Note to companies headquartered in Kansas: be careful when telling investors that you are eager to retain your senior officers.
In a securities class action against Sprint Corp., the plaintiffs based their claims on Sprint’s March 26, 2001 statement that it had entered into new employment contracts with its CEO and COO that were “designed to insure their long-term employment with Sprint.” According to the plaintiffs, this statement was misleading because Sprint knew that it might have to fire these officers as the result of a tax avoidance issue. In its motion to dismiss, Sprint argued that it had no duty to disclose this information because its statement did not “foreclose the possibility” that the CEO and COO might later be terminated.
The court disagreed with this characterization of the statement. See State of New Jersey and its Division of Investment v. Sprint Corp., 2004 WL 1960130 (D. Kan. Sept. 3, 2004). In finding that a duty to disclose existed, the court held that “Sprint’s statements that the contracts were ‘designed to insure’ the long-term employment of [the CEO and COO] could reasonably have led an investor to conclude that the termination of [their] employment (at least in the near future) was simply not an option from Sprint’s perspective.”
Although the court may have correctly found that a duty to disclose existed, the rationale it used is curious. Did Sprint really need to say, “then again, we might fire them,” for a reasonable investor to realize that it is always possible for the employment of a CEO or COO of a corporation to be terminated? Guess so.