A senior officer’s violations of a corporation’s code of conduct do not give rise to a claim for violation of the federal securities laws—even where the corporation (including the officer himself) has touted the company’s high standards for compliance with its own ethical code.  That was the Ninth Circuit’s holding in a recent opinion affirming a district court’s dismissal of a putative class action filed against Hewlett-Packard and its former CEO and Chairman, Mark Hurd.  Retail Wholesale & Department Store Union Local 338 Retirement Fund v. Hewlett-Packard Co. and Mark A. Hurd, 845 F.3d 1268 (9th Cir. 2017).  The case arose out of Hurd’s departure from the company following revelations of Hurd’s relationship with an HP contractor and subsequent efforts to cover up the relationship.  Plaintiffs brought claims under Section 10 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 10b-5, alleging that HP had materially misrepresented or alternatively made material omissions about its high ethical standards and compliance with its Standards of Business Conduct (“SBC”), where its Chairman and CEO was found to have violated the SBC.

HP touted its strict code of conduct prior to Hurd’s resignation for violating the code.

Several years earlier, under Hurd’s leadership, HP had revised and strengthened its SBC following a 2006 ethics scandal in which it was revealed that HP had hired detectives to spy on directors, employees and journalists.  While the then-Chairman and General Counsel faced criminal charges, Hurd (then-CEO) was found free of any wrongdoing in that scandal, and was promoted to Chairman in addition to his role as CEO.  As the Ninth Circuit noted, following the scandal “Hurd took many opportunities to proclaim HP’s integrity and its intention to enforce violations of the SBC.”

Four years later, in 2010, former HP contractor Jodie Fisher contacted HP’s Board of Directors through her attorney, alleging that Hurd had sexually harassed Fisher.  The Board launched an investigation, and Hurd initially lied to the Board about the nature of his relationship with Fisher before admitting to a “very close personal relationship” with her.  The investigation revealed that Hurd had also falsified expense reports to hide his relationship.  Hurd resigned following the investigation, and HP acknowledged in a press release that Hurd knowingly violated the SBC and acted unethically.  HP’s stock dropped immediately upon the announcement of Hurd’s resignation, resulting in a $10 billion loss in market cap.

Statements about a code of conduct must be both objectively false and material to be actionable.

Investors filed a putative class action claiming that the violations of the SBC amounted to securities fraud, either in the form of material misrepresentations because HP’s statements about its ethics were inconsistent with Hurd’s conduct, or in the form of material omissions regarding Hurd’s unethical behavior, which Plaintiffs claimed HP had a duty to disclose.  The district court rejected both theories and dismissed the complaint with prejudice.  A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit unanimously affirmed the dismissal.

In this issue of first impression before the Ninth Circuit, the court articulated a two-part test for determining whether a violation of a corporate code of ethics may give rise to a securities fraud claim.  First, it examined the objective falsity of the company’s statements regarding its code of ethics.  Second, it turned to the materiality of those statements.  The court found that Plaintiffs’ claims failed under both elements.

As to objective falsity, the Ninth Circuit held that HP and Hurd had made no “objectively verifiable” statements about its compliance with the SBC, and instead characterized the code of conduct and statements about it as “inherently aspirational.”  Plaintiffs pointed in particular to Hurd’s comments prefacing the SBC as revised following the 2006 scandal, in which Hurd urged employees to “commit together, as individuals and as a company, to build trust in everything we do . . .”  But the Court reasoned that such statements are not “capable of being objectively false,” and thus found no affirmative misrepresentation.

The Ninth Circuit further found that the challenged representations were not material.  It noted that companies are required by the SEC to publish their codes of conduct, and “it simply cannot be that a reasonable investor’s decision could conceivably have been affected by HP’s compliance with SEC regulations requiring publication of ethics standards.”  Moreover, while plaintiffs pointed to the stock drop as evidence of materiality, the court cited its decision in Police Ret. Syst. Of St. Louis v. Intuitive Surgical, Inc., 759 F.3d 1051, 1060 (9th Cir. 2014), for the proposition that the stock drop goes to reliance, not materiality.  Where, as here, there was no actionable misstatement, the court would not reach the reliance analysis.

The court also rejected plaintiffs’ alternative theory that HP failed to disclose material facts concerning Hurd’s noncompliance with the SJC.  The court found that HP’s “transparently aspirational” statements in and about the SBC did not amount to a suggestion that nobody at HP would ever violate the SBC.  Absent statements creating the impression that everyone at HP was in full compliance with the ethical standards, there was nothing that gave rise to a duty to disclose noncompliance.

The future is dim for securities claims based on violations of a company’s ethical code—and that’s good news for companies and their directors and officers who wish to adopt and tout strong codes of conduct.

Plaintiffs may complain that the Ninth Circuit’s opinion takes away a tool for enforcing compliance with codes of conduct, as (at least in the Ninth Circuit) securities class actions based on alleged noncompliance with SEC-mandated codes of conduct are unlikely to survive a motion to dismiss.  Indeed, defense counsel are already brandishing Hewlett-Packard to support the assertion that statements about ethics-policy compliance are not actionable under the securities laws—Goldman Sachs sent a letter to the Second Circuit recently citing the HP decision in support of Goldman’s bid to decertify a class of investors suing over its Abacus CDO.

But I think the better view is that the court’s ruling finding that “aspirational” statements will generally not support a finding of falsity or materiality under the securities laws should provide a level comfort to companies seeking to adopt robust ethical codes, and to speak freely both within the company and publicly about their values and compliance goals—with a few notes of caution.

