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IN RE WORLDS OF WONDER SECS. LITIG.

January 19, 1993

In re WORLDS OF WONDER SECURITIES LITIGATION, This Document Relates to: ALL ACTIONS

Conti


The opinion of the court was delivered by: SAMUEL CONTI

I. INTRODUCTION

 Plaintiffs are a class of purchasers of stock and debentures issued by Worlds of Wonder, Inc. ("WOW"). Plaintiffs have sued several officers of WOW, two members of WOW's board of directors, WOW's independent auditor, the underwriters of WOW's securities offerings, and several major shareholders of WOW stock. Plaintiffs allege federal claims under Section 11 and Section 12(2) of the Securities Act of 1933, and also Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 10(b)(5) of the Securities and Exchange Commission promulgated thereunder. In addition, Plaintiffs allege state law claims of fraud and negligent misrepresentation.

 Each defendant now moves for summary judgment. The court addresses these motions together in this Order.

 This case arises out of the demise of Worlds of Wonder, Inc. ("WOW"), a high-technology toy company which sold its products to major toy retailers, mass merchants, and department stores. Within a year of its incorporation, WOW reached the peak of success for the toy industry when its first product, a talking teddy bear, became the nation's best selling toy. Two years later, however, WOW's sales had declined dramatically, and WOW was faced with a serious liquidity crisis. WOW filed for bankruptcy protection within three years of its founding.

 WOW was formed in 1985 around a single line of toy products, the World of Teddy Ruxpin, which featured an animated talking teddy bear. Teddy Ruxpin was among the best selling toys in the nation for the Christmas season of 1985. WOW ended its first fiscal year on March 31, 1986 with more than $ 93 million in net sales.

 On June 20, 1986, WOW conducted an initial public offering of common stock (the "IPO"). The IPO was underwritten by a syndicate of investment banks and co-managed by Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co. ("Smith Barney") and Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc. ("Dean Witter").

 The offering materials for the IPO included a prospectus dated June 20, 1986 (the "IPO Prospectus"). The IPO Prospectus contained an extensive discussion of the risks WOW posed to investors, *fn1" including the fact that WOW's success was entirely based on a single product. The IPO Prospectus further cautioned investors that, given the competitive nature of the toy industry, WOW could not ensure that it could repeat its initial success. Also, the IPO Prospectus revealed that WOW's working capital, even considering the proceeds from the IPO, was not necessarily sufficient to last through the end of fiscal 1987 (March, 1987). Nevertheless, the investment community was enthusiastic about WOW. On the day of the IPO, the offering price of $ 18 per share was driven up to $ 29 by the close of the day.

 Following the IPO, WOW continued to grow rapidly. WOW's second major toy was Lazer Tag, a game involving toy weapons that used infrared technology. Lazer Tag, like Teddy Ruxpin, was wildly successful when it first hit the market. It was the best selling toy for the 1986 Christmas season. Also, Teddy Ruxpin maintained its popularity for the most part during 1986. In Lazer Tag and Teddy Ruxpin, WOW had two of the ten best selling toys for the 1986 Christmas season. At the beginning of 1987, WOW was the toast of the toy industry, having WOW recorded net sales of over $ 327 million for the previous fiscal year.

 WOW's officers hoped to continue WOW's tremendous growth by introducing new lines of animated toys based on the Muppets characters, and by introducing lines of accessories intended to extend the life span of the demand for Teddy Ruxpin and Lazer Tag. To raise the necessary capital, on June 4, 1987 WOW conducted an offering of $ 92 million worth of convertible debentures (the "Debentures"). *fn2" The Debenture offering was underwritten solely by Smith Barney.

 The offering materials included a prospectus dated June 4, 1987 (the "Debenture Prospectus"). The Debenture Prospectus, much as the IPO Prospectus, contained an extensive discussion of the specific risks inherent in investing in WOW. *fn3" The Debenture Prospectus revealed facts showing that WOW's cash position was precarious at best. It was obvious to any reasonable investor that WOW would be unable to survive any unanticipated shortfall in its revenues, and this risk was well known to the market. Indeed, the two major rating agencies for securities, Moody's and Standard & Poors, rated the Debentures as below investment grade -- that is, junk bonds. Although Smith Barney had initially indicated that it expected the interest rate WOW would bear on the Debentures to be 5.5-6%, the market ultimately demanded a 9% rate.

