Tag Archives: materiality

First Circuit Rebuffs SEC in Flannery and Hopkins Case and Vacates SEC Order

The SEC suffered a stunning loss in the First Circuit in a December 8, 2015 decision ruling that the SEC’s findings of securities law violations by two executives in connection with the operation of a State Street Bank bond fund lacked substantial supporting evidence.  The Commission had, by a 3-2 divided vote, overturned a decision by one of its administrative law judges that no violations had occurred, and in doing so wrote a highly controversial opinion in which it staked out aggressive positions on a variety of securities law issues.  See SEC Majority Argues for Negating Janus Decision with Broad Interpretation of Rule 10b-5; New, Thorough Academic Analysis of In re Flannery Shows Many Flaws in the Far-Reaching SEC Majority Opinion; and SEC not entitled to deference in State Street fraud appeal – law prof.

The First Circuit panel found, however, that the underlying evidence simply failed to support the finding of any violation on any  theory, even the aggressive interpretations set forth by the Commission in its opinion.  As a result, the First Circuit never ruled on the validity or invalidity of several important legal issues raised by the Commission in its overreaching opinion.  Therefore, the key issue whether the SEC’s attempt at aggressive revisions of the scope of the law are entitled to deference or acceptance was not reached.  The end result, however, which vacates the SEC Order, leaves no SEC precedent in place to support those aggressive opinions.

The First Circuit’s opinion is available here: 1st Circuit Decision in Flannery v. SEC.  The now-vacated SEC opinion is available here: In re Flannery Majority Opinion.

Perhaps the most stunning aspect of the First Circuit opinion is the way in which the court schooled the SEC — the supposed experts on securities —  by explaining why the evidence the SEC found compelling (despite a contrary ruling by its ALJ) was in fact deeply flawed.  Where the Commission majority found evidence of material intentional and negligent misrepresentations, the appellate court found no substance whatever.  What does this say about the competence of the SEC and its staff to consider such issues?  If you read the opinion, you will see that the SEC’s willingness to stretch minimal evidence into supposed violations of law, and to disregard the lack of real evidence of materiality and state of mind proffered during the trial, seems a lot like the strained efforts of plaintiffs’ lawyers to find securities fraud everywhere.  And that is the reality faced by those being investigated and prosecuted by the SEC: the investigation and prosecution proceeds on the basis of a distorted view of what constitutes important information, and intentional or negligent behavior, that puts almost every decision in the SEC’s cross-hairs based largely on backward-looking, “fraud by hindsight” reasoning.

 The First Circuit opinion is based on an analysis of the specific evidence in the record, and therefore is not easily summarized.  The case turned on two sets of events.

The case against Mr. Hopkins turned on a short presentation to investors in which he participated, and, indeed, a single power-point slide in that presentation.  That slide set forth various parameters of the bond fund at issue (State Street’s Limited Duration Bond Fund, hereafter “the Fund”) under the heading “Typical Portfolio Exposures and Characteristics.”  It never purported to lay out the exact characteristics of the Fund at the time of the presentation, although Mr. Hopkins had that information available if any investor asked about them.  The SEC charged Mr. Hopkins with fraud for discussing this power-point slide without providing the exact information about the Fund at that time, which in some respects differed from the “typical” slide, and in others did not.  In particular, the percentage of holdings of different types of asset-backed securities — ABS (asset-backed securities, included residential mortgage-backed securities), CBS (commercial-backed securities), MBS (mortgage-backed securities), and other designations — at the time varied from the “typical” slide by having heavier ABS holdings.

The case against Mr. Flannery focused on two letters sent by State Street to investors regarding the impact of the 2007 financial crisis on the Fund and steps being taken to respond to that.  Mr. Flannery signed one of those letters, but not the other.  Many State Street officials participated in the drafting of these letters, including its General Counsel.  The SEC contended that Mr. Flannery negligently participated in a “course of business” that “operated as a fraud” in his role in connection with these letters.  The alleged misrepresentations in the letters related to whether steps taken to divest the Fund of certain bonds were properly described as lessening its exposure to risk.

As you can see, these are “in the weeds” issues to which the SEC should be able to bring sophistication and expertise.  Instead, they pursued a blunderbuss case that ignored the context of the disclosures, the realities of these types of communications (what they are intended to communicate and what not), and the actual language used.  The SEC essentially waved its hands around and said “this is bad; this is bad” and “look how badly the funds did when the mortgage-backed securities market tanked.”  But it failed to present evidence that what was said was wrong, or that the aspect that it contended was wrong was even important to investors, and ignored substantial evidence to the contrary.

Here is some of what the court said with respect to the case against Mr. Hopkins:

Questions of materiality and scienter are connected. . . .  “If it is questionable whether a fact is material or its materiality is marginal, that tends to undercut the argument that defendants acted with the requisite intent or extreme recklessness in not disclosing the fact.” . . .

Here, assuming the Typical Portfolio Slide was misleading, evidence supporting the Commission’s finding of materiality was marginal.  The Commission’s opinion states that “reasonable investors would have viewed disclosure of the fact that, during the relevant period, [the Fund’s] exposure to ABS was substantially higher than was stated in the slide as having significantly altered the total mix of information available to them.”  Yet the Commission identifies only one witness other than Hopkins relevant to this conclusion. . . .

[T]he slide was clearly labeled “Typical.”  [The witness and his firm] never asked … for a breakdown of the [Fund’s] actual investment….  Further, the Commission has not identified any evidence in the record that the credit risks posed by ABS, CMBS, or MBS were materially different from each other, arguing instead that the percent of investment in ABS and diversification as such are important to investors.  Context makes a difference.  According to a report [the witness] authored the day after the meeting, the meeting’s purpose was to explain why the [Fund] had underperformed in the first quarter of 2007 and to discuss its investment in a specific index that had contributed to the underperformance.  The Typical Portfolio Slide was one slide of a presentation of at least twenty. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the slide was not mentioned in [the witness’s] report.

Hopkins presented expert testimony . . . that “[p]re-prepared documents such as . . . presentations . . . are not intended to present a complete picture of the fund,” but rather serve as “starting points,” after which due diligence is performed.  [The expert] explained that “a typical investor in an unregistered fund would understand that it could specifically request additional information regarding the fund.”  And not only were clients given specific information upon request, information about the [Fund’s] actual percent of sector investment was available through the fact sheets and annual audited financial statements.  The … fact sheet … six weeks prior to the … presentation [said] the [Fund] was 100% invested in ABS.  The [fact sheet one-month after the presentation said] the [Fund] was 81.3% invested in ABS. These facts weigh against any conclusion that the Typical Portfolio Slide had “significantly altered the ‘total mix’ of information made available.” …

This thin materiality showing cannot support a finding of scienter here….  Hopkins testified that in his experience investors did not focus on sector breakdown when making their investment decisions and that [Fund] investors did not focus on how much of the [Fund] investment was in ABS versus MBS….  He did not update the Typical Portfolio Slide’s sector breakdowns because he did not think the typical sector breakdowns were important to investors.  To the extent that an investor would want to know the actual sector breakdowns, Hopkins would bring notes with “the accurate information” so that he could answer any questions that arose.  We cannot say that these handwritten notes provide substantial evidence of recklessness, much less intentionality to mislead — particularly in light of Hopkins’s belief that this information was not important to investors….

We conclude that the Commission abused its discretion in holding Hopkins liable under Section 17(a)(1), Section 10(b), and Rule 10b-5.

Slip op. at 21-24 (footnotes omitted).

The court said in a footnote: “… We do not suggest that the mere availability of accurate information negates an inaccurate statement.  Rather, when a slide is labeled ‘typical,’ and where a reasonable investor would not rely on one slide but instead would conduct due diligence when making an investment decision, the availability of actual and accurate information is relevant.”  Slip op. at 22 n.8.

And here is some of the discussion about the case against Mr. Flannery:

… At the very least, the August 2 letter was not misleading — even when considered with the August 14 letter — and so there was not substantial evidence to support the Commission’s finding that Flannery was “liable for having engaged in a ‘course of business’ that operated as a fraud on [Fund] investors.”

The Commission’s primary reason for finding the August 2 letter misleading was its view that the “[The Fund’s] sale of the AAA-rated securities did not reduce risk in the fund.  Rather, the sale ultimately increased both the fund’s credit risk and its liquidity risk because the securities that remained in the fund had a lower credit rating and were less liquid than those that were sold.” At the outset, we note that neither of the Commission’s assertions — that the sale increased the fund’s credit risk and increased its liquidity risk — are supported by substantial evidence.

First, although credit rating alone does not necessarily measure a portfolio’s risk, the Commission does not dispute the truth of the letter’s statement that the [Fund] maintained an average AA-credit quality. Second, expert testimony presented at the proceeding explained that the July 26 AAA-rated bond sale reduced risk because these bonds “entailed credit and market risk that were substantially greater than those of cash positions. In addition, a portion of the sale proceeds was used to pay down [repurchase agreement] loans and reduce the portfolio leverage.”

Further, testimony throughout the proceeding indicated that the [Fund’s] bond sales in July and August reduced risk by decreasing exposure to the subprime residential market, by reducing leverage, and by increasing liquidity, part of which was used to repay loans.

To be sure, the Commission maintained that the bond sale’s potentially beneficial effects on the fund’s liquidity risk were immediately undermined by the “massive outflows of the sale proceeds . . . to early redeemers.”  But this reasoning falters for two reasons. First, the Commission acknowledged that between $175 and $195 million of the cash proceeds remained in the LDBF as of the time the letter was sent; it offered no reason, however, why this level of cash holdings provided an insufficient liquidity cushion.  Second and more fundamentally, even if the Commission was correct that the liquidity risk in the [Fund] was higher following the sale than it was prior to the sale, it does not follow that the sale failed to reduce risk.  Rather, to treat as misleading the statement in the August 2 letter that State Street had “reduced risk,” the Commission would need to demonstrate that the liquidity risk in the LDBF following the sale was higher than it would have been in the counterfactual world in which the financial crisis had continued to roil — and in which large numbers of investors likely would have sought redemption — and the [Fund] had not sold its AAA holdings. But the Commission has not done this.

