Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Supreme Court Rules in Stoneridge Defendants’ Favor

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On January 15, 2008, in a 5-3 majority opinion (here) written by Justice Kennedy (pictured to the left), the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Eighth Circuit in the Stonridge Investment Partners, LLC v Scientific Atlanta case. The Court concluded that the implied right of action under Section 10(b) did not reach the respondent companies’ conduct because the investor claimants did not rely on the alleged deceptive conduct. Justice Stevens, joined by Justices Souter and Ginsberg, dissented. Justice Breyer, as previously disclosed, did not take part in the case.

As discussed in a prior post (here), the investors claimed that Scientific Atlanta and Motorola had helped Charter Communications make its revenue targets through an arrangement whereby Charter overpaid its vendors for set-top cable boxes and the vendors agreed to return the overpayment by buying advertising from Charter. The vendors treated the two transactions as a wash sale, but Charter accounted for the transactions so that they favorably (and, the investors alleged, improperly) impacted its revenue and permitted the company to meet its revenue targets. Charter later restated is revenue to reclassify the revenue from the set-top deal.

Charter’s investors separately sued Charter and its accountant in a case that later settled, but the investors also sued the vendors, alleging that the vendors knowingly entered the transaction in order to permit Charter to achieve a desired accounting outcome. The investors alleged that the vendors falsified documents and backdated contracts to facilitate the outcome.

The district court granted the vendors’ motion to dismiss and the Eighth Circuit affirmed, holding that "any defendant who does not make or affirmatively cause to be made a fraudulent misstatement or omission …is at most guilty of aiding and abetting and cannot be held liable under Section 10(b)."

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the Eighth Circuit, holding that the case against the vendors was properly dismissed. But the Supreme Court did not adopt the Eighth Circuit’s reasoning; rather, the Court says, with respect to the Eighth Circuit’s statement that Section 10(b) reaches only misstatements or omissions by one with a duty to disclose, that "if this conclusion were read to suggest that there must be a specific oral or written statement before there could be liability under Section 10(b) or Rule 10b-5, it would be erroneous." The Court would on to note explicitly that "conduct itself can be deceptive."

While the Supreme Court disclaimed the Eighth Circuit’s reasoning, it still affirmed the Eighth Circuit’s holding because the vendors’ "acts or statements were not relied upon by the investors and that as a result liability cannot be imputed."

Thus the Court’s decision turns on the absence of "reliance." The Court did note that there is a "rebuttable presumption of reliance" under two circumstances; first, if "there is a duty to disclose" and second, "under the fraud-on-the-market" doctrine, by which reliance is presumed when the statement at issue becomes public. The Court held with respect to these presumptions of reliance that

Neither presumption applies here. Respondents had no duty to disclose; and their deceptive acts were not communicated to the public. No member of the investing public had knowledge, either actual or presumed, of respondents’ deceptive acts during the relevant time. Petitioner, as a result, cannot show reliance upon any of respondents’ actions except in an indirect chain that we find too remote for liability..
The investors sought to overcome these considerations by urging that that respondents engaged in a scheme, contending that the vendors had "engaged in conduct with the purpose and effect of creating a false appearance of material fact to further a scheme to misrepresent" and that Charter’s release of false financial statements "was a natural and expected consequence of" the vendors’ deceptive acts.

The court rejected these "scheme liability" allegations, saying that the vendors’ "deceptive acts, which were not disclosed to the investing public, are too remote to satisfy the requirement of reliance. It was Charter, not respondents, that misled its auditor and filed fraudulent financial statements; nothing respondents did made it necessary or inevitable for Charter to record the transaction as it did."

The majority opinion noted a number of additional considerations that it found militated against the investors’ position; the Court found that:

1. Investors’ position seeks to apply Section 10(b) "beyond the securities markets—the realm of financing business – to purchase and supply contracts – the realm of ordinary business."

2. Recognizing the position urged by the investors "would revive in substance the implied cause of action against all aiders and abettors except those who committed no deceptive act in the process of facilitating the fraud."

3. In enacting the PSLRA, Congress recognized an SEC enforcement cause of action for aiding and abetting, but did not recognize a private right of action for aiding and abetting. The Court said "we give weight to Congress’ amendment to the Act restoring aiding and abetting liability in certain cases but not others."

