Basic Inc. v. Levinson

Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling in the Halliburton case leaves the securities class action system pretty much unchanged. And that isn’t because the Supreme Court examined the system and concluded it is working well and makes sense.  Instead,  the Court simply didn’t address those questions.

That’s very good news for the lawyers who make their living

The securities class action industry was launched a quarter-century ago when the Supreme Court recognized the so-called “fraud-on-the-market” presumption of reliance in most putative securities class actions.  The result has been that—despite Congressional efforts at securities litigation reform—most securities class actions that survive the pleadings stage are likely to achieve class certification, forcing defendants to settle.  In the meantime, as explained in prior blog posts, the best economic thinking has shifted, calling the empirical assumptions underlying the fraud-on-the-market presumption into question.

In Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc. (pdf), decided today, the Supreme Court declined to abandon that presumption, instead largely maintaining the status quo.  The Court did clarify one key aspect of how class certification works in the securities context, holding that defendants are now entitled to attempt to rebut the presumption by introducing evidence at the class certification stage that there was no “price impact”—i.e., that misrepresentation alleged in a particular lawsuit did not affect the stock’s price.  This adjustment will make it possible for defendants to challenge class certification in a number of securities class actions, but is unlikely to alter the landscape of securities litigation significantly—a result that is troubling from a policy perspective because (for reasons we have previously stated) securities class actions generally benefit the lawyers who bring and defend them rather than the investors.

We provide more details about the decision below.
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The Supreme Court will grapple with private securities class actions when it hears oral argument tomorrow in Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc. The principal question in the case is the continuing validity of the fraud-on-the-market doctrine, endorsed by the Court twenty-five years ago in Basic Inc. v. Levinson, which relieves plaintiffs asserting claims under Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of the obligation to prove actual reliance, and permits the reliance element of a securities fraud claim to be satisfied presumptively by proof that the securities at issue traded on an efficient market.

A significant part of the debate in the Halliburton briefs addresses new scholarship contradicting the views of economists who developed the hypothesis underlying fraud-on-the-market. That is precisely what Justice White predicted in his Basic dissent: “[W]hile the economists’ theories which underpin the fraud-on-the-market presumption may have the appeal of mathematical exactitude and scientific certainty, they are—in the end—nothing more than theories which may or may not prove accurate upon further consideration. . . . I doubt we are in much of a position to assess which theories aptly describe the functioning of the securities industry.”

But the defenders of fraud-on-the-market, perhaps recognizing the doctrine’s tenuous status based on the economic learning over the past quarter-century, focus considerable attention on three arguments unrelated to the doctrine’s merits:

  • Principles of stare decisis prevent the Court from overturning Basic;
  • Congress ratified Basic’s endorsement of fraud-on-the-market when it enacted the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act; and
  • Securities class actions benefit investors and, because they would be harder to bring if Basic were overturned, the Court should leave fraud-on-the-market in place.

To spare readers (and myself) an exegesis into economic analysis, this post focuses on these contentions, explaining why a fair appraisal of these arguments in fact demonstrates that the Court is obligated to assess Basic on the merits, and overrule the decision if the fraud-on-the-market presumption can no longer be justified.


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Earlier today, the U.S. Supreme Court granted review in Halliburton Co. v . Erica P. John Fund, No. 13-317, to address an important question affecting securities class actions: whether the “fraud-on-the market” presumption created by the Court in Basic, Inc. v. Levinson remains viable in light of new developments—both in economic thinking and in

In Section 10(b) securities-fraud cases based on affirmative misrepresentations, a class action cannot be certified unless investor reliance is presumed under the fraud-on-the-market theory of Basic, Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224 (1988). In Erica P. John Fund, Inc. v. Halliburton Co., 131 S. Ct. 2179 (2011), the Supreme Court ruled that a