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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.
While the Second Circuit and Ninth Circuit hear many securities cases and have a wealth of relevant case law, other circuits are still dealing with common issues that they have not yet had a chance to address. In Carvelli v. Ocwen Financial Corp., 2019 WL 3819305 (11th Cir. Aug. 15, 2019), the Eleventh Circuit examined two issues of first impression: puffery and Item 303.
Puffery – Puffery is generalized, vague, non-quantifiable statements of corporate optimism. Courts have found that these types of statements are immaterial as a matter of law and, as a result, cannot form the basis for a securities fraud claim. In Carvelli, the court noted that while the Eleventh Circuit has not addressed the concept in the context of a securities case, “puffery itself—and in particular its relevance to the law—is nothing new.” Indeed, it appears in nineteenth-century English case law, where courts found that “some advertisements—’mere puff’— clearly aren’t meant to be taken seriously.”
The Eleventh Circuit had little trouble finding that puffery can be a barrier to a securities fraud claim, but cautioned that it was not merely a matter of the court determining that the particular statement “smacks of puff.” Instead, a “conclusion that a statement constitutes puffery doesn’t absolve the reviewing court of the duty to consider the possibility—however remote—that in context and in light of the ‘total mix’ of available information, a reasonable investor might nonetheless attach importance to the statement.” In the instant case, however, “Ocwen’s proclamations that it was devoting ‘substantial resources’ to its problems, with ‘improved results,’ as well as its boasts that it was taking a ‘leading role’ and making ‘progress’ toward compliance are precisely the sorts of statements that our sister circuits have—we think correctly—deemed puffery and found immaterial as a matter of law.”
Item 303 – Item 303 of Regulation S-K requires issuers to disclose known trends or uncertainties “reasonably likely” to have a material effect on operations, capital, and liquidity. In Carvelli, the plaintiffs argued that the failure to make a disclosure required under Item 303 automatically can lead to Rule 10b-5 liability based on the existence of a material omission. The Third Circuit and Ninth Circuit (and, to a lesser extent, the Second Circuit) have rejected that argument. The Eleventh Circuit agreed with those decisions, holding that “Item 303 imposes a more sweeping disclosure obligation than Rule 10b-5, such that a violation of the former does not ipso facto indicate a violation of the latter.”
Holding: Dismissal affirmed.
Quote of note: “As Judge Learned Hand once put it, ‘[t]here are some kinds of talk which no sensible man takes seriously, and if he does he suffers from his credulity.” Vulcan Metals Co. v. Simmons Mfg. Co., 248 F. 853, 856 (2d Cir. 1918). Think, for example, Disneyland’s claim to be ‘The Happiest Place on Earth.’ Or Avis’s boast, ‘We Just Try Harder.’ Or Dunkin Donuts’s assertion that ‘America runs on Dunkin.’ Or (for our teenage readers) Sony’s statement that its PlayStation 3 ‘Only Does Everything.’ These boasts and others like them are widely regarded as ‘puff’—big claims with little substance.”
NERA Economic Consulting and Cornerstone Research have released their 2019 midyear reports on securities class action filings. As usual, the different methodologies employed by the two organizations have led to slightly different numbers, although they both identify the same general trends.
The key findings include:
(1) The reports agree that filings continue to be at near-record levels, driven by continued growth in “standard” filings alleging violations of Rule 10b-5, Section 11, and/or Section 12, even while M&A-related cases have declined. NERA finds that there were 218 filings (compared with 217 filings in 1H 2018), while Cornerstone finds that there were 198 filings (compared with 199 filings in 1H 2018).
(2) Following the Cyan decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, there has been a surge in state court filings alleging Section 11 claims. Cornerstone finds that this has continued in 1H 2019, with 19 cases brought in state courts (with over a third of these cases being accompanied by a federal filing alleging similar claims).
(3) NERA finds that there has been an increase in accounting-related claims, making up 37% of standard filings and notching the highest first half case count since the first half of 2011.
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.