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

Are Confidential Witness Reforms Looming on the Horizon? Can the Plaintiff’s Bar Stop Them?

A decision is expected shortly in the highly publicized so-called confidential witness “scandal” involving the Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd law firm.  Judge Suzanne B. Conlon of the United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois, will decide whether to impose sanctions on the plaintiffs’ firm for its conduct regarding a confidential witness in the City of Livonia Employees’ Retirement System v. Boeing Company case, No. 1:09-cv-07143 (N.D. Ill.).  The decision could have a lasting impact over the use of confidential witnesses in securities fraud complaints.

Judge Conlon will decide this matter following the Seventh Circuit’s remand in late March 2013 on the narrow issue of whether to impose Rule 11 sanctions for (1) providing multiple assurances to the court that the confidential source in their complaint was reliable even though none of the lawyers had spoken to the source or (2) failing to investigate after plaintiffs’ investigators expressed qualms about the confidential source.  (Previous blog post here).  In remanding the case, the Seventh Circuit ruled that making “representations in a filing that are not grounded in an inquiry reasonable under the circumstance or are unlikely to have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for further investigation or discovery violate Rule 11.”  City of Livonia Empls.’ Ret. Sys. v. Boeing Co., 711 F.3d 754, 762 (7th Cir. 2013). Read More

“Something More” Than “But For” Required in the Ninth Circuit

The Ninth Circuit recently reversed a ruling by the U.S. District Court of Nevada granting summary judgment in favor of the SEC in a case alleging violations of Section 5 of the Securities Act of 1933 in connection with the sale of unregistered securities.  The SEC’s complaint alleged that 1st Global Stock Transfer LLC (“Global”), a transfer agent, and Global’s owner, Helen Bagley (collectively “Defendants”), assisted in the sale of unregistered securities for CMKM Diamonds, Inc. (“CMKM”), a purported diamond and gold mining company.  The SEC’s complaint further alleged that CMKM had no legitimate business operations but instead the Company concocted false press releases and distributed fake maps and videos of mineral operations to its investors.  While CMKM was one of several defendants in the action, the SEC only moved for summary judgment against Global, Bagley, and CMKM’s attorney.  The District Court granted the SEC’s motion for summary judgment against the three defendants, but only Global and Bagley appealed that ruling.

In perpetrating the scheme, CMKM’s attorney was alleged to have provided hundreds of false opinion letters supporting the issuance of unregistered stock without restrictive legends to indicate that the stock was unregistered.  Relying on these opinion letters, Global and Bagley issued additional CMKM stock without restrictive legends, believing that the issuance was legal.  After a year and a half of this practice, Bagley became suspicious and asked a second law firm to confirm the opinion letters.  The second law firm, however, relied on the first attorney’s opinion letters and also issued an opinion letter stating that the issuance of additional CMKM stock was valid.  Based on the additional opinion letter, Global and Bagley continued to issue CMKM shares without restrictive legends. Read More

Here’s Looking At You, Money Market Funds

While money market funds did not exist when Humphrey Bogart spoke his famous line in Casablanca, since the 2008 financial crisis, reforming money market funds have been the subject of high drama and intense scrutiny on Capitol Hill. Advocates for reform finally got their long awaited breakthrough last Wednesday, June 5, 2013, when the Securities and Exchange Commission voted unanimously to propose legislation that would reform money market funds. The SEC’s goal with the reform is to make money market funds less susceptible to “runs” that could harm investors.

The SEC’s goal of reform has been in the works for a long time, was championed by former Chair of the SEC, Mary Schapiro, and has been continued by current Chair Mary Jo White. A money market fund is a type of fixed-income mutual fund that invests in debt securities with short maturities and minimal credit risk. They first developed in the early 1970s as an option for investors to purchase a pool of securities that generally provided higher returns than interest-bearing bank accounts. Money market funds have grown considerably since then and currently hold more than $2.9 trillion in assets.

