Blocking the Work-Around: SLUSA’s Preemption of State Law Securities Class Actions

BACKGROUND

Due to an increasing volume of private securities fraud litigation being filed in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, Congress feared that plaintiffs were bringing abusive securities claims. Despite little chance of winning on the merits, these plaintiffs would often force defendants to settle due to the expensive nature of discovery in securities litigation. In 1995, Congress passed the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act (“PSLRA”). The Act raised the barrier for private federal securities fraud litigation, putting in place stringent new pleading standards for these lawsuits. Under the PSLRA, plaintiffs would need to provide evidence of fraud before any pretrial discovery took place.  In an effort to circumvent the new federal PSLRA standards, plaintiffs began bringing more securities fraud claims under state law.

To prevent these plaintiffs from avoiding the new pleading standards, Congress then passed the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act (“SLUSA”) in 1998. SLUSA precludes claimants from filing class actions that (1) consist of more than fifty prospective members; (2) assert state law claims; (3) involve a nationally listed security; and (4) allege a misrepresentation or omission of a material fact in connection with the purchase or sale of a covered security. The result is that private federal securities fraud claims can be pursued as a state law individual action or a federal securities fraud class action, but a plaintiff cannot pursue such claims as a state law class action.

However, Congress did not explicitly define which claims include misrepresentation or omission of material fact. In particular, it is unclear whether claims for breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duties, which are typically brought as state law claims, are treated as alleging misrepresentation or omission of material fact.

THE ISSUE

Does SLUSA preempt class action claims alleging a state law breach of contract and/or fiduciary duty in connection with the purchase or sale of a covered security?

THE SPLIT

The stances taken by the circuits do not fit into a simple binary. Each circuit with precedent on the issue has taken the approach that there are times that SLUSA does preempt these claims, but other times it does not. However, the circuits can be divided into three categories as to where the line has been drawn on preemption.

Sixth Circuit

            The Sixth Circuit has taken a literalist approach to this issue, where the court asks whether the complaint includes allegations of misrepresentation or omission. However, the Sixth Circuit has also instructed district courts to dismiss claims where the plaintiff has omitted allegations of misrepresentation or omission through artful pleading. So under Sixth Circuit precedent, any explicit or implicit allegation of misrepresentation or omission of material fact in a state law class action claim in connection with the purchase or sale of a covered security is sufficient to be preempted by SLUSA.

            In Segal v. Fifth Third Bank, N.A., the plaintiff brought state law class action claims for breach of fiduciary and breach of contract. The plaintiffs accused Fifth Third Bank of investing fiduciary assets in proprietary Fifth Third mutual funds rather than superior funds operated by the Bank’s competitors and providing standardized, largely automated management of the assets after promising individualized management. In the Amended Complaint, the plaintiff stated: “None of the causes of action stated herein are based upon any misrepresentation or failure to disclose material facts of plaintiff.” However, the Sixth Circuit upheld dismissal of the complaint, stating that SLUSA’s preemption does not depend on whether the complaint makes material or dependent allegations of misrepresentation, but “whether the complaint includes these types of allegations, pure and simple.” Additionally, the court made it clear that the question of preemption is dependent on “whether the complaint covers the prohibited theories, no matter what words are used (or disclaimed) in explaining them.”

Second, Third, and Ninth Circuits

            Under the precedent of the Second, Third, and Ninth Circuits, a class action claim for breach of contract and/or fiduciary duty is barred by SLUSA only if the claim requires proof of a misrepresentation or omission of material fact. These courts look to whether any misrepresentation or omission serves as the factual predicate of the state law claim.

            In Freeman Investments, L.P. v. Pacific Line Ins. Co., the plaintiffs alleged the defendant had breached their contracts and its duty of good faith and fair dealing by charging policyholders an excessive “cost of insurance.” The district court dismissed the complaint since it included allegations of systematic concealment and deceit involving hidden fees. However, the Ninth Circuit reversed the dismissal, holding that SLUSA preemption should depend on what the plaintiffs would be required to show to prove their claim. For the claims brought forth by the plaintiffs here, they need not show that the defendant misrepresented the cost of insurance or omitted critical details—they only need to persuade the court that their reading of the contract terms is the proper interpretation. A similar approach was taken by the Second Circuit in In re Kingate Management Ltd. Litigation and the Third Circuit in LaSala v. Bordier et Cie.

Seventh Circuit

            Lastly, the Seventh Circuit decided two cases in 2017, Goldberg v. Bank of America, N.A. and Holtz v. JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A., where the court took a different approach than any other circuit. The court held that if a claim could be pursued under federal securities law, then it is preempted by SLUSA even if it also could be pursued under state contract or fiduciary law. The court elaborated that allowing plaintiffs to work around securities law by bringing state law contract or fiduciary duty claims would render SLUSA ineffectual. This approach has been the subject of significant criticism from commentators, as well as Judge Hamilton’s dissent in Goldberg, for taking SLUSA’s statutory purpose too far.

LOOKING FORWARD

            In his dissent in Goldberg, Judge Hamilton articulates his belief that only the Supreme Court can settle the circuit split on SLUSA preemption. While the Court may certainly choose to take a case to interpret SLUSA in a way that would resolve the differences between the circuits, the split may more effectively be resolved where it began—Congress. While relying on Congress to act may not be the most reliable option, a section defining the scope of SLUSA preemption could work its way into a much larger bill. After all, securities litigation is on the rise again, and Congress may be interested in helping to clarify an ambiguity that may affect many of these lawsuits.