Earlier this week when I posted my list of subprime lawsuits dismissal motion grants and denials (here), I was hoping the publication would encourage readers to let me know about case dispositions of which I was previously unaware. My strategy worked, because a loyal reader who prefers anonymity responded to my post by alerting me to the May 19, 2008 opinion (here) in the subprime-related securities class action lawsuit involving Standard Pacific. Because the court’s opinion is particularly thorough, it merits a detailed review.
Standard Pacific is a California-based residential construction company that concentrated in recent years on the formerly go-go growth areas of California, Florida, Texas and Nevada. As s result of the residential real estate slump, the company’s sales activity declined in 2006 and 2007. Plaintiff shareholders initiated a securities class action lawsuit against two Standard Pacific executives in August 2007.
The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants misrepresented Standard Pacific’s ability to open new, successful communities; misled the public about the demand for Standard Pacific homes; and lied about the company’s ability to continue its historically strong earning growth. Further background regarding the lawsuit can be found here.
In a May 19, 2008 opinion, Judge Margaret M. Morrow of the United States District Court for the Central District of California granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, but allowed the plaintiffs’ 45 days’ leave to amend.
The defendants first argued that the plaintiffs’ complaint failed to satisfy the PSLRA’s pleading requirements because it is a “classic example of prohibited puzzle-pleading,” in that it contains extensive block quotations from the company’s class period statements “without specifying the particular statements that are false and misleading.”
The plaintiffs sought to address this issue in their reply papers, but the court found that “the organization the plaintiffs offer in their opposition brief does not cure the deficiencies in the complaint. To the contrary, it highlights plaintiffs’ failures to plead defendants’ purportedly false and misleading statements with specificity as required by the PSLRA,” and accordingly the court granted the motion to dismiss, with leave to amend.
The defendants also moved to dismiss on the grounds that the plaintiffs had not adequately pled scienter. The plaintiffs alleged, based on the confidential witness information, that defendants misled investors because they continued to cite sales information in reliance on internal reports they supposedly knew to be inaccurate. Defendants contended that, to the contrary, they informed investors that the company was experiencing sales declines, and that “the crux of plaintiffs’ fraud claim is not that the defendants flatly misrepresented the company’s performance but that they were deliberately reckless because the failed to lower their projections enough.”
The court found that
the fact that defendants reduced earnings and home delivery guidance cuts against plaintiffs’ claim that defendants acted with fraudulent intent. As no facts are pled supporting an inference that defendants selected the level of reductions they announced fraudulently or with deliberate recklessness, the complaint suggests a plausible nonculpable explanation for defendants’ conduct…. Taken as a whole…plaintiffs’ allegations do not give rise to a “strong inference” that at the time they made the statements, defendants knew or should have known that the state of affairs was much worse than they had acknowledged publicly….In effect, by arguing that defendants’ predictions and forecasts were not low enough, plaintiffs improperly attempt to allege “fraud by hindsight.”
The court similarly rejected the plaintiffs’ attempt to rely on the defendants’ certifications of the company’s SEC filings.
The dismissal, even though it is without prejudice, is still significant. First, the opinion is very detailed and thorough, which could carry some weight in other subprime securities cases, particularly the numerous other cases pending in the Central District of California.
Second, many of the other subprime complaints arguable share the “puzzle pleading” defect of the complaint in this case – all too often, the complaints in these subprime cases consist of block quotations from the defendants company’s disclosure documents, without direct connections specifying what about the disclosure the plaintiffs allege is false and misleading, and in what way the statements are false and misleading.
Third, many of the companies named in subprime securities lawsuits, like Standard Pacific, are accused not of failing to acknowledge problems but of failing to recognize the problems enough. To the extent other courts view these pleadings with the same level of skepticism as Judge Morrow, the complaints could face some formidable challenges at the motion to dismiss stage.
In any event, I have added the Standard Pacific opinion to the list of subprime lawsuit dismissal motion grants and denials. I hope other readers will let me know of any other subprime lawsuit dismissal motion rulings of which they are aware, so that the list can be as complete as possible.
