Shareholder Litigation

Time’s Up: Supreme Court Affirms Three-Year Deadline for Opting Out of Section 11 Class Actions

On June 26, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that will have a significant effect on securities class action litigation, changing the strategic calculus for both institutional plaintiffs and defendants. In California Public Employees’ Retirement System v. Anz Securities, Inc., No. 16-373, 582 U.S. ___ (2017) , the Court held that American Pipe tolling does not apply to the 3-year statute of repose for private damage claims under the Securities Act of 1933.  Thus, the filing of a class action complaint under Section 11 of the Securities Act of 1933 does not toll the three-year statute of repose for individual claims that may be brought by putative class members who later decide to opt out of a class-wide settlement.

CalPERS arose out of two public securities offerings issued by Lehman Brothers Holdings in 2007 and 2008.  In September 2008, with Lehman in bankruptcy, a Section 11 class action was filed against Anz Securities and other underwriters to the offerings, alleging that the registration statements included material misstatements or omissions.  The class action complaint was consolidated with other securities suits against Lehman into a single multidistrict class action in the Southern District of New York.  CalPERS, an unnamed member of the putative class, subsequently filed a separate complaint alleging identical causes of action against the respondents in the Northern District of California in February 2011—more than three years after the offerings closed.  CalPERS’ individual suit was transferred to the Southern District of New York and consolidated with the multidistrict litigation.  CalPERS opted out of the class only after the class action reached a settlement.

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A Fraud By Any Other Name: Seventh Circuit Holds That SLUSA Extends to Class Actions That Could Be Pursued Under Federal Securities Fraud Laws

A divided panel of the Seventh Circuit recently held that the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act (“SLUSA”) requires any covered class action that “could have been pursued under federal securities law” to be brought in federal court.  The plaintiff maintained an investment account at LaSalle Bank, which was later acquired by Bank of America.  Each night, LaSalle invested (“swept”) the account’s balance into a mutual fund approved by the plaintiff.  Without the plaintiff’s knowledge, LaSalle also allegedly pocketed the fees that some of the mutual funds paid each time a balance was transferred.  When the plaintiff found out, he brought a class action in state court, arguing that LaSalle had breached its contractual and fiduciary duties to its customers by secretly paying itself fees generated by their accounts.

LaSalle and Bank of America successfully argued before the district court that SLUSA required removal of the case to federal court. SLUSA authorizes defendants to demand removal of any class action with at least fifty members that alleges “a misrepresentation or omission of a material fact in connection with the purchase or sale of a covered security.”  Congress drafted SLUSA to force securities class actions out of state courts and into federal courts, where plaintiffs must clear higher pleading hurdles.

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

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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It’s Hunting Season. For Unicorns? Lawsuit Against Theranos Signals Trend In Investors Going After Late-Stage Start-ups

Map and Compass

Last week brought more bad news for private blood testing company Theranos Inc., as San Francisco-based Partner Fund Management L.P. (“PFM”) launched a suit claiming that it was duped into making a $96.1 million investment in Theranos in February 2014.  The complaint, filed in Delaware Court of Chancery, alleges common law fraud, securities fraud under California’s Corporations Code, and violations of Delaware’s Consumer Fraud Act and Deceptive Trade Practices Act, among other things, against Theranos, its Chief Executive Officer, Elizabeth Holmes, and its former Chief Operating Officer, Ramesh Balwani.

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Seventh Circuit Brands Disclosure-Only Settlement a “Racket” and Endorses Delaware Court of Chancery’s Stricter Standard for Approval of Disclosure-Only Settlements

settlement

In a 2-1 decision, the Seventh Circuit has joined the Delaware Court of Chancery’s call for enhanced scrutiny of “disclosure-only” M&A settlements that involve no monetary benefits to shareholders.  As previously discussed here, M&A litigation, typically alleging breach of fiduciary duty by directors and insufficient disclosures, often ends in settlement, with defendants agreeing to provide supplemental disclosures in exchange for broad releases of claims, while plaintiffs’ counsel “earns” large attorneys’ fees for providing the class with the “benefit” of the agreed-upon disclosures.  In In re Walgreen Company Stockholder Litigation (In re Walgreen Co.), the Seventh Circuit rejected such a settlement, endorsing the standard for approval of disclosure-only settlements articulated by the Delaware Court of Chancery in In re Trulia, Inc. Shareholder Litigation (In re Trulia).  In In re Trulia, the Court of Chancery held that disclosure-only settlements in M&A litigation will meet with disfavor unless they involve supplemental disclosures that address a “plainly material misrepresentation or omission” and any proposed release of claims accompanying the settlement encompasses only disclosure claims and/or fiduciary duty claims regarding the sale process.

