Supreme Court Reaffirms Dirks and Tosses Prosecution a Win
In Salman v. United States, 580 U.S. __ (2016), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Bassam Salman’s conviction, giving prosecutors a win on the first insider trading case to be heard by the Court in nearly two decades. The unanimous decision, written by Justice Samuel Alito, is short and to the point. The Court reaffirmed the continued validity of Dirks v. S.E.C., 463 U.S. 646 (1983), and determined that a tipper receives a personal benefit by providing insider information to a “trading relative or friend.”
In Dirks, the Court ruled that a tippee’s liability for trading on inside information hinges on whether the tipper breached a fiduciary duty by disclosing the information. The fiduciary duty is breached when the insider will personally benefit, directly or indirectly, from his disclosure. In Salman, the Supreme Court stated that the benefit did not have to be money, property, or something of tangible value, because “giving a gift of trading information is the same thing as trading by the tipper followed by a gift of the proceeds.”
This decision resolved a circuit split between the Ninth Circuit, which had affirmed Salman’s conviction, and the Second Circuit, which ruled in United States v. Newman, 773 F.3d 438 (2d Cir. 2014), that prosecutors had to prove that insiders received monetary or some sort of valuable benefit in exchange for disclosing information in order to convict the tippee who had used said information. The Supreme Court found that “[t]o the extent the Second Circuit held that the tipper must also receive something of a ‘pecuniary or similarly valuable nature’ in exchange for a gift to family or friends, Newman 773 F.3d at 452, we agree with the Ninth Circuit that this requirement is inconsistent with Dirks.” Yet, the Supreme Court seemed careful to imply that some portions of Newman remain good law, such as the requirement that the tippee knows the insider received a personal benefit from providing the inside information.
Despite, or perhaps because of the brevity of the opinion, questions still remain about what exactly is a benefit to the tipper. Clearly, familial connections or close friendships between the tipper and the tippee mean that prosecutors do not have to prove a specific pecuniary benefit occurred for the tipper, but would the same hold true if the tippee was a neighbor? Or, as the Second Circuit opined in Newman, an acquaintance from church or business school? The Supreme Court dodged these questions and more by deciding Salman narrowly on the facts, a model of judicial restraint in the wake of far ranging decisions like McDonell v. United States that essentially rewrote how prosecutors handle corruption cases.