A Ponzi of A Different Color

High profile schemes perpetrated by Bernie Madoff, Allen Stanford, Nevin Shapiro, and others have brought, or at least reinforced, a general understanding of the term “Ponzi scheme” into the public lexicon.  But what, legally, is a Ponzi scheme?  In SEC v. Management Solutions, Inc., 2013 WL 4501088 (D. Utah Aug. 22, 2013), Judge Bruce Jenkins endeavored to answer that question and, in the process, authored an encyclopedic account of the term and key court opinions, from seven federal circuits, that have construed it.

Management Solutions was an SEC enforcement action against a father-and-son team that had allegedly raised over $200 million through a “classic Ponzi scheme.”  According to the SEC’s complaint, investors in the scheme were sold “membership interests” in an apartment-flipping business and were guaranteed a return of five to eight percent.  In reality, the funds were allegedly deposited into a general account and were used to pay a variety of expenses, including returns to other investors.  Each of the defendants in the SEC case settled without admitting or denying the allegations.

A hearing was held in 2013 to determine whether, as argued by the court-appointed receiver, the scheme was properly classified as a “Ponzi scheme” and, if so, at what point that designation became applicable.  The receiver sought such a finding in order to obtain the so-called “Ponzi presumption,” which is sufficient to establish actual intent to defraud.  Read More

The Blue Sky Is The Limit for Securities Liability in Washington

Many state securities laws, known as blue sky laws, are patterned after Section 12(a)(2) of the Securities Act of 1933.  The interpretation of these state blue sky laws, however, may diverge significantly from the interpretation of analogous federal securities statutes.  The recent Washington Court of Appeals opinion in FutureSelect Portfolio Management, Inc. et al. v. Tremont Group Holdings, Inc. et al., No. 68130-3-1 (Wn. Ct. App. Aug. 12, 2013), highlights one such divergence in which the scope of potential primary liability for secondary actors under the Washington State Securities Act extends beyond the scope of the federal law on which it was based.

In FutureSelect, a group of Washington state investors (“FutureSelect”) lost millions of dollars after purchasing interests in the Rye Funds, a “feeder fund” that invested in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.  The investors sued Tremont Group Holdings, Inc., the general partner in the Rye Funds and its affiliates, as well as the audit firm Ernst & Young LLP.  The plaintiffs’ claims against EY were based primarily on the allegation that EY misrepresented that it had conducted its audit of the Rye Funds’ financial statements in conformity with generally accepted auditing standards when issuing its unqualified audit opinion on these financial statements.  The trial court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims against EY for failure to state a claim, but the Washington State Court of Appeals reversed that decision on appeal. Read More

Securities Litigation Trends in Q2 2013: What’s Up (or Should We Say Down)?

The second quarter of 2013 saw the largest quarterly percentage decline in new securities actions since before the 2007/2008 financial crisis. New filings in the first quarter plummeted by 41 percent, from 352 in the first quarter to 234 in the second quarter. This drop represents a 55 percent decrease in the number of new securities actions filed as compared to same period last year (Q2 2012). It has been approximately five years since we have seen a lower number of quarterly filings.

The number of new securities fraud cases also plummeted, falling 59 percent from the prior quarter, with the number of new filings decreasing from 149 to 61. There were also quarterly declines in newly-filed shareholder derivative actions, which decreased from 43 filings in the first quarter to 37 in the second quarter, and breach of fiduciary duty cases, which fell from 99 new filings in the first quarter to 71 in the second quarter.

Not only did the number of securities actions filed drop significantly, but so too did the average settlement amounts. The average settlement for all types of securities cases in the second quarter was just over $37 million, a marked decrease from the average settlement amount of $69.3 million during the first quarter of 2013.

What’s going on? There are a number of factors that may be contributing to these downward filing trends. The stock market has been strong, so many investors have little to complain about. Moreover, the surge in suits against U.S.-listed Chinese companies appears to have run its course, and no new scandal or market development has yet become the next “big thing” that will drive increased filings. In addition, SEC enforcement activities have continued to shift into areas (such as insider trading and whistleblowing) that do not always spawn parallel private litigation. It remains to be seen whether the recent appointment of new SEC personnel or a renewed focus on accounting fraud cases by regulators, which is anticipated by some analysts, will cause a variation in these trends moving forward.