Independently, the Commission has misread the letter. The August 2 letter did not claim to have reduced risk in the [Fund].  The letter states that “the downdraft in valuations has had a significant impact on the risk profile of our portfolios, prompting us to take steps to seek to reduce risk across the affected portfolios” (emphasis added).  Indeed, at oral argument, the Commission acknowledged that there was no particular sentence in the letter that was inaccurate. It contends that the statement, “[t]he actions we have taken to date in the [Fund] simultaneously reduced risk in other [State Street] active fixed income and active derivative-based strategies,” misled investors into thinking [State Street] reduced the [Fund’s] risk profile.  This argument ignores the word “other.”  The letter was sent to clients in at least twenty-one other funds, and, if anything, speaks to having reduced risk in funds other than the [Fund].

Even beyond that, there is not substantial evidence that [State Street] did not “seek to reduce risk across the affected portfolios.”  As one expert testified, there are different types of risk associated with a fund like the [Fund], including market risk, liquidity risk, and credit or default risk.  The [Fund] was facing a liquidity problem, and … the Director of Active North American Fixed Income, explained that “[i]t’s hard to predict if the market will hold on or if there will be a large number of withdrawals by clients.  We need to have liquidity should the clients decide to withdraw.” Flannery noted that “if [they didn’t] raise liquidity [they] face[d] a greater unknown.”  … [The Fund’s] lead portfolio manager, noted that selling only AAA-rated bonds would affect the [Fund’s] risk profile.  After discussion of both of these concerns, the Investment Committee ultimately decided to increase liquidity, sell a pro-rata share to warrant withdrawals, and reduce AA exposure. And that is what it did.…  The August 2 letter does not try to hide the sale of the AAA-rated bonds; it candidly acknowledges it. At the proceeding, Flannery testified that selling AAA-rated bonds itself reduces risk, and here, in combination with the pro-rata sale, was intended to maintain a consistent risk profile for the [Fund].  [Another witness] testified that the goal of the pro-rata sale was to treat all shareholders — both those who exited the fund and those who remained — as equally as possible and maintain the risk-characteristics of the portfolio to the extent possible.  These actions are not inconsistent with trying to reduce the risk profile across the portfolios.

Finally, we note that the Commission has failed to identify a single witness that supports a finding of materiality….  We do not think the letter was misleading, and we find no substantial evidence supporting a conclusion otherwise. 

We need not reach the August 14 letter…. Even were we to assume that the August 14 letter was misleading, in light of the SEC’s interpretation of Section 17(a)(3) and our conclusion about the August 2 letter, we find there is not substantial evidence to support the Commission’s finding that Flannery engaged in a fraudulent “practice” or “course of business.”

Slip op. at 25-30 (footnotes omitted).

As noted above, it is obvious that the court’s decision turned on a close examination of the evidence, and an understanding of what the statements made by Hopkins and Flannery really meant, within their context.  The generalized power-point slide used by Mr. Hopkins, in the context of a broader presentation, and the availability of specific information on request, was so close to immaterial that Mr. Hopkins’ understanding that investors would not place significant weight on the “typical” data could not be reckless.  And the State Street letters to investors in which Mr. Flannery participated were not inaccurate because the SEC did not understand that the transaction described was, in fact, a means of reducing risk exposure.  That last point is a killer: the SEC could not even understand how to evaluate the risk exposures of these types of portfolios!  How good does that make you feel about the Commissioners that are responsible for understanding and protecting our capital markets?

This is a huge loss for the Commission because so much effort was made to make this case a showpiece for enforcement against individuals for supposed securities violations in the sale of the mortgage-backed securities that were devastated in the financial crisis.  The SEC was loaded for bear to hold some individuals responsible, regardless of the evidence.  Thank goodness a court was ultimately available to return us to the true rule of law.

Straight Arrow

December 9, 2015

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SEC ALJ Jason Patil Stings Enforcement Division with Dismissal in Ruggieri Case

SEC Administrative Law Judge Jason Patil’s September 14, 2105 Initial Decision in In the Matter of Bolan and Ruggieri, File No. 3-16178, represents a milestone is SEC administrative jurisprudence in several respects.  The decision is available here: Initial Decision in In the Matter of Bolan and Ruggieri.

First, coming as it did in the midst of controversy over questionable fairness, and allegations of bias, in the SEC’s administrative enforcement process, ALJ Patil’s opinion, which rules against the SEC Division of Enforcement in a publicized insider trading case, shows that SEC ALJs are capable of giving serious scrutiny to the Division’s often overblown charges and questionable evidentiary support in support them.  ALJ Patil, a recent arrival at the SEC, has already shown a judicial temperament and backbone that is needed to assure a more level playing field in these cases.  We previously noted some high quality work by Mr. Patil.  See Some SEC Administrative Law Judges Are Thoughtful and Even Judicious.

Second, ALJ Patil’s decision itself was solid and thoughtful.  His analysis was mostly independent and well-reasoned.  The main exception was a not-very-thoughtful rejection of several constitutional challenges, which was presented in brief paragraphs that showed little of the painstaking analysis he gave to the evidence and the law in the remainder of his opinion.  He devoted fewer than two pages to dismiss five distinct constitutional arguments.  See Initial Decision at 2-4.  I chalk this up to a recognition that the constitutional issues were pretty much beyond his pay-grade, a point he even used in response to one of them (“I do not have authority to adjudicate this claim” (referring to a delegation doctrine argument)).  Id. at 3.  The treatment of the Appointments Clause issue now before several courts completely deferred to the SEC’s decision in In the Matter of Raymond J. Lucia Cos. (id.), and on the related issue of the double layer of ALJ tenure protection, he speciously argued that the Supreme Court footnote in its decision regarding the PCAOB in Free Enterprise Fund v. PCAOB meant that it “did not support” applying the same analysis to SEC ALJs.  Id.  That, of course, evades the argument, it does not address to it.  And the one sentence on the Seventh Amendment jury trial issue fails to consider the key point – whether a process that allows solely the SEC to require a jury trial (by choosing the forum) but deprives a respondent of any comparable right could be consistent with the Seventh Amendment. Id. at 6.

ALJ Patil was wrong to give these issues scant treatment because they were a side show.  If he didn’t want to take them seriously, he should have declined to address them because they were, as it turned out, unnecessary to consider in light of his decision on the merits.  Knowing his decision on the merits made this discussion superfluous, the correct approach was simply to decline to rule on those constitutional issues.

But in the overall picture, this may be just a quibble.  When it came to doing the hard work of evaluating the evidence and applying the law to the evidence, ALJ Patil did excellent work.  There were some flaws in his description of insider trading law, but he eventually got to the right place.

Third, ALJ Patil took on some key aspects of the implementation of insider trading law pursuant to Dirks v. SEC and United States v. Newman, and showed the fortitude to adopt positions – which I believe to be correct – that conflict with current SEC and Government arguments being made in Newman itself and in other insider trading cases.  That takes some cojones, and ALJ Patil should be commended for taking an independent view.

In particular, ALJ Patil rejected the argument now being made by the Government in the Newman cert. petition that the Newman decision breaks with Supreme Court precedent in Dirks v. SEC: “In its petition for a writ of certiorari, the government contends that Newman conflicts with Dirks and erroneously heightened the burden of proof.  See Pet. Writ Certiorari, United States v. Newman, No. 15-137 (July 30, 2015); 17 C.F.R. § 201.323 (official notice).  I do not, however, read Newman as conflicting with Dirks, but rather as clarifying the standard where proof of a personal benefit is based on a personal relationship or friendship.  See 773 F.3d at 452.”  Initial Decision at 35.  He also rejected the Division’s concerted argument that the “personal benefit” requirement for tipper liability adopted in Dirks, and further developed in Newman, has no place in insider trading violations based on the “misappropriation” theory, rather than a “classical” insider trading violation.  We will discuss his analysis on this point below, but his bottom line was that the personal benefit requirement plays the same important role in misappropriation cases as it does in classical cases.  See id. at 28-32.  Finally, he rejected multiple arguments by the Division that the personal benefit requirement was satisfied by the evidence when it was plain that the evidence did not support any such inference.  See id. at 33-49.

The Facts

Unlike many recent tippee cases, including the Newman/Chiasson case, the facts here are relatively straightforward.  Bolan and Ruggieri both worked for Wells Fargo.  Bolan was a researcher and analyst covering healthcare companies; Ruggieri was a senior trader of healthcare stocks who traded for Wells Fargo clients and also in a Wells Fargo proprietary account.  Unpublished Wells Fargo research and ratings analysis was proprietary and confidential company information.  Wells Fargo mandated that analysts not share ratings changes with traders before they were made public. Ruggieri knew that he was prohibited from trading based on nonpublic information from a forthcoming research report.

The SEC alleged that Bolan tipped Ruggieri to imminent Wells Fargo ratings changes he was about to make for specific stocks, and that Ruggieri took advantage of that knowledge on six occasions to trade in advance of publication and profit when the stock prices moved after the ratings change was announced.

Bolan settled the SEC’s case against him.  Ruggieri did not.  He was charged with violations of section 17(a) of the 1933 Act and section 10(b) of the 1934 Act and Rule 10b-5 thereunder.

The Findings

Much of the opinion addresses the evidence surrounding Ruggieri’s trades involving six stocks.  There apparently was little dispute that Bolan provided Ruggieri advance information about his views on these six companies.  But the evidentiary issues were complicated because Ruggieri argued that his decisions in all of these cases were based on his own knowledge of these companies and the market for their stocks, not on Bolan’s incipient ratings changes.  After all, much of the data available to Bolan was also available to Ruggieri, and in addition to that, Ruggieri had independent sources of information through the institutional investors he serviced for Wells Fargo, who often were the source of information about investor views about these companies.

After reviewing the extensive record, ALJ Patil concluded that the Division did not satisfy its burden of proving that Ruggieri’s trades in two of the six stocks were founded on tips from Bolan, but that he did rely on Bolan’s tips on four of the trades.

ALJ Patil’s Overview of Insider Trading Law Was Not Quite Right

ALJ Patil’s decision includes extensive discussion of his understanding of unlawful insider trading.  His Overview of the law (Initial Decision at 8-9) is mostly correct, but reflects some errors that, while not determinative in this case, suggest a less than complete understanding of the law.

