Justia Corporate Compliance Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
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While Appvion was in financial distress, 2012-2016, the defendants allegedly fraudulently inflated stock valuations to enrich the directors and officers, whose pay was tied to the valuations of its ERISA-covered Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). They allegedly carried out this scheme with knowing aid from the ESOP trustee, Argent, and its independent appraiser, Stout. Appvion directors allegedly provided unlawful dividends to its parent company by forgiving intercompany notes. Appvion filed for bankruptcy protection. Appvion’s bankruptcy creditors were given authority to pursue certain corporation-law claims on behalf of Appvion to recover losses from the defendants’ alleged wrongs against the corporation; they brought state law claims against the directors and officers for breaching their corporate fiduciary duties; alleged that Argent and Stout aided and abetted those breaches, and asserted state-law unlawful dividend claims. The defendants argued that their roles in Appvion’s ESOP valuations were governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which preempted state corporation-law liability and that, despite their dual roles as corporate and ERISA fiduciaries, they acted exclusively under ERISA when carrying out ESOP activities, 29 U.S.C. 1002(21)(A). The district court agreed and dismissed.The Seventh Circuit reversed in part. ERISA does not preempt the claims against directors and officers. ERISA expressly contemplates parallel corporate liability against those who serve dual roles as both corporate and ERISA fiduciaries. ERISA preempts the claims against Argent and Stout. Corporation-law aiding and abetting liability against these defendants would interfere with the cornerstone of ERISA’s fiduciary duties—Section 404's exclusive benefit rule. View "Halperin v. Richards" on Justia Law

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Coscia used electronic exchanges for futures trading and implemented high-frequency trading programs. High-frequency trading, called “spoofing,” and defined as bidding or offering with the intent to cancel the bid or offer before execution, became illegal in 2010 under the Dodd-Frank Act, 7 U.S.C. 6c(a)(5). Coscia was convicted of commodities fraud, 18 U.S.C. 1348, and spoofing, After an unsuccessful appeal, Coscia sought a new trial, citing new evidence that data discovered after trial establishes that there were errors in the data presented to the jury and that subsequent indictments for similar spoofing activities undercut the government’s characterization of Coscia as a trading “outlier.” He also claimed that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance, having an undisclosed conflict of interest. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. Even assuming that Coscia’s new evidence could not have been discovered sooner through the exercise of due diligence, Coscia failed to explain how that evidence or the subsequent indictments seriously called the verdict into question. Coscia has not established that his attorneys learned of relevant and confidential information from its cited unrelated representations. Coscia’s counsel faced “the common situation” where the client stands a better chance of success by admitting the underlying actions and arguing that the actions do not constitute a crime. That the jury did not accept his defense does not render it constitutionally deficient. View "Coscia v. United States" on Justia Law

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In 1986 Deibel, Hoeg, and Steffen founded Hy-Pro Corporation. Deibel, its president, received 2,500 shares, representing 12.5% of the authorized stock. Deibel guaranteed Hy-Pro’s payment of a $100,000 debt to a bank. Within a year Deibel demanded that Hoeg leave. When Hoeg refused, Deibel quit but held onto his stock even. A state court suit settled, but the settlement was not reduced to writing. Deibel insists that under the settlement Hy-Pro would pay $15,000 and arrange with the bank to release his guarantee. Hoeg and Steffen assert that Deibel was also to surrender his shares.Almost 30 years later, Deibel filed a federal suit. HyPro was sold in 2017 for about $20 million; a 12.5% share would exceed $2.5 million. Indiana has a two-year period of limitations for such claims. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit as untimely, rejecting Deibel’s claims that he was still an investor when the firm was sold, and, if not, that a firm’s refusal to recognize him as an investor was a “continuing wrong.” When Deibel did not return his shares, Hy-Pro canceled Deibel’s stock. Deibel has not been on the company’s books as a shareholder since 1992. Deibel received multiple letters from various parties, including the IRS, notifying him of that fact; his claim accrued no later than 1998. View "Deibel v. Hoeg" on Justia Law

