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Archive for the ‘Securities Class Actions’ Category

Price Waterhouse Coopers recently published an interesting study entitled Daubert challenges to financial experts, a yearly study of trends and outcomes, 2000–2015 (click the link to download a copy).

The study includes citations to recent opinions on the subject, along with practical insights from attorneys, including yours truly.  It concludes with a variety of useful statistics on the outcomes of Daubert challenges to financial experts, including the types of cases in which the change is made, the types of experts excluded, the jurisdictions in which exclusion rates are higher or lower, and the reasons for exclusion, among other things.  The study includes information on Daubert challenges in the class certification context that will no doubt prove useful in dealing with other types of experts as well as financial experts.  Be sure to check it out!

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The U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision earlier today in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., No. 13-317 (Halliburton II), its most highly-anticipated class-action-related decision of the October 2013 term.  Those who were hoping for a sea-change in securities class action jurisprudence were left disappointed, as the Court, in an opinion authored by Chief Justice Roberts, declined to overrule its 25-year-old decision in Basic Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224 (1988).  Rather than abolish the framework established in Basic, which provides a means for securities fraud plaintiffs to satisfy the elements of class certification through a class-wide presumption of reliance on material misrepresentations, the Court instead held that a defendant can rebut the presumption by demonstrating, at the class certification stage, that the alleged misrepresentations did not actually have any impact on the stock price.  In doing so, the Court reversed the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision barring the defendant from offering evidence of non-impact on stock price at the class certification stage.

The Court distinguished its earlier decision in the same case, Erica P. John Fund, Inc. v. Halliburton Co., 563 U.S. ___ (2011) (Halliburton I), in which it held that a plaintiff should not be required to prove materiality of the alleged misrepresentation at the class certification stage.  The distinction between the issue of materiality of a misrepresentation (a merits issue not appropriate for the class certification phase according to Halliburton I), and the issue of whether a misrepresentation actually had a common price impact on the stock (a proper class certification question according to Halliburton II) is the key to making sense of the Court’s decision today.  As Justice Roberts stated:

[P]rice impact differs from materiality in a crucial respect. Given that the other Basic prerequisites must still be proved at the class certification stage, the common issue of materiality can be left to the merits stage without risking the certification of classes in which individual issues will end up overwhelming common ones. And because materiality is a discrete issue that can be resolved in isolation from the other prerequisites, it can be wholly confined to the merits stage.

Price impact is different. The fact that a misrepresentation “was reflected in the market price at the time of [the]transaction”—that it had price impact—is “Basic’s fundamental premise.” Halliburton I, 563 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 7). It thus has everything to do with the issue of predominance at the class certification stage. That is why, if reliance is to be shown through the Basic presumption,the publicity and market efficiency prerequisites must be proved before class certification. Without proof of those prerequisites, the fraud-on-the-market theory underlying the presumption completely collapses, rendering class certification inappropriate.

Halliburton II, slip op., at 21-22.  In other words, a merits question that is indisputedly common to the class should not be considered prior to class certification, but a merits question that also bears on whether the issues to be resolved at trial are truly common or individualized in the first place must be considered as part of the class certification decision.

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The Supreme Court granted certiorari earlier this week in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, 13-317, a second trip to the high Court for the same case.  At issue is whether the Court should overrule holding of Basic Inc. v. Levinson, which recognized the “fraud-on-the-market” theory of class wide reliance in securities fraud cases.  The Court foreshadowed its willingness to consider this issue last term when it decided Amgen Inc. v. Connecticut Retirement Plans and Trust Funds, 132 S. Ct. 2742 (2012).  Both Amgen and the Court’s earlier decision in  Erica P. John Fund v. Halliburton Co., 131 S. Ct. 2179 (2011) were victories for plaintiffs, with the Court holding in both cases that plaintiffs were not required to prove questions on the merits as a prerequisite to class certification.  However, in Amgen, Justice Alito’s concurrence as well as dissenting opinions by Justices Scalia and Thomas (joined by Justice Kennedy) all raised questions about the continued viability of the Basic decision.

