Middle Ground

How to evaluate corporate scienter continues to be an unresolved issue in securities litigation.  Some courts, notably the Fifth Circuit (and arguably the Eleventh Circuit), have taken the position that a court can only “look to the state of mind of the individual corporate official or officials who make or issue the statement (or order or approve it or its making or issuance, or who furnish information or language for inclusion or the like).”  Conversely, the Second, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits have suggested that under some circumstances plaintiffs should be allowed to plead collective corporate scienter, i.e., that some corporate officer knew the statement was false even if the plaintiff is unable to adequately allege that any particular corporate officer knew the statement was false.

In In re Omnicare, Inc. Sec. Litig., 2014 WL 5066826 (6th Cir. Oct. 10, 2014), the court addressed this circuit split and concluded that “a middle ground is necessary.”  On the one hand, the court found that the Fifth Circuit’s approach might encourage companies to engage in “tacit encouragement and willful ignorance.”  On the other hand, a broad application of collective scienter (which the Sixth Circuit itself had seemed to endorse in an earlier decision) creates the possibility “that a company could be liable for a statement made regarding a product so long as a low-level employee, perhaps in another country, knew something to the contrary.”

Accordingly, the court adopted the following formulation for evaluating corporate scienter, which it took from a law review article on the topic.

The state(s) of mind of any of the following are probative for purposes of determining whether a misrepresentation made by a corporation was made by it with the requisite scienter under Section 10(b): . . .

a. The individual agent who uttered or issued the misrepresentation;

b. Any individual agent who authorized, requested, commanded, furnished information for, prepared (including suggesting or contributing language for inclusion therein or omission therefrom), reviewed, or approved the statement in which the misrepresentation was made before its utterance or issuance;

c. Any high managerial agent or member of the board of directors who ratified, recklessly disregarded, or tolerated the misrepresentation after its utterance or issuance . . . .

The court concluded that this formulation was consistent with the Sixth Circuit’s earlier decision, would properly create potential liability for “corporations that willfully permit or encourage the shielding of bad news from management,” and would “protect corporations from liability – or strike suits – when one individual unknowingly makes a false statement that another individual, unrelated to the preparation or issuance of the statement, knew to be false or misleading.”

Although the Sixth Circuit describes its formulation as a “middle ground,” critics may question whether it is really different than the Fifth Circuit’s standard, and, if it is, whether it will accomplish the court’s stated goals.  Notably, sections (a) and (b) of the formulation are simply a restatement of the Fifth Circuit’s formulation – agents who made, approved, or directly contributed to the misstatement.  So the key difference is section (c), but the court offers no guidance as to how lower courts are supposed to determine whether a plaintiff has adequately plead that an agent “ratified, recklessly disregarded, or tolerated” the misstatement after it was made.  Section (c) also goes beyond the stated goal of describing which agent’s state of mind should be examined.  Finally, what does the court see as the significance of a corporate officer recklessly disregarding or tolerating the misstatement after it was issued?  Scienter is usually assessed as of the time of the alleged misstatement.  If a corporate officer later discovers that a corporate statement is false, he may have a duty to correct that misstatement (which could provide a separate basis for securities liability), but that does not establish the misstatement was made with scienter.  Stay tuned.

Holding: Dismissal affirmed (among other pleading deficiencies, the plaintiffs failed to adequately plead corporate scienter under the new formulation).

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Confirmatory Information

In its Halliburton II decision, the Supreme Court held that a securities fraud defendant can overcome the fraud-on-the-market presumption of reliance at the class certification stage of a case “through evidence that the misrepresentation did not in fact affect the stock price.”  Some defendants have argued that this means that if the company’s stock price did not increase when the alleged misrepresentations were made, the fraud-on-the-market presumption is not applicable.

Two recent decisions have questioned this line of reasoning.  In Local 703, I.B. of T. Grocery and Food Employees Welfare Fund v. Regions Financial Corp., 2014 WL 3844070 (11th Cir. Aug. 6, 2014), the court remanded the case so that the district court could consider evidence that the company’s “stock price did not change in the wake of any of the alleged misrepresentations.”  The court noted, however, that this evidence might not be sufficient to overcome the fraud-on-the-market presumption because the misrepresentations could have been “confirmatory information” that the market had already incorporated into the stock price.

