The Two Faces of Materiality

Richard A. Booth

To make out a claim for securities fraud under federal law, a plaintiff must plead and prove the misrepresentation of a material fact. The Supreme Court has repeatedly defined a material fact as one that would be important to a reasonable investor in deciding how to act in that it would change the total mix of information—although it need not necessarily change the ultimate decision of the investor as to how to vote or whether to trade. The courts have also defined a material fact as one that would affect market price—which clearly implies that it must have changed the decisions of some investors. Although these two definitions of materiality appear to conflict, they can be reconciled as alternative expressions of the same standard, the former referring to individual investors and the latter referring to investors in the aggregate. Indeed, the Supreme Court has held a fact cannot be material if it cannot matter to the ultimate outcome, suggesting that a fact cannot be material if it does not affect the behavior of a number of investors sufficient to move the market. Arguably, it would be appropriate to consider price impact in connection with the decision to certify a securities fraud action as a class action under the fraud on the market (FOTM) theory since a class action involves the claims of investors in the aggregate and since price impact need not be dispositive as to the merits of the individual claim of the lead plaintiff who may be able to recover under the individual investor standard. The Supreme Court foreclosed that option in its Amgen decision, possibly for fear that failure to determine materiality in the context of a class action might lead to a multiplicity of lawsuits. Nevertheless, the Amgen Court stated that determination of the question may be appropriate on summary judgment even though earlier decisions have emphasized that materiality is a matter of fact that should not be decided by any bright line test. Moreover, in focusing on materiality as a matter of merit, Amgen says nothing about when a court should consider other grounds for rebutting the FOTM presumption of reliance based on the likelihood that the plaintiff class includes significant numbers of atypical investors who may have been indifferent to company-specific market prices and thus may not be adequately represented in a class action.