WASHINGTON The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday against investors who sue businesses that help manipulate stock prices of publicly traded companies.
In a 5-3 decision that split along conservative-liberal lines, the court gave a measure of protection from securities lawsuits to suppliers, banks, accountants and law firms that do business with corporations engaging in securities fraud.
The ruling comes at a pivotal point for a similar class-action lawsuit covering more than a million shareholders who invested in scandal-ridden Enron Corp. Stockholders in Enron, once the nation's seventh-largest company, are seeking more than $30 billion from Wall Street investment banks, alleging they schemed with Enron to hide its financial problems.
"This is a very anti-investor opinion, and it could severely impact the ongoing Enron case," said Patrick Coughlin, lead attorney for Enron investors.
Shortly after the decision, the justices put the Enron investors' lawsuit on their list of cases to consider Friday at one of their regular private conferences.
The case the justices decided Tuesday has been watched closely by business and industry leaders, who had argued that an adverse ruling would open the door to a flood of frivolous lawsuits.
The court's decision prevents a litigation "free-for-all," said Robin Conrad, executive vice president of the National Chamber Litigation Center of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The outcome "is important relief for manufacturers," said Quentin Riegel, vice president for litigation at the National Association of Manufacturers. He said the ruling will halt "creeping liability, attempts to expand primary responsibility from one party to third parties who were not involved in making misleading statements."
The justices ruled against investors who alleged that two suppliers colluded with Charter Communications Inc. to deceive Charter's stockholders and inflate the price of the cable TV company's stock.
Charter investors do not have the right to sue because they did not rely on the deceptive acts of Charter's suppliers, said the majority opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy.
"No member of the investing public had knowledge" of the suppliers' deceptive acts, Kennedy wrote.
In his opinion, Kennedy hit some of the same points that business groups have been arguing, writing that an adverse ruling for business would mean that "overseas firms with no other exposure to our securities laws could be deterred from doing business here."
Dissenting in the case against Charter's suppliers, Justice John Paul Stevens said the court is engaged in a continuing campaign to undercut investor lawsuits.
Charter inflated its revenues by $17 million and "it could not have done so absent the knowingly fraudulent actions" of the two suppliers, Scientific-Atlanta Inc. and Motorola Inc., Stevens wrote.
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said the decision "goes beyond that common-sense law. Instead of protecting innocent businesses, it would protect wrongdoers from the consequences of their actions."
Regarding the Enron case, the justices could refuse to hear it, which could spell its end, or the justices could send it back to lower courts, where lawyers for the investors could try to revive it, although a federal appeals court has already ruled against them.
Coughlin, representing Enron investors, says the case has somewhat different circumstances than the lawsuit against Charter's suppliers.
In the Enron case, he said, "these investment banks did speak to the market about Enron's operations in analysts' reports and through underwriting, so we may be able to show that investors relied on that information."
A liberal Supreme Court in 1971 endorsed investor lawsuits under anti-fraud provisions of securities law. In 1994, a more conservative Supreme Court imposed limits on such lawsuits, prohibiting cases against third parties for aiding and abetting a company's misstatements. The Republican-controlled Congress enacted the restrictions into law the next year.
Joining Kennedy in the majority were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. In his dissent, Stevens was joined by Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Justice Stephen Breyer disqualified himself from the case because he owns stock in Cisco Systems Inc., which now owns Scientific-Atlanta.
The case is Stoneridge v. Scientific-Atlanta, 06-43.