It was possible to overlook it amongst the flurry of high profile opinions the Supreme Court released on the final day of the 2009 court term, but on June 28, 2010 the Court granted yet another petition for writ of certiorari in a case arising under the securities laws. Although the case arises out of the specific context of a mutual fund market timing case, it raises fundamental issues about who may be a "primary violator" under the securities laws. The Court seems poised to delve yet again into critical issues under the federal securities laws.
Janus Capital Group (JCG) is the holding company for a family of mutual funds. Janus Capital Management (JCM) is the funds' investment advisor. In November 2003, JCG investors filed a complaint in the District of Maryland alleging that the two firms were responsible for misleading statements in the certain funds' prospectuses. The allegedly misleading statements represented that the funds' managers did not permit, and took active measure to prevent, "market timing" of the funds. The investors claim they lost money when market timing practices JCG and JCM allegedly authorized were made public.
In 2004, JCM reached a settlement with the SEC in connection with the market timing allegations in which the firm paid a disgorgement of $50 million and an additional $50 million in civil penalties. Information regarding the settlement can be found here. The district court dismissed the shareholders suit in May 2007. The shareholders appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. In a May 7, 2009 opinion (here), the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court, finding that the shareholders had adequately stated a claim under the securities laws. The defendants' filed a petition for writ of certiorari, which the Supreme Court granted on June 28, 2010.
As the Supreme Court itself recently affirmed in its Stoneridge case (about which refer here), there is no private action for aiding and abetting liability under the federal securities laws. Accordingly, the defendants can be liable if at all if they are "primary violators," that is, if they are directly responsible for the allegedly wrongful conduct. The Janus entities contend that as mere service entities for the actual funds, they cannot be held primarily liable. The plaintiffs argue that JCM was not a "mere service provider" contending that the firm handles all of the funds' operations, "including preparation, filing, and dissemination of the Fund prospectuses and prospectus statements" and that all of the funds' officers were executives at the advisor. The investors contend that they had every reason to believe that the Fund prospectus statements were JCM's work.
The Fourth Circuit ruled that "a service provider can be held primarily liable in a private securities fraud action for 'helping' or 'participating' in another company's misstatements." The Fourth Circuit's ruling is at odds with the decisions of other Circuit courts. Some courts hold that only someone that "makes" a statement and has it attributed to him can be held liable as a primary violator. Other courts, similarly to the Fourth Circuit, have held that someone that "substantially participates" in the activities that led to the creation of the allegedly misleading statement can be held liable as a primary violator, even if the statement is not attributed to him or her.
Though this case nominally is just about whether or not a service provider can be held liable, fundamentally it is about who can be held liable as a primary violator. A bright line test would limit primary violator liability to those who speak or who have statements attributed to them. However, a broader "substantial participation" test would substantially widen the scope of persons who potentially could be held liable. The scope of liability could potentially extend to a wide range of persons who are involved in the preparation of public statements, including, for example, potentially even the issuers' attorneys and accountants. Indeed, at some level, this "substantial participation" test starts to sound a lot like the "aiding and abetting liability" that the Supreme Court had rejected in connection with private lawsuits in the Stoneridge case. That may, in fact, be why the Supreme Court took up the case - not just to reconcile an apparent split in the Circuits, but to align the principles of primary violator liability with those of the secondary violator jurisprudence. In a June 29, 2009 Am Law Litigation Daily article (here), Susan Beck furhter develops these issues relating to the tension between the Fourth Circuit's standard and the case law relating to secondary liabiltiy.
I have absolutely no way of knowing how this case ultimately will turn out, and indeed the case has yet to be fully briefed or argued. But if I were a betting man, I would bet that the principles on which the Fourth Circuit based its decision are unlikely to survive Supreme Court scrutiny. (I could also be wrong, which is why I don't gamble.) It is worth noting that the Court suddenly seems particularly keen to take up securities cases. As I recently noted here while discussing the Court's cert grant in the Matrixx Intiaitves case, there was a time when the Court would go many terms without taking up any securities cases. For several years now, the Supreme Court has taken up one or two securities cases. The Court's increased interest in securities cases make great blog fodder, but it also creates the potential for disruptive alterations of the settled litigation landscape.
The Court's sudden heightened interest in securities cases must be particularly unnerving for plaintiffs' lawyers as the Court, with its current lineup, has generally proven to be less than entirely plaintiff friendly. There is some considerable risk that the Janus case will provide yet another opportunity for the Court to deliver an opinion the plaintiffs' bar finds unhelpful. In any event, the Supreme Court will now have two potentially significant securities cases on its docket next term. I really do find it surprising, given this blog's topical focus, how often I find myself writing about Supreme Court-related issues -especially lately. I never expected that. I do find it all very fascinating though
Special thanks to the several readers who sent me links and other materials about this case. Special thanks to the SCOTUS Wiki blog (here) for links to some of the key documents to which I linked above.
Read other items of interest from the world of directors & officers liability, with occasional commentary, at the D&O Diary, a blog by Kevin LaCroix.