ALJ Patil starts out with a summary statement about the law that is half right and half almost-right: He says that section 17(a) and section 10(b) “do not require equal information among market participants; the mere act of trading on insider information is not fraud. . . .  Rather, insider trading constitutes fraud within the meaning of these provisions when it involves a market participant’s breach of a fiduciary duty owed to a principal for a personal benefit.”  Id. at 8.  The first part is right – the Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected the theory that trading on material nonpublic information is itself unlawful.  The second part is half-right because it omits an important element – insider trading is “fraud within the meaning of these provisions when it involves a market participant’s breach of a fiduciary duty owed to a principal for a personal benefit” if, and only if, that breach of duty is undisclosed.  Trading on information that breaches a fiduciary duty to a principal is not “fraud” under these provisions if it is disclosed.  The importance of the fiduciary duty is that it creates a duty to disclose the breach to the principal, and the failure to do so in the context of a fiduciary relationship constitutes fraud.  That is why it is always said that the trader has the choice to “disclose or abstain from trading” to avoid violating the law.

ALJ Patil goes on to describe that this case involves the “misappropriation” theory of insider trading, since the critical information was not confidential information owned by the issuer of the traded stock, but confidential analytic information about various issuers owned by Wells Fargo: “The Division alleges that Bolan tipped Ruggieri with confidential information . . . in breach of a duty to Wells Fargo for a personal benefit and Ruggieri traded based on such tips.”  Id.  In such cases, the duty is owed to the owner of the information – here, Wells Fargo – and a fraud occurs if “[a] fiduciary who pretends loyalty to the principal while secretly converting the principal’s information for personal gain.”  United States v. O’Hagan, 521 U.S. 642, 653-54 (1997) (emphasis added).  As discussed above, what makes this conduct fraudulent is the failure to disclose the misuse of information stolen from the principal (“secretly converting”).

ALJ Patil notes that under Dirks, Ruggieri’s liability as a tippee “is derivative of Bolan’s alleged breach.”  Initial Decision at 8.  He states: “To establish Ruggieri’s liability, the Division must therefore show that: 1) Bolan tipped material non-public information to Ruggieri in breach of a fiduciary duty owed to Wells Fargo for a personal benefit to himself; 2) Ruggieri knew or had reason to know of Bolan’s breach, that is, he knew the information was confidential and divulged for a personal benefit; and 3) Ruggieri still used that information by trading or by tipping for his own benefit.”  Id. Actually, as discussed above, there is a fourth requirement, which is that Ruggieri knew that the breach of duty remained undisclosed to the principal at the time he traded.

ALJ Patil’s discussion of “materiality” is also not quite right, although his error seems of no consequence here.  He says there is no dispute that Bolan’s ratings were material because “ratings changes typically moved stock prices,” and Bolan’s ratings changes “had a statistically significant impact on the stock prices of the securities being rated.”  Id. at 9.  That would be correct if the disclosure duty at issue here were a duty to company shareholders, as in a case based on the classical insider trading theory.  But, as discussed above, the fraud in a misappropriation case is on the owner of the information, not any investor.  The correct materiality analysis must look for materiality to the owner – not investors.  If the owner of the information could care less whether the information was used or not – i.e., did not treat the confidentiality of the information as important – then even if it were highly material to certain investors there would be no fraud by the employee’s failure to disclose the use of it for his own benefit.  In this case, the information Bolan gave to Ruggieri was material because Wells Fargo made it plain in its internal policies that it was important to keep this information confidential from investors and from other employees outside of the research department.  That would be true even if it was not clear whether disclosing the information would or wouldn’t impact the stock price of the companies researched.  Because the secret ratings information was material to Wells Fargo, ALJ Patil’s finding of materiality was correct, albeit for the wrong reason.

Fortunately, these analytic shortcomings in ALJ Patil’s overall statement of the law did not prevent him from getting to the right decision based on the theory pursued by the Division and the evidence placed before him.

ALJ Patil’s Analysis of Dirks and Newman Was Spot On

ALJ Patil’s best work in this opinion is his discussion of the Dirks “personal benefit” requirement, as further developed by the Second Circuit in Newman.  In pages 28 to 32, he explains why the personal benefit requirement must apply to a misappropriation case, and in pages 33 to 50, he rejects every Division argument that the evidence presented adequately showed that Bolan obtained a personal benefit as part of his communication of impending ratings changes to Ruggieri.  Because there was no such benefit proved, Bolan’s tip was not fraudulent and Ruggieri could not have tippee liability derived from a fraud by Bolan.

ALJ Patil first addressed whether the Division was required to prove a personal benefit. Dirks “rejected the premise that all disclosures of confidential information are inconsistent with the fiduciary duty that insiders owe to shareholders.”  Initial Decision at 29.  He noted that the key element of a violation is “manipulation or deception”: “As Dirks instructs, mere disclosure of or trading based on confidential information is insufficient to constitute a breach of duty for insider trading liability.  Not every breach of duty, and not every trade based on confidential information, violates the antifraud provisions of the federal securities laws.  Rather, such conduct must involve manipulation, deception, or fraud against the principal such as shareholders or source of the information.”  He quoted both O’Hagan (521 U.S. at 655) (section 10(b) “is not an all-purpose breach of fiduciary duty ban; rather, it trains on conduct involving manipulation or deception”) and Dirks (463 U.S. at 654) (“Not all breaches of fiduciary duty in connection with a securities transaction, however, come within the ambit of Rule 10b-5.  There must also be manipulation or deception.”).  Id.  This led to the conclusion: “the Court identified the personal benefit element as crucial to the determination whether there has been a fraudulent breach.”  Id. at 30.  This is how Dirks separated communications not designed to deceive shareholders from those with an element of deception.  Otherwise, “If courts were to impose liability merely because confidential information was disclosed to a non-principal, this would potentially expose a person to insider trading liability ‘where not even the slightest intent to trade on securities existed when he disclosed the information.’”  Id. (quoting SEC v. Yun, 327 F.3d 1263, 1278 (11th Cir. 2003).

He then expressly rejected the Division’s contention that the Dirks personal benefit requirement did not carry over to misappropriation cases by pointing out that O’Hagan, which first accepted the misappropriation theory, equally focused on the need for deceptive conduct:

Contrary to the Division’s position, the alleged breach committed by a misappropriator is not any more “inherent” than the alleged breach committed by an insider in a classical case.  In both scenarios, confidential information was leaked and/or used to trade in securities.  The harm to the principal—the source of the information in a misappropriation case or the shareholders in a classical case—is the same, if “not more . . . egregious” in a classical case. Yun, 327 F.3d at 1277.  “[I]t . . . makes ‘scant sense’ to impose liability more readily on a tipping outsider who breaches a duty to a source of information than on a tipping insider who breaches a duty to corporate shareholders.”  Id.

It is true that Dirks was decided in the context where an insider leaked confidential information to expose corporate fraud, which put the Court in the unenviable position of either finding insider trading liability when there was no objective evidence of an ill-conceived purpose, or crafting a standard to ensure that the securities laws were of no greater reach than intended.  The Division contends that Dirks required a benefit in classical cases to differentiate between an insider’s improper and proper use of confidential information.  The Division asserts that “use of confidential information to benefit the corporation (or for some other benevolent purpose consistent with the employee’s duties to his employer) cannot logically breach a fiduciary duty to the corporation’s shareholders.”  Div. Opp. to Motion for Summary Disposition at 21.  But the same rationale applies in an alleged misappropriation case.  An outsider might just as well divulge information for purposes that he believes might be in the best interest of the source to which a fiduciary duty is owed.

Courts cannot simply assume that a breach is for personal benefit.  See Newman, 773 F.3d at 454 (“[T]he Supreme Court affirmatively rejected the premise that a tipper who discloses confidential information necessarily does so to receive a personal benefit.”).  And the breach in a misappropriation case has not been defined by the Supreme Court as inherent, but as connected to personal benefit.  The misappropriation theory “holds that a person commits fraud ‘in connection with’ a securities transaction, and thereby violates § 10(b) and Rule 10b-5, when he misappropriates confidential information for securities trading purposes, in breach of a duty owed to the source of the information.”  O’Hagan, 521 U.S. at 652.  “Under this theory, a fiduciary’s undisclosed, self-serving use of a principal’s information to purchase or sell securities, in breach of a duty of loyalty and confidentiality, defrauds the principal of the exclusive use of that information.”  Id. (emphasis added).  In contrast to a classical case premised “on a fiduciary relationship between company insider and purchaser or seller of the company’s stock, the misappropriation theory premises liability on a fiduciary-turned-trader’s deception of those who entrusted him with access to confidential information.”  Id.

It is with this view that the Supreme Court “agree[d] with the Government that misappropriation, as just defined, satisfies § 10(b)’s requirement that chargeable conduct involve a ‘deceptive device or contrivance’ used ‘in connection with’ the purchase or sale of securities.”  O’Hagan, 521 U.S. at 653.  The Court “observe[d] . . . that misappropriators, as the Government describes them, deal in deception.  A fiduciary who pretends loyalty to the principal while secretly converting the principal’s information for personal gain . . . dupes or defrauds the principal.” Id. at 653-54 (emphasis added). . . .  The Court analogized misappropriation to the scenario where “an employee’s undertaking not to reveal his employer’s confidential information ‘became a sham’ when the employee provided the information to his co-conspirators in a scheme to obtain trading profits,” which constituted “fraud akin to embezzlement—‘the fraudulent appropriation to one’s own use of the money or goods entrusted to one’s care by another.’” Id. at 654. . . .  Thus, the O’Hagan Court accepted the government’s misappropriation theory on the premise that the breach was committed secretly for self-gain, not on the assumption that this element is inherent.

Initial Decision at 30-31 (footnotes and some cites omitted).

ALJ Patil then rejected the Division’s reliance on other cases in support of its argument, finding that though they may have used loose language, they did not need or intend to address the personal benefit issue in this context.  He concluded:

Neither the Supreme Court nor any federal court of appeals has drawn the curtain between classical and misappropriation cases that the Division urges.  Rather, courts have emphasized that the two theories are complementary, not mutually exclusive. . . .  In fact, “nearly all violations under the classical theory of insider trading can be alternatively characterized as misappropriations.”  Yun, 327 F.3d at 1279; see id. at 1276 n.27.  By requiring personal benefit to be proved in a misappropriation case, respondents are judged under similar standards.  Liability should not vary according to the theory under which the case is prosecuted.

At bottom, the Division’s position here, as the one advanced in Dirks, would have “no limiting principle.”. . .  The proposition that an alleged misappropriator violates his duty to a source, in violation of the antifraud provisions, by the mere disclosure of confidential information would improperly revive the notion that the antifraud provisions require equal information in the market, which has been rejected by the Supreme Court. . . .  [Dirks, 463] at 666 n.27 (rejecting similar arguments that “would achieve the same result as the SEC’s theory below, i.e., mere possession of inside information while trading would be viewed as a Rule 10b-5 violation” and reemphasizing that “there is no general duty to forgo market transactions based on material, nonpublic information.” . . .  I therefore adhere to my ruling that the Division must prove personal benefit.

