By Doug Greene, Genevieve York-Erwin and Michael Tomasulo

I. Introduction

Small, development stage biotech companies are widely considered to be attractive targets for securities actions given the inherent risks of the industry and the volatility of their stock prices.  As a result, many of these companies have relatively limited D&O insurance options.  But are the assumptions that act to limit their options correct?  Do biotech startups actually pose greater securities class action risk than other companies?

As described below, we surveyed all biotech securities class actions in the past decade to better understand how they have fared in the federal courts, and found that they were actually more likely than other types of cases to be dismissed early in the litigation, saving defendants (and insurers) from the bulk of potential legal costs.  This turns the conventional wisdom on its head and suggests a number of important insights that can help biotech companies avoid and successfully defend against securities suits, and help insurers make better coverage decisions regarding these companies.

In short, biotech cases are manageable risks if they are defended correctly, especially if biotech management takes proactive steps to manage its disclosures in a way that will further limit its risks.  Below, we describe the study we undertook and its results, in light of which we then identify four of the biggest myths surrounding biotech securities cases and explain why each is unfounded.  Finally, we describe and analyze the real driving forces behind these decisions, and we explain how biotech companies, their attorneys, and insurers can use these insights to greatest advantage.

II. Study Methodology and Results

We searched for and reviewed all of the district court decisions on motions to dismiss biotech securities cases within the past eleven years in order to identify the subset of cases that concern development-stage biotech companies’ efforts to bring their first drug or device to market.[i]  Only decisions that met all of the following criteria were included in our study set: final district court decisions[ii] on motions to dismiss federal securities claims where the biotech company did not already have a drug or device on the market and its alleged false or misleading statements concerned clinical trials or the FDA approval process for its primary drug or device candidate.[iii]

Of the 61 decisions in our study set that met these criteria, 69% resulted in complete dismissals.  Moreover, the dismissal rate appears to have increased in recent years: 78% of the decisions in the study set from 2012-2016 resulted in complete dismissals, compared with only 56% of decisions from 2005-2011.  Interestingly, this shift seems to have occurred even as more securities class actions were being filed against small biotech companies: 36 decisions in the study set came from the most recent five years, versus only 25 decisions from the previous seven years.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, this analysis indicates that federal securities claims brought against biotech companies regarding the regulatory approval process actually are dismissed more frequently than average at an early stage in the litigation.[iv]

III. Four Myths about Biotech Securities Cases

These findings overturn several important assumptions that currently guide biotech management and are baked into the insurance market for young biotech companies:

Myth #1: Cases against biotech companies for failed clinical trials or products that are not approved by the FDA are risky and expensive.          

FACT: Our analysis shows that about two-thirds of these cases are dismissed in full, and with self-insured retentions that average a million dollars or more most such cases will not even exhaust the company’s retention.  A well-managed motion to dismiss process for a young biotech should cost no more than $500,000 – $750,000, and often far less, and is highly likely to result in a favorable early outcome for defendants in these actions.

Myth #2: Management puts the company at risk if it speaks too positively regarding its expectations of clinical trial results, FDA approval, or product commercialization.

FACT: As discussed in more detail below, statements of opinion will be protected under Omnicare,[v] so long as they are genuinely held and not misleading when considered in their full context.  Optimistic forward-looking statements will also generally be protected by the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act’s (“Reform Act”) safe harbor for forward-looking statements, provided they are accompanied by sufficiently specific cautionary language.[vi] Courts recognize the inherent uncertainty in the FDA approval process and understand that predictions sometimes will prove wrong; the important thing is for companies to make a meaningful effort to help investors understand these risks.  Effective legal counsel can help companies manage their disclosures in a way that allows for optimistic statements while protecting against future litigation.

Myth #3: Once negative results become public, any positive spin given by management will be viewed as misleading.

FACT: Even in the face of bad news, positive statements of opinion will not be viewed as false or misleading if they are honestly held and are made within the proper context, especially where the company accurately discloses the underlying facts.  Courts do not require companies to be pessimistic in assessing arguably negative results; they merely require that companies be honest in their statements and forthcoming with the relevant underlying facts.  See, e.g., Sarafin v. BioMimetic Therapeutics, Inc., 2013 WL 139521, at *13-14 (M.D. Tenn. Jan. 10, 2013) (dismissing where defendant characterized clinical trial results positively even though FDA had expressed concerns and contemporaneous news reports described the results as disappointing).

Myth #4: Cases will not get dismissed if the company raises capital or insiders sell stock during the class period.

FACT: These facts may contribute to an inference of scienter in some circumstances, but they are not determinative.  Far more important is the overall story, and whether the alleged motivation to commit fraud makes sense in the context of this larger narrative.  When courts are convinced that the defendants were trying their best for the company and were honest and forthright in their public statements, they tend not to be concerned about capital raising or insider sales during the class period.  See, e.g., Brennan v. Zafgen, Inc., 2016 WL 4203413, at *2 (D. Mass. Aug. 9, 2016) (“[T]he complaint’s circumstantial allegations concerning scienter—a patchwork of scientific literature and unsuspicious insider sales—are insufficient to support a strong inference of defendants’ conscious intent to defraud or high degree of recklessness.” (internal quotation marks omitted)); In re MELA Sciences, Inc. Sec. Lit., 2012 WL 4466604, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 19, 2012) (“To the extent the [proposed amended complaint] relies on MELA’s capital raised during the Class Period, the court finds this inadequate to support an allegation of intent to commit fraud.”).  But see Gargiulo v. Isolagen, Inc., 527 F. Supp. 2d 384, 390 (E.D. Pa. 2007) (scienter was sufficiently pleaded based on several factors, including that defendants allegedly sold their respective securities at the time for “considerable gain”).

IV. Case Trends and Practice Tips

Careful review of the decisions in the study set not only upends the myths described above, but also reveals important insights into how courts actually decide these cases and what companies and legal counsel can do to head off and defend against these suits.

A. Decisions are often driven by the court’s overall feeling about whether or not the company was being forthright and dealing honestly.

District court judges, like anyone else, are influenced by their overall impressions of the parties and the facts, even at the earliest stages in litigation.  Motions to dismiss frequently turn on how the court chooses to characterize the pleadings, which leaves significant room for outcome-driven analysis.  This may seem obvious, but has important practice implications, as discussed below.

Decisions in our study set—both those that dismissed and those that did not—showed again and again that in applying the pleading standard and securities laws to young biotech companies, judges appeared to be swayed by their overall sense of whether or not company management had honestly been doing its best to bring a product to market and inform investors of significant developments in a timely manner.  Where courts saw little indication of good faith, they rarely dismissed.  As one court put it:

“[N]otwithstanding the defendants’ contentions to the contrary, their allegedly misleading statements bear no hallmarks of good faith error.  The defendants are sophisticated scientists running a regulated, publicly traded corporation; they are alleged to have misrepresented their regulator’s feedback, misrepresented the legal context in which they operated, heralded scientific results which they knew to be the product of empirically faulty procedures and manipulated statistical analysis, and claimed a level of external review that simply did not exist.  If the defendants have good faith explanations for these misstatements…they do not emerge from the complaint.”

Frater v. Hemispherx Bipharma, Inc., et al., 996 F. Supp.2d 335, 350 (E.D. Pa. 2014).  See also, e.g., KB Partners I, L.P. v. Pain Therapeutics, Inc., 2015 WL 7760201, at *1 (W.D. Tex. Dec. 1, 2015) (refusing to dismiss where complaint plausibly alleged defendants intentionally concealed the nature and extent of problems with their drug candidate after its first NDA was rejected, and did so while lining their own pockets with “unjustifiable compensation packages”).

But when defendants presented a credible narrative evidencing good-faith, courts seemed inclined to run with it, absent specific, compelling allegations to the contrary.  See In re Axonyx Sec. Lit., 2009 WL 812244, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2009) (dismissing and noting that “[t]he idea that this company, highly dependent on the success of the new drug, would knowingly or recklessly carry on a defective trial—so that any defects were not remedied—virtually defies reason, unless the company was bent on defrauding the FDA and the suffering people who might use the drug.  Nothing of that sort is even suggested in the complaint.”); see also, e.g., Kovtun v. VIVUS, Inc., 2012 WL 4477647, at *3, 10 (N.D. Cal. Sep. 27, 2012) (dismissal appears partly influenced by fact that drug was ultimately approved after the class period, making alleged intentional misrepresentations re approvability improbable).

This seeming inclination to dismiss when presented with a convincing defense narrative appears to reflect two underlying beliefs that favor biotech defendants and may help drive the high dismissal rate in these cases: (1) that the research and development of new drugs and medical devices constitutes an important public good, and (2) that investment in development-stage companies, which have no existing revenue stream, is inherently particularly risky.  As courts explicitly have noted:

“There is a significant public interest in the development of life-saving drugs.  For every drug that succeeds, others do not.  Clinical trials are phased into stages: some drugs never make it past the first stage, others never make it past the second stage, and so on.  The costs of failure are high, but the rewards for success are also high.  The relationship and ratio between the two determines whether, as a matter of economics, the costs of experimentation are worth it.  Publicly traded pharmaceutical companies have the same obligations as other publicly traded companies to comply with the securities laws, but they take on no special obligations by virtue of their commercial sector.  It would indeed be unjust—and could lead to unfortunate consequences beyond a single lawsuit—if the securities laws become a tool to second guess how clinical trials are designed and managed.  The law prevents such a result; the Court applies that law here, and thus dismisses these actions.”  In re Keryx Biopharmas., Inc., Sec. Lit., 2014 WL 585658, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. 2014).

“Ultimately, investments in experimental drugs are inherently speculative.  Investors cannot, after failing in this risky endeavor, hedge their investment by initiating litigation attacking perfectly reasonable-if overly optimistic statements proved wrong only in hindsight.”  In re Vical Inc. Sec. Lit., 2015 WL 1013827, at *8 (S.D. Cal. Mar. 9, 2015).

“[I]nvesting in a start-up pharmaceutical company like Adolor involves a certain amount of risk on the part of investors.   No matter how safe that risk may seem at the time, there are no guarantees, and Defendants never suggested otherwise.  The fact that Plaintiffs now suffer from buyer’s remorse does not entitle them to relief under Rule 10b-5.” In re Adolor Corp. Sec. Lit., 616 F. Supp. 2d 551, 570 (E.D. Pa. 2009).

Against this backdrop, biotech defendants are well-positioned to secure early dismissals if they simply tell their stories and frame the facts in a manner that demonstrates their good faith.  On the front end, this means companies will benefit from getting legal counseling on their disclosures, so that if trouble arises the disclosures will show a pattern of being honest and forthright and avoid indications of fraud in the context of the company’s particular situation (i.e., the state of its communications with the FDA, financing, stock sales, etc.).

Once biotech defendants have been sued, however, they should focus on selecting counsel who will tell their overall story in a way that emphasizes their honestly and does not just focus on a technical defense.  Too many defense attorneys feel constrained to make narrow, technical arguments at the motion to dismiss stage—when plaintiff’s factual pleadings are to be taken as true—rather than mounting a normative defense of their clients’ conduct.  As the decisions (and results) in our study set show, this is a missed opportunity.  The decision in Omnicare expressly allows and even encourages defendants to tell their versions of the story by declaring that whether a statement of opinion (or, by clear implication, a statement of fact) was misleading “always depends on context.” 135 S. Ct. at 1330.  Under this standard, courts are required to consider not only the challenged statements and the immediate contexts in which they were made, but also other statements made by the company and other publicly available information, including the customs and practices of the industry.

Evaluating challenged statements in this broader context nearly always benefits defendants, since it helps courts better understand the statements and makes them seem fairer than they might on their own.  Moreover, in combination with the Supreme Court’s directive in Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308 (2007), to assess scienter based on not only the complaint’s allegations but also documents on which it relies or that are subject to judicial notice, Omnicare now clearly requires courts to consider a broad set of probative facts each time they decide a motion to dismiss federal securities claims.  Effective defense counsel will take advantage of this mandate and continue to use the motion to dismiss to tell their client’s story in a way that frames the facts and issues favorably and helps the court feel comfortable dismissing the suit.

B. Statements of opinion and forward-looking statements are generally safe, even more so after Omnicare.

The sorts of forward-looking statements of opinion that biotech companies often most want to make about their flagship products are not actually likely to get them into trouble, so long as the statements are honestly believed and are accompanied by disclosures that acknowledge specific, relevant uncertainties.

1. Claims challenging statements of opinion—including optimistic predictions—are likely to be dismissed under the Omnicare

Even before the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Omnicare, courts tended to find statements of opinion to be non-actionable on a variety of different theories (e.g., puffery, lack of falseness, immateriality, etc.).  After all, “[p]unishing a corporation and its officers for expressing incorrect opinions does not comport with Rule 10b-5’s goals.”  In re Vical Inc. Secs. Lit., 2015 WL 1013827, at *8 (S.D. Cal. Mar. 9, 2015).  So, for example, the court in Shah v. GenVec, Inc., 2013 WL 5348133 (D. Md. Sep. 20, 2013), found the defendants’ positive characterizations of interim data to be immaterial “puffery” and, therefore, non-actionable:

“Plaintiffs properly characterize their challenge as Defendants placing ‘an unjustifiably positive spin on the data available at the time of the [first interim analysis] by using terms like “encouraging” and “bullish[.]”’ Such vague and general statements of optimism constitute no more than puffery and are understood by reasonable investors as such.  Accordingly, they are immaterial and not actionable under § 10(b).”

Id. at *15 (internal citations omitted).  See also, e.g., Kovtun v. VIVUS, Inc., 2012 WL 4477647, at *11 (N.D. Cal. Sep. 27, 2012) (“[S]tatements referring to [the drug candidate’s] ’excellent’ or ‘compelling’ risk/benefit profile, or statements to the effect that the trials had shown ‘remarkable’ safety and efficacy, . . . are simply vague assertions of corporate optimism and therefore are not actionable . . . .”); In re MELA Sciences, Inc. Sec. Lit., 2012 WL 4466604, at *13 (S.D.N.Y. Sep. 19, 2012) (characterizing positive statements about clinical results as opinions and dismissing because “Plaintiffs cannot premise a fraud claim upon a mere disagreement with how defendants chose to interpret the results of the clinical trial.”).

The decision in Omnicare, however, as discussed above, established a clear, unified, and even more defendant-friendly standard for assessing statements of opinion in securities cases: an opinion is only false if the speaker does not believe it, and it is only misleading if it omits facts that make it misleading when viewed in its full, broadly understood context.  See id. at 1328-30.  Thus, a company’s statements of opinion—including optimistic projections about clinical results or FDA approval—are not actionable as long as the company actually believed them at the time and they were not misleading in their full context.  For example, applying this standard in Gillis v. QRX Pharma Ltd., 2016 WL 3685095 (S.D.N.Y. July 6, 2016), the court concluded that the defendants’ optimistic statements that it was “encouraged” by FDA feedback and was “confident that [its drug candidate would] receive approval” were opinions, and plaintiffs had failed sufficiently to allege that defendants did not believe them or that they were misleading in context.  Id. at *21-23.  See also, e.g., Corban v. Sarepta, 2015 WL 1505693, at *8 (D. Mass. Sep. 30, 2015) (“[T]he company’s statements that it was encouraged by the feedback and believed its data would be sufficient for a filing constituted an expression of opinion,” which the court found not to be actionable).

Both the district court (before Omnicare) and the Second Circuit (after Omnicare) came to the same conclusion regarding the optimistic predictions at issue in In re Sanofi Securities Litigation.[vii] There, plaintiffs alleged that the defendants’ optimistic statements concerning a drug candidate’s likelihood of approval and its clinical results were misleading where they failed to disclose that the FDA repeatedly had expressed concerns about the company’s use of single-blind studies.  In re Sanofi Sec. Litig., 87 F. Supp. 3d 510, 517 (S.D.N.Y. 2015).  Applying the Second Circuit’s pre-Omnicare standard, the district court concluded that the challenged statements all were statements of opinion, and dismissed because plaintiffs had not established either that the opinions were not honestly held or that they were “objectively false.”  Id. at 531-33.  The Second Circuit affirmed, but took the opportunity to apply the Supreme Court’s then-recent Omnicare standard to the facts at hand, emphasizing in particular the larger context in which the challenged statements were made:

“Plaintiffs are sophisticated investors, no doubt aware that projections provided by issuers are synthesized from a wide variety of information, and that some of the underlying facts may be in tension with the ultimate projection set forth by the issuer. . . . These sophisticated investors, well accustomed to the “customs and practices of the relevant industry,” would fully expect that Defendants and the FDA were engaged in a dialogue, as they were here, about the sufficiency of various aspects of the clinical trials and that inherent in the nature of a dialogue are differing views.”

