The Supreme Court Appears Poised to Reaffirm Dirks v. SEC and Maintain Current Insider Trading Rules
For the first time in two decades, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in a case that could change the landscape for the government’s pursuit of insider trading violations. In Salman v. United States (Dkt. No. 15-628), the Court reviewed the government’s burden of proof when it prosecutes for insider trading. Specifically, the primary issue involves whether Salman’s “tipper” had received the kind of “personal benefit” required by precedent to hold Salman criminally liable for insider trading. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed Salman’s conviction. However, just two years ago, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned the convictions of several insider traders because the government failed to establish that the insiders had received “a potential gain of a pecuniary or similar valuable nature.” In other words, the Second Circuit rejected governmental theories where insider tips were given to friends or even family members without any monetary gain to the insider. Thus, the Court’s ruling in Salman will also settle a current split between the Second and Ninth Circuits.
By way of background, for tipper–tippee cases, courts have determined that it is a crime for an insider with a duty of confidentiality (otherwise known as a tipper) to intentionally or recklessly provide confidential information (otherwise known as a tip) to another (otherwise known as the tippee) and to receive a personal benefit, directly or indirectly, from such action. The tippee, to be criminally liable, must also know about the confidential nature of the information (which has been breached) and the benefit the insider received. The Court specified much of these requirements in Dirks v. SEC, 463 U.S. 646 (1983), where it also stated “absent some personal gain, there has been no breach of duty to stockholders.”
How is personal gain defined? This is the main question the Court must decide in Salman, thereby resolving the federal circuit split. In Salman, the Court seemed both unwilling to take steps away from its prior precedent and suspect of the additional sweeping arguments made by the petitioner and the government. During the petitioner’s argument, Salman’s attorney contended that a line needed to be drawn as to what constituted a personal benefit. She suggested that the Court require the benefit to be tangible—not necessarily monetary or personal—but tangible. Justice Breyer, however, countered that helping “a close family member is like helping yourself.” Justice Kennedy clarified that in the law of gifts “we don’t generally talk about benefit to the donor” but that giving to a family member “ennobles you.”
The Justices’ statements appeared to indicate that they seemed more comfortable agreeing with the government, that insider information packaged as gifts to close friends or family crossed the line into creating or manifesting personal gain for the tipper, consistent with precedent. But they appeared unwilling to go further than that, despite the government’s urging that insider trading occurs whenever the insider provides confidential information for the purpose of obtaining a personal advantage for somebody else, regardless of previous or future relationships between the tipper and tippee. The government seemed not to view the personal advantage as a gain or benefit as those words are used colloquially. Instead, the government contended that the access to and communication of the confidential information in breach of the duty of confidentiality is in and of itself “a personal gain,” “a gift with somebody else’s property.” This interpretation was met with skepticism by the Court and the government seemed to back away from its argument, stating instead that it would not seek to hold liable somebody who was “loose in their conversations but had no anticipation that there would be trading.”
Justice Alito commented disapprovingly that neither side’s argument was consistent with the Court’s precedent in Dirks. Indeed, the Court appeared worried that any outcome other than affirmance would require new lines to be drawn. Any change to the law, as a result of this case, would impact the Court’s own judicially created insider trading standard from Dirks. As Justice Kagan put it to the petitioner: “[y]ou’re asking us to cut back significantly from something that we said several decades ago, something that Congress has shown no indication that it’s unhappy with, . . . [when] the integrity of the markets are a very important thing for this country. And you’re asking us essentially to change the rules in a way that threatens that integrity.” By the end of the argument, the government basically summarized what seemed to many observers, the Court’s preference: “If the Court feels more comfortable given the facts of this case of reaffirming Dirks and saying that was the law in 1983, it remains the law today, that is completely fine with the government.”
In light of the arguments and interactions with the Justices, the Court seems most comfortable with reaffirming the standards established with Dirks. Thus, it appears that despite the ruling in Newman, Salman may have provided the Court with nothing more than an opportunity to affirm its long-standing precedent.