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Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd. v. Tellabs

January 25, 2006; as amended July 10, 2006

MAKOR ISSUES & RIGHTS, LTD., ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
TELLABS, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 02 C 04356. Amy J. St. Eve, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wood, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED JANUARY 21, 2005

Before RIPPLE, WOOD, and SYKES, Circuit Judges.

This class action against Tellabs, Inc., a manufacturer of specialized equipment used in fiber optic cable networks, presents the first opportunity for this court to address the heightened pleading requirements of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PSLRA), 15 U.S.C. § 78u-4(b). The plaintiffs have accused Tellabs and its executives of engaging in a scheme to deceive the investing public about the true value of Tellabs's stock. The district court dismissed the plaintiffs' second amended complaint, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), after finding that the plaintiffs had failed to meet the PSLRA's pleading threshold. We affirm in part and reverse in part.

I.

With the aid of 27 confidential sources, the plaintiffs, a putative class of Tellabs stockholders, allege that Tellabs's fraudulent conduct began on December 11, 2000. (We assume the truth of the well-pleaded allegations in the complaint, as we must upon review of a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal. See, e.g., Harrell v. Cook, 169 F.3d 428, 431 (7th Cir. 1999). On that day, Tellabs issued a press release stating that Tellabs and Sprint had signed a multi-year, $100 million contract for one of Tellabs's next-generation products, the TITAN 6500. The release proclaimed that "[t]he TITAN 6500 system is available now." In a call to financial analysts later that day, Tellabs's Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Richard Notebaert, predicted that in addition to the contract with Sprint for the 6500, there would be "continuing growth of the TITAN 5500," referring to the 6500's predecessor. Based in part on these representations, most market analysts recommended that investors buy Tellabs's stock.

On January 23, 2001, in a press release announcing Tellabs's "record sales and earnings in the fourth quarter of 2000," Notebaert proclaimed that "customers are buying more and more Tellabs equipment." In an accompanying call to analysts, Notebaert stated that Tellabs had "set the stage for sustained growth with the successful launches of several products." Later, in response to a question, Notebaert stated, "On the 6500, demand for that product is exceeding our expectations." In another interview that day, Notebaert said, "we feel very, very good about the robust growth we're experiencing."

Continuing with these sunny assessments, on February 14, 2001, Tellabs sent a letter to stockholders, signed by Notebaert and Richard Birck, Tellabs's chairman and former CEO, that stated: "Tellabs'[s] growth is robust. . . . Our markets hold significant potential for sustained growth. . . . Our core business is performing well. . . . [S]ales of our TITAN 5500 digital cross-connect systems soared 56% in 2000. . . . The new TITAN 6500 multiservice transport switch emerged from our laboratories in 2000, and customers are embracing it." In the annual report that accompanied this letter, Birck and Notebaert responded as follows to investors' frequently asked questions:

Q: Your core business is built on the TITAN 5500-are you worried that this product has peaked?

A: No. In 2000, TITAN 5500 revenues grew 56%, its best year so far. Although we introduced this product nearly 10 years ago, it's still going strong. . . .

The first public glimmer that business was not quite so healthy came in March 2001. At that time, Tellabs modestly reduced its first quarter sales projections from a range of $865 million to $890 million to a range of $830 million to $865 million. This revision was attributable to lower-than-expected growth in Tellabs's CABLESPAN(r) business, a product unrelated to this action. As Tellabs announced this reduction, it reiterated its positive forecasts for its other products. In a conference call with analysts, Notebaert stated:

[D]emand for our core optical products, or our core networking products remains strong. . . . Interest in and demand for the 6500 continues to grow. . . . We continue to ship the 6100 and 6500 through the first quarter. We are satisfying very strong demand and growing customer demand. We are as confident as ever-that may be an understatement-about the 6500. . . . Tellabs will meet the adjusted revenue and earnings targets.

Notebaert maintained this upbeat tone while discussing the TITAN 5500. In response to an investor's question whether Tellabs was experiencing "any weakness [ ] at all" in demand for the 5500, Notebaert responded, "No, we're not. We're still seeing that product continue to maintain its growth rate." Tellabs's 10-K statement for the fiscal year ended December 29, 2000, filed three months later on March 29, 2001, maintained this rosy outlook.

Nevertheless, on April 6, 2001, Tellabs reduced its first quarter sales projections once again-down to $772 million from the $830 to $865 million range it had forecast just a month earlier. Notebaert cautioned that Tellabs's customers were deploying their new equipment slowly and "exercising a high degree of prudence over every dollar spent." In the face of this downward revision, Notebaert informed investors that "everything we hear from the customers indicates that . . . demand for services continues to grow." Notebaert insisted that the demand for the TITAN 6500 was "very strong" and explained that the only reason for the downward projections was that Tellabs's customers were pushing orders back from the first to the second quarter of 2001.

Less than two weeks later, Tellabs announced that sales for the first quarter were in fact $772 million. While significantly below the original projections, this still represented a 21% increase in sales over the first quarter of 2000. Nonetheless, Tellabs announced that it was abandoning one of the products it had been touting, the SALIX program, just 14 months after purchasing it for $300 million.

Despite the mixed news, analysts still thought that Tellabs was a stock worth buying. By this point, though, the company's stock price had fallen from a high of $67 per share to somewhere in the low $30 range. Over the next few months, while Tellabs's executives kept mum, the company's stock crept back up to over $38. Then, on June 19, 2001, the last day of the class period, Tellabs announced a substantial reduction in its second quarter projections. It had projected that sales would be between $780 and $820 million, but it now revealed that its second quarter revenues would amount to only $500 million. On yet another conference call, Notebaert informed investors that the reduction was almost entirely because of an enormous reduction in TITAN 5500 sales. The next day, Tellabs's stock price plunged to $15.87 per share.

On December 3, 2002, the plaintiffs filed their first complaint against Tellabs and 10 of its executives. The complaint alleged that Tellabs's executives knowingly lied to the public, in the following particular ways: (1) they had informed the market that the TITAN 6500 was available when in fact it was not; (2) they had represented that demand for the TITAN 5500 was stable or even growing when in fact they knew that it was waning; (3) they said that the SALIX line of products was bound for success when in fact Tellabs knew that it was bound to fail; (4) they portrayed Tellabs's fourth quarter revenues and earnings for 2000 as stellar when in fact they were fraudulently inflated; and (5) they announced that Tellabs's future earnings would be greater than actually expected.

The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim. The district court granted the motion, with leave to amend, finding that (1) all but one of Tellabs's projections were accompanied by meaningful cautionary language, and thus fell within the scope of the "safe harbor" provisions of the PSLRA; (2) the plaintiffs had failed to offer particularized facts to support their claim that Tellabs misrepresented its fourth quarter 2000 results; and (3) the complaint failed adequately to allege that the defendants met the scienter standard for securities fraud, which requires that they likely intended "to deceive, manipulate, or defraud." See Ernst & Ernst v. Hochfelder, 425 U.S. 185, 194 & n.12 (1976).

On July 3, 2003, the plaintiffs filed a second amended complaint, bolstering their allegations with references to 27 confidential sources, shortening the list of defendants by four, eliminating a few of their weaker claims, and adding more specific scienter allegations against each of the remaining defendants. While the district court found that a number of the statements are actionable, it nonetheless dismissed again because, it thought, the plaintiffs still had failed adequately to allege scienter for any of the defendants. The court echoed its earlier holding that the PSLRA safe harbor provision protected Tellabs's forecasts. The plaintiffs appeal, arguing that (1) some of the statements the court dismissed as "mere puffery" are legally actionable; (2) their complaint provided enough detail to support ...


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