August 23, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Overly Optimistic Reporting Not Enough to Prove Scienter

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Anderson v. Spirit AeroSystems Holdings, Inc. on Tuesday, July 5, 2016.

Spirit AeroSystems Holdings, Inc., agreed to manufacture parts for two Gulfstream aircraft and a Boeing 787. Spirit managed the production of the parts through three projects, each of which encountered production delays and cost overruns. Nevertheless, Spirit executives expressed optimism to investors about the company’s ability to break even. However, in October 2012, Spirit announced the projected loss of hundreds of millions of dollars on the three projects. The investors brought a class action against Spirit and four of its executives—CEO and president Jeffrey Turner, CFO Philip Anderson, Oklahoma Senior Vice President Alexander Kummant, and Vice President Terry George, who was overseeing the Boeing 787 project—for violating § 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act and SEC Rule 10b-5. Plaintiffs alleged that Spirit and the executives misrepresented and failed to disclose cost overruns and project delays. Defendants moved to dismiss, arguing that the plaintiffs failed to allege facts showing misrepresentations or omissions that were false or misleading and material, and failed to show scienter. The district court granted defendants’ motion, in part agreeing that plaintiffs had failed to show scienter. Plaintiffs appealed.

The Tenth Circuit compared the evidence set forth by plaintiffs to show scienter with the defendants’ explanations, noting that the inference of scienter would only suffice if it were at least as cogent and compelling as any other inference that could be drawn from the facts. Plaintiffs alleged that defendants knew throughout the class period that the projects were experiencing setbacks and generating so much in additional costs that a loss would be inevitable, yet they failed to warn investors of the forward loss until October 2012. Defendants argued that despite the setbacks, they were optimistic that the projects would meet the original cost forecasts, and expected revenues to exceed total costs. When Spirit realized that a loss was likely, it promptly announced a forward loss on the three projects. The Tenth Circuit found Spirit’s explanation that it was overly optimistic more compelling than an inference that the executives intentionally misrepresented or recklessly ignored economic realities. The Tenth Circuit noted that the plaintiffs presented little evidence to presume malevolence over benign optimism.

The Tenth Circuit approved of the district court’s consideration of a lack of a motive to commit securities fraud as a mitigating factor against scienter. Although the plaintiffs did not need to show a motive, the absence of one was relevant. The plaintiffs also proposed testimony by corroborating witnesses, but the Tenth Circuit determined the witnesses were too far removed from the executives to have been able to testify as to the executives’ state of mind. Plaintiffs also alleged that the defendants had a duty to disclose project overruns and delays, but the Tenth Circuit refused to infer scienter from the defendants’ failure to disclose, finding instead that there was no evidence that the defendants knew they needed to disclose more or were reckless in their failure to disclose. The Tenth Circuit disposed of plaintiffs’ remaining claims, characterizing them as “fraud by hindsight” but not securities fraud. Plaintiffs argued that Spirit’s recovery plan for the 787 project supported an inference of scienter, but the Tenth Circuit again accepted the defendants’ explanations of innocent optimism. The plaintiffs also argued that the sheer magnitude of the loss supported an inference of scienter, but the Tenth Circuit noted that the plaintiffs failed to show that the executives knew that their public reports were too encouraging or had recklessly failed to heed red flags from problem reports.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal. Judge McHugh concurred in part and dissented in part; she would have found that Anderson and Turner made materially false statements, therefore satisfying the scienter element.

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