At the risk of oversimplification, the “fraud-on-the market” theory is that a material misrepresentation made in connection with the sale of a publicly traded security can have an effect on the entire market, so that investors may be harmed (or benefitted) by the misrepresentation even if they did not directly rely on it, because enough investors in the market did rely on it to the point where the price was affected.  A decision by the Court that this presumption is no longer viable could seriously limit or eliminate securities fraud class actions, because without the “fraud-on-the-market” presumption, a required element of a securities fraud claim, reliance, becomes an individualized question of fact.  As a result, Halliburton becomes the first case on the Court’s 2013-14 docket that has a potential for a truly significant impact on class actions.

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The Supreme Court has issued its opinion in one of the most highly anticipated class action-related cases on the docket this term.  The result in Amgen Inc. v. Connecticut Retirement Plans and Trust Funds, No. 11-1085, slip op. (U.S., Feb. 27, 2013) is not surprising given the content and tone of the questioning at oral argument.  In an 6-3 opinion authored by Justice Ginsberg, the Court held that the plaintiff in a securities fraud case based on a fraud-on-the-market theory of reliance does not have to prove materiality of the fraudulent statement or omission at the class certification stage.  Because materiality is a common question capable of resolution simultaneously for the entire class, the majority reasoned, it does not have to be proven at the class certification stage.  Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy dissented.

Amgen is an important decision in the securities fraud context because it addresses the lingering question of whether any special prerequisites exist in certifying a securities fraud class action that aren’t required in certifying other types of class actions.  Like the Supreme Court’s earlier decision in Erica P. John Fund v. Halliburton Co., 131 S. Ct. 2179 (2011), Amgen will probably have an impact beyond the securities fraud context.  In the context of class certification decisions more broadly, the opinion will be almost certainly be cited as clarifying the distinction between issues impacting the elements of class certification, which must be resolved at the class certification phase, and merits issues, which can wait until trial to be resolved.

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A few weeks ago, I posted a link to a Cornerstone Research report concluding that securities class action settlements were at a 10-year low.  Yesterday, securities litigators Daniel Tyukody and Gerald Silk posted an article in the New York Times DealBook blog entitled Understanding the Dip in Class-Action Securities Settlements with some insights explaining the downturn.  Among the explanations are lower starting inventory, the added size and complexity of credit crisis-related lawsuits, increased legislative and judicial scrutiny over securities class actions, and a decline of financial restatements by companies.  The article is a must read for anyone interested in understanding US securities class action trends.

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Cornerstone Research has published a new study on trends in securities class action settlements concluding that the total number of securities class action settlements, the total amount of settlement dollars, and the average settlement value, fell to their lowest levels in 10 years in 2011.  Michael J. de la Merced of the New York Times authored this article summarizing the study’s key findings and analyzing the potential causes of the decrease.

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The Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision last week that confirms that there are still situations where primarily foreign securities fraud disputes may be litigated as class actions in the United States courts.  The decision explores the contours of the US Supreme Court’s holding in Morrison v. National Australia Bank Ltd., 130 S. Ct. 2869 (2010) that § 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 does not have an extraterritorial reach.  Here’s a link to the opinion, courtesy of the New York Law Journal: Absolute Activist Value Master Fund Ltd. v. Ficeto, No. 11-0221-cv (2d Cir., March 1, 2012).

Morrison recognized two situations in which a securities fraud claim would be sufficiently domestic in nature to be governed by § 10(b) and SEC Rule 10b-5.  The first, not at issue in Absolute Activist, is where the security is traded on a US exchange.  Absolute Activist addresses the second situation, which involves “domestic transactions in other securities.”  The Second Circuit’s test for whether transactions are domestic is whether “irrevocable liability is incurred or title passes within the United States.”  In simpler terms, if the parties become bound to effectuate the transaction in the United States, the transaction is a domestic one, but the transaction could also be domestic if title to the securities passes within in the United States, even if the parties became bound elsewhere.  In reaching this conclusion, the panel rejected several other tests proposed by the parties, including tests proposed by the plaintiff that would have looked to the location of the broker-dealer or to whether the security was issued by a US company or was registered with the SEC, and tests proposed by defendants that would look to the place of residence of both the buyer and seller in the transaction or to whether a given defendant committed some affirmative act within the United States.

