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.

In the opinion issued yesterday in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers District Council Construction Industry Pension Fund (“Omnicare”), the Supreme Court rejected the two extremes advocated by the parties regarding how the truth or falsity of statements of opinion should be considered under the securities laws, and instead adopted the middle path advocated in the amicus brief filed by Lane Powell on behalf of the Washington Legal Foundation (“WLF”). In doing so, the Court also laid out a blueprint for examining claims of falsity under the securities laws, which we believe will do for falsity analysis what Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308 (2007), did for scienter analysis.

From the tenor of oral argument, it seemed inevitable that the Court would reject the Sixth Circuit’s erroneous position – that a genuinely believed opinion may nonetheless be considered “false” under Section 11 of the Securities Act 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.

Because Omnicare’s analysis concerns what makes a statement false or misleading, it will apply not only in Section 11 cases, but in cases brought under Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act. In fact, much of the Court’s reasoning will also assist defendants in battling inadequate allegations that factual statements are false or misleading. Similar to how Tellabs laid a definitive groundwork for the consideration of scienter allegations after the Reform Act, Omnicare has thus laid out a clear blueprint for how courts must consider allegations that statements of fact or opinion were false or misleading.

For our complete discussion of the Omnicare opinion, please see our post today on WLF’s The Legal Pulse Blog.

Monday’s oral argument before the Supreme Court in Laborers District Counsel Construction Industry Pension Fund v. Omnicare, Inc. (“Omnicare”) was remarkable in that, as Omnicare attorney Kannon Shanmugam noted, it was the “rare case in which none of the parties is defending the reasoning of the court of appeals below.”

As we explained in last week’s blog post previewing the argument, the Sixth Circuit held in the decision under review that a showing of so-called “objective falsity” alone was sufficient to demonstrate falsity in a claim filed under Section 11 of the Securities Act – in other words, that an opinion could be false even if was genuinely believed, if it was later concluded that the opinion was somehow “incorrect.”  On appeal, Omnicare contended, as did we in our amicus brief on behalf of the Washington Legal Foundation (“WLF”), that this ruling was contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Virginia Bankshares, Inc. v. Sandberg, 501 U.S. 1083, 1095 (1991).  Virginia Bankshares held that a statement of opinion is a factual statement as to what the speaker believes – meaning a statement of opinion is “true” as long as the speaker honestly believes the opinion expressed, i.e., if it is “subjectively” true.

Other than a passing and unenthusiastic nod made by plaintiffs’ counsel in defense of the Sixth Circuit’s reasoning, Monday’s discussion assumed that some showing other than so-called “objective falsity” would be required to establish the falsity of an opinion.  Most of the argument by Omnicare, the plaintiffs, and the Solicitor General revolved around what this additional showing should be, as did the extensive and pointed questions from Justices Breyer, Kagan, and Alito.

It thus seems unlikely from the tone of the argument that the Court will affirm the Sixth Circuit’s holding that an opinion is false if it is “objectively” untrue.  If the pointed opening question from Chief Justice Roberts is any indication, the Court also may not fully accept Omnicare’s position, which is that an opinion can only be false or misleading if it was not actually believed by the speaker.  It seems more probable that the Supreme Court will take one of two middle paths – one that was advocated by the Solicitor General in Monday’s argument, or one that was advanced in our brief for the WLF.

In a position embraced by the plaintiffs, the Solicitor General contended that a statement of opinion should be considered “false,” even if it was genuinely believed, if plaintiffs can show that there was no “reasonable basis” for the speaker to hold that opinion.  As we have observed, however, this test breaks down quickly.  Any reasonableness inquiry is, in and of itself, entirely subjective, meaning that whether an opinion was true or false would hinge on someone else’s later opinion as to its “reasonableness.”  Although Justice Breyer seemed to be leaning toward such a “reasonableness” test in much of his questioning, both he and Justice Alito expressed concern over how this reasonableness would be determined, and in particular, how to decide what sort of inquiry is “reasonable” for a company or individual to conduct before voicing a particular opinion.