Tongue v. Sanofi, 816 F.3d 199, 211 (2d Cir. 2016).  As previously discussed, this highly-contextual analysis favors defendants, and makes it even more likely that claims challenging defendants’ statements of opinion—including optimistic predictions concerning FDA approval or interpretations of clinical results—will be dismissed, provided the defendants genuinely held those opinions.

Of course, even statements of opinion can be false if they’re not genuinely believed; making an optimistic projection about FDA approval when a company has specific reason to believe the drug will not in fact be approved is likely to get it into trouble.  So, for example, in In re Pozen Sec. Lit., 386 F. Supp. 2d 641 (M.D. N. Car. 2005), the court refused to dismiss claims regarding optimistic statements by the defendant touting its drug candidates’ effectiveness and implying their approvability, where the company knew at the time that it was applying a statistical analysis different from what it had agreed to with the FDA and knew that the drugs had failed in part to meet a critical clinical measure it had specifically agreed upon with the FDA ahead of time.  Id. at 646-47.  The court noted that the defendants might well have had other reasons to believe their own expressions of optimism at the time—which would make these statements of opinion not false—but it found the allegations sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.  Id.

2. Predictions of clinical trial success or FDA approval usually are also protected forward-looking statements

Not only are most optimistic projections statements of opinion, subject to Omnicare’s rigorous standard, they also tend to be forward-looking statements protected under the Reform Act’s safe harbor.

Courts in the study set usually found expressions of optimism regarding clinical trial results or the likelihood of FDA approval to be forward-looking statements protected under the Reform Act’s safe harbor where the statements were accompanied by specific cautionary language that warned investors of the most significant risks.  As one court explained:

“Projections about the likelihood of FDA approval are forward-looking statements.  They are assumptions related to the company’s plan for its product, and as such fall under the PSLRA’s safe harbor rule.  Each VIVUS press release or other public statement cited by plaintiff included warnings about the uncertainties of forward-looking statements, and also referred to VIVUS’ SEC filings.  Those filings, in turn, were replete with discussion of risk factors, including potential difficulties with obtaining FDA clearances and approval; the known side-effects of Qnexa’s two components, and the possibility of FDA required labeling restrictions; the risk that the FDA might require additional, expensive trials; and concerns regarding Qnexa’s association with Fen-Phen.”

Kovtun v. VIVUS, Inc. 2012 WL 4477647, at *12 (N.D. Cal. Sep. 27, 2012) (dismissing); see also, e.g., Gillis v. QRX Pharma Ltd., 2016 WL 3685095, at *23 (S.D.N.Y. July 6, 2016) (“QRX’s statement that it was ‘confident that MOXDUO will receive approval,’ SAC ¶ 48, is, separately, shielded by the PSLRA safe harbor.”).

In fact, some courts found optimistic projections to be protected even where the cautionary language was fairly minimal.  For example, in Oppenheim v. Encysive Pharmas., Inc., 2007 WL 2720074 (S.D. Tex. Sep. 18, 2007), the court concluded that statements by the defendant (1) that it had a “good shot” at receiving priority review from the FDA (but where it had clearly acknowledged that it was “an FDA decision of course”), and (2) that it did not expect the FDA to require additional clinical trials (but where it had stated “you never know what’s going to happen when you get into a regulatory process”), were protected under the safe harbor.  Id. at *3.

3. Challenges to clinical methodology and analysis are generally rejected, as long as the defendants do not appear to have been manipulating data.

Courts also routinely dismiss challenges to a company’s clinical methodology or analysis. Statements interpreting clinical trial results often are found to be non-actionable expressions of opinion.  See, e.g., Corban v. Sarepta, 2015 WL 1505693, at *6 (D. Mass. Sep. 30, 2015) (applying pre-Omnicare standard and dismissing claims re statements touting the strength of clinical trial results in part because “many of the challenged statements consist of interpretations of the company’s data,” which the court found to be nonactionable expressions of opinion).

Likewise, courts tend to dismiss suits where plaintiffs’ theory boils down to a mere disagreement with the company’s clinical trial methodology.  See, e.g., Davison v. Ventrus Biosciences, Inc., 2014 WL 1805242, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. May 5, 2014) (dismissing claims that optimistic statements were misleading because they failed to disclose that the small sample size allegedly distorted results, and noting that “[t]he Second Circuit has emphasized that in scrutinizing a Section 10(b) claim, a court does not judge the methodology of a drug trial, but whether a defendant’s statements about that study were false and misleading”); In re Keryx Biopharmas., Inc., 2014 WL 585658, at *10-12 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 14, 2014) (dismissing claims based on statements re clinical results that plaintiffs allege were misleading due to extensive methodological flaws); Abely v. Aeterna Zentaris, Inc., 2013 WL 2399869, at *6-10 (S.D.N.Y. May 29, 2013) (dismissing claims because plaintiff’s allegations “merely amount to a competing view of how the trial should have been designed” and “[p]ublic statements about clinical studies need not incorporate all potentially relevant information or findings, or even adhere to the highest research standards, provided that its findings and methods are described accurately”).  As long as a biotech company describes its clinical and interpretive methodologies accurately, courts generally will not pass judgment on the soundness of those approaches.  See id. at *6 (“The Second Circuit and other tribunals have concluded that the securities laws do not recognize a fraud claim premised on criticisms of a drug trial’s methodology, so long as the methodology was not misleadingly described to investors.” (emphasis added)).

Where plaintiffs put forth specific, credible allegations indicating that defendants were intentionally misrepresenting or manipulating data, however, courts often allow these cases to go forward.  See, e.g., In re Delcath Systems, Inc. Sec. Lit., 36 F. Supp. 3d 320, 333 (S.D.N.Y. 2014) (dismissing claims re optimistic projections concerning drug approval, but allowing claims re alleged misrepresentations and omissions concerning clinical results because “[t]he allegations here do not involve differing interpretations of disclosed data, but rather data that was not disclosed”); In re Immune Response Sec. Lit., 375 F. Supp. 2d 983, 1018-22 (S.D. Cal. 2005) (refusing to dismiss claims alleging that defendants continuously misrepresented clinical results that they knew were incomplete and flawed, where complaint included specific corroborating details suggesting intentional misconduct); In re Vicuron Pharmas. Inc. Sec. Lit., 2005 WL 2989674, at *6 (E.D. Pa. July 1, 2005) (allowing claims re positive statements about Phase III clinical results to move forward where court seemed convinced by allegations that defendant actually knew clinical results were problematic and approval was unlikely).

Thus, it is best for biotech companies accurately to disclose the details of their clinical trial methodology and underlying data along with the company’s interpretation of that data, in order to avoid plausible claims of subterfuge later on.

C. Other than cases where companies appear to have made false statements of fact, the riskiest areas for companies are disclosures made relative to FDA feedback.

One category of statements sticks out in the study set as particularly troublesome for defendants: alleged misrepresentations concerning feedback from or interactions with the FDA.  On the one hand,

“[N]umerous courts have concluded that a defendant pharmaceutical company does not have a duty to reveal interim FDA criticism regarding study design or methodology.  Indeed, such courts frequently reason that interim FDA feedback is not material because dialogue between the FDA and pharmaceutical companies remain ongoing throughout the licensing process, rendering such criticism subject to change and not binding in regards to ultimate licensing approval.”

Vallabhaneni v. Endocyte, Inc., 2016 WL 51260, at *12 (S.D. Ind. Jan. 4, 2016) (dismissing claims that defendant misled investors by touting Phase II results without disclosing that the FDA had questioned how efficacy was determined in the study, because FDA concerns expressed were not so severe as to suggest the drug could not be approved, and the FDA subsequently allowed Phase III to move forward).  See also Tongue v. Sanofi, 815 F.3d 199, 214 (2d Cir. 2016) (affirming dismissal) (“Reasonable investors understand that dialogue with the FDA is an integral part of the drug approval process, and no sophisticated investor familiar with standard FDA practice would expect that every view of the data taken by Defendants was shared by the FDA.”).

On the other hand, claims concerning statements or omissions about interactions with the FDA seem to survive motions to dismiss more often than other types of statements in biotech cases, perhaps because companies too often cherry-pick the FDA feedback they choose to disclose.

In assessing these sorts of claims, courts carefully distinguish between optimistic projections regarding approval, which tend to be protected forward-looking statements, and statements regarding past FDA interactions or feedback, which pertain to verifiable historical facts.  For example, in In re Mannkind Sec. Actions, 835 F. Supp. 2d 797 (C.D. Cal. 2011), the court refused to dismiss claims regarding defendants’ repeated assurances that the FDA had “blessed,” “approved,” “accepted,” and “agreed to” the company’s methodological approach in its clinical trials, when it later became clear that the FDA had done no such thing:

“Courts must of course be careful to distinguish between forward-looking statements later deemed to be unduly optimistic, and statements of historical fact later shown to be false when made…

            … [S]tatements touting the merits of the bioequivalency studies, can be fairly read as misguided opinion or ‘corporate optimism,’ [but] it is harder to escape the conclusion that Defendants’ statements concerning the FDA cross the line from exaggeration and ‘corporate optimism’ into outright misstatement of historical fact.”

Id. at 809-11 (emphasis in original).

Likewise, in In re Cell Therapeutics, Inc. Class Action Lit., 2011 WL 444676 (W.D. Wa. Feb. 4, 2011), the court dismissed claims challenging the defendants’ optimistic statements about the drug candidate’s progress in clinical trials and the company’s hopes for FDA approval because these were forward-looking statements accompanied by sufficient cautionary language.  Id. at *7-8.  At the same time, however, the court allowed claims to move forward regarding defendants’ repeated statements indicating that its Special Protocol Assessment (“SPA”)—an agreement with the FDA that the drug would be approved if the company followed the agreed-upon protocol and the drug proved effective[viii]—was still in effect even after defendants knew that they had invalidated the SPA.  Id.; see also, e.g., Frater v. Hemispherx Biopharma, Inc., 996 F. Supp. 2d 335, 346 (E.D. Pa. 2014) (declining to dismiss claims re statements that allegedly mischaracterized FDA feedback by (1) omitting FDA statements indicating that it probably would not be receptive to company’s intended clinical approach and (2) incorrectly stating that the FDA had withdrawn its request for a new clinical trial as part of a resubmitted New Drug Application).

In light of these cases, how does a company decide what to disclose when it is in constant communications with the FDA?  This is a prime area where a company can mitigate its risk by getting expert disclosure advice.  As a starting point, review of our case study set suggests the following:

  • Context and clarity are important. Omnicare will protect statements of opinion so long as they are genuinely held and not misleading in their full context.  If a company wants to express an opinion regarding its interactions with the FDA, it can protect itself by accurately and clearly disclosing the important underlying facts (positive and negative) regarding that interaction as well.  Moreover, if a company wants to make optimistic projections regarding the approval process more generally, it should keep in mind that any negative feedback from the FDA, whether disclosed or not, will be part of the overall context in which those statements of opinion are judged.
  • Companies need to be careful not to mislead. Selective disclosure of some facts but not others can create difficulties and must be done with care and transparency.  If a company chooses to disclose interim FDA feedback, it should do so fairly, reporting both positive and significant negative components of that feedback at the same time.  With expert guidance, it is possible to emphasize the positive while acknowledging the negative in a way that will not leave the company open to challenge at a later date.
  • Companies should be careful not to overstate or misconstrue FDA opinions. These can later be contradicted by the agency when an approval decision is made, opening the company up to allegations that it intentionally misrepresented the interim feedback it received.  A biotech company most often will be best served by couching any optimism it wants to express in terms of the company’s opinions and expectations—rather than positively characterizing the FDA’s feelings or intentions—and sticking to accurate, factual accounts of FDA feedback.

IV. Conclusion

Our study shows that, contrary to popular belief, development-stage biotech companies actually have less to fear from federal securities cases than do many other types of corporate defendants that have a far easier time securing insurance coverage.  Over the last decade, these cases have been dismissed at a high rate early in the litigation process, and even more so in recent years.  Biotech startups may well end up being sued if and when their flagship products are not approved by the FDA, but courts are sympathetic to the inherent risks of the industry and seem primed to dismiss these suits when defendants can present a credible narrative of good faith conduct.  By getting expert disclosure advice before making important announcements, and by hiring litigation counsel who will affirmatively tell the company’s story at the motion to dismiss stage, small biotech companies and their insurers can guard against litigation and give the company an excellent shot at early dismissal in any securities suits that are ultimately brought against them.

Endnotes


[i] Specifically, we applied the following, over-inclusive search terms to all federal district court decisions from March 6, 2005 through October 3, 2016 in the Westlaw database: (pslra “private securities litigation reform”) & (FDA “food and drug administration” f.d.a.) /p (clinical medical bio! biotech! genom! gene genetic phase trial drug study therapy treatment) & “motion to dismiss.”  This produced 298 results, only 61 of which met our study set criteria as described above (additional cases met the same criteria except that they were brought against companies that already had at least one drug or device on the market).

[ii] In each case, only the district court’s final decision on the defense’s motion(s) to dismiss was included in the study set.  Any earlier dismissals, where plaintiffs were allowed to amend the complaint and the court then ruled on a subsequent motion to dismiss, were excluded so that sequential opinions in the same action were not double-counted.  Likewise, cases that did not yet have a final decision on the motion to dismiss were excluded (e.g., if the court initially dismissed with leave to amend and a subsequent motion to dismiss was pending).

[iii] Decisions where the securities fraud claims concerned something other than the clinical trial and FDA approval process for their primary drug or device candidate (e.g., alleged financial improprieties, marketing, sales, post-approval manufacturing issues, etc.) were not included in the study set.

[iv] See Svetlana Starykh & Stefan Boettrich, NERA Economic Consulting, Recent Trends in Securities Class Action Litigation: 2015 Full-Year Review, at 19, available at http://www.nera.com/content/dam/nera/publications/2016/2015_Securities_Trends_Report_NERA.pdf (only 54% of the securities class action motions to dismiss that were resolved between January and December 2015 were granted, with or without prejudice).

[v] Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers Dist. Council Const. Indus. Pension Fund, 135 S. Ct. 1318 (2015).

[vi] The Reform Act provides a safe harbor for forward-looking statements that are identified as such and accompanied by “meaningful cautionary statements identifying important factors that could cause actual results to differ materially from those in the forward-looking statement.” 15 U.S.C. § 78u–5(c)(1)(A)(i).

[vii] This district court dismissal was excluded from our primary study set because, although it otherwise met our study criteria, Sanofi is a well-established pharmaceutical company with numerous drugs already on the market.

[viii] As the court explained: “[A]n SPA can only be modified by written agreement between the FDA and the sponsor and then only if it is intended to improve the study. Failure to follow the agreed-upon protocol constitutes an understanding that the SPA is no longer binding.”  In re Cell Therapeutics, 2011 WL 444676, at *1.

Following is an article I wrote for Law360, which gave me permission to republish it here:

Among securities litigators, there is no consensus about the importance of developments in securities and corporate governance litigation.  For some, a Supreme Court decision is always supreme.  For others, a major change in a legal standard is the most critical.  For me, the key developments are those that have the greatest potential to significantly increase or decrease the frequency or severity of claims against public companies and their directors and officers.

Given my way of thinking, there are three developments in 2016 that stand out as noteworthy:

  • The persistence of securities class actions brought against smaller public companies primarily by smaller plaintiffs’ firms on behalf of retail investors—a trend that began five years ago and now appears to represent a fundamental shift in the securities class action landscape.
  • The 2nd Circuit’s robust application of the Supreme Court’s Omnicare decision in Sanofi, illustrating the significant benefits of Omnicare to defendants.
  • The demise of disclosure-only settlements under the Delaware Court of Chancery’s Trulia decision and the 7th Circuit’s subsequent scathing Walgreen opinion by Judge Posner.

I discuss each of these developments in detail, and then list other 2016 developments that I believe are important as well.

1. The Securities Class Action Landscape Has Fundamentally Changed

The Private Securities Litigation Reform Act’s lead plaintiff process incentivized plaintiffs’ firms to recruit institutional investors to serve as plaintiffs.  For the most part, institutional investors, whether smaller unions or large funds, have retained the more prominent plaintiffs’ firms, and smaller plaintiffs’ firms have been left with individual investor clients who usually can’t beat out institutions for the lead-plaintiff role.  At the same time, securities class action economics tightened in all but the largest cases.  Dismissal rates under the Reform Act are pretty high, and defeating a motion to dismiss often requires significant investigative costs and intensive legal work.  And the median settlement amount of cases that survive dismissal motions is fairly low.  These dynamics placed a premium on experience, efficiency, and scale.  Larger firms filed the lion’s share of the cases, and smaller plaintiffs’ firms were unable to compete effectively for the lead plaintiff role, or make much money on their litigation investments.

