Chairman Christopher Cox of the SEC testified before the House Financial Services Committee this week. CFO.com has an article on a mostly unnoticed part of his testimony where Chairman Cox discussed his participation in the SEC's decision to ask the Solicitor General to support the investor plaintiffs in the Stoneridge (a.k.a. Charter Communications) case. The Solicitor General ultimately decided not to file the requested amicus brief.
Quote of note: "Cox's vote was part of the majority in a 3-2 SEC vote in the so-called StoneRidge case. 'It is my view that precedent matters,' he said during a House Financial Services Committee hearing at which all five commissioners attended. 'The SEC rules and policies should not be so effervescent as to change with one or two people on board.' . . . In 2004 — a year before Cox joined the commission — the SEC weighed in favor of a broad definition of liability for companies indirectly involved in violations of the securities laws."
Addition: In a related story, the WSJ Law Blog had an interesting post this week on the campaign by the American Association of Justice (i.e., the main trial lawyer association) to influence public opinion regarding the government's position in the case.
The Tellabs decision has been the subject of considerable media and blog commentary.
Legal Times: High Court Raises the Bar for Investors Alleging Securities Fraud
WSJ Law Blog: Tellabs - Securities Lawyers React
WSJ Law Blog: Scalia and Stevens Battle Over Statutory Interpretation
Washington Post: Pro-Business Decision Hews To Pattern of Roberts Court
Washington Post: Strict Standard Set On Investor Suits
Bloomberg: Top U.S. Court Tightens Limits on Shareholder Suits
CNN Money.com/Legal Pad With Roger Parloff Blog: Supreme Court Deals Blow to Securities Class Actions, 8-1
The D&O Diary: Supreme Court Issues Tellabs Opinion
CFO.com: Shareholder Lawsuit Ruling a Boon?
SCOTUSBlog: A Lingering Thought on Tellabs
Securities Law Prof Blog: Tellabs v. Makor Issues & Rights
In the Tellabs v. Makor Issues & Rights case, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that in determining whether the pleaded facts give rise to a "strong inference" of scienter, a court must take into account "plausible opposing inferences." The 8-1 decision authored by Justice Ginsburg addresses the application of the PSLRA's heightened scienter pleading standard.
To survive a motion to dismiss, a securities fraud complaint must contain factual allegations giving rise to a "strong inference" that the defendant acted with scienter (i.e., fraudulent intent). In creating this pleading standard as part of the PLSRA, however, Congress did not define the term "strong inference" and courts subsequently construed it differently. Among the outstanding issues was how courts should address competing inferences in determining whether the standard is met.
In Tellabs, the Court described its task as prescribing "a workable construction of the 'strong inference' standard, a reading geared to the PSLRA's twin goals: to curb frivolous, lawyer-driven litigation, while preserving investors' ability to recover on meritorious claims." To that end, the Court established a three-step evaluation process for lower courts.
First, when faced with a motion to dismiss a securities fraud claim, "courts must, as with any motion to dismiss for failure to plead a claim on which relief may be granted, accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true."
Second, courts should consider complaints in their entirety, as well as other sources of information it is appropriate for courts to consider on a motion to dismiss. The proper inquiry is "whether all of the facts alleged, taken collectively, give rise to a strong inference of scienter, not whether any individual allegation, scrutinized in isolation, meets that standard."
Finally, courts must take into account "plausible opposing inferences." A complaint can survive a motion to dismiss "only if a reasonable person would deem the inference of scienter cogent and at least as compelling as any opposing inference one could draw from the facts alleged."
Although the Court evaluated the factual allegations in the Tellabs complaint, it did not reach any conclusions. Instead, the Court merely emphasized that courts must "assess all the allegations holistically." To that end, it found that the mere absence of insider trading allegations or the existence of "omissions or ambiguities" in the allegations of improper channel-stuffing may "count against inferring scienter," but they were not, by themselves, dispositive as to whether the plaintiffs had met the "strong inference" standard. The Court also addressed an issue that attracted a great deal of attention at oral argument: whether the heightened pleading standard for scienter improperly required a court to act as a fact-finder on the merits of the suit in violation of the Seventh Amendment right to jury trial. The Court held that Congress has the power to establish pleading standards for a federal statutory claim and this power did not implicate the Seventh Amendment.
