Pomerantz LLP

Toshiba: Ninth Circuit Applies Morrison Two Prong Test

ATTORNEY: Jessica N. Dell

In July the Ninth Circuit issued an important decision that reversed the dismissal of U.S. investors’ securities fraud claims against Toshiba, in Stoyas v. Toshiba Corp.

The case arose from revelations that Toshiba had overstated profits by $2.6 billion. Toshiba was fined a record $60 million by Japanese securities regulators, and Toshiba’s CEO resigned amidst the scandal. When the market discovered the fraud, the value of both Toshiba’s own stock, and the ADRs, plummeted. The U.S. investors’ dilemma was that while it was Toshiba that had committed the fraud, it was the banks, and not Toshiba, that had sold the Toshiba ADRs in the U.S.

Toshiba is a Japanese corporation whose common shares are listed and traded on the Tokyo Stock Exchange; they are not registered with the SEC or listed on any U.S. exchange. In this case, U.S. investors purchased “unsponsored” American Depositary Receipts (“ADRs”) for Toshiba shares over-the-counter in the U.S.

ADRs are a way for U.S. investors to purchase stock in foreign companies. ADRs are securities, denominated in U.S. dollars; the underlying security is bought on the foreign exchange by a bank and is held by that bank overseas. ADRs are said to be “sponsored” if the issuer takes a formal role with the bank creating the ADRs; unsponsored ADRs are created without much, if any, involvement by the issuer. Toshiba did not even have to register its securities with the SEC to allow the creation of the ADRs. The banks then arranged for these ADRs to trade over-the-counter in the U.S.

The principles to be applied here were established in 2010 by the Supreme Court in Morrison v. National Australia Bank. There the Court held that, while there is a presumption that the U.S. securities laws do not apply to overseas conduct of foreign companies, U.S. securities laws could be applied to transactions in a foreign company’s securities if that company’s shares are listed on U.S. domestic exchanges, or are “otherwise traded” in the U.S.

In dismissing the Toshiba case in 2016, the district court had held that 1) the over-the-counter market, where Toshiba ADRs are traded, is not a “domestic exchange”; and 2) that the ADRs are not “otherwise traded in the U.S.,” under Morrison, because even if the shares were actually bought in the U.S. Toshiba had no direct connection to those transactions. The district court concluded that “nowhere in Morrison did the Court state that U.S. securities laws could be applied to a foreign company that only listed its shares on foreign securities exchanges but whose stocks are purchased by an American depositary bank on a foreign exchange and then resold as a different kind of security (an ADR) in the United States.”

The Ninth Circuit held that plaintiffs could well be able to plead a viable claim under U.S. securities laws, and granted them leave to amend their complaint in the action in order to do so. Applying Morrison’s two prong test, it agreed with the District Court that the over-the-counter market was not an “exchange,” and that therefore the first prong of Morrison was not satisfied. But it disagreed with the lower court on whether the Toshiba ADRs were “traded in the U.S.” It held that, for U.S. securities laws to apply under Morrison’s second prong, plaintiffs needed to establish only that they purchased the Toshiba ADRs in U.S. domestic transactions. It held that it was the location of the sales, and not the identity of the participants in those sales, that was important. It recognized that, to prevail in the case, plaintiffs would ultimately have to plead, and prove, facts showing that Toshiba had committed fraud “in connection with” the U.S. sales of the ADRs. But it determined that the fact that Toshiba was not a participant in the U.S. sales is not controlling on whether the securities laws applied in the first place:

Specifically, Toshiba argues that because the [investors] did not allege any connection between Toshiba and the Toshiba ADR transactions, Morrison precludes the Funds’ Exchange Act claims. But this turns Morrison and Section 10(b) on their heads: because we are to examine the location of the transaction, it does not matter that a foreign entity was not engaged in the transaction. For the Exchange Act to apply, there must be a domestic transaction; that Toshiba may ultimately be found not liable for causing the loss in value to the ADRs does not mean that the Act is inapplicable to the transactions.

The court held that under the standard “irrevocable liability” test, the transaction occurs wherever the parties incur irrevocable liability” to buy or sell the shares. Noting that the plaintiffs’ transactions in the Toshiba ADRs have many connections to the United States, the court determined that “an amended complaint could almost certainly allege sufficient facts to establish that [the plaintiffs] purchased [their] Toshiba ADRs in a domestic transaction” in light of the “irrevocable liability” standard. Among the numerous connections to the United States they identified: the plaintiffs are U.S. entities located in the U.S., the ADRs were purchased in the U.S. and traded over-the-counter on a platform located in the States, and the depository banks that host ADR trading are located in the U.S.

In reaching this conclusion, the Ninth Circuit rejected Toshiba’s (and the district court’s) reliance on the Second Circuit’s Parkcentral Global Hub ruling, in which that court said that domestic transactions are not sufficient to establish the applicability of the U.S. securities laws under Morrison, and that some participation or involvement by the issuer in those transactions is required. The appellate court said Parkcentral is distinguishable and that Parkcentral’s test for whether a claim is “so predominately foreign as to be impermissibly extraterritorial” is an “open ended, under-defined, multi-factor test, akin to the vague and unpredictable tests that Morrison criticized and endeavored to replace.” The court likewise rejected the argument that allowing the securities laws to apply to ADRs would undermine principles of comity, holding that “it may very well be that the Morrison test in some cases will result in the Exchange Act’s application to claims of manipulation of share value from afar.”

By rejecting the holding of Parkcentral, the Ninth Circuit in Toshiba created a circuit split that could lead to a Supreme Court cert petition.

While there is no guarantee that the purchasers of the Toshiba ADRs will prevail in their next round of pleadings, the new decision showed that even a foreign company without any obvious participation in U.S. Securities transactions may still be subject to U.S. law if the pleadings show the misconduct was “in connection” with the purchase or sale in the U.S. It has, at least for now, defanged the arguments that any and all attempts at recovery by holder of unsponsored ADRs would per se be blocked by Morrison.