Id. at 31-32.

ALJ Patil then turned to examining the evidence of the alleged personal benefits Bolan received from his tips.  I will not go through the details of the analysis of this evidence, which goes on for 14 pages.  The Division presented multiple claims of “personal benfit,” but the evidence showed that all of them were not in fact benefits related to providing tips but the internal operations of Wells Fargo in the normal course.  Purported “personal benefits” from the tips included “career mentorship” (found to be the norm at Wells Fargo); “positive feedback” (found to be no different for Bolan and others except as his performance justified); “friendship” with Ruggieri (found not be especially strong); a good “working relationship” (again found to be consistent with the Wells Fargo norm); and an intended gift by Bolan (found unproved – the Division did not even call Bolan as a witness).  As a nail in the coffin, ALJ Patil found that the evidence suggested Bolan simply accorded little weight to Wells Fargo’s policies, as reflected in recidivist violations of Wells Fargo confidentiality rules with others as well as Ruggieri (for which he was fired by Wells Fargo).

Why Did the Division of Enforcement Try Ruggieri as a Tippee?

This review of the facts and law of the case leaves a strange question.  What was the point of charging Ruggieri as a tippee rather than for his direct misappropriation of confidential Wells Fargo information?  He received Bolan’s information as a Wells Fargo employee and was obligated to keep that information confidential.  If he knowingly used that information improperly (in violation of his duties to Wells Fargo), in order to gain a benefit for himself (the Division contended the successful trades increased his compensation), and failed to disclose this to Wells Fargo, he violated section 10(b) regardless of whether Bolan did as well.  The Division would not have been stymied by a personal benefit requirement because the lack of a benefit to Bolan wouldn’t matter – the alleged increased compensation to Ruggieri would be sufficient to support a fraud claim.

I’m guessing the Division voluntarily made its case against Ruggieri harder because it wanted to stick it to both Bolan and Ruggieri.  Bolan, who agreed to a settlement (and had already been fired by Wells Fargo), could not be charged with fraud if he were not alleged to be a tipper, and the SEC staff always wants to charge fraud.  So, the ultimate irony of the case may be that in a case centered on greed, it may have been the Division’s own greed for multiple fraud judgments that pushed it to charge a case it lacked sufficient evidence to prove.  It would not be the first time the Division lost a case because, like Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) in Key Largo, it was motivated simply by wanting “more.”

Johnny Rocco

Johnny Rocco (Key Largo)

(“There’s only one Johnny Rocco.”

“How do you account for it?”

“He knows what he wants.  Don’t you, Rocco?”

“Sure.”

“What’s that?”

“Tell him, Rocco.”

“Well, I want uh …”

“He wants more, don’t you, Rocco?”

“Yeah. That’s it. More. That’s right! I want more!”

“Will you ever get enough?”

“Will you, Rocco?”

“Well, I never have. No, I guess I won’t.”)

Like Johnny Rocco, the SEC staff almost always wants “more.”

Straight Arrow

September 15, 2015

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There They Go Again: SEC Wasting Taxpayer Dollars on Trivial Perquisite Enforcement Litigation in SEC v. Miller

My first thought was that it could be an April Fools joke . . . but no, that’s not the SEC’s style.  I was reading about the SEC’s newest enforcement complaint alleging violations of the perquisite disclosure requirements in Item 402 of Regulation S-K, SEC v. Miller, No. 15-cv-1461 (N.D. Cal. Filed Mar. 31, 2015).  On second thought, I knew this was no joke – it made sense that the SEC enforcement staff was continuing the unfortunate habit of bringing minor cases and overcharging them as supposed frauds of the century, setting themselves up for another litigation embarrassment, and, more importantly, misallocating enforcement resources and wasting taxpayer funds.  The complaint is attached: SEC v. Miller Complaint. The joke is on the American taxpayers and Polycom shareholders.

Andrew M. Miller Former Polycom, Inc. CEO

Andrew M. Miller
                          Former Polycom CEO

This is another in a line of SEC cases for an alleged failure to disclose executive perquisites as “other compensation” in the company’s annual proxy statement.  The SEC has had a bee in its bonnet for years about making sure that trivial amounts of money paid to executives be properly disclosed.  I get the idea that large expenses for the personal use of company jets or yachts, or even multimillion dollar company-owned luxury apartments, might be interesting (or, more accurately, titillating) to shareholders, although rarely “material” in any true investment sense.  If the SEC limited its perks enforcement activities to gross failures of that nature, I guess it would not be a total waste of taxpayer money.  But outrageous undisclosed perks are few and far between nowadays, so the SEC enforcement staff gets itself in high dudgeon over trivial amounts of undisclosed company-paid personal expenses.  Why?  If the SEC staff were focused on maintaining fair and efficient securities markets it would be inexplicable.  But many of them are not.  Many of the enforcement staff specialize in being self-righteously judgmental, and they’ll be damned if rich, pampered, company executives avoid punishment for failing to disclose that the company paid for them to take friends, wives, or (perish the thought) “girlfriends” to the theater.  That would be fine if the SEC staffers were spending their own money to satisfy their personal piques.  But they are spending taxpayer money – and a lot of it – to pursue such trivial matters.

If you thing I’m going overboard, check out SEC v. Miller.  The SEC is “making a federal case” out of the failure of Polycom, Inc. to disclose in its proxy statement that its former CEO, Andrew Miller, used Polycom money to fund personal expenses to the tune of “at least $190,000” over four years.  I’m not missing any commas there; the crux of the case is the following allegation: “as Miller knew, Polycom omitted from its compensation disclosures at least the following amounts of Miller’s personal expenses, by fiscal year: approximately $15,435 in 2010; approximately $28,478 in 2011; approximately $115,683 in 2012; and approximately $30,474 in 2013.”  This, per the agency that ignored red flags evidencing the huge Madoff and Stanford Ponzi schemes without ever being held accountable, constitutes “a long-running scheme to surreptitiously use Polycom funds to pay for his personal expenses, including lavish meals, foreign and domestic travel, clothing, gifts and entertainment for himself, and his relatives and friends.”

So, let’s see how terrible it really was.  In 2010, the SEC alleges $15,435 in personal expenses were not disclosed as perquisites.  In that year what was disclosed was “$4,341,868 in total compensation, including $111,493 in perks.”  In 2011, the proxy allegedly failed to include $28,478 in perk disclosures, but did disclose “that Miller had received $5,016,646 in total compensation, including $112,998 in perks.”  In 2012: “Polycom reported that Miller had received $7,356,905 in total compensation, including $31,430 in perks,” but allegedly failed to disclose $115,683 in perks.  (That included two tickets to Les Miserables and Jersey Boys allegedly used by Miller and his “girlfriend.”)  And in 2013, “Polycom reported that Miller had received $7,682,509 in total compensation, including $5,180 in perks,” but allegedly failed to disclose $30,474 in perks.

In other words, in the four years of this “long-running scheme,” Polycom allegedly failed to disclose roughly 0.3%, 0.6%, 0.4%, and 0.5% of Miller’s compensation.  The alleged failure to disclose $190,000 in perks over four years compares to the actual disclosure of compensation to Mr. Miller totaling $24.4 million over that period.  And corporate revenues during that period were roughly $5 billion.  That represents the most the SEC could allege; the great likelihood is that if the evidence is ever presented, the actual shortfalls will be considerably lower, because the SEC enforcement staff generally doesn’t have a clue about when expenses are for business or non-business purposes.  For example, the complaint goes on about a purported “personal” trip to Bali as part of a “CEO Circle” event, but I’ll bet you disclosure experts will agree that such events may be properly treated as business-related expenses, and not perquisites, because they are, under the SEC’s guidance, “integrally and directly related to the performance of the executive’s duties,” which include keeping the company’s most productive employees, and/or customers, happy campers.  The SEC’s guidance makes it clear that how expensively those duties are performed has no bearing on whether they are perquisites, so whether the trip was to Bali or Fresno doesn’t matter for perquisite purposes.  In any event, even in the unlikely event that the allegations are totally accurate, the SEC has already spent at least high six figures in taxpayer dollars to investigate and bring the case (and caused Polycom to foot the bill for more than that).  If the case is tried, the SEC staff’s fixation on Mr. Miller’s peccadilloes will end up costing the taxpayers, and Polycom shareholders, millions more.

In fact, Polycom has already paid a hefty price – well more than the $190,000 supposedly taken from the company by Mr. Miller.  For a bizarre reason, even though the SEC contends that Mr. Miller cheated the company, it brought an enforcement action against the company as well, which Polycom was forced to settle for $750,000.  That is in addition to the legal fees incurred in the course of the SEC’s investigation, which probably means the SEC has already imposed costs on Polycom as much as 10 times greater than Mr. Miller’s allegedly improper expenses.  Altogether now, the Polycom shareholders should join in: “Thank You, SEC, for protecting our interests.”  See Polycom Inc. Agrees To Pay $750,000 To Settle SEC Civil Charge, and In the Matter of Polycom Settled SEC Administrative Action.  This is Alice in Wonderland stuff.

But that is not the most outrageous thing about this case.  The outrage is that the bad things the SEC is focused on are primarily matters of state law and corporate governance.  What is alleged here is that the CEO of Polycom did some bad things.  He spent some company money on things he shouldn’t have, and hid those things from the company, portraying them as legitimate business expenses.  We can all agree those are bad things, but they don’t have much to do with the federal securities laws.  They represent multiple breaches of fiduciary duty by the CEO to the company, and possibly outright theft, all of which is normally the focus of state law causes of action by the company (or possibly its shareholders if the company chooses not to act without good cause), or local law enforcement proceedings.  Why is the SEC wasting resources on this kind of corporate trivia when there are real frauds going on out there — ones the SEC doesn’t find until shareholders are already under the bus?  Instead, it is the SEC that is pushing the Polycom shareholders under the bus.