Money market funds seek stability and security with the goal of never losing money and keeping their net asset value (“NAV”) at $1.00. However, many felt reform was necessary after a money market fund “broke the buck” at the height of the financial crisis in September 2008 and re-priced its shares below its $1.00 stable share price to $0.97. Investors panicked and within a few days, investors had pulled approximately $300 billion from similar money market funds. Intervention from the United States Treasury Department prevented further runs on the funds. Read More

Inside Out: NASDAQ Proposes Rule to Require Internal Auditing

The NASDAQ Stock Market recently submitted a proposed rule change that would require all companies listed on the NASDAQ to maintain an internal audit function. The function would “provide management and the audit committee with ongoing assessments of the Company’s risk management processes and system of internal control.” In addition, the company’s audit committee would be required to meet periodically with the internal auditors and oversee the internal audit function. If implemented, the rule would require companies listed prior to June 30, 2013 to establish the internal audit function by December 31, 2013. Companies listed after June 30, 2013 would have to establish the function prior to listing.

The purpose of the proposed rule is to ensure that listed companies have a mechanism to regularly review and assess their internal controls and ensure management and audit committees receive information about risk management. The NASDAQ also believes the internal audit function will assist companies in complying with Rules 13a-15 and 15d-15, which require management to evaluate a company’s internal controls on a quarterly basis.

Despite the rule’s requirement of an internal audit function, the proposed language permits companies “to outsource this function to a third party service provider other than its independent auditor.” So, while the rule permits the internal audit work to be done by an outside third party, the company cannot engage the same auditing firm as both its internal and external auditor. In other words, the company needs both an independent outside auditor that cannot act as the inside auditor and an inside auditor that can be an outside auditor as long as it’s not the independent outside auditor.

Although most companies listed on the NASDAQ already have an internal audit function, the proposed rule would bring the NASDAQ into alignment with the New York Stock Exchange, which already requires its listed companies to have an internal audit function. See NYSE Listed Company Manual Section 303A.07(c).

The deadline for comments on the proposed rule is March 29, 2013.

Can We Be Classmates?

On September 6, the Second Circuit expanded class standing in a mortgage-backed securities class action suit for alleged misrepresentations in a shelf registration statement. NECA-IBEW Health & Welfare Fund v. Goldman Sachs & Co., No. 11-2763 (2d Cir. Sept. 6, 2012). The plaintiff, an investment fund, sued Goldman Sachs & Co. (“Goldman”) and GS Mortgage Securities Corp. (“GS”) alleging violations of Sections 11, 12(a)(2), and 15 of the Securities Act of 1933 on behalf of a putative class of persons who acquired mortgage-backed certificates underwritten by Goldman and issued by GS. The plaintiff alleged that a single shelf registration statement connected with 17 separate offerings sold by 17 separate trusts contained false and misleading statements concerning underwriting guidelines, property appraisals, and risks and that these alleged misstatements were repeated in prospectus supplements.

The lower court had granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, holding that the plaintiff—who had purchased securities from only two of the seventeen trusts—lacked standing to bring claims on behalf of purchasers of securities of the other fifteen trusts.

The Second Circuit disagreed that the plaintiff lacked class standing. Although the plaintiff had individual standing only as to the securities it purchased from the two trusts, the court held that the analysis for class standing is different. According to the court, to assert class standing, a plaintiff has to allege (1) that he personally suffered an injury due to the defendant’s illegal conduct and (2) that the defendant’s conduct implicates the “same set of concerns” as the conduct that caused injury to other members of the putative class. Read More

Federal Court Tosses Out Much of SEC’s Case Against Former IndyMac Execs

A federal judge in California gutted the SEC’s case against the former CEO and former CFO of IndyMac Bank by granting partial summary judgment against the SEC and eliminating most of the claims. S.E.C. v. Perry, No. CV 11-1309 (C.D. Cal. May 21, 2012).   (Transcript)  The SEC had alleged that in 2008, IndyMac’s former CEO Michael W. Perry and former CFO A. Scott Keys participated in filing false and misleading disclosures in SEC filings.  (Complaint) The SEC claimed that even as Perry and Keys were receiving information regarding IndyMac’s rapidly deteriorating financial condition, the two executives made misleading statements and omissions regarding the bank’s liquidity, capital-raising needs and activities, and capital ratio, which the SEC alleged was an important indication of the bank’s soundness. Despite the breadth of the SEC’s allegations, U.S. District Judge Manuel Real of the Central District of California granted the defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment, leaving few issues for trial. Read More