A far better middle path, advocated by our WLF brief (see pp. 23-29), is to subject statements of opinion to the same sort of inquiry about whether they were “misleading” as for any other statement.  In other words, a statement of opinion can be honestly believed (and thus “true”), but nonetheless rendered misleading by the omission of certain facts.  Justice Kagan urged such a standard in her questioning of the parties, although none took advantage of the opening that she provided.  If framed correctly, this standard would avoid the pitfalls of the Solicitor General’s reasonableness standard, because liability would not hinge upon a later opinion about the validity of a speaker’s original expressed opinion.  Rather, by this standard, plaintiffs would be required to demonstrate either that an opinion was false because it was not actually believed, or that omitted facts caused the opinion – when considered in the full context of the company’s other disclosures – to be misleading because it “affirmatively create[d] an impression of a state of affairs that differs in a material way from the one that actually exists.”  Brody v. Transitional Hosps. Corp., 280 F.3d 997, 1006 (9th Cir. 2002).

Such a standard would be faithful to the text of the most frequently litigated provisions of the federal securities laws – Section 11, at issue in Omnicare, and Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act – which allow liability for statements that are either false or that omit material facts “required to be stated therein or necessary to make the statements therein not misleading . . . .”  At the same time, this standard would preserve the commonsense holding of Virginia Bankshares – that an opinion is “true” if it is genuinely believed – and prevent speakers from being held liable for truthfully expressed opinions simply because someone else later disagrees with them.

On November 3, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Laborers District Counsel Construction Industry Pension Fund v. Omnicare, Inc., which concerns the standard for judging the falsity of an opinion challenged in an action under Section 11 of the Securities Act of 1933.  In the Sixth Circuit decision under review (“2013 Omnicare decision”), the court held that a statement of opinion can be “false” even if the speaker genuinely believed the stated opinion. This holding is contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Virginia Bankshares, Inc. v. Sandberg, 501 U.S. 1083, 1095 (1991), which held that a statement of opinion is a factual statement as to what the speaker believes – meaning a statement of opinion is “true” as long as the speaker genuinely believes the opinion expressed, i.e., if it is “subjectively” true.

On behalf of Washington Legal Foundation (“WLF”), my partner Claire Davis and I filed an amicus brief in Omnicare to emphasize the importance of clarifying the standard for challenging “false” statements of opinion under all the federal securities laws, not just Section 11.  WLF’s view that such clarification is needed was reinforced by an October 10, 2014 decision in a subsequently filed securities class action against Omnicare under Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.  In re Omnicare, Inc. Sec. Litig., — F. 3d —-, 2014 WL 5066826 (6th Cir. Oct. 10, 2014) (“2014 Omnicare decision”).  In the 2014 Omnicare decision, the Sixth Circuit appeared to embrace the proposition that a statement of opinion is not actionable if it is subjectively true – at least under Section 10(b) – but then held that the subjective falsity inquiry should be analyzed within the element of scienter.  The opinion shows the continued confusion that pervades analysis of this issue, jumbling subjective falsity with other concepts, and conflating the separate elements of falsity and scienter.

As part of its scienter analysis, the Sixth Circuit also grappled with another important question: whose state of mind counts for purposes of determining a corporation’s scienter?  Although the Sixth Circuit believes the standard it enunciated constitutes a “middle ground” between restrictive and liberal tests among the federal circuit courts, its ruling misunderstands the nature of the scienter inquiry and conflicts with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus Capital Group, Inc. v. First Derivative Traders, 131 S. Ct. 2296 (2011), and thus risks expanding corporate liability beyond the proper reach of Section 10(b).

Today, Claire and I posted an analysis of the 2013 and 2014 Omnicare decisions on WLF’s blog, The WLF Legal Pulse.  We invite our readers to read our post there.

Please stay tuned to D&O Discourse for more on the November 3, 2014 Supreme Court argument and the Court’s opinion.

Last fall, I wrote about board oversight of cybersecurity and derivative litigation in the wake of cybersecurity breaches.  I plan to update my thoughts later this year, after we see developments in the recently filed Target and Wyndham derivative actions, and learn the results of the 2014 installment of Carnegie Mellon’s bi-annual CyLab Governance of Enterprise Security Survey, which explores oversight of cybersecurity by boards of directors and senior management.