This started to change with the wave of cases against Chinese companies in 2010.  Smaller plaintiffs’ firms initiated the lion’s share of these cases, as the larger firms were swamped with credit-crisis cases and likely were deterred by the relatively small damages, potentially high discovery costs, and uncertain insurance and company financial resources.  Moreover, these cases fit smaller firms’ capabilities well. Nearly all of the cases had “lawsuit blueprints” such as auditor resignations and/or short-seller reports, thereby reducing the smaller firms’ investigative costs and increasing their likelihood of surviving a motion to dismiss.  The dismissal rate was low, and limited insurance and company resources have prompted early settlements in amounts that, while on the low side, appear to have yielded good outcomes for the smaller plaintiffs’ firms.

The smaller plaintiffs’ firms thus built up momentum that has kept them going, even after the wave of China cases subsided.  For the last several years, following almost every “lawsuit blueprint” announcement, a smaller firm has launched an “investigation” of the company, and they have initiated an increasing number of cases.  Like the China cases, these cases tend to be against smaller companies.  Thus, smaller plaintiffs’ firms have discovered a class of cases—cases against smaller companies that have suffered well-publicized problems (reducing the plaintiffs’ firms’ investigative costs) for which they can win the lead plaintiff role and that they can prosecute at a sufficient profit margin.

As smaller firms have gained further momentum, they have expanded the cases they initiate beyond “lawsuit blueprint” cases—and they continue to initiate and win lead-plaintiff contests primarily in cases against smaller companies brought by retail investors.  To be sure, the larger firms still mostly can and will beat out the smaller firms for the cases they want.  But it increasingly seems clear that the larger firms don’t want to take the lead in initiating many of the cases against smaller companies, and are content to focus on larger cases on behalf of their institutional investor clients.

The securities litigation landscape now clearly consists of a combination of two different types of cases: smaller cases brought by a set of smaller plaintiffs’ firms on behalf of retail investors, and larger cases pursued by the larger plaintiffs’ firms on behalf of institutional investors.  This change—now more than five years old—appears to be here to stay.

In addition to this fundamental shift, two other trends are an indicator of further changes to the securities litigation landscape.

First, the smaller plaintiffs’ firms often file cases against U.S. companies in New York City or California—regardless where the company is headquartered—diverging from the larger plaintiffs’ firms’ practice of filing in the forum of the defendant company’s headquarters.  In addition to inconvenience, filing cases in New York City and California against non-resident companies results in sticker-shock, since defense firms based in those venues are much more expensive than their home town firms.  The solution to this problem will need to include greater defense of cases in New York City and California by a more economically diverse set of defense firms.

Second, plaintiffs’ firms, large and small, are increasingly rejecting the use of historical settlement values to shape the settlement amounts.  This practice is increasing settlement amounts in individual cases, and will ultimately raise settlement amounts overall.  And it will be increasingly difficult for defendants and their insurers to predict defense costs and settlement amounts, as more mediations fail and litigation proceeds past the point they otherwise would.

2. Sanofi Shows Omnicare’s Benefits

In Tongue v. Sanofi, 816 F.3d 199 (2nd Cir. 2016), the Second Circuit issued the first significant appellate decision interpreting the Supreme Court’s decision in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers District Council Construction Industry Pension Fund, 135 S. Ct. 1318 (2015).  Sanofi shows that Omnicare provides powerful tools for defendants to win more motions to dismiss.

As a reminder, the Supreme Court in Omnicare held that a statement of opinion is only false under the federal securities laws if the speaker does not genuinely believe it, and is only misleading if it omits information that, in context, would cause the statement to mislead a reasonable investor.  This ruling followed the path Lane Powell advocated in an amicus brief on behalf of Washington Legal Foundation.

The Court’s ruling in Omnicare was a significant victory for the defense bar for two primary reasons.

First, the Court made clear that an opinion is false only if it was not sincerely believed by the speaker at the time that it was expressed, a concept sometimes referred to as “subjective falsity.”  The Court thus explicitly rejected the possibility that a statement of opinion could be false because “external facts show the opinion to be incorrect,” because a company failed to “disclose[] some fact cutting the other way,” or because the company did not disclose that others disagreed with its opinion.  This ruling resolved two decades’ worth of confusing and conflicting case law regarding what makes a statement of opinion false, which had often permitted meritless securities cases to survive dismissal motions.  Omnicare governs the falsity analysis for all types of challenged statements. Although Omnicare arose from a claim under Section 11 of the Securities Act, all of its core concepts are equally applicable to Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act and other securities laws with similar falsity elements.

Second, Omnicare declared that whether a statement of opinion (and by clear implication, a statement of fact) was misleading “always depends on context.”  The Court emphasized that showing a statement to be misleading is “no small task” for plaintiffs, and that the court must consider not only the full statement being challenged and the context in which it was made, but must also consider other statements made by the company, and other publicly available information, including the customs and practices of the relevant industry.

A good motion to dismiss has always analyzed a challenged statement (of fact or opinion) in its broader factual context to explain why it’s not false or misleading.  But many defense lawyers unfortunately leave out the broader context, and courts have sometimes taken a narrower view.  Now, this type of superior, full-context analysis is clearly required by Omnicare.  And combined with the Supreme Court’s directive in Tellabs that courts consider scienter inferences based not only on the complaint’s allegations, but also on documents on which the complaint relies or that are subject to judicial notice, courts clearly must now consider the full array of probative facts in deciding both whether a statement was false or misleading and, if so, whether it was made with scienter.   

Due to the importance of its holdings and the detailed way in which it explains them, Omnicare is the most significant post-Reform Act Supreme Court case to analyze the falsity element of a securities class-action claim, laying out the core principles of falsity in the same way that the Court did for scienter in Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308 (2007).  If used correctly, Omnicare thus has the potential to be the most helpful securities case for defendants since Tellabs, providing attorneys with a blueprint for how to structure their falsity arguments in order to defeat more complaints on motions to dismiss.

The early returns show that Omnicare is already helping defendants win more motions to dismiss.  The most significant such decision is Sanofi. In Sanofi, the Second Circuit became the first appeals court to discuss Omnicare in detail, and to examine the changes that it brought about in the previously governing law.  Sanofi was not, as some securities litigation defense lawyers have claimed, a “narrow” reading of the Court’s decision.  Rather, it was a straightforward interpretation of Omnicare that emphasized the Supreme Court’s ruling on falsity, and the intensive contextual analysis required to show that a statement is misleading.  It correctly took these concepts beyond the Section 11 setting and applied them to allegations brought under Section 10(b).

Statements about Lemtrada, a drug in development for treatment of multiple sclerosis, were at issue in the case.  Sanofi and its predecessor had conducted “single-blind” clinical trials for Lemtrada (studies in which either the researcher or the patient does not know which drug was administered), despite the fact that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had repeatedly expressed concerns about these trials and recommended “double-blind” clinical studies (studies in which both the researcher and the patient do not know which drug was administered).

The plaintiffs alleged that Sanofi’s failure to disclose FDA’s repeated warnings that a single-blind study might not be adequate for approval caused various statements made by the company to be misleading, including its projection that FDA would approve the drug, its expressions of confidence about the anticipated launch date of the drug, and its view that the results of the clinical trials were “unprecedented” and “nothing short of stunning.”  Although FDA eventually approved Lemtrada without further clinical trials, the agency initially refused approval based in large part on the single-blind studies concern, causing a large drop in the price of Sanofi stock.

In an opinion issued before Omnicare, the district court dismissed the claims, in part because it found that plaintiffs had failed to plead that the challenged statements of opinion were subjectively false, under the standard employed by the Second Circuit in Fait v. Regions Financial Corp.  The Second Circuit stated that it saw “no reason to disturb the conclusions of the district court,” but wrote to clarify the impact of Omnicare on prior Second Circuit law.

The court acknowledged that Omnicare affirmed the previous standard that a statement of opinion may be false “if either ‘the speaker did not hold the belief she professed’ or ‘the supporting fact she supplied were untrue.’”  However, it noted that Omnicare went beyond the standard outlined by Fait in holding that “opinions, though sincerely held and otherwise true as a matter of fact, may nonetheless be actionable if the speaker omits information whose omission makes the statement misleading to a reasonable investor.”

In reality, Omnicare did not represent a change in Second Circuit law.  Although Fait only discussed falsity, without considering what it would take to make an opinion “misleading,” prior Second Circuit law had been clear that “[e]ven a statement which is literally true, if susceptible to quite another interpretation by the reasonable investor, may properly be considered a material misrepresentation.”  Kleinman v. Elan Corp., 706 F.3d 145 (2nd Cir. 2013) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).  Omnicare simply brought together these two lines of authority, by correctly clarifying that, like any other statement, a statement of opinion can be literally true (i.e., actually believed by the speaker), but can nonetheless omit information that can cause it to be misleading to a reasonable investor.

The Second Circuit highlighted the Omnicare Court’s focus on context, taking note of its statement that “an omission that renders misleading a statement of opinion when viewed in a vacuum may not do so once that statement is considered, as is appropriate, in a broader frame.”  Since Sanofi’s offering materials “made numerous caveats to the reliability of the projections,” a reasonable investor would have considered the opinions in light of those qualifications.  Similarly, the Second Circuit recognized that reasonable investors would be aware that Sanofi would be engaging in continuous dialogue with FDA that was not being disclosed, that Sanofi had clearly disclosed that it was conducting single-blind trials for Lemtrada, and that FDA had generally made clear through public statements that it preferred double-blind trials. In this broader context, the court found that Sanofi’s optimistic statements about the future of Lemtrada were not misleading even in the context of Sanofi’s failure to disclose FDA’s specific warnings regarding single-blind trials.

Under the Omnicare standards, the Second Circuit thus found nothing false or misleading about the challenged statements, holding that Omnicare imposes no obligation to disclose facts merely because they tended to undermine the defendants’ optimistic projections.  In particular, the Second Circuit found that “Omnicare does not impose liability merely because an issuer failed to disclose information that ran counter to an opinion expressed in a registration statement.”  It also reasoned that “defendants’ statements about the effectiveness of [the drug] cannot be misleading merely because the FDA disagreed with the conclusion—so long as Defendants conducted a ‘meaningful’ inquiry and in fact held that view, the statements did not mislead in a manner that is actionable.”

3. Companies May Regret the Decline of Disclosure-Only Settlements

In combination with the Delaware Court of Chancery’s decision in In re Trulia, Inc. Stockholder Litigation, 129 A.3d 884 (Del. Ch. 2016), Judge Posner’s blistering opinion In re Walgreen Company Stockholder Litigation, 2016 WL 4207962 (7th Cir. Aug. 10, 2016), may well close the door on disclosure-only settlements in shareholder challenges to mergers.  That certainly feels just.  And it may well go a long way toward discouraging meritless merger litigation.  But I am concerned that we will regret it.  Lost in the cheering over Trulia and Walgreen is a simple and practical reality: the availability of disclosure-only settlements is in the interests of merging companies as much as it is in the interests of shareholder plaintiffs’ lawyers, because disclosure-only settlements are often the timeliest and most efficient way to resolve shareholder challenges to mergers, even legitimate ones.

I am offended by meritless merger litigation, and have long advocated reforms  to fix the system that not only allows it, but encourages and incentivizes it.  Certainly, strict scrutiny of disclosure-only settlements will reduce the number of merger claims—it already has.  Let’s say shareholder challenges to mergers are permanently reduced from 90% to 60% of transactions.  That would be great.  But how do we then resolve the cases that remain?  Unfortunately, there aren’t efficient and generally agreeable alternatives to disclosure-only settlements to dispose of a merger lawsuit before the closing of the challenged transaction.  Of course, the parties can increase the merger price, though that is a difficult proposition.  The parties can also adjust other deal terms, but few merger partners want to alter the deal unless and until the alteration doesn’t actually matter, and settlements based on meaningless deal-structure changes won’t fare better with courts than meaningless disclosure-only settlements.

If the disclosure-only door to resolving merger cases is shut, then more cases will need to be litigated post-close.  That will make settlement more expensive.  Plaintiffs lawyers are not going to start to settle for less money, especially when they are forced to litigate for longer and invest more in their cases.  And in contrast to adjustments to the merger transaction or disclosures, in which 100% of the cash goes to lawyers for the “benefit” they provided, settlements based on the payment of cash to the class of plaintiffs require a much larger sum to yield the same amount of money to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.  For example, a $500,000 fee payment to the plaintiffs under a disclosure-only settlement would require around $2 million in a settlement payment to the class to yield the same fee for the plaintiffs’ lawyers, assuming a 25% contingent-fee award.

The increase in the cash outlay required for companies and their insurers to deal with post-close merger litigation will actually be much higher than my example indicates.  Plaintiffs’ lawyers will spend more time on each case, and demand a higher settlement amount to yield a higher plaintiffs’ fee.  Defense costs will skyrocket.  And discovery in post-close cases will inevitably unearth problems that the disclosure-only settlement landscape camouflaged, significantly increasing the severity of many cases.  It is not hard to imagine that merger cases that could have settled for disclosures and a six-figure plaintiffs’ fee will often become an eight-figure mess.  And, beyond these unfortunate economic consequences, the inability to resolve merger litigation quickly and efficiently will increase the burden upon directors and officers by requiring continued service to companies they have sold, as they are forced to produce documents, sit for depositions, and consult with their defense lawyers, while the merger case careens toward trial.

Again, it’s hard to disagree with the logic and sentiment of these decisions, and the result may very well be more just.  But this justice will come with a high practical price tag.

Additional Significant Developments

There were a number of other 2016 developments that I believe may also significantly impact the frequency and severity of securities claims against public companies and their directors and officers.  These include:

  • The ongoing wave of Securities Act cases in state court, especially in California, and the Supreme Court cert petitions in Cyan, Inc. v. Beaver County Employees Retirement Fund, No. 15-1439, and FireEye, Inc., et al., v. Superior Court of California, Santa Clara County, No. 16-744.
  • The lack of a wave of cyber security shareholder litigation, and the conclusion in favor of the defendants in the Target and Home Depot shareholder derivative cases, which follows the dismissal of the Wyndham derivative case in 2014.
  • The challenge to the SEC’s use of administrative proceedings, including Lynn Tilton’s tilt at the process.
  • The Supreme Court’s decision on insider trading in Salman v. U.S. 137 S. Ct. 420 (2016), rejecting the 2nd Circuit’s heightened personal benefit requirement established in U.S. v. Newman, 773 F.3d 438 (2nd Cir. 2014).
  • The persistence and intractability of securities class actions against foreign issuers after Morrison v. National Australia Bank, 561 U.S. 247 (2010).
  • The 8th Circuit’s reversal of class certification under Halliburton II in IBEW Local 98 Pension Fund v. Best Buy Co., 818 F.3d 775, 777 (8th Cir. 2016).
  • The 9th Circuit becoming the first appellate court to hold that Section 304 of Sarbanes-Oxley allows the SEC to seek a clawback of compensation from CEOs and CFOs in the event of a restatement even if it did not result from their misconduct. U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission v. Jensen, 835 F.3d 1100 (2016).
  • The 2nd Circuit’s lengthy and wide-ranging decision in In re Vivendi, S.A. Securities Litigation, 838 F.3d 223 (2nd Cir. 2016), affirming the district court’s partial judgment against Vivendi following trial.

In this installment of the D&O Discourse series “5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense,” we discuss the third of five changes that would significantly improve securities litigation defense:  to make the Supreme Court’s Omnicare decision a primary tool in the defense of securities class actions.

As a reminder, in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers District Council Construction Industry Pension Fund, 135 S. Ct. 1318 (2015), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a statement of opinion is only false under the federal securities laws if the speaker does not genuinely believe it, and is only misleading if it omits information that, in context, would cause the statement to mislead a reasonable investor.  This ruling followed the path we advocated in an amicus brief on behalf of Washington Legal Foundation.

The Court’s ruling in Omnicare was a significant victory for the defense bar for two primary reasons.

First, the Court made clear that an opinion is false only if it was not sincerely believed by the speaker at the time that it was expressed, a concept sometimes referred to as “subjective falsity.”  The Court thus explicitly rejected the possibility that a statement of opinion could be false because “external facts show the opinion to be incorrect,” because a company failed to “disclose[] some fact cutting the other way,” or because the company did not disclose that others disagreed with its opinion.  This ruling resolved two decades’ worth of confusing and conflicting case law regarding what makes a statement of opinion false, which had often permitted meritless securities cases to survive dismissal motions.

Second, Omnicare declared that whether a statement of opinion (and by clear implication, a statement of fact) was misleading “always depends on context.”  The Court emphasized that showing a statement to be misleading is “no small task” for plaintiffs, and that the court must consider not only the full statement being challenged and the context in which it was made, but also other statements made by the company, and other publicly available information, including the customs and practices of the relevant industry.

