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Merck & Co., Inc. v. Reynolds

Supreme Court Upholds Right of Investors to Protect Their Investments

AARP's Brief

AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys filed AARP's "friend of the court" brief in the case, tracking the securities fraud statute closely to determine what Congress meant by an investor's discovery of fraud. The brief pointed out that both the plain language of the statute and its legislative history make it clear that "discovery" means actual knowledge. If Congress wanted an alternative interpretation — a "should have known" standard instead of an "actually knew" standard — then Congress could certainly have written the statute in that way, as it had done in other legislation. AARP's brief also discussed the meaning of the statutory language as used in ordinary English dictionaries and argued that careful analysis of the critical words leads to the same conclusion: Knowledge means actual knowledge, whether in legal jargon or in ordinary discussion.

Moreover, AARP pointed out, there is ample reason for Congress to give investors two years after discovering actual evidence of fraud, because securities fraud can take years to unravel even with the full resources of the FBI and state or federal securities law enforcement agencies. For example, one of the largest fraud cases in American history — Enron's massive fraud — took years for sophisticated investors and investigators to understand.

Finally, AARP's brief took up the issue of the 2001 FDA warning letter, noting that the letter did not provide ordinary investors with sufficient evidence of fraud, as the letter merely scolded Merck for being overly zealous in promoting Vioxx to physicians. Moreover, following the public release of that letter, Merck stock actually went up. "It is unreasonable to expect an 'ordinary' investor somehow to be better at noticing fraud than the informationally efficient market," the brief argued.

The Court's Ruling and its Significance to Ordinary Investors

The Supreme Court first analyzed the meaning of the word "discovery," ruling that in this securities regulatory provision the statute of limitations began to run when a person actually discovered the fraud or a reasonably diligent person should have discovered the fraud.

The court then differentiated suspicion from actual evidence. The Court ruled that " 'discovery' of facts that put a plaintiff on 'inquiry notice' does not automatically begin the running of the limitations period … The limitations period begins to run only when the plaintiff thereafter discovers or a reasonably diligent plaintiff would have discovered 'the facts constituting the violation.' "

The Court went on to address the 2001 FDA warning letter, flatly rejecting Merck's argument, and finding the letter "shows little or nothing" about the knowledge plaintiffs would need to show intentional misrepresentations by defendant so as to start the limitations clock ticking at that point.

More and more investors are making their own investment decisions — by choice or by necessity. Therefore it is critically important that investors be able to access full and accurate information about their investments, and that they have access to courts to enforce their rights. Efforts to curtail hard-won investor rights or limit available remedies threaten the economic security of investors. Particularly hard hit are those who rely on investments as a major source of retirement income.



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