First, it probably goes without saying that, even under the Ninth Circuit’s newly-articulated standard, companies should avoid unequivocal statements in or about their codes of conduct suggesting for example that there will be no violations of the ethical code.  Such statements will likely prove false over time, and probably demonstrably so.  But apart from those types of unequivocal statements, the Ninth Circuit’s ruling should be an encouraging sign for companies who adopt and publish strong codes of conduct, and for directors and officers who make statements about their efforts to abide by such codes.  As the court made clear, these “aspirational statements” about a company’s compliance with its own code of conduct—even where strongly stated or oft-repeated—will typically be neither objectively false nor material under the securities laws.  As the court noted, “A contrary interpretation—that statements such as, for example, the SBC’s ‘we make ethical decisions,’ or Hurd’s prefatory statements, can be measured for compliance—is simply untenable, as it could turn all corporate wrongdoing into securities fraud.”

The second caution is that the Ninth Circuit’s ruling did not go so far as to say that non-compliance with a code of conduct could never be actionable under federal securities laws.  The court imagined that “the analysis would likely be different if HP had continued the conduct that gave rise to the 2006 scandal while claiming that it had learned a valuable lesson in ethics.”  Accordingly, companies should continue to be particularly vigilant to avoid repeating (or continuing) prior ethical lapses, which the Ninth Circuit suggested could give rise to causes of action, particularly where the company indicated through public statements that such conduct had ceased.

In Ganem v. InVivo Therapeutics Holdings Corp., 845 F.3d 447 (1st Cir. Jan. 9, 2017), the First Circuit affirmed a District of Massachusetts decision dismissing claims against InVivo Therapeutics Holdings Corp., a biotechnology company, and its former CEO, Frank Reynolds. The First Circuit held that InVivo could not be liable for its projections about the start and end dates of a clinical study, because the plaintiff failed to adequately allege that these statements were rendered materially misleading by the nondisclosure of conditions imposed on the study by the FDA. Having found that the complaint did not support a Section 10(b) or Rule 10b-5 claim against InVivo, the First Circuit held that the plaintiff could not pursue a control person claim against Reynolds.

In early March 2013, InVivo issued its Form 10-K for 2012, in which it stated that its “Lead Product Under Development” was a device called “biopolymer scaffolding,” which was designed to prevent further harm to patients who had already suffered a spinal injury. The annual report indicated that before InVivo could market the device in the U.S., it would have to obtain an Investigational Device Exception (IDE) from the FDA, which would allow it to conduct necessary human clinical trials. Id. at 450.

On March 29, 2013, the FDA sent InVivo a letter indicating that its application for an IDE had been “approved with conditions.” The letter said that InVivo could begin the study immediately with a single human subject, but that that InVivo would need to meet a set of 11 conditions in 45 days and any additional subjects could only be enrolled in the study in five stages over a minimum period of 15 months. The FDA letter also included eight recommended modifications to the study’s design. Id. at *451.

On April 5, the week after receiving the FDA letter, InVivo issued a press release stating that the FDA had approved its IDE application, and indicating that the company “intends to commence a … clinical study in the next few months.” The April 5 release also quoted Reynolds as saying, “we expect to have all data [from the completed study] to the FDA by the end of 2014.” On April 8, the first trading day after InVivo issued this release, its stock price rose from $2.85 to $3.19 on “relatively high” trading volume. Id. at *451-52.

On May 9, InVivo issued another press release, indicating that the company “expects to commence the [study] in mid-2013 and submit data to the FDA by the end of 2014.” There was no allegation that the May 9 release led to an increase in InVivo’s stock price. Id. at 452-53.

Finally, on August 27, InVivo issued another press release entitled, “InVivo Therapeutics Updates Clinical Plan.” This release stated that the company “now expects that, based on the judgment of new management, it will enroll the first patient in [the study] during the first quarter of 2014,” and that additional patients would be enrolled over a period of 21 months after the enrollment of the first. Between August 23, when InVivo’s stock had begun to trade at an unusually high volume, and August 28, the day after the issuance of the “update” release, InVivo’s stock price fell from $4.00 to $2.07. Id. at *453.

The plaintiff in the Ganem litigation sued InVivo and Reynolds on behalf of a putative class consisting of all persons and entities who bought InVivo stock between April 5 and August 26, 2013—that is, all purchasers between the date when InVivo announced it had obtained approval to conduct the study, and the date when it revised the study timeline. The complaint asserted that InVivo and Reynolds had violated Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5 by making misleading statements about the timing of the study in the April 5 and May 9 press releases. The plaintiff’s basic theory was that the projections in these releases were materially misleading because InVivo had failed to reveal that the FDA’s approval was conditional; that InVivo would need to conduct the study in five stages; and that the FDA had recommended modifications to the study design. Id. at *453-55.

The district court dismissed the complaint, finding that the plaintiff had failed to allege material misrepresentations or scienter to support the first claim. On appeal, the First Circuit considered only whether the plaintiff had pled an actionable misrepresentation—a question that disposed of the entire complaint when answered in the negative. Id. at *454. Notably, although the challenged statements were forward-looking, the First Circuit did not apply the Reform Act’s safe harbor for forward-looking statements, finding that “the absence of a material misrepresentation or omission is determinative.” Id. at 454 n. 5.

Regarding InVivo’s statements in the challenged releases that it expected to begin the study “in the next few months” and in “mid-2013,” the First Circuit held that these projections were not materially misleading because there was nothing in the FDA approval letter that would have prevented InVivo from initiating the study on this schedule. Although the FDA had required, for example, that InVivo meet a set of conditions within 45 days, the plaintiff had alleged “no facts suggesting that InVivo would fail to meet that deadline.” Id. at 456.  Likewise, the First Circuit found that InVivo could conceivably have completed the study and submitted data to the FDA within the timeline it offered in these releases (i.e., “by the end of 2014”) while complying with all of the requirements in the FDA letter, including the stipulation that the study must have five stages to be completed over a minimum of 15 months. Id. at *456-57.

