The opinion of the court was delivered by: John S. Martin, Jr., United States District Judge.
This purported class action, filed by former shareholders of Unilab Corporation, arises out of a buyout of virtually all of the public shareholders of Unilab in a merger of Unilab into UC Acquisition Sub, Inc., a subsidiary of Kelso & Co., which was created for that purpose. Plaintiffs allege that the proxy statement dated October 26, 1999, and a supplemental proxy statement dated November 15, 1999,*fn1 contained false and misleading statements in violation of §§ 14(a) and 20(a) of the Securities Exchange Act, 15 U.S.C. § 78n(a), 78t(a). In addition, Plaintiffs assert state law claims of breach of fiduciary duty, common law fraud and deceit, and negligent misrepresentation.
Plaintiffs claim that the allegedly misleading proxy materials were issued in furtherance of a scheme to induce shareholders to sell their Unilab shares at an unfairly low price. They contend that this scheme was intended to benefit the director defendants, BT Alex.Brown (the investment banker), Kelso, and three institutional shareholders, two of which remained shareholders after the merger. Plaintiffs claim that the extent to which Unilab stock was undervalued in the merger is demonstrated by the fact that 18 months after the buyout at $5.85 per share, Kelso took the successor company public at $16 per share, and it closed its first day of trading at $23 per share. This increase took place despite the fact that Unilab's results over that period of time were not as good as had been expected, and the stock market declined generally.
All Defendants have moved to dismiss the Third Amended Complaint pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. Rules 12(b)(6) and 9(b), and § 21D(b) of the Securities Exchange Act, 15 U.S.C. § 78u-4(b), for failure to state a cause of action. In addition, BT Alex.Brown has moved to dismiss the securities law claims asserted against it as barred by the statute of limitations.
Plaintiffs charge that the original proxy statement contained a number of misstatements and omissions, and that the supplemental proxy that was sent to shareholders after the Plaintiffs filed the original Complaint in this action, and before the vote approving the merger, did not remedy a number of deficiencies in the disclosure with respect to the merger. Plaintiffs allege that the following statements constituted material misstatements and omissions.
1. The statement in both the proxy and the supplemental proxy that two institutional investors, Pequot Scott Fund, LP and EOS Partners, LP, were retaining a portion of their shares in the merger and that this was a benefit to other shareholders, who would be able to receive cash for all of their shares, and would allow ther merger to be accunted for as a recapitalization, was untrue because Pequot and EOS Partners actually were permitted to retain their shares primarily because they had expressed disappointment in the proposed $5.85 buy out price.
2. The proxy and supplemental proxy did not disclose that prior to the announcement of the merger, the Unilab Board had elected not to exercise a prepayment option on a $14 million note held by Oaktree, which was convertible into Unilab stock, allegedly giving Oaktree a windfall and gaining Oaktree's support for the buyout as a result.
3. The proxy stated that the $5.85 buy out price was supported by earnings estimates of research analysts, when, in fact, there was only one research analyst who covered Unilab, and it was not disclosed that Unilab had urged that analyst to reduce her earnings estimates.
4. The proxy did not disclose that the financial projections that were included in the proxy were not the ones used by BT Alex.Brown in rendering its fairness opinion to the Board, and that using the same projections would have yielded an implied range of values that were $1.95 higher than the range of values presented to the Board.
5. The proxy stated that the company had engaged in an extensive auction process, which ensured that the buyout price was fair. Plaintiffs allege that this statement was false and misleading because it failed to state that in addition to its role as financial advisor to Unilab, BT Alex.Brown had agreed to provide financing to six of the nine parties that initially indicated interest in purchasing Unilab, to two of the final three bidders, and to Kelso, with whom Unilab negotiated exclusively in May 1999. Kelso, the ultimate purchaser, also agreed to permit BT Alex.Brown to purchase a 1% interest in the new company Consequently, according to Plaintiffs, BT Alex.Brown was on both sides of the negotiations. In addition, while the proxy stated 4 that the Board had created a special committee to oversee the negotiations, the negotiations were actually left to BT Alex.Brown, which allegedly had motivation to keep the price as low as possible and to ensure that Kelso was the winning bidder.
