In a January 18, 2013 order (here), the U.S. Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari to hear the appeals of three separate petitioners in cases arising out of the Ponzi scheme of R. Allen Stanford. The petitioners are two former law firms for the Stanford International Bank and an insurance brokerage that allegedly was involved in the sale of certificates of deposits for the bank. The petitioners are asking the Supreme Court to decide whether or not the plaintiffs are precluded under the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act (“SLUSA”) from asserting state-law class action claims against the three firms. By taking up the case, the Supreme Court will decide important issues about SLUSA’s scope that have divided the lower courts.
Congress enacted SLUSA in 1998 in order to prevent erstwhile securities law claimants from circumventing the restrictions of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act (PSLRA) by filing their claims in state court under state law. As the Supreme Court said in 2006 in the Dabit case, “To stem the shift from Federal to State courts and to prevent certain State private securities class action lawsuits alleging fraud from being used to frustrate the objectives of the [PSLRA], Congress enacted SLUSA.”
SLUSA precludes most state-law class actions involving a “misrepresentation” made “in connection with the purchase or sale of a covered security.” The lower courts have wrestled with the question of what it required in order to satisfy the “in connection with” requirement and trigger SLUSA preclusion.
In these cases, the investor plaintiffs contend they were misled to believe that the CDs in which they invested were backed by quality securities traded on major exchanges (though it later appeared that the CDs in fact had little or nothing behind them). The defendants moved to dismiss the state law class actions that had been filed against them, arguing that, though CDs themselves were not “covered securities” within the meaning of SLUSA, the state court class action claims were nevertheless precluded under SLUSA because the plaintiffs claimed they were induced to purchase the securities by misrepresentation that the CDs were backed by SLUSA-covered securities.
The district court before which the cases were consolidated granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss and the plaintiffs appealed. In a March 19, 2012 opinion (here), a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court, specifically holding that the alleged purchases of covered securities that back the CDs were “only tangentially related to the fraudulent scheme” and therefore that SLUSA does not preclude the plaintiffs from using state class actions to pursue their claims.
In reaching its decision, the Fifth Circuit panel exhaustively reviewed the prior case law in which other Circuit courts had considered the question of what connection between an alleged fraud involving uncovered and a downstream transaction in covered securities is required for SLUSA preclusion to apply. The Fifth Circuit’s review of the case law shows that there are divergent and potentially inconsistent views among the various Circuit courts on this question.
The two defendant law firms and the defendant insurance brokerage firm filed petitions for writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court. The cert petitions of the Proskauer Rose and Chadbourne & Parke law firms can be found here and here, respectively. The cert petition of the insurance brokerage, Willis of Colorado, Inc., and its related entities and firms, can be found here. (Hat tip to the SCOTUS Blog for the links to the cert petitions.)
In its petition, the Chadbourn & Parke law firm argued that split in authority among the various circuit courts has resulted in inconsistent interpretations and applications of SLUSA preclusion. The firm argued that the Fifth Circuit had adopted an interpretation of the “in connection with” standard that resulted in a determination that SLUSA preclusion did not apply, allowing the case against the firm to go forward, while at the same time rejected a conflicting standard prevailing in the Second, Sixth and Eleventh Circuits that would have resulted in the application of SLUSA preclusion here. The petitioners argued that the Circuit split not only threatened inconsistent outcomes among the Circuits, but it frustrated the very purposes for which Congress enacted SLUSA – that is to establish “national standards” for class actions “involving nationally traded securities.”
The Supreme Court’s consideration of these three consolidated cases promises to be interesting and potentially significant. If nothing else, the consolidated cases involve a high-stakes dispute relating to a high-profile fraud. This consideration alone ensures that the Supreme Court’s consideration of these three consolidated cases will receive significant attention.
On a more basic level, the Supreme Court’s consideration of these issues should resolve the split among the Circuits in their interpretation of the “in connection with” requirement in the SLUSA preclusion provision. Resolving this split should reduce the possibility of different outcomes in different cases based on nothing more than the judicial Circuit in which the different cases were filed.
More importantly, the Supreme Court’s consideration of these issues will help define the scope of SLUSA preclusion in more complex cases where the alleged fraudulent scheme involves a multi-layered transaction. These kinds of questions have been unfortunately common in recent times: for example, the same kinds of questions arose in connection with the Madoff feeder fund suits. (The Courts in the Madoff feeder fund cases concluded that SLUSA preclusion applied.)
In a very important sense, the Supreme Court is just the latest battle in the continuing struggle that first emerged after the enactment of the PSLRA. The struggle involves the efforts of the plaintiffs’ securities bar to try to find ways to circumvent the strict standards that Congress imposed in the PSLRA. The plaintiffs’ lawyers first tried to avoid the PSLRA by pursuing their claims in state law suits to which the PSLRA. To avoid that, Congress enacted SLUSA. In these consolidated cases, the Supreme Court will determine the extent to which plaintiffs pursuing claims against remote actors are or are not subject to the constraints of the PSLRA as well as the subsequent Supreme Court case law interpreting the PSLRA
In their cert petition, Chadbourne Park argues that the plaintiffs’ filed their claims as state law class action precisely for the reason of circumventing Supreme Court case decisions that restricted federal securities law claims against third party advisors, which is precisely the outcome SLUSA was intended to prevent. In making these arguments, the law firm emphasizes that the aiding and abetting claims the plaintiffs are attempting to assert under state law are not allowed under federal law. The Supreme Court’s determination of these consolidated cases will significantly determine the extent to which plaintiffs can pursue state law securities-related claims against third party advisors. The determination matters because of the possibility it presents that the plaintiffs could pursue these state law claims in circumstances in which federal statutory and case law would not permit such claims.
The Supreme Court’s cert grant in these three consolidated cases is just the latest in a series of securities-related disputes that the Court has been willing to take up. The Court already has the Amgen case on its docket this term; the Amgen case has already been argued and the Court’s decision in expected before the end of the current term in June.
It used to be that years would pass between Supreme Court cases considering securities law issues. In the past five or six years, though, the Court has seemed to want to take up several securities cases each term. While the Court’s willingness to take up more securities cases certainly provides great blog fodder, it has made the securities litigation environment more volatile and it has occasionally introduced significant and unanticipated changes (as happened for example with the Supreme Court’s paradigm-shifting opinion in Morrison v. National Australia Bank). In final analysis, that is the real reason it is interesting when the Supreme Court agrees to take up a securities case – you never know for sure what might happen when the Supreme Court makes its determination.