U.S. Supreme Court Denies Cert in Apollo Group Securities Suit, Allowing Plaintiffs' $277.5 Million Jury Verdict to Stand
On March 7, 2011, in the latest development in a long-running securities suit that is among the few securities class action lawsuits to go to trial and that had previously resulted in a $277.5 verdict in plaintiffs’ favor, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Apollo Group’s petition for writ of certiorari. As a result, the ruling of the Ninth Circuit reinstating the jury’s verdict will now stand. In addition, as a result of the decision to decline taking up the case, the interesting and arguably important issues the cert petition raised will now not be reviewed by the Supreme Court.
As detailed in greater length here, plaintiffs filed the suit after the company’s share price declined following the disclosure of a U.S. Department of Education report alleging that the company had violated DOE rules. On September 7, 2004, the company agreed to pay $9.8 million to settle the allegations. News of the settlement first became public on September 14, 2004, but the company’s share price did not actually decline until September 21, 2004, when a securities analyst issued a report expressing concern about the company's possible exposure to future regulatory issues.
On January 16, 2008, a civil jury entered a verdict in favor of the plaintiff class on all counts, awarding damages of $277.5 million. Under the verdict, Apollo is responsible for 60 percent of the plaintiffs' losses, former Apollo CEO Tony Nelson is responsible for 30 percent, and former CFO Kenda Gonzales is responsible for 10 percent. The jury verdict is discussed at greater length here.
As discussed in greater length here, on August 4, 2008, Judge James Teilborg of the United States District Court for the District of Arizona entered an order (here) granting the defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law, based on his finding that the trial testimony did not support the jury’s finding of loss causation. Judge Teilborg’s order vacated the judgment and entered judgment in defendants’ favor.
In its post-trial motion, Apollo argued that the evidence at trial was insufficient to support a finding that the analyst reports represented "corrective disclosure," because they did not contain any new fraud-revealing information. Judge Teilborg found that "the evidence at trial undercut all bases on which [the plaintiff] claimed the (analyst) reports were corrective."
Accordingly, the court concluded that although the plaintiff "demonstrated that Apollo misled the markets in various ways concerning the DoE program review," the plaintiff "failed to prove that Apollo’s actions caused investors to suffer harm." The court therefore concluded that "Apollo is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."
In a June 23, 2010 opinion (here), a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit held that the district court "erred in granting Apollo judgment as a matter of law." The opinion states that "the jury could have reasonably found that the (analyst) reports following various newspaper articles were ‘corrective disclosures’ providing additional or more authoritative fraud-related information that deflated the stock price."
The Ninth Circuit further held that Apollo is not entitled to a new trial and that there is no basis for remittitur (reduction of the verdict). The Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded the case with "instructions that the district court enter judgment in accordance with the jury’s verdict." The company filed a petition for writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The basis for the company’s cert petition was basically that if the efficient market hypothesis means anything, then the information about the DoE investigation was fully incorporated into the company’s share price when the news first hit the market on September 14. Either the market did not efficiently incorporate this information, in which case the market for the company’s stock is not efficient and the plaintiffs ought not to be able to rely on the fraud on the market theory to establish reliance, or the market is efficient and the company’s share price simply did not decline at the time of the corrective disclosure.
In a June 28, 2010 guest post on this blog (here), noted securities litigation defense attorney Tower Snow of the Howard Rice law firm articulated the inherent tension between these two positions as follows:
The courts can't rely on the efficient market theory for purposes of creating a rebuttable presumption of reliance for purposes of class certification and then ignore its underpinnings for purposes of evaluating loss causation. Either one embraces the theory or one does not. If one embraces it, then once it is established that the prior disclosures revealed the truth about the allegedly misstated or omitted information, there is nothing left for the jury to decide. The later disclosure, by definition, cannot be corrective, as the market already had absorbed the information. Here, the "corrective" disclosure came out seven days after the information had been previously released. Seven days is an eternity in the financial markets.
As discussed in March 2011 memo from the Jones Day law firm discussing the U.S. Supreme Court’s cert denial in the Apollo Group case (here), the Circuits are split on the question of how soon after a corrective disclosure a stock price decline must occur in order for the loss causation requirement to be satisfied. At least two Circuits – the Second and the Third – have held that the claimant must show that the market immediately reacted. At least three Circuits – the Fifth, Sixth and Ninth – have head that the price decline may occur weeks or even months after the initial corrective disclosure.
In light of the Supreme Court’s refusal to take up the Apollo Group case, this split in the Circuits will remain unresolved. Moreover, the relatively plaintiff friendly standard articulated by the Ninth Circuit remains standing in that Circuit, where so many securities class action lawsuits are filed.
Finally, the Supreme Court’s cert denial means that the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in the Apollo Group case stands. The Ninth Circuit had remanded the case for "entry of judgment in accordance with the jury’s verdict." In other words, the Supreme Court’s cert denial means that the plaintiffs’ verdict in one of the very rare securities cases to go to trial will stand.
The Supreme Court’s cert denial was disclosed with little fanfare, as part of a long list of other rulings at the same time. Looking at the Apollo Group cert denial among the list of rulings might convey the impression that this is no big deal. But actually it is a little surprising. The U.S. Supreme Court has shown an active willingness to take up securities cases, having taken numerous cases up in each of the last few terms. And part of the willingness to take up these cases seemed to involve persistent hostility against securities suits in general. The opportunity to trim a plaintiffs’ victory and to resolve a circuit split certainly seemed to suggest the possibility that the Supreme Court might well grant the cert petition.
In any event, with the cert petition denial, the plaintiffs’ trial victory in this case appears as if it will stand. Even with the recent dramatic narrowing of the plaintiffs’ class in the Vivendi case, the plaintiffs overall are on a bit of a roll when it comes to securities lawsuit trials. The last three securities cases to go to trial (the Homestore case, refer here; the BankAtlantic case, refer here; and the Vivendi case, refer here) have all resulted in plaintiffs’ verdicts.
Trials in these cases are extremely rare, and these recent developments involve a very small percentage of all securities cases. Nevertheless, the plaintiffs’ bar undoubtedly will find this sequence of events, including the cert petition denial in the Apollo Group, to represent heartening developments. Even with the cert denial in the Apollo Group case, however, there are still a couple of securities cases still pending before the court this term -- the Matrixx Initiative case (refer here) and the Janus Capital Group case (refer here) -- and it remains to be seen how plaintiffs will fare in those cases.