Pomerantz LLP

Decision Certifying Class In Petrobras Case Heads To Second Circuit

Attorney: John A. Kehoe
Pomerantz Monitor September/October 2016

As the Monitor has previously reported, the court has appointed Pomerantz as lead counsel for a class of purchasers in the U.S. of securities issued by Petrobras, a Brazilian corporation engulfed in a massive corruption scandal. We were retained in this case, which is pending in the Southern District of New York, by lead plaintiff in the action, Universities Superannuation Scheme Ltd., and by a U.S. state retirement plan. Plaintiffs allege that the fraud that pervaded Petrobras artificially inflated the price of Petrobras securities by billions of dollars, while in the process hobbling the political and economic structure of Brazil, one of the world’s largest economies.

In February, Judge Rakoff certified a class of purchasers of Petrobras securities on a U.S. exchange or through other domestic transactions between January 22, 2010 and July 28, 2015 for claims arising under Sections 10(b) and 20(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. In addition, for claims asserted under Sections 11 and 12(a)(2) of the Securities Act of 1933, Judge Rakoff certified a class of purchasers of Petrobras debt securities in U.S. domestic transactions in/or traceable to public offerings that Petrobras conducted on May 15, 2013 and March 11, 2014.

The classes were limited to investors who engaged in securities transactions in the U.S. because of the Supreme Court’s decision several years ago in a case called Morrison v. Nat’l Australia Bank (“Morrison”), where the Court held that U.S. securities laws apply only to domestic transactions. The Petrobras class certification motion turned largely on whether the question of where each investor’s purchases occurred presents individual issues that would “predominate” over common questions in the case. In certifying the class, Judge Rakoff found that “the Morrison determination is administratively feasible” in a class action. In particular, Judge Rakoff determined that:

The criteria identified by [the Second Circuit], as relevant to the determination of whether a transaction was domestic, are highly likely to be documented in a form susceptible to the bureaucratic processes of determining who belongs in a class.  For example, documentation of ‘the placement of purchase orders’ is the sort of discrete, objective record routinely produced by the modern financial system that a court, a putative class member, or a claims administrator can use to determine  whether a claim satisfies Morrison.

In addition to challenging this finding, Petrobras also challenged Judge Rakoff’s finding that market efficiency for Petrobras securities was sufficient to satisfy the fraud-on-the-market theory. This theory makes it possible to establish the element of reliance, which is required for such claims, on a class-wide basis.

Petrobras filed an interlocutory appeal, and in June the Second Circuit agreed to hear Petrobras’ appeal, on an expedited basis.

Since that time, numerous amicus briefs from non-parties have been submitted in support of Judge Rakoff’s decision. Notably, the National Conference of Public Employee Retirement Systems (“NCPERS”) filed an amicus brief in support of class certification. NCPERS is the largest national, non-profit public pension trade association. With respect to the Securities Act claims related to the note purchases, and in particular with respect to the issue of whether determining whether a transaction occurred in the U.S., NCPERS asserts that the class as certified is sufficiently ascertainable through ordinary documentation that would be submitted during an administrative claims process, and that limiting the class to purchasers in domestic transactions does not render the class indeterminate, unfair to class members or defendants, or otherwise defective. Recognizing that the Supreme Court in Morrison and the Second Circuit in Absolute Activist Value Master Fund Ltd. v. Ficeto set forth straight-forward criteria for analyzing the domestic transaction requirement, NCPERS contends that the types of proof needed to establish the elements of a domestic transaction typically are readily available and amenable to the ordinary claims administration processes in securities cases.

Similarly, the State Board of Administration of Florida (“SBA”) also filed an amicus brief supporting the judge’s decision on the domestic versus foreign transaction issue, although its argument was far broader. The SBA, governed by a three-member Board of  Trustees that includes the Governor, Chief Financial Officer, and the Attorney General of the State of Florida, has over $170 billion in assets under management. The SBA argues that all trades in Petrobras notes, regardless of their origins, should properly be regarded as occurring in the United States because the notes are themselves housed at the Depository Trust Company (“DTC”), located in the United States, and all transactions in those notes occur through DTC’s process of “settlement,” when the notes are debited from the seller’s brokerage account and deposited into the buyer’s brokerage account. Such transactions bear all the hallmarks of title transfers and take place entirely within DTC’s self-contained electronic system in the New York area, making all trades within that system—including those in Petrobras notes—domestic. Transactions settling through DTC utilize the same method of transfer as all trades on domestic exchanges. This principle would render all trades in these securities automatically “domestic” and would eliminate this as an issue on class determination.

Amicus briefs have also been submitted by twelve distinguished securities law professors on the issue of market efficiency. They note that the fraud-on-the-market presumption of reliance has long been understood as placing a necessarily high burden on a defendant to prove that the alleged misrepresentation did not actually affect the stock’s market price, and that this burden should apply with equal force at the class certification stage. They contend that the Second Circuit should endorse this approach, as it best reflects the realities of the modern securities markets and the rationale behind the fraud-on-the-market doctrine.

Remarkably, another group of distinguished professors who teach, research, and write about the laws of evidence filed an amicus brief supporting certification as well. They argue that principles of the law of evidence dictate that, once plaintiffs have satisfied their burden of triggering the fraud-on-the-market presumption of reliance, the burden of persuasion shifts to the defendants to rebut that presumption by a preponderance of the evidence. Contrary to Petrobras’ argument, these evidence scholars, several of whom were involved in drafting the Federal Rules of Evidence, argue that with respect to the presumption of reliance under the securities laws, the congressional policy requires shifting the burden of persuasion to defendants in evaluating whether the presumption of reliance has been rebutted.

As the professors aptly note, Basic Inc. v. Levinson (“Basic”) and Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund recognize that such an allocation of the burden of persuasion is necessary to further Congress’s purpose underlying the securities laws: namely, to give investors reasonable protection when they buy and sell securities. Furthermore, the evidentiary scholars assert that the fraud-on-the-market presumption is triggered only on a substantial showing by plaintiffs, much greater than is required to trigger many other presumptions, and thus a defendant’s burden on rebuttal should be more substantial as well. Reference in Basic to the Advisory Committee note on the original version of Rule 301, which required a substantial rebuttal burden, supports the conclusion that a substantial rebuttal burden is required to rebut market efficiency. Indeed, most district courts have adopted the rule that defendants must rebut the presumption by a preponderance of the evidence.

Oral argument is scheduled for November 2, 2016.