O'Donnell v. AXA Equitable Life Ins. Co., No. 17-1085 (2d Cir. 2018)

Annotate this Case
Justia Opinion Summary

Plaintiff, a variable annuity policy holder, filed a putative class action in state court alleging breach of contract by an insurance company when it introduced a volatility management strategy to the policies without full compliance with state law. The case was removed to district court and then dismissed. The Second Circuit reversed and remanded, holding that a holder's passive retention of a security following a misrepresentation of which the holder is unaware lacks the "in connection with" requirement for preclusion under the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act (SLUSA). In this case, the alleged misrepresentation was not made in connection with the purchase or sale of a SLUSA-covered security. There was no plausible allegation in the complaint that any decision to hold a security occurred that was related in any way to AXA's disclosures to the DFS. The court remanded with instructions to remand the case to state court.

Download PDF
17-1085-cv O’Donnell v. AXA Equitable Life Ins. Co. 1 In the 2 United States Court of Appeals 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 For the Second Circuit ________ August Term 2017 Argued: October 25, 2017 Decided: April 10, 2018 No. 17-1085-cv RICHARD O ’DONNELL, on behalf of himself and all others similarly situated, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. AXA EQUITABLE LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant-Appellee. Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York Vernon S. Broderick, District Judge, Presiding. Before: JACOBS, SACK, AND PARKER, Circuit Judges. ________ A variable annuity policy holder brought a putative class action in state court alleging a breach of contract by an insurance company when it introduced a volatility management strategy to the policies without full compliance with state law. The insurance 1 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 company, citing an alleged misrepresentation to a state regulator, removed the case to federal court where it sought dismissal. The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, (Broderick, J.), granted dismissal, concluding that the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act (SLUSA) precluded the suit. The variable annuity holder appeals. We conclude that a holder’s passive retention of a security following a misrepresentation of which the holder is unaware lacks the “in connection with” requirement for SLUSA preclusion. Accordingly, we REVERSE the judgment of the District Court and REMAND with instructions to remand the case to Connecticut state court. ________ 24 The Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act of 1998 25 (“SLUSA”) precludes plaintiffs from bringing certain class actions in 26 state court that allege fraud in connection with the purchase or sale 27 of nationally traded securities. 28 putative class action, plaintiff-appellant Richard T. O’Donnell sues 29 on behalf of himself and other variable annuity holders as customers 30 of defendant-appellee AXA Equitable Life Insurance Co. (“AXA”). 31 O’Donnell alleges that AXA implemented a volatility management JOEL C. FEFFER AND DANIELLA QUITT, Harwood Feffer LLP, New York, NY, for PlaintiffAppellant. JAY B. KASNER AND KURT WM. HEMR, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, New York, NY, for Defendant-Appellee. ________ BARRINGTON D . PARKER, Circuit Judge: 15 U.S.C. § 78bb(f)(1). 2 In this 1 strategy for its variable annuity policies in breach of its contractual 2 duties to him and the other variable annuity holders. 3 If SLUSA is applicable, then O’Donnell would be barred from 4 maintaining this class action in state court and the action would be 5 removable to federal court where it must be dismissed. 15 U.S.C. § 6 78bb(f)(1). 7 implementation of the volatility management strategy, AXA was 8 charged with misleading the New York State Department of 9 Financial Services (“DFS”), and eventually reached a settlement with 10 that department. On this ground, the Appellee removed this action 11 to federal court, arguing—solely for the purpose of SLUSA removal 12 and dismissal—that O’Donnell’s breach of contract action depends 13 on a misrepresentation (AXA’s alleged misrepresentation to the 14 New York state regulator). In this vein, AXA argues, the alleged 15 misrepresentation was made in connection with the purchase or sale 16 of a SLUSA-covered security, and, thus, SLUSA preclusion applies. 17 The action was eventually transferred to the United States District 18 Court for the Southern District of New York (Broderick, J.) which 19 dismissed it. See O'Donnell v. AXA Equitable Life Ins. Co., No. 15-CV- 20 9488 (VSB), 2017 WL 1194479 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 30, 2017). In seeking state 3 regulatory approval for the 1 On this appeal, we are asked to determine whether a putative 2 class action complaint is precluded by SLUSA where the alleged 3 misrepresentation was made to a state regulator and unknown to the 4 holders of the security. 