Tag Archives: scienter and 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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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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