ATTORNEY: JONATHAN LINDENFELD
POMERANTZ MONITOR JULY/AUGUST 2019
In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, investors have become more attuned to and concerned about the risks companies face, yet may fail to disclose to the market. Consequently, when previously undisclosed news of, for example, a company’s legal liability is revealed to the market or actually materializes, the company’s stock price may well drop sharply, damaging investors. Over the last few years, investors have increasingly brought securities claims over such conduct, sometimes referred to as “event-driven” litigation.
In March of this year, the Second Circuit issued a decision in Singh v. Cigna Corp., which had one such event-driven claim which turned on whether the company’s public statements concerning its legal compliance were “material” to investors.
Singh arose from Cigna Corp.’s acquisition of HealthSpring, Inc. for $3.8 billion in early 2012. Cigna, a health insurance and services company, acquired HealthSpring in order to grow its Seniors and Medicare business segment. At the time of the acquisition, HealthSpring was one of the largest private Medicare insurers in the United States. Accordingly, HealthSpring was heavily regulated by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”).
Prior to the acquisition, HealthSpring had a spotless compliance track record—having never been cited for non-compliance by the CMS. That changed following the acquisition. Although Cigna’s acquisition first appeared to be successful, with HealthSpring becoming Cigna’s largest source of revenue within one year, shortly after the acquisition was completed Cigna began to receive CMS notices for non-compliance in its HealthSpring operations.
Between October 2013 and January 2016, Cigna received a total of 75 Notices of Non-Compliance from CMS, culminating in January 2016, when the regulator imposed severe sanctions on the company. On January 21, 2016, CMS notified Cigna that it would be imposing immediate sanctions which would prohibit it from writing any new Medicare policies, a significant blow to its most profitable business segment. Notably, CMS specifically concluded that “Cigna substantially failed to comply with CMS requirements” and that it “had a longstanding history of non-compliance with CMS requirements” as demonstrated by the receipt of numerous prior notices.
By November 2016, Cigna had spent $100 million to remedy the problems identified by CMS, and was not yet finished. The sanctions were finally lifted on June 16, 2017.
Plaintiff, representing a class of investors who purchased Cigna stock after the acquisition, alleged four sets of misrepresentations concerning Cigna’s track record of legal compliance. First, Cigna stated in an annual report on Form 10-K filed with the SEC that it had “established policies and procedures to comply with applicable requirements.” Second, the Company repeatedly stated in its annual reports that it “allocate[s] significant resources to [its] compliance, ethics and fraud, waste and abuse programs to comply with the laws and regulations[.]” Third, Cigna acknowledged in its annual reports that failure to comply with state and federal health care laws and regulations can result in “fines, limits on expansion, restrictions or exclusions from programs or other agreements with federal or state governmental agencies that could adversely impact [Cigna’s] business, cash flows, financial condition and results of operation.” Finally, the Plaintiff alleged that Cigna’s Code of Ethics and Principles of Conduct included a quote by one of the officer defendants which stated that it is important for Cigna to do things “the right way,” which includes reporting financial results fairly and accurately. Moreover, the quote continued that “it’s so important for every employee on the global Cigna team to handle[,] maintain, and report on this information in compliance with all laws and regulations.”
The district court dismissed the action, holding that Cigna’s statements about compliance were so vague and conclusory that they amounted to mere “puffery,” and were so immaterial that investors could not reasonably rely on them. After plaintiff appealed the district court’s decision to dismiss his claims, the Second Circuit reviewed the materiality of the alleged misstatements. A misrepresentation is material if “there is a substantial likelihood that a reasonable person would consider it important in deciding whether to buy or sell shares of stock.” The statement must also be “mislead[ing],” which is evaluated not only by “literal truth,” but by “context and manner of presentation.”
The plaintiff in Singh argued that the each of the three sets of alleged misrepresentations were material and misleading because “a reasonable stockholder would rely on these statements as representations of satisfactory legal compliance by Cigna.” The Second Circuit disagreed, affirming the dismissal.
First, the Second Circuit characterized the Code of Ethics statement as “a textbook example of puffery,” as it expressed “general declarations about the importance of acting lawfully and with integrity.” Accordingly, the Court found that no investor would rely on such statements.
Similarly, the Court categorized Cigna’s statements in its annual reports concerning its “established policies” and its “significant”’ allocation of resources to compliance programs as mere “representations of satisfactory compliance,” which again, the Court found that no investor would reply upon. In making this determination, the Court distinguished Cigna’s statements in its annual reports from the “descriptions of compliance efforts [which] amounted to actionable assurances of actual compliance” made by defendants in Meyer v. JinkoSolar Holding Co., which were found to be actionable.
Finally, the Second Circuit found that each of Cigna’s statements in its annual reports were “framed” by acknowledgements of the complexity of applicable regulations. As a result, the Court found that Cigna sufficiently “caution[ed] (rather than [instill] confidence) regarding the extent of Cigna’s compliance,” and therefore, “these statements seem to reflect Cigna’s uncertainty as to the very possibility of maintaining adequate compliance mechanism in light of complex and shifting government regulations.”
The defense bar has already hailed this decision as a lethal arrow in their quiver, claiming that it “will likely increase the dismissal rate of [event-driven securities] claims” and instructing defendants to “rely aggressively on Singh in seeking to have such suits dismissed.” Adam Hakki and Agnès Dunogué, “2nd Circ.’s Logical Take On ‘Event-Driven’ Securities Claims,” LAW360, May 13, 2019.
Singh, however, is far from the decisive victory the defense bar promotes it to be. In the short time since it was handed down, district courts have continued to uphold securities claims concerning statements of legal compliance. In a recent decision following Singh, Signet Jewelers Limited argued that the Second Circuit’s opinion demanded that the plaintiff’s pleadings concerning Signet’s harassment protections in its Code of Conduct and Code of Ethics did not amount to material misrepresentations, and must be dismissed. Judge Colleen McMahon of the Southern District of New York found otherwise. Judge McMahon explicitly held that “Cigna did not purport to change the well-established law regarding materiality. It did not announce a new legal rule, let alone one deeming an entire category of statements — those contained in a company’s code of conduct — per se inactionable.”
Signet is not an outlier. In March of 2019, two months after Singh was decided, Judge Louis L. Stanton was presented with alleged misrepresentations in the Code of Ethics of Grupo Televisa, S.A.B., a multinational media conglomerate, following criminal charges that the company illegally paid bribes to obtain television rights to the FIFA world cup. Just as in Signet, defendants argued that the statements contained in the company’s code of ethics were mere puffery. Judge Stanton disagreed and found that the broad statements in the code of ethics (affirming the company’s commitment to legal compliance and prohibition of bribery) were actionable because they “were made repeatedly in an effort to reassure the investing [public] about the Company’s integrity, a reasonable investor could rely on them as reflective of the true state of affairs at the Company.”
The Second Circuit’s decision in Singh demonstrates the importance and challenges of bringing securities claims over legal and regulatory failures by public corporations. The take-away of Singh for securities plaintiffs is that they must be evermore diligent in their pleadings, ensuring that judges are presented with specific and detailed representations concerning a company’s compliance such that investors would be justified in taking them seriously. Signet and Grupo Telavisia demonstrate that Singh certainly does not ring the death knell for similar types of event-driven litigation. Nevertheless, as the defense bar continues to rely upon this decision, it is critical for securities plaintiffs to monitor the decision’s precedential value.