SLUSA Class Action Defense Cases–Kurz v. Fidelity Management: Seventh Circuit Affirms Removal Of Class Action And Subsequent Defense Judgment In Class Action Holding Class Action Complaint Fell Within SLUSA

Mar 16, 2009 | By: Michael J. Hassen

Class Action Premised on Violations of “Best Execution” Duty Fell within Scope of SLUSA (Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act of 1998) so Properly Removed and then Properly Dismissed because Time-Barred and no Proof of Injury Seventh Circuit Holds

Plaintiffs, former investors in portfolio managed by Fidelity Management & Research and FMR Co. (collectively “Fidelity”), filed a class action in state court against Fidelity alleging violations of state law and breach of contract based on the allegation that “some of [Fidelity’s] employees placed trades through Jeffries & Co.” because “Jeffries bribed the employees to send business its way.” Kurz v. Fidelity Management & Research Co., ___ F.3d ___ (7th Cir. February 23, 2009) [Slip Opn., at 1-2]. The rules of the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD) prohibit trading through a broker “paid under the table” as violative of the duty of “best execution,” that is, failing to get “the optimal combination of price, speed, and liquidity for a securities trade.” Id., at 2 (citation omitted). The conduct underlying the class action is covered by regulations under the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934, the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 (IAA) and the Investment Company Act of 1940 (ICA). Id. The SEC commenced proceedings against Fidelity under the IAA and the ICA, and Fidelity entered into a consent decree governing “how future trades will be placed and executed.” Id. In response to plaintiffs’ class action, Fidelity argued that the employee misconduct involved securities laws and, accordingly, removed the class action to federal court under the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act of 1998 (SLUSA). Id., at 2-3. In essence, defense attorneys argued that, according to the allegations in the class action, Fidelity “had either misrepresented that best execution would be achieved, or failed to disclose that best execution was not being achieved,” and that under either scenario “the wrong took place ‘in connection with the purchase or sale’ of covered securities because it affected trades in those securities (and potentially the net price obtained).” Id., at 3-4. Plaintiffs moved to remand the class action to state court; the district court agreed with Fidelity that the class action fell within the scope of SLUSA and denied the motion. Id., at 4. The district court subsequently entered judgment in favor of Fidelity on the class action complaint on the grounds that plaintiffs “filed suit after the federal statute of limitations had run and also was unable to show injury.” Id. The Seventh Circuit affirmed.

The Seventh Circuit first held that removal was proper. Plaintiffs argued that the class action was based on contract law, and that further the duty of “best execution” is not one “in connection with the purchase or sale” of securities; accordingly, plaintiffs insisted that the class action did not fall within the scope of SLUSA. Kurz, at 4. The Circuit Court concluded “[t]hat argument is frivolous,” id., at 4-5 (citations omitted). The Seventh Circuit recognized that a true contract claim would fall outside of SLUSA, but no contract existed in this case. Id., at 5. The class action complaint did not allege that Fidelity breached any promise to plaintiffs; rather, the class action asserted that plaintiffs were third-party beneficiaries of a contract between Fidelity and Jeffries. Id. Moreover, plaintiffs could not produce that contract, and the Circuit Court observed at page 5 that “for all we know none exists.” On the other hand, a securities law violation would support plaintiffs’ class action claims. Id., at 6. Put simply, “How Fidelity discharges its duties toward investors is a subject requiring disclosure under federal law.” Id. And even though Fidelity’s top managers and board did not know about the misconduct, and therefore could not have acted with the necessary scienter to support a securities liabilities claim, the individual employees did act with scienter and Fidelity may be derivatively liable for their misconduct. Id., at 6-7. In sum, the Seventh Circuit held that the district court correctly determined that plaintiffs had either a federal securities claim or nothing. Id., at 7. Assuming it was the former, plaintiffs’ class action advanced “a bad securities claim, given the expiration of the federal statute of limitations and the class’s inability to show loss causation.” Id. (citation omitted). Accordingly, the Circuit Court affirmed the judgment.

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