United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division
LAWRENCE BLITZ, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiff,
AGFEED INDUSTRIES, INC., JOHN A. STADLER, GERARD DAIGNAULT, CLAY MARSHALL, EDWARD PAZDRO, SONGYAN LI, SELINA JIN, LIANGFAN YAN, JUNHONG XIONG, GOLDMAN KURLAND & MODHIDIN, LLP, and McGLADREY & PULLEN, LLP, Defendants.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
E. CLIFTON KNOWLES, Magistrate Judge.
This matter is before the Court upon a Motion to Dismiss the Second Consolidated Amended Class Action Complaint filed by Goldman Kurland & Modhidin, LLP's (hereinafter "Goldman" or "Defendant"). Docket No. 186. Defendant has contemporaneously filed a supporting Memorandum of Law. Docket No. 187. Defendant also incorporates by reference the May 28, 2013 Declaration with Exhibits of its counsel, Mr. John L. Farringer. See Docket No. 186, referencing Docket No. 140 (filed in connection with the Motion to Dismiss the First Amended Complaint).
As grounds for its Motion, Defendant contends that: (1) Plaintiffs' securities fraud claims against it as an outside auditor fail to "satisfy especially stringent standards for pleading scienter"; (2) Plaintiffs' fail to plead particularized facts creating a strong inference of scienter; (3) Plaintiffs' allegations show that AgFeed deliberately concealed its purported fraud from Defendant; (4) Plaintiffs' allegations regarding purported red flags do not create a strong inference of scienter; and (5) Plaintiffs' allegations regarding Defendant's purported lack of independence do not raise a strong inference that Defendant acted with scienter. Docket No. 187, passim. Defendant seeks dismissal of Plaintiffs' claims against it. Id.
Plaintiffs have filed a Response, arguing that: (1) they have indeed pled facts giving rise to a strong inference that Defendant acted with scienter; (2) Defendant's lack of independence raises a strong inference of scienter and violates Generally Accepted Auditing Standards ("GAAS"); and (3) Plaintiffs' allegations regarding red flags create a strong inference of scienter. Docket No. 197. Plaintiffs argue that Defendant "refused to see' obvious fraud or investigate numerous red flags, instead conducting an audit so shoddy it was tantamount to no audit at all." Id., p. 8. Plaintiffs assert that federal auditing standards forbid auditors from "turning a blind eye" to management fraud, and that fraudulent intent can be attributed to an auditor who meets certain criteria (which Plaintiffs contend Defendant does, when the facts of this case are "viewed holistically"). Id., p. 7. Accordingly, Plaintiffs seek to hold Defendant accountable. Id., passim.
Defendant has filed a Reply, arguing, inter alia:
At the outset, Plaintiffs site the wrong legal standard for scienter. While Plaintiffs would have this Court apply the general standard for recklessness, the Sixth Circuit has repeatedly held that "[t]he standard of recklessness is more stringent when the defendant is an outside auditor" and requires a mental state "so culpable that it approximate[s] an actual intent to aid in the fraud being perpetrated by the audited company. This distinction is critical here, as Plaintiffs have failed to identify any specific information in [Defendant's] possession at the time of its audits that would indicate that [Defendant] "must have been aware" of AgFeed's purported fraud. To the contrary, an internal AgFeed email referenced in the Second Amended Complaint provides direct proof that [Defendant] was neither aware of, nor complicit in, AgFeed's purported accounting scheme, and that AgFeed executives actively conspired to conceal its scheme from [Defendant].
In the absence of any specific facts establishing [Defendant's] complicity - and, in the face of specific evidence establishing [Defendant's] actual innocence - Plaintiffs again misstate the law in advancing two central arguments in support of a finding of scienter: (1) [Defendant's] scienter may be inferred based on the magnitude and pervasiveness of AgFeed's accounting errors; and (2) scienter may be inferred because Goldman had a financial motive to engage in fraud. The Sixth Circuit, however, has explicitly rejected both of these arguments. Beyond these discredited arguments, all that remains of Plaintiffs' Opposition is the repeated reference to the same purported "red flags" cited in their Second Amended Complaint, the legal and factual insufficiency of which Plaintiffs fail to adequately address.
Docket No. 199, pp. 1-2 (footnote omitted).
