PSLRA

Report Shows 2016 Record-Setting Year for Class Action and SEC Settlements

Last week, proxy advisory firm Institutional Shareholders Services (“ISS”) published its semi-annual report of the top 100 U.S. securities class action settlements and top 50 SEC settlements of all time, as of December 31, 2016. The report adds thirteen new class action settlements from last year – making 2016 the most represented year in the report’s settlement rankings – along with two new top SEC settlements.

The ISS report ranks, among other things, the top 100 shareholder class action settlements ever reached in the U.S. for actions filed on or after January 1, 1996, when the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act was implemented. ISS’s June 2017 report reflects that there were 137 court-approved securities class action settlements in the US in 2016, remaining steady with 2015. Notably, however, 13 of the 137 class action settlements were among the top 100 shareholder class action settlements, resulting in a total approved settlement fund of over $5.6 billion, the largest in a single year. The largest of these 13 settlements was in Lawrence E. Jaffe Pension Plan v. Household International, Inc., et al., Case No. 02-CV-05893 (N.D. Ill.), which was based on claims of fraudulent misrepresentations concerning allegedly illegal sales techniques, predatory lending practices, and accounting manipulations. In December 2016, the Northern District of Illinois approved a final settlement fund of $1.58 billion, resulting in the seventh largest securities class action settlement in U.S. history. READ MORE

Supreme Court Issues Two Decisions That Limit Access to Federal Courts

On May 16, 2016, the United States Supreme Court handed down two decisions that may, in practice, limit the ability to access federal district courts.  In Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, No. 13-1339, 578 U.S. ___ (2016), the Supreme Court rejected the Ninth Circuit’s conclusion that statutory violations are per se sufficient to confer Article III standing, and, in Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc. v. Manning, No. 14-1132, 578 U.S. ___ (2016), the Court concluded that jurisdiction under Section 27 of the Securities and Exchange Act (Exchange Act) is limited to suits brought under the Exchange Act and state law claims that turn on the plaintiff’s ability to prove the violation of a federal duty.

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Storm Warning for Safe Harbor

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

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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Reversals of Fortune: Putting the Brakes on Section 10(b) and Section 11 Claims Against Auditors of China-Based Companies

Pen and Calculator

A federal court’s recent dismissal of Securities Exchange Act claims against the auditor of a Chinese company prompted us to examine the state of recent U.S. civil securities litigation against accounting firms that audited China-based companies that were listed on US exchanges.

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Ninth Circuit Applies Heightened Pleading Standards for Loss Causation

On December 16, 2014, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the U.S. District Court of Arizona’s dismissal of a Section 10(b) class action against Apollo Education Group, Inc., a for-profit education company, and several of its officers and directors. In doing so, the Ninth Circuit held that the heightened pleading standard of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 9(b) applies to all elements of a securities fraud action, including loss causation.

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Supreme Court Narrows the Scope of SLUSA Preemption, Green-Lighting State Law Class Action Claims Alleging Ponzi Scheme

On February 26, 2014, the U. S. Supreme Court (“the Court”) held that the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act of 1998 (“SLUSA”) did not preclude Stanford Ponzi scheme plaintiffs’ state-law class action claims because the claims did not involve covered securities.  The 7-2 majority opinion in Chadbourne & Parke, LLC v. Troice was written by Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Kagan, Sotomayor, Ginsburg, Scalia and Chief Justice Roberts.  Justice Thomas concurred, and Justices Kennedy and Alito dissented.

The Court’s decision is significant because it resolves a long-standing circuit split over the interpretation of the “in connection with” requirement in SLUSA.  As a result of the decision, plaintiffs may increasingly bring state law claims based on investment vehicles that are not covered securities themselves but whose performance implicates or is backed by covered securities.  Investment managers and entities that market such investments, as well as lawyers and accountants, may face an increased risk of liability as a result of this decision. 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

Another Securities Case for the Supreme Court. Next Up: Ponzi Scheme Cases

Agreeing to take up yet another securities case, the Supreme Court granted cert on January 18 in three related appeals arising out of the alleged multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme involving R. Allen Stanford’s Stanford International Bank. The Court’s decision in this case will likely resolve a circuit split over the scope of the preclusion provision of the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act (SLUSA).

Congress passed SLUSA in 1998 because plaintiffs were bringing class actions in state court to get around the tough pleading standards and other limitations imposed by the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. SLUSA precludes state law class actions involving misrepresentations made “in connection with” the purchase or sale of a security covered under SLUSA. Lower courts have struggled with the meaning of those three words: “in connection with.” If a state court case has anything at all to do with securities, will it fail?How closely must a claim relate to the sale of covered securities before SLUSA bars state law remedies? The Supreme Court is about to weigh in on these questions.

In the Stanford ponzi scheme cases, the plaintiffs are investors who purchased CDs issued by Stanford International Bank. The investors asserted claims against third-party advisors (including law firms and an insurance broker) under Texas and Louisiana law, alleging that the investors were duped into believing the CDs were backed by safe securities. Although the CDs themselves were not securities covered by SLUSA, the third-party advisors argued that SLUSA nevertheless barred the state law claims because the alleged misrepresentations related to the SLUSA-covered securities that purportedly backed the CDs. The district court agreed, dismissing the actions. But the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court, holding that the alleged fraudulent scheme was only “tangentially related” to the trading of securities covered by SLUSA. The Fifth Circuit agreed with the Ninth Circuit that misrepresentations are not made “in connection with” sales of SLUSA-covered securities when they are only “tangentially related” to those sales. This means the Fifth and Ninth Circuits are at odds with the Second, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits, which have all adopted broader views of SLUSA’s preclusion provision.

The third-party advisor defendants asked the Supreme Court to resolve the split, and the Supreme Court agreed, given that the circuit split threatensinconsistent outcomes in some of the biggest, mostcomplex, and multi-layered securities cases. The Court’s resolution will likely go a long way towards defining the role of state courts in adjudicating important class actions relating to securities issues.