Given that the FDA’s approval letter was not inconsistent with InVivo’s projections, the First Circuit concluded that the plaintiff was left “only with the inference that because, in retrospect, the [study] lagged significantly behind the proposed timeline, the timeline must always have been impossible to achieve.” Id. at *457. The court noted, however, that “fraud in the hindsight does not satisfy the pleading requirements in a securities fraud case,” and although “’greater clairvoyance’ might have led InVivo to propose a more conservative timeline [for its study], ‘failure to make such perceptions does not constitute fraud.’” Id. (quoting Denny v. Barber, 576 F.2d 465, 470 (2d Cir. 1978)).

The Eleventh Circuit recently affirmed a Northern District of Georgia decision dismissing claims against Galectin Therapeutics (“Galectin”), a hedge fund, and five Galectin directors and officers, in In re Galectin Therapeutics, Inc. Securities Litigation, — F.3d —, 2016 WL 7240146 (7th Cir. Dec. 15, 2016).  The litigation focused on Galectin’s payments to four stock promoters in exchange for their publication of favorable reports about the company and its stock, and Galectin’s non-disclosure of the payments.  After news of the company’s payments to the stock promoters came to light, Galectin’s stock price fell precipitously.  The Eleventh Circuit, following the Supreme Court’s Janus decision, held that the defendants could not be liable for the stock promoters’ statements or omissions, because the defendants were not the “makers” of any such statements or omissions.  The court also held that Galectin’s payments to stock promoters did not violate the securities laws, and the company’s disclosures that they did not and would not take any actions to manipulate its stock price was not actionable.

Galectin is a small biopharmaceutical company headquartered in Georgia that conducts research to develop drugs to treat cancer and fatty liver disease.  In 2009, defendant 10X Fund took over and restructured Galectin’s predecessor company.  The five individual defendants are all directors and/or senior officers of Galectin, and held stock in the company.  Id. at *1.

In 2013 and 2014, Galectin issued two rounds of stock in “at the market” (“ATM”) offerings. Id. at *2.  Around the same time, Galectin retained four separate stock promoters and paid them to publish articles in order to recommend or tout Galectin’s stock.  SEC rules do not prohibit such arrangements, and do not require the issuer to disclose that it paid the stock promoter for its services.  Instead, the SEC requires the stock promoters themselves to disclose the relationship with the company they are promoting so that the disclosure can be found in the actual promotional materials.  Two of Galectin’s paid promoters failed to make any disclosure.  A third promoter disclosed its relationship with Galectin, but plaintiffs claimed that the disclosure was inadequate.  With respect to the fourth promoter, Galectin disclosed in its 10-Q that it had paid the promoter as part of a “consulting agreement.”  The plaintiffs claimed this disclosure was inadequate because it was untimely, appearing two months after the promotional material was published, and vague because it only referred to a consulting agreement without being more specific. Id. at *3-4.

The plaintiffs further alleged that the stock promoters’ publications were manipulative, because the defendants timed them to coincide with the ATM offerings in order to pump up Galectin’s stock price artificially.  Plaintiffs did not allege a pump-and-dump scheme; instead they alleged that the defendants pumped the stock price to avoid dilution of their own stock holdings following the ATM offerings. Id. at *4.  The plaintiffs also claimed that the ATM offerings filed with the SEC were materially misleading, because Galectin stated that it had not taken any action that caused or resulted in the “manipulation” of its stock price, and that it would not “directly or indirectly” manipulate its stock price in the future.  The district court dismissed the claims. Id. at *5.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal.  The court first addressed plaintiffs’ claim that because Galectin paid the promoters, the promoters became agents of the company and the company assumed the stock promoters’ disclosure responsibilities.  According to plaintiffs, because the promoters did not disclose (or adequately disclose) that Galectin paid for the publications, the defendants should be held liable for the materially misleading publications, which violated Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5.

The court examined the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus Capital Group, Inc. v. First Derivative Traders, 564 U.S. 135 (2011).  In Janus, the Supreme Court held that “[f]or purposes of Rule 10b-5, the maker of a statement is the person or entity with ultimate authority over the statement, including its content and whether and how to communicate it.”  Id. at 142.  Applying that holding, the court quickly concluded that plaintiffs had not sufficiently alleged that Galectin had “ultimate authority” over the stock promoters’ statements. Galectin’s payments to the promoters was not sufficient to support the claim.  In re Galectin, 2016 WL 7240146, at *9-11.

Second, the court rejected plaintiffs’ argument that Galectin’s representations in its SEC filings that it had not and would not take actions to manipulate its stock price was an untrue statement of fact.  There is no prohibition in the securities laws against a company hiring a stock promoter.  Moreover, the word “manipulation” is “‘virtually a term of art when used in connection with securities markets,’ generally referring ‘to practices, such as wash sales, matched orders or rigged prices, that are intended to mislead investors by artificially affecting market activity.’”  Id. at *11 (quoting Santa Fe Indus., Inc. v. Green, 430 U.S. 462, 476 (1977)).  Manipulation “connotes intentional or willful conduct designed to deceive or defraud investors by controlling or artificially affecting the price of securities.”  Id. (quoting Ernst & Ernst v. Hochfelder, 425 U.S. 185, 199 (1976)).  The court concluded that plaintiffs had not alleged the kind of conduct by the defendants necessary to amount to “manipulation.”  Id. at *12.

