Under Morrison, Section 10(b) Does Not Apply to Swap Transactions in U.S Referencing Non-U.S. Securities
In the latest demonstration of just how far the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Morrison v. National Australia Bank may restrict Section 10(b) claims involving foreign companies, on December 30, 2010, Southern District of New York Judge Harold Baer held that U.S.-based hedge funds could not pursue the claims that Porsche and certain of its officers had misrepresented Porsche’s intent to take over Volkswagen, which the hedge funds claim put them in a "short squeeze" that cost them $2 billion.
A copy of Judge Baer’s December 30 ruling in the Porsche case can be found here.
The plaintiff hedge funds had entered security based swap agreements that referenced the price of VW shares. The swaps did not trade on any exchanges. The swap agreements generated gains for plaintiffs as VW’s shares decline and produced losses as the price of VW shares rose.
The plaintiffs allege that all of the steps necessary to transact the swap agreements were carried out in the United States. The swap agreements contain choice of law and forum selection provisions that designate New York law and a New York forum.
In the lawsuits, the hedge fund plaintiffs allege that the defendants had caused a dramatic rise in VW stock prices by buying nearly all of the few freely-traded shares as part of a secret plan to take over the company. The plaintiffs allege that after months of denying that it sought to take over VW, Porsche on October 26, 2008 disclosed the extent of its accumulated holdings in VW stock, as a result of which the VW share price shot up, causing the plaintiffs losses on their share agreements.
The defendants moved to dismiss in reliance on Morrison, on the grounds that the transaction was not within the ambit of Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.
The December 30 Holding
Morrison had held that Section 10(b) applies only to "transactions in securities listed on domestic exchanges, and domestic transaction in other securities." Because the plaintiffs’ swap agreements do not trade on U.S. exchanges, the relevant inquiry, according to Judge Baer, is whether the swap agreements constitute "domestic transactions in other securities."
The plaintiffs argued that because they signed confirmations for securities-based swap agreements in New York, they engaged in "domestic transactions on other securities" within the scope of Section 10(b).
Judge Baer held that these arguments were "inconsistent" with the "Supreme Court’s intention" to "curtail the extraterritorial application of Section 10(b)." He added that if the argument were allowed, it "would extend extraterritorial application of the Exchange Act’s antifraud provisions to virtually any situation in which one party to a swap agreement is located in the United States."
Judge Baer found this situation to be indistinguishable from one in which a U.S.-based investor bought securities in a non-U.S. company on a foreign exchange, circumstances that other courts previously have held to be outside the ambit of Section 10(b) in the wake of Morrison.
Looking to what he described as the "economic reality" of the swap transaction, Judge Baer found that "Plaintiffs’ swaps were the function equivalent of trading the underlying shares on a German exchange," noting that "the swap agreements were transacted with undisclosed counterparties who may well have been located outside the United States," and that both the issuer and the perpetrator of the alleged fraud were also located outside the United States.
Judge Baer noted that he is "loathe to create a rule that would make foreign issuers with little relationship to the U.S. subject to suits here simply because a private party in this country entered a derivatives contract that references the foreign issuer’s stock. Such a holding would turn Morrison’s presumption against extraterritoriality on its head."
Perhaps the most telling line in Judge Baer’s opinion is his statement that the U.S. Supreme Court’s intention in Morrison had been to "curtail the extraterritorial application of Section 10(b)," Clearly, that has been the lower courts’ approach, effectively "curtailing" the reach of Section 10(b) in a wide variety of circumstances.
With this presumption about Morrison’s intention as his starting point, Judge Baer seems very clear that the swap transaction at issue here did not satisfy the Morrison "domestic transaction" test. But while the mere U.S. location of one swap counterparty may not be sufficient to subject a foreign-domiciled issuer to U.S securities laws, Judge Baer’s analysis still does beg several questions left unanswered in his opinion, namely: if this transaction is not a U.S. "domestic transaction," of what jurisdiction is it a domestic transaction? If the transaction details here are not sufficient to constitute a "domestic transaction," what transaction details are sufficient?
It remains for other courts to work through these kinds of questions. In the meantime, Judge Baer’s analysis, if followed by other courts, could restrict other prospective plaintiffs’ ability to rely on Morrison’s second prong to try to bring Section 10(b) claims involving foreign companies. Judge Baer’s analysis, along with that of other courts, suggests that courts will take a narrow view of what constitutes a "domestic transaction in other securities."
Certainly, a court proceeding, as did Judge Baer, on the assumption that Morrison intended to "curtail the extraterritorial effect of Section 10(b)" arguably will be predisposed against finding that a transaction involving a foreign company’s securities not traded on U.S. exchanges is a "domestic transaction in other securities." Morrison’s second prong may not prove to be as valuable to plaintiffs as they initially thought it might.
Allison Frankel’s January 3, 2011 Am Law Litigation Daily article about the Porsche decision can be found here. The Sullivan & Cromwell firm, which argued the case on behalf of Porsche, has a detailed January 3, 2011 memorandum about the case here.
Special thanks to the several readers who provided me with copies of Judge Baer’s opinion.
Editorial Note: In my January 3, 2011 post, I mentioned that I would be publishing a list of the top ten D&O stories of 2010 today (January 4, 2011). However, because of the several time sensitive developments (including the above), I will postpone the publication of the top ten list until later in the week. Sorry for any confusion.