Holding: Judgment vacated and case remanded for further proceedings
Notes on the Decision
(1) Justices Scalia and Alito wrote concurrences. Justice Scalia argued that "the test should be whether the inference of scienter (if any) is more plausible than the inference of innocence." Although he noted that this test is unlikely "to produce results much different from the Court's," Justice Scalia found that it is more in keeping with the "normal meaning" of "strong inference." Justice Alito agreed with the "more plausible" test put forward by his colleague and also argued that a court should not consider "nonparticularized" allegations in evaluating scienter.
(2) Justice Stevens filed a dissent and argued that Congress had "implicitly delegated significant lawmaking authority to the Judiciary in determining how [the scienter] standard should operate in practice." He suggested that applying a "probable cause" standard "would be both easier to apply and more consistent with the statute." Under that standard, Justice Stevens believed it "clear" that the plaintiffs had sufficiently plead scienter.
(3) Although attention is likely to be focused on the Court's "competing inferences" holding, it is worth noting that the Court's "holistic" approach to evaluating scienter also addresses a circuit split. The decision would appear to alter the evaluation of scienter in the Second Circuit and Third Circuit, both of which have held that a court can examine allegations of motive or knowledge/recklessness separately to find that the "strong inference" standard has been met.
(4) The majority opinion contains some ambiguities itself. In two consecutive sentences, for example, it states: (a) the inference of scienter "must be cogent and compelling, thus strong in light of other explanations;" and (b) the inference of scienter must be "cogent and at least as compelling as any opposing inference one could draw from the facts alleged." The second statement (which also appears in the introduction to the opinion) appears to allow for a "tie" to go to the plaintiff. As noted by Justice Scalia in his dissent, this result arguably is not in keeping with Congress' desire to heighten the pleading standard.
With all of the talk about the U.S. Supreme Court's most recent securities litigation issues (scienter and scheme liability), it is important to remember that the full impact of the court's last big decision - the Dura opinion on loss causation issued in 2005 - is still playing out in the lower courts. This year has seen a number of interesting decisions.
(1) In In re Motorola Sec. Litig., 2007 WL 487738 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 8, 2007), the court undertook a comprehensive examination of loss causation in the context of a summary judgment motion. Notably, the court rejected defendants' argument that under Dura "a securities fraud plaintiff bears the burden, even as a nonmoving party on summary judgment, of proving that its loss was caused by the claimed fraud, and not by the 'tangle of other factors' affecting share price." Instead, the court found that it is the defendant's burden to show that the decline in share price did not result from the disclosure of information related to the claimed fraud. (The parties settled the case shortly after this decision.)
(2) In Ray v. Citigroup Global Markets, Inc., 2007 WL 1080426 (7th Cir. April 12, 2007), the court addressed an appeal from a grant of summary judgment in a collective action against an investment advisor. The court identified three possible ways "a plaintiff might go about proving loss causation." First, a plaintiff could demonstrate the "materialization of a risk" - i.e., that it was the facts about which the defendant lied that caused the plaintiff's injury. Second, a plaintiff could rely on the "fraud-on-the-market scenario" discussed in Dura and show both that the misrepresentations artificially inflated the price of the stock and that the value of the stock declined once the market learned of the deception. Finally, a plaintiff could show that its broker falsely assured the plaintiff that a particular investment was "risk-free." The court found that the plaintiffs in the instant case had failed to introduce evidence sufficient to go ahead with their suit under any of these approaches.
(3) In Oscar Private Equity Investments v. Allegiance Telecom, Inc., 2007 WL 1430225 (5th Cir. May 16, 2007), the court vacated a class certification order "for wont of any showing that the market reacted to the corrective disclosure." The court held that the plaintiffs had failed to provide sufficient empirical evidence of loss causation and, therefore, could not take advantage of the "fraud-on-the-market" presumption of reliance.
Quote of note (Oscar Private Equity): "The plaintiffs' expert does detail event studies supporting a finding that [the company's] stock reacted to the entire bundle of negative information contained in the 4Q01 announcement, but this reaction suggests only market efficiency, not loss causation, for there is no evidence linking the culpable disclosure to the stock-price movement. When multiple negative items are announced contemporaneously, mere proximity between the announcement and the stock loss is insufficient to establish loss causation."
