The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has issued an opinion - Yates v. Municipal Mortgage & Equity, LLC, 2014 WL 890018 (4th Cir. March 7, 2014) - that clarifies the court's position on several securities fraud issues.
(1) Core operations (scienter) - Core operations is a scienter theory that infers that facts critical to a business's 'core operations' or an important transaction are known to the company's key officers. Exactly how and to what extent the theory can be invoked to satisfy a plaintiff's burden to plead a strong inference of scienter has been the subject of some judicial debate. In Yates, the Fourth Circuit held that "such allegations are relevant to the court's holistic analysis of scienter," but without other allegations "establishing the defendant's actual exposure to the . . . problem, the complaint falls short of the PSLRA's particularity requirement."
(2) Rule 10b5-1 trading plans - Two of the individual defendants sold shares pursuant to non-discretionary Rule 10b5-1 trading plans. The court found that the use of these plans "further weakens any inference of fraudulent purpose" caused by the sales, but also noted that because one of the plans was instituted during the class period, it did "less to shield [that defendant] from suspicion."
(3) Statute of repose for Section 11 claims - The case included Section 11 claims based on an alleged misrepresentation in a registration statement that was declared effective on January 14, 2005. The plaintiffs argued that their Section 11 claims were not barred by the applicable 3-year statute of repose - despite being brought on February 1, 2008 - because the actual offering did not commence until two weeks after the effective date. The court adopted what it described as the majority position: "Section 11 is violated when a registration statement containing misleading information becomes effective." The fact that the plaintiffs "did not know that the registration statement was effective as of January 14 is of no consequence for statute of repose purposes."
Holding: Dismissal affirmed.
Securities litigation? Check. Then you are well on your way to getting your cert petition granted by the U.S. Supreme Court. After agreeing just last week to hear Omnicare and resolve a circuit split over the pleading of false opinions in Section 11 claims, the Court has come back this week with yet another grant of cert in a securities case.
Public Employees' Retirement System of Mississippi v. IndyMac MBS, Inc. presents the question of whether the filing of a securities class action tolls the applicable statute of repose for individual class members. The Second Circuit found that the statute of repose cannot be tolled because it "create[s] a substantive right in those protected to be free from liability after a legislatively-determined period of time" and "[p]ermitting a plaintiff to file a complaint or intervene after the repose period . . . has run would therefore necessarily enlarge or modify a substantive right and violate the Rules Enabling Act." The Court will hear the case next term.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in the Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund case, which brings into question the continued viability of the fraud-on-the-market presumption of reliance. The fraud-on-the-market presumption is crucial to pursuing a securities fraud case as a class action – without it, the proposed class of investors would have to provide actual proof of its common reliance on the alleged misrepresentation, a daunting task for classes that can include thousands of investors.
Much of the pre-argument commentary had focused on Chief Justice Roberts as the possible "swing vote" that could create a majority in favor of eliminating the fraud-on-the-market presumption (which was judicially created by a 1988 Supreme Court decision). Based on the questioning at the hearing, however, The 10b-5 Daily's prediction that Halliburton would be unable to find five justices who are willing to go that far seems more accurate. Indeed, to the extent that the Court is willing to change the current regime, it now appears that they are more likely to embrace the intermediate step of requiring evidence of price impact before a class can be certified (because price impact is a prerequisite of the fraud-on-the-market presumption).
Why read the tea leaves this way? A few highlights:
(1) Petitioner (Halliburton) started off arguing that the fraud-on-the-market presumption should be overruled because at least three things have changed since it was implemented: (a) the Court has consistently construed the private right of action for securities fraud narrowly, (b) the Court has issued decisions making it clear that class-wide issues should be addressed at the class certification stage, and (c) the economic premise that "investors rely in common on the integrity of the market price" is no longer accurate (assuming it ever was). In response, Justice Kagan noted that Petitioner apparently agreed "that market prices generally do respond to new material information," so in any particular case there will have to be a fact-specific inquiry into "whether there's an exception to this general rule." Petitioner responded that "if the Court were inclined to keep the presumption in some sense, it should at least place the burden on the plaintiff to establish that the misrepresentation actually distorted the market price, or to give defendants the full right of rebuttal at the class certification stage to establish the price was not impacted."
