Securities Claims Accusing Merrill Lynch of Concealing Its Auction-Rate Securities Practices Are Dismissed by Appeals Court

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has affirmed a district court’s decision to dismiss securities fraud claims accusing Merrill Lynch & Co. of hiding its ARS practices to manipulate the market. The case had been filed by plaintiff Colin Wilson on behalf of all buyers between March 2003 and Feb. 13, 2008 that purchased ARS for which Merrill was the dealer.

Wilson contended that although until July 2007 Merrill Lynch did not allow its ARS auctions to fail, in the couple of months that followed the broker-dealer did not put in support bids during at least 34 auction-rate securities issuances. As a result, those auctions did fail. Wilson also claimed that because Merrill Lynch did not appropriately disclose the full scope of its ARS practices, the financial firm was sending out a false signal that the market was sustainable despite there being not enough of an investor demand for the instruments.

The district court threw out the Wilson’s ARS case after finding that Merrill’s disclosure did not mislead investors. Now, the appeals court is affirming. It found that if, as Wilson says, Merrill intended to put in support bids for every auction unless it decided to let certain ones fail or get out of the market in general, then the court believes that the broker-dealer gave fair disclosure of all this. The appeals court also didn’t agree with Wilson’s allegation that Merrill Lynch knew without a doubt that if it didn’t intervene an ARS auction was sure to fail.

This is the first appellate ruling involving securities class litigation over the demise of the ARS market. Upon the market’s decline beginning 2007, Merrill Lynch and other large broker-dealers started letting auction-rate securities auctions fail. When they completely stopped their support, the market became illiquid. A number of investors have since filed ARS lawsuits seeking to recover their money.

Although Merrill appears to have won this case, Shepherd Smith Edwards and Kantas founder and stockbroker fraud attorney William Shepherd notes, “This is not the huge victory Merrill claims. The court did NOT find that Merrill did not engage in wrongdoing in the sale of auction rate securities (ARS) to its clients, most of whom were led to falsely believe that these ARS investments were similar to commercial paper or short-term treasury bills. This case is instead concerned with “market manipulation,” a type of securities fraud claim that is rarely brought and almost never successful. In order to win this case, among other hurdles the plaintiffs would have to demonstrate that Merrill’s practices were intentional and were intended to change the market value of the securities. Also, this decision is by the federal appeals court in New York, which mysteriously decides many cases in favor of Wall Street.”

2d Cir. Affirms Merrill Off the Hook In Investor Suit Over ARS Disclosures, BNA, November 16, 2011
Read the full opinion (PDF)

More Blog Posts:

SEC and SIFMA Divided Over Whether Merrill Lynch Can Be Held Liable for Alleged ARS Market Manipulation, Institutional Investor Securities Blog, July 29, 2011 Raymond James Settles Auction-Rate Securities Case with Indiana Securities Division for $31M, Stockbroker Fraud Blog, August 27, 2011
District Court in Texas Decides that Credit Suisse Securities Doesn’t Have to pay Additional $186,000 Arbitration Award to Luby’s Restaurant Over ARS, Stockbroker Fraud Blog, June 2, 2011
Shepherd Smith Edwards and Kantas, LLP represents stockbroker fraud victims throughout the US.