Money, Gold and Judges: D.C. Circuit Holds SEC’s Conflict Minerals Rule Violates the First Amendment

On April 14, 2014, a divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia held in National Assoc. of Mfg., et al. v. SEC that the required disclosures pursuant to the SEC’s Conflict Minerals Rule violated the First Amendment’s prohibition against compelled speech, throwing that rule into uncertainty and possibly opening the door to constitutional challenges to similar disclosure rules.

The Conflict Minerals Rule requires companies and foreign private issuers in the U.S. to disclose their use of “conflict minerals” both to the SEC and on their websites.  The Rule, which was adopted pursuant to Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act as a response to the Congo War, defines “conflict minerals” as gold, tantalum, tin, and tungsten from the Democratic Republic of Congo (“DRC”) or an adjoining country, which directly or indirectly financed or benefited armed groups in those countries.  The deadline for satisfying the Rule, which became effective in November 2012, is May 31, 2014.  The National Association of Manufacturers, along with Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, challenged the Rule in the district court and then appealed to the Circuit Court. Read More

Halliburton Watch: Let’s Start with the Basics

On March 5, 2014, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., Case No. 13-317, and we are certain our blog readers are eagerly awaiting the Court’s ruling.  The case has potentially far-ranging implications for the survival of the Court’s landmark ruling in Basic, Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224 (1988), which relied on the efficient market hypothesis to create the fraud-on-the-market presumption of reliance on misrepresentations.  This post provides background on the history of the Halliburton litigation and is the first in a series of posts that will analyze the arguments by the parties and amici, the Court’s ruling, and the potential implications for future litigation.

Plaintiff-Respondent Erica P. John Fund, Inc. is a not-for-profit group that supports the outreach work of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.  The Fund purchased stock in Halliburton Company and lost money when Halliburton’s stock price dropped following negative news regarding Halliburton’s (1) potential liability in asbestos litigation, (2) revenue accounting on fixed-price construction contracts, and (3) merger with Dresser Industries.  The Fund sued Halliburton and its CEO David Lesar alleging that they had previously made fraudulent misrepresentations concerning those topics in violation of §§ 10(b) and 20(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and SEC Rule 10b-5. Read More

Out of Control: SEC Says Lack of Internal Controls Led to HP Paying More Than $108 Million to Settle FCPA Actions

On April 9, 2014, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that Hewlett-Packard had agreed to pay more than $108 million to settle Foreign Corrupt Practices Act actions brought by the SEC and the Department of Justice.  These actions were based on HP’s subsidiaries’ alleged payments of more than $3.6 million to Russian, Polish, and Mexican government officials to obtain or maintain lucrative public contracts.  The settlement is important because it highlights the SEC’s and DOJ’s continued focus on companies’ internal controls, particularly in the FCPA arena.  It also shows that the SEC may be able to use lesser, non-fraud offenses in which the underlying conduct involves a fairly de minimis amount of money to police behavior and subject companies to significant financial consequences. Read More

Update on Municipalities Continuing Disclosure Cooperation Initiative

On March 10, 2014, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced that issuers and underwriters of municipal securities may voluntarily report materially inaccurate statements made in offering documents regarding prior continuing disclosure compliance through a program called the Municipalities Continuing Disclosure Cooperation Initiative (the “MCDC Initiative”).

Orrick and BLX Group have issued a client alert with key information.

Honey, You Did What? SEC Charges Yet Another Spouse with Insider Trading

On March 31, 2014, the Securities and Exchange Commission brought insider trading charges against Ching Hwa Chen, the husband of a corporate insider, alleging that he misappropriated financial information from his wife and then shorted her employer’s stock, netting $138,000 in ill gotten gains.  SEC v. Chen, No. 5:14-cv-01467 (N.D. Cal).  The SEC’s allegations (taken from its complaint) are as follows:  Chen’s wife was the Senior Tax Director of Informatica, a data integration company.  In late June 2012, Informatica learned it would miss its revenue guidance for the first time in 31 consecutive quarters.  That miss caused the defendant’s wife to work more than usual as the company scrambled to close its books and prepare for a potential pre-release of its quarterly revenues.  Over the next several days, the defendant overheard his wife’s phone calls addressing the revenue miss, including on a four-hour drive to Reno, Nevada where his wife fielded calls from the passenger seat as he drove.  Early the next week, convinced that Informatica’s stock would lose value, Chen bet heavily against the company, shorting its stock, buying put options, and selling call options.  In early July, after announcing the miss, Informatica’s stock price fell 27% from $43 to $31.  Chen closed out all of his positions that same day. Read More

