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KOSS v. SEC OF THE UNITED STATES

October 17, 1973

Theodore KOSS and Koss Securities Corporation, Plaintiffs,
v.
SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION OF the UNITED STATES, Defendant


Bauman, District Judge.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: BAUMAN

BAUMAN, District Judge.

Plaintiffs, an underwriter and its president, seek a preliminary injunction restraining the Securities and Exchange Commission from "directing" issuers to include in their offering circulars statements that the plaintiffs are respondents in an administrative proceeding pending before the Commission. Defendant now moves to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b) of the Federal Rules and for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56. For the reasons that follow, I conclude that the court is not confronted with a justiciable controversy and the motion for summary judgment is, accordingly, granted.

 I.

 The facts are basically undisputed. Theodore Koss and his wife are the sole shareholders as well as sole directors of the corporate plaintiff, a registered broker-dealer. On September 14, 1971 the SEC launched an administrative proceeding against Koss Securities, Koss, and ten others alleging that the respondents had violated the registration requirements of the Securities Act of 1933 in selling a security and had made false and misleading statements in the process. Certain of the respondents moved for more definite statements and these were filed by the Division of Trading and Markets on November 22, 1971. Whether as a result or not, thereafter, eight of the twelve respondents successfully negotiated settlement.

 On April 16, 1973 Koss Securities and Koss, having waited some two years, not unreasonably moved the Commission for a dismissal of the administrative proceeding for failure to prosecute. Thus having been roused, the Commission staff arranged a meeting on May 7 at which settlement was unsuccessfully explored and where counsel claims to have been assured by the staff that his motion would be answered by May 11. *fn1" For no ascertainable reason the Commission's staff failed to respond until June 15, *fn2" two days after plaintiffs had instituted this action.

 Although all this foot-dragging was going on in connection with the administrative proceeding, the staff was not oblivious to plaintiffs. Between February 23 and May 21, 1973 six proposed issuers intending to use Koss Securities as underwriter *fn3" for Regulation A offerings *fn4" received comment letters from the SEC's Regional Offices *fn5" written by staffers responsible for reviewing the offering circulars. In essence, the letters requested *fn6" that the circulars be amended to disclose: (1) that plaintiffs were respondents in an SEC administrative proceeding, and (2) the nature of the (as yet unproven) charges. *fn7" As was utterly foreseeable, two of the issuers found it desirable to find another underwriter. *fn8"

 The damage having been done and this suit having been brought, on June 25 the Chief of the Branch of Small Issues of the Division of Corporate Finance, pursuant to an order of the Commission, *fn9" wrote plaintiffs' attorney saying that the staff's comment letter had been withdrawn and that no disclosure of the administrative proceeding would be required in any subsequent offering circulars. *fn10" But, the letter went on, Koss would be "requested" by the appropriate regional offices to inform the issuer of any Regulation A offering naming Koss as underwriter:

 
"a) of the pending public administrative proceeding and the allegations relating to Koss; b) that the responsibility for determining the materiality of the pending public administrative proceeding is that of such issuer; c) that the burden of determining whether or not to disclose such proceeding is that of such issuer; d) that such burden cannot be shifted to the Commission or the staff of the Commission; e) that disciplinary action against Koss during the offering might result in suspension of the exemption for the offering; and f) that the issuer should advise the staff in writing that it has received such advice from Koss and what the issuer's position is with respect to disclosure of these matters." *fn11"

 Evidentiary hearings before an Administrative Law Judge began July 9 and ended July 19, for which the proposed findings and conclusions of the Division of Enforcement were to have been filed by August 31, 1973.

 Plaintiffs contend that the staff comment letters exceeded the SEC's statutory powers under 15 U.S.C. §§ 77g and 77j and schedule A of § 77aa and that the SEC's delay is within the scope of 5 U.S.C. § 706(1). Furthermore, it is contended that the comment letters violate the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment in that they reflect a prejudgment of the issues of law and fact presented in the administrative complaint and resulting in damage to Koss Securities' reputation and business. Koss alleges jurisdiction to enjoin these alleged abuses under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and 28 U.S.C. § 1337.

 II.

 The threshold question is the timeliness of judicial review in the factual context of this case, -- whether, in short, the relationship of Koss with the SEC has developed to such a point that judicial intervention is appropriate. This assessment of the utility of judicial action, or of "ripeness", serves to prevent courts from entering abstract debates about agency policies or reviewing agency decisions until they have been "formalized" and have caused concrete effects upon the challenging parties. Abbott Laboratories v. Gardner, 387 U.S. 136, 87 S. Ct. 1507, 18 L. Ed. 2d 681 (1967).

 The question of whether judicial review is apposite to this case is not answered merely by the label -- "comment letter" or "order" -- which the SEC may place upon its own or its staff's communication, but rather by a functional appraisal of the consequences of the actions which plaintiffs may reasonably expect. Independent Broker-Dealers' Trade Association v. SEC, 142 U.S.App.D.C. 384, 442 F.2d 132, 140-141, cert. denied, 404 U.S. 828, 92 S. Ct. 63, 30 L. Ed. 2d 57 (1971). Thus, I must evaluate "both the fitness of the issues for judicial decision and the hardship to the parties of withholding court decision." *fn12" Abbott Laboratories, 387 U.S. at 149, 87 S. Ct. at 1515.

 The simple fact is that the comment letters issued by the SEC's Regional Office staff members were withdrawn at the direction of the Commission in its Minute Order of June 25, 1973. I am not, however, persuaded that the Commission has succeeded in mooting plaintiffs' claims against its staff by apparently granting the specific relief against the staff comment letters sought in the complaint. Plaintiffs' counsel neglected to amend the complaint after the comment letters were withdrawn and the Minute Order apparently shifted the burden of disclosure from the issuers to the underwriter, and consequently, review of the Minute Order is not presently before me. Nonetheless, plaintiffs' apparently narrow request for relief looks to future activities by the SEC staff as well as to past ...


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