Omnicare governs the falsity analysis for all types of challenged statements.  Obviously, Omnicare should be used to defend against challenges to all forms of opinions, including statements regarded as “puffery” and forward-looking statements protected by the Reform Act’s Safe Harbor for forward-looking statements.  But defense counsel should also take advantage of the Supreme Court’s direction in Omnicare that courts evaluate challenged statements in their full factual context.  Evaluating challenged statements in their broader context almost always benefits defendants, because it helps the court better understand the challenged statements and makes them seem fairer than they might in isolation. Omnicare now explicitly requires courts to evaluate challenged statements—both statements of fact and statements of opinion—within their broader contexts.

Although Omnicare arose from a claim under Section 11 of the Securities Act, all of its core concepts are equally applicable to Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act and other securities laws with similar falsity elements.  Due to the importance of its holdings and the detailed way in which it explains them, Omnicare is the most significant post-Reform Act Supreme Court case to analyze the falsity element of a securities class-action claim, laying out the core principles of falsity in the same way that the Court did for scienter in Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308 (2007).  If used correctly, Omnicare thus has the potential to be the most helpful securities case for defendants since Tellabs, providing attorneys with a blueprint for how to structure their falsity arguments in order to defeat more complaints on motions to dismiss.

A good motion to dismiss has always analyzed a challenged statement (of fact or opinion) in its broader factual context to explain why it’s not false or misleading.  But many defense lawyers unfortunately leave out the broader context, and courts have sometimes taken a narrower view.  Now, this type of superior, full-context analysis is clearly required by Omnicare.  And combined with the Supreme Court’s directive in Tellabs that courts consider scienter inferences based not only on the complaint’s allegations, but also on documents on which the complaint relies or that are subject to judicial notice, courts clearly must now consider the full array of probative facts in deciding both whether a statement was false or misleading and, if so, whether it was made with scienter.   

Yet Omnicare will fail to achieve its full potential unless defense lawyers understand and use the decision correctly.  Following the Omnicare decision, many defense lawyers commented publicly that Omnicare expanded the basis for defendants’ liability, and was otherwise plaintiff-friendly.  That is simply wrong.  We have published several articles that address these misunderstandings, explain how defense counsel should use the decision, and analyze how lower courts are applying it.  The early returns show that Omnicare is already helping defendants win more motions to dismiss.

Here is a link to our most recent article, Omnicare, Inc. One Year Later: Its Salutary Impact on Securities-Fraud Class Actions in the Lower Federal CourtsCritical Legal Issues Working Paper Series, Washington Legal Foundation (No. 195, June 2016).

One of my “5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense” (April 30, 2016 post) is to require an interview process for the selection of defense counsel in all cases.

When a public company purchases a significant good or service, it typically seeks competitive proposals.  From coffee machines to architects, companies invite multiple vendors to bid, evaluate their proposals, and choose one based on a combination of quality and cost.  Yet companies named in a securities class action frequently fail to engage in a competitive interview process for their defense counsel, and instead simply retain litigation lawyers at the firm they use for their corporate work.

To be sure, it is difficult for company management to tell their outside corporate lawyers that they are going to consider hiring another firm to defend a significant litigation matter.  The corporate lawyers are trusted advisors, often former colleagues of the in-house counsel, and have usually made sacrifices for the client that make the corporate lawyers expect to be repaid through engagement to defend whatever litigation might arise.  A big litigation matter is what makes all of the miscellaneous loss-leader work worth it.  “You owe me,” is the unspoken, and sometimes spoken, message.

Corporate lawyers also make the pitch that it will be more efficient for their litigation colleagues to defend the litigation since the corporate lawyers know the facts and can more efficiently work with the firm’s litigators.  Meanwhile, they tell the client that there is no conflict—even if their work on the company’s disclosures is at issue, they assure the company that they will all be on the same side in defending the disclosures, and if they have to be witnesses, the lawyer-as-witness rules will allow them to work around the issue.

All of these assertions are flawed.  It is always—without exception—in the interests of the defendants to take a day to interview several defense firms of different types and perspectives.  And it is never—without exception—in the interests of the defendants to simply hand the case off to the litigators of the company’s corporate firm.  Even if the defendants hire the company’s corporate firm at the end of the interview process, they will have gained highly valuable strategic insights from multiple perspectives; cost concessions that only a competitive interview process will yield; better relationships with their insurers, who will be more comfortable with more thoughtful counsel selection; greater comfort with the corporate firm’s litigators, whom the defendants sometimes have never even met; and better service from the corporate firm.

Problems with Using Corporate Counsel

A Section 10(b) claim involves litigation of whether the defendants:  (1) made a false statement, or failed to disclose a fact that made what they said misleading in context; and (2) made any such false or misleading statements with intent to defraud (i.e. scienter).

Corporate counsel is very often an important fact witness for the defendants on both of these issues.  For example, in a great many cases, corporate counsel has:

  • Drafted the disclosures that plaintiffs challenge, so that the answer to the question “why did you say that?” is “our lawyers wrote it for us.”
  • Advised that omitted information wasn’t required to be disclosed, so that the answer to the question “why didn’t you disclose that” is “our lawyers told us we didn’t have to.”
  • Reviewed disclosures without questioning anything, or not questioning the challenged portion.
  • Drafted the risk factors that are the potential basis of the protection of the Reform Act’s Safe Harbor for forward-looking statements.
  • Not revised the risk factors that are the potential basis of Safe Harbor protection.
  • Advised on the ability of directors and officers to enter into 10b5-1 plans and when to do so, and on the ability of directors and officers to sell stock at certain times, given the presence or absence of material nonpublic information.
  • Advised on individual stock purchases.

The fact that the lawyer has given such advice, or not given such advice, can win the case for the defendants.  For example, for any case turning on a statement of opinion, the lawyer’s advice that the opinion had a reasonable basis virtually guarantees that the defendants won’t be liable.  Likewise, a lawyer’s drafting, revising, or advising on disclosures virtually guarantees that the defendants didn’t make the misrepresentation with scienter, and a lawyer’s advice on the timing of entering into 10b5-1 plans or selling stock makes the sales benign for scienter purposes.

To the defendants, it doesn’t matter if the lawyer was right or wrong.  As long as the advice wasn’t so obviously wrong that the client could not have followed it in good faith, the lawyer’s advice protects the defendants.  But to the lawyer, it matters a great deal for purposes of professional reputation and liability.  Deepening the conflict is the specter of the law firm defending its advice on the basis that the client didn’t tell them everything.  The interests of the lawyer and defendant client thus can diverge significantly.

That this information may be privileged doesn’t change this analysis.  Of course, the privilege belongs to the client, who can decide whether to use the information in his or her defense, or not.  But with corporate counsel’s litigation colleagues guiding the development of the facts, privileged information is rarely analyzed, much less discussed with the client.  The reality is that most privileged information isn’t truly sensitive to the client, but instead reflects a client seeking advice—and seeking the liability protection the lawyer’s advice provides.  But from the lawyer’s perspective, there can be much to protect.  Privileged communications may reflect poor legal advice, and internal files may contain candid discussions about the client and the client’s issues that would result in embarrassment to the firm, and possible termination, if produced.

Perhaps even more importantly, regular corporate counsel’s litigation colleagues may often fail to assess the case objectively, in part because it implicates the work of their corporate colleagues, and in part because of a desire not to ask hard questions that could strain the law firm’s relationship with the client.  Sometimes the problem arises from a deliberate attempt by the lawyers to protect a particular person who may have made an error leading to the litigation, such as the General Counsel (often is a former colleague), the CFO, or the CEO—all of whom are important to the client relationship.  Sometimes, though, the failure to thoughtfully analyze a case is due to a more generalized alliance with the people with whom the law firm works regularly.  It’s hard for a lawyer to scrutinize someone who will be in the firm’s luxury box at the baseball game that night, much less report a serious problem with him or her to the board.

Yet the defendants, including the board of the corporate client, need candid advice about the litigation to protect their interests.  For example, some problematic cases should be settled early, before the insurance limits are significantly eroded by defense costs and documents are produced that that will make the case even more difficult, and could even spawn other litigation or government investigations.  Defendants and corporate boards need to know this.

Corporate firms might counter that their litigation colleagues will give sound and independent advice, because they are a separate department and will face no economic or other pressure from the corporate department.  But that undermines one of the main reasons corporate lawyers urge that their litigation colleagues be hired: that it is more efficient to use the firm’s litigators since they work closely with the corporate lawyers, if not the company itself.  The corporate firm can’t have it both ways: either the litigators are close to the corporate lawyers and the company, and suffer from the problems outlined above, or they are independent, and their involvement yields little or no benefit in efficiency.  Indeed, it is most likely that the corporate firm’s litigators will be hindered by conflict, while nevertheless failing to create greater efficiency.  Just because lawyers are in a same firm doesn’t mean that they can read each other’s minds.  They still have to talk to one another, just as litigators from an outside firm would have to do.

So Why is Corporate Counsel Used So Often?

I doubt many directors or officers would disagree with the analysis above.  So why do so many companies turn to their corporate counsel without conducting an audition process?  Several practical factors impede the proper analysis of counsel selection in the initial days of a securities class action.

The single most important factor is probably that the corporate firm is first on the scene. Many companies reflexively hire their corporate firm immediately after the initial complaint is filed, or even after the stock drop, before a complaint is even filed.  By the time the defendants start to hear from other securities defense practices, they often have retained counsel.  And then it’s very difficult from a personal and practical perspective to walk the decision back.

This decision, moreover, is often made by the legal department, sometimes in consultation with the CEO and CFO.  The board is often not involved.  Instead, the board is merely presented with the decision, which can seem natural because the firm hired is familiar to them.  The directors often aren’t personally named in the initial complaint, so they might not pay as much attention as they would if they understood if they were likely to become defendants later – either in the main securities action, especially if the case involves a potential Section 11 claim, or in a tag-along shareholder derivative action.

Initial complaints can also mislead the company as to the real issues at stake.  Regular corporate counsel and the defendants may review the first complaint and incorrectly conclude that the allegations don’t implicate the lawyer’s work.  But these initial complaints are merely placeholders, because the Reform Act specifies that the lead plaintiff appointed by the court can later file an amended complaint.  Initial filers have little incentive to invest the time or effort into making detailed allegations in the initial complaint, because they may be beaten out for the lead plaintiff role.  The lead plaintiff’s amended complaint thus typically greatly expands the case to include new alleged false and misleading statements, more specific reasons why the challenged statements were false or misleading, and more detailed scienter allegations, including stock-sale and confidential-witness allegations that most initial complaints lack.  If a conflict becomes apparent at that point, however, it can be very difficult and even prejudicial to the defendants for corporate counsel to bow out.

Regular corporate counsel will often advise their clients that there is no issue with them defending the litigation, or even that doing so makes sense because they advised on the underlying disclosures.  But even if the corporate firm is trying to be candid and look out for its client’s interests, it may have blind spots in seeing its potential conflicts—especially when the corporate lawyers are facing pressure from their firm management to “hold the client.”

The pressures that lead a company to hire its corporate firm to defend the securities litigation are very real, and sometimes this decision is ultimately fine.  But I strongly believe that it is never in a client’s interest to take its corporate counsel’s advice on these issues without obtaining analysis from other securities practices as part of a competitive interview process.

The Benefits of a Competitive Process

In addition to obtaining important perspectives about potential problems with corporate counsel’s defense of the securities class action, an interview process involves myriad benefits – including tens of thousands of dollars of free legal advice.  The only cost to the company is a few hours to select the 3-5 firms that it wants to interview, and a day spent hearing presentations from those firms and discussing their analysis and approach with them.

An interview process gives defendants the opportunity to hear from several experienced securities litigators, who will offer a range of analyses and strategies on how best to defend the case.  It also allows defendants to evaluate professional credentials and personal compatibility, which are both important criteria.  It is difficult, if not impossible, for a company to evaluate how their corporate counsel’s litigators stack up against other litigators in this specialized and national practice area, without first hearing from some other firms.  Sometimes, a company will not even meet its corporate firm’s securities litigators in person before engaging them, which obviously makes it impossible for them to make judgments about personal compatibility and trust.

An interview process, if properly structured, is highly substantive.  The firms that fare best in a new-case interview typically prepare thorough discussions of the issues, and come prepared to analyze the case in great detail.  And the best ones look beyond the issues in the initial complaint to the issues that might emerge in the amended complaint, analyzing the full range of the company’s disclosures, to forecast future disclosure and scienter allegations, and evaluating the defenses that will remain even after allegations are added.

An interview process also helps the company to achieve a better deal on billing rates, staffing, and alternative fee arrangements.  Without an interview process, a law firm is much more likely to charge rack rates and do its work in the way it sees fit—which defendants are rarely in a position to challenge without having done some comparison shopping.  Even though securities class action defense costs are covered by D&O insurance, price matters in defense-counsel selection.  It is a mistake to treat D&O insurance proceeds as “free money.”  Without appropriate cost control, defendants run the risk of not having enough insurance proceeds to defend and resolve the case.  Appropriate cost control can help the litigation from resulting in a difficult or expensive D&O insurance renewal, and can allow the company to save money if the fees are less than the deductible.

An interview process also helps get the defendants off to a better start with its D&O insurers.  In addition to appreciating the cost control that an interview process yields, insurers also appreciate the defendants making a thoughtful decision on defense counsel, including vetting the potential problems with use of the company’s corporate firm.  D&O insurers and brokers are “repeat players” in securities litigation, and know the qualifications of defense counsel better than anyone else—a seasoned D&O insurance claims professional has overseen hundreds of securities class actions.  Asking insurers and brokers to help identify defense counsel to interview may therefore not only yield helpful suggestions, but may also make it easier to develop a relationship of strategic trust with the insurers—which will make it easier to obtain consent to settle early if appropriate, and if not, to defend the case through summary judgment or to trial.

Perhaps most importantly, an interview process results in a closer relationship between the defendants and their lawyers, whoever they end up being.  Most securities class action defendants are troubled by being sued, and need lawyers that they can trust to walk them through the process.  An interview process is the best way to find the lawyers who have the right combination of relevant characteristics—including skills, strategy, and bedside manner—that will best fit the needs of the defendants.

I am committed to helping shape a system for securities litigation defense that helps directors and officers get through securities litigation safely and efficiently, without losing their serenity or dignity, and without facing any real risk of paying any personal funds.

But we are actually moving in the opposite direction of this goal, and unless some changes are made, securities litigation will pose greater and greater risk to individual directors and officers.  It is time for the “repeat players” in securities litigation defense – D&O insurers and brokers, defense lawyers, and economists – to make some fundamental changes to how we do things.  Although most cases still seem to turn out fine for the individual defendants, resolved by a dismissal or a settlement that is fully funded by D&O insurance, the bigger picture is not pretty.  The law firms that have defended the lion’s share of cases since securities class actions gained footing through Basic v. Levinson – primarily “biglaw” firms based in the country’s several largest cities – are no longer suitable for many, or even most, securities class actions.  Fueled by high billing rates and profit-focused staffing, those firms’ skyrocketing defense costs threaten to exhaust most or all of the D&O insurance towers in cases that are not dismissed on a motion to dismiss.  Rarely can such firms defend cases vigorously through summary judgment and toward trial anymore.

Worse, these high prices too often do not yield strategic benefits.  A strong motion to dismiss focuses on the truth of what the defendants said, with support from the context of the statements, as directed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Tellabs and Omnicare.  Yet far too often, the motion-to-dismiss briefs that come out of these large firms are little more than cookie-cutter arguments based on the structure of the Reform Act.  And if a motion is lost, settlements are higher than necessary because the defendants often have no option but to settle in order to avoid an avalanche of defense costs that would exhaust their D&O insurance limits.  On the other hand, if settlement occurs later, it can be difficult to keep settlement within D&O insurance limits – and defense counsel’s analysis of a “reasonable” settlement can be influenced by a desire to justify the amount they have billed.

At the same time that defense costs are continuing to rise exponentially, securities class actions are becoming smaller and smaller, with two-thirds of cases brought against companies with market caps less than $2 billion, and almost half under $750 million.  Although catawampus securities litigation economics is a systemic problem, impacting cases of all sizes, the problem is especially acute in the smallest half of cases.  Some of those cases simply cannot be defended both well and economically by typical defense firms.  Either defense costs become ridiculously large for the size of the case and the amount of the D&O insurance limits, or firms try to reduce costs by cutting corners on staffing and projects – or both.  We see large law firms routinely chase smaller and smaller cases.  From a market perspective, it makes no sense at all.