In this post, I’d like to focus on cybersecurity disclosure and the inevitable advent of securities class actions following cybersecurity breaches.  In all but one instance (Heartland Payment Systems), cybersecurity breaches, even the largest, have not caused a stock drop big enough to trigger a securities class action.  But there appears to be a growing consensus that stock drops are inevitable when the market better understands cybersecurity threats, the cost of breaches, and the impact of threats and breaches on companies’ business models.  When the market is better able to analyze these matters, there will be stock drops.  When there are stock drops, the plaintiffs’ bar will be there.

And when plaintiffs’ lawyers arrive, what will they find?  They will find companies grappling with cybersecurity disclosure.  Understandably, most of the discussion about cybersecurity disclosure focuses on the SEC’s October 13, 2011 “CF Disclosure Guidance: Topic No. 2” (“Guidance”) and the notorious failure of companies to disclose much about cybersecurity, which has resulted in a call for further SEC action by Senator Rockefeller and follow-up by the SEC, including an SEC Cybersecurity Roundtable on March 24, 2014.  But, as the SEC noted in the Guidance, and Chair White reiterated in October 2013, the Guidance does not define companies’ disclosure obligations.  Instead, disclosure is governed by the general duty not to mislead, along with more specific disclosure obligations that apply to specific types of required disclosures.

Indeed, plaintiffs’ lawyers will not even need to mention the Guidance to challenge statements allegedly made false or misleading by cybersecurity problems.  Various types of statements – from statements about the company’s business operations (which could be imperiled by inadequate cybersecurity), to statements about the company’s financial metrics (which could be rendered false or misleading by lower revenues and higher costs associated with cybersecurity problems), to internal controls and related CEO and CFO certifications, to risk factors themselves (which could warn against risks that have already materialized) – could be subject to challenge in the wake of a cybersecurity breach.

Plaintiffs will allege that the challenged statements were misleading because they omitted facts about cybersecurity (whether or not subject to disclosure under the Guidance).  In some cases, this allegation will require little more than coupling a statement with the omitted facts.  In cybersecurity cases, plaintiffs will have greater ability to learn the omitted facts than in other cases, as a result of breach notification requirements, privacy litigation, and government scrutiny, to name a few avenues.  The law, of course, requires more than simply coupling the statement and omitted facts; plaintiffs must explain in detail why the challenged statement was misleading, not just incomplete, and companies can defend the statement in the context of all of their disclosures.  But in cybersecurity cases, plaintiffs will have more to work with than in many other types of cases.

Pleading scienter likely will be easier for plaintiffs as well.  With increased emphasis on cybersecurity oversight at the senior officer (and board) level, a CEO or CFO will have difficulty (factually and in terms of good governance) suggesting that she or he didn’t know, at some level, about the omitted facts that made the challenged statements misleading.  That doesn’t mean that companies won’t be able to contest scienter.  Knowledge of omitted facts isn’t the test for scienter; the test is intent to mislead purchasers of securities.  However, this important distinction is often overlooked in practice.  Companies will also be able to argue that they didn’t disclose certain cybersecurity matters because, as the Guidance contemplates, some cybersecurity disclosures can compromise cybersecurity.  This is a proper argument for a motion to dismiss, as an innocent inference under Tellabs, but it may feel too “factual” for some judges to credit at the motion to dismiss stage.

As this analytic overview shows, cybersecurity securities class actions, on the whole, likely will be virulent.  Companies, of course, are talking about cybersecurity risks in their boardrooms – and they should also think about how to discuss those risks with their investors.  The best way for companies to lower their risk profile is to start to address this issue now, by thinking about cybersecurity in connection with all of their key disclosures, and enhancing their disclosures as appropriate.

