Investors frequently bring securities class actions against drug development companies, typically asserting that the company failed to adequately disclose information about its clinical trials. In Lehmann v OHR Pharmaceutical, Inc., 2019 WL 452765 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 20, 2019), the company was developing a drug for the treatment of a degenerative eye disease called Wet Age-Related Macular Degeneration (“Wet AMD”). The plaintiffs claimed that OHR, in disclosing the results of its Phase II clinical trial, failed to disclose that its control arm results were inconsistent with previous trials (which allegedly made the Phase II trial appear more successful than it really was). Ultimately, the company announced disappointing results for its subsequent Phase III clinical trial and the stock price declined 81%.
The court found that OHR’s disclosures were accurate and the company was not required to provide more context around its Phase II trial results. Indeed, the court questioned the entire premise of the case, noting that “[o]n Plaintiffs’ account, it is unclear whether the Company should have embarked on the phase III study after the success of the phase II study – should the Company have ignored what Plaintiffs say were aberrant results, or should it have investigated further?” The court came down firmly on the side of further investigation, noting “that the law does not abide attempts at using the judiciary to stifle the risk-taking that undergirds scientific achievement and human progress.”
Holding: Motion to dismiss granted (also based on the plaintiffs’ failure to adequately plead scienter).
Quote of note: “This Court will not adopt a rule that discourages free scientific inquiry in the name of shielding investors from the risks of failure. Science is risky. Science advances through those willing to take those risks and break with consensus. With science suffering from a replication crisis, this Court is happy to report that the law does not abide attempts to use the judiciary to stifle the risk-taking that undergirds scientific advancement and human progress. The answer to bad science is more science, not this Court’s acting as the Southern District for the Inquisition.”
To what extent can plaintiffs use allegations from a retained expert in a securities fraud complaint? In Sgarlata v. Paypal Holdings, Inc., 2019 WL 4479562 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 18, 2019), the plaintiffs claimed that PayPal had failed to adequately disclose a cybersecurity breach. To bolster their scienter (i.e., fraudulent intent) allegations, the plaintiffs engaged a cybersecurity expert to determine what information about the breach likely was available to the company at the time the breach was discovered and provided the expert’s opinions in the complaint.
In its motion to dismiss decision, the court found that it could consider the expert’s statements, but only if they satisfied the same standard applied to confidential witnesses, i.e., (1) the statements must be described with sufficient particularity to establish the expert’s reliability and personal knowledge; and (2) the statements must themselves be indicative of scienter. The cybersecurity expert had extensive experience in the field and opined that the company must have known more about the breach than it disclosed.
The court noted, however, that there was no allegation in the complaint that the expert “was familiar with, much less had knowledge of, the specific security architecture of Defendants’ privacy network.” Moreover, the expert “did not actually talk to employees . . . nor did he review documents that – in and of themselves – demonstrate inconsistencies that were available” to the company at the time of its disclosure. Even considered holistically with the entire complaint, the court found that the expert’s opinions did not support a finding of scienter.
Holding: Motion to dismiss granted.
It is common for a securities class action to follow an announcement that a company has engaged in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) violations. Plaintiffs typically allege that the company’s statements about its legal compliance, internal controls, and/or financial results were rendered false or misleading by the failure to disclose that certain revenues were obtained through corruption.
In Doshi v. General Cable Corp., 2019 WL 1965159 (E.D. Ky. April 30, 2019), General Cable entered into settlements with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) over FCPA violations. As part of a non-prosecution agreement with the DOJ, the company admitted that it knew about certain corrupt payments and “knowingly and willfully failed to implement and maintain an adequate system of internal accounting controls designed to detect and prevent corruption or other illegal payments by its agents.” The court’s motion to dismiss ruling contains three interesting holdings.
First, there is a two-year statute of limitations for federal securities fraud claims, which begins to run when the “plaintiff did discover or a reasonably diligent plaintiff would have discovered the the facts constituting the violation.” Although the complaint was filed more than two years after General Cable first disclosed the possibility of FCPA violations, the court held that the claims were not barred by the statute of limitations because there was no available evidence of scienter (i.e., fraudulent intent) until the company entered into the government settlements.
Second, the court found that the only actionable misstatements made by General Cable related to its statements concerning the effectiveness of its internal controls over financial reporting (including SOX certifications). The company’s disclosure that it had a FCPA compliance program was not rendered false or misleading by the fact that the program was not effective. The company also had no obligation to disclose a theoretical risk that its overseas operations might fail if it could not rely on corrupt business practices.
Finally, despite its holdings regarding the statute of limitations and the existence of actionable misstatements, the court concluded that the plaintiffs had failed to adequately plead scienter. The company’s settlements with the government established that “GC knew it did not have controls that provided a sufficient framework for dealing with third-parties in the identified subsidiaries and GC knew that this allowed it to violate the FCPA in particular countries.” However, the court held, “this does not mean that GC knew its overall internal controls over financial reporting were not effective, nor does it mean that GC knew its SOX certifications – which do not specifically relate to the FCPA – were false.” In other words, the court found that the “most plausible inference” was that GC believed that its overall financial reporting system was “sound despite a specific FCPA-related issue.”
Holding: Motion to dismiss granted.
Among other reforms, the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (“PSLRA”) requires that upon “final adjudication” of a federal securities action, the court shall include in the record “specific findings regarding compliance” with the federal rule providing that attorneys’ must present accurate and non-frivolous pleadings to the court. If the court finds the rule has been violated, it must impose sanctions on the offending party or attorney.
