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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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The SEC Wins First Jury Trial in a Muni Case: SEC v. City of Miami and Michael Boudreaux

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In what the SEC called “the first federal jury trial by the SEC against a municipality or one of its officers for violations of the federal securities laws,” a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida found the City of Miami and its former budget director, Michael Boudreaux, guilty of securities fraud for misrepresentations related to three municipal bond offerings in 2009. Both Defendants are expected to appeal the jury decision.

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SEC Granted Reversal, Remand and Jury Trial from the Ninth Circuit

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On August 31, 2016, the SEC caught a break when a Ninth Circuit panel reversed Judge Manuel L. Real’s bench trial verdict for defendants, former corporate officers of the now-defunct Basin Water, Inc., finding that the SEC was wrongfully denied its shot at a jury trial in a securities fraud action involving alleged false reporting of millions of dollars in unrealized revenue.  The panel vacated the judgment and remanded for a jury trial, noting that the SEC had not consented to the defendants’ withdrawal of their jury demand, and in fact, consistently demonstrated its objection to a bench trial, preserving its objection all the way to the appellate court. READ MORE

Where There’s Smoke, There’s FIRREA (Part Two)

We first blogged about the obscure Financial Institutions Reform Recovery Enforcement Act (“FIRREA”) on May 14. As we explained, this statute provides a generous ten-year statute of limitations and a low burden of proof. Just as we predicted, the FIRREA story is beginning to heat up.

The most recent FIRREA litigation involves claims brought under this statute against ratings agency giant Standard & Poor’s. The DOJ sued S&P for $5 billion, accusing it of knowingly issuing ratings that didn’t accurately reflect mortgage-backed securities’ credit risk. S&P’s practices of issuing credit ratings to banks that paid for those services led to an inherent conflict of interest. To reassure banks and investors that its ratings were accurate, S&P issued a “Code of Conduct,” containing promises that it had established policies and procedures to address these conflicts of interest. The DOJ alleged that the “Code of Conduct” statements were false and material to investors.

On July 8, Judge David O. Carter of the Central District of California tentatively denied S&P’s motion to dismiss the case. In his tentative order, Judge Carter explained why S&P’s three arguments for dismissal were unpersuasive. First, he found that the allegedly fraudulent statements regarding the credibility of S&P’s ratings were not “mere puffery” because they were filled with “shalls” and “must nots” that went beyond mere aspirational language. READ MORE

The Sixth Circuit – The New Hotspot for Section 11 Suits

Decorative Scales of Justice in the Courtroom

The Sixth Circuit recently made it easier for plaintiffs to bring securities suits brought under Section 11 of the Securities Act of 1933. In a recent ruling in Indiana State Dist. Council v. Omnicare, Inc., No. 12-5287 (6th Cir. May 23, 2013), the court of appeals revived a purported class action lawsuit against Omnicare. The suit, which had been dismissed by the District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, alleged that Omnicare artificially inflated its stock price by failing to disclose a kickback scheme in its registration statement.

The Sixth Circuit (which covers Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, and Michigan), held that the shareholders did not have to allege that the defendant executives knew that statements were false at the time they were made. In a unanimous opinion, Judges Cole, Griffin, and Gwin reasoned that Section 11 imposes strict liability for misstatements made in offering documents – whether or not the executive “making” the statement knew them to be false at the time they were made. The panel expressly refused to extend the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Virginia Bankshares v. Sandberg, 501 U.S. 1083 (1991) (which requires plaintiffs to allege both objective and subjective falsity to pursue a Section 14(a) claim) to Section 11 claims. This ruling will likely embolden plaintiffs to bring Section 11 claims in the Sixth Circuit. READ MORE

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

Letter to Shareholders

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

Inside Out: NASDAQ Proposes Rule to Require Internal Auditing

Stock Ticker

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.

Orrick Releases the 25th Anniversary Edition of The Guide to Securities Litigation

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Orrick’s Securities Litigation & Regulatory Enforcement Group is proud to release the 25th Anniversary Edition of The Orrick Guide to Securities Litigation.

Users can download this innovative legal research tool on an iPad, Kindle or other electronic reading device to assist them with questions about federal securities class actions, shareholder derivative suits, SEC enforcement actions and other complex business litigation. The Guide offers carefully selected case cites, thoughtful discussion and pragmatic practice suggestions from Orrick’s distinguished securities litigation team.

More than a treatise and easier to use, the Orrick Guide to Securities Litigation represents 25 years of collective expertise, and is an invaluable resource for anyone practicing in the area (or simply interested in learning more about securities law).

To download a copy for your practice, visit www.orrick.com/seclitguide, or, you can download the ebook directly from iTunes or the Amazon Kindle Store.

Consenting Adults: D.C. Circuit Tells Press to Stay Out of SEC-AIG Relationship

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What happens between a mature multinational insurance corporation and its regulator is nobody’s business, or so says the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which issued an opinion in SEC v. AIG on February 1, telling the press that it couldn’t have reports prepared by an AIG consultant under a consent decree with the SEC.

In 2004—years before AIG would rise to infamy in the financial collapse—the SEC charged AIG with securities violations, and the result was a consent decree requiring, among other things, that AIG hire a consultant to review AIG’s transaction policies and procedures and to prepare reports. The court supervising the decree later allowed disclosure of the consultant’s reports twice: to the Office of Thrift Supervision and the House of Representatives. Sue Reisinger, a reporter for Corporate Counsel and American Lawyer, wanted to know what the consultant found at the government bailout recipient. Not being a regulator or constitutionally-created legislative body, Ms. Reisinger turned to the courts for access. The district court found that the consultant’s reports were “judicial records” to which Reisinger had a common law right of access. The court of appeals disagreed.

Whether something is a judicial record depends on the role it plays in the adjudicatory process. The court of appeals noted that the consultant’s reports were not relied upon by the district court in any way, and thus never found their way into the fabric of the court’s record or decision-making process. Though merely filing the reports with the court would not have been sufficient to transform them into the type of judicial records Reisinger sought, the court of appeals held that filing was “very much a prerequisite.” Thus, while the terms of the decree requiring a consultant were surely important to the district court, the court was agnostic as to the eventual content of the reports. In other words, Reisinger had the substantive cart before the procedural horse, and whatever those reports eventually contained, their import did not work to make them judicial records. READ MORE