In a January 14, 2010 order (here), Southern District of New York Judge Robert W. Sweet granted the motion to dismiss in the ACA Capital Holdings subprime-related securities class action lawsuit. The decision is noteworthy in and of itself, but also because the plaintiffs’ securities claims were asserted under the ’33 Act. Subprime securities lawsuits asserting only ’33 Act claims have generally survived dismissal motions, but in the ACA Capital case the dismissal was granted — with prejudice.
ACA Capital, which went public on November 10, 2006, was in the business of offering financial guaranty insurance products to participants in the global derivatives markets, and in its asset management business, it structured and managed collateralized debt obligation (CDO) transactions. During 2007, ACA began to experience deterioration in the credit obligations underlying the CDO transactions. ACA experienced losses in its portfolio, which caused its share price to decline. In November 2007, credit rating agencies downgraded ACA. In August 2008 ACA entered a global settlement with its structured credit counterparties, as a result of which the company effectively ceased operations.
Plaintiffs initially filed their securities class action lawsuit against ACA and its CEO in November 2007. Background regarding the lawsuit can be found here. In their consolidated amended complaint, Plaintiffs alleged that the defendants ACA’s prospectus had failed to disclose that "at the time of the IPO, the Company had materially increased its exposure to highly risky sub-prime CDOs and was planning to complete several more sub-prime CDO deals in early 2007 that would greatly increase the Company’s exposure."
The plaintiffs further alleged that the Prospectus failed to disclose that due to "the rising default rates on sub-prime mortgages, it was highly likely that the Company would experience losses on the policies it had written to insure numerous CDOs and it would experience losses on its [collateralized debt securities] positions."
The defendants moved to dismiss, and in his January 14 order, Judge Sweet granted the defendants’ motion with prejudice.
Judge Sweet first held that, with respect to each of the sets of facts the plaintiffs alleged the defendants had failed to disclose that the allegedly omitted facts were disclosed in the Prospectus. He held that "the Prospectus’s disclosure of information alleged in the Complaint to have been withheld from prospective investors renders the Complaint insufficient as a matter of law."
The plaintiffs had also argued that the Prospectus had failed to comply with Item 303 of Regulation S-K by failing to describe "known trends and uncertainties" that the company faced. The plaintiffs argued that the Prospectus failed to disclose the existence of a "rising trend" of subprime foreclosures and delinquencies at the time of the IPO.
Judge Sweet held that the defendants could not be held liable for failing to disclose a trend of which they were unaware, and found that "the Complaint does not allege that the Defendants were actually aware of any purported ‘trend of delinquencies and foreclosures.’" Rather, many of the source on which the plaintiffs relied to try to establish the existence of a trend were not published until after the IPO. Only three of the sources on which plaintiffs relied were created prior to the IPO, one of which makes no references to delinquencies and foreclosures, another of which contains data reflecting less than a single calendar quarter (insufficient to show a "trend"), and material that was not publicly available at the time of the IPO.
Finally, Judge Sweet also granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss on the grounds of "negative causation" – that is, because, he found, that the complaint and the public filings on which the plaintiffs rely "establish that the decline in ACA’s stock was not caused by the allegedly false and misleading statements in the Prospectus." Instead, he found, "Plaintiffs cannot establish a causal relationship between Defendants’ alleged misrepresentations and subsequent declines in ACA’s stock price."
While there have been other dismissal motions granted with prejudice in subprime-related securities class actions, this dismissal stands out because the ACA plaintiffs’ claims were asserted under the ’33 Act. As I discussed in a recent post (here), research by Jon Eisenberg of the Skadden law firm regarding subprime dismissal motion rulings showed that all of the cases he studied that only asserted ’33 Act claims had survived motions to dismiss, in part, he speculated because of the absence of scienter pleading requirements for ’33 Act claims. Even claims that alleged ’33 Act claims in addition to claims under the ’34 Act tended to have a better survival rate than claims that asserting ’34 Act claims alone.
In light of the other dismissal motion rulings, Judge Sweet’s dismissal of the ACA Capital complaint with prejudice makes the case a noteworthy victory for the defendants. A significant number of the subprime and credit crisis-related cases asserted only ’33 Act claims, so the defendants in those other cases undoubtedly will be closely reviewing the ACA decision to see if they can use the decision in their cases.
I have in any event added the ACA Capital decision to my list of subprime and credit crisis-related securities class action lawsuit dismissal motion rulings, which can be accessed here.
Special thanks to the several readers who sent me a copy of the ACA Capital decision.
Small World: Wikipedia reports (here) that Eliot Spitzer served as one of Judge Sweet’s law clerks. And in light of my reference above to the research of Skadden attorney Jon Eisenberg, it seems relevant to note that prior to going onto the federal bench in 1978, Judge Sweet was in private practice at the Skadden law firm.