On Thursday, SCOTUS decided Slack Technologies v. Pirani in a unanimous opinion by Justice Gorsuch holding that, even in a registration by direct listing, §11(a) liability extends only to shares that are traceable to an allegedly defective registration statement. As you know, §11 provides statutory standing to sue for misstatements in a registration statement to any person acquiring “such security,” historically interpreted to mean a security registered under the specific registration statement. However, in Pirani v. Slack Technologies, a divided three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit had ruled that the plaintiff could recover under §11 even in the absence of tracing to the registration statement for the direct listing. Now, SCOTUS has reversed and remanded the case for reconsideration in light of the Court’s decision. Given the difficulty of tracing in connection with direct listings, where both registered and preexisting unregistered shares may be sold at the same time, the question put to Slack counsel by Justice Kavanaugh during oral argument in April looms large: does the Court’s determination in this case “essentially transform the ’33 Act into an opt-out regime for direct listings”?
On May 1, SCOTUS granted cert in the case of Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo, a case about whether the National Marine Fisheries Service has the authority to require fishing vessels to pay some of the costs for onboard federal observers who are required to monitor regulatory compliance. So why is this relevant to public companies? Because one of the questions presented to SCOTUS was whether the Court should continue the decades-long deference of courts, under Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Nat. Res. Def. Council, to the reasonable interpretations of statutes by agencies (such as the SEC). The doctrine of Chevron deference, articulated in that case, mandated that, if there is ambiguity in how to interpret a statute, courts must accept an agency’s interpretation of a law unless it is arbitrary or manifestly contrary to the statute. The decision, expected next term, could narrow, or even completely undo, that deference. Of course, the conservative members of the Court have long signaled their desire to rein in the dreaded “administrative state.” (See, for example, the dissent of Chief Justice John Roberts in City of Arlington v. FCC back in 2013, where he worried that “the danger posed by the growing power of the administrative state cannot be dismissed.”) But, in recent past cases, the Court has resolved issues and avoided addressing Chevron. This case, however, may well present that long-sought opportunity. Depending on the outcome, its impact could be felt far beyond the Marine Fisheries Service at many other agencies, including the SEC.
When the SEC was considering the NYSE’s proposal to permit direct listings of primary offerings, one of the frequently raised difficulties related to the potential “vulnerability” of “shareholder legal rights under Section 11 of the Securities Act.” Section 11 provides statutory standing to sue for misstatements in a registration statement to any person acquiring “such security,” historically interpreted to mean a security registered under the specific registration statement. The “vulnerability” was thought to arise as a result of the difficulty plaintiffs may have—in a direct listing where both registered and unregistered shares may be sold at the same time—in “tracing” the shares purchased back to the registration statement in question. In approving adoption of the NYSE rule, the SEC said that it did not “expect any such tracing challenges in this context to be of such magnitude as to render the proposal inconsistent with the Act. We expect judicial precedent on traceability in the direct listing context to continue to evolve,” pointing to Pirani v. Slack Technologies. As the NYSE had observed, only the court in Slack had addressed the issue, and had concluded that, at the pleading stage, plaintiffs could still pursue their claims even if they could not definitively trace the securities they acquired to the registration statement. However, the NYSE noted, the case was on appeal. (See this PubCo post.) The case, Pirani v. Slack Technologies, was decided by a divided three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit, with the court affirming, with one dissent, the district court’s order, ruling that the plaintiff had standing to sue under Section 11. But that decision was appealed to SCOTUS, which granted cert. On Monday, SCOTUS heard oral argument. Justice Kagan may be a bellwether: addressing Pirani’s counsel, she advised that “it does seem to me like you have a hard row to hoe here.” But that was about Section 11. Section 12(a)(2)? Well, that’s another matter.
If you thought a case, just decided last week by SCOTUS, involving a claim against the VA by a veteran who had been denied benefits (Kisor v. Wilkie) seemed far afield from the securities laws (but really could have a significant impact—see this PubCo post), a case decided last Monday might trigger a similar reaction. Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media involved an effort by a South Dakota newspaper to obtain from the Department of Agriculture, under the Freedom of Information Act, the names and addresses of retail stores participating in SNAP, the national food-stamp program. The result in the case, which broadened the definition of “confidentiality” under FOIA Exemption 4, will make it substantially easier for parties to claim “confidentiality” under FOIA, preventing disclosure of their information.
