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Posts Tagged ‘price inflation’

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 United States Supreme Court granted certiorari today in Amgen Inc. v. Connecticut Retirement Plans and Trust Funds, No. 11-1085, to address the requirements for certifying a securities class action based on the “fraud-on-the-market” theory of reliance.  The “fraud-on-the-market” theory involves allegations that public misrepresentations or omissions adversely affected the market price of a stock causing losses to an entire class of investors whether or not they individually relied on the information.  The theory can alleviate a common barrier to class certification, the need to prove individual reliance on alleged fraud.  As summarized by the folks at SCOTUS blog, the issues accepted for review are as follows:

(1) Whether, in a misrepresentation case under Securities and Exchange Commission Rule 10b-5, the district court must require proof of materiality before certifying a plaintiff class based on the fraud-on-the-market theory; and (2) whether, in such a case, the district court must allow the defendant to present evidence rebutting the applicability of the fraud-on-the-market theory before certifying a plaintiff class based on that theory. (Breyer, J., recused)

Amgen comes close on the heels of the Court’s decision last term in Erica P. John Fund Inc. v. Halliburton Co., in which a unanimous Court overturned a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the plaintiff in a securities class action brough under the fraud-on-the-market theory must prove loss causation at the class certification phase.  While the Court in Erica P. John Fund held that proof of the element of loss causation on the merits could not be required as a precondition of class certification, it was not presented with the question of what proof is needed at the class certification phase to support the application of the fraud-on-the-market doctrine itself.

The case will be heard in the October 2012 Supreme Court term.

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Instead of a trilogy of class action decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court this term, it looks like there will be a “quadrilogy“!

For the fourth time in the October 2010 Term, the Court has granted certiorari in a class action-related case.  Today, the Court granted cert in Erica P. John Fund, Inc. v. Halliburton Co., No. 09-1403.  The appeal raises issues regarding the burden of proof  for class certification in a securities fraud case when the plaintiff intends to prove causation and reliance based on a “fraud on the market” theory. 

According to SCOTUS Blog, the specific issues presented for review are:

(1) Whether the Fifth Circuit correctly held that plaintiffs in securities fraud actions must not only satisfy the requirements to trigger a rebuttable presumption of fraud on the market, but must also establish loss causation at class certification by a preponderance of admissible evidence without merits discovery; (2) whether the Fifth Circuit improperly considered the merits of the underlying litigation when it held that a plaintiff must establish loss causation to invoke the fraud-on-the-market presumption.

(See SCOTUS Blog case file for Case No. 09-1403).

Although Erica P. John Fund, Inc. is a securities case, the Court’s decision may have ramifications in other areas, including consumer class actions.  Class action plaintiffs often attempt to employ the “fraud on the market” theory of reliance in consumer fraud cases, with varying success.  (See these CAB entries dated April 27, 2009 and February 24, 2008).

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The Colorado Supreme Court issued one of its most significant class action decisions in recent years today in Farmers Ins. Exch. v. Benzing, No. 07SC483 (Colo., April 27, 2009), rejecting the so-called “fraud on the market” theory of reliance and loss causation in an insurance class action.  Justice Bender authored the decision on behalf of a unanimous court, with two justices not participating.  The key issues addressed in the opinion include:

1) the trial court had discretion to decertify a previously certified class, despite the court of appeals’ finding that the facts and arguments presented in connection with the  decertification motion could have been raised at the initial certification stage, as part of the court’s “continuing obligation to review whether proceeding as a class action is appropriate”, Benzing, slip op. at 19; and

2) the fraud-on-the-market theory of reliance and loss causation was not applicable in an insurance class action where there was no efficient market and where the information alleged to have been concealed was a matter of public record.  Benzing, slip op. at 23-31.

The Court declined to address an alternative theory, also borrowed from the securities context, that common reliance or injury could be established by presumption or inference in a case involving a material omission of fact, as articulated in Affiliated Ute Citizens of Utah v. United States, 406 U.S. 128, 153-54 (1972).  The court acknowledged a split of authority on whether the Affiliated Ute doctrine could be applied in consumer class actions, but declined to rule one way or another, stating that the issue been “insufficiently raised” before the trial court and court of appeals.  Benzing, slip op. at 32-33 & n.9.

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The Colorado Supreme Court held oral argument today in the case of Farmers Insurance Exchange v. Benzing, No. 07SC483.  Audio of the argument is now available at the Colorado Supreme Court’s website.  Among the issues in the case is whether the “fraud on the market” theory, and other presumptions of reliance recognized in securities cases, applied to permit the plaintiff in a consumer fraud case to attempt to prove causation of harm on a class-wide basis without having to prove that each class member suffered injury directly as a result of the alleged fraud. 

The appeal is from a trial court judge’s order decertifying an earlier class certification order authored by another judge.  The second judge had concluded that individualized issues of causation and reliance precluded certification of claims for fraud by omission, finding that whether a policyholder would have made the decision not to buy certain insurance coverage but for the alleged nondisclosures required a case-by-case determination.  The Court of Appeals had relied on the possibility that the plaintiffs might be able to prove liability on a “fraud on the market” theory in holding that the trial court had abused its discretion in decertifying the class.  Under the “fraud on the market” theory, a defendant can be held liable for securities fraud even if each individual shareholder did not rely on the misrepresentation or omission of fact if it can be proven that the fraud had the effect of depressing the overall value of the stock in an efficient market.

The issues for which the Petition for Certiorari was granted are summarized in this ClassActionBlawg entry.

Many of the questions focused on whether there were facts in the record to support the conclusion that proof of causation could be made by class-wide evidence without relying on the “fraud on the market” theory.  Other key questions focused on whether the trial court’s exercise of discretion to decertify the class could be upheld under an abuse of discretion standard even if other courts might have reached the opposite conclusion.  Two concepts not addressed in detail were the impact of the regulated nature of insurance premiums and the fact that premium rates are driven primarily by the actuarial risk assumed by insurers, not by pure market competition.  Both of these facts raise doubts about any assumption that more “fully informed” consumers might have been able to drive down the cost of premiums.

The “fraud on the market” and “price inflation” theories of loss causation appeared to be a growing trend in consumer class actions until earlier this year when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in the light cigarettes marketing case, McLaughlin v. Philip Morris USA, Inc. et al., No. 06-4666-cv (April 3, 2008).  In McLaughlin, the court held that these types of theories could not be used to justify certification of a consumer class because they were too attenuated and speculative.

Coincidentally, Securities Docket reports today that a method suggested by Michigan law professor Adam Pritchard for companies to avoid or reduce exposure for certain “fraud on the market” securities claims by amending a company’s bylaws has now been proposed by a shareholder of Alaska Air, Inc. to its Chairman and CEO.  That entry also has a link to the proposal itself.

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