Supreme Court Rejects Calls to Overrule Fraud-on-the-Market Theory in Halliburton; Presumption of Reliance Still a Basic Part of Class Certification

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

NBA Team Owner Mark Cuban “Talks Trash” After Defense Verdict

Following a defense verdict in the insider trading case brought against him by the SEC, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has not been sitting on the bench—but rather using his blog to stay on the offensive.  Since the October 16, 2013 verdict, Cuban continues to post about the case on his blog—including, just a few days ago, blogging about when his own blog became the focus of the trial.  According to his October 26 post, an SEC attorney asked him during trial if everything he posted on his blog was true information, to which he replied that it was meant more “to communicate a point” and stimulate discussion.  Following up, the SEC attorney  asked: “If you post on your blog that you think the Lakers are going to stink in 2013 . . . you’re not telling this jury that that’s an opinion you don’t honestly hold, right?”   Cuban posted that the courtroom “cracked up” when he replied “This year?”, before going on to answer: “Well, no.  In 2004, I wouldn’t say it.  They had Shaq, they had Kobe, they actually went to the finals . . . To answer your question, if I said in 2004 that they stink, I didn’t believe it.”  In an earlier blog entry, Cuban also poked fun at the former Head of Enforcement—posting about internal emails, disclosed earlier in the case, in which SEC attorneys commented on photos of Cuban. Read More

Extra, Extra! – Extraterritoriality And Criminal Actions As To Alleged Securities Fraud

In its seminal decision in Morrison v. National Australia Bank Ltd., 130 S. Ct. 2869 (2010), regarding antifraud provisions of the U.S. securities laws, the Supreme Court held that “Section 10(b) [of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934] reaches the use of a manipulative or deceptive device or contrivance only in connection with the purchase or sale of a security listed on an American stock exchange, and the purchase or sale of any other security in the United States.”  Id. at 2888.  Although Morrison—which involved a private action by foreign plaintiffs—appeared to set down a bright-line rule, it spurred a number of questions, including whether its holding would apply beyond the private civil context, to SEC civil enforcement actions and criminal prosecutions as well.  A large number of courts have already applied Morrison to SEC actions.  In a recent significant development, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit concluded that Morrison also applies to criminal cases brought pursuant to Section 10(b) and Rule 10b–5.  United States v. Vilar, Case No. 10-521, at *3 (2d Cir. Aug. 30, 2013).  But the Dodd-Frank Act’s “extraterritorial jurisdiction” amendment to the Exchange Act for actions brought by the SEC and the DOJ—the immediate congressional response to Morrison—will presumably be invoked by the government for actions based on post-amendment conduct. Read More

Time is Money: Second Circuit Vacates SEC’s $38 Million Fine Against Hedge Fund Pentagon Capital Management

On August 8, 2013, the Second Circuit vacated the SEC’s $38 million fine against hedge fund Pentagon Capital Management PLC, holding that the Supreme Court’s decision in Gabelli v. SEC required the case to be remanded for recalculation of the civil penalty. This case is one of several SEC enforcement actions affected by the Gabelli ruling since the Court issued its decision less than six months ago. The Second Circuit’s decision highlights the limiting effect Gabelli will have on civil remedies available to the SEC for securities law violations that occurred more than five years before the agency initiated its enforcement action.

In Gabelli, the Court held that the five-year statute of limitations for filing civil enforcement actions seeking penalties for fraud begins to run from the date of the alleged violation, not when the SEC discovers, or reasonably should have discovered, the violation. Citing Gabelli, the Second Circuit in SEC v. Pentagram Capital Management PLC found that any profits Pentagon earned more than five years before the SEC filed its suit could not be included in the penalty. The parties agreed that remand on the issue was required.

