Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc. v. Dabit

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Opinion [Justice Stevens]




certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the second circuit

No. 04–1371. Argued January 18, 2006—Decided March 21, 2006

Respondent Dabit filed a private securities fraud class action in federal court, invoking diversity jurisdiction to advance his state-law claims that petitioner, his former employer, fraudulently manipulated stock prices, causing him and other brokers and their clients to keep their overvalued securities. The District Court dismissed his amended complaint, finding his claims pre-empted by title I of the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act of 1998 (SLUSA), which provides that no “covered class action” based on state law and alleging “a misrepresentation or omission of a material fact in connection with the purchase or sale of a covered security” “may be maintained in any State or Federal court by any private party.” 15 U. S. C. §78bb(f)(1)(A). Vacating the judgment, the Second Circuit concluded that, to the extent the complaint alleged that brokers were fraudulently induced, not to sell or purchase, but to retain or delay selling, it fell outside SLUSA’s pre-emptive scope.

Held: The background, text, and purpose of SLUSA’s pre-emption provision demonstrate that SLUSA pre-empts state-law holder class-action claims of the kind Dabit alleges. Pp. 5–17.

(a) The magnitude of the federal interest in protecting the integrity and efficiency of the national securities market cannot be overstated. The Securities Act of 1933 and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (1934 Act) anchor federal regulation of vital elements of this Nation’s economy. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Rule 10b–5, which was promulgated pursuant to §10(b) of the 1934 Act, is an important part of that regulatory scheme, and, like §10(b), prohibits deception, misrepresentation, and fraud “in connection with the purchase or sale” of a security. When, in Blue Chip Stamps v. Manor Drug Stores, 421 U. S. 723, this Court limited the Rule 10b–5 private right of action to plaintiffs who were themselves purchasers or sellers, it relied on the widespread recognition that suits by nonpurchasers and nonsellers present a special risk of vexatious litigation that could “frustrate or delay normal business activity,” id., at 740. Pp. 5–8.

(b) Similar policy considerations prompted Congress to adopt legislation (Reform Act) targeted at perceived abuses of class actions—e.g., nuisance filings and vexatious discovery requests—but this effort prompted members of the plaintiffs’ bar to avoid the federal forum altogether. To stem the shift of class actions from federal to state courts, Congress enacted SLUSA. Pp. 8–10.

(c) Both the class and the securities here are “covered” within SLUSA’s meaning, and the complaint alleges misrepresentations and omissions of material facts. The only disputed issue is whether the alleged wrongdoing was “in connection with the purchase or sale” of securities. Dabit’s narrow reading would pre-empt only those actions in which Blue Chip Stamps’ purchaser-seller requirement is met. Insofar as that argument assumes that the Blue Chip Stamps rule stems from Rule 10b–5’s text, it must be rejected, for the Court relied on “policy considerations” in adopting that limitation, and it purported to define the scope of a private right of action under Rule 10b–5, not to define “in connection with the purchase or sale.” When this Court has sought to give meaning to that phrase in the §10(b) and Rule 10b–5 context, it has broadly required that the alleged fraud “coincide” with a securities transaction, an interpretation that comports with the SEC’s longstanding views. Congress can hardly have been unaware of this broad construction when it imported the phrase into SLUSA. Where judicial interpretations have settled a statutory provision’s meaning, repeating the same language in a new statute indicates the intent to incorporate the judicial interpretations as well. That presumption is particularly apt here, because Congress not only used §10(b)’s and Rule 10b–5’s words, but used them in another provision appearing in the same statute as §10(b). The presumption that Congress envisioned a broad construction also follows from the particular concerns that culminated in SLUSA’s enactment, viz., preventing state private securities class-action suits from frustrating the Reform Act’s objectives. A narrow construction also would give rise to wasteful, duplicative litigation in state and federal courts. The presumption that “Congress does not cavalierly pre-empt state-law causes of action,” Medtronic, Inc. v. Lohr, 518 U. S. 470, 485, has less force here because SLUSA does not pre-empt any cause of action. It simply denies the use of the class-action device to vindicate certain claims. Moreover, tailored exceptions to SLUSA’s pre-emptive command—for, e.g., state agency enforcement proceedings—demonstrate that Congress did not act cavalierly. Finally, federal, not state, law has long been the principal vehicle for asserting class-action securities fraud claims. Pp. 10–16.

(d) Dabit’s holder class action is distinguishable from a typical Rule 10b–5 class action only in that it is brought by holders rather than sellers or purchasers. That distinction is irrelevant for SLUSA pre-emption purposes. The plaintiffs’ identity does not determine whether the complaint alleges the requisite fraud, and the alleged misconduct here—fraudulent manipulation of stock prices—unquestionably qualifies as a fraud “in connection with the purchase or sale” of securities as the phrase is defined in SEC v. Zandford, 535 U. S. 813, 820, and United States v. O’Hagan, 521 U. S. 642, 651. Pp. 16–17.

395 F. 3d 25, vacated and remanded.

Stevens, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined, except Alito, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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