In an October 28, 2009 opinion (here) in a case in which the Ninth Circuit found the plaintiffs’ allegations met the heightened pleading standards of Twombley and Tellabs, the appellate court reversed the district court’s dismissal of the plaintiffs’ complaint in the Matrixx Initiatives securities class action lawsuit. The decision is significant not only because the appellate court reversed the lower court’s prior dismissal of the case, but also because of what the Ninth Circuit’s opinion implies about the heightened pleading requirements.


The plaintiffs sued Matrixx and three of its officers in April 2004, alleging that the defendants were aware that numerous users of Matrixx’s intranasal cold remedy, Zicam, had developed anosmia (loss of the sense of smell), but that they had failed to disclose the risk and instead issued false and misleading statements regarding Zicam. The complaint alleges that the defendants were aware of these problems because of various calls to the company’s customer service line; because of certain academic research, the results of which were communicated to the company; and because of product liability lawsuits that had been filed against the company.


The district court granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss, finding that the complaint failed to adequately allege materiality, because the number of anosmia-related complaints of which Matrixx was aware was not "statistically significant." The district court also found that the complaint failed to allege scienter adequately because it "fails to allege any motive of state of mind with relation the alleged omissions."


The Ninth Circuit first held that the district court "erred in relying on the statistical significance standard" in concluding that the plaintiffs had not adequately alleged materiality, finding that a court "cannot determine as a matter of law whether such links [between Zicam and anosmia] were statistically insignificant because the statistical significance is a question of fact."


Instead the Ninth Circuit said that the appropriate "fact-based inquiry" is (citing Twombley and its progeny) whether the complaint states a claim that is "plausible on its face" – and, with respect to the issue of materiality, whether "the possible link between Zicam and anosmia was information that a reasonable investor would have found significant."


After reviewing the plaintiffs’ allegations, the Court found that the complaints allegations were sufficient to meet the PSLRA’s pleading requirements for materiality and, citing Twombley, to "nudge" the plaintiffs’ claims "across the line from conceivable to plausible."


The Ninth Circuit further held, with reference to Tellabs standard for pleading scienter, that the inference that the defendants "withheld information intentionally or with deliberate recklessness is at least as compelling as the inference that [the defendants] withheld the information innocently."


In reaching this conclusion, the Ninth Circuit noted that the company’s disclosures were "misleading because [they] spoke of the risk of product liability actions without revealing that lawsuits had already been filed." The Ninth Circuit observed that the inference that "high level executives such as [the individual defendants] would know that the company was being sued in a product liability action is sufficiently strong to survive a motion to dismiss."


The Ninth Circuit also referenced the various customer complaints and academic studies the results of which were communicated to the company’s director of research and development.


Based on its conclusions about materiality and scienter, the Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court’s dismissal and remanded the case for further proceedings.


The Ninth Circuit’s decision in the Matrixx case is interesting in a number of respects, not least of which is because the decision reversed the district court’s prior dismissal of the case, although it is certainly interesting in that respect as well.


Among other things, the decision is also interesting for its application of the Twombley "facial plausibility" standard to the question of the sufficiency of the plaintiffs’ allegations of materiality. In a prior post (here), I discussed the question whether the "facial plausibility" test of Twombley and its more recent companion case, Iqbal, would have much impact on securities cases, given the PSLRA’s heightened pleading standards. The Matrixx decision suggests that the Twombley standard could indeed impact securities cases, even with respect to elements of a securities claim for which heightened pleading standards are defined in the PSLRA, since the Ninth Circuit cited both the PSRLA’s materiality pleading requirements and Twobley in determining the sufficiency of the plaintiffs’ allegations.


The further significance of the Ninth Circuit’s citation to Twombley is the fact that the court also found that the Twombley standard had been satisfied here. Though many objections to Twombley and Iqbal have been raised, the fact is that the "facial plausibility" standard can be satisfied and cases will still be going forward, notwithstanding the pleading standard articulated Twombley and Iqbal.


Another interesting thing about the Ninth Circuit’s decision is the way in which the court found that the scienter pleading requirements to have been satisfied, particularly with respect to the individual defendants. The court seems to have put great weight on the individual defendants’ positions, and was less focused on the question whether or not there were allegations of knowledge or awareness as to each of the individual defendants.


Thus, for example, with respect to the existence of product liability litigation, the court was willing to draw an inference of scienter as to the individual defendants because "high-level executives… would know" the company had been sued. – without apparent consideration of the question whether the individual defendants did know about the litigation, or even what the company’s practices were for circulating information about new litigation to the company’s senior officials.


Similarly, the allegations of scienter based on the alleged awareness of the existence of customer complaints and academic studies was found sufficient as to all three individual defendants, though the allegations refer only to communications of these matters to the company’s director of research. The court’s decision does not refer to what the other two individual defendants are alleged to have known, or even what they would have known in light of the company’s processes for communicating this kind of information internally.


If nothing else, the Ninth Circuit’s finding that the scienter allegations were sufficient represents a suggestion that in at least some circumstances (and in at least some courts) allegations that individual defendants held a certain office or position may be sufficient to support a finding of scienter, even where no supporting allegations about what the defendants know or what information they were provided or had access to.


Readers may be interested to know that on June 16, 2009, the FDA warned consumers (here) to stop using three Zicam intranasal products because the products may cause a loss of smell. As reflected here, a second securities class action lawsuit was filed after the company’s share price plunged following this announcement.


Iqbal on the Hill: Meanwhile, the Iqbal debate arrived on Capitol Hill this week, as the House Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held hearings on October 27, 2009. The hearing was entitled "Access to Justice Denied – Ashcroft v. Iqbal." The Committee’s page about the hearing, including links to the witnesses’ testimony can be found here. An October 29, 2009 AmLaw Daily article by Alison Frankel about the hearings can be found here.