The SEC suffered a significant loss last week in its ongoing legal battle with Ripple over the XRP digital token. While the District Court held that Ripple’s initial sales of XRP to institutional investors constituted the sale of unregistered securities, it was a Pyrrhic victory as the court held that all other ways in which Ripple sold or distributed XRP did not involve the sale of unregistered securities. In particular, the court held that Ripple’s program to sell XRP to public buyers on digital asset exchanges, as well as its distribution of XRP as compensation to employees and third parties, did not constitute the offer or sale of securities. The court also rejected the SEC’s arguments that Ripple used the institutional buyers as underwriters to sell XRP to the public. The opinion, if followed by other courts in pending litigation with the SEC, could have a far-reaching impact on the cryptocurrency markets, especially with respect to secondary market crypto trades on digital asset exchanges.
Last week, the Fifth Circuit reversed a decision from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas that had dismissed a class action against Six Flags Entertainment Corporation. The complaint in Oklahoma Firefighters Pension and Retirement System v. Six Flags Entertainment Corp., et al., alleged Six Flags and its former CEO and CFO violated federal securities laws in connection with statements regarding the construction of new theme parks in China. In overturning the lower court’s decision, the Fifth Circuit provided important guidance regarding the weight of confidential witness allegations in securities class actions, as well as evaluating legal doctrines on forward-looking statements, puffery, and scienter.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York recently rejected a proposed settlement of a securities class action involving purchasers of digital tokens due to concerns about whether the lead plaintiff had adequately represented the class for settlement purposes. Judge Lewis A. Kaplan held in Williams v. Block.one that the federal securities laws did not appear to apply equally to all class members’ token purchases and that the lead plaintiff had not produced evidence showing that its own purchases were (or were not) subject to the securities laws in a proportion similar to other class members’ purchases.
A judge in the United States District Court for the Central District of California has allowed a lawsuit against actress Jessica Alba’s child and personal care company Honest to move forward. The case is the latest in a series of investor-led actions against companies that shareholders claim have used COVID-19 and associated disruptions to mislead the public about the financial health of their businesses.
The Delaware Supreme Court recently affirmed a Court of Chancery ruling granting a Special Litigation Committee’s motion to terminate a shareholder derivative action that had survived a motion to dismiss. The split decision in El Pollo Loco (June 28, 2022) highlights whether a director can be considered independent – especially as a member of a Special Litigation Committee (“SLC”) – if he or she had known about and had approved or not objected to the prior motion to dismiss, which had asserted that the claims at issue in the subsequent SLC investigation lacked merit.
The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit yesterday reversed the dismissal of a securities class action alleging fraud based on the defendants’ failure to disclose an SEC investigation into the company’s disclosed financial-control weaknesses. The May 24, 2022 ruling in Noto v. 22nd Century Group, Inc. (No. 21-0347) is fact-specific, requiring disclosure of the investigation because the defendants (i) had disclosed the accounting deficiencies that had led to the investigation, (ii) had said they were working on the problem, and (iii) eventually had said they had resolved it, even though the SEC investigation had been pending during that entire period.
The Noto decision could affect disclosure assessments where issuers disclose an underlying accounting problem or other deficiency but are debating whether they must also disclose a pending SEC or other governmental investigation related to that specific problem. Depending on the facts and circumstances of the particular situation, a court might hold that failure to disclose the governmental investigation makes the disclosure of the underlying problem materially misleading because nondisclosure of the investigation could cause reasonable investors to make “an overly optimistic assessment of the risk” posed by the underlying problem.
In our previous post, Under Armour Inc. Pulls Sales Forward, SEC and Stockholders Push Back, we discussed Under Armour Inc.’s recent settlement with the SEC, under which Under Armour agreed to pay $9 million for alleged violations of federal securities laws. While that settlement marked the end of a two year investigation into Under Armour’s “pull forward” practices, it also was the basis on which a U.S. District Court permitted similar (but not identical) shareholder claims against Under Armour to proceed.
On May 27, 2021, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida dismissed a securities class action against Carnival Corp. (“Carnival”), which operates the world’s largest cruise company, relating to the company’s health and safety disclosures made prior to and as the COVID-19 pandemic spread. This decision follows a dismissal of another securities fraud class action against a major cruise operator six weeks earlier by the same court.
Like in the prior case against Norwegian, the Carnival court dismissed the suit upon finding the plaintiffs failed to plead the existence of any statements that were materially false or misleading, and failed to sufficiently allege scienter. In so doing, it applied traditional principles of federal securities laws to the anything-but-traditional circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic.