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IN RE SEARS

March 2, 2004.

IN RE SEARS, ROEBUCK & CO., ERISA LITIGATION


The opinion of the court was delivered by: JOHN W. DARRAH, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff's, participants in a Sears Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 ("ERISA") plan, sued Defendants, Sears, Roebuck & Co., Alan Lacy, Paul Liska, Thomas Bergmann, Greg Lee, and Glen Richter, the Sears Board of Directors, unnamed members of the ERISA plan Investment Committee, and the Investment Committee, for violations of ERISA. Now before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint. For the following reasons, that motion is granted in part and denied in part.

LEGAL STANDARD

  In reviewing a motion to dismiss, the court reviews all facts alleged in the complaint and any reasonable inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Marshall-Mosby v. Corporate Receivables, Inc., 205 F.3d 323, 326 (7th Cir. 2000). A plaintiff is not required to plead the facts or elements of a claim, with the exceptions found in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9. See Swierkiewicz v. Sorema, 534 U.S. 506, 511 (2002); Walker v. Thompson, 288 F.3d 1005, 1007 (7th Cir. 2002). Dismissal is warranted only if "it appears beyond a doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957). The "suit should not be Page 2 dismissed if it is possible to hypothesize facts, consistent with the complaint, that would make out a claim." Graehling v. Village of Lombard, Ill., 58 F.3d 295, 297 (7th Cir. 1995).

  Generally, matters outside the pleadings cannot be considered on a motion to dismiss. See, e.g., Corman Derailment Serv., LLC v. Int'l Union of Operating Eng'rs Local Union 750, 335 F.3d 643, 647 (7th Cir. 2003). However, documents that a defendant attaches to a motion to dismiss may be considered if they are referred to in the plaintiff's complaint and are central to the plaintiff's claim. Albany Bank & Trust Co. v. Exxon Mobil Corp., 310 F.3d 969, 971 (7th Cir. 2002).

  BACKGROUND

  The facts, for the purposes of this motion, are taken as true from Plaintiffs' Complaint. Plaintiff's, Bill Kehr, Michael G. Cheperka, Kenneth Hawkins, and Margaret Villano, are participants in a 401(k) Savings Plan (the "Plan"). Defendant Sears, Roebuck, and Co. ("Sears") sponsored and administered the Plan. Another Defendant, the Investment Committee, had the authority to choose the type of investment options, a particular investment style, and make other investment decisions with respect to the Plan. Defendant Alan Lacy was, at all relevant times, the Chief Executive Officer, President, and Chairman of the Board at Sears. The Investment Committee distributed Summary Plan Descriptions and Plan prospectuses to all Plan participants, pursuant to relevant federal statutes.

  Defendants — Paul Liska, Thomas Bergmann, Greg Lee, and Glen Richter — who, at all relevant times, were high-ranking Sears executive officers, were members of the Investment Committee, along with thirty unnamed fiduciary Defendants (collectively the "Committee Defendants"). The named members of the Investment Committee had substantial knowledge of Page 3 Sears' business plans, operations, finances, and access to internal company reports and memoranda. These Defendants were also familiar with Sears' accounting and financial practices.

  Defendants — Hall Adams, Jr., Brenda Barnes, James Cantalupo, Donald Carry, W. James Farrell, Michael Miles, Hugh Price, Dorthy Terell, and Raul Yzaguire — were, at all relevant times, members of the Sears Board of Directors (collectively the "Director Defendants"). The Sears Board of Directors is the primary personification through which Sears effectuated its Plan-related duties.

  Specific Plan Provisions

  The Plan allows eligible employees to contribute to the Plan through payroll deductions. Participants may then direct their investment into one or more of several funds available under the Plan. One of the available funds is the Company Stock Fund.

  The Plan designates Sears as a named fiduciary, but only for the non-investment operations of the Plan. The Plan delegates responsibility for investment decisions to the Investment Committee, including those related to the Sears Stock fund. The Board of Directors is given the authority to appoint members to the Investment Committee. § 1.3.

  The Plan also requires that a Company Stock Fund must exist, which is "designed to invest exclusively in [Sears] Company Stock." Plan § 6.8. Sears is required to offer the Company Stock Fund as one of the investment funds offered under the Plan. Plan § 6.1. Employer matching contributions made in cash must be invested in the Company Stock Fund, and Employer contributions made in Company Stock are held under the Company Stock Fund.

  The Employer contributions in the Company Stock Fund cannot be transferred to any other investment except by the participating employee. Plan § 6.3. However, to the extent that Page 4 the Plan requires matching participant contributions, a certain portion of each Investment Fund, including the Company Stock Fund, may be held in cash or cash equivalents, as considered appropriate by the Investment Committee. Plan § 6.5.

  Sears' Financial Statements

  In financial reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission ("SEC"), Sears misrepresented its true financial health and profitability. Specifically, in Sears' 2001 annual report, Sears stated on SEC Form 10-K that its provisions for uncollectible accounts were calculated to be $1.344 billion in 2001. Sears also represented that it maintained an adequate allowance for its uncollectible accounts to reflect losses inherent in the owned portfolio. Sears also filed numerous press reports stating that the company was extremely profitable, revenue was up, and earnings were expected to increase.

  On May 7, 2002, Sears then filed its first quarter financial report on SEC Form 10-Q. The report indicated that the provisions for uncollectible accounts increased from $190 million to $371 million in the first quarter. This change was the result of additional credit card receivable balances recorded when Sears consolidated its securitization structure for financial reporting purposes in the second quarter of 2001. Once again, press reports issued by Sears projected substantial growth. Based on all this information, and in spite of a general economic downturn throughout the country, Sears stock reached $59.90 per share in the early summer of 2002.

  On August 9, 2002, Sears filed another quarterly Form 10-Q report with the SEC. This report stated that Sears was making a conservative accounting change in determining its uncollectible account allowances. In October of 2002, Sears began to issue a series of reports stating that the financial reports as originally reported for the first and second quarters of 2002 Page 5 were incorrect. Sears explained that it was amending its previous reports, under interpretive guidance from the SEC. The provision for uncollectible accounts were misstated and were required to be significantly increased, while net operating income was significantly reduced. Thereafter, Sears filed public statements attesting to similar facts.

  Sears also reported similar problems with its credit card division. On October 4, 2002, Sears issued a press release stating that Defendant Liska would take over the credit card division. On October 7, 2002, Sears unexpectedly warned that its third quarter earnings would fall below expectations because of a profit slowdown in its credit card division. This forecast was true, and Sears' earnings went down significantly in the third quarter of 2002. In reaction to all of Sears' announcements, Sears stock price ...


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