Speaking last week at the SEC’s and Rock Center’s Silicon Valley Initiative at Stanford Law School, SEC Chair Mary Jo White cautioned Silicon Valley’s start-up companies regarding their potential lack of internal controls. In particular, she warned that unicorns—nonpublic start-up companies valued north of one billion dollars—may warrant special scrutiny into whether their corporate governance and investor disclosures are keeping pace with their growing valuations. Ms. White repeatedly warned that the prestige of obtaining “unicorn” status may drive companies to inflate their valuations.
On January 14, 2016, the SEC entered into two no-admit, no deny settlements regarding an alleged pay-to-play scheme to obtain contracts from the Treasury Office for the State of Ohio. The first was with State Street Bank and Trust Company (“State Street” or “the Bank”) – a custodian bank that provides asset servicing to institutional clients, and the second with Vincent DeBaggis, a former State Street executive. On the same day, the SEC filed suit against attorney Robert Crowe for his role in the scheme which allegedly involved causing concealed campaign contributions to be made to the Ohio Treasury Office to influence the awarding of contracts to State Street. Mr. Crowe is a partner at the law firm of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough and a former lobbyist for the Bank.
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.
In a lengthy ruling containing a detailed analysis of dueling economic expert reports, a federal court in Texas held on July 25, 2015 that defendant Halliburton Company demonstrated a lack of price impact at the class-certification stage on nearly all of the plaintiffs’ claims, thus rebutting the presumption of reliance. This action has twice been to the Supreme Court, most recently in Halliburton, Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2398 (2014) (“Halliburton II”), which held that the fraud-on-the-market presumption of reliance may be rebutted by showing a lack of price impact from the alleged misrepresentation. The district court’s recent decision is significant because it is one of the first to consider the issue of price impact post-Halliburton II, and because the decision suggests that lower courts may be willing to wade deep into the complications of event studies and economic analysis in order to determine price impact at the class-certification stage.
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.
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.
In a long-awaited opinion issued on August 15 in Parkcentral v. Porsche, the Second Circuit limited the extraterritorial reach of the U.S. securities laws, affirming the dismissal of securities claims brought by parties to swap agreements that were entered into in the United States but were based on the price of foreign securities. Although the Parkcentral opinion offers an important interpretation of the Supreme Court’s 2010 opinion in Morrison v. National Australia Bank, the Second Circuit declined to set forth a bright-line rule for determining when a securities fraud claim based on domestic transactions in foreign securities is sufficiently “domestic” to be subject to U.S. securities laws, thereby leaving the door open to future litigants to confront this issue in securities cases involving foreign elements.
In Morrison, the Supreme Court found that Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act does not apply extraterritorially based on a lack of congressional intent to overcome the strong presumption against the extraterritorial application of domestic laws. In so holding, the Court rejected a long line of Second Circuit cases that allowed the application of Section 10(b) to claims involving foreign securities so long as the claims involved either significant conduct in the U.S. or some effect on U.S. markets or investors. The Supreme Court reasoned that the Second Circuit’s so-called “conduct test” and “effects test” improperly extended the geographic reach of the U.S. securities laws beyond Congress’s intent, and would interfere with foreign countries’ own securities regulations. Instead, the Court adopted a new “clear test,” holding that Section 10(b) applies only to claims based on: (1) “transactions in securities listed on domestic exchanges” or (2) “domestic transactions in other securities.”
Securities fraud actions are often filed on the heels of an announcement of an internal or SEC investigation. A recent Ninth Circuit decision, Loos v. Immersion Corp., may make it easier for company executives to sleep at night following such an announcement. The Ninth Circuit has joined a growing number of circuits holding that the announcement of an internal investigation, standing alone, is insufficient to show loss causation at the pleading stage. READ MORE
Corporations facing federal securities suits can sometimes avoid liability by claiming that their forward-looking statements were so vague or indefinite that they could not have affected the company’s stock price and are therefore not material. Such statements are not actionable because courts consider them “puffing,” famously described by Judge Learned Hand nearly 100 years ago as “talk which no sensible man takes seriously.” Though we cannot know today what Judge Hand would think of the civil complaint recently filed by the SEC against several marijuana-company stock promoters, it’s safe to say that this isn’t the kind of ‘puffing’ he had in mind.
The defendants in the SEC civil action are all stock promoters, most of whom operate websites where they promote stocks, including microcap or so-called “penny” stocks. The SEC alleges that the defendants promoted shares in microcap companies related to the marijuana industry. For example, one of the companies, Hemp Inc., claims to be involved with medical marijuana. According to the SEC, three of the defendants bought and sold more than 40 million shares in Hemp Inc. in order to give the appearance that there was an active market in the company’s stock. In reality, the transactions allegedly consisted of wash trades and matched orders. A wash trade occurs when a security is traded between accounts, but with no actual change in beneficial ownership, while a matched order entails coordinating buy and sell orders to create the appearance of trading activity. As the defendants were allegedly generating trading activity, they were also allegedly promoting the stock on the Internet, touting “a REAL Possible Gain of OVER 2900%” in Hemp Inc. stock. Wow, that is high.
Today the Supreme Court rejected calls from lawyers, economists and corporate associations to overrule the “fraud-on-the-market” theory that makes it possible to litigate federal securities fraud claims as class actions, instead handing defendants a modest procedural victory. In Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., the Court declined to overrule a decision that for more than twenty-five years has been used by securities plaintiffs to certify thousands of federal class actions, but also recognized that defendants can rebut class certification by showing that allegedly misleading statements did not affect the price of a company’s securities. Halliburton kills what had been a growing movement to eliminate federal securities fraud class actions for all intents and purposes.
Plaintiff-respondent Erica P. John Fund, Inc. (the “Fund”) purchased stock in Halliburton and lost money when Halliburton’s stock price dropped upon the release of certain negative news regarding the company. The Fund filed suit against Halliburton and its CEO David Lesar (collectively, “Halliburton”), alleging that Halliburton had made knowing or severely reckless misrepresentations concerning those topics, in violation of Sections 10(b) and 20(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and SEC Rule 10b-5. READ MORE