In a unanimous ruling handed down on June 5, the United States Supreme Court held that the SEC is bound by a five-year statute of limitations on civil penalties or the return of illegal profits, citing 28 U.S.C. §2462 of the U.S. Code, which “establishes a [five-year] limitations period for ‘an action, suit or proceeding for the enforcement of any civil fine, penalty, or forfeiture.’” Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion.

The decision resolves a New Mexico case dating back to 2009, in which a jury found the defendant liable for misappropriating more than $34.9 million from 1995 through July 2007 from four SEC-registered investment companies under his control. See S.E.C. v. Kokesh, 834 F.3d 1158 (10thCir. 2016). The district court judge ordered the defendant to pay a $2.4 million civil penalty, nearly $35 million in disgorgement, and more than $18 million in prejudgment interest after finding that §2462 did not apply because “disgorgement” is not a penalty within the meaning of the statute. The defendant appealed the ruling on the grounds that the disgorgement should be set aside because the claims accrued more than five years before the SEC brought its action against him and are consequently barred under the five-year statute of limitations. However, the 10th Circuit affirmed the ruling of the lower court, agreeing that disgorgement was not a penalty.

The Supreme Court reversed. Justice Sotomayor explained why the Court disagreed with the 10th Circuit panel’s conclusion that disgorgement was not a penalty under the statute. The Court held that disgorgement “bears all the hallmarks of a penalty” and “is imposed as a consequence of violating a public law and . . . is intended to deter, not to compensate.” Consequently, disgorgement represent a penalty, thus falling within the five-year statute of limitations of §2462.