Unfortunately, given the fact-intensive nature of the test articulated by the Second Circuit panel, the decision leaves open the question of what specific facts might be sufficient to establish that irrevocable liability was incurred or title transferred within the United States.  The panel held that the facts in the complaint were not sufficient to meet either requirement, but remanded with instructions to allow leave to amend.  However, the opinion does offer some insight into what might be sufficient.  In concluding that leave to amend would not be futile, the court held pointed to representations made by counsel at oral argument that there existed “trading records, private placement offering memoranda, and other documents indicating that the purchases became irrevocable upon payment and that payment was made through Hunter in the United States.”

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Kevin LaCroix, whose blog The D&O Diary is a premier source for the latest trends in securities-related class action litigation, has an excellent post out today discussing two key developments in an area that is very close to my heart, international class action litigation.  The first part of LaCroix’s post discusses a recent publication from Asia-based International law firm King & Wood Mallesons discussing class action filings in Australia.  According to the report, there are currently only about 14 class action filings filed on average in the Australian federal court, a number that represents less than 1% of all federal filings in that country (this figure does not include filings in the courts of individual states; both Victoria and New South Wales also have civil procedure rules similar to the federal rules).

The second part of the post addresses the potential implications of the recent enactment of a class action law in Mexico.  LaCroix summarizes a recent Jones Day publication on the subject, then adds his own commentary.  In particular, he makes an observation similar to one that international plaintiffs’ class action lawyers Michael Hausfeld and Brian Ratner make in the forthcoming book World Class Actions: that one of the potential implications of the US Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Morrison v. National Australia Bank, which limited f-cubed securities class actions in the United States, may be an increase in litigation in foreign jurisdictions that allow for securities class actions or some other form of collective redress.

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Just when we were starting to think that 2011 might mark the end of the great American class action…

Today, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision reversing a denial of class certification in the securities class action Erica P. John Fund, Inc. v. Halliburton Co., No. 09-1403, slip op (June 6, 2011).  In the opinion, authored by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court held that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals had erred by requiring a securities fraud plaintiff proceeding under a “fraud on the market” theory to prove loss causation as a prerequisite to class certification. 

The decision does not necessarily mean that class certification will be granted, however.  It just means that the denial of class certification cannot rest on the conclusion that the plaintiff failed to prove loss causation at that stage.  The case will be remanded to the Fifth Circuit, which may consider any other arguments against class certification to the extent that they have been preserved by the defendant.  See Slip Op. at 9.

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The United States Supreme Court heard oral argument today in the case of Erica P. John Fund, Inc. v. Halliburton Co., No. 09-1403.  A transcript of the argument is now available on the Court’s website. 

Erica P. John Fund involves the appropriate standard for assessing class certification in securities fraud cases brought under the “fraud on the market theory.”  Much of the argument was focused on whether the lower courts properly applied existing precedent in determining whether common issues predominated and whether the district court improperly considered the merits of the plaintiffs’ claim by requiring proof of loss causation at the class certification stage.  Many of these issues are unique to the securities fraud context.  The “fraud on the market” theory has been rejected in other contexts.  (See, e.g. CAB entry dated April 27, 2009.)  However, one seemingly off-the-wall hypothetical from Justice Breyer helps to illustrate what creates a common rather than an individualized question when evaluating either a securities fraud claim or another other fraud, misrepresentation, or nondisclosure claim: 

JUSTICE BREYER: Does your rule apply in all fraud cases? That is, a thousand farmers say, Mr. Jackson was our common buying agent, and the defendant lied to Mr. Jackson, and he relied on the lie.  It is a common issue whether he relied on the lie or he didn’t rely on the lie. I can understand somebody saying at the certification stage they have to see whether he’s really a common agent. But let’s imagine that’s assumed. The only question left is, did he rely or not rely?

Is that a question for the merits or is that a question for the common — for the —

MR. STERLING: Basic is really an exception that applies only –

JUSTICE BREYER: So you’re saying in the case that I just gave you reliance is for the merits?

MR. STERLING: Correct, Your Honor.

JUSTICE BREYER: Whether he really relied or didn’t rely, the common agent is for the merits?

MR. STERLING: But you couldn’t have

JUSTICE BREYER: Is that — is that your answer is?

