Last Friday, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Archdiocese of Milwaukee Supporting Fund, Inc. v Halliburton Co. This is the fourth certiorari grant this term for a class action.

So what’s the issue in this case? Loss causation. In securities cases, plaintiffs are often allowed to rely on a theory called "fraud on the market," which requires the court to presume that shareholders relied on any false information that was introduced to an efficient securities market. The "fraud on the market" theory is a powerful tool for class action plaintiffs. When applied, it makes certification of a class much easier than otherwise.

Since certification changes the litigation (making it far more likely that a defendant will settle a meritless claim), the Fifth Circuit has held that a plaintiff must prove "loss causation" (that the alleged falsehoods, once revealed, actually caused the stock price to fall) by a preponderance of the evidence before a court may certify a class. (The Fifth Circuit has not gone rogue on this issue: the Supreme Court has issued several opinions on loss causation over the last five years.) On its face, it’s a reasonable doctrine. Loss causation forms the basis of many strong securities class actions. (Indeed, former plaintiffs’ lawyer Bill Lerach had boiled the theory down to a chart he would pull out in settlement discussions.)

In Archdiocese of Milwaukee Supporting Fund, Inc., the Fifth Circuit was faced with a securities case against energy conglomerate Halliburton. The plaintiffs had alleged that a number of misrepresentations — including an understatement of asbestos litigation liability and an overstatement of the benefits of a merger — had artificially inflated the price of Halliburton’s stock; once they were revealed, the plaintiff shareholders lost money.

In the district court, Halliburton had opposed certification (and won) by arguing that the plaintiffs had not met their burden of proving loss causation, because Halliburton had disclosed a number of negative news items at the same time as it revealed that it had misrepresented the information the plaintiffs had pointed to. As a result, the plaintiffs could not prove that the misrepresentations had caused the stock to drop.

The plaintiffs appealed, arguing that they should not have to prove fraud at certification, but the Fifth Circuit affirmed the trial court.

Plaintiff argues that the district court misapplied our precedent, how ever, because it incorrectly required Plaintiff to prove actual fraud at the class certification stage. Plaintiff asserts that this requirement runs afoul of our recent decision in Flowserve. We do not agree with the Plaintiff’s reading of Flowserve or its characterization of the district court’s opinion.

Even if it were possible to say that the prior statements were more than erroneous expectations, both the October 4, 1999 announcement and the analyst reports contained multiple pieces of negative news. This required Plaintiff to "demonstrate that there is a reasonable likelihood that the cause of the decline in price is due to the revelation of the truth and not the release of the unrelated negative information." This showing of loss causation is a "rigorous process" and requires both expert testimony and analytical research or an event study that demonstrates a linkage between the culpable disclosure and the stock-price movement." That’s what plaintiffs didn’t do.

(Internal footnotes omitted.)  

At this stage, before the parties have briefed the issues, predicting what the Court will do is next to impossible. But it’s worth noting that the "loss causation" doctrine has drawn fire from a number of academics as requiring a decision on the merits at certification. And the degree to which a court may inquire into the merits of a class action at certification has proven controversial over the last decade. Given the Court’s interest in this issue, however it chooses to clarify the standard, it will have a large effect on securities class actions. Stay tuned.