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
A trader who uses material nonpublic information to execute trades but does not personally benefit from the resulting gains may nonetheless face disgorgement of all profits, according to a recent Second Circuit opinion. In Securities Exchange Commission v. Contorinis, No. 12-1723, the Second Circuit affirmed a judgment from the Southern District of New York requiring defendant Joseph Contorinis, a former hedge fund manager at Jeffries & Co., to disgorge nearly $7.3 million in profits realized through an investment fund he had managed. The court rejected the argument a person can only disgorge profits that are personally enjoyed and instead found that disgorgement may also apply unlawful gains that flow to third parties. Relying on a principle that the limit for disgorgement is the total amount of gain flowing from illegal action, the Second Circuit concluded that district courts may impose disgorgement liability for gains that flow to third parties. Read More
Will shareholder litigation survive the abandonment of the fraud-on-the-market presumption of reliance? After the Supreme Court’s announcement that it will be considering the presumption in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, No. 13-317, there is much discussion of whether a rejection of fraud-on-the-market could mean the end of securities litigation. The fraud-on-the-market doctrine, set forth in Basic Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224, 243-50 (1988), allows a plaintiff seeking class certification to use a rebuttable presumption to establish reliance. The presumption is that public information is reflected in the price of a stock traded on a well-developed market, and that investors rely on the integrity of the market price when deciding whether to buy or sell a security. Under the doctrine, investors do not need to show they actually relied on a misstatement in order to satisfy the “reliance” element of their claim for class certification. Though overturning the presumption would have a significant impact on shareholder class actions under Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, it would not spell the end of shareholder litigation. Read More
In a recent decision, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed the Court of Chancery in Pyott, et al. v. Louisiana Mun. Police Emp. Ret. Sys., et al., holding that a derivative suit against Botox-maker Allergan, Inc. should be dismissed because Allergan had already secured a judgment in its favor in a nearly identical suit in California. The decision will make it more difficult for plaintiffs’ lawyers to pursue duplicative derivative litigation in multiple jurisdictions.
Shortly after Allergan entered into a $600 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over alleged off-labeling marketing of Botox, separate groups of shareholders brought suit in Delaware and California. Before motions to dismiss in the Delaware derivative litigation were heard, a California Federal Court dismissed the California derivative suit, finding that plaintiffs could not support the inference that the Allergan directors conspired to violate the law, which prevented plaintiffs from showing that making a demand on the Board to investigate the matter would be futile. The Delaware Court of Chancery held that the California Judgment did not bar the Delaware action and denied Allergan’s motion to dismiss. The Court of Chancery’s decision that it was not required to give preclusive effect to the California judgment was based on two principles: first, under Delaware law, the shareholder plaintiffs in two jurisdictions were not in privity with each other, and second, the California shareholders were not adequate representatives of the corporation. Read More
In a precedent setting decision, the Ninth Circuit affirmed dismissal of a putative class action in In re Century Aluminum Co. Securities Litigation, significantly raising the pleading bar in Section 11 cases. Plaintiffs alleged that Century Aluminum and its underwriters, Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley, issued false and misleading statements in connection with a secondary offering. The Ninth Circuit applied the Twombly/Iqbal “plausibility” standard, holding that those decisions no longer make it possible for plaintiffs to simply allege without plausible supporting facts that their shares can be “traced” back to a secondary offering. The court’s decision in Century Aluminum may mean that Ninth Circuit plaintiffs filing suit under Section 11 who rely on aftermarket purchases, and cannot otherwise plead plausible facts they purchased in the secondary offering itself, face a near impossible uphill battle at the pleading stage when alleging tracing.
Section 11 provides a remedy to shareholders who purchase securities under “a materially false or misleading registration statement.” When shares are issued under only one such registration statement, this tracing requirement is not a problem. However, when shares are issued under multiple registration statements, tracing back to the allegedly misleading registration statement can be extremely difficult. The court acknowledged that tracing to a secondary offering is “often impossible,” but noted that the tracing requirement “is the condition Congress has imposed for granting access to the ‘relaxed liability requirements’ that Section 11 affords.”