The PSLRA’s required sanctions review is more honored in the breach than the observance, with federal judges generally declining to provide the specific findings unless prompted by a party. In turn, parties rarely make these requests because they believe there is a slim likelihood of sanctions being imposed.
That said, if a plaintiff is worried about a possible sanction, can it avoid the mandatory review by voluntarily dismissing its claim? In Rezvani v. Jones, 2019 WL 1100149 (C.D. Cal. March 6, 2019), the plaintiff voluntarily dismissed his case with prejudice after he failed to amend his complaint and the court indicated that it found dismissal with prejudice appropriate. The court held that for purposes of determining whether the dismissal was a “final adjudication” under the PSLRA, the key factor was that the dismissal was with prejudice (not whether it was voluntary or involuntary). A dismissal with prejudice – no matter the exact circumstances – closes the district court case file, constitutes a “final adjudication,” and leads to the required sanctions review.
However, the court also found that sanctions against the plaintiff were not warranted. The securities claim had “little merit,” but the court accepted counsel’s representation that he had researched his client’s claims and the case had been brought in good faith. In addition, the court credited the plaintiff for dropping his securities claim “once the Court identified its deficiencies.”
Holding: Defendant’s motion for sanctions denied.
As The 10b-5 Daily recently has noted, it is difficult for corporate defendants to avoid securities fraud liability when they fail to disclose hidden wrongdoing at the company. But what if the company’s CEO is engaged in hidden wrongdoing at a different company?
In Fries v. Northern Oil & Gas, Inc., 2018 WL 388915 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 11, 2018), Northern Oil fired its CEO after the SEC sought to bring an enforcement action against him. The enforcement action was based on the CEO’s activities at an unrelated company, Dakota Plains Transport, which he had founded. When Northern Oil announced the dismissal of its CEO, its stock price dropped and a securities class action was filed. The plaintiffs alleged that Northern Oil had omitted material facts about the CEO’s wrongdoing at Dakota Plains when the company made statements about its Code of Business Conduct and Ethics and the CEO’s value to the business.
The court found that the plaintiffs had failed to adequately plead that Northern Oil made any false statements. A failure to disclose wrongdoing is only actionable if the “non-disclosures render other statements by defendants misleading.” The company did not tout its compliance with its Code of Business Conduct and Ethics and there was nothing inaccurate about the company’s statements concerning its reliance on the CEO’s expertise and industry contacts. Accordingly, the hidden wrongdoing at Dakota Plains did not make those statements actionable.
Holding: Motion to dismiss granted. (The court also found that the plaintiffs failed to adequately plead scienter.)
Is “on track” the most dangerous phrase a corporation can use to describe its business? Over the years, there have been a significant number of securities class actions alleging a company’s statement that a regulatory approval process or financial metric was “on track” constituted securities fraud. Defendants typically argue that “on track” is inherently forward-looking (because one cannot know whether something is actually on track until the final results are obtained) and, therefore, protected from liability by the PSLRA’s safe harbor for forward-looking statements. While some courts have held that “on track” cannot be distinguished from the underlying projection and the safe harbor applies, other courts have concluded that “on track” is a statement of present condition.
Another, more recent legal complication, is whether “on track” should actually be assessed as an alleged false opinion subject to the Omnicare standard. In Omnicare, the Supreme Court held (albeit in the context of a non-fraud Section 11 claim) that an opinion is actionable if either (a) the opinion was not genuinely held, or (b) the holder of the opinion omitted material facts about its inquiry into, or knowledge concerning, the opinion.
In Bielousov v. GoPro, Inc., 2017 WL 3168522 (N.D. Cal. July 26, 2017), the court considered whether the CFO’s statement “We believe we’re still on track to make [GoPro’s financial guidance] as well” was a forward-looking statement covered by the PSLRA’s safe harbor. The court held that because the CFO included the phrase “we believe” in his statement, it was a statement of present opinion about “his and GoPro’s existing state of mind.” Accordingly, the PSLRA’s safe harbor did not apply and the statement should be examined under the Omnicare standard.
Holding: Motion to dismiss denied.
If an individual defendant’s stock trading took place pursuant to a pre-determined Rule 10b5-1 trading plan that was entered into before the outset of the alleged fraud, the use of the trading plan may undermine any inference that the trades were “suspicious” for purposes of assessing scienter (i.e., fraudulent intent). As part of this analysis, however, does a court have to accept that the beginning of the class period constitutes the outset of the alleged fraud?
In Harrington v. Tetraphase Pharma., Inc., 2017 WL 1946305 (D. Mass. May 9, 2017), the plaintiffs claimed that the company “knew that the drug they were testing would fail long before that information was released to the public.” The alleged timeline was that the class period began on March 5, 2015, two of the individual defendants entered into Rule 10b5-1 trading plans on March 13, 2015, and the company became aware of the results of its clinical testing as of late April or early May 2015. In assessing the impact of the Rule 10b5-1 trading plans on its scienter analysis, the court noted that the plans “were executed before even Plaintiffs argue that defendants possessed results from the pivotal portion of the [clinical trial].” Accordingly, the court rejected the idea that it was forced to accept, for purposes of analyzing the impact of the trading plans, that the alleged fraud began at the beginning of the class period. Instead, the court concluded that the “reasonable inference from the alleged facts” was that the fraud began after the two individual defendants entered into their trading plans and, as a result, their subsequent trading was not suspicious.
Holding: Motion to dismiss granted (on the basis that the plaintiffs had failed to establish a strong inference of scienter as to any of the defendants).