PSLRA Class Action Defense Cases-In re H&R Block: Missouri Federal Court Dismisses Securities Class Action Against H&R Block Concluding Class Action Allegations Failed To Satisfy PSLRA’s Heightened Pleading Requirements

Feb 20, 2008 | By: Michael J. Hassen

Defense Motion to Dismiss Securities Class Action Against H&R Block and Individual Defendants Granted because Class Action Complaint Failed to Meet Heightened Pleading Requirements Mandated by the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PSLRA) Missouri Federal Court Holds

Plaintiffs filed a class action against H&R Block and various individual defendants alleging violations of section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 10b-5 of the Securities Exchange Commission, and seeking derivative “controlling persons” liability under section 20(a) of the 1934 Act. In re H&R Block Securities Litig., ___ F.Supp.2d ___ (W.D. Mo. February 19, 2008) [Slip Opn., at 1]. The class action alleged that H&R Block failed to attribute its financial success to “deceptive consumer practices” which “thereby artificially inflating its reported earnings,” failed to properly account for its effective income tax rate thereby “requiring a restatement of reported financial results,” and failed to implement “a system of safeguards and procedural controls” to ensure that financial statements and reports were reliable rather than “materially overstated.” Id., at 2. Defense attorneys moved to dismiss the class action complaint; the district court granted the motion but granted leave to amend as to the restatement of financials claim if plaintiffs could plead with specificity “that the Company knew, not just that it had internal control weaknesses, but that it was releasing materially false financial information as a result.” Id., at 2-3. Plaintiffs filed an amended class action complaint, id., at 3, alleging that defendants “misled the Company’s public investors by disseminating a series of materially false and misleading statements concerning the Company’s revenues, earnings, profitability, and financial condition,” and defense attorneys again moved to dismiss the class action. Id., at 1-2. The district court granted the motion and dismissed the securities class action complaint.

Analyzing the allegations of the class action complaint under the heightened pleading requirements dictated by the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PSLRA), In re H&R Block, at 4, the federal court turned first to the Section 10(b) claim. Defense attorneys claimed that the amended class action complaint failed to cure the deficiencies in the original class action complaint; specifically, it failed to “plead facts giving rise to a strong inference that the Defendants acted with scienter when accounting errors caused inaccurate financial statements to be released.” Id., at 4-5. Relying on the test enunciated by the Supreme Court in Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., ___ U.S. ___, 127 S.Ct. 2499 (2007), a summary of which may be found here, the district court held that plaintiff’s “four confidential sources” were insufficient — not because the sources were unnamed, but because plaintiffs had failed to establish that the information from these sources was reliable, id., at 6 (citation omitted). The federal court also concluded that even if the information from the unnamed sources was reliable, the allegations failed to satisfy the PSLRA’s heightened pleading requirements because the company had issued warnings of possible problems with its financial statements and had conducted an investigation in conjunction with an independent auditor, thus undermining a claimed intent to deceive. Id., at 7-8. As the court summarized at page 9, “[T]he Court is left with statements by confidential informants suggesting that Defendants knew they had problems involving corporate tax accounting controls. The Company repeatedly disclosed the problems to investors beginning in July 2004. The Company continued to evaluate and work towards remedying the problems, including by hiring the help of an independent third-party. The culmination of the investigation led to a Restatement. Thus, Plaintiff has still not pled facts giving rise to a strong inference that Defendants acted with an intent to deceive the investing public by releasing incorrect financial statements.”

With respect to the class action’s Section 20(a) claims, the district court concluded that they, to, failed because “control person” liability is derivative of the Section 10(b) claim and cannot exist in the absence of the underlying violation. In re H&R Block, at 9-10. Accordingly, the district court granted the defense motion to dismiss the amended consolidated class action complaint. Id., at 10.

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