5 retention of a security following a misrepresentation of which the 6 holder is unaware fails the “in connection with” requirement for 7 SLUSA preclusion. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the 8 District Court and remand with instructions that this action be 9 remanded to Connecticut state court. We conclude that a holder’s passive I. BACKGROUND1 10 11 In November 2008 O’Donnell purchased a variable deferred 12 annuity policy from AXA. Briefly, a variable annuity contract is an 13 insurance contract that has an investment component under which 14 an individual makes a single payment (or a series of payments) to an 15 insurer who in return agrees to make periodic payments to the 16 individual beginning either immediately or at some future date. See, 17 e.g., Lander v. Hartford Life & Annuity Ins. Co., 251 F.3d 101, 104 (2d 18 Cir. 2001). Variable annuities are “‘hybrid products,’ possessing 1 The following facts are taken from the Appellant’s complaint unless otherwise noted. “JA” refers to the parties’ joint appendix. 4 1 characteristics of both insurance products and investment 2 securities.” Id. at 105 (citation omitted). Unlike the beneficiary of a 3 fixed annuity, the beneficiary of a variable annuity bears the 4 investment risk of the underlying securities. Id. Moreover, because 5 the level of benefits is not fixed, but will vary depending on the 6 investment portfolio, many consumers use variable annuities as a 7 tool for accumulating greater retirement funds by exposing 8 themselves to greater market risk. Id. Variable annuities are sold 9 primarily by insurance companies and must be offered through 10 “separate accounts” that are registered with the Securities and 11 Exchange Commission under the Investment Company Act of 1940.2 12 Id. 13 The policy that O’Donnell purchased allowed him to allocate 14 his premiums among various investment options with different risk- 15 reward characteristics. 16 AXA’s “Separate Account No. 49.” Specifically, O’Donnell invested value in 2 JA 97. When O’Donnell The Investment Act of 1940 defines a “separate account” as “an account established and maintained by an insurance company pursuant to the laws of any State or territory of the United States, or of Canada or any province thereof, under which income, gains and losses, whether or not realized, from assets allocated to such account, are, in accordance with the applicable contract, credited to or charged against such account without regard to other income, gains, or losses of the insurance company.” 15 U.S.C. § 80a–2(37). 5 1 purchased his variable annuity, he agreed and acknowledged that if 2 he chose to invest his account value in Separate Account No. 3 49—rather than electing to receive interest at a rate declared by 4 AXA—he would incur investment risk and investment results 5 would not be guaranteed by AXA. Id. 419. However, O’Donnell’s 6 policy allowed him to purchase for an additional premium a 7 guarantee that certain benefits would increase by a minimum 8 percentage each year. This guarantee, combined with policy reset 9 provisions, effectively reduced the volatility risks to which he 10 otherwise would have been exposed. 11 O’Donnell’s policy provided that AXA may invest the assets 12 in the separate account in its discretion, as “permitted by applicable 13 law.” JA 110. Also “subject to compliance with applicable law,” the 14 policy permitted AXA to make certain material changes to the 15 accounts. Id. 113. For any changes that AXA planned to make to its 16 separate accounts, 17 required AXA to file with the DFS a request to amend and restate its 18 plans of operation. Id. Finally, the policy provided that “[i]f the 19 exercise of these rights results in a material change in the underlying New York Insurance Law Section 4240(e) 6 1 investment of a Separate Account,” AXA was required to notify 2 policyholders that it had done so (as required by law). Id. 3 In 2009 AXA introduced a volatility management strategy 4 designed to tactically manage equity exposure to Standard & Poor’s 5 500 companies based on the level of volatility in the market. 6 Zweiman v. AXA Equitable Life Ins. Co., 146 F. Supp. 3d 536, 542 7 (S.D.N.Y. 2015). This strategy, labeled the “AXA Tactical Manager 8 Strategy,” (the “ATM Strategy”) reduced AXA’s risks by using 9 derivatives to hedge its own equity exposure to market volatility at 10 the expense of the variable annuity policyholders who purchased 11 their policies, in part, for the opportunity to benefit from market 12 volatility. JA 40. The ATM Strategy is designed to smooth a fund’s 13 returns during periods of high market volatility. However, the 14 application of the ATM Strategy may limit the gains that may 15 otherwise accrue to a policyholder’s account during periods of high 16 volatility. Id. 17 The New York insurance code requires AXA to file with the 18 DFS plans of operation which describe the investment options for 19 each of its separate accounts. See N.Y. Ins. Law § 4240(e). Prior to 20 introducing the volatility-managed investment options into AXA’s 7 1 separate accounts, AXA filed amended plans of operation. The DFS 2 subsequently approved the filings, but, as explained below, later 3 criticized AXA for misleading it as to the scope and potential effects 4 of the strategy. JA 40. AXA also made filings with the SEC before 5 introducing the ATM Strategy. 