The SEC alleged that Pentagon and its owner, Lewis Chester, committed securities fraud under Section 17(a) of the Securities Act of 1933, Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, and Rule 10b-5 by engaging in late trading of mutual funds. Late trading involves placing and executing orders as if they occurred at or before the time the mutual fund price was determined. Such trading allows the purchaser to profit from information released after the mutual fund price is fixed each day, but before it can be adjusted the following day. The SEC alleged that Pentagon engaged in late trading through its broker dealer, Trautman Wasserman & Co., from February 2001 through September 2003. Read More

Making a Statement: The Two Faces of Janus in the SDNY

Almost two years after the Supreme Court issued its momentous decision in Janus Capital Group, Inc. v. First Derivative Traders, 131 S. Ct. 2296 (2011), lower courts continue to reach significantly different conclusions concerning its scope. The Supreme Court held that, for purposes of SEC Rule 10b-5, “the maker of a statement is the person or entity with ultimate authority over the statement, including its content and whether and how to communicate it.” Id. at 2302. Specifically, in Janus, the Supreme Court held that an investment advisor could not be liable for statements in prospectuses filed by a related, but legally separate entity. Because the investment advisor did not “make” the statements—that is, did not have “ultimate authority” over them—it could not be liable as a primary violator of Rule 10b-5 for any misstatements or omissions contained therein.

Janus established a bright-line rule. But the Southern District of New York, in particular, has split over whether Janus applies beyond the context of private actions brought under Rule 10b-5(b). In the most recent decision from that district to address the issue, SEC v. Garber, No. 12 Civ. 9339, 2013 WL 1732571 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 22, 2013), Judge Shira A. Scheindlin deepened this divide. Read More

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

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

Supreme Court Hears Argument in Amgen Inc. v. Connecticut Retirement Plans and Trust Funds

Securities class action lawyers are looking to the U.S. Supreme Court this term to clear up an issue that has been at the center of several prominent securities class actions, specifically, what is the standard for class certification where the class members’ reliance on defendants’ alleged misstatements is presumed under the fraud-on-the-market theory of reliance. Last term, in a class action ruling in an employment case, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 1541 (2011), the Court signaled that class certification may require “a preliminary inquiry into the merits of a suit,” singling out elements of the fraud-on-the-market theory as an example.

On November 5, the Supreme Court heard argument in Amgen Inc. v. Connecticut Retirement Plans and Trust Funds, a securities fraud putative shareholder class action presenting the question of how far a court should consider a merits issue when deciding whether to certify a class. The appeal in Amgen is from a Ninth Circuit decision that affirmed the district court’s order certifying a plaintiff class of purchasers of Amgen stock. Defendants opposed class certification on the ground that the rebuttable presumption of reliance under the fraud-on-the-market theory requires not only that the market for Amgen stock was efficient, but that the alleged misstatements were material. Defendants offered evidence that the alleged misstatements in the case were immaterial. Therefore, according to defendants, reliance could not be presumed, and the proposed plaintiff class could not be certified because common issues did not predominate. The Supreme Court took the case in order to determine whether the district court was correct to disregard defendants’ evidence of immateriality on the ground that materiality is an issue appropriately considered at trial or at summary judgment rather than at the class certification stage. Read More

Federal Court Concludes Much of SEC Claims Against Nicor Gas Executives Are Full of Gas

A federal judge in Illinois hollowed out much of the SEC’s case against two former executives of Nicor Gas. SEC v. Fisher, et al., No. 07-4483 (N.D. Ill.) (Zagel, J.) (Order). Although the court allowed the SEC’s substantive Section 10(b) and 17(a) fraud claims to proceed, the court granted summary judgment to the executives with respect to all claims for civil penalties and injunctive relief. The Order makes clear that to survive summary judgment on injunctive relief, like any other claim, the SEC must put forth concrete evidence, not just “rank speculation.” Accordingly, the SEC’s claims will proceed to trial only for the equitable remedy of disgorgement of profits.

Background

In 2008, the SEC brought fraud charges against three former executives of Nicor Gas, a utility company providing Northern Illinois with natural gas. The SEC alleges that from 1999 to 2002, these executives manipulated Nicor’s earnings through accounting gimmicks and transactions that took advantage of Nicor’s low cost of inventories in a rising gas price environment without disclosing the practice or its effect on earnings. Read More

In Auditor Suit, Second Circuit Says Quantity Does Not Always Mean Quality

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has revived a federal securities class action against Grant Thornton LLP regarding its unqualified 1999 audit opinion indicating that Winstar Communications Inc.’s 1999 financial statements was in conformity with generally accepted accounting principles. The Second Circuit’s opinion is notable because it finds that, despite an apparently thorough audit (in terms of hours spent and documents reviewed) a fact finder could still find enough evidence of a conscious disregard of signs of fraud to support an inference of recklessness. In other words, even where an auditor does a significant amount of work on an audit, such work will not necessarily immunize the auditor from securities claims. Read More