MR. STERLING: No, Your Honor. You couldn’t have a case in that situation because reliance is an individual issue.

JUSTICE BREYER: No. A thousand people say Mr. Jackson is our common buying agent, and the defendant lied to this common buying agent, and he represented us. Relied on that. I’m asking if you that issue of reliance in an appropriate case is for the certification stage?

MR. STERLING: Yes, Your Honor, because

JUSTICE BREYER: Yes.

MR. STERLING: — you still have everybody having to say Mr. Jackson is my agent. That’s

JUSTICE BREYER: And they also have to prove there is a lie?

MR. STERLING: Right. And that’s a — but the individualized question of reliance is simply, is Mr. Jackson your agent or not? Because of that there is no common issue that — that predominates on reliance.

JUSTICE BREYER: Okay.

Slip op. at 44-45.

Setting aside the possibility of an individual question relating to the agency relationship, Justice Breyer’s hypothetical gets to the heart of what could make a fraud claim susceptible to class treatment.  First, although fraud requires reliance, in many contexts, it does not usually require reliance by the plaintiff.  In Justice Breyer’s hypothetical, a single party meets the reliance requirement for the entire class.  In other words, a false statement was made, and there was reliance because Mr. Jackson believed and acted upon it.  There could also be common causation of injury if, due to his reliance on the lie, Mr. Jackson paid $1 per thousand seed when he could have paid $.99 for seed with the same attributes somewhere else. 

The agency issue could very well be an individual issue, as Mr. Sterling surmised, but there really aren’t enough facts in the hypothetical to know this for sure.  For example, there could be a single document that all of the farmers signed, to which there is no dispute about authenticity, and which designates Mr. Jackson as the agent for all.  (Nor does Mr. Sterling’s answer probably help the defendant in a securities fraud case, since the “Mr. Jackson” in a “fraud on the market” claim is the market itself.  If it is an efficient market, so the theory goes, it sets the price that everyone pays regardless of their individual assent.)

The problem with the hypothetical, therefore, is not that it fails to describe the type of fraud claim that might be appropriate for class treatment but instead that it does not describe most real-life fraud cases that are brought as class actions.

In most fraud claims, however, neither the question of reliance nor the question of loss causation is a common question.  In most cases, the reliance that would have to be proved for any class member to prevail would be the class member’s own reliance.  Unless the case involves a situation in which no reasonable person would take any action other than the one that the plaintiff claims could have been taken for class members to avoid injury, reliance is probably not a common question.  Moreover, the existence of a common injury is not necessarily a common question in most cases because the existence of some better alternative often can only be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.  

For example, take away the common agent and change the hypothetical as follows, and the common issues go away: A seed salesman sells corn seed to 1000 farmers for $1 per thousand, and falsely claims, uniformly to each of the farmers, that the seeds grow ears of white-colored corn, but truthfully claims that the corn will be drought-tolerant and delicious.  In fact, they the seeds grow ears of slightly yellowish corn.  

Though the fraudulent statement was uniform, the lack of a common agent to rely on it injects problems with reliance and causation that should prevent this claim from being tried (fairly anyway) on a class-wide basis.  Proof of reliance will require that the color of the corn was an important attribute to each farmer, and that he would not have purchased the seeds if they had been advertised as being off-white.  Many farmers may not care what color the corn is, as long as it is drought-tolerant and delicious, and the only way to resolve the reliance question for sure is to adjudicate each farmer’s claim individually.  Proof of causation will require, in addition, that a given farmer had an alternative source of white corn available.  If not, and the farmer would have been compelled to buy the supplier’s seeds regardless of the color, then the false statement, even it if was relied upon, caused no injury.  Note that even in the hypothetical that includes a common agent, causation of injury may not be common because there may be farmers on whose behalf the agent would have been forced to buy the supplier’s seeds regardless of the false statement about color.  These same issues come up any time there was not one obvious course of action and palatable alternative that all members of a would-be class would take if the true facts had been revealed.

So, Justice Bryer’s hypothetical may illustrate the type of fraud claim that would be appropriate for a class action, the unique facts in the example can also serve to illustrate why many fraud claims should not be certified as class actions.

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