Similarly, in McIntire v. China Mediaexpress Holdings, Inc., 2014 WL 4049896 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 15, 2014), the court granted class certification as to certain claims because a “material misstatement can impact a stock’s value either by improperly causing the value to increase or by improperly maintaining the existing stock price.”  The court was “not persuaded” that the auditor defendant had demonstrated no stock price impact as the result of its allegedly false audit opinion because (a) only days before the audit opinion was issued the company’s “stock price increased based on its release of unaudited financial statements,” and (b) “it is reasonable to infer that this increase included the market’s expectation that [the] audit opinion would later confirm the accuracy of [the company's] financial statements.”

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Duties to Disclose

Item 303 of Regulation S-K requires issuers to disclose known trends or uncertainties “reasonably likely” to have a material effect on operations, capital, and liquidity.  Plaintiffs often contend that if the disclosure required under Item 303 involves material information, then a company’s failure to disclose that information constitutes a material omission for purposes of securities fraud liability.

In In re NVIDIA Corp. Sec. Litig., 2014 WL 4922264 (9th Cir. Oct. 2, 2014), the Ninth Circuit considered this issue, but declined to find that the disclosure duty created by Item 303 can form the basis for an actionable securities fraud claim.  First, companies do not have “an affirmative duty to disclose any and all material information.”  Second, the “duty to disclose under Item 303 is much broader that what is required under” the general materiality standard for securities fraud.  As a result, plaintiffs cannot rely on the duty of disclosure created by Item 303 to form the basis of a securities fraud claim, but must separately demonstrate that the company had a duty to disclose because the omission of the information rendered the company’s statements false or misleading.

Holding: Dismissal affirmed.

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Standing Alone

Can the announcement of an investigation act as a “corrective disclosure” sufficient to support the existence of loss causation?  Last year, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that investigations do not “in and of themselves, reveal[] to the market that a company’s previous statements were false or fraudulent.”

In Loos v. Immersion Corp., 2014 WL 3866084 (9th Cir. Aug. 7, 2014), the Ninth Circuit has agreed with the Eleventh Circuit’s reasoning.  In particular, the court noted that because the disclosure of an investigation “simply puts investors on notice of a potential future disclosure of fraudulent conduct . . . any decline in a corporation’s share price following the announcement of an investigation can only be attributed to market speculation about whether fraud has occurred.”  Accordingly, “the announcement of an investigation, without more, is insufficient to establish loss causation.”

Holding: Dismissal affirmed.

Addition: Interestingly, this month the Ninth Circuit added a footnote to the decision clarifying that it did not “mean to suggest that the announcement of an investigation can never form the basis of a viable loss causation theory.”  Instead, the court was merely adopting the Eleventh Circuit’s position that the announcement of an investigation “standing alone and without any subsequent disclosure of actual wrongdoing, does not reveal to the market the pertinent truth of anything, and therefore does not qualify as a corrective disclosure.”

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Fervent Beliefs

Next term, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear argument in the Omnicare case.  The issue in Omnicare is the pleading standard for a claim under Section 11 of the Securities Act alleging a false or misleading opinion.  While the Second, Third, and Ninth Circuits have held that the plaintiff must allege 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.”

While Omnicare is pending, the Tenth Circuit has provided its own views on the subject.  In MHC Mutual Conversion Fund, L.P. v. Sandler O’Neill & Partners, L.P., 2014 WL 3765717 (10th Cir. Aug. 1, 2014), the court identified at least three possible conclusions that could be drawn from Section 11 and relevant legal precedent.  First, the court noted that “many common law authorities took a dim view of opinion liability” and one could find that Section 11 liability simply does not extend to opinions (as opposed to misstatements of fact).  Second, “an opinion can qualify as a factual claim by the speaker regarding his current state of mind.”  In that case, the opinion might be actionable if the plaintiff shows “both that the defendant expressed an opinion that wasn’t his real opinion (sometimes called ‘subjective disbelief’) and that the opinion didn’t prove out in the end (sometimes called ‘objective falsity’).”  Finally, there is support in the law for the view that “at least some subset of opinions about future events contain within them an implicit factual warranty that they rest on an objectively reasonable basis – and providing an opinion without an objectively reasonable foundation, at least without disclosing that deficiency, can give rise to a claim for negligent misrepresentation.”