The Stoneridge (a.k.a. Charter Communications) case on scheme liability pending before the U.S. Supreme Court may or may not be "the biggest securities litigation case in a generation," but it has certainly generated more pre-argument media coverage than Dura and Tellabs put together. Much of that coverage has focused on whether the SEC/DOJ would submit a brief today in support of the plaintiff investors (see here, here, and here). The Wall Street Journal had an editorial on the topic this past weekend.
Although the SEC apparently recommended that the Solicitor General file the brief - see this Bloomberg article for the details - it does not appear that the recommendation was accepted. Reuters reported earlier today that it was "unlikely" the filing would be made and, as of the time of this post, there is no indication that it has happened. If not, the government has the option of filing a brief in support of the defendants (due in 30 days) or simply remaining silent.
Whatever the government's position, however, the show goes on for the parties. The plaintiff investors filed their brief today and it can be found here.
Quote of note (plaintiffs' brief): "Legitimate business will be unaffected if the Court adopts a test giving effect to the plain text of Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5, but going no further. One proposed test would be that: a person engages in a deceptive act as part of a scheme to defraud investors, and violates Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5(a) and/or (c), if the purpose and effect of his conduct is to create a false appearance of material fact in furtherance of that scheme."
A few items of interest:
(1) With Vigour and Zeal has a post, including a link to a related article in Legal Week, on the filing of derivative actions in U.S. courts against non-U.S. companies.
(2) WSJ Law Blog has coverage of a humorous D. of Minn. decision denying the motion to dismiss in the UnitedHealth securities class action. As noted in the comments to the post, however, the defendants presumably were not amused by the court's heavy reliance on a pleading standard repudiated by the U.S. Supreme Court two weeks ago.
(3) And just in case you cannot get enough of the Stoneridge case, Best In Class has a post on some chatter that appears to have arrived a bit late.
Addition: Regarding the D. of Minn. decision, an alert reader points out that the court subsequently issued an amended opinion reflecting the change in the law (but reaching the same result).
According to an article in the Washington Post this weekend (which has been picked up by a number of other media outlets), the suspense is over. The SEC reportedly has asked the Solicitor General to file an amicus brief in support of the investor plaintiffs in the Stoneridge (a.k.a. Charter Communications) case on scheme liability that will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court next term.
(1) Although some reports have suggested that the amicus brief will be filed in support of Enron's investors (and the original Washington Post article is not very clear on this point), that appears unlikely unless, as advocated by the attorneys for Enron's investors, the Supreme Court decides to hear the Enron and Stoneridge appeals together.
(2) Presuming the amicus brief is filed, it will be interesting to see if the SEC/Solicitor General deviates in any way from the earlier position on scheme liability taken by the SEC in a 9th Circuit case.
Just when you thought it was safe to read about something else on this blog, here are a few more pieces on the Stoneridge (a.k.a. Charter Communications) case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
(1) The Harvard Law School Corporate Governance Blog has a post with further speculation (see here) about whether Justice Alito could be the deciding vote. The post also discusses how the granting of cert in the related Enron's banks case might alter the outcome.
Quote of note: "[I]f the Court grants review in Credit Suisse [the Enron's banks case], it could well mean that Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito are inclined to take a narrow view of primary liability, and that The Chief Justice will be in a position to assign the opinion to a wavering Justice Alito. If Credit Suisse is granted, look for the case to be a 5-4 decision, with liability under Section 10(b) not extended to vendors and investment bankers, even where they know the transaction is a sham and will be used to effect a financial fraud."
(2) The Los Angeles Times ran an editorial on Wednesday urging the SEC to support the investor plaintiffs in the Stoneridge and Enron's banks cases.
Quote of note: "So far, the SEC has remained silent. But with its mandate to 'maintain fair, orderly and efficient markets and facilitate capital formation,' the SEC is uniquely suited to speak out when legal interpretations undermine confidence in the stock market's fairness."
(3) Meanwhile, the Washington Examiner has an op-ed urging the SEC to take the opposite position.
Quote of note: "The SEC’s support, expressed through a U.S. government friend-of-the-court brief in Stoneridge, would well tip the balance in the Supreme Court. For the sake of our capital markets and American shareholders, let’s hope the commission does the right thing. The SEC’s mission of 'investor protection' cannot be achieved by further empowering plaintiffs’ lawyers."