Pomerantz LLP

Petrobras Class Action Clears Major Hurdles In Second Circuit

Attorneys: Murielle Steven-Walsh and Emma Gilmore 
Pomerantz Monitor July/August 2017

In a decision issued by the Second Circuit on July 17, Pomerantz has scored a significant victory for investors in the Petrobras Securities Litigation, one of the largest securities fraud class actions pending in the United States. The court’s decision, which addressed the standards for certifying plaintiff classes in this case, sets important precedent for class action plaintiffs in securities, antitrust and consumer cases.

Pomerantz has asserted claims in this case on behalf of two classes of investors. One class consists of investors in Petrobras equity and note securities, asserting fraud claims under Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act. Because Petrobras is a foreign corporation, the equity securities at issue are Petrobras American Depository Receipts, which represent shares of stock, and which trade on the New York stock Exchange. The note securities are bonds that are not listed on any exchange in the U.S., but trade over the counter. The second class is limited to investors in Petrobras note securities, asserting claims under Sections 11, 12(a)(2) and 15 of the Securities Act. As required by the Supreme Court’s Morrison decision, the classes are limited to investors who acquired Petrobras securities pursuant to transactions that occurred in the United States.

As the Monitor has previously reported, the Petrobras case involves the biggest corruption scandal in the history of Brazil, which has implicated not only Petrobras’ former executives but also Brazilian politicians, including former presidents and at least one third of the Brazilian Congress. The defendants’ alleged fraudulent scheme, nicknamed

Operation Carwash, involved billions of dollars in kickbacks and overstated Petrobras’ assets by tens of billions of dollars. When the truth came out about Petrobras’ criminal scheme, investors lost tens of billions of dollars they had invested in the company.

In February, 2016, the District Court certified both classes, and defendants appealed on multiple grounds. First, they contended that the noteholder claims should not be certified because it would not be “administratively feasible” for the court to determine which noteholders are part of either the Section 10(b) or Section 11 classes because they purchased their notes in U.S. domestic transactions. In their view, because paper records are often difficult to pull together in over the counter transactions, it would not be “feasible” for the court to sort through all of this.

Second, defendants contended that the Section 10(b) class should not have been certified because plaintiffs did not submit event studies proving that the Petrobras ADRs traded on an “efficient” market.

The Second Circuit accepted the appeal, but largely rejected defendants’ arguments, sending the case back to the District Court for further proceedings.

The decision is an important and favorable precedent in several respects.

First, the Second Circuit squarely rejected defendants’ invitation to adopt the heightened “administratively feasible” requirement promulgated by the Third Circuit. It held, instead, that so long as the class is defined by objective criteria, membership in the class is sufficiently “ascertainable,” even if it takes some work to make that determination. The Second Circuit’s rejection of the Third Circuit’s heightened “administratively feasible” standard is not only important in securities class actions, but also for plaintiffs in consumer fraud class actions and other class actions where documentation regarding class membership is not readily attainable.

The Court did, however, conclude that the District Court had not properly analyzed whether the individual issues in determining who is a domestic purchaser under Morrison “predominated” over common questions for noteholder class members. It therefore remanded the case to the District Court to provide such an analysis. But the Second Circuit “took no position” as to whether the District Court may properly certify one or several classes on remand, and in fact acknowledged that “the district court might properly certify one or more classes that capture all of the Securities holders who fall within the Classes as currently defined.” We believe that the record in this case easily supports such a determination.

The Second Circuit also refused to adopt a requirement, urged by defendants, that all plaintiffs seeking class certification of Section 10(b) fraud claims prove, through an event study, that the securities traded in an efficient market. As the Monitor has previously reported, the “efficient market” doctrine allows investors to establish reliance on a class-wide basis; and reliance is an essential element of any Section 10(b) claim. In an efficient market, securities’ trading prices move quickly in response to new information. Disclosure of negative information quickly drives prices down, and vice-versa. The Second Circuit rejected the notion that complicated event studies be submitted by plaintiffs at the class certification stage, reaffirming the Supreme Court’s guidance that the burden for plaintiffs seeking class certification “is not an onerous one.” The Court agreed with plaintiffs that other standard methods for establishing market efficiency are sufficient at the class certification stage, and that “event studies offer the seductive promise of hard numbers and dispassionate truth, but methodological constraints limit their utility in the context of single-firm analyses.”

The Second Circuit’s decision means that antifraud claims asserted on behalf of ADR purchasers will proceed as a class. Further proceedings will be needed only with respect to claims of noteholders.

Attorneys Jeremy Lieberman, Marc Gross, Emma Gilmore, Brenda Szydlo and John Kehoe were involved in the appeal.