6 offerings, the investment options in AXA’s separate accounts are 7 offered pursuant to prospectuses filed with the SEC and provided to 8 annuity holders. See, e.g., Wilson v. Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc., 671 F.3d 9 120 (2d Cir. 2011). A May 2009 prospectus informed annuity holders 10 about the introduction of the volatility management strategy into 11 certain portfolios in which O’Donnell had invested. 12 Moreover, an August 2009 prospectus supplement, applicable to 13 O’Donnell’s investments, indicated that the ATM Strategy would be 14 “[e]ffective on or about September 1, 2009 . . . .” Id. 455. As with many other securities JA 447–49. 15 A. Consent Order 16 In 2011, the DFS began investigating AXA’s implementation of 17 the ATM Strategy and, specifically, whether AXA had properly 18 disclosed to the DFS the scope of the changes. Id. 38. Following its 19 investigation, the DFS concluded that AXA failed to adequately 20 inform it that it was implementing its ATM Strategy “in a manner 8 1 that substantially changed its variable annuity products.” Id. In 2 March 2014, AXA settled with the DFS. Id. It entered into a Consent 3 Order in which, among other things, the DFS found that AXA 4 violated New York Insurance Law section 4240(e) by filing the plans 5 of operation without “adequately informing and explaining to the 6 Department the significance of the changes to the insurance 7 product.” Id. 42. The DFS also found that the implementation of the 8 ATM Strategy “effectively changed the nature of the product that 9 the policyholders purchased, yet AXA did not explain in its filings to 10 the Department that it was making such changes to its variable 11 annuity products.” 12 absence of detail and discussion in the filings regarding the 13 significance of the implementation of the ATM Strategy had the 14 effect of misleading the Department regarding the scope and 15 potential effects of the ATM Strategy . . . .” Id. The DFS noted that it 16 approved the filings because it was led to believe the changes were 17 simply routine additions of funds. Id. The DFS concluded that had 18 it been aware of the changes, “it may have required that the existing 19 policyholders affirmatively opt in to the ATM Strategy.” Id. Id. 41. The DFS further found that “[t]he 20 9 1 B. Proceedings Below 2 After the entry of the Consent Order, many plaintiffs, 3 including O’Donnell, brought putative class action suits. O’Donnell 4 initiated this action in Connecticut state court. O'Donnell, 2017 WL 5 1194479, at *2. He alleged a breach of contract claim premised on 6 AXA’s alleged failure to comply with the terms of the policies that 7 AXA had sold to O’Donnell and other members of the putative class. 8 Specifically, O’Donnell alleged that, in violation of Section 4240, 9 AXA breached the terms of the policy when it implemented the 10 ATM Strategy without obtaining prior approval. O’Donnell 11 purported to sue on behalf of himself and all other similarly situated 12 variable annuity policyholders who allocated funds into separate 13 accounts which implemented the ATM Strategy. 14 Citing, among other things, the alleged misrepresentations to 15 the DFS, AXA removed the action to federal court (the District of 16 Connecticut), where it successfully moved, over O’Donnell’s 17 objections, to transfer the case to the Southern District of New York. 18 There, O’Donnell moved to remand the action to state court and 19 AXA cross-moved to dismiss the complaint as precluded by SLUSA. 20 Id. 10 1 The District Court held that the putative class action 2 complaint was precluded by SLUSA and dismissed the action. In 3 doing so, the District Court construed the contract claim as being 4 essentially the same as the claim that it disposed of in a similar 5 action, Zweiman v. AXA Equitable Life Ins. Co., 146 F. Supp. 3d 536 6 (S.D.N.Y. 2015). 7 premised a breach of contract claim on the assertion that AXA 8 breached by implementing a material change to the variable annuity 9 policy without obtaining prior approval from state regulators. In the Zweiman action, as here, the plaintiff 10 O’Donnell, 2017 WL 1194479, at *2. 11 plaintiffs’ framing, the District Court interpreted the complaints as 12 alleging a “misrepresentation or omission” on the part of AXA in 13 connection with a decision to hold securities and concluded that 14 SLUSA applied. Id. at *2–3. This appeal followed. 