Finally, the court rejected plaintiffs’ argument that Galectin’s 10-K and 10-Qs contained material omissions of fact because they failed to disclose that the number of new shares issued in the ATM, the price per share, and the net proceeds were impacted by the stock promoters’ activity.  The court ruled that the 10-K and 10-Qs simply reported those figures accurately, and the disclosures did not create a duty to disclose that the company had paid the promoters to promote its stock. Id. at *13.

After affirming the dismissal of the Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5 claims, the court also affirmed dismissal of the Section 20(a) claims, noting that there were no remaining primary violations remaining that could form the basis of a control person liability claim.  Id. at *14.

The First Circuit affirmed the dismissal of nearly all securities class action claims against Ariad Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (Ariad) and four corporate officers, in In re Ariad Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Securities Litig., 842 F.3d 744 (1st Cir. 2016). The litigation focused on Ariad’s public statements about the potential for FDA approval of an experimental drug designed to treat a particular type of leukemia.  Ariad made robust public statements about the efficacy of the drug, until the FDA pulled the drug from clinical trials amid negative side effects. The First Circuit found that other than one statement, the allegations of misrepresentations were insufficient to support a strong inference of scienter. The court also held that the allegations of insider trading were not actionable.

Ariad is a pharmaceutical company employing R&D to develop new products. One such product showed promise in treating a chronic form of leukemia. After a series of clinical trials, Ariad sought FDA approval. The FDA initially rejected Ariad’s application, but eventually approved limited use, with the caveat that the packaging must indicate a significant risk of adverse cardiovascular events (a so-called “black-box” label). Black-box labels are the strictest warnings issued by the FDA and indicate that evidence of a serious hazard exists with the drug. Despite the concerns and the required label, Ariad projected public confidence about the drug’s effectiveness, which included a statement that management believed the drug would be approved “with a favorable label.” Within a year, however, clinical studies showed increased medical complications, ultimately resulting in the decision to suspend commercial distribution of the drug.  Ariad’s stock price went from $23/share to $2.20/share.

Plaintiffs brought claims under both the Exchange Act and the Securities Act. Plaintiffs identified two categories of alleged misstatements: (1) those statements made before the FDA approved the drug for limited use; and (2) those statements made post-approval. On either side of the FDA approval timeline, the crux of the alleged misstatements related to what Ariad knew and said (or failed to say) about the rate of cardiovascular events attributed to the drug’s use. To bolster their scienter allegations, plaintiffs alleged that certain executives sold shares during the class period.

On appeal, the First Circuit affirmed, in part, the district court’s dismissal. The court overwhelmingly rejected plaintiffs’ theory because, while the complaint was replete with conclusory allegations that the Ariad defendants knew about the rate of cardiovascular events, “plaintiffs’ theory of fraud suffer[ed] from a glaring omission”—plaintiffs failed to make concrete allegations of contemporaneous knowledge. The allegations, taken as a whole, did not establish when the adverse events occurred or, more importantly, when the defendants knew about those adverse events.  Instead, the complaint sought to impermissibly establish fraud by hindsight. As such, plaintiffs failed to create the required strong inference of scienter.

The court did find, however, that one statement did support a strong inference of scienter. After the FDA had informed Ariad that its limited approval would include a black-box label requirement, Ariad published a report indicating the drug would likely receive a favorable label. The court found this allegation sufficient.

The First Circuit also dispensed with the stock-sale allegations. Relying on its decision in Greebel v. FTP Software, Inc., 194 F.3d 185 (1st Cir. 1999), the court analyzed the insider trading allegations under its holding that insider trades may be probative of scienter, but do not, on their own, establish scienter. The court found that the bulk of insider trades occurred well before the high point of Ariad’s stock price, an indication that the trades did not appear to be suspicious. Ariad’s CFO made trades closest to the stock’s high point, but, significantly, the court concluded a pharmaceutical company’s CFO is not likely to have access to nonpublic information obtained through clinical trials. As such, it was unlikely, in the court’s estimation, that the CFO’s trades indicated knowledge of negative information not yet available to the public. The upshot: none of the insider trading allegations bolstered the plaintiffs’ scienter allegations.

Finally, the First Circuit held that plaintiffs did not adequately plead that the purchase of their shares was traceable to the relevant offering. Based on the plaintiffs’ allegations, the court found it more plausible than not that they purchased shares that were issued prior to the date(s) of the alleged misstatements.

Reversing a district court’s dismissal of a securities class action for failure to adequately allege scienter, the Ninth Circuit held in Schwartz v. Arena Pharmaceuticals, Inc. — F.3d —-, 2016 WL 6246875 (9th Cir. Oct. 26, 2016), that the facts alleged in the complaint gave rise to a strong inference of scienter where the defendants knew of the FDA’s concerns about the potential carcinogenic effects of a new drug based on animal studies, yet represented to investors that FDA approval was likely because all of the data gathered, including “animal studies,” were “favorable.”  The court reaffirmed that, while there is generally no affirmative duty to disclose material information to investors, such a duty arises when the information that is disclosed creates a misleading impression.  The court found that the defendants’ statements concerning “animal studies” were misleading in the absence of any disclosure about the FDA’s concerns.

