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Campbell v. Transgenomic, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

March 1, 2019

Jesse Campbell, Individually and on Behalf of All Others Similarly Situated Plaintiff - Appellant
v.
Transgenomic, Inc.; Paul Kinnon; Precipio, Inc. Defendants - Appellees

          Submitted: November 15, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the District of Nebraska - Lincoln

          Before BENTON, BEAM, and ERICKSON, Circuit Judges.

          BENTON, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Following a merger, Transgenomic shareholder Jesse Campbell brought a class action for former Transgenomic shareholders alleging materially misleading statements and omissions in the proxy statement. The district court dismissed, ruling that, as a matter of law, any omissions or misstatements in the proxy statement were not materially misleading. Having jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, this court reverses and remands.

         I.

         In October 2016, biotechnical company Transgenomic, Inc. and cancer-diagnostics company Precipio, Inc. ("pre-merger Precipio") agreed to form Precipio, Inc. ("post-merger Precipio"). Transgenomic filed a proxy statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission and sent it to Transgenomic shareholders. They voted to approve the merger in June 2017.

         Jesse Campbell brought a class action for former Transgenomic shareholders against Transgenomic, post-merger Precipio, and Paul Kinnon, Transgenomic's former president, CEO, interim CFO, secretary, and director. The Amended Complaint alleges that Transgenomic and Kinnon violated Sections 14(a) and 20(a) of the Securities Exchange Act and SEC Rule 14a-9 by disseminating a false and materially misleading proxy statement that failed to give Transgenomic shareholders an accurate picture of Precipio's value. The district court dismissed for failure to state a claim. Campbell appeals.

         II.

         This court reviews de novo the dismissal of a securities fraud amended complaint, affirming only if the plaintiffs can prove no set of facts entitling them to relief. See Elam v. Neidorff, 544 F.3d 921, 926 (8th Cir. 2008). "The Private Securities Litigation Reform Act ('PSLRA') imposes heightened pleading standards in securities-fraud cases." In re Stratasys Ltd. S'holder Sec. Litig., 864 F.3d 879, 882 (8th Cir. 2017). An adequate complaint must "specify each statement alleged to have been misleading [and] the reason or reasons why the statement is misleading." 15 U.S.C. § 78u-4(b)(1). The court views factual allegations most favorably to the plaintiff and assumes the truth of particularly pled allegations, but not of "catch-all" or "blanket" assertions that do not meet the particularity requirements of the statute. See Fla. State Bd. of Admin. v. Green Tree Fin. Corp., 270 F.3d 645, 660 (8th Cir. 2001).

         "A securities fraud 'plaintiff must show that the defendant made a statement that was misleading as to a material fact.'" In re Stratasys Ltd., 864 F.3d at 882, quoting Matrixx Initiatives, Inc. v. Siracusano, 563 U.S. 27, 38 (2011). "Generally, the issue of whether a public statement is misleading is a mixed question of law and fact for the jury." In re K-tel Int'l, Inc. Sec. Litig., 300 F.3d 881, 897 (8th Cir. 2002) (evaluating materiality of misleading public statements under § 10(b) and 10b-5). See also Basic Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224, 231-32 (1988) (applying 14(a) and 14-9 materiality standard to 10(b) and 10b-5 claims). "The issue is appropriately decided as a matter of law, however, when reasonable minds could not differ." K-tel, 300 F.3d at 897. Campbell alleges that the proxy statement was materially misleading in two ways.

         A.

         Campbell alleges that the proxy statement was materially misleading because it omitted Precipio's projected net income/loss (which the Transgenomic board reviewed before approving of the merger). The proxy statement also omitted expenses that would allow investors to independently calculate Precipio's net income/loss from its revenue projections and gross profit. Transgenomic denies that the omission of net income/loss is materially misleading because the proxy statement fully disclosed other important metrics such as projected unlevered free cash flows, revenue projections, and gross profit. The district court agreed. It thought that the question was-because a proxy statement need not disclose all financial information-"the crux of the analysis is this: where the proxy statement chooses to disclose a financial valuation, does it do so honestly?" This is the wrong inquiry.

         "Section 14(a) 'was intended to promote the free exercise of the voting rights of stockholders by ensuring that proxies would be solicited with explanation to the stockholder of the real nature of the questions for which authority to cast his vote is sought.'" SEC v. Shanahan, 646 F.3d 536, 546 (8th Cir. 2011), citing TSC Indus., Inc. v. Northway, Inc., 426 U.S. 438, 444 (1976). "Unlike poker where a player must conceal his unexposed cards, the object of a proxy statement is to put all one's cards on the table face-up." Mendell v. Greenberg, 927 F.2d 667, 670 (2d Cir. 1990). "An omitted fact is material if there is a substantial likelihood that a reasonable shareholder would consider it important in deciding how to vote." Northway, Inc., 426 U.S. at 449. "Under this test it is not necessary to prove that disclosure of an omitted fact would have caused a reasonable investor to change his decision." Alton Box Bd. Co. v. Goldman, Sachs & Co., 560 F.2d 916, 920 (8th Cir. 1977), citing Northway, Inc., 426 U.S. at 449. "The role of the materiality requirement is . . . to determine whether a reasonable investor would have considered the omitted information significant at the time." ...


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