Draining the Safe Harbor

Securities class actions alleging that a company issued false or misleading earnings guidance are frequently dismissed. Among other things, to overcome the PLSRA’s safe harbor for forward-looking statements a plaintiff must adequately plead (a) the guidance was not accompanied by “meaningful cautionary statements” and (b) the company had “actual knowledge” of its falsity. Given the vagaries of business performance, courts generally find that one or the other pleading burden has not been met.

With that background, the decision in City of Providence v. Aeropostale, Inc., 2013 WL 1197755 (S.D.N.Y. March 25, 2013) is interesting because the court found that the plaintiffs successfully plead an “earnings guidance” claim, albeit with the help of a unique fact pattern and (arguably) a misreading of the law. Aeropostale is a clothing retailer. In the second half of 2010, the company decided to change the design of its women’s fashion line and placed orders for the new styles that would provide inventory through the fall of 2011. The new styles sold poorly and, in December 2010, the company fired the officer who led the change.

In response to the poor sales, Aeropostale provided 2011 earnings guidance that was below its 2010 results. According to the complaint, however, this guidance still understated the sales and inventory problems and failed to disclose that the unpopular new styles had been pre-ordered and would continue to be stocked for the next several quarters. The defendants argued that its earnings guidance (and other statements about the company’s future performance) were protected by the PSLRA’s safe harbor, but the court disagreed.

First, the court found that Aeropostale had failed to provide “meaningful cautionary statements.” While the company disclosed risks concerning “consumer spending patterns,” “fashion preferences,” and “inventory management,” its failure to disclose that the new styles would continue to be sold throughout most of 2011 meant that these risks were not hypothetical. Accordingly, the cautionary statements were inadequate because they did not “disclose hard facts critical to appreciating the magnitude of the risks described.”

Second, the court found that the “safe harbor does not apply to material omissions” and, as a result, the failure to dislose the pre-ordering of the unpopular new styles was “unprotected by the safe harbor, regardless of whether the statements thereby rendered misleading were forward-looking.” Because the court “declined to find that the misleading nature of the statements rests on the forward-looking aspects of the statements,” it also declined to find that the safe harbor’s “actual knowledge” requirement was applicable.

The court’s interpretation of the scope of the safe harbor is questionable (and perhaps unnecessary, given the court’s general view of the strength of the complaint’s allegations). The PSLRA expressly states that the safe harbor applies “in any private action that is based on an . . . omission of a material fact necessary to make the statement not misleading.” While the safe harbor does not apply to statements of current fact (whether they are alleged to be misstatements or rendered misleading by a material omission), that is different than concluding that the safe harbor does not apply to forward-looking statements that are alleged to be misleading because of the omission of a current fact. Indeed, reading the statute in this manner would severely limit its application. Plaintiffs routinely allege that a company’s projections were misleading based on its failure to disclose certain current facts.

Holding: Motion to dismiss denied.

Addition: The complaint also contained “opinion evidence from an expert in the retail and wholesale industry,” who concluded that the “Defendants had no reasonable basis to believe that Aeropostale could meet the guidance they issued.” Although the court summarized this opinion evidence in its decision, it also stated that it “did not consider any of the ‘expert testimony’ that was included – inappropriately in the Court’s view – in the pleading.”

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