Since the 1970s, courts have regularly ordered disgorgement of ill-gotten gains in SEC enforcement proceedings.[1] According to the SEC, this was done as a means to both “deprive . . . defendants of their profits in order to remove any monetary reward for violating” securities laws and “protect the investing public by providing an effective deterrent to future violations.”[2] Disgorgement has been one of the SEC’s most powerful tools in recent years.[3] Yesterday, the Supreme Court issued an opinion that significantly limits the SEC’s ability to disgorge ill-gotten gains.[4]

The question before the Supreme Court in Kosesh v. SEC was whether disgorgement, as it has been used by the SEC, constitutes a “penalty.”[5] Under federal law, a 5-year statute of limitations applies to any “action, suit or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture, pecuniary or otherwise.”[6] The SEC has long argued that disgorgement does not constitute a “penalty” and, therefore, is not subject to a 5-year statute of limitations. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected the SEC’s position by holding that disgorgement constitutes a “penalty.”[7] As a result, the SEC will be precluded from collecting ill-gotten gains obtained by the defendant more than five years before the date on which the SEC files its complaint.[8]

In the Koskesh case, he Supreme Court’s decision means that the defendant may retain $29.9 million of the $34.9 million of the allegedly ill-gotten gains because that amount was received outside of the 5-year state of limitations.[9] The Kokesh decision is also likely to have a significant long-term impact on SEC enforcement proceedings by reducing the leverage the SEC can apply while negotiating settlements.