 WOW's fortunes took a drastic turn for the worst shortly after the Debenture Offering. Financial results for the quarter ended June 30, 1987 were below the company's internal projections, even though the company had already predicted a substantial loss for the quarter. WOW's management hoped that the decline in sales was due to the normal seasonality of the toy business, where most sales occur during the Christmas season.

 The big 1987 Christmas season that WOW had wished for, though, never occurred. WOW's officers blame the stock market crash on October 19, 1987. According to WOW's management, this made retailers cautious about ordering additional products. For whatever reasons, the entire toy industry experienced a severe downturn in late 1987. WOW was especially hurt because its only major products, Lazer Tag and Teddy Ruxpin, were high priced items that were particularly dependent on the Christmas season for sales. A substantial price reduction in WOW's major products in late October 1987, combined with a stepped-up advertising campaign, failed to spur sales to expected levels.

 In December, 1987, WOW defaulted on the first interest payment on the Debentures. Faced with a severe liquidity crisis, WOW was unable to make it through the Christmas season as a going concern. WOW filed for bankruptcy on December 21, 1987.

 The plaintiffs in this action are a class of purchasers of WOW common stock and Debentures ("Plaintiffs"). *fn4" Plaintiffs assert that they were defrauded, or at least misled, regarding the risky nature of their investment. Plaintiffs allege that several of the various defendants' actions in connection with WOW's securities offerings misled investors, and unduly inflated the market price of WOW's securities. Most notably, Plaintiffs claim that the IPO Prospectus and the Debenture Prospectus contained misleading statements and omitted material information. They also claim that several of the defendants traded WOW stock based on inside information.

 Plaintiffs' Third Amended Complaint (the "Complaint") names as defendants several officers of WOW: Angelo M. Pezzani, former President and Chief Operating Officer; Donald D. Kingsboro, WOW's former Chief Executive; and Richard B. Stein, former Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer (collectively the "Officer Defendants"). The Complaint also names two directors of WOW as defendants: John B. Howenstein and Barry H. Margolis. Plaintiffs also allege claims against WOW's independent auditor, the public accounting firm of Deloitte Haskins & Sells, now known as Deloitte & Touche ("Deloitte"), and the underwriters of WOW's securities offerings, Smith Barney and Dean Witter (the "Underwriter Defendants"). The Complaint also alleges claims against certain large shareholders of WOW: Josephine E. Abercrombie, an individual; World of Wonder Shares Partnership ("WOW Shares Partnership"); and Robinson Interests, Inc. ("Robinson").

 Plaintiffs' Complaint sets forth claims for relief alleging numerous violations of the federal securities laws. Plaintiffs' First Claim for Relief alleges violations of Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act of 1934, 15 U.S.C. § 78j (b), and Rule 10(b)(5) of the Securities and Exchange Commission promulgated thereunder, 17 C.F.R. § 240.10(b)(5). Plaintiffs' Fifth and Sixth Claims for Relief, respectively, allege violations of Section 11 of the Securities Act of 1933, 15 U.S.C. § 77k (a), in connection with the IPO Prospectus and the Debenture Prospectus. Plaintiffs' Seventh and Eighth Claims for Relief allege violations of Section 12(2) of the Securities Act of 1933, 15 U.S.C. § 771 (2), in connection with the IPO Prospectus and the Debenture Prospectus, respectively. Plaintiffs' Second and Ninth Claims for Relief state theories of joint and several liability for the alleged substantive violations of the securities laws.

 In addition, Plaintiffs' Third and Fourth Claims for Relief allege state law claims of fraud and negligent misrepresentation, respectively.

 The case is currently before the court on the various defendants' motions for summary judgment. The court addresses these motions together in this Order.

 III. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

 Summary judgment is proper if, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to prevail as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Hutchinson v. United States, 838 F.2d 390, 392 (9th Cir. 1988). The party moving for summary judgment has the burden of proving the absence of any genuine issue of material fact. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 106 S. Ct. 2505 (1986).

 If, however, the moving party demonstrates the absence of any genuine issue of material fact, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to produce evidence sufficient to support a jury verdict in his favor. Id. at 255. To meet this burden, the non-moving party must go beyond the pleadings and show "by her own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, or admissions on file" that a genuine issue of material fact exists. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265, 106 S. Ct. 2548 (1986).