The federal securities laws are implicated only because SEC regulations mandate the disclosure of perks in the company’s annual proxy statement.  So, you would expect the SEC to state causes of action against Mr. Miller for his alleged role in causing the company to file inaccurate proxy statements, and maybe for his alleged role in causing the company’s books and records to be inaccurate, because they purportedly included personal payments to the CEO as “business expenses” rather than compensation (although it is not at all clear that this would be a so-called “books and records” violation).  There is no indication that the company failed to record these expenses on its books, in which case there would be no inaccuracy of even trivial amounts in Polycom’s financial statements.  In short, the most appropriate SEC enforcement action would be one that charges violations of SEC rules by Mr. Miller, or that he caused Polycom to violate those rules.  That would be sufficient to justify an embarrassing action against Mr. Miller accompanied by an injunction, a monetary penalty, and some form of disgorgement.  And I’ll bet you the house that if that’s all the SEC staff proposed, there would now be a settled action that could minimize unnecessary taxpayer and shareholder expense.

But if the SEC enforcement staff stopped there, there would be no “securities fraud” charges, and the staff has this thing about wanting to charge people with “fraud” whenever they can, whether the evidence supports it or not.  See SEC’s Single-Minded Focus on Fraud Theory Results in Loss on Appeal.  As alleged, there was a “fraud,” but it was a fraud allegedly perpetrated by Mr. Miller against Polycom, by using deceit to get the company to pay for his personal expenses.  That is not a “securities fraud,” and therefore is not an available color on the SEC’s enforcement palette.  Only the company can pursue a claim that the CEO cheated it of some money.  The only way the SEC can charge federal securities fraud – violations of section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 or section 17(a)(1) of the Securities Act of 1933 – is if there was fraud in connection with a purchase, sale, or offering of securities.  But scoring tickets for Les Miserables and Jersey Boys at company expense does not involve the purchase or sale of securities, even under the SEC’s broadest possible conception of what might be a security.  The only securities involved here are Polycom stock or bonds.

That did not stop the SEC staff.  They wanted a securities fraud charge, even if it required squeezing a square peg into a round hole.  So, the SEC had to find a way to convert misstatements of CEO compensation by 0.3% to 0.6% into a fraud in connection with the purchase or sale of Polycom stock or bonds.  No problem.  The SEC does that sort of thing all the time by making unsupported allegations that alleged misstatements or omissions on even trivial matters were material to investors who purchased and sold Polycom securities.  True to form, they allege in this complaint that the inaccurate perk disclosures were material to investors.  (It’s impossible to tell if they maintained straight faces while concocting this theory.)  Of course, the SEC litigators will never be able to prove that a reasonable investor could give a hoot that the compensation disclosures for the CEO were off by a fraction of a percent.  But in the view of the SEC staff, if they contend something is material, it becomes material, regardless of whether investors care.  In fact, although the Supreme Court precedent plainly states that materiality depends on whether information is important to a reasonable investor, the SEC regularly argues in court that any violation of an SEC disclosure mandate is material as a matter of law, because if the SEC requires it, it must be important to investors.  QED.

Right now, there is a trial lawyer for the defense team licking his chops over the prospect of cross-examining an SEC expert trying to explain why a misstatement of an expense by 0.5%, and which represented, by my calculation, 0.004% of revenues, was material to a reasonable investor.  If the judge does his job right, that potential testimony will not survive a Daubert motion.

To put icing on the cake, the SEC tries to stick it to Mr. Miller by alleging that when he sold Polycom shares during this period knowing that the perk disclosures for him were understated, he was engaging in securities fraud by trading stock while in possession of material nonpublic information, i.e., that compensation disclosures for him were understated by as much as 0.6%.  That is a laughable theory; one can only hope that the district court judge will see it for the charade it is and dismiss that aspect of the case right out of the box.  Historically, judges give the SEC the benefit of the doubt on fraud charges, dispensing with the usual requirements for pleading fraud under Rule 9(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  But this contention is so far off the mark, and so incendiary if allowed to proceed (which was the point of making the allegation), that a decent judge should give it an early burial.

This is a case that any judicious law enforcement agency would have resolved with modest penalty and disgorgement payments, plus an injunction against future violations.  The public airing of Mr. Miller’s hubris and poor judgment, if that’s what it was, would have shamed him, and made him damaged goods in the corporate executive marketplace.  If what he did was actually theft from the company, let local law enforcement officials sort that out.  That is how cases like this were resolved by more enlightened SEC enforcement lawyers in the heyday of perk cases many years ago.  But in the ever-increasing ratcheting-up of punitive enforcement measures, the SEC is no-doubt looking for vastly overstated penalties, plus the return of profits from supposedly unlawful trading, topped off with a request that Mr. Miller be barred from ever serving in the future as an officer or director of a public company.  Why not let fully informed boards of directors and shareholders decide for themselves in the future if his conduct warrants such a disqualification?

All of this, of course, forces Mr. Miller to defend his case to the hilt, pushing the SEC to present evidence of materiality and securities fraud it likely does not have.  The table is set for another SEC enforcement loss on the fraud charges if this goes to trial.  The last time the SEC took a case like this to trial it suffered a dismal loss.  In November 2013, a jury ruled in favor of the defendant on all claims in SEC v. Kovzan, No. 2:11-cv-02017 (D. Kan. Filed Jan. 12, 2011), which was another perquisite case alleging trivial violations that lacked supporting evidence and made no sense as a matter of enforcement policy and an allocation of enforcement resources.

The main losers in SEC v. Miller will be “we, the people.”  The taxpayers will pay for this exercise in overcharged macho enforcement, and, of course, the shareholders of Polycom will pay dearly as well, in amounts that dwarf the perquisite amounts alleged in the complaint.  One way or another, through indemnity obligations or increased D&O insurance rates, Polycom will foot a mid-seven figure bill for defending claims that should never have been brought.  The SEC will manage to make those seats to Les Miserables and Jersey Boys a lot more expensive than anyone could have imagined.

Straight Arrow

April 1, 2015

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4th Circuit Finds Section 10(b) Scienter Allegations Sufficient with No Motive in Zak v. Chelsea Therapeutics

In Zak v. Chelsea Therapeutics Int’l, No. 13-2370, a split Fourth Circuit panel found allegations of securities fraud sufficient in a putative section 10(b) class action.  The district court dismissed the complaint for failing to make allegations sufficient to support a strong inference of scienter under the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act (PSLRA) standard.  The majority of the panel reversed, despite an apparent lack of facts showing any real objective for the alleged fraud.  The opinion is available here: Zak v. Chelsea Therapeutics Intl.

The case involved a now-common fact situation in securities class actions against pharmaceutical companies.  Chelsea was trying to gain approval for a drug treatment for “symptomatic neurogenic orthostatic hypotension,” which is “a condition in which a dramatic drop in blood pressure occurs when a person stands.”  During the course of testing for the efficacy of the drug, Chelsea executives expressed optimism about how the tests were going, and for the prospect of getting the drug approved by the FDA.  At the same time, the actual testing showed mixed results.  One trial was successful and others were inconclusive.  All of the trial results were disclosed, however.  A meeting with FDA officials was also inconclusive — they indicated that the application for the drug could move forward on the basis of the one study, which was short-term, but that it was an obstacle to approval that other studies had not shown the drug’s efficacy over a longer period.  Management optimistically described this conversation as the officials agreeing that the application could move forward on the basis of the one successful trial.

There were other instances of management expressing overly-optimistic views on the approval of the drug, without also acknowledging that there were serious obstacles.  One of these included the contents of an FDA staff report.  Management received this report, in which a staffer recommended that the drug not be approved, 8 days before it was publicly disclosed.  The company’s published description of the report said it raised questions about the sufficiency of the support for approval of the drug, but failed to state that the staffer recommended against approval.  The stock price nevertheless declined 38%.  The press release also provided the web address to obtain to actual report when it was released by the FDA, which occurred 8 days later.  At that time, the stock price declined an additional 21%.

Three days later, an FDA advisory committee recommended approval of the drug in a non-binding recommendation.  The FDA itself, however, ultimately declined to approve the drug a little over a month later.

One interesting aspect of the case is the district court’s use of Chelsea’s public SEC filings in its consideration of whether these facts adequately pled scienter under the PSLRA.  The defendants submitted SEC proxy and Form 4 filings to show that there was no evidence that management or directors tried to take advantage of any arguably misleading statements by cashing out their stock.  Although the complaint did not plead insider stock sales as a motive for the fraud, the court took judicial notice of the SEC filings and based its decision in part on the lack of evidence of efforts to profit on any of the alleged misrepresentations or omissions in the complaint.

The entire 4th Circuit panel agreed that this was improper.  The opinion acknowledges the commonly accepted rule that on a motion to dismiss, the court can consider materials outside of the complaint if they are incorporated by reference or implicated by the allegations in the complaint.  But, since insider stock trading was never alleged in the complaint, it found judicial notice of materials addressed to that issue was improper.

The majority of the panel went on the conclude that the allegations of repeatedly optimistic statements about the drug approval process which left out key developments suggesting approval was in doubt were enough to support the required strong inference of scienter.  Two things are important about this.  First, it comes from the 4th Circuit, which rarely sees a class action complaint it thinks is sufficient.  Second, it allows a complaint to proceed on the basis of a fraud which, at least from the descriptions in the opinion, shows absolutely to motivation for committing the alleged fraud.  Usually, fraudulent misrepresentations or omissions are part of an effort to obtain some advantage from the misleading disclosures.  Here, there is no such apparent motive.  That may be why the district court went beyond the complaint to the trading data.  Surely a fraud must have an objective — but none is apparent here.  This is especially so as to the most troublesome of the alleged misleading disclosures: the misleading description of the staff report about possible approval of the drug.  Since the report itself was going to be published about a week after the company’s press release about it, and the press release provided the web address for someone to read the actual report one week later, what is the purported object of a fraudulent description of that document, which would last only a week.  There appears to be none, since no action during that period suggests an effort to take advantage of the misleading disclosure.

Perhaps this goes more to the issue of materiality than scienter, which, as we have seen before, can be interrelated (see 1st Circuit: Scienter Not Alleged Where Materiality Is Questionable and Regulatory Violations Remain in Doubt).  But it would seem to encompass both; how do you find a strong inference of intent to defraud in the absence of any apparent motive?

