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SEC Issues FAQ regarding Supervisory Responsibility for Legal and Compliance Personnel

October 3, 2013

On September 30, 2013, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued a staff response to Frequently Asked Questions (“FAQ”) regarding the role and duties of the Chief Compliance Officer and other legal and compliance personnel at broker-dealers.  The FAQ provides guidance to consider when determining whether legal and compliance personnel can be held liable as a “supervisor.”  The FAQ does not break new ground.  But it does provide clear and concise answers to certain questions that have been of significant interest to the securities industry since a number of recent administrative enforcement proceedings imposed sanctions on compliance personnel for supervisory failures.

The FAQ first articulates some general principles regarding supervision.  It then states that compliance and legal personnel are not “supervisors” of business line personnel solely because they occupy legal or compliance positions.  Instead, liability for failure to supervise is a facts and circumstances determination.  The question turns on whether the legal or compliance personnel have been expressly or implicitly delegated supervisory functions outside the legal and compliance departments, or have otherwise assumed such responsibility. 

The FAQ then discusses the types of activities that legal and compliance personnel can engage in without triggering supervisory responsibility.  In particular, legal and compliance personnel can:

  • Provide advice and counsel concerning legal and compliance issues to business line personnel including senior management.
  • Participate in and advise management and other business committees without becoming supervisors of the business activities involved.
  • Implement robust compliance programs including compliance monitoring systems and processes to escalate identified sources of non-compliance to line supervisors.
  • Keep senior management and other supervisors apprised of the state of compliance by the broker-dealer, major regulatory developments, and external events that may have an impact on the broker-dealer.
  • Address red flags and other instances of noncompliance without becoming a supervisor.

While the FAQ goes a long way in clarifying the potential regulatory liability of legal and compliance personnel for supervisory violations, ambiguities remain, particularly when a legal or compliance officer is in a position to prevent a violation from continuing even if he or she is not the line supervisor of the activity.  The FAQ articulates the responsibility of legal and compliance personnel to inform direct line supervisors about conduct that raises red flags.  Legal and compliance personnel must also continue to follow up in these situations to ensure a proper response by management and may be required to escalate situations to higher management if they determine that the concerns have not been addressed properly.  Failure to do so could potentially expose them to supervisory liability.

The FAQ can be accessed here.


If you have questions regarding this publication, please call any of the lawyers listed below or your regular Davis Polk contact.

Gerard Citera 212 450 4881 gerard.citera@davispolk.com
Annette L. Nazareth 202 962 7075 annette.nazareth@davispolk.com
Lanny A. Schwartz 212 450 4174 lanny.schwartz@davispolk.com
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Hilary S. Seo 212 450 4178 hilary.seo@davispolk.com
Zachary J. Zweihorn 212 450 4838 zachary.zweihorn@davispolk.com

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