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Claire Johnson is a member of Farella Braun + Martel’s Business Litigation and Employment practices.

At a recent panel organized by San Francisco’s Federal Bar Association, the San Francisco Regional Director of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Jina Choi, confirmed that the agency continues to focus on investor fraud in the pre-IPO private market space. Highlighting enforcement actions against the non-public Zenefits, Credit Karma, and Theranos[1], Ms. Choi reiterated the SEC’s commitment to aggressive oversight over “unicorns,” or privately-held companies valued over $1 billion. The SEC first announced its intent to step up enforcement in this space in a March 2016 speech by previous SEC Chairwoman Mary Jo White, and Ms. Choi reported that the current SEC leadership, led by current Chairman Jay Clayton, is equally committed to policing this “beat.”

The Compliance Gap has been closely tracking SEC compliance enforcement at privately-held companies, which began in earnest last fall when the SEC announced that the non-public human resources company Zenefits and its founder, Parker Conrad had agreed to pay a combined $980,000 to settle claims that the company intentionally misled the company’s Series B and C investors. The SEC alleged Conrad and the company had misled investors about the degree to which Zenefits complied with state licensing laws, resulting in a lowered valuation when the compliance failures were revealed.

In March of this year the SEC reported a first-of-its-kind settlement with Credit Karma, in which the company agreed to pay $160,000 to settle claims that it failed to provide its employees with the disclosures required by Rule 701(e) of the Securities Act.  Rule 701 requires that a company compensating its employees with stock options provide detailed financial and risk disclosures before the date of sale. The SEC alleged that Credit Karma sold approximately $13.8 million in stock options to its employees without providing the information required by Rule 701.

Just two days after announcing the Credit Karma settlement, the SEC also filed a complaint against health care company Theranos, company founder Elizabeth Holmes, and former President and Chief Operating Officer Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani. In the complaints the SEC alleged that the company, Ms. Holmes, and Mr. Balwani made false claims about the capabilities of the company’s proprietary blood-test analyzers, regulatory approval of the proprietary blood-test analyzers, and the company’s business relationships with the U.S. Department of Defense.  Theranos and Ms. Holmes agreed to settle the claims made by the SEC, but Mr. Balwani has chosen to litigate what will surely be a closely watched case.

Ms. Choi also highlighted the SEC’s new approach to devising inventive ways to punish investor fraud in the private space. For example, Ms. Choi noted that the agency required both company and individual settlement payments in the Zenefits and Theranos resolutions (Ms. Holmes agreed to pay $500,000 and Mr. Conrad agreed to pay nearly that amount).  Ms. Holmes was also required to forfeit her ownership interest in Theranos, and was permanently banned from serving as an officer or director of any publicly-traded company.  Ms. Choi indicated that these remedies were arrived at through significant consultations with allegedly defrauded investors.  This approach indicates a shift towards creative remediation schemes that reflect the wishes of alleged victims, and the perceived need for individual punishments in the privately-held company space where founders can be interchangeable with the companies they build.

[1] Farella, Braun + Martel, LLP represents an individual in connection with the Theranos investigation. This report contains only publicly available information.

Last week the SEC announced it had reached an agreement with privately-held company Zenefits, and its co-founder and former CEO Parker Conrad, to settle allegations that Zenefits materially misled Series B and C investors. The parties agreed to settle for over a combined $980,000 (Zenefits agreed to pay $450,000, with Conrad responsible for the balance). This appears to be a first-of-its-kind SEC enforcement action against a privately-held company, reflecting this ongoing enforcement priority for the agency in Silicon Valley.  Continue Reading With Zenefits Settlement Award SEC Demonstrates Continued Commitment to “Unicorn” Scrutiny Despite Administration Change: Same Old Sheriff in Town

SEC magnifying glassThe prosecution of Martin Shkreli, whom the BBC has called “the most hated man in America,” reveals some important lessons about the Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure in the digital corporate context: physical access to documents on a server may trump actual ownership of records. Continue Reading The Fourth Amendment Implications of Sharing Server Space

Department of Justice sign

Earlier this year we highlighted the growing trend of regulators asserting continuing post-investigation control over the operations of companies accused of compliance failures. At the state level, we highlighted a deal reached between the California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) and Zenefits, a privately-held health care brokerage firm, in which the DIR agreed to forgive half of a $7 million fine in exchange for continuing audits to evaluate future compliance with state regulations.

At the federal level, we’re seeing the same trend. Continue Reading If You Give a Mouse a Cookie: Ongoing Regulatory Monitoring Increasing in Federal and State Non-Compliance Resolution

Blog-Image---DataSecurityIn January of this year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) brought suit against Taiwan-based D-Link Corp. and its U.S. subsidiary, D-Link Systems Inc, in Los Angeles Federal Court, for failing to properly secure its consumer routers and computer cameras. According to the FTC, the devices were billed as containing “advanced network security” but actually left thousands of devices vulnerable to hacking and compromise. The results of this FTC suit could create a de facto security compliance regime for all purveyors in the ever-growing “internet of things.” Continue Reading Is There Fire Where There’s Smoke? The FTC Says Yes

whistleblower

In a company with a robust compliance culture, potential whistleblowers can express their concerns without fear of retribution. By contrast, the penalty for a culture that silences whistleblowers just got steeper.  Companies caught punishing those who raise red flags, especially when they turn out to be lawyers, could be forced to confront documents otherwise inadmissible against the company due to attorney-client privilege.  Continue Reading Revenge of the Whistle-blower: Possible Consequences of Compliance Failures

Blog-Image---TechnologyAfter a series of compliance failures leading to the resignation of company’s CEO, the privately-held health care brokerage company Zenefits was just hit with a $7 million dollar settlement by the California Department of Insurance (DIR). The terms of the settlement may reflect a new trend in compliance enforcement, namely that regulators are trading monetary penalties for oversight over privately-held companies. Continue Reading Steep Fines for Company With Compliance Problems, but Recognition of Remediation Efforts May Provide Model Going Forward

Blog-Image---Technology

The brightest minds in Silicon Valley work 24/7 to disrupt existing systems and industries. No one can argue that Uber and Lyft haven’t fundamentally altered transportation, that AirBnB hasn’t changed the way we travel, or that Netflix hasn’t rendered brick and mortar video rental stores obsolete. Can those same minds harness the innovative energy of the region to make it easier for regulated industries to comply with state and federal laws? At least one Silicon Valley company thinks so, and is exploring new ways to marry its technological expertise with its compliance obligations. Continue Reading Private Company Enforcement: Bay Area Tech Company Designs Tech Solution to Its Compliance Problems