Class Action Defense Cases–Fener v. Belo: Fifth Circuit Court Affirms Denial Of Class Action Treatment In Securities Fraud Class Action Holding Plaintiffs Failed To Establish Loss Causation

Aug 17, 2009 | By: Michael J. Hassen

Class Action Complaint Alleging Securities Fraud Properly Denied Class Action Treatment because Plaintiffs Failed to Establish that Decline in Stock Price was Connected to Disclosure of Alleged Fraud rather than Long-Term Industry Trends Fifth Circuit Holds

Plaintiffs filed a putative class action against Belo Corporation and others alleging violations of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934; specifically, the class action complaint alleged that Belo – a media company that inter alia published the Dallas Morning News (DMN), which accounted for 30% of Belo’s revenue – “engaged in a fraudulent scheme designed to inflate DMN’s circulation artificially.” Fener v. Belo Corp., ___ F.3d ___ (5th Cir. August 12, 2009) [Slip Opn., at 1-2]. According to the allegations underlying the class action complaint, Belo “allegedly paid bonuses for achieving circulation targets, rigged audits of DMN’s circulation, and implemented a no-return policy that eliminated any incentive for distributors to return unsold newspapers.” Id., at 2. These acts “artificially increased recorded circulation, which led to higher advertising revenues for DMN and larger profits for Belo” because 90% of DMN’s revenue came from advertising. Id. Belo eventually disclosed these facts in a press release, and the company’s stock price dropped substantially, id., at 2-3. The class action complaint followed, and plaintiffs moved the district court to certify the litigation as a class action. Id., at 3. Defense attorneys opposed class action treatment, relying on an expert opinion that “plaintiffs could not show that the fraudulent disclosure in the press release was the primary cause of the stock price decline.” Id., at 3-4. Plaintiffs countered with an expert opinion that the drop in stock price was “entirely or almost entirely attributable to the revelation of the relevant truth in this case.” Id., at 4. The district court denied class action treatment and plaintiffs appealed. Id. The Fifth Circuit affirmed.

After outlining the standard of review and the elements (including loss causation) required to prove a securities fraud case, see Fener, at 4-7, the Circuit Court noted that a district court may properly examine loss causation as part of a class action certification determination, id., at 7. The issue before the Court was “whether these plaintiffs have presented enough information to show loss causation under Rule 23.” Id. While plaintiffs submitted 100 pages in support of their class certification motion, defendants introduced expert testimony that Belo’s press release contained three distinct parts: “DMN’s circulation decrease resulted from (1) fraudulent overstatements; (2) changes in DMN’s methodology; and (3) industry-wide decline in newspaper circulation” and concluded – based on an examination of 132 analyst reports – that Belo’s stock dropped primarily because of “the non-fraudulent disclosures instead of the fraudulent one.” Id., at 8-9. The Fifth Circuit stated that it was important to resolve whether the press release should be viewed as “one complete disclosure or three separate ones,” id., at 9. Based on the “plain language” of the press release, the Circuit Court concluded that it was three separate disclosures. Id., at 10. Accordingly, “the release divides the news into fraudulent and non-fraudulent information related to possible future circulation declines.” Id.

The Fifth Circuit held, therefore, that plaintiffs failed to establish loss causation. “Conceivably, DMN’s fraudulent practices could have resulted in 90% of the circulation decline, but if the stock price fell because the market was concerned only with the reason for the other 10%, loss causation could not be proven.” Fener, at 12. In other words, long-term investors may have been more concerned “about the substantial and continuing decline in nationwide newspaper circulation” than the fraudulent practices at issue, so the stock drop would have been connected to “that long-term trend, and not because of the fraud” so there would be no loss causation. Id. In sum, because “[s]ecurities fraud litigation is not ‘a scheme of investor’s insurance,’” plaintiff’s failed to establish a connection between the alleged fraud and the decline in stock price. Id., at 13. Accordingly, the district court properly denied class certification. Id.

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