On a Roll: The SEC Continues to Deliver on its Promise to Seek Admissions of Wrongdoing

The SEC announced last week that it has obtained yet another admission of wrongdoing in connection with an agreement to settle an SEC enforcement action.  This time, Peter A. Jenson, the former COO of Harbinger Capital Partners LLC, admitted that he aided and abetted Harbinger’s CEO, Philip Falcone, in obtaining a fraudulent loan from Harbinger.  Jenson agreed to a $200,000 penalty along with a two-year suspension from practicing as an accountant on behalf of any SEC-regulated entity.  The settlement awaits court approval.

The Jenson settlement is the latest in a series of settlements in which the SEC has obtained admissions of wrongdoing since announcing changes to its “no admit/no deny” settlement policy in June 2013. Other examples include the March 2014 Lions Gate settlement, the February 2014 Scottrade settlement, and the August 2013 Falcone/Harbinger settlement that settled charges related to those Jenson settled last week.    Read More

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 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

You Better Forum-Shop Around . . . While You Still Can

On January 31, 2014, Chevron Corporation moved to certify to the Delaware Supreme Court the question of whether exclusive forum bylaws are valid under Delaware law.  Chevron filed its motion before the Honorable Jon S. Tigar of the Northern District of California.  If Judge Tigar certifies the question, it seems likely that the Delaware Supreme Court will affirm a recent Delaware Court of Chancery decision finding such bylaws to be valid under statutory and contractual law, given that the author of that decision, then-Chancellor Leo E. Strine, is now Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court.

In 2013, plaintiffs filed suit in both the Delaware Court of Chancery and the Northern District of California challenging Chevron’s board-adopted forum exclusivity bylaw.  The case in the Northern District was stayed pending the outcome of the Delaware case, since both involved questions of Delaware state law.  The Delaware plaintiffs argued that the forum exclusivity bylaw was statutorily invalid under Delaware General Corporation Law (DGCL), and contractually invalid because it was adopted unilaterally without shareholder consent.  In June 2013, the Delaware Court of Chancery – in a decision by then-Chancellor Strine – found that the bylaw was enforceable, and that the Delaware Court of Chancery should be the sole and exclusive forum for (1)any derivative action brought on behalf of the Corporation, (2) any action asserting a claim of breach of a fiduciary duty, (3) any action asserting a claim arising pursuant to any provision of the DGCL, or (4) any action asserting a claim governed by the internal affairs doctrine. Read More

Securities Litigation Trends in Q2 2013: What’s Up (or Should We Say Down)?

The second quarter of 2013 saw the largest quarterly percentage decline in new securities actions since before the 2007/2008 financial crisis. New filings in the first quarter plummeted by 41 percent, from 352 in the first quarter to 234 in the second quarter. This drop represents a 55 percent decrease in the number of new securities actions filed as compared to same period last year (Q2 2012). It has been approximately five years since we have seen a lower number of quarterly filings.

The number of new securities fraud cases also plummeted, falling 59 percent from the prior quarter, with the number of new filings decreasing from 149 to 61. There were also quarterly declines in newly-filed shareholder derivative actions, which decreased from 43 filings in the first quarter to 37 in the second quarter, and breach of fiduciary duty cases, which fell from 99 new filings in the first quarter to 71 in the second quarter.

Not only did the number of securities actions filed drop significantly, but so too did the average settlement amounts. The average settlement for all types of securities cases in the second quarter was just over $37 million, a marked decrease from the average settlement amount of $69.3 million during the first quarter of 2013.

What’s going on? There are a number of factors that may be contributing to these downward filing trends. The stock market has been strong, so many investors have little to complain about. Moreover, the surge in suits against U.S.-listed Chinese companies appears to have run its course, and no new scandal or market development has yet become the next “big thing” that will drive increased filings. In addition, SEC enforcement activities have continued to shift into areas (such as insider trading and whistleblowing) that do not always spawn parallel private litigation. It remains to be seen whether the recent appointment of new SEC personnel or a renewed focus on accounting fraud cases by regulators, which is anticipated by some analysts, will cause a variation in these trends moving forward.

Source = Advisen D&O Claims Trends: 2013 Report (July 2013)

 

In the SDNY, Hindsight Is No Substitute for Red Flags When Alleging Scienter

On April 8, 2013, Judge Shira A. Scheindlin of the Southern District of New York granted auditor Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu CPA’s (“DTTC”) motion to dismiss a shareholder class action, finding that plaintiffs failed to sufficiently allege scienter or any misstatements by DTTC pursuant Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5 of the Securities Exchange Act. Plaintiffs alleged that DTTC issued unqualified audit opinions on behalf of its client Longtop from 2009 to 2011. During that period, Longtop reported very strong financial results, which were later revealed to be fraudulently inflated.

In May 2011, DTTC released a public letter of resignation as Longtop’s auditor, disclosing that its second round of bank confirmations were cut short by Longtop’s deliberate interference, that Longtop’s CEO admitted the company’s books were fraudulent, and that DTTC had resigned due to that admission and Longtop’s deliberate interference with its audit. As a result, the NYSE stopped trading on Longtop’s securities and delisted the company.

