Hensley v. IEC Electronics Corp.: Scienter and the Core Operations Doctrine
In Hensley v. IEC Electronics Corp., No. 13-CV-4507, 2014 BL 252726 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 11, 2014), the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York granted defendants’ motion to dismiss and denied plaintiffs’ claims under Sections 10(b) and 20(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (the “Exchange Act”) and SEC Rule 10b-5.
According to the allegations in the complaint, IEC Electronics Corporation (“IEC” or the “Company”) is a publicly traded Delaware corporation that provides electronic contract manufacturing services. In December 2010, IEC acquired Southern California Braiding, Inc. (“SCB”) for approximately $26 million. Thereafter IEC began to integrate SCB into the Company.
In late 2011 and early 2012, SCB allegedly began to show signs of trouble; however, IEC and Defendant W. Barry Gilbert, IEC’s Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of its Board of Directors, allegedly continued to make statements representing SCB’s performance as generally strong. In May 2013, IEC disclosed an accounting error in which work-in-process inventory was reported as inventory available for sale. The mistake, IEC indicated, required a restatement of the Company’s quarterly reports and financial statements for the 2012 fiscal year. The error in SCB’s consolidated financial statements “resulted in ‘an aggregate understatement of cost of sales and an aggregate overstatement of gross profit during all such [r]estated [p]eriods,’ totaling $2.2 million.”
Following IEC’s disclosure, share prices declined approximately 13.23% in two days and continued to fall over the next few weeks. IEC explained the error by pointing to internal weaknesses in control over financial reporting. The Company also stated that, although various remedial measures had been instituted, the reporting issues could not be considered completely mitigated until the corrective processes had been in place long enough to demonstrate their effectiveness.
Plaintiffs Kevin Doherty, Raymond Jean Hensley, and Niraj Jetly (collectively the “Plaintiffs”) filed a Consolidated Class Action Complaint on November 15, 2013, alleging that defendants IEC, Gilbert, Vincent A. Leo, IEC’s interim Chief Financial Officer (“CFO”), (collectively the “Defendants”), violated Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act. Plaintiffs also alleged that Defendants Gilbert and Leo violated Section 20(a) of the Exchange Act through their acts and omissions as people in controlling positions of the company. In response, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss.
Allegations of securities fraud must satisfy the heightened pleading standards of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act (“PSLRA”). The PSLRA requires that a plaintiff plead scienter with particularity, and state facts giving rise to a strong inference that the defendant acted with the requisite state of mind. In the Second Circuit, this can be done by alleging facts showing that the defendants had opportunity and motive to commit the fraud, or by alleging facts establishing strong circumstantial evidence of conscious misbehavior or recklessness.
Plaintiffs relied on the latter theory, basing their argument in large part on the core operations doctrine. Under the doctrine, the senior executives of the company are presumed to be knowledgeable about critical information having to do with the company’s long-term viability. As a result, allegedly false or misleading statements concerning the core operations of the company give rise to an inference that the defendants knew or should have known the statements were false when made.
The court rejected Plaintiffs’ argument. The court declined to find that the statements about the SCB acquisition fell into the “core operations” of the Company. Although the acquisition was expensive, SCB consisted only of about 15% of IEC’s total revenue and did not, therefore, “ ‘constitute nearly all’ of IEC’s business.” Additionally, the court stated the practice of accounting for work-in-process inventory was not a core operation of IEC, let alone SCB.
The court also found that Plaintiffs fell “far short of alleging ‘conduct which is highly unreasonable and which represents an extreme departure from the standards of ordinary care.’ ”
Therefore, the Plaintiffs merely alleged “an accounting error, however substantial, that was highly technical in nature; did not affect the company as a whole; and was discovered, disclosed, and corrected by Defendants themselves.”
Accordingly, the court granted the Defendants’ motion to dismiss and dismissed the complaint in its entirety.
The primary materials for this case may be found on the DU Corporate Governance website.