Sixth Circuit Embraces Collective Scienter

The “collective scienter” theory is beginning to gain a foothold in securities litigation caselaw, even if courts are not expressly acknowledging the nature of their holdings. As a general matter, whether a defendant corporation has acted with scienter (i.e., fraudulent intent) is determined by looking “to the state of mind of the individual corporate official or officials who make or issue the statement . . . rather than generally to the collective knowledge of all the corporation’s officers and employees acquired in the course of their employment.” Southland Sec. Corp. v. INSpire Ins. Solutions, Inc., 365 F.3d 353 (5th Cir. 2004). Another way of putting this is that courts recognize corporations only act through their officers and directors, and, therefore, can only be held liable for fraud if one or more of those individuals can be held liable for fraud. A steady trickle of decisions, however, appears to be rejecting this principle in favor of a collective scienter theory.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently affirmed the dismissal of a securities class action against Ford based on statements relating to faulty tires, but the manufacturer of those tires has not been as fortunate. In City of Monroe Employees Retirement System v. Bridgestone Corp., No. 03-5505 (6th Cir. 2004), the court found that some of the statements made by Bridgestone and its wholly-owned subsidiary, Firestone, were actionable. On the issue of scienter, the court examined the state of mind of the corporate entities separately from the state of mind of the sole individual defendant (Firestone’s CEO). The court concluded that scienter was adequately plead against Bridgestone and Firestone, even though it failed to identify any individual officers or directors who acted with scienter. Moreover, the court rejected the scienter allegations against Firestone’s CEO and affirmed the dismissal of the claims against him. Leading to the inevitable question: if an officer makes the statement and a janitor knows the statement is false, has the corporation acted with fraudulent intent?

Holding: Affirmed in part and reversed in part.

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