Dissenting Judge Thacker certainly had problems with finding fraudulent conduct alleged here.  He reminded the court that even if recklessness can be sufficient to support scienter — and he reiterated that the Supreme Court still has not accepted that theory (slip op. at 33 n.2) — in the 4th Circuit i”we insist that the recklessness must be ‘severe’ — that is, ‘a slightly lesser species of intentional misconduct.'”  Slip op. at 35.  He argued that the company’s statements were not “literally” inaccurate, and there was enough support for management to express an optimistic view without committing fraud.  He concluded : “Today’s decision clears the way for more litigation, heightening the risk that shareholders will exploit the judicial process to extract settlements from corporations they chose to fund. This is exactly what Congress sought to prevent when it enacted the PSLRA.”  Slip op. at 43.

This case is a very close call.  Based on the fact descriptions in the opinion, it looks like management erred on the side of optimism, and may have elevated wish above reality, putting the best light on everything while hoping for approval of the drug.  It should give us pause on the fraud issue that the advisory committee actually did recommend approval of the drug, even with the alleged shortcomings of the trial studies.  In the end, it is the absence of any apparent planned gain or advantage from the alleged misleading disclosures that suggests to me that whatever happened here, intentional fraud was not what it was about, especially under the high scienter pleading standard of the PSLRA.

In any event, the class plaintiffs seem to have some serious uphill fighting on the materiality front.

Straight Arrow

March 17, 2015

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1st Circuit: Scienter Not Alleged Where Materiality Is Questionable and Regulatory Violations Remain in Doubt

The recent First Circuit decision in Fire and Police Pension Ass’n v. Abiomed, Inc., No. 14-1502, is noteworthy for its unusual mix of scienter and materiality analysis to affirm dismissal of a section 10(b) securities class action.  Ultimately, the court affirmed dismissal for the lack of sufficient scienter allegations under the heightened pleading standard of the Private Litigation Securities Reform Act (PSLRA), but it was the court’s mixing of scienter and materiality considerations that provokes interest.  The court also made it clear that a securities fraud claim cannot be based on an alleged failure to disclose misconduct while the resolution of the matters at issue with regulators remain uncertain.  A copy of the opinion is available here: Fire and Police Pension Ass’n v. Abiomed Inc.

The claims were founded on allegations that Abiomed, Inc., which sells medical devices, made misrepresentations about the Impella 2.5, a micro heart pump, which was Abiomed’s most important product. The alleged misrepresentations and omissions related to interactions between Abiomed and the FDA regarding marketing used to promote the Impella 2.5, and the possible promotion of off “off-label” uses of the device, that is, uses for purposes beyond those approved by the FDA.

The gist of the complaint was that Abiomed failed to disclose in its SEC filings several FDA communications warning about possible marketing and advertising improprieties, and failed to disclose that its revenues from the sales of that device were achieved in violation of FDA rules.  After ongoing communications between Abiomed and the FDA in 2010-2012, two things occurred.  In November 2012, Abiomed disclosed that federal prosecutors were investigating Abiomed’s promotional and marketing practices and published revised revenue projections, which was followed by a significant decline in stock price.  And in February 2013, the FDA gave Abiomed a “Close-Out Letter” stating its concerns had been adequately addressed by the company, and afterward, the stock price recovered its earlier losses.

The court noted that although it was “far from clear” that “plaintiffs plausibly alleged that “defendants made false or misleading statements which had a material effect on Abiomed’s stock price,” it was affirming the district court’s ruling that the plaintiffs did not sufficiently allege that defendants made those statements with a “conscious intent to defraud or ‘a high degree of recklessness.’”  Slip op. at 4 (quoting ACA Fin. Guar. Corp. v. Advest, Inc., 512 F.3d 46, 58 (1st Cir. 2008)).

 The court’s consideration of the materiality of the alleged misstatements played a significant role in its scienter analysis. The court wrote:

We do address the strength of the materiality of the statements because “[t]he question of whether a plaintiff has pled facts supporting a strong inference of scienter has an obvious connection to the question of the extent to which the omitted information is material.” . . .   “If it is questionable whether a fact is material or its materiality is marginal, that tends to undercut the argument that defendants acted with the requisite intent or extreme recklessness in not disclosing the fact.” . . . The materiality of the impugned omission here — Abiomed’s failure to state that some of the increased revenues were due to off-label marketing — is marginal at best. Plaintiffs’ contention that the omission would have mattered to a reasonable investor depends on a long chain of inferences, most of which are not sufficiently substantiated by the allegations in the complaint.

Slip op. at 29 (citations omitted).  The court also took note that Abiomed’s disclosures explicitly warned about the FDA’s marketing concerns, including disclosures that concerns raised in FDA Warning Letters could have serious consequences.  Id. at 31-32.

Defense counsel should take particular note of the court’s response to the allegation that “Abiomed should have affirmatively admitted widespread wrongdoing rather than stating that the outcome of its regulatory back-and-forth with the FDA was uncertain.”  Slip op. at 32.  Class action complaints often allege fraud based on a failure to disclose that matters involving regulatory uncertainty (or other uncertainties) should have been disclosed as company shortcomings.  But the court here correctly noted that this approach would improperly mandate potentially misleading disclosures of uncertain future events:

That would be a perverse result; such an admission would have been misleading, since the off-label marketing issues had the potential to be resolved with no adverse action from the FDA.  We made a similar point in In re Boston Scientific Corp. Securities Litigation, 686 F.3d 21 (1st Cir. 2012), where we noted that “a company may behave ‘irresponsibly’ if it issues an ominous warning about an uncertain risk that ‘had not yet been adequately investigated.’” Id. at 31. … There must be some room for give and take between a regulated entity and its regulator.

 Id. at 32-33.

The opinion also addresses allegations of statements by so-called “confidential witnesses,” whose statements about the company’s operations did not support scienter because the alleged roles of these persons did not put them in a position to provide information about the knowledge and intent of company management. See id. at 35-36.  The court likewise found allegations of stock sales by insiders insufficient to support scienter because the facts alleged did not show unusual or suspicious trading. See id. at 36-38.

But the two key takeaways from this opinion are: (1) that even without showing alleged misrepresentations were immaterial as a matter of law – which is often tough on a motion to dismiss – defendants can use doubts about materiality to support arguments that scienter is not sufficiently supported under the PSLRA standard; and (2) that allegations of failure to disclose regulatory concerns fall short of fraud when the matters are being actively discussed with law enforcement authorities and it remains uncertain whether they can be resolved without any enforcement action.

Straight Arrow

January 12, 2005

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DOJ Petition for En Banc Review in Newman Case Comes Up Short

On January 23, 2015, the Department of Justice filed its petition for rehearing en banc in United States v. Newman.  A copy of that submission is available here: US v Newman Petition for En Banc Review.  Our previous discussion of the unanimous panel opinion can be read here: US v. Newman: 2d Circuit Hands Government Stunning, Decisive, and Far-Reaching Insider Trading Defeat.  The brief argues for review on several grounds.  Individually and together, they do not provide a basis for granting en banc review.  (On the standards for en banc review, see the linked article: Once More Unto The Breach — Rehearing In Newman?)

First, the DOJ argues that the 2d Circuit panel got it wrong because it misstated the appropriate standard for determining whether a tipper received a “benefit” in return for his or her tip:

The Panel’s holding on the definition of “personal benefit” in insider trading cases—specifically, that illegal insider trading has occurred only when an insider-tipper’s deliberate disclosure of material non-public information was for pecuniary gain or was  part of a “meaningfully close personal relationship that generates an exchange that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or  similarly valuable nature”—cannot be squared with governing Supreme Court precedent, conflicts with prior holdings of other circuits and this Court, and defies practical application.

Petition at 10-11 (citation omitted).

The support for this argument is founded entirely in the contention that the panel misread the Supreme Court’s decision in Dirks v. SEC, 463 U.S. 646 (1983).  The brief points to statements in Dirks that the required personal benefit may be “direct or indirect,” that it need not be monetary, that “there may be a relationship between the insider and the recipient that suggests a quid pro quo from the latter, or an intention to benefit the particular recipient,” and that it could be “a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend,” as “[t]he tip and trade resemble trading by the insider himself followed by a gift of the profits to the recipient.”  Petition at 11 (quoting from Dirks, 463 U.S. at 663-64).  The DOJ brief argues that although the panel decision acknowledges Dirks‘s language, “it added an unprecedented limitation” that effectively upended Dirks: “‘To the extent Dirks suggests that a personal benefit may be inferred from a personal relationship between the tipper and tippee,’ the Panel held, ‘such an inference is impermissible in the absence of proof of a meaningfully close personal relationship that generates an exchange that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature.'”  Petition at 12 (quoting Newman).  The DOJ calls this “flatly inconsistent with Dirks.”  Id. at 13.

But the DOJ brief then departs from the actual Dirks language to make the argument that “the mere fact of friendship” could be enough to satisfy the Dirks requirement: “The Opinion says that Dirks ‘does not suggest that the Government may prove the receipt of a personal benefit by the mere fact of a friendship.’  But that is in fact precisely what Dirks says, see Dirks, 463 U.S. at 664 (benefit can be ‘a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend’).”  Petition at 13 (citation omitted).  The quote from Dirks does not support the view that a “mere fact of friendship” can satisfy the requirement —  the evidence of friendship must be accompanied by evidence that the transmittal of information was “a gift” to the tippee.  The difference between “mere facts of friendship” and evidence supporting a “gift” or “personal benefit” was critical to the Newman decision and, at least in this part of its discussion, the DOJ ignores it.

The DOJ argues in this section that the Newman court “nullifies” part of the Dirks  benefit test by “replacing it” “with a set of novel, confounding criteria for the type of ‘exchange’ that will now be required before an insider’s deliberate transmission of valuable inside information to a friend or relative could be punishable under the laws against insider trading.”  Petition at 14.  But the Newman opinion plainly does not “replace” the Dirks standard — it tries to explain how to apply the standard in the face of negligible evidence of either a “gift” or a “personal benefit.”  The Newman court’s statement that showing a benefit to the tipper requires a “meaningfully close personal relationship that generates an exchange that is objective, consequential, and represents at least a potential gain of a pecuniary or similarly valuable nature” is made in the context of no other evidence of a benefit to the tipper or an intent to “gift” the information to the tippee.  In that context, the language is perfectly consistent with the statements in Dirks that “there may be a relationship between the insider and the recipient that suggests a quid pro quo from the latter, or an intention to benefit the particular recipient,” and that the benefit requirement could be met by showing “a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend,” which would make the tip and trade “resemble trading by the insider himself followed by a gift of the profits.”