Now the question arises as to what, if any, its impact will be on the confidentiality process in connection with filings with the SEC. Had the case been decided on, say, March 19, it could, theoretically, at least, have had a fairly substantial effect: in seeking confidential treatment at that point, companies were required to submit a confidential treatment request (CTR) that stated the grounds for objection to disclosure, analyzing the applicable exemption under FOIA. But, in an interesting turn of events, on March 20, the SEC adopted new rules for confidentiality that streamlined the process, but no longer required submission of a CTR and no longer directly adverted to FOIA Exemption 4. Instead of referring to Exemption 4, ironically, the new rules expressly recite certain requirements for claims of confidentiality drawn from Exemption 4, including one that was tossed out by SCOTUS in the decision. (See this PubCo post.) Accordingly, whether the decision will have any significant impact on the SEC’s process for seeking confidentiality will really depend on whether the SEC elects to take up the issue.
Today, SCOTUS decided Kisor v. Wilkie, an important case that raised the question of whether to overrule the decades-long deference of courts to the reasonable interpretations by agencies (such as the SEC) of their own ambiguous regulations, often referred to as Auer deference (or Seminole Rock deference, referring to Auer’s antecedent). SCOTUS, with Justice Kagan writing the majority opinion (with Chief Justice Roberts as the swing vote), said no. Justice Gorsuch (and three other Justices) would overturn Auer. According to Gorsuch, the majority’s decision was “more a stay of execution than a pardon.”
Today, SCOTUS issued its opinion in Cyan Inc. v. Beaver County Employees Retirement Fund. The opinion by Justice Kagan for a unanimous Court answered two questions: Did the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act of 1998 eliminate state court jurisdiction over class actions alleging only ’33 Act violations, and, even if not, under SLUSA, can defendants remove these state court actions to federal court? SCOTUS said no in both cases: “SLUSA did nothing to strip state courts of their longstanding jurisdiction to adjudicate class actions alleging only 1933 Act violations. Neither did SLUSA authorize removing such suits from state to federal court.”
Today, SCOTUS handed down its decision in Digital Realty v. Somers, a case addressing the split in the circuits regarding the application of the Dodd-Frank whistleblower anti-retaliation protections: do the protections apply regardless of whether the whistleblower blows the whistle all the way to the SEC or just reports internally to the company? You might recall that during the oral argument, the Justices seemed to signal that the plain language of the statute was clear and controlling, thus suggesting that they were likely to decide for Digital, interpreting the definition of “whistleblower” in the Dodd-Frank anti-retaliation provision narrowly to require SEC reporting as a predicate. There were no surprises. As Justice Gorsuch remarked during oral argument, the Justices were largely “stuck on the plain language.” The result may have an ironic impact: while the win by Digital will limit the liability of companies under Dodd-Frank for retaliation against whistleblowers who do not report to the SEC, the holding that whistleblowers are not protected unless they report to the SEC may well drive all securities-law whistleblowers to the SEC to ensure their protection from retaliation under the statute—which just might not be a consequence that many companies would favor.
SCOTUS hears oral argument in Somers v. Digital Realty Trust: Dodd-Frank whistleblower statute “says what it says”
Yesterday, in addition to hearing oral argument regarding state court jurisdiction over ’33 Act class actions (see this PubCo post), SCOTUS also heard oral argument in a second case, Somers v. Digital Realty Trust. This case addressed the split in the circuits regarding the application of the Dodd-Frank whistleblower anti-retaliation protections: do the protections apply regardless of whether the whistleblower blows the whistle all the way to the SEC or just reports internally to the company? Here is a link to the transcript of the oral argument for Digital Realty, which is discussed below.
Can SCOTUS make sense out of “gibberish”? SCOTUS hears oral argument in case addressing state court jurisdiction over ’33 Act cases
Yesterday, SCOTUS heard oral argument in Cyan Inc. v. Beaver County Employees Retirement Fund, which addressed whether state courts have jurisdiction over cases brought solely under the Securities Act of 1933. Here is the transcript of the oral argument for Cyan, which is discussed briefly below.
SCOTUS grants cert in case involving whistleblower statute and case involving state court jurisdiction over ’33 Act cases
SCOTUS will be hearing at least two cases of interest next term: one case, Somers v. Digital Realty Trust, will address the split in the circuits regarding whether the Dodd-Frank whistleblower anti-retaliation provisions apply regardless of whether the whistleblower blows the whistle all the way to the SEC or just internally at the company. The second case, Cyan Inc. v. Beaver County Employees Retirement Fund, will address whether state courts have jurisdiction over cases brought solely under the Securities Act of 1933 Act.