Oral Argument in Amgen: Will it Sway the Court?

Posted by Noam Noked, co-editor, HLS Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation, on Thursday November 22, 2012 at 8:30 am
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Editor’s Note: The following post comes to us from Paul A. Ferrillo, litigation counsel at Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP. This post is based on an article by Mr. Ferrillo, Robert F. Carangelo, David Schwartz and Matt Altemeier that first appeared in D&O Diary.

On November 5, 2012, the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument in Amgen Inc. v. Connecticut Retirement Plans & Trust Funds (No. 11-1085) (“Amgen”). In Amgen, Plaintiff/Respondent Connecticut Retirement Plans and Trust Funds (“Connecticut Retirement”) brought a putative class action under the Exchange Act of 1934, alleging that Defendant/Petitioner Amgen and several of its directors and officers misstated and failed to disclose safety information concerning two of its drugs. Amgen contends that it did not mislead investors and that the information it allegedly concealed was widely known.

Background of Amgen and Path to the Supreme Court

The issue in Amgen is the predominance requirement of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“Rule”) 23(b)(3), which states that a court may not certify a class for trial without determining that “questions of law or fact common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members.” Because of the near-impossibility of establishing commonality of direct reliance on alleged misstatements in securities fraud litigations, plaintiffs typically rely on a rebuttable presumption of common indirect reliance on the integrity of the market price for the securities at issue. The Supreme Court first recognized this presumption in Basic Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224, 241-47 (1988), relying in part on the “fraud-on-the-market” (“FOTM”) theory. The FOTM theory assumes that the market price of securities traded in an efficient market reflects all publicly-available material information, including any material misrepresentations.

Twenty-five years after Basic, Amgen asks the Court to decide whether class action plaintiffs must prove the materiality of alleged misstatements to use the Basic presumption at the class certification stage (and thus allow a Court to find that common issues of reliance predominate). In Amgen, the district court certified the proposed class for trial even though Connecticut Retirement provided no evidence to establish materiality, ruling that plaintiffs “need only establish that an efficient market exists” to take advantage of the Basic presumption at that phase of the litigation. Conn. Ret. Plans & Trust Funds v. Amgen, Inc., 2009 WL 2633743, at *12 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 12, 2009). The Ninth Circuit affirmed this determination, following the Seventh Circuit’s approach in Schleicher v. Wendt, 618 F.3d 679 (7th Cir. 2010), and holding that plaintiffs must “plausibly allege—but need not prove . . . that the claimed misrepresentations were material” at the class certification stage. Conn. Ret. Plans & Trust Funds v. Amgen Inc., 660 F.3d 1170, 1172 (9th Cir. 2011). This approach, however, differs from that of the Second and Fifth Circuits, which require proof of materiality under such circumstances. See In re Salomon Analyst Metromedia Litig., 544 F.3d 474 (2d Cir. 2008); Oscar Private Equity Invs. v. Allegiance Telecom, Inc., 401 F.3d 316 (5th Cir. 2005).

The Amgen parties’ prior written submissions to the Court mirror this circuit split. Amgen argues that, because the FOTM theory assumes that efficient markets incorporate only material information, courts have no basis to presume that immaterial statements are reflected in the market price of a security (and thereby affect all plaintiffs in common). Br. for Pet’rs at *17-19, Amgen (No. 11-1085), 2012 WL 3277030 (U.S. Aug. 8, 2012). Connecticut Retirement, on the other hand, contends that the only indispensable FOTM prerequisites are (1) that the security in question was traded in an efficient market, and (2) that the alleged misrepresentations were public. Br. for Resp’t in Opp’n to Cert. at *9, Amgen (No. 11-1085), 2012 WL 1666404 (U.S. May 11, 2012). Once these two predicates are established, says Connecticut Retirement, certification is proper because “falsehood and materiality affect [all] investors alike” and “if the misrepresentations turn out to be immaterial, then every plaintiff’s claim fails on the merits.” Id. at *13.

Oral Argument Reflects a Divided Court

During oral argument, questioning by Justices Kagan, Breyer, Ginsburg and Sotomayor suggested an inclination to affirm class certification, reasoning that once plaintiffs establish the existence of market efficiency and a public statement, materiality becomes a common question that courts need not determine at the class certification stage. Counsel for Amgen emphasized that the question before the Court was not materiality, but indirect reliance via the Basic presumption, the commonality of which cannot be established without proof that the alleged misrepresentations were in fact material (and thus actually moved the market). Counsel for Amgen added that, as with any other FOTM predicate, a finding that materiality is lacking at the class certification stage does not foreclose individual plaintiffs from later moving forward with actions based on direct reliance. Justices Ginsberg and Kagan disagreed on this point, indicating their view that a finding of immateriality at the class certification stage would effectively end the case.

Justice Breyer also expressed concern that proof of materiality is premature at the class certification stage given materiality’s dual role as both a condition under Basic and an element of the substantive claim. Counsel for Amgen replied that “[t]he point of the class certification . . . is the question whether there is class coherence in the first place. It’s not the merits.” Indeed,

[t]he real question in this case is what is the purpose of Rule 23? If you think that the purpose of Rule 23 is to postpone to the merits everything that can be postponed without a risk of foreclosing valid individual claims, we lose. But that’s not the purpose. The purpose is for a court to determine whether all of the preconditions for forcing everyone into a class action are present before you certify. (emphasis added)

According to Petitioner, the alternative of pushing everything to the end “is like letting the fruits justify the search.”

Counsel for Respondent, on the other hand, contended that a class action is the most efficient method for adjudicating materiality because the presence of an efficient market establishes the relevant security’s “ability to absorb [public] information, both material and non-material,” for all plaintiffs at once. Counsel representing the United States in support of Respondents contributed to this argument:

The most efficient course is to actually focus on common issues. . . . In the current [embodiment] of Rule 23(b)(3), you want to certify class actions that are both meritorious and those that are not, so it reaches a binding judgment.

One major point of dispute during oral argument was Justice Breyer’s suggestion that, unlike other FOTM predicates, materiality “is a common element of the tort . . . it will [always] be litigated, so there is no special reason . . . for litigating [it] at the outset.” However, Justice Scalia strongly disagreed on this point:

But there . . . is a reason for deciding it earlier, and the reason is the . . . enormous pressure to settle once the class is certified. In most cases, that’s the end of the lawsuit. There’s . . . automatically a settlement.

In this vein, Justice Scalia noted several times that materiality is a precondition to obtaining the “shortcut” provided by Basic’s presumption of reliance. Justice Scalia underscored this point by openly wondering whether the Court should overrule Basic “because it was certainly based on a theory that — that simply collapses once you remove the materiality element.” As Justice Scalia noted, “[i]t’s not an efficient market if it’s, you know . . . random[.] It takes account of material factors.”

Final Analysis and Conclusions

Unfortunately, the oral argument in Amgen offers few additional clues as to how the Court will rule. The Justices’ questions indicate that the Court is divided along its usual ideological lines, with Chief Justice Roberts holding the swing vote. However, the authors continue to believe that Amgen has the better argument in this case. In our view, Justice Scalia, through his questioning, effectively made the point (and will be able to persuade a majority of the Court) that for a plaintiff to avail itself of the significant procedural benefit that the Basic presumption already provides, it has to show materiality at the class certification stage.

 

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