Securities Fraud

Keep Looking Forward: Federal Court Holds Company’s Bad Legal Predictions Protected by PSLRA’s Safe Harbor

Gavel and Hundred-Dollar Bill

In a comprehensive tour of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act’s (“PSLRA”) safe-harbor provisions, on November 22, 2016, a federal court in Massachusetts dismissed a shareholder class-action lawsuit against Neovasc, Inc.  In holding that Neovasc’s ultimately faulty predictions concerning the outcome of a trade secrets lawsuit fell within the PSLRA’s safe harbor, the court rejected the plaintiff’s attempts to import a scienter requirement into the safe-harbor inquiry, among other things, and dismissed the complaint without leave to amend.

This putative class-action came on the heels of a $70 million jury verdict against Neovasc in May 2016. In that case, a jury found that Neovasc misappropriated certain trade secrets from CardiAQ Valve Technologies after CardiAQ had severed its manufacturing relationship with Neovasc, and Neovasc had patented a competing product.  Neovasc’s stock price fell approximately 75 percent when the jury verdict was announced.  Shortly after the verdict and stock decline, shareholders filed the class action, alleging securities fraud under Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 10b-5 thereunder.  The plaintiff alleged, among other things, that prior to the verdict, Neovasc CEO Alexei Marko mischaracterized the lawsuit as “baseless,” and that Neovasc had misstated that the suit was “without merit” in the company’s SEC filings.

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Ninth Circuit Smells a Rat and Reinstates Claim That Pharmaceutical Company Failed to Disclose Cancers in Animal Testing

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The Ninth Circuit recently revived a securities class action against Arena Pharmaceuticals, issuing a decision with important guidance to pharmaceutical companies speaking publicly about future prospects for FDA approval of their advanced drug candidates. The court’s opinion reemphasizes the dangers of volunteering incomplete information, holding that a company that touts the results of trials or tests as supportive of a pending application for FDA approval must also disclose negative test results or concerns expressed by the FDA about those studies—even if the company reasonably believes the concerns are unfounded and are the product of a good faith disagreement.

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Too Good to Be True: Fraudulent Self-Promotion Lands “Prodigy” in Hot Water with SEC

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In June 2014, the Office of Investor Education and Advocacy at the Securities and Exchange Commission issued an alert cautioning that investment newsletters are often “used to carry out schemes designed to deceive investors.” In particular, the SEC advised investors to be “highly suspicious” of newsletter “promises” of “high investment returns” and to contact the SEC to report potential securities fraud in newsletters and other promotional materials.

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Second Circuit Halts Constitutional Challenge to SEC Administrative Proceedings

Decorative Scales of Justice in the Courtroom

On June 1, the Second Circuit in Tilton et al. v. SEC, No. 15-2103 (2d. Cir. Jun. 1, 2016), echoed recent Seventh and D.C. Circuit decisions (respectively, Bebo v. SEC, No. 15-1511 (7th Cir. Aug. 24, 2015), cert. denied, 136 S. Ct. 1500 (Mar. 28, 2016), and Jarkesy v. SEC, No. 14-5196 (D.C. Cir. Sept. 29, 2015)) in finding that constitutional or other challenges to SEC proceedings cannot go forward in court until the administrative proceeding ends; review can only be sought as an appeal from a final decision by the Commission.  The Second Circuit’s decision in Tilton creates unanimity among the circuit courts that have addressed the issue to date, although, as we previously reported, the Eleventh Circuit is likely to rule on the issue sometime this year in Hill v. SEC, No. 15-12831. Unless the Eleventh Circuit bucks this trend and creates a circuit split, it now looks unlikely that the Supreme Court will weigh in on this issue (particularly because the Supreme Court previously denied a petition to review the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Bebo).

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FINRA Issues Largest Fine Regarding Variable Annuities Contracts

Gavel and Hundred-Dollar Bill

On May 3, 2016, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority announced that MetLife Securities, Inc. agreed to pay $25 million to settle allegations that the company misled its customers in tens of thousands of variable annuity replacement applications.  The sanction represents FINRA’s largest fine related to variable annuities.

Variable annuities (“VAs”) are highly complex and highly regulated insurance contracts that guarantee their holders—typically retirees—a minimum payment at the end of an accumulation stage.  When a consumer seeks to replace one VA for another, her broker must complete an Annuity Replacement and Transfer Disclosure (ARTD) setting forth the comparative cost and guarantee information about existing and proposed annuity contracts.  In New York, brokers must also complete a “Regulation 60 Disclosure,” which contains a hypothetical illustration of death benefits and surrender values for existing and proposed contracts under various hypothetical market growth rates.

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Eighth Circuit Breathes Life Into Halliburton’s Price Impact Defense

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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.

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Storm Warning for Safe Harbor

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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.

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Exchanges Prevail in Flash Boys-Inspired Suits

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The practice of high frequency trading has been a hot-button issue of late, thanks in part to Michael Lewis’ 2014 book Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, which examines the rise of this phenomenon throughout U.S. markets.  Several class action lawsuits have alleged that various private and public stock and derivatives exchanges entered into agreements and received undisclosed fees to favor high frequency traders (“HFTs”), conferring timing advantages that damaged other market participants.  Two courts have recently addressed the merits of claims for damages against such exchanges and both ruled that plaintiffs failed to state a claim for relief.

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To Hall(iburton) and Back: Will Third Time Be a Charm as Fifth Circuit Grants Another Appeal in Halliburton?

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In what is now the third interlocutory appeal in the course of class certification  proceedings spanning more than a decade, the case of Erica P. John Fund, Inc. v. Halliburton Co. will head back to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, with perhaps another trip to the Supreme Court to follow.  The Fifth Circuit’s eventual decision on this latest interlocutory appeal could clarify—at least in the Fifth Circuit—just how far a defendant in a securities class-action can go in presenting indirect evidence of (a lack of) price impact to defeat class certification.

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Defrauded Defendant Defenseless Against Investors: Ninth Circuit Imputes Scienter of Embezzling CEO to Corporation for 10b-5 Claims

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Malfeasance by a corporate insider against his company has the potential to leave a gaping wound.  Facing a securities lawsuit due to that malfeasance is like salt in that wound.  Corporations targeted with such lawsuits have turned to the adverse interest exception to try to protect themselves from further liability stemming from the rogue executive’s wrongdoing.  But on October 23, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a precedent-setting decision rendering that salve unavailable.  In In re ChinaCast Education Corp. Securities Litigation, the court held that under the federal securities laws, an executive’s scienter is imputed to the corporation where he “acted with apparent authority on behalf of the corporation, which placed him in a position of trust and confidence and controlled the level of oversight of his handling of the business.”  Slip op. at 4.

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