Century Aluminum issued 49 million shares in an Initial Public Offering that were already trading when plaintiffs purchased their shares. In a prospectus supplement on January 28, 2009, an additional 25 million shares entered the market. Plaintiffs alleged they had standing to pursue a Section 11 claim because they “purchased Century Aluminum Common Stock directly traceable to the Company’s Secondary Offering.” In support of their tracing theory, plaintiffs argued that their shares were purchased on dates that showed sharp spikes in trading activity, indicating the flood of new shares as a result of the allegedly misleading prospectus supplement. Read More
On November 14, 2012, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and Securities Exchange Commission (“SEC”) issued a much anticipated Resource Guide to the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Despite the fact the Guide is 130 pages, it is a surprisingly easy read. It provides a rare glimpse into the DOJ and SEC’s interpretation of the FCPA and the guiding principles for enforcement. Although the Guide will undoubtedly provide much awaited guidance on existing issues with which companies are currently grappling, it also serves to reinforce the well held belief that the DOJ and SEC are taking a hard line view on the FCPA.
The Guide provides insights into the government’s view on various aspects of the FCPA and covers issues surrounding both the Anti-Bribery Provisions as well as Books and Records and Internal Controls Provisions. Below are just a few key highlights.
The Guide lays out explanations of the key provisions of the FCPA, and offers hypothetical examples that highlight the DOJ and SEC’s interpretation of those key provisions. For example, in a lengthy discussion regarding what “anything of value” means, the guide discusses the various forms that an improper benefit can take–from travel expenses to payments of cash through “consulting fees” or “commissions” to expensive gifts. Examples of proper gifts is also discussed: “Some hallmarks of appropriate gift-giving are when the gift is given openly and transparently, properly recorded in the giver’s books and records, provided only to reflect esteem or gratitude, and permitted under local law. Items of nominal value, such as cab fare, reasonable meals and entertainment expenses, or company promotional items, are unlikely to improperly influence an official, and, as a result, are not, without more, items that have resulted in enforcement action by DOJ or SEC.” Read More
The plaintiffs’ bar has taken new aim at public companies’ annual meetings: filing lawsuits to enjoin annual shareholder approval of stock plan proposals and “Say-On-Pay” (“SOP”) votes, typically arguing that the proxy disclosures regarding these topics are inadequate. Dozens of cases have been filed this year to date. The Santa Clara Superior Court recently denied plaintiff’s attempt to delay Symantec’s SOP vote, finding no precedent for such an injunction. Yet new cases continue to come.
In Symantec, plaintiffs argued that proxy disclosures failed to provide enough information to allow shareholders to make an informed decision regarding executive compensation proposals. Plaintiffs argued that shareholders needed more detailed information, including an analysis conducted by the company’s compensation consultants and any compensation risk assessment undertaken by the company. Symantec v. Gordon, et al., Case No. 1-12-CV-231541 (Cal. Santa Clara County Superior Court). The Symantec Court disagreed.
The Symantec case suggests that judges will look to industry practices in evaluating the adequacy of disclosures on executive compensation. The court considered an expert opinion from a Stanford Professor (Robert Daines) surveying disclosures made by other companies in the industry. Professor Daines concluded that Symantec’s disclosures were at least as detailed as the industry standard. Lacking any factual support or legal precedent for such an injunction, the court denied the motion. Read More
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has revived a federal securities class action against Grant Thornton LLP regarding its unqualified 1999 audit opinion indicating that Winstar Communications Inc.’s 1999 financial statements was in conformity with generally accepted accounting principles. The Second Circuit’s opinion is notable because it finds that, despite an apparently thorough audit (in terms of hours spent and documents reviewed) a fact finder could still find enough evidence of a conscious disregard of signs of fraud to support an inference of recklessness. In other words, even where an auditor does a significant amount of work on an audit, such work will not necessarily immunize the auditor from securities claims. Read More
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