Perfection and prescience are not required.  Effort matters most.  Companies that don’t even try will stand out.  As I’ve written in the context of the Reform Act’s Safe Harbor for forward-looking statements, judges are skeptical of companies whose risk factors remain static over time, and look favorably on companies who appear to try to draft meaningful risk factors.  I thus construct a defense of forward-looking statements by emphasizing, to the extent I can, ways in which the company’s risk disclosures evolved, and were tailored and focused.  I predict that the same approach will prove effective in cybersecurity cases.

 

My partner Claire Loebs Davis and I are honored to be working with Washington Legal Foundation on a U.S. Supreme Court amicus brief in the Omnicare securities class action.  Omnicare concerns what makes a statement of opinion false.

As many of our readers know, Claire and I feel that improvement in the law on statements of opinion is of great importance for companies, their directors and officers, and their D&O insurers.  Although Omnicare arises in the context of Section 11, the issues raised are fundamental to the question of what makes a statement of opinion false, and it thus is important for Section 10(b) cases as well.  We are thrilled to have a chance to influence how this area of law develops.

Update: Here is a link to the brief Claire and I filed on June 12, 2014.

You can find the docket and all of the briefs on the SCOTUSblog page for Omnicare.

Here is a link to Claire’s D&O Discourse blog post on the Sixth Circuit’s (incorrect) decision in Omnicare.  Here is a link to the Law360 version of Claire’s post, which Omnicare cited in its cert petition.

Here are links to other helpful articles about the Omnicare case:

Securities Defense Bar Has High Hopes Riding On Omnicare

Important Conflict Being Overlooked In Omnicare Case

We will update this post with further links as the matter progresses.

 

In 1995, public companies and their directors and officers received one of the greatest statutory gifts in the history of American corporate law:  the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act.  The Reform Act established heightened standards for pleading falsity and scienter, among other protections, to allow for dismissal before discovery in a fair percentage of cases.  That was a tremendous change from the pre-Reform Act world, in which dismissals were infrequent and expensive discovery was the norm.

The provisions of the Reform Act make motions to dismiss in securities cases different from those in any other area of law, and guide our strategy in every case that we litigate.  As a full-time securities litigation defense lawyer, I feel a responsibility to understand the Reform Act and the cases applying it with as much sophistication as possible.  I have a sense of pride in my Reform Act analysis.  It may sound hokey, but I consider myself a craftsman, and I know that some of the most effective full-time securities litigators tend to feel the same.

I was recently asked about the biggest threats to the Reform Act’s protections, and have since been giving that question a lot of thought.  To be blunt, the biggest threat is the failure by many defense firms to make rigorous arguments on motions to dismiss that hold plaintiffs to the strict pleading standards of the Reform Act, allowing for court decisions that likewise lack rigor and fail to enforce the Act’s high pleading burdens.

This lack of technical rigor has many causes.  One factor is the dwindling number of securities litigation defense specialists, caused by the downturn in classic securities litigation cases calling for straightforward Reform Act motions to dismiss.  Beginning in 2006, securities litigation defense has mostly consisted of stock-option backdating derivative cases, large credit-crisis cases, and merger objection cases.  Through these waves, very few securities litigators remained dedicated to studying Reform Act developments and devising better arguments that take advantage of its provisions.  As a result, today there are relatively few practitioners whose practices are devoted to securities litigation defense – defense lawyers who sweat over subtleties in the law that in isolation may seem trivial, but which collectively make a big difference in the development of the law.

Another factor is the biglaw approach to writing motions to dismiss “by committee.”  Biglaw firms tend to write motions with large teams composed of new associates, mid-level associates, senior associates, and partners.  Writing by committee doesn’t work.  It is not only expensive, it is ultimately far less effective.  If the first draft of a motion is written without sufficient intellectual rigor and sophisticated understanding of the law and practice of securities litigation, it is difficult to reach an end result that will compensate for these deficiencies.  To draft the best motion to dismiss possible, Reform Act “craftsmen” should be involved in the process from the beginning, the entire drafting team needs to coordinate closely on the strategic objectives of the motion, and all the attorneys need to be well trained to appreciate the subtleties of the law.

