Catching Up With Scheme Liability

What constitutes a “scheme” or “deceptive act” for purposes of liability under the antifraud provisions of the federal securities laws? Part of the difficulty in answering that question has been that Rule 10b-5 contains three separate subsections, which prohibit in connection with a securities transaction (a) the use of any “device, scheme, or artifice to defraud,” (b) the “mak[ing] of any untrue statement” or omission of material fact, and (c) any “act, practice, or course of business which operates or would operate as a fraud or deceit.” If these subsections are read separately, then a scheme or deceptive act would appear to be something different than simply making a false or misleading statement.

In 2017, however, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Lorenzo that the Rule 10b-5 subsections overlap, at least to the extent that an individual who disseminates false statements to investors (even if the statements were made by someone else) can be primarily liable for securities fraud under subsections (a) and (c). That ruling appeared to open up a new front for securities class actions: private plaintiffs could seek to hold defendants who merely participated in the making of false statements liable for securities fraud (whereas this type of claim previously had been barred by the absence of aiding and abetting liability in private actions brought under Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5). Moreover, to the extent that a claim was framed as a “scheme liability” claim as opposed to a “misstatement” claim, it might be possible to circumvent the PSLRA’s heightened pleading standards (which technically apply to claims based on misstatements).

In the wake of Lorenzo, at least two circuit courts have found that claims based on misstatements also can be brought under Rule 10b-5(a) and (c) (Alphabet – 9th Cir.Malouf – 10th Cir.). In July, however, the Second Circuit sought to limit the impact of the Lorenzo decision. In SEC v. Rio Tinto, the court held that “[u]ntil further guidance from the Supreme Court (or in banc consideration here) . . . misstatements and omissions can form part of a scheme liability claim, but an actionable scheme liability claim also requires something beyond misstatements and omissions, such as dissemination.” Although dissemination is clearly sufficient under Lorenzo, the court was vague about exactly what else could constitute the “something beyond misstatements and omissions.” Indeed, the court noted that it is “a matter that awaits further development.”

One prominent commentator has argued that the “show is over” when it comes to scheme liability after the Rio Tinto decision. But many in the defense bar have been more circumspect, including questioning whether the decision is as “clear as mud.” Meanwhile, arguably there now is a circuit split on the issue of whether “something beyond misstatements and omissions” is required for scheme liability. Will the plaintiffs bar become more aggressive in testing the boundaries of scheme liability in the wake of these decisions? Stay tuned.

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