June 16, 2010
Ninth Circuit Affirms Brokers' Duty To Disclose Material Commissions
GUEST BLOGGER-SOLOMON L. WISENBERG
Last week, in a significant decision construing SEC Rule 10b-5 in the context of criminal prosecutions, the Ninth Circuit held that "if a broker and a client have a trust relationship...then the broker has an obligation to disclose all facts material to that relationship." The case is United States v. Laurienti and can be accessed here. Laurienti involved a pump and dump scheme in which brokers failed to disclose commissions they received equal to 5% of the purchase price of certain "house stocks" sold to clients. The defendant brokers argued that they had no legal duty whatsoever to disclose the 5% commissions to their clients. The Ninth Circuit disagreed, and noted that the 5% commissions were clearly material under the facts developed at trial, since "every former client who testified said that he or she would not have bought the house stocks had he or she known about the bonus commissions." The case was brought under all three subsections of Rule 10b-5. The Court noted in dictum that "[u]nder subsection (b) of Rule 10b-5, even in the absence of a trust relationship, a broker cannot affirmatively tell a misleading half-truth about a material fact to a potential investor." The Court also held that the defendants could have been found guilty of conspiracy in the pump and dump scheme even if the disclosure of bonus commissions had not been required by law, because "a reasonable juror...could have concluded that Defendants intentionally acted contrary to the interests of their clients by pushing house stocks as part of a fraudulent scheme to line Defendants' pockets without regard for the interest of their clients." The undisclosed bonus commissions were "circumstantial evidence of Defendants' agreement to join the conspiracy." The Court relied heavily on the Supreme Court's opinion in Chiarella v. United States, and on Second Circuit precedent, in reaching its decision.
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