The general theme of the research analyst cases is straightforward: the defendants allegedly committed fraud by disseminating research reports that they knew to be overly optimistic. A key question, however, has been whether the subsequent decline in the company’s stock price was caused by the research reports. In an important decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has affirmed the dismissal of two research analyst cases based on the plaintiffs’ failure to adequately plead loss causation.
The appeal was from Judge Pollack’s seminal decision in June 2003 dismissing the securities class actions brought against Merrill Lynch based on allegedly biased research reports concerning 24/7 Real Media, Inc. and Interliant, Inc. Judge Pollack found that the plaintiffs had failed to adequately allege loss causation because there was no alleged connection between the analyst reports and the companies’ financial troubles or the collapse of the overall market. (See this post, among others, for a discussion of the decision.)
In Lentell v. Merrill Lynch & Co., 2005 WL 107044 (2d Cir. Jan. 20, 2005), the Second Circuit affirmed Judge Pollack’s ruling. The court held that to establish loss causation, a plaintiff must allege that the subject of the misrepresentation was the cause of the actual loss suffered. In other words, the misrepresentation must have “concealed something from the market that, when disclosed, negatively affected the value of the security.” In these cases, however, the court found there was “no allegation that the market reacted negatively to a corrective disclosure regarding the falsity of Merrill’s ‘buy’ and ‘accumulate’ recommendations and no allegation that Merrill misstated or omitted risks that did lead to the loss.” Accordingly, the plaintiffs failed to adequately plead loss causation.
The Second Circuit’s decision would appear to have two potential impacts. First, it will make it difficult for the numerous other research analyst cases to go forward. The plaintiffs will need to adequately allege that either: (1) the disclosure of the false recommendations caused a stock price decline; or (2) the recommendations concealed risks about the stocks that later lead to a loss. Certain complaints, however, may satisfy these requirements (see the roundup of cases in this post). Second, the decision could affect the Supreme Court’s pending ruling in the Dura loss causation case. Although the Second Circuit does not alter its previous position on loss causation (rejecting the price inflation theory), the case illustrates the serious impact that loss causation standards can have on securities fraud litigation.
Quote of note: “We are told that Merrill’s ‘buy’ and ‘accumulate’ recommendations were false and misleading, and that the Firm failed to disclose conflicts of interest, salary arrangements, and collusive agreements among analysts, bankers, and 24/7 Media and Interliant. But plaintiffs nowhere explain how or to what extent those misrepresentations and omissions concealed the risk of a significant devaluation of 24/7 Media and Interliant securities. The reports indicate that 24/7 Media and Interliant were high-risk investments, a designation that specifies, inter alia, a ‘high potential for price volatility,’ and ‘no proven track record of earnings.’ And the unchallenged financial analyses presented (e.g., negative EPS ratios and consistent quarterly losses) certainly indicate weakness.”
Addition: The New York Law Journal has an article (via law.com – free regist. req’d) on the decision. Thanks to all of the The 10b-5 Daily’s readers who sent in the opinion.