Pomerantz LLP

Supremes: Distributing False Statement Can Be Securities Fraud


In a case called Stoneridge brought by Pomerantz a decade ago, the Supreme Court approved the doctrine of “scheme liability,” holding that a defendant can be liable for securities fraud even if he never made a misleading statement to investors, so long as he participated in an “act, practice, or course of business which operates or would operate as a fraud or deceit.” Later, in Janus, the Court held that a defendant cannot be liable for a misleading statement made to investors unless he made the misstatement itself or had ultimate authority over the contents of that statement. Any lesser involvement, such as drafting the contents of the statement, could at most be considered “aiding and abetting,” which, under yet another Supreme Court decision, is not a violation.

These doctrines have now intersected in a recent Supreme Court decision in Lorenzo v. SEC. In this case, a false statement was made to investors, but the defendant was not the “maker” of the statement. The Supreme Court held that the defendant, who merely forwarded his boss’s false statement to his clients, was liable for securities fraud under the theory of scheme liability.

Scheme liability is based on the language of SEC Rule 10b-5, which makes it unlawful to (a) “employ any device, scheme, or artifice to defraud,” … or (c) “engage in any act, practice, or course of business which operates or would operate as a fraud or deceit … in connection with the purchase or sale of any security.” The question before the Court in Lorenzo was whether those who do not “make” the misleading statements, but who disseminate them to investors with the intent to defraud, can be found to have violated subsections (a) and (c) and other related provisions of the securities laws. Defendant Lorenzo argued that scheme liability applies only when there are no false statements; otherwise, someone could be held liable for a false statement even if he did not make the statement himself. The Supreme Court rejected that argument.

Lorenzo was a director of investment banking at Charles Vista, LLC (“Charles Vista”). Lorenzo’s client, Waste2Energy, publicly touted that its assets were worth about $14 million, but Lorenzo knew that this figure included intellectual property claimed to be valued at $10 million that, as he later testified, was a “dead asset” that “didn’t really work.” In 2009, Waste2Energy hired Charles Vista to sell debentures to investors. In the fall of 2009, Waste2Energy told Lorenzo that the company had written off all its intellectual property as “worthless,” which left the company with a net worth of $370,552. Still, Lorenzo sent two emails to potential investors that described the debentures as having “multiple layers of protection,” including “$10 million in confirmed assets.” Lorenzo testified that he had not composed the emails himself but had merely forwarded them to clients at the direction of his boss. But he did know they were false.

The Supreme Court held that Lorenzo’s dissemination of false or misleading statements fell within the scope of subsections (a) and (c) and subjected him to scheme liability. The Court held that because Lorenzo sent emails that he knew contained material untruths, he had “employed” a “device,” “scheme,” and “artifice” to “defraud” and had violated subsection (c) because he “engage[d] in a[n] act, practice, or course of business” that “operate[d] … as a fraud or deceit.” The Court, repeatedly noting that Lorenzo’s conduct easily fell within the ambit of both subsections (a) and (c), relied on dictionary definitions of the words contained in those subsections to emphasize that they apply to a wide range of misconduct.

The Court also repeatedly emphasized that its conclusion is consistent with the purpose of the securities laws. For example, the Court noted that the application of subsections (a) and (c) to a broad range of misconduct is consistent with the principle established in the Court’s decision in SEC v W.J. Howey & Company over seventy years ago: “to substitute a philosophy of full disclosure for the philosophy of caveat emptor in the securities industry.” Similarly, the Court noted that its broad interpretation of subsections (a) and (c) was consistent with the principle highlighted in an earlier decision in Central Bank of Denver, N.A. v. First Interstate Bank of Denver, N.A.: that even a “bit participant in the securities market … may be liable as a primary violator under Rule 10b-5,” so long as all of the other requirements are met.

It rejected Lorenzo’s argument that subsections (a) and (c) apply only to conduct that did not involve misstatements, and since he was not the “maker” of an untrue statement under subsection (b), none of the provisions of Rule 10(b)-5 applied to him. The Court held that this argument was irreconcilable with the plain and expansive language of subsections (a) and (c), and further held that sustaining Lorenzo’s argument would allow those who disseminate, but do not make, statements to escape liability altogether. The Court also rejected Lorenzo’s and the dissent’s claim that an application of subsections (a) and (c) to his conduct would render the Court’s decision in Janus a “dead letter.” It noted that Janus remains relevant where an individual neither makes nor disseminates false or misleading statements. Because Lorenzo clearly disseminated false statements and, in fact, did not contest that he did so intentionally, the Court held that he violated subsections (a) and (c) of Rule 10b-5 even if he was not the “maker” of the statements under subsection (b).

The distinction between aiding and abetting, which is not actionable, and engaging in a scheme to defraud, which is, will doubtless continue to pose perplexing issues for courts well into the future. It is hard to understand why drafting a misstatement is OK, while sending that misstatement to someone else is not.