have been the sixth civil settlement agreement between Citigroup Global Markets Inc. (“Citigroup”) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) since 2003. The SEC filed a complaint against Citigroup in October because Citigroup had peddled $1 billion in mortgage-bonds through a vehicle called Class V Funding III, without disclosing it was betting against $500 million of those assets-in essence offering something to its customers and not disclosing that it would be betting against them.
Contrary to press reports of the decision, Judge Rakoff is not being an activist judge or legislating from the bench when by refusing to uphold the $285 million settlement agreement. This Judge was upholding (and not without an insignificant amount of courage), the law. Perhaps even more importantly, his decision is a victory for the separation of powers doctrine.
Standard of Review
Civil settlements between the SEC and other parties, or what are alternatively called, consent decrees, are essentially permanent injunctions in that they forbid the party that is accused of violating some part of the securities laws from ever doing so again-often even attaching various conditions and stipulations meant to be honored for all time. The SEC in its filings prior to its last filing (a memorandum in support of a consent order), addressed the legal standard of review required for a court to grant a consent order, except this time when they asked the Court to finally grant the order, they did not fully address the standard of review.
By way of some background, usually, it is the function of the Legislature to make laws that proscribe conduct-not the Judiciary. It is an extraordinary thing to ask a court of law to permanently rule that someone is forever barred from doing something-injunctive relief is an extraordinary remedy because it throws the full weight of the court into what is the de facto making of a law-a judicial order. Breach of a Federal injunction can have criminal consequences-a Federal injunction is no common thing.
The United States Supreme Court established in numerous decisions that there is a four part test courts must use in granting injunctions. Before granting an injunction, a court must determine that the granting of the injunction is at once: 1) fair; 2) reasonable; 3) adequate, and 4) in the public interest (emphasis added). Ebay Inc. v. MercExchange, 547 U.S. 388, 391
The SEC remarkably pled that they need not address the “public’s interest,” part of the standard of review and that even if they did, they alone could decide that something is in the “public interest.” The SEC’s argument if followed would abrogate a power given to the court and yet ask the court to stamp its imprimatur and issue an order-thereby making the SEC the judge, jury and executioner.
The Justice Department is part of the Executive Branch and were the Judiciary merely to rubber stamp all settlements entered into between the departments of the Executive Branch and private parties, turning them into judicial orders on the say so of the Executive Branch or other government agencies and departments, the separation of powers would very meaningfully cease to exist. The courts would become in every sense the handmaidens of the Executive and other government agencies, or as in this case, the SEC.
Purely private parties can settle a case without ever agreeing on the facts, for all that is required is that a Plaintiff dismiss his complaint. But when a public agency asks a court to become its partner in enforcement by imposing wide-ranging injunctive remedies on a defendant, enforced by the formidable judicial power of contempt, the court, and the public, need some knowledge of what the underlying facts are: for otherwise, the court becomes a mere handmaiden to a settlement privately negotiated on the basis of unknown facts, while the public is deprived of ever knowing the truth in a matter of obvious public importanc
e. pp. 8-9
What Judge Rakoff did in denying the SEC’s request for a consent order was have the courage to point out to the SEC that it cannot alone, ignoring case law, determine the standard of review for the judicial approval of the civil settlement between itself and anyone else.
Settlement agreements between the Justice Department and SEC and private citizens are not like settlement agreements between two private parties in a civil matter or easement dispute. More often than not, the SEC presents an individual or concern with a choice between settling a complaint (not a conviction-we are at the stage of a mere accusation) for a fine or facing criminal prosecution against the full force of the United States Department of Justice and every means at its disposable (unlimited). This is Hobson’s choice itself. Somewhat analogous to my accosting a stranger and offering the following choice, “I will beat you to a pulp and it will cost every penny you have to recover medically and years of care or, you may pay me $100,000 and we will pretend this never happened.” Of course if it were proven that I did this, I would be unceremoniously tossed in a room not of my choosing for some duration and accused of extortion…but I am not the government. Neither are private civil settlements comparable to civil settlements with the SEC or Justice Department.
Judge Rakoff’s Ruling
Judge Rakoff also went on to say in his memorandum and opinion that he would no longer approve of SEC settlement agreements that involved the defendants not providing any admissions of wrong-doing, “because the court has not been provided with any proven or admitted facts upon which to exercise even a modest degree of independent judgment”.
In other words, the courts cannot determine what is fair or adequate about a consent agreement between a government agency and private party without some evidentiary basis or knowledge of the facts.
An application of judicial power that does not rest on facts is worse than mindless, it is inherently dangerous. The injunctive power of the judiciary is not a free- roving remedy to be invoked at the whim of a regulatory agency, even with the consent of the regulated. If its deployment does not rest on facts-cold, hard solid facts, established either by admission or by trials-it serves no lawful or moral purpose and is simply an engine of oppression.
Finally, in any case like this that touches on the transparency of financial markets whose gyrations have so depressed our economy and debilitated our lives, there is an overriding public interest in knowing the truth. In much of the world, propaganda reigns, and the truth is confined to secretive, fearful whispers. Even in our nation, apologists for suppressing or obscuring the truth may always be found. But the S.E.C., of all agencies, has a duty, inherent in its statutory mission, to see that the truth emerges; and if it fails to do so, this Court must not, in the name of deference or convenience, grant judicial enforcement to the agency’s contrivances
Citigroup is as the Court points out, a bit of a recidivist. Citigroup has signed many settlement agreements with the SEC without admitting any wrongdoing. It is almost a get out of jail for free card for a fee. Surely there is a purpose to these agreements than merely generating revenue for the SEC by making Citigroup part with pin money? Are these settlement agreements, as the Court and Bloomberg’s Jonathan Weil have asked, merely considered the “cost of doing business” or some part of a transaction tax on offending financial titans?
If it were in the public’s interest to prevent fraud upon the market, then fines should be significant enough to actually deter illegal conduct. If not, prosecutions should be endured and convictions gotten. The historic role of punishment in the criminal justice system has not been just punishment, but deterrence. In the case of the settlement agreement at hand, the actual fine was $95 million with the suggestion that Citigroup pay up to $285 million-this is pin money to a bank with revenue in the billions of dollars-the “cost of doing business” will not deter anyone, nor is its pursuit an enormously wise use of taxpayer funds-certainly not according to a cost benefit analysis. @
R. Tamara de Silva Chicago, Illinois November 29, 2011
R. Tamara de Silva is a securities lawyer and independent trader
Any questions about this article should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org Footnotes:
1. The power of the Federal court to protect and enforce its judgments is unquestioned. United States v. New York Telephone Co., 434 U.S. 159, 172-73(1977).