15 In both actions, despite the II. STANDARD OF REVIEW 16 We review a district court’s grant of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to 17 dismiss de novo, accepting all factual claims in the complaint as true 18 and drawing all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff’s favor. In re 19 Kingate Mgmt. Ltd. Litig., 784 F.3d 128, 135 n.11 (2d Cir. 2015). To 20 survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient 11 1 factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is 2 plausible on its face. Id. (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 3 (2009)). 4 We review a district court’s denial of a motion to remand de 5 novo. Cal. Pub. Emps.’ Ret. Sys. v. WorldCom, Inc., 368 F.3d 86, 100 (2d 6 Cir. 2004). 7 defendant bears the burden of demonstrating the propriety of 8 removal.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted) 9 In reviewing a denial of a motion to remand, “the III. DISCUSSION 10 Under SLUSA, covered class actions that allege state law 11 securities fraud in connection with the purchase or sale of covered 12 securities are removable to federal court where they there must be 13 dismissed. Romano v. Kazacos, 609 F.3d 512, 517–18 (2d Cir. 2010); see 14 also Cyan, Inc. v. Beaver Cnty. Emps. Ret. Fund , 138 S.Ct. 1061, 1067 ( 15 2018). Specifically, a class action is properly removed to federal 16 court and dismissed where the state action is: 17 (1) a “covered class action”; 18 (2) based on state statutory or common law; 19 (3) concerning a covered security; and 12 1 (4) alleging that defendants made a misrepresentation or 2 omission of a material fact . . . in connection with the purchase 3 or sale of that security. 4 See 15 U.S.C. § 78bb(f). When determining whether SLUSA applies 5 to a complaint, courts may apply the “artful pleading rule” and 6 “look beyond the face of the . . . complaint[] to determine whether 7 [it] allege[s] securities fraud in connection with the purchase or sale 8 of covered securities.” Romano, 609 F.3d at 519; see also In re Kingate 9 Mgmt. Ltd. Litig., 784 F.3d at 140 (observing that “plaintiffs should 10 not be permitted to escape SLUSA by artfully characterizing a claim 11 as dependent on a theory other than falsity when falsity nonetheless 12 is essential to the claim”). 13 Here, there is no dispute that the complaint meets three of 14 SLUSA’s requirements: (1) the action is a “covered class action,” (2) 15 the action is based on state common law, and (3) the action involves 16 a “covered security.” 17 fourth 18 misrepresentation or omission of material fact in connection with the 19 purchase or sale of a security. This inquiry breaks down into two 20 parts, both of which are required for preclusion under SLUSA: (i) requirement: Thus, the dispute before us involves whether 13 the complaint alleges the a 1 whether the complaint alleges a misrepresentation or omission of a 2 material fact and (ii) if so, whether the misrepresentation or 3 omission was made in connection with the purchase or sale of a 4 SLUSA-covered security. 5 We conclude that the alleged misrepresentation was not made 6 in connection with the purchase or sale of a SLUSA-covered security. 7 Because we conclude that part two of this inquiry was not met, we 8 need not reach the first one. 9 A. In Connection With 10 The District Court considered the language “in connection 11 with” the purchase or sale of covered securities in light of Merrill 12 Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc. v. Dabit, 547 U.S. 71 (2006) and 13 Chadbourne & Parke LLP v. Troice, 134 S.Ct. 1058 (2014). The District 14 Court concluded that the fraud alleged must be material to the 15 decision to buy, sell, or hold a covered security, and if so, any claim 16 involving such a transaction is precluded by SLUSA. O'Donnell, 17 2017 WL 1194479, at *2–3. 18 We are in accord with this view. Moreover, we also agree 19 with the District Court that Dabit and Troice provide that so-called 20 “holder” claims—in which the victims were fraudulently induced to 14 1 retain or delay selling securities—are also precluded under SLUSA. 2 We note that in Dabit, however, the “holder” claim was express: the 3 plaintiffs alleged that the defendant’s “misrepresentations and 4 manipulative tactics caused [the plaintiffs] to hold onto overvalued 5 securities,” long after they would have otherwise sold them. 547 6 U.S. at 75–76. The Supreme Court explained that it is enough that 7 the fraud alleged ‘coincide’ with a securities transaction—whether 8 by the plaintiff or by someone else. Id. at 85 (citing United States v. 9 O’Hagan, 521 U.S. 642, 651 (1997)). In Troice, the Supreme Court 10 further clarified SLUSA preclusion, noting that in Dabit, SLUSA 11 precluded a suit in which the alleged fraud was “material to and 12 coincided with third-party securities transactions, while also 13 inducing the plaintiffs to hold their stocks long beyond the point 14 when, had the truth been known, they would have sold.” Troice, 134 15 S.Ct. at 1066–67 (internal quotation marks, alteration, and citation 16 omitted) (noting prior case law which involved a plaintiff who 17 “took, tried to take, or maintained an ownership position . . . induced 18 by the fraud” (emphasis added)). In short, both Dabit and Troice 19 indicate that an inducement to action or forbearance can satisfy the 20 “in connection with” requirement. See id. 15 1 Here, AXA invites us to conclude that O’Donnell has pled a 2 “holder” claim in a context where the alleged misrepresentation was 3 made to a regulator and unknown to the holders of the securities. 