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Litigation Regulation United States Supreme Court White Collar Crime

Challenge to SEC’s Disgorgement Authority Reaches Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in Liu v. Securities and Exchange Commission to address a question that, until fairly recently, seemed clear: whether the SEC has authority to obtain disgorgement in civil actions to enforce the federal securities laws.

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On Nov. 1, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in Liu v. Securities and Exchange Commission to address a question that, until fairly recently, seemed clear beyond cavil: whether the SEC has authority to obtain disgorgement in civil actions to enforce the federal securities laws. Since the 1970’s, disgorgement of ill-gotten gains has been a powerful and frequently utilized weapon in the SEC’s arsenal. In its June 2017 decision in Kokesh v. SEC, 137 S. Ct. 1635 (2017), the Supreme Court characterized SEC disgorgement as a “penalty” rather than an equitable remedy but expressly declined to decide whether courts possess authority to order disgorgement in SEC enforcement proceedings. In Liu, the Court will address head-on the question left open in Kokesh. The outcome of Liu has the potential to upset long-standing precedent and practices. If the Court further restricts the SEC’s ability to obtain disgorgement, the decision will have significant ramifications for the SEC’s enforcement program.

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