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By: John Goselin
On January 4, 2019, the United States Supreme Court decided to hear an appeal from the Ninth Circuit’s April 20, 2018 decision in Varjabedian v. Emulex Corporation, 888 F.3d 399 (9th Cir. 2018). The Supreme Court is hearing this case to resolve a circuit split regarding whether a claim under Section 14(e) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 requires the plaintiff to plead a strong inference that the defendants acted with scienter (i.e. intent to defraud) or whether Section 14(e) merely requires an allegation that the defendants were negligent. Section 14(e) is a provision of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 that prohibits a company involved in a tender offer from making a material misstatement or omit to state any material fact necessary in order to make the statements made, in the light of the circumstances under which they are made, not misleading or to engage in any fraudulent, deceptive or manipulative acts or practices in connection with a tender offer.
Prior to the 9th Circuit’s April 20, 2018 opinion, no Circuit split had existed. Over the course of the forty-five preceding years, the Second, Third, Fifth, Sixth and Eleventh Circuits had uniformly held that Section 14(e) required a plaintiff to plead scienter when stating a claim pursuant to Section 14(e). Despite four and half decades of consensus, the 9th Circuit concluded that every Circuit Court to address this particular issue previously had simply gotten it wrong and that if the Supreme Court considered the issue, the Supreme Court would conclude that Section 14(e) only required the plaintiff to plead negligence.
Until recently, plaintiffs had historically chosen to challenge tender offers in state court, most often Delaware state court, pursuant to state law disclosure obligations. Challenging tender offers is big business as almost every tender offer conducted results in multiple state court class action lawsuits seeking injunctions to halt the tender offers until so-called disclosure deficiencies are rectified. The cases are high profile, high risk and involve significant legal defense costs that D&O carriers often end up paying pursuant to the provisions of D&O insurance policies. The plaintiff’s lawyers have historically been successful in playing the role of the troll under the bridge collecting hefty tolls (a.k.a legal fees) for “improving” disclosures in tender offers as the tender offer participants seek to avoid the risk of a potential injunction that could halt the tender offer.
Recently, however, the Delaware state courts where the majority of these cases have been pursued have been clamping down on these “disclosure claims” making the state court forum less lucrative for the plaintiff’s bar. Hence, the plaintiff’s bar has been turning increasingly to Section 14(e) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 as an alternative cause of action in a federal forum in an effort to continue collecting their attorney fee tolls. The problem, however, is that if Section 14(e) requires the plaintiff to plead “scienter” and the plaintiff wants to bring a class action to put maximum pressure on the company, the plaintiff would have to comply with the heightened pleading requirements of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 and plead facts, not conclusory statements, sufficient to support a “strong inference” of scienter. The plaintiff’s bar would very much like to avoid this particular pleading, and burden of proof, hurdle.
So, the 9th Circuit’s decision adopting a mere negligence standard is a very big deal creating a window through which the plaintiff’s bar hopes to continue their troll under the bridge strategy at least out West and provides the plaintiff’s bar a new opportunity to challenge the prior holdings in the other Circuit Courts. The Supreme Court, however, has taken the opportunity to decide the issue and will either shut this particular door quickly or swing it wide open by deciding the issue of negligence or scienter for Section 14(e) claims. Every securities lawyer in America will be watching closely.
If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact John Goselin at [email protected].