In dismissing shareholder claims against DTTC, the court applied the stringent test for plaintiffs to meet when alleging scienter against an auditor. Because “an outside auditor will typically not have an apparent motive to commit fraud, and its duty to monitor an audited company for fraud is less demanding than the company’s duty not to commit fraud,” an auditor’s mere failure to identify problems with a company’s internal controls and accounting practices will not constitute recklessness.  Read More

SEC v. Hackers: More Cybersecurity Enforcement on the Horizon?

Cybersecurity may be the SEC’s newest area for enforcement actions. While the SEC first released Disclosure Guidance concerning cybersecurity in 2011, the recent media attention surrounding significant cybersecurity breaches at a number of U.S. companies may cause the SEC to renew interest in the issue, and may result in enforcement actions, as well as shareholder class actions and derivative lawsuits. Companies that fail to disclose cybersecurity events in their public filings may find themselves on the wrong end of an SEC investigation and enforcement action.

Companies may also see an increase in class actions where there is a significant stock drop following disclosure of a cybersecurity breach—however, to date, there is little evidence to suggest the market reacts in a negative way following disclosure of a cybersecurity breach, leaving questions about whether plaintiffs could prove materiality and causation in a securities fraud case. Finally, increased focus on cybersecurity disclosures may result in an increase in shareholder derivative actions against officers and directors, with shareholders alleging that the company breached their fiduciary duties by failing to ensure adequate security measures. Read More

Shareholder Plaintiffs Score a Class Certification Win from SCOTUS

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Amgen, Inc. v. Connecticut Retirement Plans. In a 6-3 decision authored by Justice Ginsburg, the Supreme Court handed a win to plaintiffs in securities fraud class actions, holding that plaintiffs do not have to prove materiality at the class certification stage. The decision marks a departure from some of the Court’s more recent class action rulings, which seemed to narrow class action litigation. Justices Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy dissented.

In their complaint, plaintiff shareholders alleged that Amgen and its executives misled investors about the safety and efficacy of two anemia drugs, thereby violating Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5. During class certification, Amgen argued that Rule 23(b)(3) required that plaintiffs needed to prove materiality in order to ensure that the questions of law or fact common to the class will “predominate over any questions affecting only individual members.” Both the district court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Amgen’s argument. The Supreme Court followed suit, affirming the Court of Appeal’s judgment and holding that proof of materiality is not a prerequisite to class certification in securities fraud cases. Read More

Santa Clara Superior Court Says Post-Closing Damages Claims Are Derivative, Not Direct

Last Friday, Judge Kleinberg of the California Superior Court, County of Santa Clara, dismissed two shareholder class actions against the former directors of Actel Corporation and Applied Signal Technology, Inc. for breach of fiduciary duties arising out of the sales of Actel and Applied Signal to third-party buyers. In doing so, Judge Kleinberg stated that, under California law, damages claims brought by shareholders of California corporations against directors for breach of fiduciary duties in connection with the approval of a merger are derivative, not direct. Thus, because a plaintiff in a shareholder’s derivative suit must maintain continuous stock ownership throughout the pendency of the litigation, and the plaintiffs ceased to be stockholders of Actel and Applied Signal by reason of a merger, Judge Kleinberg held that they lacked standing to continue the litigation.

In holding that post-merger claims against directors of California acquired corporations are derivative, Judge Kleinberg relied on the pre-Tooley rationale (which is no longer controlling in Delaware and has been questioned in California) that a harm suffered equally by all shareholders in proportion to their pro rata ownership of the company is a derivative harm. Judge Kleinberg rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that Delaware’s Tooley standard for determining whether a claim was direct or derivative was adopted by the California Court of Appeal in Bader v. Andersen, 179 Cal. App. 4th 775 (2009). According to Judge Kleinberg, in stating that California and Delaware law were “not inconsistent,” the Bader court was merely observing that the results of applying California versus Delaware law in that case were not inconsistent; it was not saying that California and Delaware law are the same on the direct versus derivative issue.

Judge Kleinberg’s holding is a victory for the defense bar, as it means that merger litigation involving California incorporated targets will be susceptible to dismissal by demurrer or summary judgment following the preliminary injunction stage.

 

District Court Takes a Pass on Certifying Janus Issues For Interlocutory Review

On October 15, 2012, Chief Judge Claudia Wilken of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California denied defendants’ motion for certification of an interlocutory appeal of the court’s prior order denying defendants’ motion to dismiss. SEC v. Sells, No. 11-04941 (N. D. Cal. Oct. 15, 2012). A split will therefore remain amongst district courts as to whether the Supreme Court’s holding in Janus Capital Group Inc. v. First Derivative Traders, 131 S. Ct. 2296, 2303 (2011), applies to cases involving Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933 or in cases alleging scheme liability under Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. Janus held that a defendant could only be liable under Rule 10b-5(b) for material misstatements if the defendant “made” the statements.

Last October, the SEC filed suit against defendants Christopher Sells and Timothy Murawski, former executives at medical device company Hansen Medical, Inc., for their alleged involvement in a financial manipulation scheme designed to enhance the company’s sales and income. Defendants sought dismissal of the action in part on Janus grounds. The district court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss, finding that to allow liability for defendants’ alleged conduct would not be inconsistent with Janus. Defendants subsequently sought certification to the Ninth Circuit of two Janus-related issues: first, whether the SEC could bring scheme liability claims under Rule 10b-5(a) and (c) based upon an alleged misstatement that the defendant did not “make” under Janus; and second, whether Janus applied to claims under Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933. Read More