Court opts to limit investor lawsuits

A U.S. Supreme Court decision Tuesday may block efforts to recover billions of dollars lost in frauds at Enron Corp. and HealthSouth Corp. But lawyers see little impact on key fraud cases now pending in the Nevada courts.

The justices, voting 5-3, threw out a lawsuit by Charter Communications investors against two of its suppliers, Motorola and Scientific-Atlanta. The court said the shareholders didn’t show they relied on alleged deception by the suppliers in making investment decisions.

Courts in Southern Nevada have several pending lawsuits dealing with alleged frauds, but several of the biggest lawsuits do not allege securities fraud. The Supreme Court case dealt with securities fraud under federal statutes, not common law fraud, said Brad Johnston, a Reno attorney. As a result, the court ruling doesn’t affect cases where plaintiffs are not alleging securities fraud, he said. Other Nevada lawyers reached similar conclusions.

In several cases, officials are seeking to recover assets for victims of USA Capital and USA Commercial Mortgage, which were managing $962 million in investor assets when the companies filed for bankruptcy in 2006.

“The decision won’t affect the trustee’s ability to collect from the guilty parties or the persons who aided or abetted them in the USA Commercial Mortgage cases,” said Lenard Schwartzer, an attorney who represented the debtors in bankruptcy court.

Nor does the decision affect a case that pits the estate for against Gateway Computers, said attorney Patrick Byrne, who represents the defendant. That case stemmed from claims that the computer company broke contracts with PurchasePro.

The Supreme Court case also won’t have ramifications in the case of Southwest Exchange of Henderson, said Mark Dzarnoski, a defense attorney for former officials at Southwest Exchange.

Investors lost $95 million when Southwest Exchange failed in January 2007, and several investors have sued the financial firm. Southwest Exchange held cash from real estate investors who were trying to postpone income taxes on gains from the sale of investment properties.

The Supreme Court ruled in a case involving allegations of securities fraud. The plaintiffs sued Scientific-Atlanta and Motorola, but the high court ruled that the two companies were not the “primary violators” in a sham bookkeeping for Charter.

Therefore, if Scientific-Atlanta and Motorola, were found guilty of aiding and abetting, a federal statute prohibits private parties from holding the two defendants liable for damages. The two defendants didn’t make statements to the public about fraud at Charter, the court said.

The ruling is a triumph for business groups in what they called their highest priority in the court’s 2007-08 term. Trade groups representing banks, accounting firms and law firms took an especially keen interest, saying their members might present tempting targets for shareholder lawyers.

A flurry of frivolous lawsuits would have been filed against third parties, such as lawyers and accountants, in fraud cases had the court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, Stoneridge Investment Partners, Dzarnoski said.

The ruling doesn’t prevent the Securities and Exchange Commission and other government agencies from getting judgments against defendants accused of aiding and abetting in securities fraud, lawyers said.

In enacting the law, Congress was showing its reluctance to adopt punitive measures that hurt white-collar criminal defendants, Lobel said.

The ruling will bolster efforts by Merrill Lynch & Co. and other banks to block a lawsuit by Enron investors and by UBS AG to defeat claims by HealthSouth shareholders and bondholders.

The case split the court along ideological lines. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the court’s majority opinion, which Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas joined.

Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter dissented.

Contact reporter John G. Edwards at or (702) 383-0420. Bloomberg News contributed to this report.

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