Although the Tenth Circuit – in line with the majority view – appeared inclined to require allegations of both objective and subjective falsity, it found that it did not have to resolve the issue.  Even under the “objectively reasonable basis test,” the plaintiffs had failed to undermine the conclusion that the company had “a reasonable (if not universally shared) basis for the opinion it expressed.”  Moreover, the company had clearly disclosed that its “opinion about the prospects for its securities wasn’t unqualified – that an essential premise of the opinion rested on a judgment about near-term economic trends, a judgement that could well fail to bear out.”

Holding: Dismissal affirmed.

Quote of note:  “For centuries legions accepted Newtonian physics without qualification.  Last year some of us fervently believed the Broncos would win the Super Bowl.  In 2008, no doubt there were those who genuinely thought the market for mortgage backed securities would rebound.  Events have disproved each of these opinions, but that hardly means the opinions were anything other than honestly offered – true opinions at the time made.”

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Freshening Up

Regular visitors to The 10b-5 Daily will notice that the look and format of the blog has undergone a change.  A few items of note:

(1) To receive e-mail notifications of new posts (even if you have previously “subscribed” to The 10b-5 Daily), you will need to submit your e-mail address under “Follow by Email.”

(2) Links to various relevant materials can be found by clicking on About The Blog, The Law, The Facts, and Recent Supreme Court Cases.

(3) The search functions for the blog remain the same (word searches, category searches, and monthly archives).

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Ostrich Tactics

The long-running saga of the Boeing securities litigation is apparently coming to a close. In 2011, the district court granted the company’s motion to dismiss (on a motion for reconsideration) after it was determined that the key confidential witness denied being the source of the allegations attributed to him in the complaint, denied having worked for Boeing, and claimed to have never met plaintiffs’ counsel until his deposition.

The plaintiffs appealed this decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Not only did the Seventh Circuit affirm the dismissal, but it also strongly suggested that sanctions were appropriate in the case, noting that the “failure to inquire further [about the supposed evidence from the confidential witness] puts one in mind of ostrich tactics – of failing to inquire for fear that the inquiry might reveal stronger evidence of their scienter regarding the authenticity of the confidential source than the flimsy evidence of scienter they were able to marshal against Boeing.” The appellate court remanded the case to the district court to determine whether sanctions should be imposed.

In City of Livonia Employees’ Retirement System v. The Boeing Company, 2014 WL 4199136 (N.D. Ill. August 21, 2014), the district court examined the conduct at issue. First, the court found that the plaintiffs’ counsel should have interviewed the confidential witness before the filing of the initial complaint and that not doing so constituted “a failure to conduct a reasonable pre-filing investigation as required by the PSLRA.” Second, once the confidential witness had been interviewed by an investigator, the court concluded that it should have been clear to the plaintiffs’ counsel that it “did not have reasonable cause to trust the accuracy of the information obtained by the investigator because the investigator herself noted in her report that some of the information [the confidential witness] provided was unreliable.” Finally, even after the confidential witness told the investigator that “he no longer wished to cooperate with Plaintiffs,” the plaintiffs’ counsel filed a second amended complaint attributing key allegations to the confidential witness and “repeatedly made assurances to the court as to the truth of the allegations.” The court also noted that this was not the first time that the plaintiffs’ counsel had engaged in this type of misconduct. Under these circumstances, the court held that the imposition of sanctions was warranted.

Holding: Imposing Rule 11 sanctions and encouraging the parties to mediate and settle the issue of what constituted “reasonable attorneys’ fees and other expenses incurred in defending the lawsuit.”

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