 IV. PLAINTIFFS' SECTION 11 CLAIMS

 Section 11 of the Securities Act of 1933 creates a private remedy for any purchaser of a security if any part of the prospectus "contained an untrue statement of a material fact or omitted to state a material fact . . . necessary to make the statements therein not misleading." 15 U.S.C. § 77k (a). A Section 11 claim can be asserted against every person who signed the prospectus, the issuer's officers and board of directors, the underwriters of the securities offering, and any expert whose profession gives authority to that part of the registration statement prepared by him. Id.

 Plaintiffs' Fifth and Sixth Claims for Relief allege violations of Section 11 in connection with the IPO Prospectus and the Debenture Prospectus, respectively. Plaintiffs assert these claims against the Officer Defendants, the Underwriter Defendants, directors Howenstein and Margolis, and Deloitte.

 A. The Bespeaks Caution Doctrine and the Duty to Disclose Information in a Prospectus

 1. The "Bespeaks Caution" Doctrine

 The Officer Defendants urge this court to adopt the "bespeaks caution" approach to securities fraud claims. The bespeaks caution doctrine holds that when a prospectus contains substantial disclosure of specific risks, statements that express management's optimism about future performance, despite those particular risks, are not misleading as a matter of law. Though this doctrine has not yet been adopted expressly by the Ninth Circuit, the trend in the recent cases heavily favors adopting this approach. In addition, the bespeaks caution doctrine would be dispositive not only of the claims against the Officer Defendants, but also of many of the claims against the other defendants. Thus, a discussion of the bespeaks caution doctrine and its application is necessary.

 (a.) Origins of the Bespeaks Caution Doctrine

 The bespeaks caution doctrine originated from language in Polin v. Conductron Corp., 552 F.2d 797 (8th Cir. 1977), cert. denied, 434 U.S. 857, 54 L. Ed. 2d 129, 98 S. Ct. 178 (1977). In that case, the plaintiff, a shareholder in Conductron, alleged fraud by Conductron in its annual report. The report stated that Conductron's "results were 'expected' to show improvement, and the Company saw a 'possibility' of a break-even soon." Id. at 806 n.28. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that "terms thus employed bespeak caution in outlook and fall far short of the assurances required for a finding of falsity and fraud." Id.

 Since the Luce decision, the First, Sixth, and Eighth Circuit Courts of Appeals have adopted the bespeaks caution doctrine. In the First Circuit case of Romani v. Shearson Lehman Hutton, the plaintiffs claimed that the defendants fraudulently induced them to invest in a horse breeding farm. 929 F.2d 875 (1st Cir. 1991). The plaintiffs, a class of similarly situated investors, alleged "misrepresentations and omissions in the offering materials that falsely inflated the partnership's financial potential." Id. at 876. The court found, however, that "the offering materials are replete with statements, some highlighted, emphasizing the high risks associated with [the partnership] and that 'there can be no assurance that the investment objectives of the Partnership will be obtained.'" Id. at 879. The court held that "documents such as this, which 'clearly bespeak caution,' are not the stuff of which securities fraud claims are made." Id. (citing Luce, 802 F.2d at 56).

 In Sinay v. Lamson & Sessions Co., 948 F.2d 1037 (6th Cir. 1991), the Sixth Circuit addressed a similar claim by a plaintiff class of shareholders. The plaintiffs alleged that certain projections of economic performance by the company's management artificially inflated the price of plaintiffs' shares. Id. at 1039. The court found, however, that these projections were "also accompanied by cautionary language." Id. at 1040. The court affirmed the district court's dismissal of the case, holding that "economic projections are not actionable if they bespeak caution." Id.

 The Eighth Circuit reinforced its position on the bespeaks caution doctrine in Moorhead v. Merrill Lynch, 949 F.2d 243 (8th Cir. 1991). In Moorhead, the plaintiffs were purchasers of bonds used to finance a residential retirement center. The retirement center later filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11, and under the reorganization plan the bondholders only received 60 cents per dollar owed. Id. at 244-45. The plaintiffs alleged a claim for securities fraud against Merrill Lynch based upon a feasibility study, prepared by Merrill Lynch and included with the offering memorandum, that was generally favorable on the future economic viability of the retirement center. Id. The district court had found that "the feasibility study contained a number of risk statements, detailed cautionary language and disclosures about the underlying economic assumptions, any of which could have affected the retirement center's ability to pay back the bonds." Id. at 245. The court of appeals affirmed the district court's entry of summary judgment for the defendants. Id. Though the court did not use the phrase "bespeaks caution," it held that "plaintiffs could not base a federal securities law claim on any misrepresentation or omission in the feasibility study which was addressed by the repeated, specific warnings of significant risk factors and the disclosure of underlying factual assumptions also contained therein." Id.