So how do we achieve a better securities litigation system?  Five changes would have a profound impact:

  1. Require an interview process for the selection of defense counsel, to allow the defendants to understand their options; to evaluate conflicts of interest and the advantages and disadvantages of using their corporate firm to defend the litigation; and to achieve cost concessions that only a competitive interview process can yield.
  2. Increase the involvement of D&O insurers in defense-counsel selection and in other strategic defense decisions, to put those who have the greatest overall experience and economic stake in securities class action defense in a position to provide meaningful input.
  3. Make the Supreme Court’s Omnicare decision a primary tool in the defense of securities class actions.  Obviously, Omnicare should be used to defend against challenges to all forms of opinions, including statements regarded as “puffery” and forward-looking statements protected by the Reform Act’s Safe Harbor for forward-looking statements.  But defense counsel should also take advantage of the Supreme Court’s direction in Omnicare that courts evaluate challenged statements in their full factual context.  Omnicare supplements the Court’s previous direction in Tellabs that courts evaluate scienter by considering not just the complaint’s allegations, but also documents incorporated by reference and documents subject to judicial notice.  Together, Omnicare and Tellabs allow defense counsel to defend their clients’ honesty with a robust factual record at the motion to dismiss stage.
  4. Increase the involvement of boards of directors in decisions concerning D&O insurance and the defense of securities litigation, including counsel selection, to ensure their personal protection and good oversight of the defense of the company and themselves.
  5. Move damages expert reports and discovery ahead of fact discovery, to allow the defendants and their D&O insurers to understand the real economics of cases that survive a motion to dismiss, and to make more informed litigation and settlement decisions.

These five changes are among the top wishes I have to improve securities litigation defense, and to preserve the protections of directors and officers who face securities litigation.  Over the next several months, I will post about each one.  Here are links to the posts in the series so far:

Wish #1:  5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense: A Defense-Counsel Interview Process in All Cases

Wish #2:  5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense: Greater Insurer Involvement in Defense-Counsel Selection and Strategy

Wish #3:  5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense: Effective Use of the Supreme Court’s Omnicare Decision

Wish #4:  5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense: Greater Director Involvement in Securities Litigation Defense and D&O Insurance

Wish #5:  5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense: Early Damages Analysis and Discovery

Following is an article we wrote for Law360, which gave us permission to republish it here:

The coming year promises to be a pivotal one in the world of securities and corporate governance litigation.  In particular, there are five developing issues we are watching that have the greatest potential to significantly increase or decrease the exposure of public companies and their directors, officers, and insurers.

1.  How Will Lower Courts Apply the Supreme Court’s Decision in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers Dist. Council Const. Industry Pension Fund?

If it is correctly understood and applied by defendants and the courts, we believe Omnicare will stand alongside Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308 (2007), as one of the two most important securities litigation decisions since the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995.

In Omnicare, 135 S. Ct. 1318 (2015), the Supreme Court held that a statement of opinion is only false if the speaker does not genuinely believe it, and that it is only misleading if – as with any other statement – it omits facts that make it misleading when viewed in its full context.  The Court’s ruling on what is necessary for an opinion to be false establishes a uniform standard that resolves two decades of confusing and conflicting case law, which often resulted in meritless securities cases surviving dismissal motions.  And the Court’s ruling regarding how an opinion may be misleading emphasizes that courts must evaluate the fairness of challenged statements (both opinions and other statements) within a broad factual context, eliminating the short-shrift that many courts have given the misleading-statement analysis.

These are tremendous improvements in the law, and should help defendants win more cases involving statements of opinion, not only under Section 11, the statute at issue in Omnicare, but also under Section 10(b), since Omnicare’s holding applies to the “false or misleading statement” element common to both statutes.  The standards the Court set should also add to the Reform Act’s Safe Harbor, and expand the tools that defendants have to defend against challenges to earnings forecasts and other forward-looking statements, which are quintessential opinions.

Indeed, if used correctly, Omnicare should also help defendants gain dismissal of claims brought based on challenged statements of fact, because of its emphasis on the importance of considering the entire context of a statement when determining whether it was misleading.   For example, the Court emphasized that whether a statement is misleading “always depends on context,” so a statement must be understood in its “broader frame,” including “in light of all its surrounding text, including hedges, disclaimers, and apparently conflicting information,” and the “customs and practices of the relevant industry.”

A good motion to dismiss has always analyzed a challenged statement (of fact or opinion) in its broader factual context to explain why it was not misleading.  But many defense lawyers unfortunately choose to leave out this broader context, and as a result of this narrow record, courts sometimes take a narrower view.  With Omnicare, this superior method of analysis is now explicitly required.  This will be a powerful tool, especially when combined with Tellabs’s directive that courts must weigh scienter inferences based not only on the complaint’s allegations, but also on documents on which the complaint relies or that are subject to judicial notice.

Omnicare bolsters the array of weapons available to defendants to effectively defend allegations of falsity, and to set up and support the Safe Harbor defense and arguments against scienter.  Because of its importance, we plan to write a piece critiquing the cases applying Omnicare after its one-year anniversary in March.

2.  Will Courts Continue to Curtail the Use of 10b5-1 Plans as a Way to Undermine Scienter Allegations?

All successful securities fraud complaints must persuade the court that the difference between the challenged statements and the “corrective” disclosure was the result of fraud, and not due to a business reversal or some other non-fraudulent cause.  Because few securities class action complaints contain direct evidence of fraud, such as specific information that a speaker knew his statements were false, most successful complaints include allegations that the defendants somehow profited from the alleged fraud, such as through unusual and suspicious stock sales.

Thus, stock-sale allegations are a key battleground in most securities actions.  An important defensive tactic has been to point out that the challenged stock sales were made under stock-sale plans under SEC Rule 10b5-1, which provides an affirmative defense to insider-trading claims, if the plan was established in good faith at a time when they were unaware of material non-public information.  Although Rule 10b5-1 is designed to be an affirmative defense in insider-trading cases, securities class action defendants also use it to undermine stock-sale allegations, if the plan has been publicly disclosed and thus subject to judicial notice, since it shows that the defendant did not have control over the allegedly unusual and suspicious stock sales.

Plaintiffs’ argument in response to a 10b5-1 plan defense has always been that any plan adopted during the class period is just a large insider sale designed to take advantage of the artificial inflation in the stock price.  Plaintiffs claim that by definition, the class period is a time during which the defendants had material nonpublic information – although they often manipulate the class period in order to encompass stock sales and the establishment of 10b5-1 plans.

There have been surprisingly few key court decisions on this pivotal issue, but on July 24, 2015, the Second Circuit held that “[w]hen executives enter into a trading plan during the Class Period and the Complaint sufficiently alleges that the purpose of the plan was to take advantage of an inflated stock price, the plan provides no defense to scienter allegations.” Employees’ Ret. Sys. of Gov’t of the Virgin Island v. Blanford, 794 F.3d 297, 309 (2d Cir. 2015).

Plaintiffs’ ability to plead scienter will take a huge step forward if Blanford, decided by an important appellate court, starts a wave of similar holdings in other circuits.

3.  Will Delaware’s Endorsement of Forum Selection Bylaws and Rejection of Disclosure-Only Settlements Reduce Shareholder Challenges to Mergers?

For the past several years, there has been great focus on amending corporate bylaws to try to corral and curtail shareholder corporate-governance claims, principally shareholder challenges to mergers.  Meritless merger litigation is indeed a big problem.  It is a slap in the face to careful directors who have worked hard to understand and approve a merger, and to CEOs who have worked long hours to find and negotiate a transaction that is in the shareholders’ best interests.  It is cold comfort to know that nearly all mergers draw shareholder litigation, and that nearly all of those cases will settle before the transaction closes without any payment by the directors or officers personally.  It is proof that the system is broken when it routinely allows meritless suits to result in significant recoveries for plaintiffs’ lawyers, with virtually nothing gained by companies or their shareholders.

In 2015, the Delaware legislature and courts took significant steps to curb meritless merger litigation.

First, the legislature added new Section 115 to the Delaware General Corporation Law (“DGCL”), which provides:

The certificate of incorporation or the bylaws may require, consistent with applicable jurisdictional requirements, that any or all internal corporate claims shall be brought solely and exclusively in any or all of the courts in this State.

This provision essentially codified the holding in Boilermakers Local 154 Ret. Fund v. Chevron Corp., 73 A.3d 934 (Del. Ch. 2013), in which the Delaware Court of Chancery upheld the validity of bylaws requiring that corporate governance litigation be brought only in Delaware state and federal courts.  The Delaware legislature also amended the DGCL to ban bylaws that purport to shift fees.  In new subsection (f) to Section 102, the certificate of incorporation “may not contain any provision that would impose liability on a stockholder for the attorneys’ fees or expenses of the corporation or any other party in connection with an internal corporate claim.” See also DGCL Section 109(b) (similar).

Second, in a series of decisions in 2015, the Delaware Court of Chancery rejected or criticized so-called disclosure-only settlements, under which the target company supplements its proxy-statement disclosures in exchange for a payment to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.  See Acevedo v. Aeroflex Holding Corp., et al., C.A. No. 7930-VCL (Del. Ch. July 8, 2015) (TRANSCRIPT) (rejecting disclosure-only settlement); In re Aruba Networks S’holder Litig., C.A. No. 10765-VCL (Del. Ch. Oct. 9, 2015) (TRANSCRIPT) (same); In re Riverbed Tech., Inc., S’holder Litig., 2015 WL 5458041, C.A. No. 10484-VCG (Del. Ch. Sept. 17, 2015) (approving disclosure-only settlement with broad release, but suggesting that approval of such settlements “will be diminished or eliminated going forward”); In re Intermune, Inc., S’holder Litig., C.A. No. 10086–VCN (Del. Ch. July 8, 2015) (TRANSCRIPT) (noting concern regarding global release in disclosure-only settlement).

We will be closely watching the impact of these developments, with the hope that they will deter plaintiffs from reflexively filing meritless merger cases.  Delaware exclusive-forum bylaws will force plaintiffs to face the scrutiny of Delaware courts, and the Court of Chancery has indicated that it may no longer allow an easy exit from these cases through a disclosure-only settlement.  And with cases in a single forum, defendants will now be able to coordinate them for early motions to dismiss.  Thus, the number of mergers subject to a shareholder lawsuit should decline – and the early returns suggest that this may already be happening.

Yet defendants should brace for negative consequences.  Plaintiffs’ lawyers will doubtless bring more cases outside of Delaware against non-Delaware corporations, or against companies that haven’t adopted a Delaware exclusive-forum bylaw.  And within Delaware, plaintiffs’ lawyers will tend to bring more meritorious cases that present greater risk, exposure, and stigma – and while Delaware is a defendant-friendly forum for good transactions, it is a decidedly unfriendly one for bad ones.  If disclosure-only settlements are no longer allowed, defendants will no longer have the option of escaping these cases easily and cheaply.  This means that those cases that are filed will doubtless require more expensive litigation, and result in more significant settlements and judgments.  Thus, although the current system is undoubtedly badly flawed, many companies may well look back on the days of this broken system with nostalgia, and conclude that they were better off before it was “fixed.”

4.  Will Item 303 Claims Make a Difference in Securities Class Actions?

The key liability provisions of the federal securities laws, Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Section 11 of the Securities Act of 1933, both require that plaintiffs establish a false statement, or a statement that is rendered misleading by the omission of facts.  Over the last several years, plaintiffs’ lawyers have increasingly tried to bypass this element by asserting claims for pure omissions, detached from any challenged statement.

Plaintiffs base these claims on Item 303 of SEC Regulation S-K, which requires companies to provide a “management’s discussion and analysis” (MD&A) of the company’s “financial condition, changes in financial condition and results of operations.”  Item 303(a)(3)(ii) indicates that the MD&A must include a description of “any known trends or uncertainties that have had or that the [company] reasonably expects will have a material … unfavorable impact on net sales or revenues or income from continuing operations.”

Both Section 10(b) and Section 11 prohibit a false statement or omission of a fact that causes a statement to be misleading, while Section 11 also allows a claim based on an issuer’s failure to disclose “a material fact required to be stated” in a registration statement. 15 U.S.C. § 77k(a) (emphasis added).  Item 303 is one regulation that lists such “material fact(s) required to be stated.”  Panther Partners Inc. v. Ikanos Communications, Inc., 681 F.3d 114, 120 (2d Cir. 2012).  Based on this unique statutory language, Section 11 claims thus appropriately can include claims based on Item 303.

Last year, in Stratte-McClure v. Morgan Stanley, 776 F.3d 94 (2d Cir. 2015), the Second Circuit held that Item 303 also imposes a duty to disclose for purposes of Section 10(b), meaning that the omission of information required by Item 303 can provide the basis for a Section 10(b) claim.  This ruling is at odds with the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in In re NVIDIA Corp. Securities Litigation, 768 F.3d 1046 (9th Cir. 2014), in which the court held that Item 303 does not establish such a duty.  The U.S. Supreme Court declined a cert petition in NVIDIA.

Claims based on Item 303 seem innocuous enough, and even against plaintiffs’ interest. Plaintiffs face a high hurdle in showing that information was wrongfully excluded under Item 303, since they must show that a company actually knew:  (1) the facts underlying the trend or uncertainty, (2) those known facts yield a trend or uncertainty, and (3) the trend or uncertainty will have a negative and material impact.  In virtually all cases, these sorts of omitted facts would also render one or more of defendants’ affirmative statements misleading, and thus be subject to challenge regardless.  Moreover, in Section 11 cases, Item 303 injects knowledge and causation requirements in a statute that normally doesn’t require scienter and only includes causation as an affirmative defense.

Why, then, have plaintiffs’ counsel pushed Item 303 claims so hard?  We believe they’ve done so to combat the cardinal rule that silence, absent a duty to disclose, is not misleading.  Companies omit thousands of facts every time they speak, and it is relatively easy for a plaintiff to identify omitted facts – but much more difficult to explain how those omissions rendered an affirmative statement misleading.  Plaintiffs likely initially saw these claims as a way to maintain class actions in the event the Supreme Court overruled Basic v. Levinson as a result of attacks in the Amgen and Halliburton cases.  And even though the Supreme Court declined to overrule Basic in Halliburton II, the Court’s price-impact rule presents problems for plaintiffs in some cases.  As a result, plaintiffs may believe it is in their strategic interests to assert Item 303 claims, which plaintiffs have contended fall under the Affiliated Ute presumption of reliance, rather than under Basic.

But whatever plaintiffs’ rationale, Item 303 is largely a red herring.  Although it shouldn’t matter to securities litigation, it will matter, as long as plaintiffs continue to bring such claims.  And they probably will continue to bring them, given the current strategic considerations, and the legal footing they have been given by key appellate rulings in Panther Partners and Stratte-McClure.  Defense attorneys will have to pay close attention to these trends and mount sophisticated defenses to these claims, to ensure that Item 303 claims do not take on a life of their own.

5.  Cyber Security Securities and Derivative Litigation: Will There Be a Wave or Trickle?

One of the foremost uncertainties in securities and corporate governance litigation is the extent to which cyber security will become a significant D&O liability issue.  Although many practitioners have been bracing for a wave of cyber security D&O matters, to date there has been only a trickle.

We remain convinced that a wave is coming, perhaps a tidal wave, and that it will include not just derivative litigation, but securities class actions and SEC enforcement matters as well.  To date, plaintiffs generally haven’t filed cyber security securities class actions because stock prices have not significantly dropped when companies have disclosed breaches.  That is bound to change as the market begins to distinguish companies on the basis of cyber security.  There have been a number of shareholder derivative actions asserting that boards failed to properly oversee their companies’ cyber security.  Those actions will continue, and likely increase, whether or not plaintiffs file cyber security securities class actions, but they will increase exponentially if securities class action filings pick up.

While the frequency of cyber security shareholder litigation will inevitably increase, we are more worried about its severity, because of the notorious statistics concerning a lack of attention by companies and boards to cyber security oversight and disclosure.  Indeed, the shareholder litigation may well be ugly:  The more directors and officers are on notice about the severity of cyber security problems, and the less action they take while on notice, the easier it will be for plaintiffs to prove their claims.

We also worry about SEC enforcement actions concerning cyber security.  The SEC has been struggling to refine its guidance to companies on cyber security disclosure, trying to balance the concern of disclosing too much and thus providing hackers with a roadmap, with the need to disclose enough to allow investors to evaluate companies’ cyber security risk.  But directors and officers should not assume that the SEC will announce new guidance or issue new rules before it begins new enforcement activity in this area.  All it takes to trigger an investigation of a particular company is some information that the company’s disclosures were rendered false or misleading by inadequate cyber security.  And all it takes to trigger broader enforcement activity is a perception that companies are not taking cyber security disclosure seriously.  As in all areas of legal compliance, companies need to be concerned about whistleblowers, including overworked and underpaid IT personnel, lured by the SEC’s whistleblower bounty program, and about auditors, who will soon be asking more frequent and difficult questions about cyber security.

Conclusion

Of course, there are a number of other important issues that deserve to be on watch lists.  But given the line we’ve drawn – issues that will cause the most volatility in securities litigation liability exposure – we regard the issues we’ve discussed as the top five.

