Justia Corporate Compliance Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
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Armbruster, a CPA with experience working at a Big Four accounting firm, began serving as the controller for Roadrunner's predecessor in 1990 and became Roadrunner’s CFO. Roadrunner grew rapidly, acquiring transportation companies and going public in 2010. In 2014, Roadrunner’s then‐controller recognized shortcomings in a subsidiary's (Morgan) accounting and began investigating. In 2016, many deficiencies in Morgan’s accounting remained unresolved. The departing controller found that Morgan had inflated its balance sheet by at least $2 million and perhaps as much as $4–5 million. Armbruster filed Roadrunner's 2016 third quarter SEC Form 10‐Q with no adjustments of the carrying values of Morgan balance sheet items and including other misstatements. Roadrunner’s CEO learned of the misstatements and informed Roadrunner’s Board of Directors. Roadrunner informed its independent auditor. Roadrunner’s share price dropped significantly. Roadrunner filed restated financial statements, reporting a decrease of approximately $66.5 million in net income over the misstated periods.Criminal charges were brought against Armbruster and two former departmental controllers. A mixed verdict acquitted the departmental controllers on all counts but convicted Armbruster on four of 11 charges for knowingly falsifying Roadrunner‘s accounting records by materially misstating the carrying values of Morgan's receivable and prepaid taxes account, 15 U.S.C. 78m(b)(2), (5), i78ff(a), 18 U.S.C. 2, fraudulently influencing Roadrunner’s external auditor, and filing fraudulent SEC financial statements, 18 U.S.C.1348. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. While the case against Armbruster may not have been open‐and‐shut, a rational jury could have concluded that the government presented enough evidence to support the guilty verdicts. View "United States v. Armbruster" on Justia Law

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Tribune and Sinclair announced an agreement to merge. Tribune abandoned the merger and sued Sinclair, accusing it of failing to comply with its contractual commitment to “use reasonable best efforts” to satisfy the demands of the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department and the FCC, both of which could block the merger. Sinclair settled that suit for $60 million; the settlement disclaims liability. While the merger agreement was in place, investors bought and sold Tribune’s stock. In this class action investors alleged violations of the Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 by failing to disclose that Sinclair was “playing hardball with the regulators,” increasing the risk that the merger would be stymied.The Seventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. The principal claims, which rest on the 1934 Act, failed under the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. Questionable statements, such as predictions that the merger was likely to proceed, were forward-looking and shielded from liability because Tribune expressly cautioned investors about the need for regulatory approval and the fact that the merging firms could prove unwilling to do what regulators sought, 15 U.S.C. 78u–5(c)(1)..With respect to the 1933 Act, the registration statement and prospectus through which the shares were offered stated all of the material facts. The relevant “hardball” actions occurred after the plaintiffs purchased shares. “Plaintiffs suppose that, during a major corporate transaction, managers’ thoughts must be an open book." No statute or regulation requires that. View "Arbitrage Event-Driven Fund v. Tribune Media Co." on Justia Law

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In October 2018, a Boeing 737 MAX airliner crashed in the sea near Indonesia, killing everyone on board. In March 2019, a second 737 MAX crashed in Ethiopia, again killing everyone on board. Within days of the second crash, all 737 MAX airliners around the world were grounded. The FAA kept the planes grounded until November 2020, when it was satisfied that serious problems with the planes’ flight control systems had been corrected. The Pension Plan, a shareholder of the Boeing Company, filed a derivative suit on behalf of Boeing under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, 15 U.S.C. 78n(a)(1), alleging that Boeing officers and board members made materially false and misleading public statements about the development and operation of the 737 MAX in Boeing’s 2017, 2018, and 2019 proxy materials.The district court dismissed the suit without addressing the merits, applying a Boeing bylaw that gives the company the right to insist that any derivative actions be filed in the Delaware Court of Chancery. The Seventh Circuit reversed. Because the federal Exchange Act gives federal courts exclusive jurisdiction over actions under it, applying the bylaw to this case would mean that the derivative action could not be heard in any forum. That result would be contrary to Delaware corporation law, which respects the non-waiver provision in Section 29(a) of the federal Exchange Act, 15 U.S.C. 78cc(a). View "Seafarers Pension Plan v. Bradway" on Justia Law

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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