 The Ninth Circuit has not yet explicitly adopted the bespeaks caution doctrine. However, the bespeaks caution doctrine is consistent with the Ninth Circuits' approach to securities fraud claims. In In re Convergent Technologies Securities Litig., the plaintiffs, a class of purchasers of stock, alleged that defendants misled investors by concealing information on the company's cost and production problems with one of its product lines. 948 F.2d 507, 515 (9th Cir. 1991). The court found, however, that the company's "prospectus virtually overflows with Convergent's repeated emphasis of significant risk factors." Id. The prospectus included the following disclosures:

 There can be no assurance that the company will successfully complete the development of its new products or that it will be successful in manufacturing or marketing the products in the face of intense competition;

 ....

 While the Company believes that the technical risks in the development of [the product line] are well controlled, the product cost objectives are very aggressive and there is no assurance they can be achieved.

 Id. In affirming the district court's entry of summary judgment for the defendants, the court stated that "no investor, in the face of these substantive disclosures, could reasonably conclude that Convergent had surmounted all obstacles in [the product's] path." Id. at 516. The court held that the prospectus was not misleading on these issues as a matter of law. Id. Thus, this case is consistent with the bespeaks caution approach. *fn5"

 (b.) Application of the Bespeaks Caution Doctrine

 The parties disagree, predictably, on the application of the bespeaks caution doctrine to the facts of this case.

 The Officer Defendants argue that if the court finds substantial risk disclosure in the IPO Prospectus and the Debenture Prospectus, then the defendants are completely immunized from liability under Section 11. This would be an overextension of the doctrine. Such an overbroad application of the doctrine would "encourage management to conceal deliberate misrepresentations beneath the mantle of broad cautionary language." Trump Casino, 793 F. Supp. at 554. To prevent this from occurring, "the bespeaks caution doctrine applies only to precise cautionary language which directly addresses itself to future projections, estimates or forecasts in a prospectus." Id. By contrast, blanket warnings that securities "involve a high degree of risk" have been held insufficient to ward against a federal securities fraud claim. Huddleston v. Herman & MacLean, 640 F.2d 534, 544 (5th Cir. 1981), aff'd in relevant part and rev'd in part on other grounds, 459 U.S. 375, 74 L. Ed. 2d 548, 103 S. Ct. 683 (1983).

 In addition, the bespeaks caution doctrine does not apply to immunize false statements if the defendants knew the statements were false when made. "To warn that the untoward may occur when the event is contingent is prudent; to caution that it is only possible for the unfavorable events to happen when they have already occurred is deceit." Huddleston, 640 F.2d at 536.

 Plaintiffs, for their part, argue that the bespeaks caution doctrine is no substitute for a fact-specific inquiry into each statement they allege to be misleading. Plaintiffs seem to be arguing that each statement they present to the court must be analyzed, with the benefit of hindsight, to determine whether it was misleading at the time it was made. According to Plaintiffs, the "bespeaks caution" cases discussed above do not obviate the need for this type of inquiry.

 Plaintiffs' reading of these cases misses the whole point of the bespeaks caution doctrine. The doctrine holds that economic projections, estimates of future performance, and similar optimistic statements *fn6" in a prospectus are not actionable when precise cautionary language elsewhere in the document adequately discloses the risks involved. It does not matter if the optimistic statements are later found to have been inaccurate or based on erroneous assumptions when made, provided that the risk disclosure was conspicuous, specific, and adequately disclosed the assumptions upon which the optimistic language was based. See Trump Casino, 793 F. Supp. at 553-54. This aspect of the bespeaks caution doctrine represents an evolution in the judicial analysis of whether a particular statement was misleading.

 Accordingly, this court adopts the following formulation of the bespeaks caution doctrine. Estimates or forecasts of future performance in a prospectus are not actionable if the prospectus contains conspicuous language that bespeaks caution as to actual results. Furthermore, the cautionary language must specifically disclose the nature and extent of the risks involved.

 In the context of a summary judgment motion, this approach answers in a dispositive way a claim that a particular statement is misleading. The doctrine holds that where a prospectus contains adequate cautionary language disclosing specific risks, no reasonable inference can be drawn that a statement regarding those risks was misleading. This is the analysis this court will apply to Plaintiffs' allegations that particular statements in the IPO Prospectus or the Debenture Prospectus were misleading.