Delaware Supreme Court Tells Controlling Shareholders “If You Look Out For Your Minority, We’ll Look Out For You”

On March 14, 2014, the Delaware Supreme Court unanimously affirmed an important Delaware Court of Chancery decision issued in 2013 that offered a roadmap to companies and their directors on how to obtain the protections of the deferential business judgment rule when entering into a change-in-control transaction with a controlling stockholder.  As we discussed previously, in In re MFW Shareholders Litigation, then-Chancellor (now Chief Justice) Strine held as a matter of first impression that the deferential business judgment rule – as opposed to the more onerous “entire fairness” – standard of review should apply to a merger with a controlling stockholder where (i) the controller conditions the transaction on the approval of both a Special Committee and a majority of the minority stockholders; (ii) the Special Committee is independent; (iii) the Special Committee is empowered to freely select its own advisors and to say no definitively; (iv) the Special Committee acts with care; (v) the minority vote is informed; and (vi) there is no coercion of the minority.
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I’m Ready for My Close-up: SEC Puts the Focus on Moviemaker Over Hostile Takeover Maneuvers

In a story right out of the movies, complete with “poison pills” and “white squires,” the SEC announced on March 13, 2014 that motion picture company Lions Gate Entertainment Corporation settled charges that it failed to disclose to investors a set of “extraordinary” corporate transactions designed to thwart takeover efforts by investor Carl Icahn.

The tale of intrigue and midnight board meetings can be traced to Icahn’s efforts, beginning in 2008, to acquire control of Lions Gate. Despite his eventually gaining beneficial ownership of nearly 40 percent of Lions Gate’s outstanding shares, the company rejected various demands from Icahn over the years, including a demand to appoint five of the twelve seats on the Board of Directors.  In March, 2010, Icahn made a tender offer with a premium over the market price to entice shareholders to sell.  To thwart Icahn’s tender offer, Lions Gate adopted a poison pill and began to look for ways to keep the company out of Icahn’s hands. Read More

You Were Wrong, But Did You Know You Were Wrong? The Supreme Court to Resolve the Circuit Split On the Pleading Standard for Opinion-Based Allegations Under Section 11

Can a securities plaintiff satisfy Section 11 of the Securities Act simply by alleging that a statement of opinion was objectively false, or must the plaintiff also allege that the speaker subjectively knew the statement was false when it was made?  That is the question taken up by the Supreme Court earlier this month when it granted certiorari in Omnicare, Inc. v. The Laborers District Council Construction Industry Pension Fund and the Cement Masons Local 526 Combined Funds.  As we previously discussed, the Sixth Circuit decision on appeal runs contrary to decisions in the Second and Ninth Circuits, so all eyes are on the Court to settle the debate. Read More

Halliburton Oral Argument: The Fraud-on-the-Market Theory is “Basic”ally a Sore Thumb

On March 5, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Halliburton v. The Erica P. John Fund.  As discussed in previous blog posts, the United States Supreme Court agreed to consider Petitioner Halliburton’s argument to modify or overturn the fraud-on-the market presumption that the Court first articulated more than a quarter century ago in Basic  v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224, 243-50 (1988).  As our readers know, the fraud-on-the market theory allows investors to bring securities class action suits under Section 10(b) of the 1934 Securities Exchange Act by using a rebuttable presumption that public information about a company is reflected in its stock price because of the efficient markets hypothesis.  Basic significantly relaxes the burden on securities class action plaintiffs because they do not need to show actual reliance on a purported misstatement when deciding to buy or sell stock.  Overturning or modifying Basic would significantly dampen shareholder litigation by making it more difficult to obtain class certification or to survive a motion to dismiss. Read More

Supreme Court Narrows the Scope of SLUSA Preemption, Green-Lighting State Law Class Action Claims Alleging Ponzi Scheme

On February 26, 2014, the U. S. Supreme Court (“the Court”) held that the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act of 1998 (“SLUSA”) did not preclude Stanford Ponzi scheme plaintiffs’ state-law class action claims because the claims did not involve covered securities.  The 7-2 majority opinion in Chadbourne & Parke, LLC v. Troice was written by Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Kagan, Sotomayor, Ginsburg, Scalia and Chief Justice Roberts.  Justice Thomas concurred, and Justices Kennedy and Alito dissented.

The Court’s decision is significant because it resolves a long-standing circuit split over the interpretation of the “in connection with” requirement in SLUSA.  As a result of the decision, plaintiffs may increasingly bring state law claims based on investment vehicles that are not covered securities themselves but whose performance implicates or is backed by covered securities.  Investment managers and entities that market such investments, as well as lawyers and accountants, may face an increased risk of liability as a result of this decision. Read More