SEC must file fraud suits sooner, U.S. Supreme Court rules

The Securities and Exchange Commission must move more quickly in pressing some fraud lawsuits, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a decision that may affect agencies across the government.

The justices unanimously ruled in favor of two Gabelli Funds LLC officials seeking to block SEC claims that they improperly let a client engage in market timing, a practice of making frequent, short-term trades at the expense of other investors. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the court’s opinion.

Marc J. Gabelli and Bruce Alpert contended that the SEC sued after the five-year window for seeking penalties had expired. A federal appeals court in New York said the suit could go forward because the window doesn’t open in fraud cases until the SEC has reason to know a violation has occurred.

The case raised issues similar to those addressed by the Supreme Court in 2010, when it ruled that the two-year period for shareholder fraud suits doesn’t begin until investors have indications of intentional company wrongdoing. The new case concerns SEC enforcement actions, rather than private suits.

Gabelli and Alpert contended that, under the appeals court ruling, “the SEC would be able to bring an ancient claim on the mere allegation that it did not discover and could not have discovered the violation earlier.”

At the time of the alleged wrongdoing -- from 1999 to 2002 -- Gabelli was the portfolio manager for the Gabelli Global Growth Fund and Alpert was chief operating officer of Gabelli Funds. The SEC filed its complaint in 2008.

The SEC and the Obama administration argued that the court has repeatedly endorsed the so-called discovery rule in fraud cases.

The case is Gabelli v. SEC, 11-1274.

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