On February 26, 2014, the Supreme Court decided Chadbourne & Parke LLP v. Troice, 571 U.S. ___ (2014), ruling by a 7-2 vote that the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act of 1998 (“SLUSA”) does not bar state-law securities class actions in which the plaintiffs allege that they purchased uncovered securities that the defendants misrepresented were backed by covered securities. The decision is the first in which the Court has held that a state-law suit pertaining to securities fraud is not precluded by SLUSA, suggesting that there are limits to the broad interpretation of SLUSA’s preclusion provision that the Court has recognized in previous cases. While Chadbourne leaves many questions unanswered concerning the precise contours of SLUSA preclusion, and could encourage plaintiffs to pursue securities-fraud claims under state-law theories, the unusual facts in Chadbourne could limit the reach of the holding and provide defendants with avenues for distinguishing more typical state-law claims in other cases.
Posts Tagged ‘Materiality’
Some corporate practitioners could have the impression that significant fee awards are granted as a matter of course in M&A class action litigation, even where the results obtained by class counsel were supplemental (and arguably routine) disclosures regarding the proposed transaction. Recent comments by the judges of the Delaware Court of Chancery, however, may suggest an increasing concern over what might be perceived as “default” fee awards in this context, as well as the value of purely supplemental, as opposed to remedial, disclosures.
In 2011, Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster analyzed M&A fee awards in a published case titled In re Sauer-Danfoss Inc. Shareholders Litigation, 65 A.3d 1116 (Del. Ch. 2011). This undertaking, it reasonably could be hoped, would serve to promote consistency and establish reasonable expectations, especially in an area where precedent frequently lies in transcripts and unpublished orders. Of particular note, Vice Chancellor Laster wrote:
Legal developments have dominated the news about federal securities class actions in 2013. Last February, the Supreme Court decision in Amgen resolved certain questions about materiality but focused the debate on Basic and the presumption of reliance, which are now back to the Supreme Court after certiorari was granted for the second time in Halliburton.
Against this legal backdrop, 2013 saw a small increase in the number of complaints filed for securities class actions in general and for class actions alleging violation of Rule 10b-5 in particular. Filings in the 5th Circuit doubled, while filings in the 9th Circuit bounced back after having dipped in 2012.
The SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance recently released three Compliance and Disclosure Interpretations concerning the SEC’s so-called unbundling rule (Exchange Act Rule 14a-4(a)(3)), which requires proxies to identify clearly and impartially each “separate matter” intended to be acted upon.
Nearly a year ago, in Greenlight Capital, L.P. v. Apple, Inc., a federal court enjoined Apple from bundling four charter amendments into a single proposal. The Apple decision highlighted the lack of clarity in the unbundling rules and the risk that the SEC or an activist shareholder could challenge a company’s presentation of proposals. The new C&DIs provide bright-line guidance for amendments to equity incentive plans but leave other situations to be considered on a facts-and-circumstances basis and, implicitly, to be discussed with the SEC Staff in cases of uncertainty.
Two new concepts will need to be addressed going forward:
During 2013, in addition to the important changes to the Delaware General Corporation Law (“DGCL”) and the Limited Liability Company Act, described here, the Delaware courts issued a number of decisions that have a direct impact on the M&A practice. Below are our Top 5 case law picks for M&A practitioners:
1. A new look at the standard of review in going-private mergers (the Business Judgment Rule)
In its In re MFW Shareholders Litigation (May 29, 2013) decision, the Court of Chancery held that in going-private mergers with a controlling stockholder on both sides the deferential business judgment standard of review applies, instead of the entire fairness standard, if certain procedural safeguards are included from the beginning. Specifically, the controlling stockholder has to agree at the outset to proceed with the merger only if the transaction is both (1) negotiated and approved by an attentive special committee comprised of directors who are independent of the controlling stockholder and fully empowered to decline the transaction and to retain its own financial and legal advisors and (2) conditioned on the un-coerced, fully informed and non-waivable approval of a majority of the unaffiliated minority stockholders.
In order to prove securities fraud under federal law, one must show that the defendant either misrepresented a material fact or omitted to state a material fact when under a duty to speak. The fact must somehow matter to investors. But the courts have struggled mightily to determine when a fact is material.
On the one hand, the Supreme Court has held that a fact is material if it would be important to a reasonable investor in deciding how to act—how to vote or whether to trade. The information need not be so important that it would change the outcome. But it cannot be so trivial that it would not affect the total mix of available information. Moreover, it must matter in the sense that an investor can do something with the information. For example, although the fact that a merger lacks a business purpose or that the board of directors thinks the price is low might be important in some sense, these facts may not be material if the investor has no vote on the matter or the controlling stockholder has enough votes to assure approval.
