One Percent Responsible

Longtop Financial Technologies, a Chinese financial software company, was a notorious financial fraud (see here for a NYT column on the discovery of the fraud).  Both its outside auditors, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, and its Canada-based CFO, Derek Palaschuk, were apparently taken in by the company’s scheme to exaggerate its cash balances and revenue, under-report bank loan balances, and hide employee costs in an off-balance-sheet entity.  Last year, a securities class action brought on behalf of investors in Longtop’s American Depositary Shares obtained an $882.3 million default judgment against Longtop and its CEO, but Palaschuk decided to take the claims against him to trial.

On Friday, after a short trial in New York federal court, a jury found Palaschuk liable for securities fraud based on his failure to act despite the presence of “red flags” indicating that the company’s accounting might be fraudulent.  According to press reports, the inability to compel the presence of Chinese witnesses meant that Palaschuk was the only fact witness to testify.  Because Palaschuk’s liability was based on recklessness (rather than actual knowledge of the fraud), however, he presumably was subject to the PSLRA’s proportionate liability provisions.  Under these provisions, he only could be liable “for the portion of the judgment that corresponds to [his] percentage of responsibility.”  In an interesting twist, the jury reconvened today and found that Palaschuk was only 1% responsible for the fraud, assigning the other 99% of the responsiblity to Longtop and its CEO.  According to the plaintiffs, that still means Palaschuk will owe at least $5 million.  Palaschuk plans to challenge the verdict.  Stay tuned.

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Omnicare Argued

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in the Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers District Council Construction Industry Pension Fund case, which addresses the pleading standard for a claim under Section 11 of the Securities Act alleging a false or misleading opinion in a registration statement.  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.”

At oral argument, the focus was on what role the speaker’s basis, or lack thereof, for the opinion should play in evaluating falsity.  Omnicare argued that the “ultimate legal inquiry is whether the speaker did not possess the stated belief,” but “if it’s a case where the speaker truly has no basis for the opinions, we believe it will be quite possible for a plaintiff to include all of these underlying allegations about the basis as a way of showing subjective disbelief.”  The Court appeared concerned, however, about situations where a defendant could avoid liability even though the speaker either (a) had not done any due diligence to support the stated opinion (Justice Breyer), or (b) knew, but failed to disclose, that the basis for the opinion was weak (Justice Kagan).  Justice Kagan, in particular, suggested that if a registration statement contained an opinion that a transaction was legal, “a reasonable reader would look at that statement and say two things actually: Both, he’s done something to try to check as to whether the transaction is legal, and he doesn’t know anything that’s very dispositive going the other way.”

At the same time, the Court did not appear noticeably more sympathetic to the position taken by the plaintiffs (and the Sixth Circuit), who argued that even if an opinion had a reasonable basis, it could be actionable if it turned out to be objectively false.  Justice Ginsburg noted that the effect of that position is “there is no such thing as an opinion versus a fact, that it’s just the same as if they left out ‘we believe.'”

Ultimately, the Court spent most of the argument discussing the government’s proposed “middle ground,” which is that an opinion should be actionable if “[e]ither they didn’t believe what they were saying, or there was no reasonable basis for what they were saying.”  Justice Alito expressed concern that the Court needed “some more concrete guidance as to what is reasonable.”  For example, if a CEO plans to state his opinion that nobody in the company was paying bribes, “[d]oes he have to hire an outside firm to do an investigation to see if maybe somebody is paying bribes?”  Both plaintiffs and the government suggested that reasonableness is a “context-specific inquiry,” but Justice Alito countered that if the opinion turned out to be inaccurate, “it’s not going to be very hard” for the plaintiff to assert that a “reasonable investigation” would have revealed that the opinion was false or misleading.  Omnicare, for its part, argued that “an amorphous liability standard like the reasonable basis standard will really have a chilling effect” by encouraging companies not to offer their opinions about the company’s prospects.

The Court will issue its opinion by next June.

 

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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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