Securities Class Action Erroneously Dismissed because Company’s Characterization of “Stop-Work” Orders as “Backlog” could have Misled Investors as to Company’s True Financial Condition Ninth Circuit Holds
Plaintiffs filed a putative class action against Applied Signal Technology (AST) and two of its officers for violations of federal securities laws; specifically, the class action complaint alleged that the company’s “backlog” reports misled investors as to its financial condition. Berson v. Applied Signal Technology, Inc., 527 F.3d 982 (9th Cir. June 5, 2008) [Slip Opn., at 6391-92]. The Ninth Circuit explained that AST’s customers were predominantly government agencies that may, at any time and for any reason, issue “stop-work” orders; once issued, AST immediately stops earning money on those projects, “[a]nd, because stopped work often is eventually cancelled altogether, a stop-work order signals a heightened risk that the company never will earn the money.” Id., at 6391-92. However, AST “continued to count the stopped work as part of its ‘backlog’ – a term the company defines as the dollar value of the work it has contracted to do but hasn’t yet performed.” Id., at 6392. The class action alleged that plaintiffs were misled into believing that it was “likely” the stop-work projects would be completed when “in reality” it was “likely to be lost forever.” Id. Defense attorneys moved to dismiss the class action; the district court granted the motion and plaintiffs appealed. The Ninth Circuit reversed.
The Circuit Court began its analysis by rejecting the defense argument under Rule 9(b) that plaintiffs failed to plead fraud with particularity; we do not discuss that portion of the opinion. See Whiting, at 6392-94. Rather, we begin with the defense argument that the statements regarding the company’s backlog were not misleading. First, AST argued that because its SEC filings clearly revealed that the backlog consisted of “uncompleted portions of existing contracts,” investors would know that this work included stop-work orders. Id., at 6394-95. The Ninth Circuit found this to be a “conceivable interpretation” of the SEC disclosure, but not the “most plausible” one, id., at 6395. In the end, the Court concluded, “we cannot find, as a matter of law, that defendants disclosed that backlog included a significant amount of work that had been halted by the company’s customers.” Id., at 6396. The Ninth Circuit noted that AST was not required to release its backlog report, but once it “chose to tout” the backlog, it was obligated to do so “in a manner that wouldn’t mislead investors as to what that backlog consisted of.” Id., at 6397. The Circuit Court held further that plaintiffs had “state[d] with particularity facts giving rise to a strong inference” of defendants’ intent to deceive by alleging that defendants “were aware that stop-work orders had halted significant amounts of work, yet counted the stopped work as backlog anyway.” Id.
Finally, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the class action complaint adequately alleged loss causation, “by alleging particular facts indicating that ‘but for the circumstances that the fraud concealed’ – namely, the fact that much of Applied Signal’s backlog has been halted by stop-work orders – ‘[plaintiffs’] investment … would not have lost its value.’” Whiting, at 6401 (citation omitted). The Circuit Court also rejected the claim that the “backlog” is a “forward-looking” statement, id., at 6402. The Court explained that the backlog was “much like accounts receivable,” which are not considered forward-looking statements. Id. (citation omitted). Accordingly, the Court reversed the district court order and reinstated the class action complaint. Id.
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