And the top one – whether lower courts will properly apply Omnicare – is a rare game-changer.  If defense counsel understands and uses Omnicare correctly, and if lower courts apply it as the Supreme Court intended, securities litigation decisions will be based on reality, and therefore far fairer and more just.  But if either defense counsel or lower courts get it wrong, companies and their directors and officers will suffer outcomes that are less predictable, more arbitrary, and often wrong.

In 2015, the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act* turned twenty years old.

Over my career as a securities litigator, I’ve seen both sides of the securities-litigation divide that the Reform Act created.  In the first part of my career, I witnessed the figurative skid marks in front of courthouses, as lawyers raced to the courthouse to file claims before knowing if there really was a claim to be filed – the emblem of the problems Congress sought to correct.  And in the 20 years since, I’ve seen the Reform Act both succeed and fail to achieve the results Congress intended.

In this blog post, I assign grades to each of the Reform Act’s key provisions, and an overall grade.  The Reform Act’s successes and failures derive from an amalgam of factors, ranging from Congressional insight and oversight, to good and bad lawyering by plaintiffs’ and defense lawyers alike, to good and bad judging.  The grades I assign are necessarily based on a defense perspective, and mine at that – but I do try to be fair.

Grading the Reform Act’s Key Provisions

The Reform Act was passed by the Contract-with-America Congress to address its perception that securities class actions were reflexive, lawyer-driven litigation that often asserted weak claims based on little more than a stock drop, and relied on post-litigation discovery, rather than pre-litigation investigation, to sort out the validity of the claims.  The Reform Act, among other things:

  • Imposed strict pleading standards for showing both falsity and scienter, to curtail frivolous claims by increasing the likelihood that they would be dismissed;
  • Created a Safe Harbor for forward-looking statements, to encourage companies to make forecasts and other predictions without undue fear of liability;
  • Imposed a stay of discovery until the motion-to-dismiss process is resolved, to prevent discovery fishing expeditions and to eliminate the burden of discovery for claims that do not meet the enhanced pleading standards; and
  • Created procedures for selecting a lead plaintiff with a substantial financial stake in the litigation, to discourage lawyer-driven actions and the “race to the courthouse.”

Following are my grades for each of these provisions:

Falsity Pleading Standard – Grade: D

The Reform Act requires a plaintiff to plead the element of a false or misleading statement with particularity.  Indeed, the statute says that “if an allegation regarding the statement or omission is made on information and belief, the complaint shall state with particularity all facts on which that belief is formed.” 15 U.S.C. § 78u-4(b)(1) (emphasis added).

Yet this powerful tool is now almost a museum piece.  I don’t just mean the “all facts” part – an issue plaintiffs and defendants heavily litigated for years,  before courts converged around the proposition that plaintiffs only need to include enough detail to adequately plead the claim.  Rather, I mean that most defense firms now merely go through the motions of attacking and analyzing plaintiffs’ falsity allegations.

How could that have happened?  To be blunt, it’s mostly through bad lawyering by defense lawyers, who got sidetracked by the Safe Harbor and the scienter pleading standard (see below), and by self-indulgent statutory analysis, such as what Congress meant by the term “all facts.”  In doing so, they overlooked the more basic but powerful point: the Reform Act’s falsity standard must be a higher and different hurdle than Rule 9(b), requiring a robust analysis of the falsity allegations.  And when they got distracted, defense counsel took their eye off their main job: to stick up for their clients’ honesty.

Indeed, the core argument of virtually every motion to dismiss should be that the defendants told the truth and said nothing false.  The Reform Act, and now the Supreme Court’s decision in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers Dist. Council Const. Industry Pension Fund, 135 S. Ct. 1318 (2015), leave securities defense lawyers with broad latitude to attack falsity.  A proper falsity analysis always starts by examining each challenged statement individually, and matching it up with the facts that plaintiffs allege illustrate its falsity.  From there, the truth of what the defendants said can be supported in numerous ways that are still within the proper scope of the motion-to-dismiss standard:  showing that the facts alleged do not actually undermine the challenged statements, because of mismatch of timing or substance; pointing out gaps, inconsistencies, and contradictions in plaintiffs’ allegations; demonstrating that the facts that plaintiffs assert are insufficiently detailed under the Reform Act; attacking allegations that plaintiffs claim to be facts, but which are really opinions, speculation, and unsupported conclusions; putting defendants’ allegedly false or misleading statements in their full context to show that they were not misleading; and pointing to judicially noticeable facts that contradict plaintiffs’ theory.

These arguments must be supplemented by a robust understanding of the relevant factual background, which defines and frames the direction of any argument based on the complaint and judicially noticeable facts.  Yet most motions to dismiss do not make a forceful argument against falsity that is supported with a specific challenge to the facts alleged by the plaintiffs.  Some motions superficially assert that the allegations are too vague to satisfy the pleading standard, but do not engage in a detailed defense of the challenged statements.  Others simply attack the credibility of “confidential witnesses” without addressing in sufficient detail the content of the information the complaint attributes to them.  And others fall back on the doctrine of “puffery,” essentially conceding that the statements may have been lies, but contending that they were not specific or important enough to be taken seriously.  By focusing on these and similar approaches, a brief may leave the judge with the impression that defendants concede falsity, and that the real defense is that the false statements were not made with scienter.  Not only is this an argument not available for Section 11 and 12 claims, but defense counsel’s failure to attack falsity allegations in detail actually undermines the argument that defendants did not have scienter.

The Reform Act’s falsity pleading standard was an enormous gift for defense attorneys, which enables them to mount a strong and vibrant defense on a motion to dismiss if it is used correctly.  But because it has not been used to its potential, I give it a D.

Scienter Pleading Standard – Grade: C

The Reform Act says that “with respect to each act or omission alleged to violate this chapter, [plaintiffs must] state with particularity facts giving rise to a strong inference that the defendant acted with the required state of mind,” i.e., scienter. 15 U.S.C. § 78u-4(b)(2).

Defense lawyers have billed billions of dollars analyzing and briefing what these simple words mean.  We argued for years about the meaning of “the required state of mind” – did it mean actual intent, recklessness, or a hybrid?  We litigated how courts must consider whether plaintiffs have pleaded a “strong inference” of that state of mind, an issue ultimately decided by the Supreme Court in Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308 (2007), which held that courts must weigh inferences of scienter to decide whether the alleged inference of fraud is stronger than opposing innocent inferences.  We then argued over whether Tellabs did away with the various “rules” courts had established, such as the amount or percentage of stock holdings a defendant had to sell before his or her sales suggested scienter, and whether looking at stock sales, or any other type of scienter allegation, in isolation was even allowed.  And we have argued over the degree of particularity Congress intended to require, and engaged in thousands of “did so, did not” spats over whether the allegations met the standard for which we were arguing.

For defendants, the overall outcome of all of this is decent.  The dismissal rate is pretty good, and the vast majority of dismissals are based on plaintiffs’ failure to plead scienter.  But the defense counsel community’s intense focus on improving the defendant-friendly scienter standard contributed to the distraction that sidetracked good falsity analysis.  And to what end?  I would bet a great deal that the difference between plain old “recklessness” and a slightly higher degree of recklessness has made no real difference in the dismissal rate.  A judge who believes that a defendant didn’t mean to say something false would not deny a motion to dismiss simply over a slightly different formulation of the legal standard.

But defendants have achieved this decent dismissal rate without their defense counsel making the best possible arguments for them.  As with falsity, the primary flaw in most defense arguments against scienter is with defense counsel’s failure to engage in a fact-specific analysis of the complaint’s allegations about what the defendants knew in regard to each specific challenged statement.  All too often, defendants allow themselves to be sidetracked by technicalities, or even worse, drawn to the plaintiffs’ preferred ground of battle, focusing on arguing about the sufficiency of the circumstantial evidence that plaintiffs use to create the impression that the defendants must have done something wrong.

Both of these flaws are found in defense counsel’s typical approach to plaintiffs’ arguments under the “core operations” inference of scienter and the “corporate scienter” doctrine.  Each of these theories allows a plaintiff to avoid pleading specific facts establishing the speaker’s scienter.  For example, the core operations inference posits that scienter can be inferred where it would be “absurd to suggest” that a senior executive doesn’t know facts about the company’s “core operations.”  Many motions to dismiss set up some formulation of this statement as a legal rule and then use it to make a simplistic syllogistic argument.  Such arguments devolve into “did not, did so” debates, and thus play into plaintiffs’ hands because they are detached from knowledge of falsity.  Instead, the right approach to the core operations inference is to understand that it requires a falsity so blatant that we can strongly infer that the executive had knowledge of the exact facts that made the statement false – not just the subject matter of the facts.  The most effective defense against the core operations inference thus focuses on falsity first, to show that even if a statement is false, it is at least a close call – making it hard for plaintiffs to contend that defendants must have known of this falsity.  But this can’t be done effectively if the argument against falsity does not vigorously attack the falsity allegations.

For these reasons, I give defense counsel’s use of the scienter pleading standard an overall grade of C: a B for the results and a D for how we got there.

Safe Harbor – Grade: D

The Safe Harbor for forward-looking statements was a centerpiece of the Reform Act.  Companies were being sued following announcements of missed earnings forecasts, which deterred companies from giving valuable earnings guidance.  Congress sought to encourage companies to give guidance and make other forward-looking statements by shielding such statements from liability if they are accompanied by “meaningful cautionary statements” or made without “actual knowledge” that they were false.  15 U.S.C. § 77z-2(c)(1); 15 U.S.C. § 78u-5(c)(1).

Yet the Safe Harbor is anything but safe.  In the 20 years of the Reform Act, surprisingly few dismissals are based solely the Safe Harbor; instead, courts either use it as  fallback grounds for dismissal, or just sidestep it – which has resulted in some significant legal errors.  The most notorious erroneous Safe Harbor decision was written by one of the country’s most renowned judges, Judge Frank Easterbrook, in Asher v. Baxter, 377 F.3d 727 (7th Cir. 2004).  Judge Easterbrook read into the Safe Harbor the word “the” before “important” in the phrase “identifying important factors,” to then hold that discovery was required to determine whether the company’s cautionary language contained “the (or any of the) ‘important sources of variance’” between the forecast and the actual results.  Id. at 734.

The reason for this judicial antipathy was best articulated by Bill Lerach, who famously said that the Safe Harbor would give executives a “license to lie.”  Judges have tended to agree with this conclusion.  Some have been quite explicit about it.  For example, in In re Stone & Webster, Inc. Securities Litigation, the First Circuit called the Safe Harbor a “curious statute, which grants (within limits) a license to defraud.”  414 F.3d 187, 212 (1st Cir. 2005).  And the Second Circuit, in its first decision analyzing the Safe Harbor – 15 years after the Reform Act was enacted, illustrating the degree of judicial avoidance – correctly interpreted “or” to mean “or,” but stated that “Congress may wish to give further direction on …. the reference point by which we should judge whether an issuer has identified the factors that realistically could cause results to differ from projections.  May an issuer be protected by the meaningful cautionary language prong of the safe harbor even where his cautionary statement omitted a major risk that he knew about at the time he made the statement?”  Slayton v. American Express Co., 604 F.3d 758, 772 (2d Cir. 2010).  Probably for this reason, the Safe Harbor has not deterred plaintiffs’ counsel from continuing to bring false forecast cases.  Twenty years later, a great many securities class actions still focus on earnings forecasts and other forward-looking statements.

We as a defense community have worsened the judicial antipathy and reluctance to issue rulings on Safe Harbor grounds, by making hyper-technical arguments that are detached from any notion that the challenged forward-looking statements aren’t false in the first place.  Most challenged forward-looking statements are true statements of opinion, and don’t even need the Safe Harbor’s protection.  But by bypassing the falsity argument, and falling back on the Safe Harbor, defense counsel plays right into plaintiffs’ hands.  Many defense lawyers try to overcome this problem by emphasizing that Congress intended to immunize even unfair forward-looking statements, if they are accompanied by appropriate warnings.  But this species of the disfavored defense of caveat emptor rings hollow.  Judges don’t like caveat emptor, and they don’t like liars – regardless of Congressional intent.  A much better way to defend forward-looking statements is to show that they were true statements of opinion, and then use the Reform Act as a fallback argument.  It makes the judge feel comfortable dismissing in either or both of two ways.  But few defense lawyers take that approach.

Finally, companies and their outside corporate counsel have contributed to the Safe Harbor’s lack of safety by failing to describe their risks in a fresh and detailed way each quarter.  When I evaluate a securities class action that challenges forward-looking statements and other statements of opinion (which comprise nearly all securities cases), one of the first things I look for is the progression of the risk factors each quarter.  I have a chart made, and I read them start to finish, as the judge will when we create the context for our arguments against falsity and to support the application of the Safe Harbor.  Are the risk factors specific or generic?  Do they change over time or are they static?  Do the changes in the risk factors track disclosed changes in business conditions?  Etc.  But companies and their outside corporate counsel frequently devolve to boilerplate, and fail to draft careful disclosures that make a judge feel comfortable that they were trying to disclose their real risks each quarter.

So, I give the Safe Harbor a D.

Lead Plaintiff Procedures – Grade C

The symbol of the pre-Reform Act era is the race to the courthouse among plaintiffs’ lawyers to file a complaint first and thus win the lead counsel role.  Congress intended the heightened pleading standards and the Safe Harbor to play a role in fixing that problem, because they are meant to incentivize plaintiffs to do more pre-filing investigation.  However, the Reform Act’s lead plaintiff provisions – which require the court to choose a lead plaintiff and lead plaintiff’s counsel after a beauty contest – undermine that goal, since only the lead plaintiff has an economic incentive to invest much time and money in an investigation.  So although the initial filer no longer has a competitive advantage by being the first plaintiff to file, the initial complaint is still routinely filed without any real investigation or worry about satisfying the pleading standards.

The lead plaintiff procedures were also designed to prevent lawyer-driven litigation, by providing that the lead plaintiff is presumptively the plaintiff with the largest financial loss – i.e., a plaintiff with “skin in the game.”  While that goal is salutary, it has spawned complex and mixed results.  The Reform Act’s lead plaintiff process incentivized plaintiffs’ firms to recruit institutional investors to serve as plaintiffs.  For the most part, institutional investors, whether smaller unions or large funds, retained the more prominent plaintiffs’ firms, and smaller plaintiffs’ firms were left with individual investor clients who usually can’t beat out institutions for the lead plaintiff role.  At the same time, securities class action economics tightened in all but the largest cases.  Dismissal rates under the Reform Act are pretty high, and defeating a motion to dismiss often requires significant investigative costs and intensive legal work.  And the median settlement amount of cases that survive dismissal motions is fairly low.  These dynamics placed a premium on experience, efficiency, and scale.  Larger firms filed the lion’s share of the cases, and smaller plaintiffs’ firms were unable to compete effectively for the lead plaintiff role, or make much money on their litigation investments.

This started to change with the wave of cases against Chinese issuers in 2010.  Smaller plaintiffs’ firms initiated the lion’s share of these cases, as the larger firms were swamped with credit-crisis cases and likely were deterred by the relatively small damages, potentially high discovery costs, and uncertain insurance and company financial resources.  Moreover, these cases fit smaller firms’ capabilities well; nearly all of the cases had “lawsuit blueprints” such as auditor resignations and/or short-seller reports, thereby reducing the smaller firms’ investigative costs and increasing their likelihood of surviving a motion to dismiss.  The dismissal rate has indeed been low, and limited insurance and company resources have prompted early settlements in amounts that, while on the low side, appear to have yielded good outcomes for the smaller plaintiffs’ firms.

The smaller plaintiffs’ firms thus built up a head of steam that has kept them going, even after the wave of China cases subsided.  For the last year or two, following almost every “lawsuit blueprint” announcement, a smaller firm has launched an “investigation” of the company, and they have initiated an increasing number of cases.  Like the China cases, these cases tend to be against smaller companies.  Thus, smaller plaintiffs’ firms have discovered a class of cases – cases against smaller companies that have suffered well-publicized problems that reduce the plaintiffs’ firms’ investigative costs – for which they can win the lead plaintiff role and that they can prosecute at a sufficient profit margin.

To be sure, the larger firms still mostly can and will beat out the smaller firms for the cases they want.  But it increasingly seems clear that the larger firms don’t want to take the lead in initiating many of the cases against smaller companies, and are content to focus on larger cases on behalf of their institutional investor clients.  The result is now two classes of plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ firms:  larger firms with institutional investor clients, as Congress intended, and smaller plaintiffs’ firms with smaller individual clients, which Congress sought to displace.   In a sense, we’re back to where we started, but now with more aggressive institutional investors to boot.

As a result, from the defense perspective, I give the lead plaintiff procedures a C.