Special thanks to the anonymous loyal reader for alerting me to the Standard Pacific opinion.
Another Option ARM Lawsuit: In a different post earlier this week (here), I noted the lawsuits that had been filed up to that point relating to Option ARM mortgages, and I suggested the likelihood that there would be further lawsuits relating to Option ARMs. In a quick confirmation of my prediction, on June 11, 2008, plaintiffs’ counsel initiated a securities class action lawsuit in the Central District of California against IndyMac Bancorp and certain of its directors and officers. A copy of the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ June 11 press release can be found here. A copy of the complaint can be found here.
According to the press release, the complaint alleges that
defendants issued materially false and misleading statements regarding the Company’s business and financial results. Specifically, defendants downplayed and concealed IndyMac’s growing exposure to non-performing assets, particularly loans in its pay-option adjustable-rate mortgage (“Option ARM”) and homebuilder construction portfolios, and made numerous positive representations regarding the Company’s capital position to alleviate investors’ fears concerning the Company’s capital erosion. As a result of defendants’ false statements, IndyMac stock traded at artificially inflated prices during the Class Period.
It is important to note that IndyMac had previously been sued in a subprime-related securities class action lawsuit, the background regarding which can be found here. In concluding that this latest lawsuit is sufficiently distinct from this prior lawsuit to represent a new lawsuit, I note the following: first, the class period of the prior lawsuit was May 4, 2006 to March 1, 2007, whereas the purported class period for the new lawsuit is from August 16, 2007 to May 12, 2008. In addition, the substantive allegations in the two lawsuits relate to different alleged misrepresentations. In particular, the prior lawsuit does not appear to relate to the companies representations regarding Options ARM mortgages or the company’s capital position.
Accordingly, I am recognizing this latest complaint as a new and separate filing. However, I encourage readers who may disagree to let me know of any circumstances that might militate in favor of a different conclusion.
I have added the new IndyMac lawsuit to my running tally of subprime and credit-crisis related securities lawsuits, which can be found here. With the addition of the new IndyMac lawsuit, the tally of subprime and credit crisis-related lawsuits now stands at 90, of which 50 have been filed in 2008.
Finally, it is worth noting that, as reflected in my list of subprime dismissal motions grants and denials referenced above that motion to dismiss have twice been granted with leave to amend in the prior IndyMac lawsuit.
More Subprime ERISA Lawsuits: I have also added two subprime-related ERISA lawsuits to my running tally of subprime-related lawsuits.
First, in a June 11, 2008 press release (here), plaintiffs’ lawyers announced that they had initiated a lawsuit in the Southern District of New York under ERISA against Wachovia Corporation and various of its officers and administrators. According to the press release, the defendants allegedly violated their duties to participants in the Wachovia Savings Plan by “continuing to invest in and hold Wachovia stock despite the fact that they knew or should have known that Wachovia was not properly reporting its financial condition and was not disclosing significant problems which had the effect of inflating the value of Company stock.”
Second, on May 9. 2008, plaintiffs’’ counsel initiated a lawsuit in the Western District of Tennessee on behalf of past and present employees of First Horizon National Corporation who participated in the First Horizon Savings Plan. A copy of the complaint can be found here. The complaint alleges that the defendants breached their fiduciary duty by requiring plan participants to invest in First Horizon shares, which the plaintiffs contend was “imprudent… because First Horizon was not fairly and accurately disclosing the risks and likely consequences of a number of its banking practices such that the Plan was purchasing shares of First Horizon Stock at an inflated price.” Among the undisclosed risks alleged is the company’s exposure to subprime and Alt-A mortgages.
I have added the Wachovia and First Horizon ERISA lawsuits to my running tally of subprime-related ERISA lawsuits, which can be found here. With the addition of the new ERISA lawsuit, the tally of subprime-related ERISA lawsuits now stands at 17
Special thanks to a loyal reader for identifying the new ERISA lawsuits.