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Xanthopoulos, a Mercer consultant, detected securities fraud; his internal complaints failed. He went to the SEC website, and, in March 2014, Xanthopoulos submitted his first TCR Form. Unlike the Sarbanes-Oxley OSHA Form, which may be used to notify OSHA of a Sarbanes-Oxley complaint, the SEC’s TCR Form does not affirmatively indicate that submission of the form will initiate a formal lawsuit under the federal securities law. Xanthopoulos allegedly submitted seven TCR Forms through June 2018; in his 2018 submissions, he mentioned Mercer’s mistreatment of him as an employee, not just the securities fraud. Every TCR Form Xanthopoulos submitted specifically referenced a whistleblowing award.As Xanthopoulos predicted in those filings, Mercer fired him in October 2017. Xanthopoulos filed an OSHA administrative complaint in September 2018, alleging violations of Sarbanes-Oxley’s anti-retaliation provision, 18 U.S.C. 1514A. OSHA dismissed the complaint as untimely because Xanthopoulos filed 350 days after Mercer discharged him. He responded that “there was no[] 180-day-period[] in which [he] could have decided in clear conscience, that [he] had every information needed, to contact OSHA.” Xanthopoulos, then represented by counsel, argued that he filed his claim in the wrong forum, which tolled the statute of limitations: the TCR Forms constituted Sarbanes-Oxley claims mistakenly filed with the SEC. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal. The reports to the SEC did not toll the 180-day period for his Sarbanes-Oxley complaint. Xanthopoulos has not articulated a sufficient ground to equitably toll his untimely complaint. View "Xanthopoulos v. United States Department of Labor Administrative Review Board" on Justia Law

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Sterling Bank purchased Damian Services. The stock purchase agreement set up a two-million-dollar escrow to resolve disputes arising after the purchase and established comprehensive rights, obligations, remedies, and procedures for resolving disputes. After the purchase, a former Damian employee called some of Damian’s clients to tell them of a billing practice that the sellers had instituted years earlier. When Sterling learned of the situation, it investigated with the help of a forensic accountant. Sterling concluded that under the sellers’ management, Damian had overcharged its clients by over one million dollars. Sterling refunded the overpayments to its current clients, then unsuccessfully demanded indemnification from the escrow, claiming that the sellers had misrepresented Damian’s liabilities and vulnerability to litigation.The district court granted the sellers summary judgment, reasoning that Sterling missed the deadline for claiming indemnification under the stock purchase agreement. The court denied the sellers’ request for statutory interest on the escrow money.The Seventh Circuit reversed. Whether Sterling’s demand for indemnification was late depends on disputed facts. Even if the demand was late, however, the agreement’s elaborate terms provide that any delay could be held against Sterling only “to the extent that [sellers] irrevocably forfeit[] rights or defenses by reason of such failure.” Undisputed facts show that the sellers have not irrevocably forfeited any claims or defenses. View "Sterling National Bank v. Block" on Justia Law

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Applecars is a member of a network of Wisconsin used-car dealerships. McCormick owned a majority share in each dealership. Each dealership received management services from Capital M, which McCormick also owned. Capital M tracked shared dealership inventory, held employee records, and issued identical employee handbooks for each dealership; Capital M’s operations manager hired and fired each dealership’s general manager. The employees of each dealership gathered as one for events several times per year. The dealerships advertised on a single website, which included some language suggesting a single entity and some indicators that each dealership is a separate entity. Each dealership properly maintained corporate formalities and records. Capital M billed each dealership separately. Each dealership had a distinct general manager, bank accounts, and financial reports. The dealerships separately filed and paid taxes, paid employees, and entered into contracts.Prince worked at Applecars for several months before he was fired. Prince claims his firing was retaliatory and sued Applecars and its affiliates for racial discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The court granted the defendants summary judgment, noting that Applecars had fewer than 15 employees and was not subject to Title VII. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. There is insufficient evidence to support Prince’s theory that the court should pierce the corporate veil of the network, aggregating the number of employees such that Title VII would apply. View "Prince v. Appleton Auto LLC" on Justia Law

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Winemaster founded PSI in 1985 and served as Chairman, President, and CEO. In 2011, PSI became a publicly-traded company. Winemaster and his brother were PSI’s majority shareholders. The company’s early SEC filings noted that PSI’s “internal controls over financial reporting” suffered from “material weakness.” In 2013, PSI’s per-share price rocketed from $16.18 to $75.10. In 2015, PSI began making disclosures; its auditor resigned, its share price plummeted, and the government began investigating. PSI had improperly recognized millions of dollars in revenue. Winemaster resigned. As a result of a purchase agreement and resignations, six of PSI’s seven current directors were unaffiliated with the company during the period of alleged misconduct. Winemaster was charged with criminal fraud.Lawsuits followed, including this derivative complaint on behalf of PSI, alleging fiduciary breach and unjust enrichment against certain officers and directors. The parties executed a settlement, with a monetary award of $1.875 million from PSI’s insurers; plaintiffs' counsel would get half. The balance was earmarked for expenses related to the government’s investigations. The settlement required the formal enactment of 17 corporate governance reforms. The plaintiffs agreed to a release against the individual defendants, including Winemaster. The court granted preliminary approval. In the meantime, state derivative actions were dismissed as duplicative. In federal court, the state plaintiff unsuccessfully objected to Winemaster's release, argued that the monetary component was insufficient, and claimed that the proposed governance reforms lacked substance. The Seventh Circuit affirmed final approval. The district court adequately considered the propriety of the settlement’s terms. View "McFadden v. Dorvit" on Justia Law