Whatever the cause, the declining quality of many motions to dismiss is leading to a deterioration of the law that is eroding the Reform Act’s protections.  The rate of dismissals remains relatively high, but I predict that the dismissal rate will decrease, perhaps dramatically, over time as the law becomes more lax.

Below, I discuss the building blocks of a strong motion to dismiss and then address flaws found in many that I have seen filed lately – both by practitioners who do not specialize in the field, and by some “go to” biglaw firms with departments that specialize in securities litigation.

Constructing a Strong Motion to Dismiss

The Reform Act erected high hurdles for plaintiffs to clear before requiring a company to be put through the burdens of discovery:

  • To plead the falsity of a challenged statement of fact, plaintiffs must plead inconsistent contemporaneous facts.
  • To plead a false statement of opinion, in most circuits plaintiffs must plead that the statement was both objectively false and subjectively false, meaning they must show the speaker did not genuinely believe the opinion expressed.
  • To plead that the defendant made a false statement with intent to defraud, plaintiffs must plead facts demonstrating a strong inference that the defendant either knew the statement was false or was extremely and deliberately reckless in choosing not to find out whether it was true or false.
  • Even if plaintiffs plead facts demonstrating it was false, a forward-looking statement is not actionable under the Safe Harbor provisions of the Reform Act if either: (1) the statement was accompanied by meaningful cautionary statements, or (2) plaintiffs fail to plead that the speaker had actual knowledge of the statement’s falsity.

A rigorous motion to dismiss uses the Reform Act’s pleading tools in the most advantageous way possible, by really understanding them and maximizing their usefulness.  These tools give defense lawyers the opportunity to delve into factual issues in a manner that is unusual in motion -to-dismiss practice, and which may feel unnatural to attorneys who are not securities litigation specialists or who didn’t become securities litigation specialists during the Reform Act era.  An effective motion to dismiss not only dismantles the complaint with these tools, but capitalizes upon them to tell the judge a compelling story of an honest company that did its best to make straightforward disclosures to the market.

The Reform Act’s standards give judges enormous discretion; they can dismiss most complaints, or not, with very little room to challenge their decisions upon appeal.  Winning motions recognize the human element to  this discretion.  Even if a complaint is technically deficient, judges are less likely to dismiss it (certainly less likely to dismiss it with prejudice) if they nevertheless get the feeling that the defendants committed fraud.  Effective motions use the leeway given to defendants by the Reform Act to give judges a sense of comfort that they are not only following the law, but that by strictly applying the Reform Act’s protections, they are also serving justice.  On the other hand, one of the most common flaws in ineffective motions to dismiss is the use of formulaic and hyper-technical arguments, which fail to take advantage of the Reform Act to dig into the facts of the individual case, expose the flaws of each complaint in detail, and tell the judge a compelling story of the case that negates the inference of scienter.

Flaws Found in Many Motions to Dismiss

Flaws in Arguments against Falsity

The first element of a claim under Rule 10b-5(b) – the classic securities claim – is a false or misleading statement.  As we recently wrote, it is an incorrect statement of law to characterize this element as requiring a “materially false statement or omission.”  An omission is only actionable if it made what the defendant said materially misleading (or he or she otherwise had a duty to disclose it, which is a rare assertion as the main claim in a securities class action).

Yet if I had a dollar for every motion to dismiss that contained this misstatement of law, I would be writing this blog from a vacation home in Hawaii.  This is not a semantic issue; the difference between an “omission” and a “misleading statement” is enormous.  Every disclosure problem involves dozens or even hundreds of omitted facts that seem “material” in the sense that an investor would want to know them, but far fewer involve statements that were materially misleading (it is the statement that must be material, not the omitted fact) as a result of the omission.  I realize that many courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, use this incorrect terminology.  But that doesn’t mean we need to parrot it – and every time that we do, we weaken the standard that is an explicit part of the Reform Act statute.

