In a memorandum released on April 18, 2016, the private blood-testing company Theranos – once valued at over $9 billion – announced that it is under investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California, among other government agencies. The memorandum did not disclose the focus of the government investigations. Theranos’ announcement about the investigations comes on the heels of a series of October 2015 Wall Street Journal (“WSJ”) articles critical of the accuracy of the company’s blood-testing methods. The government investigations into Theranos are not surprising, particularly in light of recent remarks by SEC Chair Mary Jo White (“White”) at a March 31, 2016 address at Stanford University’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance, where White revealed the SEC’s focus on Silicon Valley’s privately held unicorns – private start-up companies with valuations exceeding $1 billion.
The first Circuit Court of Appeals decision applying the Supreme Court’s landmark 2014 decision in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2398 (2014) (“Halliburton II”), favored the defendants, finding as a matter of law that Best Buy Co. and its executives successfully rebutted the presumption of reliance set forth in Basic v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224 (1988) at the class certification stage through evidence of a lack of price impact from their alleged misstatements. See IBEW Local 98 Pension Fund et al. v. Best Buy Co., Inc. et al., Case No. 14-3178 (8th Cir. Apr. 12, 2016). By reversing the district court and holding that a class could not be certified, the Eighth Circuit showed that Halliburton II provides defendants with a meaningful opportunity to challenge the fraud on the market presumption. The plaintiffs’ bar, however, will be eager to highlight Best Buy’s unique pattern in trying to limit the impact of the decision beyond this case. Whether other federal courts follow the Eighth Circuit’s lead and deny class certification motions based on Halliburton II in greater numbers, and outside the Best Buy fact pattern, remains to be seen.
We have previously written about how, over the past few years, the SEC and other regulatory agencies have devoted substantial resources to investigations regarding allegations that public companies have inadequate internal controls and/or a system for reporting those controls. See here, here and here. That effort shows no signs of waning. As recently as March 23, 2016, the SEC announced a settlement with a multi-national company due in part to the internal controls failures at two foreign subsidiaries. On March 10, 2016, the SEC announced a settlement of claims against Magnum Hunter Resources Corporation in connection with alleged internal control failures. And, on February 17, 2016, the SEC announced a settlement of claims against a biopesticide company, Marrone Bio Innovations, based on the company having reported misstated financial results caused in part by internal control failures.
In a heavily redacted decision issued on April 5, 2016, the SEC approved the claim of one whistleblower and denied the claim of another for providing information related to an unidentified enforcement action. The SEC awarded $275,000 to the primary claimant (Claimant 1) but offset that amount by the monetary obligations due related to a separate Final Judgment. Although the April 5 order was heavily redacted, the publicly available information confirms that the $275,000 award was based on a percentage of the monetary sanctions from both the SEC case and a related criminal action. This is the first time an SEC order has required a tipster to spend whistleblower proceeds to settle a court-ordered debt.
Speaking last week at the SEC’s and Rock Center’s Silicon Valley Initiative at Stanford Law School, SEC Chair Mary Jo White cautioned Silicon Valley’s start-up companies regarding their potential lack of internal controls. In particular, she warned that unicorns—nonpublic start-up companies valued north of one billion dollars—may warrant special scrutiny into whether their corporate governance and investor disclosures are keeping pace with their growing valuations. Ms. White repeatedly warned that the prestige of obtaining “unicorn” status may drive companies to inflate their valuations.
On March 28, 2016, the Supreme Court denied a petition for certiorari review brought by Laurie Bebo, the former CEO of Assisted Living Concepts Inc., who challenged the constitutionality of proceedings conducted in an SEC administrative tribunal. Although the Court denied review, there are many more cases like it winding their way through the federal system, and in the likely event a split develops among the circuits, the Supreme Court may be inclined to address the issue, especially given the amount of attention the issue has received. Indeed, Bebo’s petition itself attracted the notice of celebrity entrepreneur Mark Cuban, who filed an amicus brief in her case arguing that the SEC’s administrative tribunal is a “farce” and unconstitutional.
On March 22, 2016, the Supreme Court issued a decision permitting class plaintiffs to rely on “representative” or “sample” evidence to satisfy the prerequisites to class certification and certain elements of their claims. See Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, No. 14-1146, 2016 WL 1092414 (Mar. 22, 2016). This is one of the relatively few recent class action decisions by the Court that could be construed as something other than a victory for class defendants. As Justice Thomas stated in dissent, the decision arguably is inconsistent with the Court’s pro-defendant decisions in Wal-Mart and Comcast. We have previously discussed the Supreme Court’s recent class action jurisprudence, including the Wal-Mart and Comcast decisions.
Shortly into his tenure as United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara announced a crackdown on insider trading, indicating that it would be his office’s “top criminal priority” and that investigations would utilize novel and “covert methods” to achieve convictions, including using wiretaps and informants. According to Bharara, “every legitimate tool should be at our disposal.” Over the next several years, federal prosecutors in Manhattan initiated nearly 100 insider trading cases against some of Wall Street’s leading names, and secured more than 80 convictions, many through guilty pleas. For his work, Time magazine featured Bharara on its February 13, 2012 cover under the headline: “This Man is Busting Wall Street.”
On March 4, 2016, the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of two related securities actions against Sanofi Pharmaceuticals, its predecessor Genzyme Corporation, and three company executives (collectively, “Sanofi”). In doing so, the Second Circuit offered its first substantial interpretation of the Supreme Court’s March 2015 decision in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers District Council Construction Industry Pension Fund, 135 S. Ct. 1318 (2015), which addresses how plaintiffs can allege securities claims based on statements of opinion.
On February 29, 2016, the Supreme Court denied certification in Harman International Industries Inc. et al. v. Arkansas Public Employees Retirement System et al., thereby leaving unanswered a number of questions related to the Safe Harbor provision of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act (PSLRA). The petitioners, defendant Harman International Industries Inc. (“Harman” or “the Company”) and related individual defendants, argued that the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals erred when it reversed the district court’s decision granting Harman’s motion to dismiss. In declining to hear the case, the Supreme Court failed to resolve a circuit split concerning the relevance of state of mind to the efficacy of cautionary language.