Securities class action plaintiffs often allege that the defendants’ statements about their company’s internal controls are misleading. Typically, these internal control-related allegations are made in connection with allegations of accounting misrepresentations, as the plaintiffs contend that the alleged internal control deficienciesp allowed the accounting errors behind alleged accounting misrepresentations.
In a November 7, 2012 ruling (here), Judge Lewis Kaplan held in the Weatherford International securities class action litigation that the plaintiff’s internal control misrepresentation allegations were sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss, even where the accounting misrepresentations alleged were not sufficient to survive the dismissal motion. While this ruling may not be unprecedented, it does represent an unusual holding where the internal control allegations were found to be sufficient on a standalone basis. Because Judge Kaplan’s holding depended in part on the relevant corporate officer’s internal control certification, the ruling may also have important implications with respect to the certifications required under Sarbanes Oxley.
The plaintiff’s complaint relates to Weatherford’s alleged understatement of tax expenses in its financial statements for the tax years 2007 through 2009 and for the first three quarters of 2010. The plaintiff alleged that beginning in 2007, the company reported industry low effective tax rates, something that was of particular interest to securities analysts and investors. The defendants allegedly touted the company’s low effective tax rate.
On March 1, 2011, the company announced that it was restating its financials for the period described in the preceding paragraph due to “material weaknesses” in internal control over financial reporting of income taxes. In particular, the company said that “the Company’s processes procedures and controls related to financial reporting were not effective to ensure that amounts related to current taxes payable, certain deferred tax assets and liabilities, reserves for uncertain tax positions, the current and deferred income tax expense and related footnote disclosures were accurate.” The company ultimately concluded that it had understated its tax liabilities during the period of the restatement by about $500 million.
The company share price declined on the news of the restatement and the plaintiff filed a securities class action lawsuit alleging two categories of misrepresentations: (1) those arising directly from the understatement of the company’s tax expenses and (2) those pertaining to Weatherford’s maintenance of its internal controls over its financial reporting. The complaint named as defendants the company itself; four individual directors and officers; and the company’s outside auditor.
With respect to the internal controls, the complaint alleged that in its filings with the SEC during the period of the restatement, the company’s CEO and CFO (Becnel) had certified that they were “responsible for establishing and maintaining” financial reporting controls; for designing the controls; and for evaluating and for reporting to the board all significant deficiencies and material weaknesses in the design or operation of the controls.
However, in the company’s March 2011 restatement announcement, the company identified a number of “material weaknesses” in internal controls, including that the inadequacy of staffing and technical expertise with regard to taxes; ineffective review and approval with respect to taxes; ineffective processes to reconcile tax accounts; and inadequate controls over the preparation of quarterly tax provisions.
The defendants moved to dismiss the plaintiffs’ complaint..
The November 7, 2012 Ruling
In his November 7 Memorandum Opinion, Judge Kaplan denied the motions to dismiss of the CEO (Becnel) and of the company itself with respect to the plaintiffs’ allegations concerning the alleged misrepresentations of the company’s internal controls. In denying the motion, Judge Kaplan noted Becnel’s personal participation in the design of the company’s internal controls, as Becnel himself had affirmed in the certifications in the company’s SEC filings. Judge Kaplan found further, in light of
the stark realities about the inadequacies of the internal controls that were revealed in the March 2011 restatement, the audit delays and control deficiencies expressly raised to him during the class period, and the fact that the Tax Department uniquely was experiencing problems even while he knew that its functions were of specific importance to the Company, the [amended complaint] sufficiently alleges scienter with regard to his statements.
Judge Kaplan found that these allegations were also sufficient to establish scienter with respect to the company itself, but not with respect to the other three individual defendants.
While Judge Kaplan found that the plaintiff’s allegations of alleged misrepresentations concerning the internal controls were sufficient as to Becnel and the company, he found that the plaintiff’s allegations regarding the understatement of the company’s tax expense were not sufficient as to any of the defendants.
Among other things, Judge Kaplan concluded that the alleged internal control misrepresentations alone were not sufficient to establish that the alleged misstatements of the company’s tax expense were made with scienter. Judge Kaplan said that “while Weatherford’s poor internal controls may give rise to liability with respect to the defendants’ statements about internal controls, the weak internal controls provide little if any circumstantial support that the statements that the understated tax expense were made with scienter.”
Judge Kaplan also rejected that the size of the restatement of the company’s tax expense, together with the extent to which the company touted its low effective tax rate in public statements, was sufficient to establish that the understatements of the company’s tax liability were made with scienter. He noted that the size of the fraud alone does not create an inference an inference of scienter, adding that “what is noticeably missing from the [amended complaint] is any allegation that the Weatherford defendants had any contemporaneous basis to believe that the information they related was incorrect.”
Though Judge Kaplan had granted the motions of the three individual defendants other than Becnel with respect to the Section 10(b) allegations against them concerning the alleged internal control allegations, he denied those three defendants’ motions to dismiss the plaintiff’s control person liability claims under Section 20(a), meaning that at least some claims against all four of the individual defendants survived the motion to dismiss, as well as the internal control claims against the company itself.
Judge Kaplan’s decision represents the rare case where allegations of internal control misrepresentations were found to support a finding of scienter, a determination that is particularly unusual where as here the accompanying alleged accounting misrepresentations were found not to be sufficient to state a claim. Judge Kaplan’s holding that the alleged internal control allegations were sufficient on a standalone basis to survive a motion to dismiss, without an accompanying finding that alleged financial misrepresentations were sufficient to state a claim, represents a novel development, even if not entirely unprecedented.
Judge Kaplan’s ruling is particularly interesting to the extent it relies on the certifications that the CFO, Becnel, provided in the company’s SEC filings. Since the enactment of the Sarbanes Oxley Act, CEOs and CFOs have been providing certifications with respect to their company’s internal controls. There have been cases in which the internal control certifications have supported securities fraud claims (refer, for example, to Judge Shira Scheindlin’s November 2, 2007 ruling in the Scottish Re Group case), but those are typically n the context of claims in which the claimant has also established the sufficiency of financial misrepresentation allegations.
Judge Kaplan’s ruling represents a recognition that the internal control statements can be sufficient to state a claim for liability, even if the claimant is unable to establish sufficient claims of financial misrepresentation. The possibility that corporate executives can be held liable on a standalone basis for misrepresentations concerning internal controls arguably adds some teeth the responsibilities corporate executives undertake when they provide the internal control certifications required by Sarbanes Oxley.
Very special thanks to a loyal reader for providing me with a copy of Judge Kaplan’s opinion.
Nobody Could Make This Up: The November 11, 2012 Chapel Hill (N.C.) News-Observer, in an article entitled "Man Says He Saw a U.F.O. Fly Over Carrboro" (here), reports that "Roy Mars was peeing in his compost last weekend -- it adds nitrogen -- when he looked up and saw something streak across the sky." (Hat Tip: Jim Romenesko)