No scienter about labor problems

Diodes_Inc_logoIn Local 731 Pension Trust Fund v. Diodes, Inc., the Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of securities claims related to the alleged nondisclosure of labor problems at a Shanghai manufacturing plant, finding a failure to adequately allege scienter.  Most basically, the Court observed — “It is important to note the curious nature of the Fund’s claims. To recap the relevant facts: during the class period, Diodes repeatedly warned investors of a labor shortage that would affect its output in the first two quarters of 2011; Diodes accurately warned the precise impact this labor shortage would have on its financial results, not once, but twice. Yet the Fund contends that more disclosure was required.” The Court went on to reject arguments about the unique knowledge of the relevant executives, the company’s decision to make an early product shipment (noting this would have made the labor problem worse and more apparent), and circumstances of an insider’s stock sales.  No. 14-41141 (Jan. 13, 2016).

Don’t dismiss sua sponte

75thrngrgt-suasponteIn Century Surety Co. v. Blevins, the district court dismissed two causes of action related to handling of insurance claims, and then sua sponte dismissed three other related causes of action — breach of contract, estoppel, and vicarious liability.  The Fifth Circuit reversed, reminding: “While the district court has great discretion in how it manages its cases, in the Fifth Circuit litigants must — with certain exceptions – be given notice and an opportunity to respond before a district court dismisses claims sua sponte.”  No. 14-31131 (Aug. 18, 2015).

The building blocks of pleading SOX

bricks blocksWallace sued Tesoro Corporation for retaliation, alleging he was fired for activity protected by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.  he district court dismissed.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed in part, finding that Wallace had not exhausted his administrative remedies as to his claims about Tesoro that he did not present to OSHA.  Wallace v. Tesoro Corp., No. 13-51010 (July 31, 2015).  The Court reversed as to other claims dismissed on the pleadings, holding:

  • As to the objective reasonableness of Wallace’s belief about an accounting practice — “The basis for that belief in this case, including the level and role of Wallace’s accounting expertise and how that should weigh against him, are grounded in factual disputes that cannot be resolved at this stage of the case.”
  • As for Wallace’s reasonable belief that a fraud was occurring, Rule 9(b) is not implicated because “an employee who is providing information about potential fraud or assisting in a nascent fraud investigation might not know who is making the false representations or what that person is obtaining by the fraud; indeed, that may be the point of the investigation.”
  • Wallace adequate pleaded the basis for his reasonable belief that Tesoro was not making proper SEC disclosures, and that Tesoro acted with the requisite mental state (primarily by detailing the steps he took to inform Tesoro management).  The opinion provides more detail about the specific allegations made by Wallace.

How Not to Plead “How”

BM-700Plaintiff’s FCA claims about billing for aircraft parts were dismissed for failure to comply with the heightened pleading requirements of Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b), in that:

  • it is not sufficient to argue that certain federal regulations must have been contained in the relevant contract, because by their terms, they do not automatically apply;
  • neither nondisclosure of a part’s history, nor the subsequent failure of a plane containing that part, establishes that a false claim was made about it; and
  • speculation about a company’s billing practices does not adequately establish when the company actually submitted the allegedly false claims.

United States ex rel Gage v. Davis S.R. Aviation, LLC, No. 14-50704 (July 14, 2015).

False Claims Act Liability Upheld – UPDATED

windThe plaintiffs/relators in United States ex rel Rigsby v. State Farm contended that, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, State Farm improperly skewed its claims handling process in favor of finding flood damage, as “wind policy claims were paid out of the company’s own pocket while flood policy claims were paid with government funds.”  They won at trial and the Fifth Circuit affirmed, finding that – notwithstanding earlier investigations – they were “paradigmatic . . . whistleblowing insiders” as to this specific claim who qualified as “original sources.”  The Court went on to find sufficient evidence of falsity and scienter, and reversed a discovery ruling that would not have allowed the plaintiffs to investigate the facts of other potentially false claims. ” 794 F.3d 457 (5th Cir. 2015). The Supreme Court granted review and affirmed on an issue about violation of the FCA’s sealing requirement.

On second thought, the pleadings weren’t that bad.