The DOJ petition does not address the key aspect of this portion of the Newman holding: that under Dirks, it was impermissible to allow a conviction for insider trading based on a “benefit” concept that is so broad and diffuse that it becomes no standard at all.  The court’s quoted language was an effort to make it clear that a real benefit must be shown, not just “the mere fact of friendship,” and that is plainly consistent with, and in furtherance of, the Dirks holding.  The DOJ’s brief paragraph on that issue essentially says nothing more than the DOJ’s view that it doesn’t think a broad and diffuse standard is a problem.  See Petition at 14-15No doubt that is so from the DOJ’s perspective, since the broader the standard, the more discretion the DOJ has to decide which conduct should be prosecuted and which should not.  But as a basis for imposing criminal sanctions — for imposing lengthy prison terms on purported violators — a broad standard that makes it difficult to determine what is lawful and what is not is no gift to society.

Second, the DOJ brief argues that the evidence against Newman and Chiasson was sufficient to show a true benefit to the respective tippers, as well as knowledge of that benefit by Newman and Chiasson.  This argues that the Second Circuit panel simply stated the evidence incorrectly by (i) failing to credit evidence showing benefits to the tippers, and (ii) failing to adopt a standard that allows a finding of knowledge of such benefits based on the mere fact that the information conveyed to the defendants by their subordinates was too accurate to have been obtained without giving a benefit to the original tipper.  See Petition at 15-22.  To begin, it seems highly unlikely that factual arguments that an undivided panel simply misread the record will be sufficient to induce the Second Circuit to grant en banc review.  But beyond this, the argument on knowledge seems particularly weak.  Although it appears to concede that proof of knowledge is, in fact, required (a concession not previously made in the district court or the court of appeals), it essentially asks that the Second Circuit rule that in this context the only evidence required to show such “knowledge” is that it is implausible that tippers give reliable tips without receiving some sort of benefit.  That is no more than a barely-veiled way to do away with the requirement altogether by conflating it with evidence that the tips were reliable (i.e., material).

Third, the DOJ makes a public policy argument that the Newman decision should not be permitted to stand because it uses a standard that would permit securities trading that would “threaten the integrity of the securities markets.”  See Petition at 22-25.  In the DOJ’s view, the Second Circuit should be deciding the breadth of section 10(b) by the DOJ’s (or the circuit court’s) view of what rule is most beneficial to the “securities markets.”  This is wrong in so many respects that it’s hard to know where to start.

First, it ignores the fact that the issue here involves two individuals’ criminal convictions.  Whether what they did was, or was not, criminal, should not be determined by what the DOJ or the courts may think is good or bad for the securities markets.  It must be determined by whether the statute in question bars the conduct proved, and does so with clarity, not what the DOJ or the courts think would be a desirable public policy to govern trading activity.

Second, the argument reflects a flawed core assumption by the DOJ about what section 10(b) is all about.  Strangely, in the entire DOJ brief, there is not a single discussion of the statute and why the panel decision misconstrues it.  The reason is clear: The Supreme Court has now held on multiple occasions that section 10(b) prohibits only fraudulent conduct in connection with securities trades.  It does not adopt any particular view about “fairness” of trading in the securities markets.  It certainly says nothing about whether securities markets are rendered “unfair” if some people trade with more information than others.  Indeed, as this blog previous made clear, section 10(b) was enacted at a time, and with an understanding, that it was not addressing the propriety of trading on nonpublic corporate information.  See The Myth of Insider Trading Enforcement (Part I).

Nevertheless, the DOJ argues that the panel decision should be rejected because it “significantly weakens protections against the abuse of inside information by market professionals with special access, and threatens to undermine enforcement efforts that are vital to fairness (and the perception thereof) in the securities markets.”  Petition at 23.  The short answer to this is that not all “abuses of inside information” are fraudulent, and therefore not all such “abuses” are prohibited by section 10(b).  See SEC Insider Trading Cases Continue To Ignore the Boundaries of the Law.  If the DOJ wants to criminalize all “abuses of inside information” — whatever that may mean — it should draft a statute doing so and get it enacted.  It should not ask the Second Circuit to define the boundaries of the law to achieve an end that the law never addresses.

Third, the DOJ argues (with no foundation) that somehow the issue of what is or is not a “personal benefit” to a tipper will impact “investor confidence”: “The consequences for investor confidence are plain: individuals will perceive that cozy relationships between  insiders and the most sophisticated traders allow exploitation of nonpublic information for personal gain.”  Petition at 24.  That argument makes the flawed assumption that is “plain” that “investors” are more interested in assuring that no one can “exploit” nonpublic information for personal gain than they are in assuring that to the extent possible, market prices for securities reflect the best available information, public or nonpublic.  The issue may be worthy of debate, but I seriously doubt that “investors” would prefer markets where better-informed people are barred from trading, with the result that securities are mispriced until information becomes “public.”  In any event, the securities laws contain no such requirement, and are founded instead on the paradigm of maximizing market efficiency, which is fundamentally different than the DOJ’s apparent concept of “fairness.”

Straight Arrow

January 26, 2015

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Stratte-McClure: 2d Circuit Creates Circuit Split on 10(b) Actions Founded on Alleged Item 303 Violations

The Second Circuit’s recent decision in Stratte-McClure v. Morgan Stanley, No. 13-0627-cv (Jan. 12, 2015) (2015 WL 13631) (slip opinion available hereStratte-McClure v. Morgan Stanley) (also referred to as Fjarde AP‐Fonden v. Morgan Stanley), stirs the pot on the important issue of private section 10(b) claims based on alleged violations of Item 303 of SEC Regulation S-K, 17 CFR § 229.303.  Claims founded on a purported failure to comply with Item 303 are problematic because Item 303 is the SEC’s effort to enhance disclosures of “soft information,” not historical facts, about a public company.  It requires that a company evaluate and discuss the future prospect that some developments or uncertainties could be important in future company performance.  Because such decisions (i) inevitably involve the exercise of management judgment the need for disclosure, and the nature and scope any such discussion, and (ii) are almost always subject to second-guessing in retrospect, when the future is revealed and the uncertainties become less uncertain, they present serious risks of converting private section 10(b) claims into a form of hindsight insurance against stock price declines.

The SEC at one time excluded forward-looking information from SEC filings, but about 40 years ago started to encourage companies to provide forward-looking information in SEC filings.  This eventually led to the development of mandatory disclosure requirements of “MD&A,” the short term for the Management Discussion and Analysis of Financial Condition and Results of Operations required by Item 303.

 Item 303 arose out of SEC concerns that investors were missing out on key elements of company information if they obtained only purely historical information.  Informed investment decision-making could be greatly improved if investors were able to get management insights into areas of company risk and uncertainty that had not yet been realized.  This type of non-historical, future-looking evaluation is often referred to as “soft information.”  The area of soft information disclosure is problematic because the SEC wants to encourage management to share such evaluative analysis, but to do so in a way that does not expand company and management exposure for not reading the future correctly.  Accordingly, along with developing rules encouraging such disclosure, the SEC, Congress, and the courts have taken steps to limit private securities claims based solely on allegedly inadequate forward-looking disclosures.

The SEC adopted so-called “safe harbor” rules (Rule 175 under the Securities Act of 1933 and Rule 3b-6 under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934), under which a forward-looking statement in a company’s MD&A disclosures could not be found fraudulent absent proof that it “was made or reaffirmed without a reasonable basis or was disclosed other than in good faith.”  In the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PSLRA), Congress enacted a more general safe harbor precluding liability in private actions for a forward-looking statement if: (i) it is identified as such and accompanied by “meaningful cautionary statements identifying important factors that could cause actual results to differ materially,” or (ii) immaterial, or (iii) the plaintiff fails to prove that the forward-looking statement was made “with actual knowledge . . . that the statement was false or misleading.”  15 U.S.C. § 78u-5(c). The first portion of this statutory safe harbor was effectively a legislative adoption of the judicially-created “bespeaks caution” doctrine under which a forward-looking statement accompanied by meaningful cautionary language was deemed immaterial as a matter of law.

Nevertheless, forward-looking statements that turn out to be inaccurate, or the failure to provide advance warning of a likely future impact of a current problem, has been a theory underlying private securities actions for decades.  Because this allows a backward-looking theory of fraud to be pursued after events occurring after the alleged misleading statements or omissions are accompanied by significant stock price impact, it is a powerful lure for the plaintiffs’ class action bar.

This theory can be especially powerful in the context of so-called “material omissions.”  In those cases, the plaintiff can seek damages supposedly arising out of a company’s failure to provide a prediction about the future – the failure to disclose the potential impact of facts or circumstances that later turn out to harm the company.  The most difficult hurdle in these cases is finding a “duty to disclose.”  The securities laws do not require the disclosure of all company information to investors, nor even all material company information.  Instead, public companies are required to disclose only the specified information mandated in SEC regulations, and to ensure that when they do disclose information, they do not at the same time withhold information without which the disclosed information becomes misleading.  In general, companies have no obligation to provide evaluations or predictions about possible future developments, so this “duty to disclose” requirement can be a major obstacle to a private securities action based on a failure to do so.

It is in this context that recent cases have considered the impact on private securities actions of Item 303 of Regulation S-K.  Two recent appellate cases adopt very different approaches to this issue: the Second Circuit’s decision in Stratte-McClure and the Ninth Circuit’s decision in In re NVIDIA Corp. Sec. Litig., 768 F.3d 1046 (9th Cir. 2014).  It is no exaggeration to say that billions of dollars of future litigation costs and liabilities may turn on which of these approaches ultimately prevails.

Item 303(a)(3)(ii) requires that as part of its annual (Form 10-K) and quarterly (Form 10-Q) MD&A disclosures, a company must:

Describe any known trends or uncertainties that have had or that the registrant reasonably expects will have a material favorable or unfavorable impact on net sales or revenues or income from continuing operations. If the registrant knows of events that will cause a material change in the relationship between costs and revenues (such as known future increases in costs of labor or materials or price increases or inventory adjustments), the change in the relationship shall be disclosed.

The SEC discussed this requirement further in an interpretive release:

Where a trend, demand, commitment, event or uncertainty is known, management must make two assessments:

(1) Is the known trend, demand, commitment, event or uncertainty likely to come to fruition? If management determines that it is not reasonably likely to occur, no disclosure is required.

(2) If management cannot make that determination, it must evaluate objectively the consequences of the known trend, demand, commitment, event or uncertainty, on the assumption that it will come to fruition. Disclosure is then required unless management determines that a material effect on the registrant’s financial condition or results of operations is not reasonably likely to occur.