In Osram Sylvania Inc. v. Townsend Ventures, LLC, the Delaware Court of Chancery (VC Parsons) declined to dismiss claims by Osram Sylvania Inc. that, in connection with OSI’s purchase of stock of Encelium Holdings, Inc. from the company’s other stockholders (the “Sellers”), Encelium’s failure to meet sales forecasts and manipulation of financial results by the Sellers amounted to a material adverse effect (“MAE”). The decision was issued in the context of post-closing indemnity claims asserted by OSI against the Sellers and not a disputed closing condition.
OSI, a stockholder of Encelium, agreed to purchase the remaining capital stock of Encelium not held by OSI pursuant to a stock purchase agreement executed on the last day of the third quarter of 2011. The $47 million purchase price was agreed based on Encelium’s forecasted sales of $4 million for the third quarter of 2011, as well as Sellers’ representations concerning Encelium’s financial condition, operating results, income, revenue and expenses. Following the closing of the transaction in October 2011, OSI learned that Encelium’s third quarter results were approximately half of its forecast and alleged that Encelium and the Sellers knew about these sales results, but failed to disclose them at closing in violation of a provision in the agreement requiring them to disclose facts that amount to an MAE. OSI also alleged other misconduct by Encelium and the Sellers, including, among other things, that they had manipulated Encelium’s second quarter results to make its business appear more profitable.
In considering the Sellers’ motion to dismiss OSI’s contract and tort-based claims, the court held that:
On September 6, 2013, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced that it had brought—and settled—a cease-and-desist case under Regulation Fair Disclosure (Reg. FD), which requires that public companies broadly disclose material nonpublic information to the public that their covered officers and employees intentionally or inadvertently disclose to market professionals and stockholders. The SEC charged Lawrence D. Polizzotto, a former Vice President of Investor Relations at First Solar, Inc., with selectively disclosing that the company was unlikely to receive financing under a conditional loan from the Department of Energy. Mr. Polizzotto agreed to pay a $50,000 fine to settle the charges, although he did not admit or deny the findings.
According to the SEC order,  Mr. Polizzotto attended a September 13, 2011 investor conference with the company’s then-CEO, who “publicly expressed confidence” that First Solar would receive three loan guarantees of $4.5 billion from the Department of Energy. Several executives, including Mr. Polizzotto, learned a couple of days later that First Solar would not get at least one of the loan guarantees. The company began discussing how and when to publicly disclose this information. However, before the company issued a public announcement, a number of analysts and stockholders began contacting the company after the House Committee on Energy and Commerce sent a letter to the Department of Energy inquiring about its loan guarantee program and the status of the guarantees that had not yet closed, including all three of First Solar’s conditional guarantees. Even though the company had not yet issued its public announcement, Mr. Polizzotto and his subordinate had phone conversations with more than 30 analysts and investors. They used talking points on the calls that “effectively signaled” First Solar would not receive one of the loan guarantees. The SEC charged that these calls violated Reg. FD, which requires simultaneous public disclosure of material nonpublic information that is intentionally disclosed by covered corporate officers and company spokespersons to market professionals and stockholders.  In addition to the $50,000 penalty from the settlement of these charges, Mr. Polizzotto agreed to cease and desist from violating Reg. FD and Section 13(a) of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934.
In Amgen Inc. v. Connecticut Retirement Plans & Trust Funds, No. 11-1085, 2013 WL 691001 (Feb. 27, 2013), the Supreme Court of the United States decided a significant issue concerning the requirements for class certification in actions based on alleged misrepresentations in violation of the federal securities laws. Under Amgen, a plaintiff in such an action is not required to prove the materiality of the alleged misrepresentation in order to obtain class certification. The Amgen decision will make it at least marginally easier for plaintiffs to obtain class certification in some Circuits.
Amgen is likely to be influential in ways that go well beyond its immediate holding. For example, the various opinions in Amgen debate the continuing vitality of the Supreme Court’s decision in Basic Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224 (1988), which established the fundamental structure enabling claims under the federal securities laws to be litigated as class actions. These and other implications of the decision are discussed below. Readers not requiring a summary of the framework established in Basic may wish to go directly to section 2.
On February 27, 2013, in a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States held in Amgen Inc. v. Connecticut Retirement Plans and Trust Funds that a securities fraud plaintiff alleging fraud on the market need not establish the materiality of an alleged fraudulent statement in order to obtain class certification. Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court, and Justices Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy dissented.
The particular questions presented by the Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari were whether, in a misrepresentation case under SEC Rule 10b-5, a securities fraud plaintiff alleging fraud on the market must establish materiality of the misstatements in order to obtain class certification and whether, in such a case, the district court must allow the defendant to present evidence rebutting the applicability of the fraud-on-the-market theory before certifying a plaintiff class based on that theory.