Source = Advisen D&O Claims Trends: 2013 Report (July 2013)

 

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

SEC Suffers Defeat in Trial Against “Break the Buck” Executives

A federal court jury in Manhattan returned verdicts on Monday, November 12, largely exonerating the two most senior Reserve Management Company executives in a Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement action accusing them of fraud.

The SEC alleged that Bruce R. Bent, the company’s CEO, and his son, Bruce R. Bent II, the company’s president, as well as their investment advisory firm Reserve Management Co. and Resrv Partners Inc., had defrauded investors and the fund’s trustees by falsely claiming they would support the fund financially when it faced a run by investors after Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy (the fund held about $785 million in Lehman debt on the day it filed for bankruptcy). The bankruptcy announcement caused investors to flee the fund, leading the fund to “break the buck,” i.e., to have a net asset value (“NAV”) of less than $1 per share. The SEC alleged that, on the morning after Lehman announced its bankruptcy, the Bents falsely assured investors and the trustees that they would use money from their firm to support the $1 NAV.

Following a trial lasting approximately a month, the jury found the elder Bent not liable on all counts and the younger Bent not liable on six of seven counts. The only count on which Bent II was found liable was a negligence-based claim, not the more serious claims that he had “knowingly and recklessly” defrauded investors and the trustees. The jury found the Bents’ two entities liable for the more serious scienter-based fraud charges. The case will now proceed for United States District Judge Paul Gardephe to determine what relief and sanctions, if any, are warranted against the entities and against Bent II for the one negligence-based count on which the jury found him liable. Read More

Second Circuit Revives Securities Fraud Class Action, Finding Economic Loss Where Stock Price Rebounds Soon After Fraud Is Disclosed

Imagine a plaintiff who buys stock in a company that subsequently discloses a misstatement in its financial statements that existed at the time plaintiff invested.  The stock price drops upon the initial disclosure, and then rebounds back above the purchase price. Can that plaintiff plead economic loss, as is required under Dura Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Broudo, 544 U.S. 336 (2005)? According to the Second Circuit, the answer is yes. Read More

Madoff Fund Investors’ Exchange Act Claims Bite the Morrison Dust

Courts have been making slow but steady progress in testing the limits of the 2010 Supreme Court case Morrison v. Nat’l Australian Bank Ltd., 130 S.Ct. 2869 (2010). In Morrison, the Court held the federal securities laws apply only to purchases or sales made “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. The Second Circuit has held that the “purchase and sale” of a security occurs when “irrevocable liability” occurs and the parties are bound to the transaction. Absolute Activist Value Master Fund v. Ficeto, 677 F.3d 60 (2d Cir. 2012) Read More

Monoline Insurer Hoist with its Own Petard

A common claim alleged by monoline insurers is that RMBS sponsors fraudulently induced them to provide the insurance by misrepresenting the quality of loans and underwriting.  As the story invariably goes, the insurer only discovered that it was defrauded after its vendor reviewed a sample of several hundred loan files, and was shocked to find that most loans, usually alleged to be somewhere between 75% to 95% of the sample, breached representations and warranties.  On May 4, a New York court turned these types of post-loss file reviews against the insurer in CIFG Assur. N.A., Inc. v. Goldman Sachs & Co., Index No. 652286/2011 (N.Y. Sup. Ct.).  Here, the court found that the very same file sampling and review easily could have been done – and legally should have been done – in the insurers’ due diligence.  The insurer’s failure to conduct adequate due diligence when it issued its policy required dismissal of its fraud claim for lack of reasonable reliance. Read More

Cornerstone Releases Updated Study of M&A Litigation

On April 25, 2012, Cornerstone Research released an interesting report entitled “Recent Developments in Shareholder Litigation Involving Mergers and Acquisitions—March 2012 Update.”  The report notes that the incidence of litigation in connection with mergers valued at $500 million or greater rose from 57% in 2007 to 96% in 2011.  This observation has already caught the attention of the Delaware Chancery Court where Vice Chancellor Laster commented in a teleconferenced ruling, “I don’t think for a moment that 90%—or based on recent numbers—95% of deals are the result of a breach of fiduciary duty.  I think there are market imbalances here and externalities that are being exploited.  What this means is that the Court needs to think carefully about balancing.”

The report also shows that the number of lawsuits per litigated deal increased from an average of 2.8 in 2007 to 6.2 in 2011.  The absolute count of lawsuits involving deals with values of $500 million or greater also nearly doubled from 289 in 2007 to 502 in 2011.  The report also noted that as of March 2012, 67 lawsuits have already been reported for 13 out of 17 deals announced during January and February.