September 11, 2009

The Dangers of Consolidation

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit does not issue many securities litigation decisions, but it apparently has decided to resolve the few cases it has all at once. For the second time in a week (see here), the court has affirmed the dismissal of a securities class action, although this opinion comes with an interesting twist.

In Horizon Asset Management Inc. v. H&R Block, Inc., 2009 WL 2870505 (8th Cir. Sept. 9, 2009) the court considered whether the plaintiffs had adequately plead a strong inference of scienter (i.e., fraudulent intent) in a case alleging financial misstatements. The opinion contains a few holdings of note:

Internal Investigation - The plaintiffs alleged that the slow pace of the internal investigation once the accounting errors where discovered strengthened the inference of scienter. The court disagreed, finding that it was "prudent" for the company to closely investigate the issue and consult with its independent auditors. Moreover, while the investigation was ongoing, the company publicly disclosed its corporate accounting control weaknesses.

Confidential Witness - The court discounted a statement by a confidential witness that he had been told that senior management was aware of the need for further financial restatements. First, the witness did not state whether his sources had actually spoken with senior management, including the individual defendants, or "merely conveyed hearsay information that was passed along by others." Second, the reliability of the confidential witness was called into question by another, clearly erroneous statement he had made concerning one of the individual defendants.

Corporate Scienter - The plaintiffs argued that even if their complaint did not raise a strong inference of scienter as to the individual officer defendants, the case should still proceed against the company based on the alleged scienter of another one of the company's officers. The court declined to address whether this imputation was proper because the plaintiffs failed, in any event, to establish a strong inference of scienter as to the officer in question.

The Eighth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the complaint, but also addressed an unusual procedural issue. The district court had consolidated the various securities class actions and derivative cases brought against H&R Block into one case. It then named a lead plaintiff who declined to assert any derivative fiduciary claims in its consolidated complaint. When the derivative plaintiffs asked for reconsideration of the lead plaintiff decision, the district court denied the motion, finding that the proposed claims were "not really derivative claims."

On appeal, the court found that while it was "debatable" whether it was appropriate to have a single plaintiff bring both direct and derivative claims, it was erroneous for the district court to have named a single lead plaintiff who would not pursue the derivative claims the court had previously consolidated. Accordingly, the court reinstated the separate derivative complaints.

Holding: Dismissal of securities class action affirmed. Derivative complaints reinstated.

Posted by Lyle Roberts at September 11, 2009 11:28 PM | TrackBack
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