Attorney: Michele S. Carino
Pomerantz Monitor September/October 2015
Ten years ago, in its seminal decision in Dura Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Broudo, the Supreme Court held that in a securities fraud case the plaintiffs must allege facts establishing “loss causation,” meaning that the misrepresented or omitted facts actually caused losses for investors. This can occur, for example, when the company makes a “corrective disclosure” that reveals new or previously concealed information concerning the true state of the company’s affairs, which then causes the price of its stock to drop.
Since then, there has been a great deal of discussion as to how to apply the Dura rule, especially in cases where there has not been a single, or obvious, corrective disclosure. Recently, the Ninth Circuit has been asked to provide some much-needed clarity in this area.
In August, in Smilovits v. First Solar Inc., a federal district court in Arizona certified for immediate interlocutory appeal the issue of the correct standard to apply for pleading loss causation in cases where the company does not explicitly “correct” any previous disclosures – i.e. admit that they were false or misleading. In such cases, two conflicting standards have emerged in the Ninth Circuit post-Dura, which the district court concluded would yield contradictory results in the case before it. First Solar involves allegations that the defendants withheld information about certain manufacturing defects in their products. Eventually, those defects started to affect the company’s financial condition, and its stock began to decline, falling from nearly $300 per share to less than $50 per share. Plaintiff identified six stock price declines following announcements of disappointing financial results. Although plaintiff claimed that the poor results were actually caused by these undisclosed manufacturing defects, the company did not admit it.
Applying the test articulated in Nuveen Mun. High Income Opportunity Fund v. City of Alameda, plaintiff contended that loss causation is satisfied “by showing that the defendant misrepresented or omitted the very facts that were a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s economic loss.” On the other hand, defendants urged the court to adopt a much narrower view, which would require not only that the misrepresented or omitted facts caused the loss, but that the company admitted that its previous statements were wrong.
In support of this argument, defendants relied on another line of Ninth Circuit case law beginning with Metzler Investment GMBH v. Corinthian Colleges, Inc. The Metzler line of cases requires a showing that “the market learn[ed] of a defendant’s fraudulent act or practice, the market react[ed] to the fraudulent act or practice, and plaintiff suffer[ed] a loss as a result of the market’s reaction.” According to defendants, since First Solar’s poor earnings announcements were not accompanied by any revelation of a prior fraud, plaintiff could not demonstrate the requisite “causal connection” between defendants’ alleged misrepresentation or omission and plaintiff’s loss.
The district court ultimately determined that Nuveen stated the better rule, holding that the requirements of proximate cause are satisfied so long as the misrepresented fact led to the plaintiff’s loss. Thus, it does not matter whether the company reveals that it has committed a fraud. As the district court explained: “If the plaintiff can prove that the drop in revenue was caused by the misrepresented fact and that the drop in his or her stock value was due to the disappointing revenues, the plaintiff should be able to recover. A causal connection between the ‘very fact’ misrepresented and the plaintiff’s loss has been established.”
An affirmance in First Solar by the Ninth Circuit potentially would have far-reaching implications, because it would prevent companies from averting liability simply by refusing to admit that misstatements had been made. It might also put an end to the ongoing dispute over whether the announcement of governmental investigation, followed by a drop in a company’s stock price, satisfies the loss causation test under Dura. The Ninth Circuit has adopted the reasoning in Loos v. Immersion, which like Metzler, holds that disclosure of an investigation is insufficient to establish loss causation, because “[t]he announcement of an investigation does not ‘reveal’ fraudulent practices to the market,” but only the possibility that a fraud may have occurred. Loos requires something “more” – presumably, some revelation or actual accusation of fraud. However, as the First Solar court recognized, application of Nuveen in cases like Loos yields a completely different outcome, so long as plaintiffs establish that the ‘very fact’ misrepresented, e.g., the undisclosed fraudulent conduct prompting the investigation, caused the stock to decline in value.
The First Solar approach also makes eminent sense as a policy matter. Requiring revelation of fraud before losses are actionable rewards defendants who issue bare bones disclosures or time the announcement of poor financial results to coincide with other events, even though they may have knowledge of the real causes of the company’s difficulties. When and if an actual fraud is revealed, there may be no subsequent price decline, as the market has already incorporated and accounted for the previously-disclosed bad news, and therefore, there is no actionable corrective disclosure. Thus, defendants who succeed at concealing fraud are most likely to be insulated from liability. That is the exact opposite result sought to be achieved by the federal securities laws. We will have to wait to see if the Ninth Circuit agrees.