Exchange Act Release No. 34–26831 (May 24, 1989).

NVIDIA and Stratte-McClure examine whether the failure to comply with this SEC disclosure requirement can form the basis for a private securities fraud action under section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5.  NVIDIA says “no”; Stratte-McClure says “yes.”

NVIDIA involved the company’s alleged failure to include in its Item 303 MD&A disclosures the potential financial impact of a defect in a chip incorporated into various manufacturers’ computers and other devices.  Although the existence of the defect was disclosed, the amounts to be paid under warranty obligations were allegedly known uncertainties, and the MD&A allegedly failed to include a required discussion of that prospect.  Stratte-McClure involved the alleged failure by Morgan Stanley to include in its MD&A a discussion of the potential future financial impact of long positions it held on collateralized debt obligations or credit default swaps at the time of the housing mortgage meltdown.

Let’s start with a key point on which both courts agree.  They both emphasize that information required to be disclosed under Item 303 may not satisfy one of the key elements of a section 10(b) claim: materiality.  That is because the SEC instructions make it clear that disclosures may be required “unless management determines that a material effect . . . is not reasonably likely to occur” (emphasis added).  As a result, disclosures of immaterial information are required if management cannot “determine” they are unlikely to have a future material impact.  Accordingly, plaintiffs will still have the burden of pleading facts showing a required disclosure was, in fact, material. See NVIDIA, 768 F.3d at 1055; Stratte-McClure, slip op. at 18-19.

Add to this another point of agreement: a section 10(b) claim requires proof that the defendants acted with scienter, which means that a claim can proceed only if the plaintiff pleads particular facts – under the PSLRA pleading standard, as further interpreted in Tellabs Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308, 322-23 (2007) – plausibly supporting that the defendants’ omission was intended to defraud shareholders.  That could be even more difficult than normal for these cases to the extent the safe harbor provisions mentioned above may apply.  Both NVIDIA and Stratte-McClure found the allegations of scienter in failing to make required Item 303 disclosures were deficient and supported dismissal of the claims.  See NVIDIA, 768 F.3d at 1056-65; Stratte-McClure, slip op. at 26-29.  In Stratte-McClure, the Second Circuit found the failure to plead scienter adequately was grounds to affirm the district court’s dismissal of claims, even while reversing the lower court’s ruling that Item 303 did not create a disclosure duty.  (Technically, that makes the panel decision on the “duty to disclose” issue dicta, which theoretically has diminished precedential value, but don’t count on it.)

The difference between the courts – a critical one – is that the NVIDIA court concluded that Item 303’s requirement that certain immaterial information must be disclosed prevents it from creating the “duty to disclose” necessary to support a fraud claim under section 10(b), while the Stratte-McClure court concluded that the “duty to disclose” and materiality elements should be disaggregated for this purpose.

The NVIDIA court relied heavily on reasoning in the Third Circuit decision Oran v. Stafford, 226 F.3d 275, 287–88 (3d Cir. 2000) (Alito, J.), which in turn relied heavily on the discussion of section 10(b) elements in the Supreme Court’s opinion in Basic, Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224, 238 (1988).  The NVIDIA wrote as follows:

[I]n Basic, the Supreme Court stated that materiality of forward-looking information depends “upon a balancing of both the indicated probability that the event will occur and the anticipated magnitude of the event in light of the totality of the company activity.” . . . As the court in Oran also determined, these two standards differ considerably.  226 F.3d at 288.  Management’s duty to disclose under Item 303 is much broader than what is required under the standard pronounced in Basic.  The SEC intimated this point as well: “[Item 303] mandates disclosure of specified forward-looking information, and specifies its own standard for disclosure—i.e., reasonably likely to have a material effect….  The probability/magnitude test for materiality approved by the Supreme Court in [Basic] is inapposite to Item 303 disclosure.”  Exchange Act Release No. 34-26831, 54 Fed. Reg. at 22430 n. 27.  The SEC’s effort to distinguish Basic’s materiality test from Item 303’s disclosure requirement provides further support for the position that Item 303 requires more than Basic—what must be disclosed under Item 303 is not necessarily required under the standard in Basic. Therefore, “[b]ecause the materiality standards for Rule 10b5 and [Item 303] differ significantly, the ‘demonstration of a violation of the disclosure requirements of Item 303 does not lead inevitably to the conclusion that such disclosure would be required under Rule 10b–5. Such a duty to disclose must be separately shown.’”  Oran, 226 F.3d at 288.

The Stratte-McClure court, on the other hand, saw no reason why a “duty to disclose” sufficient to make an omission potentially actionable must satisfy the Basic materiality requirement. Instead, it concluded the materiality standard should be applied separately, only after the determination whether there was a duty to disclose the omitted information.  Immaterial information could still satisfy the “duty to disclose” requirement, even if a plaintiff could not show it was material:

The Supreme Court has instructed that “[s]ilence, absent a duty to disclose, is not misleading under Rule 10b–5.”  Basic, 485 U.S. at 239 n. 17….  Such a duty may arise when there is “a corporate insider trad[ing] on confidential information,” a “statute or regulation requiring disclosure,” or a corporate statement that would otherwise be “inaccurate, incomplete, or misleading.”…

As Plaintiffs correctly argue, Item 303 of Regulation S–K imposes disclosure requirements on companies filing SEC-mandated reports, including quarterly Form 10–Q reports…. Those requirements include the obligation to “[d]escribe any known trends or uncertainties … that the registrant reasonably expects will have a material … unfavorable impact on … revenues or income from continuing operations.” …  The SEC has provided guidance on Item 303, clarifying that disclosure is necessary “where a trend, demand, commitment, event or uncertainty is both presently known to management and reasonably likely to have material effects on the registrant’s financial conditions or results of operations.” …

Item 303’s affirmative duty to disclose in Form 10–Qs can serve as the basis for a securities fraud claim under Section 10(b).  Rule 10b–5 requires disclosure of “material fact[s] necessary in order to make … statements made … not misleading.”  This Court and our sister circuits have long recognized that a duty to disclose under Section 10(b) can derive from statutes or regulations that obligate a party to speak….  And this conclusion stands to reason—for omitting an item required to be disclosed on a 10–Q can render that financial statement misleading….  Due to the obligatory nature of these regulations, a reasonable investor would interpret the absence of an Item 303 disclosure to imply the nonexistence of “known trends or uncertainties … that the registrant reasonably expects will have a material … unfavorable impact on ․ revenues or income from continuing operations.”…  It follows that Item 303 imposes the type of duty to speak that can, in appropriate cases, give rise to liability under Section 10(b).

The failure to make a required disclosure under Item 303, however, is not by itself sufficient to state a claim for securities fraud under Section 10(b)….  Since the Supreme Court’s interpretation of “material” in Rule 10b–5 dictates whether a private plaintiff has properly stated a claim, we conclude that a violation of Item 303’s disclosure requirements can only sustain a claim under Section 10(b) and Rule 10b–5 if the allegedly omitted information satisfies Basics test for materiality.  That is, a plaintiff must first allege that the defendant failed to comply with Item 303 in a 10–Q or other filing. Such a showing establishes that the defendant had a duty to disclose.  A plaintiff must then allege that the omitted information was material under Basic‘s probability/magnitude test….

Stratte-McClure, slip op. at 14-20 (citations and footnotes omitted).

The Stratte-McClure court noted the NVIDIA court’s disagreement, arguing that the NIVIDIA court conflated the “duty to disclose” and materiality requirements, and misapplied then-Judge (now Justice) Alito’s reasoning in Oran:

We note that our conclusion is at odds with the Ninth Circuit’s recent opinion in In re NVIDIA Corp. Securities Litigation….  That case held that Item 303’s disclosure duty is not actionable under Section 10(b) and Rule 10b–5, relying on a Third Circuit opinion by then-Judge Alito, Oran v. Stafford….  But Oran simply determined that, “[b]ecause the materiality standards for Rule 10b–5 and [Item 303] differ significantly,” a violation of Item 303 “does not automatically give rise to a material omission under Rule 10b–5” (emphasis added).…  Having already decided that the omissions in that case were not material under Basic, the Third Circuit concluded that Item 303 could not “provide a basis for liability.”… Contrary to the Ninth Circuit’s implication that Oran compels a conclusion that Item 303 violations are never actionable under 10b–5, Oran actually suggested, without deciding, that in certain instances a violation of Item 303 could give rise to a material 10b–5 omission. At a minimum, Oran is consistent with our decision that failure to comply with Item 303 in a Form 10–Q can give rise to liability under Rule 10b–5 so long as the omission is material under Basic, and the other elements of Rule 10b–5 have been established.

It is possible that the differences between these decisions reflect the proverbial “distinction without a difference.”  After all, the Stratte-McClure court requires that materiality be pleaded and proved in addition to a disclosure duty, which eventually may lead to the same result.  But “eventually” can be a big word.  The name of the game is these cases is surviving dismissal and getting into discovery.  Materiality is a notably hard element on which to get a claim dismissed.  Even scienter-based dismissals tend to be arduous litigated results with multiple amended complaints, and plaintiff’s counsel often manage to survive dismissal by presenting often dubious “confidential witness” allegations that prevent dismissal, even if they don’t stand up in discovery.  Dismissing these cases will be much easier if the “duty to disclose” is understood to mean “duty to disclose material information,” as the NVIDIA (and arguably Oran) court ruled.  That would require a disclosure duty in an omissions case to be founded in the substance of omitted material, and not just on a disclosure duty not founded in the importance to investors of the omitted information.  The practical effect of the two different rules could be enormous, since the issue is not which side will win at trial, or even summary judgment, but will the case survive to the point that a hefty settlement may be the preferred result for both sides.

It is important to remember, as the Supreme Court has done in past private actions under section 10(b), that the section 10(b) private right of action was judicially created, and for that reason is more amenable to judicial interpretation and refinement than statutory causes of action.  The Supreme Court has in the past, and likely will in the future, taken into account the policy implications of endorsing one approach or another in determining the precise parameters of the elements of private section 10(b) claims.  In doing this, the Court may also place some weight on obvious efforts by the SEC and Congress to limit exposure to private actions from the forward-looking disclosure requirements.  As a result, even if the Second Circuit’s disaggregation approach is arguably more sound from the standpoint of pure logic, the practical appeal of interpreting “duty to disclose” to include, at least implicitly, a materiality aspect could ultimately prevail.

Straight Arrow

January 19, 2015

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