Court weighs securities fraud class-action cases

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The Supreme Court is considering whether to abandon a quarter-century of precedent and make it tougher for investors to band together to sue corporations for securities fraud.

The justices hear arguments Wednesday in an appeal by Halliburton Co. that seeks to block a class-action lawsuit claiming the energy services company inflated its stock price.

A group of investors says it lost money when Halliburton's stock price dropped after revelations the company misrepresented revenues, understated its liability in asbestos litigation and overstated the benefits of a merger.

Justices threw out the company's first attempt to block the lawsuit in 2011. But Halliburton is now urging the court to overturn a 25-year-old decision that sparked a tidal wave of securities-related, class-action lawsuits against publicly traded companies and has led to billions in settlements.

The court's 1988 decision in Basic v. Levinson says shareholders who claim they were defrauded by false statements in securities filings don't have to prove they actually relied on the statements. Rather, the court reasoned that any misrepresentation would be reflected in the current stock price. Even if investors are not aware of the misstatements, they are presumed to be aware of them because they affect the stock price.

This presumption, known as the "fraud-on-the-market theory," has become the driving force for modern class-action securities cases. But some economists have questioned whether this theory makes sense anymore, saying it doesn't account for the sometimes random and arbitrary nature of stock trading.

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