Kokesh v. SEC: The U.S. Supreme Court Limits SEC Disgorgement Powers
By John I. SandersSince the 1970s, courts have regularly ordered disgorgement of ill-gotten gains in SEC enforcement proceedings. According to the SEC, this was done as a means to both “deprive . . . defendants of their profits in order to remove any monetary reward for violating” securities laws and “protect the investing public by providing an effective deterrent to future violations.” Disgorgement has been one of the SEC’s most powerful tools in recent years. Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued an opinion that significantly limits the SEC’s ability to disgorge ill-gotten gains. The question before the Supreme Court in Kokesh v. SEC was whether disgorgement, as it has been used by the SEC, constitutes a “penalty.” Under federal law, a 5-year statute of limitations applies to any “action, suit or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture, pecuniary or otherwise.” The SEC has long argued that disgorgement does not constitute a “penalty” and, therefore, is not subject to a 5-year statute of limitations. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected the SEC’s position by holding that disgorgement constitutes a “penalty.” As a result, the SEC will be precluded from collecting ill-gotten gains obtained by the defendant more than five years before the date on which the SEC files its complaint. In the Kokesh case, the Supreme Court’s decision means that the defendant may retain $29.9 million of the $34.9 million of allegedly ill-gotten gains because that amount was received outside of the 5-year state of limitations. The Kokesh decision is also likely to have a significant long-term impact on SEC enforcement proceedings by reducing the leverage the SEC can apply while negotiating settlements. John I. Sanders is an associate based in the firm’s Winston-Salem office.  SEC v. Texas Gulf Sulphur Co., 312 F. Supp. 77, 91 (SDNY 1970), aff ’d in part and rev’d in part, 446 F. 2d 1301 (CA2 1971).  Id. at 92.  SEC, SEC Announces Enforcement Results for FY 2016 (Oct. 11, 2016), available at https://www.sec.gov/news/pressrelease/2016-212.html (illustrating that the SEC has obtained more than $4 billion in disgorgements and penalties in each of the three most recent fiscal years).  Kokesh v. SEC, available at www.supremecourt.gov.  Id. (“This case presents the question whether [28 U.S.C.] §2462 applies to claims for disgorgement imposed as a sanction for violating a federal securities law.”).  28 U.S.C. §2462 (2017).  Kokesh v. SEC, supra note 4, available at www.supremecourt.gov. (“SEC disgorgement thus bears all the hallmarks of a penalty: It is imposed as a consequence of violating a public law and it is intended to deter, not to compensate.”).  Id.  Id.