Discovery Stay – Grade: A

The Reform Act’s automatic stay of discovery was also meant to prevent plaintiffs from filing a lawsuit without adequate investigation, and conducting formal discovery to fish for facts to support it.  The discovery stay has saved defendants and their insurers many billions of dollars in discovery costs, and prevented millions of hours of unnecessary distraction by employees who have been able to focus on their jobs instead of helping their lawyers and electronic discovery consultants collect documents.  Although the statute contains several exceptions, there has been relatively little litigation over their application, especially over the last decade; the plaintiffs’ bar has shown restraint and efficiency in not over-litigating the discovery stay.  The discovery stay has worked well.

Conclusion:  The Reform Act’s Overall Grade

Grade: C+

In outlining this post, I originally organized my thoughts around this question: Are companies and their directors and officers really better off than they were 20 years ago?  Although it may seem absurd that a defense lawyer could even think about answering that question “no,” it really is a fair question.  I could make the case that the Reform Act’s tools have actually hindered the overall effectiveness of securities litigation defense by distracting from its core purpose: to convince a judge or jury that the defendants didn’t say anything false.  That is best done by thinking about the defense of the litigation overall, through trial – which not only sets the case up for a better defense on the merits, but results in better motion-to-dismiss results, for the reasons I’ve described.  But instead, the Reform Act tempts defense counsel to rely on technicalities, which can result in a mediocre defense, and an increased liability and economic exposure that overall are harmful to public companies, their directors and officers, and insurers.

 

* I never call the Reform Act the “PSLRA.”  The Reform Act was meant to reform securities litigation, not PSLRA-ize it.

When a public company purchases a significant good or service, it typically seeks competitive proposals.  From coffee machines to architects, companies invite multiple vendors to bid, evaluate their proposals, and choose one based on a combination of quality and cost.  Yet companies named in a securities class action frequently fail to engage in a competitive interview process for their defense counsel, and instead simply retain litigation lawyers at the firm they use for their corporate work.

To be sure, it is difficult for company management to tell their outside corporate lawyers that they are going to consider hiring another firm to defend a significant litigation matter.  The corporate lawyers are trusted advisors, often former colleagues of the in-house counsel, and have usually made sacrifices for the client that make the corporate lawyers expect to be repaid through engagement to defend whatever litigation might arise.  A big litigation matter is what makes all of the miscellaneous loss-leader work worth it.  “You owe me,” is the unspoken, and sometimes spoken, message.

Corporate lawyers also make the pitch that it will be more efficient for their litigation colleagues to defend the litigation since the corporate lawyers know the facts and can more efficiently work with the firm’s litigators.  Meanwhile, they tell the client that there is no conflict – even if their work on the company’s disclosures is at issue, they assure the company that they will all be on the same side in defending the disclosures, and if they have to be witnesses, the lawyer-as-witness rules will allow them to work around the issue.

All of these assertions are flawed.  It is always – without exception – in the interests of the defendants to take a day to interview several defense firms of different types and perspectives.  And it is never – without exception – in the interests of the defendants to simply hand the case off to the litigators of the company’s corporate firm.  Even if the defendants hire the company’s corporate firm at the end of the interview process, they will have gained highly valuable strategic insights from multiple perspectives; cost concessions that only a competitive interview process will yield; better relationships with their insurers, who will be more comfortable with more thoughtful counsel selection; greater comfort with the corporate firm’s litigators, whom the defendants sometimes have never even met; and better service from the corporate firm.

Problems with Using Corporate Counsel

A Section 10(b) claim involves litigation of whether the defendants:  (1) made a false statement, or failed to disclose a fact that made what they said misleading in context; and (2) made any such false or misleading statements with intent to defraud (i.e. scienter).

Corporate counsel is very often an important fact witness for the defendants on both of these issues.  For example, in a great many cases, corporate counsel has:

  • Drafted the disclosures that plaintiffs challenge, so that the answer to the question “why did you say that?” is “our lawyers wrote it for us.”
  • Advised that omitted information wasn’t required to be disclosed, so that the answer to the question “why didn’t you disclose that” is “our lawyers told us we didn’t have to.”
  • Reviewed disclosures without questioning anything, or not questioning the challenged portion.
  • Drafted the risk factors that are the potential basis of the protection of the Reform Act’s Safe Harbor for forward-looking statements.
  • Not revised the risk factors that are the potential basis of Safe Harbor protection.
  • Advised on the ability of directors and officers to enter into 10b5-1 plans and when to do so, and on the ability of directors and officers to sell stock at certain times, given the presence or absence of material nonpublic information.
  • Advised on individual stock purchases.

The fact that the lawyer has given such advice, or not given such advice, can win the case for the defendants.  For example, for any case turning on a statement of opinion, the lawyer’s advice that the opinion had a reasonable basis virtually guarantees that the defendants won’t be liable.  Likewise, a lawyer’s drafting, revising, or advising on disclosures virtually guarantees that the defendants didn’t make the misrepresentation with scienter, and a lawyer’s advice on the timing of entering into 10b5-1 plans or selling stock makes the sales benign for scienter purposes.

To the defendants, it doesn’t matter if the lawyer was right or wrong.  As long as the advice wasn’t so obviously wrong that the client could not have followed it in good faith, the lawyer’s advice protects the defendants.  But to the lawyer, it matters a great deal for purposes of professional reputation and liability.  Deepening the conflict is the specter of the law firm defending its advice on the basis that the client didn’t tell them everything.  The interests of the lawyer and defendant client thus can diverge significantly.

That this information may be privileged doesn’t change this analysis.  Of course, the privilege belongs to the client, who can decide whether to use the information in his or her defense, or not.  But with corporate counsel’s litigation colleagues guiding the development of the facts, privileged information is rarely analyzed, much less discussed with the client.  The reality is that most privileged information isn’t truly sensitive to the client, but instead reflects a client seeking advice – and seeking the liability protection the lawyer’s advice provides.  But from the lawyer’s perspective, there can be much to protect.  Privileged communications may reflect poor legal advice, and internal files may contain candid discussions about the client and the client’s issues that would result in embarrassment to the firm, and possible termination, if produced.

Perhaps even more importantly, regular corporate counsel’s litigation colleagues may often fail to assess the case objectively, in part because it implicates the work of their corporate colleagues, and in part because of a desire not to ask hard questions that could strain the law firm’s relationship with the client.  Sometimes the problem arises from a deliberate attempt by the lawyers to protect a particular person who may have made an error leading to the litigation, such as the General Counsel (often is a former colleague), the CFO, or the CEO – all of whom are important to the client relationship.  Sometimes, though, the failure to thoughtfully analyze a case is due to a more generalized alliance with the people with whom the law firm works regularly.  It’s hard for a lawyer to scrutinize someone who will be in the firm’s luxury box at the baseball game that night, much less report a serious problem with him or her to the board.

Yet the defendants, including the board of the corporate client, need candid advice about the litigation to protect their interests.  For example, some problematic cases should be settled early, before the insurance limits are significantly eroded by defense costs and documents are produced that that will make the case even more difficult, and could even spawn other litigation or government investigations.  Defendants and corporate boards need to know this.

Corporate firms might counter that their litigation colleagues will give sound and independent advice, because they are a separate department and will face no economic or other pressure from the corporate department.  But that undermines one of the main reasons corporate lawyers urge that their litigation colleagues be hired: that it is more efficient to use the firm’s litigators since they work closely with the corporate lawyers, if not the company itself.  The corporate firm can’t have it both ways: either the litigators are close to the corporate lawyers and the company, and suffer from the problems outlined above, or they are independent, and their involvement yields little or no benefit in efficiency.  Indeed, it is most likely that the corporate firm’s litigators will be hindered by conflict, while nevertheless failing to create greater efficiency.  Just because lawyers are in a same firm doesn’t mean that they can read each other’s minds.  They still have to talk to one another, just as litigators from an outside firm would have to do.

So Why is Corporate Counsel Used So Often?

I doubt many directors or officers would disagree with the analysis above.  So why do so many companies turn to their corporate counsel without conducting an audition process?  Several practical factors impede the proper analysis of counsel selection in the initial days of a securities class action.

The single most important factor is probably that the corporate firm is first on the scene. Many companies reflexively hire their corporate firm immediately after the initial complaint is filed, or even after the stock drop, before a complaint is even filed.  By the time the defendants start to hear from other securities defense practices, they often have retained counsel.  And then it’s very difficult from a personal and practical perspective to walk the decision back.

This decision, moreover, is often made by the legal department, sometimes in consultation with the CEO and CFO.  The board is often not involved.  Instead, the board is merely presented with the decision, which can seem natural because the firm hired is familiar to them.  The directors often aren’t personally named in the initial complaint, so they might not pay as much attention as they would if they understood if they were likely to become defendants later – either in the main securities action, especially if the case involves a potential Section 11 claim, or in a tag-along shareholder derivative action.

Initial complaints can also mislead the company as to the real issues at stake.  Regular corporate counsel and the defendants may review the first complaint and incorrectly conclude that the allegations don’t implicate the lawyer’s work.  But these initial complaints are merely placeholders, because the Reform Act specifies that the lead plaintiff appointed by the court can later file an amended complaint.  Initial filers have little incentive to invest the time or effort into making detailed allegations in the initial complaint, because they may be beaten out for the lead plaintiff role.  The lead plaintiff’s amended complaint thus typically greatly expands the case to include new alleged false and misleading statements, more specific reasons why the challenged statements were false or misleading, and more detailed scienter allegations, including stock-sale and confidential-witness allegations that most initial complaints lack.  If a conflict becomes apparent at that point, however, it can be very difficult and even prejudicial to the defendants for corporate counsel to bow out.

Regular corporate counsel will often advise their clients that there is no issue with them defending the litigation, or even that doing so makes sense because they advised on the underlying disclosures.  But even if the corporate firm is trying to be candid and look out for its client’s interests, it may have blind spots in seeing its potential conflicts – especially when the corporate lawyers are facing pressure from their firm management to “hold the client.”

The pressures that lead a company to hire its corporate firm to defend the securities litigation are very real, and sometimes this decision is ultimately fine.  But I strongly believe that it is never in a client’s interest to take its corporate counsel’s advice on these issues without obtaining analysis from other securities practices as part of a competitive interview process.

The Benefits of a Competitive Process

In addition to obtaining important perspectives about potential problems with corporate counsel’s defense of the securities class action, an interview process involves myriad benefits – including tens of thousands of dollars of free legal advice.  The only cost to the company is a few hours to select the 3-5 firms that it wants to interview, and a day spent hearing presentations from those firms and discussing their analysis and approach with them.

An interview process gives defendants the opportunity to hear from several experienced securities litigators, who will offer a range of analyses and strategies on how best to defend the case.  It also allows defendants to evaluate professional credentials and personal compatibility, which are both important criteria.  It is difficult, if not impossible, for a company to evaluate how their corporate counsel’s litigators stack up against other litigators in this specialized and national practice area, without first hearing from some other firms.  Sometimes, a company will not even meet its corporate firm’s securities litigators in person before engaging them, which obviously makes it impossible for them to make judgments about personal compatibility and trust.

An interview process, if properly structured, is highly substantive.  The firms that fare best in a new-case interview typically prepare thorough discussions of the issues, and come prepared to analyze the case in great detail.  And the best ones look beyond the issues in the initial complaint to the issues that might emerge in the amended complaint, analyzing the full range of the company’s disclosures, to forecast future disclosure and scienter allegations, and evaluating the defenses that will remain even after allegations are added.

An interview process also helps the company to achieve a better deal on billing rates, staffing, and alternative fee arrangements.  Without an interview process, a law firm is much more likely to charge rack rates and do its work in the way it sees fit – which defendants are rarely in a position to challenge without having done some comparison shopping.  Even though securities class action defense costs are covered by D&O insurance, price matters in defense-counsel selection.  It is a mistake to treat D&O insurance proceeds as “free money.”  Without appropriate cost control, defendants run the risk of not having enough insurance proceeds to defend and resolve the case.  Appropriate cost control can help the litigation from resulting in a difficult or expensive D&O insurance renewal, and can allow the company to save money if the fees are less than the deductible.

An interview process also helps get the defendants off to a better start with its D&O insurers.  In addition to appreciating the cost control that an interview process yields, insurers also appreciate the defendants making a thoughtful decision on defense counsel, including vetting the potential problems with use of the company’s corporate firm.  D&O insurers and brokers are “repeat players” in securities litigation, and know the qualifications of defense counsel better than anyone else – a seasoned D&O insurance claims professional has overseen hundreds of securities class actions.  Asking insurers and brokers to help identify defense counsel to interview may therefore not only yield helpful suggestions, but may also make it easier to develop a relationship of strategic trust with the insurers – which will make it easier to obtain consent to settle early if appropriate, and if not, to defend the case through summary judgment or to trial.

Perhaps most importantly, an interview process results in a closer relationship between the defendants and their lawyers, whoever they end up being.  Most securities class action defendants are troubled by being sued, and need lawyers that they can trust to walk them through the process.  An interview process is the best way to find the lawyers who have the right combination of relevant characteristics – including skills, strategy, and bedside manner – that will best fit the needs of the defendants.

Does Item 303 of Regulation S-K matter in private securities litigation?  In Stratte-McClure v. Morgan Stanley, 776 F.3d 94 (2nd Cir. 2015), the Second Circuit held that Item 303 imposes a duty to disclose for purposes of Section 10(b), meaning that the omission of information required by Item 303 can provide the basis for a Section 10(b) claim.  This ruling is at odds with the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in In re NVIDIA Corp. Securities Litigation, 768 F.3d 1046 (9th Cir. 2014), in which the court held that Item 303 does not establish such a duty.  The U.S. Supreme Court declined a cert petition in NVIDIA.

I’m glad the Supreme Court didn’t take the case, because while this issue seems important, it really isn’t – as a practical matter, a claim under Item 303 doesn’t add much, if anything, to a plain vanilla claim alleging that a statement was misleading for omitting the same information.

Evolution of the Legal Issue

SEC forms, under both the Securities Act and the Exchange Act, require the disclosure of various items described in SEC Regulation S-K.  Some of the most important disclosures are found in S-K Item 303(a), which includes “management’s discussion and analysis” (MD&A) of the company’s “financial condition, changes in financial condition and results of operations.”  And Item 303(a)(3)(ii) indicates that the MD&A must include a description of “any known trends or uncertainties that have had or that the [company] reasonably expects will have a material … unfavorable impact on net sales or revenues or income from continuing operations.”  This is a high hurdle for a plaintiff to clear: a company must actually know: (1) the facts underlying the trend or uncertainty, (2) those known facts yield a trend or uncertainty, and (3) the trend or uncertainty will have a negative and material impact.

The key liability provisions of the federal securities laws, Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Section 11 of the Securities Act of 1933, prohibit a false statement or omission of a fact that causes a statement to be misleading.  In addition, the text of Section 11 allows a claim to be based on the issuer’s failure to disclose “a material fact required to be stated” in a registration statement. 15 U.S.C. § 77k(a) (emphasis added).  One such requirement is Item 303.  Panther Partners Inc. v. Ikanos Communications, Inc., 681 F.3d 114, 120 (2nd Cir. 2012).  Based on this statutory language – which is unique to Section 11 – Section 11 claims thus appropriately can include claims based on Item 303.

Panther Partners is the decision that has fueled plaintiffs’ counsel’s use of Item 303. In Panther Partners, the Second Circuit held that Item 303 required the issuer, Ikanos Communications, to disclose information about a high product defect rate, and that the omission of this information from a registration statement gave rise to a cause of action under Section 11.  There are two important facets of the decision that have largely been forgotten.  First, the court emphasized Section 11’s language, which isn’t present in the statute or decisions under Section 10(b), that an issuer must disclose “a material fact required to be stated” in a registration statement.  Second, the court was troubled by the fact that the company’s risk factor about product defects suggested there were no defects when, in fact, there were:

In light of these allegations, the Registration Statement’s generic cautionary language that “[h]ighly complex products such as those that [Ikanos] offer[s] frequently contain defects and bugs” was incomplete and, consequently, did not fulfill Ikanos’s duty to inform the investing public of the particular, factually-based uncertainties of which it was aware in the weeks leading up to the Secondary Offering.

Id.at 122.  I could make a strong argument that the driver of the court’s decision was a false or misleading risk factor, and Item 303 was just the way the court articulated its conclusion.  As I’ve written, courts are often troubled by boilerplate risk factors, especially those that cast as hypothetical risks that have materialized.

In NVIDIA, plaintiffs alleged that several of NVIDIA’s SEC filings contained materially false and misleading statements because they omitted information relating to a defect in NVIDIA’s graphics processing unit (“GPU”) chips.  Plaintiffs also argued that certain omissions in filing statements were actionable under Section 10(b) because the chip defects constituted a “known trend” under Item 303 – but did not present this theory in the complaint itself.

The district court found that plaintiffs had pled “at least one” material misrepresentation – a risk factor saying that defects “might occur,” which falsely suggested that NVIDIA was not already aware of the same defect in other products.  The district court did not inquire into whether any of the other specific statements were also materially misleading.  Nonetheless, the district court dismissed the complaint on the ground that plaintiffs had failed to plead scienter.  The district court opinion only mentioned Item 303 briefly, as it was not (yet) a centerpiece of plaintiffs’ theory.