Arena’s stock dropped sharply following the FDA’s disclosure of its concerns about the potential carcinogenic effects of lorcaserin, a weight-loss drug that Arena was developing.  The FDA based its concerns on testing of the drug in rats (the “Rat Study”).  While the rats developed cancer, Arena had proposed to the FDA an explanation for the carcinogenic mechanism based on the effect of the hormone prolactin, which made it irrelevant to humans.  The FDA did not halt the ongoing human clinical trials, but requested follow-up testing and bi-monthly reports on the rats’ prolactin levels, and later requested a final report on the Rat Study as soon as possible.  The complaint alleged that those requests were “highly unusual” and “out-of-process.”  However, following Arena’s discussions with the FDA in 2007 and 2008, Arena heard nothing further from the FDA on the Rat Study issue until September 2010.  Moreover, Arena’s February 2009 final report concluded that the follow-up studies substantiated the prolactin hypothesis.

Thereafter, Arena made a number of statements to its investors about its confidence in lorcaserin’s ultimate approval by the FDA.  In March 2009, Arena’s CEO told investors that confidence was based on both the preclinical and clinical data as well as the “animal studies” that had been completed.  In May 2009, Arena represented in an SEC filing that lorcaserin’s “safety and efficacy” has been “demonstrated” in part by carcinogenicity “animal studies.”  In September 2009, Arena’s Vice President of Clinical Development stated that lorcaserin showed “favorable results on everything we’ve compiled so far.”  Finally, in November 2009, Arena’s CEO stated that “all of the data in hand” would be included in Arena’s imminent FDA approval application, and that Arena was “not expecting any surprises” in the approval process.

In December 2009, Arena submitted is final application (which included the Rat Study conclusions) to the FDA.  In September 2010, the FDA published briefing documents in connection with Arena’s application that disclosed the existence of the Rat Study and the FDA’s concerns about lorcaserin’s potential carcinogenicity.  Following that disclosure, Arena’s stock plunged 40% in a single day.

Later, the FDA Advisory Committee voted against approval of lorcaserin based on its carcinogenicity concerns, and the FDA denied Arena’s drug approval application.  However, following further pathological review, the FDA ultimately approved lorcaserin, and it is currently on the market.

Following the September 2010 FDA disclosure, plaintiffs brought a putative class action suit against Arena and several of its officers, alleging that the defendants’ statements referring to the animal studies were misleading and made with scienter.  The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to adequately allege scienter.   The Ninth Circuit reversed.  Assuming that the challenged statements were misleading, the Ninth Circuit focused its opinion on what it described as a “simple” theory of scienter: because Defendants had referred to the animal studies when touting lorcaserin’s safety and likely approval, they were obligated to disclose the Rat Study’s existence to the market, and their failure to do so demonstrated scienter.  2016 WL 6246875, at *4.

While acknowledging that it was a “close case,” the Ninth Circuit ultimately agreed.  Id.  The court observed that, under Matrixx Initiatives, Inc. v. Siracusano, 563 U.S. 27 (2011), Defendants would have been under no affirmative duty to disclose the Rat Study in the absence of other statements they had made to the market.  However, as in Matrixx, once Defendants represented that “animal studies” supported lorcaserin’s safety and likely approval, they were bound to do so in a manner that would not mislead investors.  Id. at *5-*7.  The court found that, at the time those statements were made, “Arena knew the animal studies were the sticking point with the FDA[,]” and that it was simply untrue that all of those studies were “favorable.”  Id. at *7 (emphasis in original).

The Ninth Circuit also rejected Defendants’ attempt to analogize the case to In re AstraZeneca Sec. Litig., 559 F. Supp. 2d 453 (S.D.N.Y. 2008), where the court found that a “scientific disagreement” between the defendant company and the FDA regarding the safety profile of a proposed new drug did not give rise to an inference that the defendants did not honestly believe that the drug was safe.  The court observed that Schwartz’s “theory of fraud” was not that Defendants had misled the market as to lorcaserin’s objective safety, but rather that they had withheld information about the FDA’s concerns about its safety, which implicated its prospects for approval—regardless of whether those concerns were well-founded.  Id. at *8.

In some respects, the Ninth Circuit’s opinion seems rather harsh.  After all, while the FDA had initially expressed some concern about the Rat Study, Arena had ultimately concluded that the animal tests did not suggest that lorcaserin was carcinogenic to humans, and the FDA had not expressed disagreement with that conclusion at the time the challenged statements were made.  It seems plausible that, at the time they made those statements, Defendants actually believed that the Rat Study supported the drug’s safety and would not be a significant stumbling block in the approval process.

On the other hand, the FDA had not expressed that its concerns about the Rat Study had been mollified, either.  By expressly invoking “favorable animal studies” as a basis for Arena’s belief that lorcaserin would be approved, Defendants arguably created an impression that nothing in the animal studies would cause the FDA any concern—an arguably misleading impression, given that the FDA had already expressed its concern.  Had Arena simply stated its belief or confidence that lorcaserin would be approved, it likely would have avoided an inference of scienter.  But once it specifically referenced “animal studies” as a basis for that belief, the failure to disclose that those “animal studies” had actually given the FDA pause arguably created a misleading picture for investors.

Analogizing a plaintiff’s allegations to “brushstrokes” intended to paint a “portrait” of scienter, the First Circuit found those allegations “cover[ed] too little canvas” to give rise to the strong inference of scienter required under the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act.  See Local No. 8 IBEW Ret. Plan & Trust v. Vertex Pharmaceuticals, — F.3d —-, 2016 WL 5682548 (1st Cir. 2016).  In doing so, the First Circuit reaffirmed the very high bar that a plaintiff must clear to allege scienter on the basis of recklessness.

