Our Illinois class action attorneys recently noted a Seventh Circuit decision ending a class-action case in the difficult realm of securities fraud. In Re Guidant Corporation, No. 08-2429 (7th Cir. Oct. 21, 2009), is a securities class action stemming from allegedly misleading statements Guidant Corp. made about its implanted defibrillators. A design flaw with certain lines of defibrillators was discovered in February of 2002, and by April, Guidant had corrected the problem in all of the new devices it made. However, the problem remained in machines already made, and Guidant failed to recall them or warn the public. All in all, Guidant knew in 2002 of at least 25 reports of short-circuiting from the older defibrillators. More reports emerged later.
Two years after this redesign, Guidant entered into merger talks with Johnson & Johnson. As part of these negotiations, it issued a press release expressing confidence about its growth prospects in the implanted defibrillator market. In their claim, plaintiffs said this was false and misleading because Guidant knew it still had liability for the Ventak defibrillators. Subsequent press releases on the merger also omitted this information, as were three merger-related forms Guidant filed with the SEC. However, in March of 2005, a young man died after his Guidant defibrillator short-circuited. Guidant issued several other SEC filings and press releases without disclosing this before it finally sent a letter to doctors in May of 2005 disclosing reported problems, an act prompted by an article about to be published in the New York Times.
The FDA recalled the defibrillators the next month, and Guidant’s stock dropped immediately. It dropped further when Johnson & Johnson announced that it was reconsidering the merger. All in all, the stock fluctuated between $63 a share and $80 a share until Guidant was purchased by Boston Scientific. The instant case is a consolidated class action filed against Guidant and eleven officers and directors as a result of these drops. In addition to alleging that all defendants made false and misleading statements about the company and omitted material information from their statements, it alleged that the individual defendants used insider knowledge and the approval of the Johnson & Johnson merger to sell stock during the period at issue.
Over the course of pre-trial motions, the plaintiffs attempted to amend their complaint at least three times, twice because of new information revealed in related product liability cases. At some point, Guidant moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim. The claims were brought under the Securities Exchange Act, which requires heightened pleading standards for plaintiffs alleging securities fraud. Specifically, the court found that the plaintiffs’ pleadings were not particular enough and failed to include facts showing that defendants knowingly and with malice misled investors. It dismissed the case with prejudice. It also declined to reconsider based on new evidence from a products liability case, and declined a motion to amend their complaint based on the same evidence. The plaintiffs appealed all three decisions.
In its analysis, the Seventh started by noting that plaintiffs had ample time to make changes to their complaint. In addition to the consolidated complaint from individual claims, it allowed an amendment at the start to change the class period. Plaintiffs notified the court twice of new evidence from other cases, but failed to amend their complaint with that evidence. The Seventh found that this was ample time for plaintiffs to amend their complaint to meet the admittedly strict standards provided for securities cases by the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act.
It then moved to the trial court’s denial of reconsideration of the dismissal. The plaintiffs claimed that it should have been reconsidered because they had new evidence from product liability cases, a standard ground for reconsideration. They acknowledged that those facts were older, but said the trial court stymied them by refusing to lift a stay of discovery. The Seventh found this unpersuasive, saying the trial court could have ruled either way without abusing its discretion. The trial court must have assessed the new evidence, it wrote, and decided that a new amended complaint would still have lacked the necessary specific facts and evidence of scienter. And the plaintiffs could have entered the new evidence into the record earlier. Thus, the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying reconsideration. For the same reasons, it was also not an abuse of discretion to deny the motion to amend, the Seventh said. Thus, all of the district court’s rulings were affirmed.