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Nutmeg LLC, formerly managed by Goulding, served as an investment advisor and sole general partner of more than a dozen investment funds, each a limited partnership under Illinois or Minnesota law. Goulding’s management of the Funds ended in 2009, when the SEC brought an enforcement action against him, Nutmeg, and others under the Investment Advisors Act of 1940, alleging that Nutmeg misappropriated client assets and failed to maintain proper records. The district court found that the SEC made the showing necessary to warrant the issuance of a restraining order prohibiting Goulding from managing the Funds and granted the SEC’s unopposed motion to appoint attorney Weiss as receiver for Nutmeg. Unsatisfied with Weiss’s performance, Goulding and limited partners from certain funds managed by Nutmeg filed an individual and derivative action on behalf of the Funds, alleging breach of fiduciary duty and legal malpractice. The court dismissed the federal securities law claim, claims against Nutmeg, all legal malpractice claims against Weiss and her firm, and two breach of fiduciary duty claims. The Seventh Circuit Affirmed, holding that even when viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, no reasonable jury could find that either Weiss or her firm willfully and deliberately violated any fiduciary duties. View "Goulding v. Weiss" on Justia Law

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In 2011 Caterpillar made serious inquiries about the possible acquisition of a Chinese mining company and its wholly‐owned subsidiary (Siwei). Caterpillar completed that acquisition in June 2012. Only after the closing did Caterpillar gain access to Siwei’s physical inventory and find that Siwei had overstated its profits and improperly recognized revenue. Caterpillar took a $580 million goodwill impairment charge just months after the acquisition. Plaintiffs, Caterpillar shareholders, filed a shareholder derivative suit alleging that several former Caterpillar officers breached their fiduciary duties by failing to conduct an adequate investigation of the Siwei acquisition, which caused Caterpillar’s loss. They made an unsuccessful demand that the Caterpillar Board bring the litigation. The district court dismissed the complaint for failure adequately to allege that the Board wrongfully refused to pursue the Plaintiffs’ claim. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The Board’s decision not to litigate was protected by the “wide bounds of the business judgment rule.” The plaintiffs might come to a different conclusion about the strategic importance of the acquisition, the risk that litigation might cause disruption and excessive cost for Caterpillar, or the need to interview Siwei’s former CEO, but those types of business and investigative choices are exactly what the business judgment rule protects. View "Lowinger v. Oberhelman" on Justia Law

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Lester and William Lee created LIA in 1974 as a public company. William’s sons (Lester's nephews) later joined the business. LIA subsequently bought out the public shareholders, leaving Lester owning 516 shares; William owned 484. William created the Trust to hold his shares. The nephews served as trustees. Lester encountered difficulties with another company he owned, Maxim. He proposed that Maxim merge with LIA; William rejected this idea. Lester told the nephews, “I will screw you at every opportunity,” and made other threats, then, as majority shareholder, approved a merger of LIA and another company. The Trust asserted its rights under Indiana’s Dissenters’ Rights Statute. Lester gutted LIA to prevent the Trust from collecting the value of its LIA shares. He bought property from LIA on terms favorable to him and realized substantial profits. LIA subsidiaries were transferred for little or no consideration to Lester’s immediate family. Lester also perpetrated a collusive lawsuit, resulting in an agreed judgment that all LIA assets should be transferred to him and his companies. Lester did not disclose these actions to the nephews. In 2008, the Jennings Circuit Court conducted an appraisal in the dissenters’ rights action. Between the trial and the judgment, Lester dissolved LIA. The court entered a $7,522,879.73 judgment for the Trust. In 2012, Lester petitioned for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The Trust initiated a successful adversary proceeding to pierce LIA’s corporate veil and hold Lester personally liable for the judgment. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, noting the facts were undisputed. View "William R. Lee Irrevocable Trust v. Lee" on Justia Law