The case arose from Vertex’s correction of previously-reported preliminary results from clinical trials for an experimental drug combination treatment for cystic fibrosis.  Initially, Vertex reported an “absolute improvement” in lung function of 5 percent or more for 46 percent of patients receiving the combination therapy, and an “absolute improvement” of 10 percent or more for 30 percent of patients receiving the treatment.  Vertex was effusive in describing the preliminary results, stating that they “exceeded expectations” and were driving Vertex to accelerate its plans to bring the treatment to market.  Immediately thereafter, Vertex’s stock price shot up by more than 55 percent, and by a few weeks later had risen more 73 percent.  During that period, several of Vertex’s officers and directors sold over half a million shares of their Vertex stock for a total of almost $32 million.

At that point, however, Vertex reported that the preliminary results had been overstated.  Vertex explained that it had “misinterpreted” the results received from a third-party vendor, which reflected a “relative improvement” from the patients’ baseline lung function, rather than an “absolute improvement.”  Vertex reported that, once the results were recalculated to put them in terms of “absolute improvement,” only 35 percent of patients showed an improvement in lung function of 5 percent or more, and only 19 percent showed an improvement of 10 percent or more.  Following that disclosure, Vertex’s stock price declined significantly, although it remained over 54 percent higher than it had been before the initial announcement.

Plaintiffs filed a securities class action.  The lead plaintiff, Local No. 8 IBEW Ret. Plan & Trust (“Local No. 8”), alleged that, “[w]hen faced with … study results that seemed too good to be true, Defendants, rather than checking the results, turned a blind eye, accepting and promoting unlikely data that offered them a windfall on the sale of their stock.”  Id. at *3 (quoting complaint).  Defendants moved to dismiss, arguing that the facts alleged did not give rise to a “strong inference” of scienter, as required by the Reform Act.  The district court granted the motion, and Local No. 8 appealed.

On appeal, the First Circuit explained that, to show scienter through “recklessness” rather than actual intent for purposes of a securities fraud claim, a defendant’s conduct must go beyond “merely simple, or even inexcusable negligence, but [must involve] an extreme departure from the standards of ordinary care.”  Id. (citation omitted).  The court explained that this form of recklessness is “closer to a lesser form of intent” than to ordinary negligence. Id. (citation omitted).

With that background, the First Circuit turned to the facts alleged in the complaint that Local No. 8 argued cumulatively supported an inference of scienter.  The court indicated it was “mindful that ‘[e]ach individual fact about scienter may provide only a brushstroke,’ but it is our obligation to consider ‘the resulting portrait.’”  Id. at *4 (citation omitted).  Thus, the court would evaluate each fact individually, and then assess their cumulative effect.  Id.

The First Circuit did not find that any of the facts alleged, considered individually, were particularly indicative of scienter:

  • Local No. 8 alleged that the implausibility of the initial results should have been obvious for a number of reasons, and that some individuals within the company were highly skeptical of them.  The court found that, while Defendants admitted the initial results were surprising, Local No. 8 did not allege facts indicating that they were “so obviously suspect” that Defendants should have inquired further.  Id. at *4-*6.  Nor did Local No. 8 allege that any of the individuals within the company who were “skeptical” of the results reported that skepticism to any of the Defendants.  Id. at *5.
  •  Local No. 8 argued on appeal that it was “rare” for a company to publish interim results.  The First Circuit declined to consider that contention, as it was not made in the complaint and, in any event, there was no legal requirement that Vertex double-check interim results before reporting them.  Id. at *6.
  •  The First Circuit found that Local No. 8’s allegations of insider trading also did not strongly suggest scienter.  The court observed that one of the individual defendants—Vertex’s CEO—did not sell any stock, and one of the others sold only small amounts that were consistent with his trading pattern both before the initial announcement and after the correction.  While the other individual defendants had more substantial stock sales, the court found them “perfectly understandable” in light of Vertex’s previously languishing stock price.
  • Finally, Local No. 8 alleged that the sudden retirement of Vertex’s Chief Commercial Officer, Nancy Wysenski, shortly after a U.S. Senator asked the SEC to investigate potential insider trading by Vertex executives suggested consciousness of guilt, at least with respect to her.  Id. at *7.  The court noted that the allegations “point[ing] the finger” at Wysenski “tend to exculpate the others who did not retire or leave the company.”  Id. at *8.  Moreover, “[a]lternative explanations abound[ed]” for Wysenski’s retirement—her large insider sales could have been embarrassing to the company even in the absence of fraud, or she might have been negligent in preparing the press release announcing the initial results.  Id.

The First Circuit concluded that, “[c]umulatively, the brushstrokes here do not paint the required strong inference of scienter.”  Considered in the context of the allegations as a whole, “the stock sales by some of the individual defendants and the timing of Wysenski’s retirement (which might otherwise look very different) cover too little canvas to evoke inferences of scienter strong enough to equal the alternative inference that Vertex was negligent in viewing very good results as being even better than they in fact were.”  Id.

In a 91-page opinion covering several important securities-litigation issues, the Second Circuit upheld the district court’s partial judgment against Vivendi following a three-month jury trial that resulted in the jury finding Vivendi liable under Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5.

As I was preparing to summarize the opinion for this blog, I read a summary by Wiley Rein’s David Topol and Jennifer Williams in Kevin LaCroix’s blog, The D&O Diary.  Their post is excellent and comprehensive.  So instead of publishing a separate summary, I obtained their permission to refer readers of this blog to their post:

Vivendi: A Victory for Plaintiffs on the Price Maintenance Theory and on Loss Causation .

The 11th Circuit ignored the potential application of the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Omnicare, and instead reached back to its own precedent dating from 1979, in holding that plaintiffs are foreclosed from bringing a claim that a company misled shareholders about its real motivations for engaging in a stock repurchase program.