 2. The Duty to Disclose Information in a Prospectus

 Plaintiffs also base their Section 11 claims on the defendants' alleged failure to disclose certain risks in the prospectuses. If the documents are completely silent on a matter, the "bespeaks caution" doctrine is inapplicable. One cannot simultaneously bespeak caution on a subject and not address it.

 "The securities laws do not require an issuer of stock to disclose every bit of information that has some bearing on the issuer's future earnings." In re Verifone Securities Litig., 784 F. Supp. 1471, 1480 (N.D. Cal. 1992). In a fraud on the market case, "silence, absent a duty to disclose, is not misleading." Basic, Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224, 239, 99 L. Ed. 2d 194, 108 S. Ct. 978 n.17 (1988). For Plaintiffs to prevail on a claim that the prospectuses omitted information necessary to prevent a fraud on the market, they must show, "as a threshold matter, that the information was of a kind which the defendants had a legally cognizable duty to disclose." Id.

 The Supreme Court has set forth the standard for courts to apply in determining whether nondisclosure violates the securities laws. In Basic, Inc. v. Levison, the Court held that for nondisclosure to be actionable "there must be a substantial likelihood that the disclosure of the omitted fact would have been viewed by the reasonable investor as having significantly altered the 'total mix' of information made available. 485 U.S. at 231-32 (emphasis added). *fn7" The Court "was careful not to set too low a standard" for disclosure. Id. at 231. The Court expressed concern that too low a standard would "lead management 'simply to bury the shareholders in an avalanche of trivial information -- a result hardly conducive to informed decisionmaking.'" Id. (quoting TSC Industries, Inc. v. Northway, Inc., 426 U.S. 438, 448-49, 48 L. Ed. 2d 757, 96 S. Ct. 2126 (1976)).

 Thus, in evaluating Plaintiffs' allegations that the prospectuses were misleading for failing to disclose certain risks, the court will inquire whether a hypothetical reasonable investor would have felt the information necessary in deciding whether to invest in WOW.

 Having set forth the analytical framework it will apply to this case, the court now turns to Plaintiffs' factual allegations based on the IPO Prospectus and the Debenture Prospectus. As noted above, the allegedly misleading statements or omissions offered by Plaintiffs cannot be judged standing alone. The statements that Plaintiffs claim are misleading must be evaluated in light of the risk factor disclosure set forth elsewhere in the document. Furthermore, the "bespeaks caution" doctrine precludes any inference that a statement which directly relates to any adequately disclosed risk factor is misleading. As to omissions alleged by Plaintiffs, the inquiry for this court is whether the particular omissions were of facts material to WOW's financial well-being at the time of the prospectus, so as to obligate WOW to disclose them in the prospectus.

 1. Risk Disclosure

 The IPO Prospectus contains a section titled "Risk Factors." This section consists of three single-spaced pages disclosing WOW's specific business risks, including the following cautionary language:

 Dependence on Single Product Line; New Product Introductions. To date, the Company has marketed from a single product line, the World of Teddy Ruxpin. The product life cycle of a toy line is relatively short. Successful new products and new product lines may therefore be crucial to the success of the Company's business. . . . The Company has only limited experience in product introductions, and product line expansion will place great demands on management and other Company resources. If the Teddy Ruxpin product line loses market acceptance, or if new product introductions are unsuccessful, the Company's business would be affected adversely.

 . . . .

 Competition. The toy industry is highly competitive . . . . The relatively low barriers to entry into the toy industry also permit new competitors to easily enter the industry. The Company believes it has enjoyed limited competition to its Teddy Ruxpin product line. Due to the success of Teddy Ruxpin, however, the Company anticipates other companies will introduce talking toy products that will compete with Teddy Ruxpin and other new products announced by the Company. Such entrants might force price reductions or cause the Company to lose market share, which events may adversely affect the Company.

 . . . .

 Seasonality of Quarterly Results; Loss for the First Quarter of Fiscal 1987. Sales of toys are highly seasonal, with a majority of retail sales taking place during the Christmas season. Although indications of interest are provided by retailers early in the year, orders are generally cancellable without penalty. The seasonality of sales may cause operating results to vary significantly from quarter to quarter. The company anticipates that net sales for the quarter ending June 30, 1986 will be less than those for the prior quarter and, as a result, the Company expects to report a loss for the quarter. . . . There can be no assurance that the Company can maintain sufficient flexibility with respect to its ...


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