Defense lawyers’ loose language is a symptom of a bigger problem:  a lack of focus on falsity.  The allegedly false statements frame the entire case; other defense arguments are derived from the attack on plaintiffs’ falsity claims.  Foremost among the arguments derived from a strong falsity argument is the argument against scienter.  Scienter requires plaintiffs to show that a speaker knew what he or she said was false.  Falsity thus sets the stage for the scienter analysis – if there was no false statement to begin with, there can be no knowledge of that falsity.  On the other hand, the more egregiously false plaintiffs can make a statement appear, the easier it will be for them to show knowledge of falsity.  A strong scienter argument has as its North Star, “scienter as to what?”  That “what” must be a false statement, and a good motion to dismiss will enforce that structure from the beginning.  I cringe when I read a motion to dismiss that addresses scienter before falsity.  That is simply backwards.

The lack of focus on falsity infects the way defense firms tend to argue against falsity.  The Reform Act falsity standard generally requires the plaintiffs to allege contemporaneous facts that are inconsistent with each challenged statement.  That is a high hurdle.

To be sure, it isn’t easy to make a fact-specific argument against falsity; it requires a great command of the complaint and judicially noticeable documents, which isn’t the forte of most litigators.  And it can seem “too factual” to general litigators, or to many senior securities litigators who became securities litigation specialists under the pre-Reform Act regime, where motions to dismiss had to be simple and safe to have any chance of success under lenient pleading standards.  Perhaps for these reasons, in addition to those discussed above, a large number of motions to dismiss bypass this advantageous and fundamental argument, or fail to emphasize it, and instead opt for arguments that lump statements together by type and argue against them as a group in a boilerplate fashion.  In my view, one of the worst arguments of this type is the “puffery” defense – which basically concedes that a statement was false, but contends it was too immaterial to be actionable.  The subtext is cavalier, and unlikely to reassure a dubious judge: “sure the defendant lied, but it doesn’t matter because no one cared.”  Although courts do sometimes accept this argument, whether to do so or not amounts to an unprincipled coin-flip, and it is often made at the expense of better and more definite arguments.  For example, statements constituting “puffery” also generally qualify as statements of opinion, which have a standard for falsity that is protective and can be analyzed specifically.

The Reform Act called out forward-looking statements for special analysis and protection.  As we have previously written, the Safe Harbor is not as safe as Congress intended.  Because they think it goes too far, and can give companies a “license to lie,” many judges go to great lengths to avoid the statute’s plain language.  Many defense lawyers’ arguments not only fail to address this judicial skepticism, but actually reinforce it.  They do this by relying solely on the Safe Harbor’s technical elements, while failing to simultaneously contend that the forward-looking statements in question also had a reasonable basis, and the company’s cautionary language was a good-faith effort to describe specific risks the company faced.  Such arguments based only on the letter of the Safe Harbor ring of “caveat emptor,” which the law has been trying to shake for centuries.

Flaws in Arguments against Scienter

Scienter allegations are of two types:  allegations pleading facts about what the defendant knew, to attempt to plead that he or she knew the challenged statements were false; and, far more prevalent, allegations that the defendant “must have” meant to lie, based on circumstantial considerations such as a defendants’ stock sales, corporate transactions, the temporal proximity of the challenged statement to the disclosure of the “truth,” and the relationship of the subject of the challenged statements to the company’s “core operations.”  As with falsity, the primary flaw in most defense arguments against scienter is with their 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 drawn to the plaintiffs’ preferred ground of battle, focusing just on arguing about the sufficiency of the circumstantial evidence that plaintiffs use to create the impression that the defendants must have done something wrong.

Circumstantial scienter allegations are only ways to try to make an educated guess about what the speaker knew or intended.  But the Reform Act’s scienter standard requires particularized pleading yielding a “strong inference” that the defendant lied on purpose – a very high standard.  So it makes no sense for defense counsel not to approach the issue directly, by making it clear that the speaker did not lie, and holding plaintiffs to the strict standard of showing specific scienter as to each challenged statement.