In its per curiam unpublished opinion in Henningsen v. ADT Corp. (“ADT”), 2016 WL 4660814 (11th Cir. 2016), the 11th Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Section 10(b) claims against ADT and its CEO, and against Corvex Management LP, and its founder, Keith Meister.

Plaintiffs alleged that Corvex had acquired more than five percent of ADT’s stock in 2012, and that after that point, Meister was outspoken in his criticism of the Company, alleging that its stock was undervalued and urging management to take on more debt so it could repurchase shares, with a goal of increasing ADT’s stock price.

The complaint alleged that Meister threatened to call a shareholder vote to replace the board if the directors did not offer him a board position and agree to take out loans for significant stock buybacks.  ADT announced a plan to repurchase $2 billion of its common stock over three years after an initial meeting with Meister.  Soon afterward, Meister was given a position on the ADT board, and the Company continued to borrow more money to repurchase more stock, ultimately causing credit rating agencies to downgrade ADT’s credit rating and ADT’s share price to drop.  After this downturn, the complaint alleges that Meister pushed for ADT to repurchase more shares on an even more accelerated timeframe, and that the directors acquiesced after Meister promised to leave the board if they agreed with his plan.

In November 2013, ADT announced that it was repurchasing Corvex’s shares and that Meister was resigning from the board.  ADT stock price dropped 6% on this news, and dropped another 30% in the following months.  Plaintiffs filed suit, claiming that ADT and Corvex had misrepresented various issues and problems at the Company, and that they had misled shareholders by concealing that they had engaged in aggressive share repurchases to appease Meister and Corvex, instead characterizing the repurchase plan as “thoughtful,” “effective,” and “optimal.” Id. at *5.

The district court dismissed most of the claims for failure to sufficiently plead falsity and scienter, and rejected the “motivation” claim because it was barred by 11th Circuit precedent, namely Alabama Farm Bureau Mutual Casualty Co. v. American Fidelity Life Insurance Co., 606 F.2d 602, 610 (5th Cir. 1979).  The 11th Circuit affirmed.

In Alabama Farm, the court held that a company does not engage in “deception” under the securities laws by failing to “disclose [its] motives in entering a transaction,” and that Section 10(b) does not require “the disclosure of an individuals’ motives or subjective beliefs.” ADT, 2016 WL 4660814, at *4 (quoting Alabama Farm, 606 F.2d at 610).

In ADT, 11th Circuit found that this precedent foreclosed plaintiffs’ claims that the “ADT Defendants misled investors by having one motive, while offering up another, for participating in an otherwise accurately-disclosed stock repurchase plan.”  The court reasoned that information about the Company’s motives was not material as long as the Company had accurately disclosed “material financial or other information concerning the nature, scope, or mechanics of the stock repurchase transaction.” Id. at *4.

The court rejected plaintiffs’ argument that such a bright-line test for materiality is no longer good law after the Supreme Court’s decisions in Basic Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224 (1988) and Matrixx Initiatives, Inc. v. Siracusano, 131 S. Ct. 1309 (2011).  Even in light of these Supreme Court decisions expressing concern such bright-line tests might exclude information important to a reasonable shareholder, the court found that “no reasonable shareholder would have considered the alleged omissions” regarding ADT’s true motivations “significant to the decision about whether to trade ADT securities given the other disclosures regarding the stock repurchase program and ADT’s corporate financing.” Id.

Finally, the court declined to give meaningful consideration to plaintiffs’ claims that ADT and its CEO had misled its shareholders by calling the repurchase program “thoughtful,” “effective,” and “optimal,” among other descriptors.  The court did not consider the applicability to these claims of the Supreme Court’s decision in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers District Council Construction Industry Pension Fund, 135 S. Ct. 1318 (2015), which sets forth the criteria for deciding whether a statement of opinion was false or misleading. Instead, the court relied on pre-Omnicare precedent to dismiss these statements as nonactionable “puffery,” thus sidestepping the question of whether plaintiffs might have adequately alleged that they were false statements of opinion under the Omnicare standard. Id. at *5.

The Third Circuit engaged in a searching analysis of plaintiffs’ falsity and scienter allegations and found them insufficient under the exacting standards of the Reform Act, upholding the district court’s dismissal of the complaint in OFI Asset Management v. Cooper Tire & Rubber, — F.3d —, 2016 WL 4434404 (3d Cir. 2016).

In its ruling, the Third Circuit also had some harsh words for plaintiffs’ “kitchen sink” pleading style, finding that it “has been a hindrance at every stage of these proceedings.”  Id. at *7.

The case is tied to Cooper’s failed merger with Apollo Tyres.  Cooper was valuable to Apollo largely due of its manufacturing facility in China (“CCT’), of which it owned 65%, with the remaining 35% owned by a Chinese company.  The merger fell through after workers at CCT went on strike, denied Cooper officials access to the facility, refused to provide Cooper with financial information, and stopped producing Cooper-branded tires.  At the same time, the merger announcement led to a labor dispute in Cooper’s U.S. manufacturing facilities, with a labor arbitrator eventually finding in favor of the union and barring Cooper from selling two of its U.S. plants to Apollo.

Plaintiffs alleged that Cooper made a number of false or misleading statements under Section 10(b) and 14(a) in connection with the failed merger, including in the merger agreement, the proxy statement, its financial statements, and two 8-Ks containing news about the merger.  The claim was dismissed by the district court in Delaware for failure to adequately allege falsity and scienter.

Prior to oral argument, the district court had ordered plaintiffs to submit a letter identifying the five most compelling examples of allegedly false statements, with three factual allegations demonstrating the falsity of each statement and three allegations supporting scienter as to each of the statements.  Upon appeal, plaintiffs’ first objection was as to the court’s process, arguing that the court abused its discretion by considering only five “artificially selected” allegedly false statements, and failing to rule on the whole of plaintiffs’ complaint.

