Since at least the days of ancient Athens—which Demosthenes tells us had a five-year statute of limitations for nearly all cases—governments have limited the time period within which punishment or compensation may be sought. Statutes of limitations exist to protect defendants from vindictive or arbitrary lawsuits and prosecutions brought long after their memories have faded and records that might have been used to rebut a claim lost. They ensure that we need not spend our lives constantly anxious about the possibility of the distant past coming back to haunt us over half-forgotten slights.
These are the basic animating purposes behind 28 U.S.C. § 2462, which imposes on the federal government a five-year limitations period for any “action, suit, or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture, pecuniary or otherwise,” and the Supreme Court’s unanimous 2013 opinion in Gabelli v. SEC (in which Cato also filed a brief) finding no valid justification for the Securities and Exchange Commission to pursue enforcement actions seeking civil penalties more than five years after the relevant conduct had occurred.
Unfortunately, the SEC didn’t learn its lesson and has consistently attempted to circumvent and subvert Gabelli by arguing that the relief it seeks in its years-overdue enforcement actions—monetary disgorgement, injunctions requiring defendants to obey the law, and declaratory judgments that laws were violated—is actually “equitable” and not a form of civil penalty covered under § 2462. Disgorgement—requiring a defendant to return their ill-gotten gains—has indeed traditionally been a way to remedy unjust enrichment rather than a punishment, but the SEC’s use of it has been anything but equitable.
The agency has brought disgorgement actions not to make the victims of wrongdoing whole, aid in public securities-law enforcement, or encourage private compliance, but to punish unsuspecting defendants for decades-old conduct, destroy their reputations and careers, and score massive financial judgements that go straight to the vaults of the U.S. Treasury rather than the pockets of any victims. When one actually looks at what the SEC is doing in context, it becomes clear that this “equitable” relief is functionally a “civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture, pecuniary or otherwise,” subject to § 2462’s five-year limitations period.
While a careful application of § 2462 is itself sufficient to resolve this case, it is also important to note the serious reasons that actions like those taken by the SEC are in deep opposition to good public policy. Allowing the SEC—an administrative juggernaut more than capable of bringing meritorious claims in a timely manner—to pursue antiquated claims distracts the agency from its stated priorities of pursuing current malfeasance. It also misleads Congress and the public into believing that modern markets are rife with misconduct, in addition to casting a never-ending shadow of potential liability over anyone involved in financial markets.
This is why Cato has filed an amicus brief in support of Charles Kokesh, a man now entangled in the SEC’s stale web, to urge the Court to put an end to the SEC’s gamesmanship and categorically hold that the agency may not institute an enforcement action seeking disgorgement or injunctive/declaratory relief more than five years after the underlying conduct occurred.
The Supreme Court will hear argument in Kokesh v. SEC on April 18, with a decision expected by the end of June.