Roe Vs. Wade For The Securities Industry
Jake Zamansky 10.08.07, 6:00 AM ET
|This Tuesday promises to be a historic day for the securities industry. At stake? The very integrity of our financial system, according to one pension fund manager.|
The dramatic verbiage is not misplaced. Without question, there's a lot riding on the outcome of StoneRidge Investment Partners LLC vs. Scientific Atlanta, the high-profile securities case scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court this week.
Characterized by some as the "Roe vs. Wade for the securities industry" and others as "the most important securities case in a generation," the eventual decision will have a significant impact on whether investors in companies that commit securities fraud should be able to sue investment banks, accountants, lawyers and others who were direct "participants" in that deception. Current shareholders' rights for going after third parties that aid or abet corporate fraud are not as clearly defined as one would think.
First, a quick synopsis of the StoneRidge vs. Scientific Atlanta case: In 2000 to 2001, technology companies Motorola (nyse: MOT - news - people) and Scientific Atlanta (now owned by Cisco Systems (nasdaq: CSCO - news - people)) allegedly agreed to supply cable TV provider Charter Communications (nasdaq: CHTR - news - people) with equipment at a $20 premium over the traditional cost with the knowledge that Charter intended to account for the transactions improperly as advertising revenues (the vendors used the extra funds to buy advertising space).
These "sham" transactions inflated Charter's revenue by $17 million. When the revenue inflation came to light in 2002, Charter's stock crashed from $26.31 to 76 cents, a $7 billion loss in market cap. StoneRidge, an institutional investor in Charter, accused the two vendors of participating in a "scheme to defraud" investors and now wants the right to sue them for remediation.
StoneRidge's ability to go after the tech companies remains thwarted, however, by the outcome of a 1994 Supreme Court case known as Central Bank vs. First Interstate. The Court held that while all "primary actors"--those who were directly part of a scheme (the emphasis is mine) to defraud investors--can be sued for federal securities fraud, the "secondary actors" who aided and abetted the fraud cannot be sued. This case once again raises this all-important issue of third-party liability in securities cases, settling it once and for all.
As an advocate for individual investors, it's not surprising, I'm sure, to hear me contend that all participants who directly engage in activities to deliberately defraud investors be held liable for their actions. Whether the Court will agree with me depends on their definition of the word "scheme" under the federal securities statute.
If you look it up in the dictionary, one definition for the word has it as a synonym for an underhand plot or conspiracy. Since it generally takes two or more to plot and conspire, it could be reasonably argued that the use of the word "scheme" in the statute should allow for more than just one party (such as the investment banks, accountants and lawyers) to be labeled the "participants" in the fraud and hence be held accountable.
If the Court's strict constructionists are to be intellectually honest in their interpretation of the meaning of "scheme" liability in StoneRidge next week, it would prove a revolutionary milestone in the saga of investor rights. Shareholders would be granted a much more level playing field to target for recourse those who had targeted them for fraud.
Sadly, smart money is probably better waged on the Court reaffirming the Central Bank decision from 13 years ago, thereby remaining consistent with its general pro-business stance and previous decisions that limit lawsuits against public companies. While such a toe-the-line decision would generate sighs of relief in the boardrooms of otherwise culpable investment banks, accounting firms and law firms, it is the groans of disappointment at the kitchen tables of victimized shareholders that should ultimately resonate more loudly.
The corporate scandals of recent years may have faded from the headlines, but they are still fresh in the minds of American investors. Their confidence in Wall Street already badly shaken, shareholders need more than empty "we've changed" promises from a mostly self-regulating Wall Street to restore their trust in the system. What they need is for the Court to hold all participants in a fraudulent "scheme" just as responsible as those considered the primary actors.
The integrity of our financial system demands nothing less.
Jacob H. Zamansky, a principal in the firm Zamansky & Associates, is one of the leading plaintiff's securities arbitration firms in the country. He is a frequent contributor to Forbes.com.