Oral argument in the Tellabs v. Makor Issues & Rights case took place in the U.S. Supreme Court this morning. The question presented was: “Whether, and to what extent, a court must consider or weigh competing inferences in determining whether a complaint asserting a claim of securities fraud has alleged facts sufficient to establish a ‘strong inference’ that the defendant acted with scienter, as required under the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995.”
All of the justices participated in the hearing. Argument was heard from Carter G. Phillips of Sidley Austin on behalf of petitioners Tellabs and Notebaert; Professor Arthur Miller of Harvard Law School on behalf of the respondent shareholders; and Assistant to the Solicitor General Kannon Shanmugam on behalf of the United States as an amicus in support of Tellabs.
Overall Impressions – Predicting how the Supreme Court will rule based on oral argument, especially where there are multiple possible approaches to the issue, is difficult. That said, the Court appeared likely to reject the Seventh Circuit’s “reasonable person” standard as incompatible with the “strong inference” scienter pleading requirement. As noted by Justice Roberts and Justice Breyer, the “reasonable person” standard appears to allow for the possibility that the case will go forward even if the plaintiffs are only able to allege facts establishing a weak inference of scienter. There also appeared to be considerable support for the need to weigh competing inferences.
A few notes on the main issues discussed:
Is There A Seventh Amendment Violation? – Perhaps to the surprise of Tellabs’ counsel, who had argued in his briefs that the Court did not have to reach this issue, the justices spent a fair amount of time discussing whether there needed to be uniformity between the pleading and proof standards for scienter. In their brief, the shareholders had argued that the heightened pleading standard for scienter improperly required a court to act as a fact-finder on the merits of the suit. Justice Scalia and Justice Breyer expressed skepticism over the idea that Congress could not create a heightened pleading standard, noting that there are lots of barriers to entry to federal courts (including diversity and amount in controversy requirements). Justice Breyer wondered whether there was really any difference between saying a plaintiff’s case has to be “really strong” and saying that a plaintiff has to be “really suffering.” That said, a number of justices (Justice Breyer most of all) seemed concerned that the “strong inference” pleading standard was higher than the “preponderance of the evidence” proof standard. Tellabs’ counsel and government counsel both argued that if the Court wanted to address this question, it would need to reconsider the standard of proof, as opposed to watering down the PSLRA.
Can You Infer A CEO’s Knowledge About Financial Issues Based On His Position? – Justice Kennedy appeared anxious to get an answer to this question, asking it of both parties. Tellabs’ counsel responded that the CEO’s title was insufficient; plaintiffs needed to provide particularized facts regarding the CEO’s scienter. Shareholders’ counsel, however, suggested that it was unlikely that a CEO would not know about important financial issues. Moreover, the confidential witnesses cited in the complaint confirmed the existence of scienter for Tellabs’ CEO.
Competing Inferences – Justice Alito took center stage on the issue of how to evaluate competing inferences with the following analogy: if you see a person walking down the street toward the Supreme Court, this fact would create a strong inference that the person is going to the Supreme Court if it is the only building around. If there are a lot of other buildings, however, doesn’t a court have to consider the inference that the person is going to another location? In response to this analogy and further prodding from Justice Ginsburg and Justice Souter, shareholders’ counsel conceded that the court could consider other facts that were subject to judicial notice, but stopped short of agreeing that this constituted an evaluation of competing inferences.
How To Decide This Case – Justice Ginsburg noted that the phrase “strong inference” is not “self-defining” and other justices also appeared to struggle with its meaning. As to how to decide the case in front of them, Justice Scalia expressed a desire to provide lower courts with guidance on what is a “strong inference” of scienter and, during his rebuttal time, Tellabs’ counsel urged the same course.
Prof. Miller v. Justice Scalia – By his own admission, Prof. Miller has a more “colloquial” argument style. That got him into some hot water with Justice Scalia, with whom he traded barbs. Justice Stevens asked Prof. Miller if he could translate the “strong inference” standard into a probability percentage. Justice Scalia quipped that he thought it was 66 2/3%, in response to which Prof. Miller asked if that was “because you never met a plaintiff you really liked?” Justice Scalia got his revenge a few minutes later when Prof. Miller stated “don’t take me literally” on a certain comment and Justice Scalia replied that he would write that down. At that point, Justice Roberts called it a draw.
A transcript of the argument will be released later today. The 10b-5 Daily reserves the right to edit this post if it turns out that the transcript creates a “competing inference” as to the accuracy of the author’s scribbled notes.