The Third Circuit considered plaintiffs’ “umbrage. . . unfounded.” Far from harming OFI’s case, the court found that the district judge had tried to “give OFI an assist,” by offering it a chance to frame the issues in its complaint more clearly.  Asking OFI to bring some order and clarity to its 100-page, 245-paragraph complaint was well within the district judge’s discretion to manage complex disputes, and does not show that the judge failed to consider the allegations as a whole.  Id. at *6.

Held the Third Circuit: “As pled, the Complaint presents an extraordinary challenge for application of the highly particularized pleading standard demanded by the PSLRA. This is true not only due to the length of the Complaint, but also its lack of clarity. . . . Now that OFI has come to us with the same kind of broad averments that drove the District Court to demand specificity, we find ourselves more than sympathetic to the Court’s position.”  Id. at *6.

After holding that the district court had not abused its discretion in managing the case, the Third Circuit went on to explore in detail each of the allegedly false statements, finding that none of them were sufficient to maintain a claim.  In doing so, the court considered the context of each allegedly false or misleading statement, and examined whether the allegations of falsity as to each were sufficiently specific, rejecting those allegations that lacked the particularity required of the Reform Act or which failed to show how a statement was misleading rather than simply incomplete.

As to a number of forward-looking statements, the Third Circuit held that its allegations of falsity failed to account for the Reform Act’s Safe Harbor.  Because the statements had been accompanied by meaningful cautionary statements, the court held that the Safe Harbor immunized them from liability—and thus they were not actionable even if plaintiffs could show that they were false and made with scienter.  Id. at *15.

In regard to one isolated statement, the court also found that even if OFI had sufficiently pleaded technical falsity, it nevertheless failed to raise a strong inference of scienter, because the “plausible opposing inferences” were more likely, “including that the statement was simply imprecise or received little attention due to the context in which it was made[.]”  Id. at 12.

Wrote the court: “OFI’s post hoc scouring of countless pages of documents for a stray and inartfully phrased comment that can be argued to be technically false seems like just the sort of litigation maneuver the PSLRA was meant to eliminate. One purpose of the statute was to prevent disappointed investors from treating every imprecise statement during a transaction as an invitation to file a lawsuit.”  Id. at *13.

The Sixth Circuit has joined a majority of the other circuit courts in recognizing that loss causation can be shown through a “materialization of the risk” theory,” reversing the dismissal of a case against Freddie Mac stemming from the 2007 mortgage crisis.

In Ohio Public Employees Retirement Sys. v. Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. (“Freddie Mac”), — F.3d. —, 2016 WL 3916011 (6th Cir. 2016), the Sixth Circuit found that under “the clear weight of persuasive authority,” plaintiffs could adequately plead loss causation by alleging that a risk that had been fraudulently concealed caused harm to a company and a resultant stock drop — even if there was no corrective disclosure that revealed that the company’s statements had been false or misleading. Id. at *7.

Plaintiffs brought the action against Freddie Mac in January 2008, alleging that starting on August 1, 2006, the mortgage-holding giant had made false or misleading statements that concealed from purchasers of its stock its growing investment in loan portfolios comprised of risky mortgages, as well as the fact that it circumvented its traditional underwriting standards to purchase these portfolios.

Although Freddie Mac had given the market warnings about potential credit risk, plaintiffs alleged that it had made misleading statements highlighting its rigorous underwriting requirements and declaring that it had “basically no subprime exposure.” Id. at *7-8.

Plaintiffs allege that the market began to learn the truth behind these misrepresentations on November 20, 2007, when Freddie Mac released an earnings statement that revealed that more than a fourth of its loan portfolio was at high risk of substantial losses, and disclosed that it had incurred a record $2 billion in losses during the previous quarter. The company’s stock price dropped 29% on this news. However, it was not until 2008 that news articles and analyst reports suggested that Freddie Mac’s prior statements regarding its portfolio may have been false.

The complaint had previously withstood three motions to dismiss, but in 2013 the district judge in the Northern District of Ohio recused himself from the case and it was reassigned. The new district judge gave defendants leave to file a fourth motion to dismiss, which the court granted in 2014.

In finding the materialization of the risk theory sufficient to plead a Section 10(b) claim, the Sixth Circuit noted that it was an issue of first impression in the circuit, and referred to decisions from nine other circuit courts that recognize the theory.  It cited to the Second Circuit in holding that alternate theories of loss causation that do not include a corrective disclosure are sufficient if they allege that the stock drop was caused by events that were “within the zone of risk concealed by the misrepresentations and omissions.”  Id. at *6 (citing Lentell v. Merrill Lynch & Co., 396 F.3d 161, 172 (2d Cir. 2005)).

The court noted: “We are mindful of the dangerous incentive that is created when the success of any loss causation argument is made contingent upon a defendant’s acknowledgment that it misled investors. Our sister circuits are too and have recognized that defendants accused of securities fraud should not escape liability by simply avoiding a corrective disclosure.”  Id. at *7.

Emphasizing that allegations of loss causation do not need to meet heightened pleading under the Reform Act, the court found that plaintiffs had sufficiently alleged that their investment losses were caused when the allegedly concealed risky mortgages and compromised underwriting standards resulted in substantial defaults and record losses for the company. The court found that the disclosure of these losses on November 20, 2007 “well within the ‘zone of risk’ that Freddie Mac allegedly concealed,” and therefore were sufficient to support a “plausible claim” of loss causation under the standard of Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). Id. at *8-9.