(2) Once the discussion turned to the use of price impact evidence, much of the rest of the hearing focused on that issue. Most notably, Justice Kennedy asked Petitioner to address whether a possible solution to the economic issues it had raised was to require plaintiffs to demonstrate - via an event study at class certification - that the alleged misrepresentation had impacted the market price. Petitioner readily agreed that it made "sense to focus like a laser on the only relevant question, whether the misrepresentation distorted the market price." In response to questions from Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, Petitioner also argued that the cost of these event studies would not be significant because "plaintiffs are commonly using event studies right now as part of their [overall] market efficiency showing" at class certification and that event studies are "very effective" at determining a misrepresentation's price effect.
(3) Respondent (investors) and the government also were asked to address the use of price impact evidence at the class certification stage. In response to questioning from Justice Sotomayor and Justice Kennedy, Respondent argued that in a case alleging multiple misrepresentations, conducting event studies would be "very complicated" and "very expensive," and, moreover, "the idea that there are not significant merits filters that prevent cases from going to trial is simply wrong, both at the pleading stage and at the summary judgment stage." In contrast, however, the government readily conceded that if the Court were to require proof of price impact at the class certification stage, it "would be a net gain to plaintiffs, because plaintiffs already have to prove price impact at the end of the day."
Disclosure: The author of The 10b-5 Daily submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the Washington Legal Foundation in support of petitioner.
On the eve of the Halliburton oral argument, there have been two other developments in the U.S. Supreme Court related to securities litigation.
(1) Last week, in the Chadbourne & Parke LLP v. Troice case, the Court held that the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act of 1998 (SLUSA) does not preclude state-law class actions unless the alleged misrepresentation "is material to a decision by one or more individuals (other than the fraudster) to buy or sell a 'covered security.'" The Court went on to find that the state-law class action against the defendants should be allowed to proceed because the alleged ponzi scheme, in which high-interest certificates of deposit (not covered securities) were sold to investors who were falsely told that the proceeds would be invested in liquid securities (at least some of which would be covered securities), did not satisfy this test.
The 7-2 decision authored by Justice Breyer provides an interpretation of the phrase "in connection with the purchase or sale" of a security that is contained both in SLUSA and Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act (the primary statutory basis for federal securities fraud claims). The Court presents the following key arguments in support of its interpretation. First, SLUSA's language suggests that the requisite connection to the purchase or sale must "matter" and "[i]f the only party who decides to buy or sell a covered security as a result of a lie is the liar, that is not a connection that matters." Second, "every securities case in which this Court has found a fraud to be 'in connection with' a purchase or sale of a security has involved victims who took, who tried to take, who divested themselves of, who tried to divest themselves of, or who maintained an ownership interest in financial instruments that fall within the relevant statutory definition." Finally, the Court's reading of SLUSA is consistent with the Securities Exchange Act and the Securities Act because "[n]othing in [those] statutes suggests their object is to protect persons whose connection with the statutorily defined securities is more remote than words such as 'buy,' 'sell,' and the like, indicate."
On its surface, of course, the decision is a victory for the plaintiffs' bar because it narrows the scope of SLUSA preemption. But the split within the Court - Justices Kennedy and Alito filed a vigorous dissent arguing that the new test is inconsistent with the Court's prior "broad construction" of the "in connection with" language - may be the result of two different forces at play. While the Court's test narrows the scope of SLUSA preemption, it also appears to narrow the overall scope of Section 10(b), limiting how far the plaintiffs' bar (and the SEC) can push the definition of a "securities fraud." This result sheds some light on why, for example, Justice Thomas joins the majority in a short, separate concurrence that applauds the application of "a limiting principle to the phrase 'in connection with'" - an outcome that no doubt appealed to a justice who has been in dissent in previous cases that arguably espoused a broader view of "in connection with" (e.g., O'Hagan).
(2) Apparently anxious to continue to delve into securities litigation issues, the Court also granted cert on Monday in the Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers District Council Construction Industry Pension Fund case, which will be heard next term. At issue is the scope of Section 11 of the Securities Act, which provides a private remedy for a purchaser of securities issued under a registration statement filed with the SEC if the registration statement contains a material misstatement or omission.
The Court will consider the pleading standard for an allegedly false or misleading opinion (as opposed to statement of fact). While the Second, Third, and Ninth Circuits have held that under Section 11 a plaintiff must allege that the statement was both objectively and subjectively false - requiring allegations that the speaker's actual opinion was different from the one expressed - in Omnicare the Sixth Circuit held that if a defendant "discloses information that includes a material misstatement [even if it is an opinion], that is sufficient and a complaint may survive a motion to dismiss without pleading knowledge of falsity." Stay tuned.