Before the Ninth Circuit, plaintiffs argued that the district court should have considered scienter in the context of Item 303, focusing on whether defendants had acted with scienter in violating that rule.  The Ninth Circuit rejected this line of argument on the ground that Item 303 does not establish an independent duty of disclosure for the purposes of Section 10(b).  The Ninth Circuit did not consider whether plaintiffs had successfully pled a material misrepresentation (as the district court had found), focusing instead on scienter, and affirming the district court’s judgment on this ground.

Shortly thereafter, the Second Circuit, in Stratte-McClure, held that Item 303 does establish an independent duty of disclosure for purposes of Section 10(b).  The court began with the cardinal rule that silence, absent a duty to disclose, is not actionable, and such a duty is created when a company omits facts that make a statement misleading.  768 F.3d at 101-02.  The court then grappled with whether omission of facts required to be disclosed under Item 303 creates a duty of disclosure for purposes of Section 10(b).  In analyzing this issue, the court relied on the Panther Partners holding, though the court compared Section 10(b)’s requirements to Section 12(a)(2) of the 1933 Act, which does not contain Section 11’s unique statutory language, i.e., Section 11 makes actionable not just a false or misleading statement, but also a failure to disclose “a material fact required to be stated” in a registration statement.

The court’s comparison of Section 10(b) to Section 12(a)(2) instead of to Section 11 resulted in a large legal leap.  The court in Panther Partners stated that “[o]ne of the potential bases for liability under §§ 11 and 12(a)(2) is an omission in contravention of an affirmative legal disclosure obligation” (i.e. making actionable the omission of “a material fact required to be stated” in a registration statement).  681 F.3d at 120.  But, in fact, only Section 11, and not Section 12(a)(2), contains that provision.  Instead, Section 12(a)(2), like Section 10(b), imposes liability for a false or misleading statement, and doesn’t contain the alternative basis of liability for a failure to disclose “a material fact required to be stated ….”  As a result, Stratte-McClure doesn’t fairly portray the rationale for the holding in Panther Partners.

Nevertheless, the court in Stratte-McClure supplied a separate basis, grounded in Section 10(b)’s requirement of a false or misleading statement, for concluding that Item 303 supplies a duty to disclose that can be actionable under Section 10(b):

Due to the obligatory nature of [Item 303], 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).

776 F.3d at 102 (citations omitted).  In other words, a company that fails to disclose information required to be disclosed by Item 303 has misled investors by creating an impression of a state of affairs (that there are no materially negative trends or uncertainties) that differs from the one that actually exists (that there are such trends or uncertainties).  Thus, what the court implicitly held is that an Item 303 omission makes the whole set of the company’s affirmative statements misleading.

Item 303’s Lack of Practical Impact

The Item 303 issue is certainly interesting.  My colleagues and I have had lively discussions about the questions it raises.  But we keep concluding that it doesn’t really add anything.

We first reached this conclusion in a roundabout way in a case a few years ago.  There were two offerings at issue, and just after Panther Partners, plaintiffs’ counsel featured the Item 303 allegations.  We drafted a detailed motion to dismiss section on the Item 303 issue.  As we evaluated our arguments in light of the page limit, we kept shortening the Item 303 argument.  In the end, we decided that the Item 303 claim was redundant: the court wasn’t going to deny the motion to dismiss under Item 303 without also finding that the plaintiffs had sufficiently pleaded a false statement and scienter, because the plaintiffs challenged many statements and pleaded scienter using the same allegations that formed the basis of the Item 303 claim.  So in the filed version of the motion, the argument became a fraction of the size of the original one.  And in the reply brief, the Item 303 argument was in a short footnote.

Since then, the plaintiffs’ bar’s focus on the issue, and various court decisions, and even a cert petition, have kept me re-thinking the importance of Item 303 to securities claims.  But I haven’t changed my view that Item 303 is redundant: very rarely, if ever, would there be an omitted fact that gives rise to an Item 303 claim without also rendering false or misleading one or more challenged statements; and the knowledge required under Item 303 is at least as great as is necessary to establish scienter.  Even under Section 11, where the unique statutory language allows for a claim, Item 303’s multiple knowledge requirements, if appropriately applied, make the claim difficult to plead and prove.

The NVIDIA case provides a good illustration.  Recall that the plaintiffs alleged that NVIDIA made false statements related to a defect in its GPU chips, and argued that the chip defects constituted a known trend under Item 303.  The complaint challenged many statements, and the district court concluded that “at least one” was misleading as a result of the defects:

*          “Our core businesses are continuing to grow as the GPU becomes increasingly central to today’s computing experience in both the consumer and professional market segments.”

*          “Fiscal 2008 was another outstanding and record year for us. Strong demand for GPUs in all market segments drove our growth. Relative to Q4 one year ago, our discrete GPU business grew 80%.”

*          “As we have in the past, we intend to use this [R&D] strategy to achieve new levels of graphics, networking and communications features and performance and ultra-low power designs, enabling our customers to achieve superior performance in their products.”

*          “[W]e believe that close relationships with OEMs, ODMs and major system builders will allow us to better anticipate and address customer needs with future generations of our products.”

*          “The growth of GPUs continues to outpace the PC market. We shipped 42 percent more GPUs this quarter compared to the same period a year ago, resulting in our best first quarter ever. … We expect this positive feedback loop to continue to drive our growth.”

*          “In the past, we have discovered defects and incompatibilities with customers’ hardware in some of our products. Similar issues in the future may result in delays or loss of revenue to correct any defects or incompatibilities.”

*          “If our products contain significant defects our financial results could be negatively impacted, our reputation could be damaged and we could lose market share.”

*          In a statement disclosing the defects: “We are evaluating the potential scope of this situation, including the nature and cause of the alleged defect and the merits of the customer’s claim, and to what extent the alleged defect might occur with other of our products.”

This list of challenged statements illustrates that companies affirmatively say many things on the subject matter of an omission sufficient to yield an Item 303 claim.  Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a case in which an issue is so major as to require Item 303 disclosure but isn’t something about which the company has spoken.

And given that is the case, and Item 303’s disclosure requirements are infused with knowledge requirements, it also would be an anomalous case in which there is an Item 303 violation but not scienter.  For example, if a company violates Item 303 by not disclosing that its biggest customer is switching suppliers next quarter, and proceeds to say things about its business and financial outlook as it of course would, it has made misleading statements with intent to defraud.  The Item 303 claim adds nothing.  Stratte-McClure, on its face, is an anomalous case.  After concluding that Morgan Stanley had a duty to disclose certain facts about subprime lending that were likely to cause material trading losses, the court concluded that the failure to disclose those facts wasn’t done with scienter.  The analysis is fact-specific and technical.  Suffice it to say that I could easily re-write the opinion, using the court’s own scienter analysis, to conclude that no disclosure was required under Item 303 in the first place – it’s really a matter of six of one, half a dozen of another.

Why, then, have plaintiffs’ counsel pushed Item 303 claims so hard?  I believe it’s mostly to combat the cardinal rule that silence, absent a duty to disclose, is not misleading. Companies omit thousands of facts every time they speak, and it’s relatively easy for a plaintiff to identify omitted facts – but it’s analytically difficult work, and often unsuccessful, to challenge affirmative statements.

Another important reason is defendants’ attack on the fraud on the market presumption of reliance over the past several years – first to the legitimacy of Basic v. Levinson, which gave rise to securities class actions, and now to its viability in specific cases under the price-impact rule of Halliburton II.  Claims of pure omission under Item 303 arguably would fall under the Affiliated Ute presumption of reliance, rather than under Basic, which would make class certification easier and more certain.  But the court’s reasoning in Stratte-McClure that an Item 303 violation makes what the company said misleading would make the claim a statement-based claim that would be evaluated under Basic, not Affiliated Ute.

Whatever the reason, I hope parties and courts don’t waste time litigating over Item 303 further.  It just doesn’t matter.

If correctly understood and applied, the Supreme Court’s decision in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers Dist. Council Const. Industry Pension Fund, 135 S. Ct. 1318 (2015), will allow corporate officers to speak more freely, without fear of unfair liability.  And defendants will win more cases.

Yet I keep seeing commentary from defense lawyers saying that Omnicare expanded the basis for defendants’ liability.  That sort of statement is simply wrong, and fails to appreciate the muddled state of the pre-Omnicare standards for judging statements of opinion and the Omnicare standard itself.  Indeed, Omnicare – which applies to the “false or misleading statement” element of both Section 11 and Section 10(b) – will be the most helpful Supreme Court decision for defendants since Tellabs, if we in the defense bar use it right.

Pre-Omnicare Law Governing Statements of Opinion Was Muddled

To correctly understand Omnicare, it is critical to appreciate that the law on statements of opinion before Omnicare was a mess.  For a full discussion, I invite you to review pages 13-19 of our Omnicare amicus brief on behalf of Washington Legal Foundation.  Here, I’ll share what  I believe was going on in the cases, starting with the base case, the Supreme Court’s decision in Virginia Bankshares v. Sandberg, 501 U.S. 1083 (1991).

Virginia Bankshares held that an opinion may be actionable as a false statement of “fact,” to the extent to which it is a “misstatement of the psychological fact of the speaker’s belief in what he says.”  501 U.S. at 1095.  This makes sense.  If it’s raining and I say to someone from another city that the weather where I am is “nice,” my statement of opinion is true if I genuinely believe it.  It doesn’t matter if most other people wouldn’t think so.  But it also makes sense that my true opinion could be misleading to a reasonable person, since most people wouldn’t regard rainy weather as “nice.”  Virginia Bankshares only concerned the “falsity” of an opinion, and not the broader question of whether a “true” statement of opinion can omit facts that make the opinion misleading – just like any other type of true statement can be misleading.

Virginia Bankshares didn’t catch on.  I think there are two main reasons.  First, the decision is difficult to read and decipher.  Many doubted that the Supreme Court actually meant to create a subjective falsity standard, and many defendants and courts didn’t even cite the case when analyzing statements of opinion.  Second, the subjective falsity standard only covers the “false” half of the “false or misleading statement” element – the fact of the speaker’s state of mind.  Courts thus struggled to figure out how to harmonize Virginia Bankshares with the “misleading” half of the element, especially as defendants argued that a lack of subjective falsity alone defeated the entire claim.  I believe that these difficulties led courts to ignore or distinguish Virginia Bankshares, or to apply an alternative standard.

The most influential alternative standard was the disjunctive three-part test the Ninth Circuit established in In re Apple Computer Sec. Litig., 886 F.2d 1109 (9th Cir. 1989).  In Apple, the Ninth Circuit held that opinions are actionable if they (1) are not genuinely believed, (2) there is no reasonable basis for the belief, or (3) the speaker knows undisclosed facts that tend to seriously undermine the opinion.  Courts around the country followed the broad and plaintiff-friendly Apple standard to such an extent that it is fair to say it was the prevailing test for deciding whether an opinion was actionable.  Virginia Bankshares, if cited at all, was typically an afterthought.  Even after the Ninth Circuit first applied Virginia Bankshares in 2009, in Rubke v. Capitol Bancorp Ltd., 551 F.3d 1156 (9th Cir. 2009), it didn’t expressly overrule the incompatible Apple standard, and some courts, both inside and outside the Ninth Circuit, continued to refer to Apple.

Virginia Bankshares Recently Had Started to Catch On

Recently, in Fait v. Regions Fin. Corp., 655 F.3d 105 (2d Cir. 2011), the Second Circuit joined the Ninth Circuit in applying Virginia Bankshares.  Based on Fait and Rubke, and a few other circuit court decisions, defendants began to argue that an opinion can only be false or misleading if it was not actually believed by the speaker.  This, I think, is the source of the defense bar’s disappointment with Omnicare: they feel it is a step backward from the standard of law they hoped was developing – namely, one that makes a statement of opinion not actionable as long as the speaker genuinely believes it (i.e. is subjectively true), without considering whether it may nevertheless be misleading.

But whatever the merits of recent decisions, Virginia Bankshares concerns only “subjective falsity,” the first half of the “false or misleading statement” element.  In Omnicare, the Supreme Court prescribed the standards for analysis for both halves of the “false or misleading statement” element, which, of course, is legally required, because under Section 11 and Section 10(b), a true statement can be actionable if it is misleading.

Omnicare’s Second Prong is Simply the Misleading Half of “False or Misleading Statement” Element

Indeed, the “misleading” half of the “false or misleading statement” element was the real showdown in Omnicare.  At oral argument, it seemed inevitable that the Supreme Court would reject the plaintiffs’ argument that a genuinely believed opinion may nonetheless be considered “false” if it is later determined that the opinion was incorrect. But the Court also expressed discomfort with the potential loopholes that could be created by Omnicare’s position at the other extreme – that if a statement is phrased as an opinion, it cannot be found to be either false or misleading under the securities laws, as long as the opinion was honestly held by the speaker.

There were many wrong turns that the Court could have taken in rejecting these two extremes, running the risk of further confusing the law not only regarding the truth or falsity of opinions, but also muddling the law of scienter and materiality.  But the Court successfully navigated these potential pitfalls – including refusing to adopt the “reasonable basis” standard advocated by the Solicitor General – and instead adopted an analytically sound approach that is consistent with its previous securities rulings, holding that:

(1) a statement of opinion is only “false” under the securities laws if it is not genuinely believed by the speaker; and

(2) like any other kind of statement, a statement of opinion may be “misleading” if, when considered in context, it creates a false impression in the mind of a reasonable investor.

Omnicare thus simply stitches together (1) Virginia Bankshares’s subjective falsity standard and (2) the standard for “misleading” in the “false or misleading statement” element that has always applied to each and every type of challenged statement in each and every securities class action.  See, e.g., Brody v. Transitional Hosps. Corp., 280 F.3d 997, 1006 (9th Cir. 2002) (a statement is misleading due to omissions if it “affirmatively create[s] an impression of a state of affairs that differs in a material way from the one that actually exists”).

Although recent cases seemed to focus on subjective falsity, a rule of subjective falsity alone never could or would have been the law, because the misleading-statement half of the “false or misleading statement” is an integral part of the law of Section 10(b) and Section 11. Thus, the law on what can make a statement of opinion misleading inevitably would have developed in the courts, with or without Omnicare. For this simple reason, the view that Omnicare’s second prong is something new and plaintiff-friendly is wrong; it is simply the pre-existing “misleading” half of the “false or misleading statement” element.

The legal standard Omnicare established to evaluate misleading-statement allegations will greatly help defendants argue for dismissal of claims based on statements of both fact and opinion.  In evaluating what investors understood, the Court directed courts to consider the entire factual context in which defendants made the challenged statement.  In particular, the Court’s analysis emphasizes that whether a statement is misleading “always depends on context” and a statement must be understood in its “broader frame,” including “in light of all its surrounding text, including hedges, disclaimers, and apparently conflicting information,” and the “customs and practices of the relevant industry.”  135 S. Ct. at 1330.

A good motion to dismiss has always analyzed a challenged statement (fact or opinion) in its broader factual context to explain why it’s not misleading.  But many defense lawyers unfortunately leave out the broader context, and courts sometimes take a narrower view.  Now, this type of superior, full-context analysis is required by Omnicare.  And combined with Tellabs’s directive that courts consider scienter inferences based on not only on the complaint’s allegations, but also on documents on which the complaint relies or that are subject to judicial notice, courts clearly must now consider the full array of probative facts in deciding both whether a statement was false or misleading and, if so, was made with scienter.  Plaintiffs can’t cherry-pick what the court considers anymore.

In the full context of the facts, Omnicare prescribes strict scrutiny of misleading-statement allegations, emphasizing the narrowness of its standard:  an opinion is not misleading just because “external facts show the opinion to be incorrect,” 135 S. Ct. at 1328, or if a company fails to disclose “some fact cutting the other way,” or if the company does not disclose that some disagree with its opinion.  Id. at 1329-30.  Rather, the Court seized upon the misleading-statement analysis that our amicus brief (alone among the parties and amici) had urged, finding that an opinion is misleading if it omits information that is necessary to avoid creating a false impression of the “real facts” in a reasonable investor, when the statement is taken as a whole and considered in its full context.  Unlike the “reasonable basis test” urged by the Solicitor General, the Court emphasized that this inquiry “is objective.”  Id. at 1327.  And the Court stressed that pleading a misleading opinion will be “no small task for an investor.”  Id. at 1332.

Thus, far from being plaintiff-friendly, Omnicare has expressly given the defense bar tools with which to make better arguments.  If the defense bar uses Omnicare correctly, the decision will have a profound impact on securities litigation defense and, most importantly, on the ability of directors and officers to speak their minds without fear of liability for doing so honestly.