For this reason, all effective motions to dismiss start by testing the complaint’s allegations that the defendants actually knew, or were intentionally reckless about not knowing, the facts establishing falsity.  This means that, for each statement and each defendant, the motion to dismiss needs to isolate the statement and the reasons that the complaint alleges it was false, and analyze what the complaint alleges each defendant knew about those facts at the time he or she made each challenged statement. Without this focus on each specific challenged statement, the scienter inquiry is vague, and becomes more about whether the defendant seems bad, or had generally bad motives, than whether he lied on purpose.  A good motion to dismiss does not let plaintiffs get away with these kinds of generalized allegations.

The problem is made worse if defense counsel approaches falsity categorically, without careful scrutiny of the reasons the complaint alleges the challenged statements were false.  Without this focus, defense counsel can’t meaningfully answer the central question in the Reform Act analysis – “scienter as to what?” – because there isn’t a sufficient nexus between the challenged statements and contemporaneous facts that made the statements false.  The scienter inquiry thus becomes unmoored from knowledge that specific statements were false.  The result is a lower burden for plaintiffs:  if they are able to plead falsity, and the defendants seemed to know something about the general subject matter, scienter is almost a foregone conclusion.

This problem is even worse 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 make a simplistic syllogistic argument from it.  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.  This can’t be done effectively, of course, if the argument against falsity is categorical (i.e., embraces arguments such as “puffery,” rather than discussing the specific statements), or otherwise fails to address the falsity allegations in detail.  Of course, it is impossible to make this argument effectively if the scienter section precedes the falsity section of the brief.

***

We plan to address in greater depth some of the technical Reform Act issues in later posts, in hopes that we can improve the craftsmanship of motions to dismiss.  These are important issues to discuss as a defense bar, because each motion to dismiss that fails to maximize the Reform Act’s protections runs the risk of weakening the law for the rest of us.

 

 

In defending a securities class action, a motion to dismiss is almost automatic, and in virtually all cases, it makes good strategic sense.  In most cases, there are only four main arguments:

  • The complaint hasn’t pleaded a false or misleading statement
  • The challenged statements are protected by the Safe Harbor for forward-looking statements
  • The challenged statements weren’t made with scienter, even if the complaint has adequately pleaded their falsity
  • The complaint hasn’t adequately pleaded loss causation

For me, the core argument of virtually every brief is falsity – I think that standing up for a client’s statements provides the foundation for all of the other arguments.  For most clients, it is important to stand up and say “I didn’t lie.”   And an emphasis on challenging the falsity allegations encompasses clients’ most fundamental responses to the lawsuit:  they reported accurate facts; made forecasts that reflected their best judgment at the time; gave opinions about their business that they genuinely believed; issued financial statements that were the result of a robust financial-reporting process; etc.

The Reform Act, and the cases which have interpreted it, provide securities defense lawyers with broad latitude to attack falsity.  In my mind, 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.   Then, we can usually support the truth of what our clients said 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; showing 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 we ultimately make based on the complaint and judicially noticeable facts.

Yet many motions to dismiss do not make a forceful argument against falsity, 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, and do not engage in a detailed defense of the statements with the available facts.  Others simply attack the credibility of the “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,” which posits that even if false, the challenged statements were immaterial.*  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.

That’s risky.

It’s risky for several reasons.  First, detailed, substantive arguments against falsity are some of the strongest arguments that defendants can make.  Second, those arguments provide the foundation for the rest of the motion.  The exclusion of a strong falsity argument weakens the argument against scienter, and fails to paint the best possible no-fraud picture for the judge – which is ultimately what helps a judge to be comfortable in granting a motion to dismiss.

Failing to emphasize the falsity argument weakens the scienter argument.

The element of scienter requires a plaintiff to demonstrate that the defendant said something knowingly or recklessly false – in order to do this, plaintiffs must tie their scienter allegations to each particular challenged statement.  It is not enough to generally allege, as plaintiffs often do, that defendants had a general “motive to lie.”  When I analyze scienter allegations, I ask myself, “scienter as to what?”  Asking this question often unlocks strong arguments against scienter, because complaints often make scienter allegations that are largely detached from their allegations of falsity.  Often, this is the case because the falsity allegations are insufficient to begin with.  But many motions to dismiss are unable to point out this lack of connection, because they don’t focus on falsity in a rigorous and thorough way.