This is a securities fraud class action, filed on behalf of all persons who purchased or otherwise acquired the securities of AgFeed during the period from March 16, 2009 through and including September 29, 2011 (the "Class Period"), against AgFeed, certain of its officers and directors, and AgFeed's accountants, for violations of Sections 10(b) and 20(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (the "Exchange Act"), 15 U.S.C. §§ 78j(b) and 78t(a), and SEC Rule 10b-5 promulgated thereunder by the SEC, 17 C.F.R. § 240.10b-5. Goldman was an outside auditor. On August 14, 2014, the parties submitted a Joint Report on Settlement, indicating that Plaintiffs have reached a settlement with all Defendants other than Goldman. See Docket No. 213.
For the reasons discussed below, the undersigned recommends that the instant Motion to Dismiss (Docket No. 186), be GRANTED, and that Plaintiff's claims against Goldman be DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.
II. Allegations Pertaining to Goldman Contained in Plaintiffs' Second Consolidated Amended Class Action Complaint
Goldman is an accounting firm that provided accounting services to AgFeed from at least 2007 to November 2010. Docket No. 170-2, ¶ 37. Goldman also provided accounting services to at least three other companies associated with Chinese stock promoter Tianbing "Benjamin" Wey, whose New York Global Group was closely affiliated with AgFeed during the Class Period. Id. Goldman was responsible for auditing AgFeed's books and records, and falsely certified that its 2008 and 2009 annual financial statements filed with the SEC conformed with GAAP. Id.
The friendly auditor Wey used to legitimate AgFeed and other Chinese reverse merges was an accountant named Ahmed Mohidin ("Mohidin"), formerly a partner in Kabani & Co. and more recently a named partner at Goldman. Id., ¶ 42.
In its Encino, California office, Goldman employs three partners and sixteen accountants, eight of whom are certified public accountants. Id., ¶ 51. According to its report to the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board ("PCAOB") for fiscal year 2011, Goldman audits twenty-two public companies, and derives 80% of its revenues from these audits. Id., ¶ 52. Fifteen of the twenty-two companies Goldman audits either have their main office in China, or conduct the majority of their operations there. Id., ¶ 53. Despite this, Goldman has no office in China. Id. Instead, to conduct audit work in China, Goldman retains one of two audit firms: Beijing Ever Trust CPAs Co., Ltd. ("BETL") or Beijing AnShun International CPAs Co., Ltd. ("AnShun"). Id. AnShun receives approximately 90% of its revenues from aiding Goldman in auditing U.S.-listed companies; BETL receives 83% of its revenues from aiding Goldman in auditing U.S.-listed companies. Id., ¶ 54. Between them, BETL and AnShun aided Goldman in twelve audits in for the year ending December 31, 2010. Id., ¶ 55. Other than aiding Goldman's audits, BETL and Anshun performed no work for U.S.-based reporting companies. Id. Despite its limited involvement with any of these audit clients, Goldman nevertheless signed audit reports for all twelve firms. Id., ¶ 56. Goldman's involvement is limited to drafting a planning memo and training Anshun or BETL personnel. Id. In other words, Goldman outsources to Anshun and BETL the due diligence aspects of its audit. Id. According to one of Goldman's audit clients, "Anshun's international audit department works exclusively for [Goldman] and is, in substance, their office in China." Id.
Wey invariably recommends that clients use Mohidin or Goldman. Id., ¶ 57. Because of their relationships with Wey, Goldman and Mohidin are insulated from the reputational effects felt by other auditors who perform shoddy audit work. Id., ¶ 58. Goldman and Mohidin will continue to have lucrative relationships with Chinese reverse merger companies so long as they satisfy Wey. Id. Thus, where other auditors seek to cultivate a reputation for probity and independence, Goldman and Mohidin seek to cultivate Wey's good opinion of them and their usefulness to Wey's purposes. Id.
The 2008 10-K of AgFeed also contained, by express consent, the audit report of Goldman. Id., ¶ 88. Goldman's audit report falsely characterized Goldman as an "independent" auditing firm, assured investors that Goldman conducted a reasonable audit, and concluded that:
the financial statements referred to above present fairly, in all material respects, the financial position of AgFeed Industries, Inc. as of December 31, 2008, and 2007, and the results of its operations and its cash flows for the years ended December 31, 2008, 2007 and 2006, in conformity with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America. Also in our opinion, AgFeed Industries, Inc. maintained, in all material respects, effective internal control over financial reporting as of December 31, 2008, based on criteria ...