Pomerantz LLP

Supremes About to Hear Historic Challenge to Fraud on the Market Theory

Pomerantz Monitor, January/February 2014

Twenty five years ago, in Basic Inc. v. Levinson, the Supreme Court adopted the so-called “fraud on the market” (“FOTM”) theory in securities fraud class actions. That theory holds that a security traded on an “efficient” market presumably reflects all public “material” information about that security, including any public misrepresentations by the defendants; and that in such cases investors rely on the market price as a fair reflection of the totality of information available. Because investors purchase their shares at the market price, assuming that that price reflects all available material information, it is fair to presume that all investors relied, indirectly, on defendants’ misrepresentations when they purchased their shares. 

Reliance is an essential element of securities fraud claims. The FOTM presumption allows investors to establish reliance on a class-wide basis, without having to show that each member of the class personally relied on defendants’ misrepresentations. If reliance had to be shown separately for each of the hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of investors, individual questions of reliance would overwhelm the case. In legalese, individual questions would “predominate” over common questions in the action, and it would be next to impossible to certify a class. The FOTM theory adopted in Basic is therefore a foundation of securities fraud class actions. The importance of class-wide reliance was apparent to the courts from the outset of the modern class action era in 1966. Just two years later, the Second Circuit rejected a defendant’s argument “that each person injured must show that he personally relied on the misrepresentations” because, the court concluded, “[c]arried to its logical end, it would negate any attempted class action under Rule 10b-5 ….” Because most investors do not suffer large enough losses from securities fraud to support prosecution of an individual action, class actions are often the only way for most investors to obtain redress for securities fraud. In recent years, some members of the Supreme Court have become more critical of securities fraud class actions, echoing Chamber of Commerce arguments that the mere act of certifying a class in a securities fraud action puts enormous financial pressure on defendants, forcing them to settle claims regardless of their merit. Before Halliburton, defendants had mounted a series of efforts to get the courts to make it harder to certify a class, arguing that plaintiffs should be forced to prove, at the class certification stage, that the misrepresentations were material (the Amgen case), or that they caused plaintiffs’ losses (an earlier Halliburton case). Both of those efforts failed. 

Those were merely the preliminary bouts; the main event is now here. For years, corporate interests have been mounting attacks on the FOTM theory, arguing that markets are not as efficient as economists previously thought. With the Supreme Court agreeing to revisit its decision in Basic, these well-funded efforts have finally paid off. On November 15, 2013, the Court granted certiorari in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund. In Halliburton, the Supreme Court will decide two issues: 

 (1) Whether it should overrule or substantially modify the holding of Basic to the extent that it recognizes a presumption of class-wide reliance derived from the fraud-on-the market theory; and

(2) Whether, in a case where the plaintiff invokes the presumption of reliance to seek class certification, the defendant may rebut the presumption and prevent class certification by introducing evidence that the alleged misrepresentations did not distort the market price of its stock. 

For everyone involved in litigating securities fraud class actions, the answers to these questions could be game-changers; and Pomerantz’s clients are among the potentially affected. If Basic is overruled and FOTM is jettisoned, securities fraud class actions as we have known them for a quarter century will be a thing of the past. 

Another possibility is that the Court will modify, rather than reject, Basic and FOTM. This possibility exists because FOTM theory actually consists of two distinct, but related, parts: first, “informational efficiency,” the idea that the market is capable of efficiently and speedily processing material information; and second, “price distortion,” whether fraudulent statements injected into the informationally-efficient market in a particular case actually distort a given security’s market price. After Basic was decided, courts weighing class certification in securities fraud cases focused primarily on informational efficiency, allowing the FOTM presumption of reliance to attach where that test was satisfied. By contrast, inquiries into price distortion were rare, if they occurred at all, on class certification motions. The Court could keep FOTM while requiring that plaintiffs establish both an informationally-efficient market, and some price distortion, perhaps using event studies of a type already much in use in securities fraud litigation. 

Defendants are arguing that the issue of price distortion is closely related to another element of a securities fraud claim, “loss causation,” proof that defendants’ misstatements, once corrected, caused the price of the stock to drop, causing plaintiff’s losses. A court that simply assumes price distortion also, to some extent, assumes loss causation. Second, the FOTM presumption is essentially predicated on another independent element of a securities fraud claim, “materiality.” By presuming reliance, courts presume the materiality of the alleged misstatement, and on the class certification motion defendants cannot offer rebuttal evidence negating materiality. Defendants argue that plaintiffs should not be entitled to such presumptions in their favor on a class certification motion. 

At the end of the day, at summary judgment or at trial, defendants will have their opportunity to rebut all these presumptions. But, the argument goes, that is too late, as a practical matter. Once a class is certified, defendants have a strong incentive to settle. Very few defendants have the chutzpah to take a “bet the company” securities fraud class action to trial. 

Even if the Court abrogates Basic and the FOTM theory completely, class actions will still be possible in cases involving failures to disclose (rather than misrepresentations), or involving violations of the Securities Act, which relates primarily to initial public offerings. In other cases, however, investors will be left to pursue individual actions, mostly on behalf of large institutional investors, and possibly in state court. Pomerantz’s current BP litigation, which alleges common law fraud and negligence claims stemming from over two dozen clients’ losses associated with BP common stock investments, provides a glimpse into what this post-Basic world might look like. In such cases, institutions with significant losses can pursue individual actions even without the FOTM presumption, if their advisors actually relied on defendants’ misrepresentations. 

Oral arguments in Halliburton are set for March 5, 2014. In the meantime, Pomerantz attorneys continue to work with economists, Supreme Court consultants, and the law firm that will argue the case, to craft an amicus brief that will support the continued viability of FOTM. Barring the outright affirmance of Basic, we will urge the Court to adopt an approach that leaves FOTM in place – as securities fraud class actions are untenable without some version of it – while adopting a limited inquiry into price distortion.