On rehearing, the Fifth Circuit vacated its earlier panel opinion in Wooten v. McDonald Transit Associates, 775 F.3d 689 (5th Cir. 2015), which reversed a default judgment because of inadequate underlying pleadings, and replaced it with an opinion affirming the default judgment.  The new opinion holds that “[a]lthough Wooten’s complaint contained very few factual allegations, we conclude that it met the low threshold of content demanded by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 because it provided McDonald Transit with fair notice of Wooten’s claims.”  No. 13-11035 (June 10, 2015).  The Court thus continues to reserve the question left open in Nishimatsu Construction Co. v. Houston Nat’l Bank, 515 F.2d 1200 (5th Cir. 1975): “We do not consider here the possibility that otherwise fatal defects in the pleadings might be corrected by proof taken by the court at a hearing.”

Inadequate pleading of scienter

Guaranty Bank  resized-750The plaintiffs in Owens v. Jastrow sued officers of Guaranty Bank for securities fraud, alleging that their SEC filings and public comments misstated the vulnerability of the bank’s mortgage-related holdings.  No. 13-10928 (June 12, 2015).  The Fifth Circuit affirmed dismissal in a detailed opinion, holding, procedurally, that:

  • “A district court may best make sense of scienter allegations by first looking to the contribution of each individual allegation to a strong inference of scienter, especially in a complicated case such as this one.  Of course, the court must follow this initial step with a holistic look at all the scienter allegations”; and
  • “Group pleaded” allegations were properly disregarded, although the Court declined to adopt “a strict rule requiring outright dismissal for any group or puzzle pleading[.]”

And on the merits:

  • Knowledge of undercapitalization showed motive and opportunity, but does not by itself establish scienter;
  • “Defendants’ disclosure of the ‘red flags’ [cited by Plainitiffs] and candidness about the uncertainly underlying its models neutralize any scienter inference from ‘red flags'”; and
  • “An inference of severe recklessness is more likely when a statement violates an objective rule than when GAAP permits a range of acceptable outcomes.”

Therefore: “Considered holistically, plaintiffs’ allegations of knowledge of Guaranty’s undercapitalization, a large misstatement, red flags, and ignorance of internal warnings, do not raise a strong inference of severe recklessness that is equally as likely as the competing inference that [Defendants] negligently relief on the AAA ratings and believed that Guaranty’s internal models were accurate.”

Pleading 101 – Don’t forget “Who” . . .

Estes sued JP Morgan Chase, alleging violations of the Texas Constitution with respect to a home equity loan.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed dismissal on a basic ground: “Estes’s complaint fails to allege any connection between himself and JPMC except that Estes ‘notified [JPMC] that the original promissory note had not been returned,’ and that ‘[m]ore than 60 days have passed since plaintiff notified [JMPC] of its failure to cancel and return the promissory note.’  Considering the allegations in Estes’s complaint, and taking those allegations as true, Estes has not alleged that JPMC possessed the Note at the relevant time. He also has not alleged that he made payments to JPMC, nor has he alleged any other facts from which the Court could reasonably infer that the Note was made payable to “bearer” or to JPMC, as the definition of “holder” set forth in Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 1.201 requires.”  Estes v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, N.A., No. 14-51103 (May 20, 2015, unpublished).

 

Borrowers’ claim does not survive Twombly, after all —

After initially holding that the borrowers’ complaint survived a Twombly challenge as to whether the “grossly inadequate sales price” element of a wrongful foreclosure claim had been properly pleaded, the Fifth Circuit reversed field and issued a revised opinion that affirms dismissal: “We agree with the district court that Plaintiffs’ wrongful foreclosure claim should be dismissed, but for a different reason—Plaintiff’s abandoned the claim on appeal. In challenging the district court’s dismissal, Plaintiffs did not argue that their wrongful foreclosure claim should survive because they adequately pleaded a grossly inadequate sales price. They only argued that the claim should survive because they need not plead that element at all. However, our precedent requires this element in all but a specific category of cases that does not include the instant case.”   Guajardo v. JP Morgan Chase, No. 13-51025 (March 10, 2015).

How to plead a retaliation claim — UPDATED

Richardson alleged that he was terminated, in violation of Louisiana’s whistleblower statute, for revealing fraudulent time records and overbilling.  The district court granted summary judgment and the Fifth Circuit reversed.  Richardson v. Axion Logistics, No. 14-30306 (revised March 23, 2015).  Applying the Twombly “plausibility” standard, the Court found adequate pleading about his employer’s knowledge of the alleged misconduct, as well as the timeline of events leading up to his termination.  The pleading itself is available for review here; the specific paragraphs identified by the Court as to the employer’s knowledge are highlighted in yellow, and those identified about his termination in orange.