4 We decline this invitation. The complaint is bereft of any allegations 5 that an actual securities transaction ever occurred. Moreover, the 6 complaint does not plausibly allege—nor support a reasonable 7 inference—that any decision to hold by O’Donnell was made that 8 was related in any way to any misstatements to the DFS. See Troice, 9 134 S.Ct. at 1066–67 (highlighting materiality requirement). 10 AXA contends that O’Donnell alleges a breach of contract and 11 an actionable misrepresentation by AXA when, in violation of New 12 York law, in implementing the ATM strategy, it failed to properly 13 explain the nature of the changes to the DFS. 14 preclusion, however, the alleged misrepresentation here was by 15 AXA to the DFS, but not by AXA to O’Donnell, or other putative 16 class members. 17 O’Donnell and the putative class members were ever aware of the 18 misrepresentation that AXA made to the DFS. Key for SLUSA In fact, there is no allegation or indication that 19 Consequently, we see no link between the misrepresentation 20 (to a regulator) and the inaction of a securities holder following 16 1 misrepresentations of which the holder was unaware. Troice brings 2 this point home. 3 fraudulent misrepresentation or omission is not made ‘in connection 4 with’ such a ‘purchase or sale of a covered security’ unless it is 5 material to a decision by one or more individuals (other than the 6 fraudster) to buy or to sell a ‘covered security.” Troice, 134 S.Ct. at 7 1066. 8 could not have been made “in connection with” the purchase or sale 9 of a covered security because the misrepresentation could not have 10 been “material to a decision by one or more individuals . . . to buy or 11 sell a covered security,” for the simple reason that it was unknown 12 to the them. See id. In other words, there is no plausible allegation 13 in the complaint that any decision to hold a security occurred that 14 was related in any way to AXA’s disclosures to the DFS. Cf. Shuster 15 v. AXA Equitable Life Ins. Co., No. 14-8035 (RBK/JS), 2015 WL 4314378, 16 at *7 n.12 (D.N.J. July 14, 2015) (concluding no SLUSA preclusion 17 where “none of the facts indicate that a decision to purchase, sell, or 18 hold covered securities was incidental to AXA’s conduct”). For these reasons we conclude that the misrepresentation We recognize that in Dabit, the Court stated that “it is enough 19 20 There, the Supreme Court stated that “[a] that the alleged fraud ‘coincide’ 17 with a securities 1 transaction—whether by the plaintiff or by someone else.” Dabit, 2 547 U.S. at 85 (observing that “[t]he requisite showing . . . is 3 deception in connection with the purchase or sale of any security, 4 not deception of an identifiable purchaser or seller.” (internal quotation 5 marks and citation omitted) (emphasis added)). Moreover, under 6 the artful pleading rule, as we explained in Romano, courts are to 7 look beyond the face of an “‘artfully pled’ complaint to determine 8 whether [a] plaintiff has ‘cloth[ed] a federal law claim in state garb’ 9 by pleading state law claims that actually arise under federal law.” 10 609 F.3d at 518 (quoting Travelers Indem. Co. v. Sarkisian, 794 F.2d 754, 11 758 (2d Cir. 1986)); see also Rowinski v. Salomon Smith Barney Inc., 398 12 F.3d 294, 304 (3d Cir. 2005) (directing inquiry into whether a 13 “reasonable reading of the complaint evidences allegations of a 14 misrepresentation or omission of a material fact in connection with 15 the purchase or sale of a covered security” (internal quotation marks 16 omitted)). 17 misrepresentation to a regulator and the inaction of a securities 18 holder following a misrepresentation of which the holder is unaware 19 did not affect the holder’s decisions with respect to holding or 20 disposing of securities and, second, that the misrepresentation did However, here, we are satisfied, first, that a 18 1 not “coincide” with a securities transaction where none is alleged to 2 have occurred or to have been forestalled, delayed or inhibited. A 3 contrary decision would be a bridge too far even for the artful 4 pleading rule. 5 Finally, we note that the implementation of the ATM strategy 6 was disclosed publicly in a May 2009 prospectus and in an August 7 2009 supplement. AXA’s argument, however, turns on the failure to 8 disclose changes to the DFS and not on these public disclosures. 9 Here there is no allegation (or a reasonable inference) that, in these 10 later disclosures, AXA misled O’Donnell or the market more 11 generally or that the market was aware of AXA’s misrepresentation 12 to the DFS. IV. CONCLUSION 13 14 For the forgoing reasons, we REVERSE the judgment of the 15 District Court and REMAND with instructions to remand the case to 16 Connecticut state court. 19