In one of her first official actions as Acting Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC or Commission), Allison Herren Lee reversed a major policy implemented by recently departed SEC Chairman Jay Clayton involving the SEC enforcement settlement process. This decision could significantly impact the SEC settlement process by causing uncertainty for settling entities as to the business consequences of a settlement. In a rare rebuke, two fellow SEC Commissioners promptly issued a statement decrying the Acting Chair’s decision.
Collateral Consequences of SEC Settlements
The federal securities laws contain provisions that impose restrictions on entities found to have violated certain statutes or regulations or that become subject to certain court-imposed injunctions or administrative orders. These restrictions, commonly referred to as “collateral consequences,” range from prohibiting a settling entity (and possibly its affiliates) from taking advantage of certain exemptions under the federal securities laws to disqualifying an entity from engaging in specific business activities. SEC settlements regularly trigger collateral consequences against settling SEC-regulated entities, like broker-dealers, hedge funds, investment advisers, and public companies. For example, a public company issuer that settles with the SEC could be automatically disqualified from being considered a Well-Known Seasoned Issuer under Rule 405 of Regulation C. Alternatively, a settlement could prohibit a settling investment adviser from providing advisory services to an investment company or from receiving cash fees for solicitations.
Given the serious collateral consequences an SEC settlement can trigger, and the fact that such consequences often are unrelated to the misconduct at issue in the corresponding SEC settlement, the SEC is authorized to grant disqualification waivers. The SEC routinely grants waivers to prevent disproportionate and unintended consequences resulting from a settlement.