Pomerantz LLP

Courts Tackle Merger Proxy Rules Supremes To Determine Fate of Merger Litigation


Section 14(e) of the Exchange Act prohibits fraudulent, deceptive, and manipulative acts in connection with a tender offer. Mergers are often implemented through tender offers, which are accompanied by offering statements and recommendations from the target corporation.

On January 4, 2019, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Varjabedian v. Emulex Corp., to review the Ninth Circuit’s holding that to state a claim under Section 14(e), shareholders need allege only that a misrepresentation or omission in connection with a tender offer was negligent. This case is of critical importance to the future of securities litigation relating to mergers. The Court could significantly expand Section 14(e) claims by siding with the Ninth Circuit (and against five other circuit courts) by holding that Section 14(e) requires only allegations of negligence, rather than proof of scienter (i.e., the intent to defraud). Alternatively, the Court might decide that no private right of action exists under Section 14(e) at all, and so significantly curtail merger-related securities litigation.

In Emulex, a shareholder of Emulex Corp. brought a Section 14(e) class action against the company following the merger of Emulex and Avago Technologies Wireless Manufacturing, Inc., two companies that sold storage adapters, network interface cards, and related products. Pursuant to the terms of a merger agreement, the Avago merger sub had initiated a tender offer for Emulex’s outstanding stock to obtain control of Emulex. In connection with this tender offer, Emulex issued a statement to shareholders recommending that they accept the offer. This statement included a summary of a non-public analysis Emulex had commissioned from Goldman Sachs of the fairness of the proposed merger. Goldman Sachs’s original fairness analysis included a comparison of the premium shareholders would receive in the tender offer and the premium of previous offers for similarly situated companies, and concluded that the premium, while below average, was within the normal range. Emulex omitted this analysis of premiums from its summary of Goldman Sachs’s fairness analysis. The complaint alleged that this omission rendered Emulex’s tender offer statement misleading, in violation of Section 14(e). The district court dismissed the complaint on the ground that it failed adequately to allege scienter.

The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision and held that only negligence, rather than scienter, need be pleaded to state a claim under Section 14(e). The Court noted that Section 14(e) contains two clauses, each prohibiting different conduct: the first clause prohibits “mak[ing] any untrue statement of material fact” and misleading omissions, while the second clause prohibits “engag[ing] in any fraudulent, deceptive, or manipulative acts or practices, in connection with any tender offer. ...” Each clause proscribes different conduct, as otherwise one clause would be superfluous. The Court then noted that the Supreme Court, in Aaron v. SEC, in interpreting the wording of Section 17(a)(2) of the Securities Act— which is nearly identical to the wording in the first clause of Section 14(e) —had held that that language did not require a showing of scienter.

The Ninth Circuit also addressed the Supreme Court’s holding, in Ernst & Ernst v. Hochfelder, that claims under Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act and Rule 10b-5 must allege scienter. The Court in Ernst expressly held that language nearly identical to that in the first clause of Section 14(e) could be read as proscribing negligent conduct, not merely intentional conduct. Nevertheless, the Ernst Court concluded that SEC Rule 10b-5 requires a showing of scienter because the enabling statute, Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act, permits the SEC to regulate only “manipulative or deceptive device[s],” and manipulation and deception are intentional acts. 15 U.S.C. § 78j(b). As the SEC cannot proscribe a broader range of conduct than permitted by the enabling statute, the Court interpreted Rule 10b-5 to prohibit only intentional conduct.

In concluding that Section 14(e) requires only negligent conduct, the Ninth Circuit broke with the Second, Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Eleventh Circuits, all of which previously had held that Section 14(e) required scienter. The Ninth Circuit disagreed with the analysis of those other circuits and held that they had failed to apply the holdings in Aaron and Ernst. The other circuits each had interpreted the language of Section 14(e) with reference to Rule 10b-5 and had concluded that because language in the latter had been found to require scienter, the former should as well. Yet these cases, the Ninth Circuit found, failed to recognize that the language in Rule 10b-5 required scienter only because the enabling statute limited scope of the Rule to intentional conduct. Circuit cases decided after Aaron and Ernst failed to recognize that the Supreme Court twice had interpreted language nearly identical to that in Section 14(e) to encompass negligent conduct.

Following the Delaware Court of Chancery’s 2016 ruling in Trulia that required greater scrutiny of cases alleging insufficient disclosures relating to a merger, shareholders increasingly have chosen to bring their merger-related claims in federal rather than state court. If the Supreme Court adopts the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning in Emulex and permits Section 14(e) cases to proceed based merely on allegations of negligence, federal merger-related securities litigation likely will increase even more significantly. However, the Court, with its additional conservative members, may be loath to endorse such a result and may simply adopt the holdings of the five circuits that have found that Section 14(e) requires scienter. However, the Court may take this case as an opportunity to address whether there is an implied private cause of action under Section 14(e) at all. If the Court finds that no implied private cause of action exists under Section 14(e), the holding may result in a significant curtailment of merger-related securities litigation. Moreover, this holding may encourage companies to use the tender offer more often for business combinations (in place of traditional mergers with board approval) so as to avoid private litigation, and so may curtail merger-related litigation even further.