Pomerantz Monitor July/August 2017
Since 2012, Pomerantz has pursued ground-breaking claims on behalf of institutional investors in BP p.l.c. to recover losses in BP’s common stock (which trades on the London Stock Exchange) stemming from the 2010 Gulf oil spill. The threshold challenge was how to litigate in U.S. court in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Morrison v. Nat’l Australia Bank Ltd., 561 U.S. 247 (2010), which barred recovery for losses in foreign traded securities under the U.S. federal securities laws.
Pomerantz blazed a trail forward, in a series of cutting edge wins. In 2013, we survived BP’s first motion to dismiss, securing the rights of U.S. institutional investors to pursue English common law claims, seeking recovery of losses in BP common stock, in U.S. court. The court agreed that the forum non conveniens doctrine did not require the cases to be refiled in England, the Dormant Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution did not bar the claims, and we adequately alleged reliance on the fraud based on facts developed from our clients’ investment managers. In 2014, we survived BP’s second motion to dismiss, securing the same rights for foreign institutional investors, by again defeating BP’s forum non conveniens argument, as well as its argument that a U.S. federal statute, the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act, should bar the claims. Together, these victories secured the core English law deceit case for over 100 institutional investors from four continents.
In 2015, Pomerantz embarked on an effort to also secure the rights of investors who retained shares of BP stock because of the fraud, an approach typically referred to as a “holder claim.” The U.S. Supreme Court has barred pursuit of “holder claims” under the U.S. federal securities laws since Blue Chip Stamps v. Manor Drug Stores, 421 U.S. 723 (1975). Nevertheless, we developed extensive facts from our clients and their investment managers, consulted with an English law expert, and sought to amend their complaints to add a “holder claim” theory under their English legal claims. We had to file a motion seeking leave of court to amend most of our clients’ complaints, which BP opposed. The court granted our motion, and we filed all the amended complaints by 2016.
BP’s third motion to dismiss followed, seeking dismissal of the “holder claims” on two principal grounds – damages and reliance. Pomerantz Partner Matthew Tuccillo once again oversaw the legal briefing, which spanned over 250 pages of briefs and expert declarations by both sides, and he handled the multi-hour oral argument before Judge Keith Ellison in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. Both issues were hotly contested.
First, BP argued that, as a matter of “logic,” no investor was damaged by retaining shares in reliance on the postspill fraud, when BP understated the scope of the oil spill, because had BP truthfully disclosed its scope up-front, the stock would have immediately bottomed out, leaving no time to sell at any price higher than the bottom. BP’s argument had support among U.S. case law, including a decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. However, as Mr. Tuccillo argued to Judge Ellison, the stock declines in the post-spill period had a complex mix of causes – while some were due to corrections of the post-spill fraud, others were due to corrections of the pre-spill fraud (regarding BP’s safety reforms and upgrades) or general market declines unrelated to any fraud – and English law permits recovery of all such declines after an investor was induced to retain shares that otherwise would have been sold. The court agreed that Pomerantz had alleged cognizable damages, and it rejected BP’s argument.
Second, BP argued that we had not sufficiently alleged our clients’ reliance on the fraud as the reason they retained BP shares. BP argued that, for purposes of a “holder claim,” U.S. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b) required our clients to allege not only the aspects of the fraud on which they relied and the date(s) on which they would have sold their BP shares, but also the exact number of shares they would have sold and the prices they would have received. Pomerantz argued that level of precision was not required, and the court agreed, holding instead that Rule 9(b) required us to allege with particularity only what actions our clients “took or forewent,” beyond “unspoken and unrecorded thoughts and decisions,” due to the fraud. Applying this still-stringent standard, the court held that certain Pomerantz clients had indeed adequately alleged their reliance on the fraud as the reason they retained already-held shares of BP stock. The court differentiated between clients based on the level of factual details alleged. The court’s order illustrates that it was persuaded that a viable “holder claim” was alleged when a client’s complaint recounted investment notes memorializing not only aspects of the fraud (e.g., BP’s false oil flow rate statements) but also calculations based thereon, resulting conclusions, and an express, contemporaneous decision to continue to hold BP shares. For these clients, the court agreed that evidence as to the exact amount of damages was more appropriate for a later stage of the case.
These rulings are very significant, given the dearth of precedent from anywhere in the U.S. that both recognizes the potential viability of a “holder claim” under some body of non-U.S. federal law and holds that the plaintiffs attempting one sufficiently alleged facts giving rise to reliance and other required elements of the underlying legal claims. For this reason, we anticipate that the decision rendered in the BP litigation on behalf of our clients will become an important and useful precedent for investor suits.