Focusing on falsity also is necessary because of how courts analyze falsity and scienter.  Although falsity and scienter are separate elements – and should be analyzed separately – courts often analyze them together.   See, e.g., Ronconi v. Larkin, 253 F.3d 423, 429 (9th Cir. 2001) (“Because falsity and scienter in private securities fraud cases are generally strongly inferred from the same set of facts, we have incorporated the dual pleading requirements of 15 U.S.C. §§ 78u-4(b)(1) and (b)(2) into a single inquiry.”).  Arguing a lack of falsity thus provides essential ingredients for this combined analysis.  Even when courts analyze falsity and scienter separately,  a proper scienter analysis requires a foundational falsity analysis, because as noted above, scienter analysis asks whether the defendant knew that a particular statement was false.  Without an understanding of exactly why that challenged statement was false, and what facts allegedly demonstrate that falsity, the scienter analysis meanders, devolving into an analysis of knowledge of facts that may or may not be probative of the speaker’s state of mind related to that statement.

The tendency to lump scienter and falsity together is exemplified by the scienter doctrines that I call “scienter short-cuts:” (1) the corporate scienter doctrine (see, e.g., Teamsters Local 445 Freight Division Pension Fund v. Dynex Capital, Inc., 531 F.3d 190, 195-96 (2d Cir. 2008) and Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd. v. Tellabs Inc., 513 F.3d 702 (7th Cir. 2008)), and (2) the core operations inference of scienter (see, e.g., Glazer Capital Management LP v. Magistri, 549 F.3d 736 (9th Cir. 2008)).  Under these doctrines, courts draw inferences about what the defendants knew based upon the prominence of the falsity allegations.  The more blatant the falsity, the more likely courts are to infer scienter.  A superficial falsity argument weakens defendants’ ability to attack these scienter short-cuts, which plaintiffs are asserting more and more routinely.

Failing to emphasize the falsity argument fails to paint the best possible no-fraud picture for the judge.

I contend that it is a good strategy for a defendant to thoroughly argue lack of falsity, even if there are better alternative grounds for dismissal, and even if the challenge to falsity is unlikely to be successful as an independent grounds for dismissal.  This is for the simple reason that judges are humans – they will feel better about dismissing a case based on other grounds if you can make them feel comfortable that there was not a false statement to begin with.  For example, courts are often reluctant to dismiss a complaint solely on Safe Harbor grounds because it is seen as a “license to lie,” so it is strategically wise also to argue that forward-looking statements were not false in the first place.  Similarly, even if lack of scienter is the best basis for dismissal, it is good strategy to defend on the basis that no one said anything wrong, rather than appearing to concede falsity and being left to contend, “but they didn’t mean to.”

Judges have enough latitude under the pleading standards to dismiss or not, in most cases.  The pivotal “fact” is, in my opinion, whether the judge feels the case is really a fraud case, or not.  A motion to dismiss that vigorously defends the truth of what the defendants said is more likely to make the judge feel that there really is no fraud there.  Conversely, if defendants make an argument that essentially concedes falsity and relies solely on the argument that the falsity was immaterial, wasn’t intentional, or is not subject to challenge under the Safe Harbor, a judge may stretch to find a way to allow the case to continue.  Put simply, a judge is more likely to dismiss a case in which a defendant says “I didn’t lie,” than when defendants argue that “I may have lied, but I didn’t mean to,” or “I may have lied, but it doesn’t matter,” or “I may have lied, but the law protects me anyway.”  Even when a complaint might ultimately be dismissed on other grounds, I think that a strong challenge to falsity is essential to help the judge feel that he or she has reached a just result.

*Many statements that defense counsel argue are “puffery” are really statements of opinion that could and should be analyzed under the standard that originated in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Virginia Bankshares decision:  in order to adequately allege that a statement of opinion is false or misleading, a plaintiff must plead with particularity not only that the opinion was “objectively” false or misleading, but also that it was “subjectively” false or misleading, meaning that the opinion was not sincerely held by the speaker.  My partner Claire Davis recently posted a discussion of statements of opinion.