6. The proxy statement included a fairness opinion prepared by BT Alex.Brown, and stated that in reaching its opinion, BT Alex.Brown relied upon data prepared by management and publicly available research analysts' estimates, when the estimated financial data upon which BT Alex.Brown relied actually was prepared by Unilab alone and did not include projections of benefits from Unilab's recent Meris and Bio-Cypher acquisitions.
7. The Unilab net income figure for the last twelve months that was included in the proxy allegedly was understated because it did not include the benefit of Unilab's net operating loss carry forwards.
8. BT Alex.Brown allegedly did not use appropriate discount rates in the proxy, making the "discounted cash flow analysis" materially false and misleading. Moreover, the inclusion of "Projections" and the description of a discounted cash flow analysis made it appear that BT Alex.Brown had discounted the projections in arriving at its range of fairness, when, it is alleged, it had not.
The supplemental proxy disclosed BT Alex.Brown's compensation from Unilab and Kelso, BT Alex.Brown's intent to make an equity investment in UC Acquisition Sub, and the failure to include net operating loss carryforwards in BT Alex.Brown's discounted cash flow analysis, but it did not correct the alleged misrepresentations and omissions regarding the auction process, the fairness opinion, the failure to use appropriate discount rates, the failure to include the benefits of the Meris and Bio-Cypher acquisitions in the cash flow figures, the true reason why EOS and Pequot would retain their shares after the merger, the fact that only one analyst followed Unilab and that Unilab emloyees had urged her to reduce her price projections for the company, and the benefit realized by Oakland due to Unilab's failure to prepay its note.
A motion to dismiss is directed to the sufficiency of the Complaint, and, for purposes of the motion, all of the material allegations of the Complaint are assumed to be true, and are viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Jenkins v. McKeithen, 395 U.S. 411, 423, 89 S.Ct. 1843, 1849 (1969); Harris v. City of New York, 186 F.3d 243, 247 (2d Cir. 1999). The motion may be granted only if it appears beyond doubt that plaintiffs can prove no set of facts that would entitle them to relief. Minzer v. Keegan, 218 F.3d 144, 148 (2d Cir. 2000), cert. denied, 531 U.S. 1192 (2001).
The Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 ("PSLRA") dictates the pleading standards for Plaintiffs' claim under § 14(a) of the Securities Exchange Act and Rule 14a-9. The PSLRA requires that the complaint specify each statement that is alleged to have been misleading, the reason or reasons why the statement is misleading, and, if an allegation regarding the statement or omission is made upon information and belief, all facts with particularity upon which that belief is formed. 15 U.S.C. § 78u-4(b)(1). In addition, the complaint must "state with particularity facts giving rise to a strong inference that the defendant acted with the required state of mind." 15 U.S.C. § 78u-4(b)(2). The "strong inference" requirement has been held to mean that plaintiffs are entitled to only the "most plausible of competing inferences." In re: Champion, 145 F. Supp.2d 871, 877 (E.D.Mich. 2001) (citing Helwig v. Vencor, 251 F.3d 540, 553 (6th Cir. 2001), cert. denied, 536 U.S. 935 (2002)). However, plaintiffs must plead with particularity only sufficient facts to support their beliefs, and not every fact necessary to prove their claim. Novak v. Kasaks, 216 F.3d 300, 313-14 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 531 U.S. 1012 (2000).
No solicitation subject to this regulation shall be
made by means of any proxy statement . . . containing
any statement which, at the time and in light of the
circumstances under which it is made, is false or
misleading with respect to any material fact, or which
omits to state any material fact necessary in order to
make the statements therein not false or misleading.
17 C.F.R. § 240.14a-9(a). Thus, plaintiffs must show that (1) a proxy statement contained a material misrepresentation or omission, which (2) caused plaintiffs injury, and (3) that the proxy solicitation itself, rather than the particular defect in the solicitation materials, was "an essential link" in the accomplishment of the transaction. Mills v. Elec. Auto-Lite Co., 396 U.S. 375
, 384-85, 90 S.Ct. 616, 621-22 (1970).
A plaintiff who charges that a statement or omission is ...