Since 1997, the SECâ€™s Manual of Publicly Available Telephone Interpretations has been available online (see here). It is also searchable on Westlaw (see the FSEC-MISC database). The manual contains a bevy of interpretations of various SEC regulations. As to legal status of these interpretations, the manual states as follows:
The responses discussed in this manual do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Commission or the Division of Corporation Finance. These responses are not rules, regulations, or statements of the Commission. Further, the Commission has neither approved nor disapproved these responses. The responses discussed in this manual do not necessarily contain a discussion of all material considerations necessary to reach the conclusions stated. Accordingly, these responses are intended as general guidance and should not be relied on as definitive. There can be no assurance that the information in this manual is current, as the positions expressed may change without notice.
Nonetheless, securities practitioners routinely rely on manual statements in large part because it provides the only â€œauthorityâ€? on the minutiae of various securities regulations. This is similar to widespread reliance on SEC no-action letters notwithstanding SEC pronouncements that no-action letters do not constitute official expressions of SEC views (for an excellent analysis of the legal status of no-action letters, see Donna Nagy, Judicial Reliance on Regulatory Interpretation in SEC No-Action Letters: Current Problems and a Proposed Framework, 83 Cornell L. Rev. 921 (1998)). And courts do frequently defer to interpretations reflected in no-action letters, although Professor Nagy argues automatic deference is inappropriate.
So what about the legal status of manual interpretations? My quick research found nothing definitive on the issue. While nine SEC releases and twenty-eight no-action letters cite the manual, only a single judicial opinion does. Should manual provisions be viewed the same as no-action letters? They seem less formal than no-action letters but, unlike no-action letters, are not addressed to a specific party under a backdrop of specific facts.