SLUSA Class Action Defense Cases–Instituto de Prevision Militar v. Merrill Lynch: Eleventh Circuit Affirms Dismissal Of Class Action By Pension Manager Holding SLUSA Preempts Class Action Securities Fraud Claims Against Merrill Lynch

Nov 3, 2008 | By: Michael J. Hassen

Class Action Claims Against Merrill Lynch Preempted by SLUSA (Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act of 1998) because Pension Manager Lawsuit Constituted “Covered Class Action” under SLUSA Eleventh Circuit Holds

Plaintiff, a quasi-governmental agency that manages pension funds for armed forces personnel, filed a putative class action in Florida state court against Merrill Lynch alleging violations of various Florida state laws; it filed separate class action lawsuits against Lehman Brothers and against Pension Fund of America (PFA). Instituto de Prevision Militar v. Merrill Lynch, 546 F.3d 1340, 2008 WL 4723777, *1-*2 (11th Cir. 2008). According to the class action complaint, plaintiff was solicited by Pension Fund of America (PFA) to deposit pension funds with Merrill Lynch in a retirement trust account; believing PFA was the agent of Merrill Lynch, plaintiff invested almost $8 million in PFA through Merrill, id., at *2. The class action alleged further that PFA was carrying out an embezzlement and money laundering scheme, and at the time the class action was filed PFA could not account for almost $3 million of the funds plaintiff invested in it through Merrill Lynch. Id. Defense attorneys moved to dismiss the class action on the grounds that plaintiff’s claims were preempted by the federal Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act (SLUSA); plaintiff opposed dismissal, arguing that the class action complaint was not a “covered class action” within the meaning of SLUSA. Id., at *3. The district court granted the motion and dismissed the class action. Id. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed.

The Eleventh Circuit explained that “[t]he central question presented on appeal is whether [SLUSA] bars [plaintiff] from pursuing state law claims against Merrill Lynch & Co. and its affiliates for their role in a fraud committed on [plaintiff] by [PFA], a non party to this action.” Instituto, at *1. The Circuit Court summarized the class action as one that arose out of PFA’s theft of funds that it was supposed to have invested, and that sought to hold Merrill Lynch liable under Florida state law for PFA’s fraud “because it allowed PFA to hold itself out as Merrill Lynch’s agent, and because it failed to stop PFA from misappropriating [plaintiff’s] funds.” Id. However, “Congress enacted the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act to ensure that securities fraud class actions were brought under federal law.” Id. The district court granted the defense motion to dismiss because it found plaintiff’s class action was a “covered class action” within the meaning of SLUSA. Id. The Circuit Court focused its analysis on whether that determination was correct, see id., at *4, and concluded that it was, id., at *6. The Eleventh Circuit further held that each of the four elements required for SLUSA preclusion had been met by Merrill Lynch. See id., at *6-*10.

The “only remaining question” was whether plaintiff’s class action complaint “adequately pleaded a federal securities fraud claim under § 10(b) and Rule 10b-5.” Instituto, at *11. The Eleventh Circuit concluded that the complaint failed to plead such a claim. Id. Accordingly, it affirmed the district court order dismissing the class action complaint. Id., at *12.

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