4. Adopting the position urged by the investors "would expose a new class of defendants to these risks" who might "find it necessary to protect against these threats, raising the cost of doing business."

5. If the Court adopted investors’ position, "overseas firms" would be "deterred from doing business here," and could "raise the costs of being a publicly traded company under our law and shift securities offerings away from domestic capital markets."

6. The implied right of action under Section 10(b) "should not be further expanded beyond its present boundaries." The Court said that its holdings is "consistent with the narrow dimensions we must give to a right of action Congress did not authorize when it first enacted the statute and did not expand it when it revised the law."

7. The SEC’s enforcement power "is not toothless" and "both parties agree that criminal penalties are a strong deterrent." Moreover, there is an "express private right of action against accountants and underwriters under certain circumstances" and the "implied right of action in Section 10(b) continues to cover secondary actors who commit primary violations."

The dissent argues that the Court, having found that the Eighth Circuit’s reasoning was incorrect, should at a minimum have remanded the case for further proceedings on the reliance issue. The dissent also faults the majority’s "fraud on the market" analysis, saying that the doctrine does not require investors to be aware of the specific deceptive act to rely on the doctrine to establish reliance. Justice Stevens also argued that because the vendors’ actions were undertaken with the expectation that Charter would rely on them in making fraudulent statements, the causal connection between their allegedly improper action was sufficient to support a finding of reliance.

The dissent also rejects the majority’s finding regarding Congressional intent, arguing that Congress’ actions (or rather, inactions) cannot be read to bestow immunity on an undefined class of actors from liability under Section 10(b). Finally, the dissent conclude with a lengthy affirmation of the right of court’s to imply remedies, even in the absence of legislative action.

At its most basic level, the outcome of this case is unsurprising. The justices arrayed themselves just as I had speculated in my prior post. That is, the three justices still on the Court who were in the majority in Central Bank (Kennedy, Scalia and Thomas) were joined by the two recent appointees (Roberts and Alito), while the three justices who had been in the dissent in Central Bank (Stevens, Souter and Ginsberg) were also in the dissent on Stoneridge.

The majority’s opinion also, again perhaps unsurprisingly, essentially adopts the position advocated by the Solicitor General on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice (in his amicus brief, here); that is, as I noted in my prior post, the Solicitor General urged that, while the Eighth Circuit concededly erred in concluding that conduct itself could not satisfy the statute’s deception requirement, the Supreme Court could nevertheless affirm the Eighth Circuit because the investors had not shown reliance – which was of course exactly what the majority held.

One aspect of the majority’s opinion that is striking is that the opinion does suggest an awareness of, and perhaps even the influence of, arguably extrajudicial considerations such as the potential impact the investors’ position might have had on the overall business environment or the relative competitiveness of U.S financial markets. These considerations, while undeniably important, arguably are irrelevant to whether or not these claimants have a remedy under the statute.

While the majority rejected the investors’ "scheme liability" theories, the Court did not hold that "secondary actors" can never be liable. To the contrary, and consistent with Central Bank, the Court held that any person who employs a manipulative device may held as a primary violator, assuming all the requirements of Section 10(b) are met. And in any event , the SEC still has statutory authority to pursue enforcement actions based on "aiding and abetting" allegations.

The Court is certainly correct when it says that were investors’ position recognized, then companies would seek to protect against the threats, which would raise the cost of doing business. Indeed, if companies had to procure insurance to protect against not only the securities liability arising from their own conduct but also with respect to every company with respect to whom they are a customer or vendor, the cost of liability insurance would have soared. (As an aside, the burden of trying to underwrite this exposure would have been enormous as well, not to mention extremely challenging.) These same points could also be made with respect to liability insurance for third-party professionals as well. The position that the investors urged, if successful, would have had a dramatic impact on the cost of liability insurance.

These practical considerations support the view that the Stoneridge case is a defense victory and represents a rejection of an expanded reading of Section 10(b). But the more expansive possibilities may never really have been in the cards, given the lineup of the court. Yes, the decision could have changed things, but in the end, it did not. In effect, Stoneridge represents a 5-3 vote for the status quo. So while a decision for the investors could have increased the cost of insurance, the actual outcome on behalf of the venors is unlikely to impact the cost of insurance.
News coverage of the decision can be found here and here. The Blog of the Legal Times reports a number of different reactions to the decision here.

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