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.
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.
As the culmination of an SEC investigation into Under Armour Inc.’s “pull forward” practice leads to charges, Under Armour agrees to cease and desist and settles for $9 million.
Following an investigation dating back to 2015, the SEC claimed Under Armour misled investors by not disclosing the reason for its growth in revenue and what that meant for the business. The SEC charged Under Armour with violations of “antifraud provisions of Section 17(a)(2) and (3) of the Securities Act of 1933, as well as certain reporting provisions of the federal securities laws.”
On April 10, 2021, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida dismissed a securities class action complaint against Norwegian Cruise Lines (“NCL”) relating to the company’s disclosures made as the coronavirus pandemic was starting to unfold in the United States. In Douglas v. Norwegian Cruise Lines, et al., the court found the plaintiff failed to plead actionable misstatements or omissions and scienter for a claim of securities fraud under Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”) and Rule 10b-5 promulgated thereunder.
Thanks to the court’s thorough analysis, this decision serves as a useful overview to those wishing to cruise through the sea of corporate puffery, forward-looking statements, and scienter in the federal securities laws.