“Core-Operations Inference” Insufficient Alone to Support PSLRA’s Heightened Pleading Requirements for Scienter in Securities Fraud Class Action Ninth Circuit Holds
Plaintiffs filed a putative class action against Washington Mutual and individual officer defendants alleging securities law violations; specifically, the class action complaint alleged violations of Sections 10(b) and 20(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 10b-5. South Ferry LP, # 2 v. Killinger, 542 F.3d 776, 779 (9th Cir. 2008). The class action “relate[d] to several related aspects of WAMU’s mortgage lending business.” Id., at 780. The class action focused on two types of risks: the first involved the mortgage servicing rights (MSR) related risk that WAMU would lose revenue “due to the pre-payment of loans that it services”; the second involves a “pipeline risk” that WAMU will “commit to fund a loan at a certain interest rate only to see market interest rates change by the time the loan is finalized.” Id. According to the class action complaint, “the individual defendants made materially false or misleading statements concerning WAMU’s ability to manage MSR-related and pipeline risk during the class period.” Id. Defense attorneys moved to dismiss the class action for failure to meet the heightened pleading requirements under the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act (PSLRA). Id., at 779. The district court granted the motion as to certain defendants, but denied the motion as to others; it found plaintiff met the heightened pleading requirements of the PSLRA “by inferring that the remaining defendants had knowledge of WAMU’s difficulties with their information systems ‘because of the nature of the statements they [Defendants] were making and the nature of these specific alleged operational problems,’” id., at 781 (quoting In re Northpoint Communications Group, Inc. Securities Litig., 184 F.Supp.2d 991, 998 (N.D. Cal. 2001)). In short, the district court believed “that it may be inferred that facts critical to a business’s ‘core operations’ or important transactions are known to key company officers,” id. Defense attorneys filed an interlocutory appeal, and the Ninth Circuit reversed.
The issue on appeal was “whether a scienter theory that infers that facts critical to a business’s ‘core operations’ or an important transaction are known to a company’s key officers satisfies the PSLRA’s heightened pleading standard.” South Ferry, at 783. After reviewing its prior cases on the subject, see id., at 783-84, the Ninth Circuit explained at page 784 that plaintiffs argued that while not adequate in and of itself to satisfy the scienter requirement of the PSLRA, “the core-operations inference can be one relevant part of a complaint that raises a strong inference of scienter.” The Ninth Circuit concluded, “Where a complaint relies on allegations that management had an important role in the company but does not contain additional detailed allegations about the defendants’ actual exposure to information, it will usually fall short of the PSLRA standard.” Id., at 784. Moreover, “a general matter, ‘corporate management’s general awareness of the day-to-day workings of the company’s business does not establish scienter-at least absent some additional allegation of specific information conveyed to management and related to the fraud’ or other allegations supporting scienter.” Id., at 784-85 (citation omitted).
The Ninth Circuit summarized its conclusion as follows: “In summary, allegations regarding management’s role in a company may be relevant and help to satisfy the PSLRA scienter requirement in three circumstances. First, the allegations may be used in any form along with other allegations that, when read together, raise an inference of scienter that is ‘cogent and compelling, thus strong in light of other explanations.’ [Citation.] This view takes such allegations into account when evaluating all circumstances together. Second, such allegations may independently satisfy the PSLRA where they are particular and suggest that defendants had actual access to the disputed information…. Finally, such allegations may conceivably satisfy the PSLRA standard in a more bare form, without accompanying particularized allegations, in rare circumstances where the nature of the relevant fact is of such prominence that it would be ‘absurd’ to suggest that management was without knowledge of the matter. [Citation.]” South Ferry, at 785-86. Having made that holding, the Ninth Circuit considered plaintiff’s argument that “the district court had adequate alternative bases for its decision even if the core operations inference was improperly applied.” Id., at 786. The Circuit Court disagreed, noting that the district court had “made clear in its certification order that it had serious doubts about the viability of the complaint unless [plaintiff] could rely on the core operations inference,” id. However, the Court refused defendant’s request to reach the merits of the class action complaint’s sufficiency; instead, it reversed the order and remanded the matter to the district court. Id.