Attorneys: Jessica N. Dell and H. Adam Prussin
Pomerantz Monitor July/August 2015
In March, the Supreme Court, in a case called Omnicare, tackled the issue of when statements of opinion that appear in a registration statement can violate Section 11 of the Securities Act. Section 11 creates a private right of action for investors who purchased shares in an initial public offering when the registration statement contained materially false or misleading information. Unlike theantifraud provisions of the Exchange Act, Section 11 does not require that the investor show that the issuer, or the directors who signed the registration statement, had a culpable state of mind. If the registration statement was wrong, defendants are liable. The company is subject to strict liability; the directors can escape liability only if they can establish an affirmative defense.
In Omnicare the registration statement expressed the belief that the rebates Omnicare was receiving from suppliers were legal. In its decision below, the Sixth Circuit had held that under Section 11 a statement of opinion or belief can violate Section 11 if the opinion or belief turned out to be wrong – even if the issuer and its directors sincerely believed it at the time.
The Supreme Court rejected that view, holding that statements of opinion or belief are not “misstatements of fact” for purposes of Section 11. “Most important, a statement of fact (‘the coffee is hot’) expresses certainty about a thing, whereas a statement of opinion (‘I think the coffee is hot’) does not.” Because statements of opinion do not convey certainty about the subject, the Court rejected the contention that an expression of opinion or belief can be a misstatement of fact simply because it turned out to be wrong. Instead, the Court held that beliefs or opinions can be misstatements of fact only if the issuer did not really believe them at the time. While opinions themselves may be subjective, whether one holds them or not is an objective fact. In Omnicare, defendants clearly believed what they had said, so there was no misstatement of fact.
But the Court’s opinion did not stop there. It also held that a reasonable investor is entitled to assume that the issuer had a basis for the opinion or belief it is conveying. For example, if the issuer says that it believes that certain of its business practices are in compliance with applicable law, as Omnicare did here, it would also have to disclose whether it had formed that belief without consulting a lawyer, or if its lawyers had given contrary advice. Omissions can render those statements misleading if “the investor … identifies particular (and material) facts going to the basis for the issuer’s opinion—facts about the inquiry the issuer did or did not conduct or the knowledge it did or did not have—whose omission makes the opinion statement at issue misleading to a reasonable person reading the statement fairly and in context.”
This issue is going to be the focus of future litigation over Section 11 liability for statements of opinion or belief. What type of foundation can investors reasonably assume a company has for such statements, and what qualifies as a material fact that had to be disclosed because it might undermine that assumed foundation? Time will tell.