MD&A-Related Claims against Corporate Execs Reinforce Recent SEC Enforcement Trends
A June 15, 2017 settlement with two former executives of a publicly-traded, multinational freight forwarding and logistics company provides the most recent example of two emerging SEC enforcement initiatives in financial reporting and accounting-based actions that we spotlighted recently – a non-reliance on financial statement materiality and an absence of fraud-based allegations. Exchange Act Rel. No. 80947 (Jun. 15, 2017). According to the SEC, Eric W. Kirchner and Richard G. Rodick, the former chief executive officer and chief financial officer of UTi Worldwide, Inc. (“UTi”), purportedly were responsible for inadequate Management’s Discussion & Analysis (“MD&A”) disclosures in a Form 10-Q that UTi issued during fiscal year 2013. Without admitting or denying the findings, both agreed to settle purported violations of Section 13(a) of the Exchange Act and Rules 12b-20, 13a-13, and 13a-14, thereunder, and to pay a $40,000 civil penalty.
According to the SEC’s Order, UTi began experiencing serious risks in liquidity and capital resources no later than the third quarter of fiscal year 2013 due to the problematic rollout of a proprietary operating system that hindered the timely transmission of invoices to its customers. These problems allegedly caused UTi to accumulate an unusually high amount of unbilled receivables, thereby delaying its ability to receive payment for both its freight services and significant transportation-related cash outlays that were eligible for customer reimbursement through invoicing. To manage its cash flow problem, UTi supposedly began delaying payment of its obligations and obtained amendments to certain loan covenants from its lead lender.
The Order alleged that Kirchner and Rodick were aware of these liquidity and capital difficulties, yet failed to ensure that UTi provided adequate information in the MD&A section of the third quarter Form 10-Q to allow investors and others to meaningfully assess the company’s financial condition and results of operations. While the SEC acknowledged that the MD&A made reference to a sharp year-to-date decline in UTi’s cash position (and had provided readers with the specific financial impact), it claimed that the company attributed this decline to the seasonal nature of UTi’s business rather than its ongoing billing delays. The Order further contended that, under Kirchner and Rodick’s direction, UTi only revealed the cause and extent of its invoicing problem during the following fiscal year. By that time, the company’s lead lender had notified UTi that it would provide no further loan amendments and the company’s outside auditor had amended its opinion on the annual financial statements for fiscal year 2013 to issue a going concern.
Consistent with other recent settlements, this enforcement action is noteworthy in that the claims related exclusively to the purported incompleteness of a public company’s financial disclosures rather than the material inaccuracy of its financial statements. Here, the Order stated that the MD&A section of the periodic filing gave rise to a Section 13(a) violation because it failed to satisfy Regulation S-K Item 303, which is intended to provide investors with “an opportunity to look at the company through the eyes of management.” The SEC claims that Kirchner and Rodick’s conduct caused UTi to run afoul of Item 303’s requirement that registrants disclose in their MD&A “any known trends or uncertainties that will result in or that are reasonably likely to result in the registrant’s liquidity increasing or decreasing in any material way.”
This enforcement proceeding was also significant in that, similar to other financial reporting and accounting-related settlements during the latter stages of Mary Jo White’s tenure as SEC Chair, it was predicated entirely on strict liability-based claims. As in those previous settlements, this Order recited numerous instances in which the offending parties supposedly became aware of factual circumstances that were contrary to information provided in a later public filing, yet never attempted to assign any state of mind to the particular conduct alleged. There are many occurrences, of course, in which allegations grounded in knowledge or recklessness are simply unwarranted; nonetheless, this apparent pattern of heightened reliance on strict liability-based legal theories suggests that there may be certain instances in which the charges have been strategically designed to eliminate certain defenses and facilitate settlement. This particular proceeding offers a preliminary indication that this enforcement strategy may continue under Chair Jay Clayton’s leadership.