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It’s Not Easy Being Green: LeapFrog Execs Dodge Class-Action Over Sales Projections

On August 2, 2016, U.S. District Judge Edward Chen dismissed a shareholder lawsuit brought against children’s educational toymaker LeapFrog Enterprises, Inc. (“LeapFrog”) for failure to adequately plead statements were false or misleading, or made with requisite intent.  Plaintiffs’ suit, which was consolidated in 2015, alleged that LeapFrog and its executives hid demand and inventory problems from investors.  The judge disagreed, finding that the investors had been sufficiently warned of problems with LeapFrog’s product lines and that the allegedly misleading statements were forward-looking and cautionary, and therefore fell within the PSLRA’s safe harbor.  Defendants’ public statements about many of the allegedly misleading topics helped drive home that Plaintiffs’ theory amounted to classic “fraud by hindsight.”

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Delaware Chancery Court Finds that Director Defendants Can Not “Merge Their Way Out of” Breach of Fiduciary Claims

court decision

On July 28, 2016, the Delaware Chancery Court allowed claims of unfair dealing against the Board of property management company Riverstone National Inc. to survive where the directors facilitated a merger that forestalled a derivative suit against them.  The court held that by orchestrating a merger that extinguished a possible derivative action, the director defendants obtained a special benefit for themselves.  As a result, the directors were interested in the transaction, thereby rebutting the presumption of the business judgment rule, and triggering application of the “entire fairness” doctrine.

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Shareholder Derivative Suit Following Data Breach Misses Target

On July 7, 2016, Judge Paul A. Magnuson of the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota granted Defendants’ Motions to Dismiss a shareholder class action that had been initiated following a 2013 holiday season data breach involving customers of Target Corporation (“Target,” or “the Company”).  The data breach, which resulted in the release of information of approximately 70 million consumer credit and debit cards, made headlines as one of the biggest privacy hacks at the time.  Initially disclosed to the public in December 2013, with an estimated 40 million credit and debit cards affected, Target subsequently revealed a little less than a month later that additional consumer data, including customers’ names, mailing addresses, phone numbers and email addresses, were also stolen, and increased its initial estimate to 110 million.

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The Ever-Increasing Importance of the Shareholder Vote: Delaware Chancery Court Extends Corwin to Two-Step Mergers under DGCL § 251(h)

On June 30, 2016, the Delaware Chancery Court extended the Supreme Court’s holding in Corwin v. KKR Financial Holdings LLC, 125 A.3d 304 (Del. 2015), to two-step mergers under DGCL § 251(h).  The Chancery Court concluded that acceptance of a first-step tender offer by a fully informed and uncoerced majority of disinterested stockholders insulates a two-step merger from challenge except on the ground of waste, even if a majority of directors were not disinterested and independent.  See In re Volcano Corp. S’holder Litig., C.A. No. 10485-VCMR.  In this situation, the business judgment rule is “irrebutable” and dismissal is typically appropriate given the high bar for proving “waste” and the unlikelihood that a majority of informed stockholders would approve such a transaction.  In re Volcano is the latest decision underscoring the critical importance of securing an uncoerced and fully informed majority vote of disinterested stockholders if boards wish to benefit from this extremely deferential standard of review.

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CDX Holdings, Inc. v. Fox: Chancery Court’s Decision Is Affirmed, But Dissent Blasts Use of “Hindsight Bias” Analysis

Building

On June 6, 2016, the Supreme Court of Delaware affirmed a decision of the Chancery Court finding that corporate directors and officers involved in a sales transaction breached a contract with option holders to fairly value their options (see here for a thorough explanation of the Chancery Court decision, and in particular, the Court’s criticism of the retained financial advisers that provided a valuation analysis).  The Supreme Court decision also included a disproportionately lengthy dissent condemning both the Chancery Court’s findings and its reliance on “social science studies” to reach them.

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