In a series of recent posts (most recently here), I have been taking a look at the practical impact that the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 24, 2010 decision in Morrison v. National Australia Bank will have on securities litigation in the United States involving non-U.S. companies. Among the cases seemingly most impacted by the decision is the Vivendi securities class action lawsuit pending in the Southern District of New York. Not only is the defendant company domiciled outside the United States, but about three quarters of its shareholders reside in France and most presumably purchased their shares on non-U.S. exchanges.
The question of whether these shareholders may assert a claim in a U.S. court under U.S. law is particularly acute due to the verdict that the jury returned on behalf of the plaintiffs in the case in January 2010.
As Andrew Longstreth reported on July 27, 2010 in the Am Law Litigation Daily (here), the parties to the Vivendi case recently presented their arguments to the court on the impact of Morrison. Among other things, the article characterized the plaintiffs’ argument that the foreign plaintiffs may proceed in the case as "highly creative" and the article also quoted George T. Conway III of the Wachtell Lipton law firm – who briefed and argued the Morrison case for the defendants – as describing the plaintiffs arguments as "Completely nuts, N-U-T-S."
After I linked to the Am Law Litigation Daily article, counsel for the plaintiffs in the Vivendi case reached out to me to express their concerns that their position has been misunderstood and is not receiving a fair hearing in the press and the blogosphere. In response, I offered to host a guest blog post on this site, in which the plaintiffs counsel could present their position as they wished. What follows is the guest post submitted to me by Michael Spencer of the Milberg law firm.
The emerging conventional wisdom in legal circles and the media is that the Supreme Court’s decision in Morrison v. National Australia Bank sounded the death knell for use of Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act on behalf of "foreign" purchasers of securities who were allegedly defrauded. Some are even suggesting that defrauded Americans who bought shares traded on a foreign exchange have no remedy.
Any fair and careful lawyer should find that conventional wisdom galling. The first part of the test articulated by the Morrison Court is being missed — or deliberately ignored. In assessing the so-called extraterritorial scope of Section 10(b), the Court applied the plain language of the statute and found coverage for "transactions in securities listed on domestic exchanges and domestic transactions in other securities." That holding is repeated several times in the Court’s decision, including in the final paragraph. But the first part of the test has been passed over in lower court decisions, legal commentary, and media reports in the month since Morrison was issued. It’s as though the words repeatedly used by Justice Scalia — "securities listed on domestic exchanges" — disappeared the moment he wrote them.
It is indubitable that many "foreign" companies’ ordinary (common) shares are registered under the Exchange Act and listed on the NYSE, even if the shares are not traded on the exchange and quoted in the Wall Street Journal. (Justice Scalia used "registered" and "listed" interchangeably; he said "The Act’s registration requirements apply only to securities listed on national securities exchanges.") That is not surprising, since many provisions of the Exchange Act, including Section 10(b), come into play when securities are registered under the Act. Any competent corporate lawyer practicing in this area will confirm that foreign companies sponsoring upper-level ADR programs in the U.S. must, and do, register and list. Some observers are confusing registration and listing with "trading," but the Court repeatedly used "registered" and "listed," the terms from the statute and regulations. And those who think only the particular custodial shares "underlying" an ADR program get registered should please refer to 17 C.F.R. § 240.12d1-1 ("Registration effective as to class or series"). It takes 20 seconds to google a foreign company’s Form 20-F cover page to ascertain the status of its shares.
Justice Scalia usually means what he says. Under the plain language of the Supreme Court’s holding, Section 10(b) covers transactions in shares "listed on a domestic exchange." Period. No matter whether the purchaser is foreign or domestic, no matter where the transaction occurred.
That result apparently gets defense lawyers in a dither. Wachtell partner George Conway, who represented the winner in Morrison, was quoted as calling the argument "N-U-T-S." As a plaintiffs’ lawyer, I’m happy to read that reaction — if Conway can respond only with a quip rather than a substantive answer, we are probably on to something. The argument wasn’t made by plaintiffs’ counsel in recent motion practice over whether claims even by domestic purchasers of Credit Suisse ordinary shares traded abroad survive after Morrison; SDNY Judge Marrero dismissed the claims, persumably without knowing that the company is registered and listed on the NYSE. SDNY Judge Holwell has the question squarely before him in post-verdict motions in Vivendi for both foreign and domestic ordinary share purchasers, and will probably rule within the next month or so. Today’s conventional wisdom should by right become tomorrow’s embarrassment.
I encourage readers who have comments in response to Michael Spencer’s guest post to add their comments to this post using the site’s Comment feature.
I would like to thank Michael Spencer for his willingness to submit this post and have it published on this site. I welcome the opportunity to publish guest posts from responsible observers on this site. Those who may be interested in publishing a guest post on this site should feel free to contact me using the Contact function in the upper right hand column of this site.