Blue Chip Stamps v. Manor Drug Stores
421 U.S. 723 (1975)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Blue Chip Stamps v. Manor Drug Stores, 421 U.S. 723 (1975)

Blue Chip Stamps v. Manor Drug Stores

No. 74-124

Argued March 24, 1975

Decided June 9, 1975

421 U.S. 723



Under an antitrust consent decree, petitioner New Blue Chip was required to offer a substantial number of common stock shares in its new trading stamp business to retailers like respondent which had previously used the stamp service but which were not shareholders in petitioner's corporate predecessor. Charging that New Blue Chip and other petitioners devised a scheme to dissuade the offerees by means of materially misleading statements containing an overly pessimistic appraisal of the new business from purchasing the securities so that the rejected shares might later be offered to the public at a higher price, respondent brought this class action for damages for violation of the provisions of § 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (Act) and Rule 10b-5 promulgated thereunder by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which make it unlawful to use deceptive devices or make misleading statements "in connection with the purchase or sale of any security." Acting on the basis of the rule enunciated in 1952 in Birnbaum v. Newport Steel Corp., 193 F.2d 461, which states that a person who is neither a purchaser nor a seller of securities may not bring an action under § 10(b) of the Act or the SEC's Rule 10b-5, the District Court dismissed respondent's complaint. The Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that the facts warranted an exception to the Birnbaum rule. The court noted that prior cases had held that the rule did not exclude persons owning contractual rights to buy or sell securities, and that the offering of securities in this case in compliance with the antitrust decree served the same function as a securities purchase or sales contract.

Held: A private damages action under Rule 10b-5 is confined to actual purchasers or sellers of securities, and the Birnbaum rule bars respondent from maintaining this suit. Pp. 421 U. S. 731-755.

(a) The longstanding judicial acceptance of the rule, together with Congress' failure to reject its interpretation of § 10(b)

Page 421 U. S. 724

argues significantly in favor of this Court's acceptance of the rule. P. 421 U. S. 733.

(b) Evidence from the texts of the Act and the Securities Act of 1933 supports the Birnbaum rule. When Congress wished to provide statutory remedies to others than purchasers or sellers of securities, it did so expressly. Pp. 421 U. S. 733-736.

(c) Policy considerations predominantly favor adherence to the rule. Failure to follow it could well result in vexatious litigation caused by a widely expanded class of plaintiffs bringing "strike" suits under Rule 10b-5 and opening litigation to hazy factual issues the proof of which would largely depend on uncorroborated oral testimony to the effect that a person situated like respondent consulted the security issuer's prospectus, and paid attention to it, and that its representations injured him. Pp. 421 U. S. 737-749.

(d) Respondent, who derives no entitlement from the antitrust decree and does not otherwise possess any contractual rights relating to the offered stock, occupies the same position as any other disappointed offeree of stock registered under the 1933 Act who claims that an overly pessimistic prospectus has caused him to pass up the chance to purchase, and there is ample evidence that Congress did not intend to extend a private cause of action for money damages to the nonpurchasing offeree of stock registered under the 1933 Act for loss of the opportunity to purchase due to an overly pessimistic prospectus. Pp. 421 U. S. 749-754.

(e) The exception to the Birnbaum rule that the Court of Appeals relied upon would expose the rule to case-by-case erosion depending upon whether a particular group of plaintiffs was deemed more discrete than potential purchasers in general so as to warrant departing from the rule, and would result in an unsatisfactory basis for establishing liability for the conduct of business transactions. Pp. 754-755.

492 F.2d 136, reversed.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, WHITE, MARSHALL, and POWELL, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which STEWART and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 421 U. S. 755. BLACKMUN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which DOUGLAS and BRENNAN, JJ., joined, post, p. 421 U. S. 761.

Page 421 U. S. 725

MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case requires us to consider whether the offerees of a stock offering, made pursuant to an antitrust consent decree and registered under the Securities Act of 1933, 48 Stat. 74, as amended, 15 U.S.C. § 77a et seq. (1933 Act), may maintain a private cause of action for money damages where they allege that the offeror has violated the provisions of Rule 10b-5 of the Securities and Exchange Commission, but where they have neither purchased nor sold any of the offered shares. See Birnbaum v. Newport Steel Corp., 193 F.2d 461 (CA2), cert. denied, 343 U.S. 956 (1952).


In 1963, the United States filed a civil antitrust action against Blue Chip Stamp Co. (Old Blue Chip), a company in the business of providing trading stamps to retailers, and nine retailers who owned 90% of its shares. In 1967, the action was terminated by the entry of a consent decree. United States v. Blue Chip Stamp Co., 272 F.Supp. 432 (CD Cal.), aff'd sub nom. Thrifty Shoppers Scrip Co. v. United States,389 U. S. 580 (1968). [Footnote 1] The decree contemplated a plan of reorganization

Page 421 U. S. 726

whereby Old Blue Chip was to be merged into a newly formed corporation, Blue Chip Stamps (New Blue Chip). The holdings of the majority shareholders of Old Blue Chip were to be reduced, and New Blue Chip, one of the petitioners here, was required under the plan to offer a substantial number of its shares of common stock to retailers who had used the stamp service in the past but who were not shareholders in the old company. Under the terms of the plan, the offering to nonshareholder users was to be proportional to past stamp usage, and the shares were to be offered in units consisting of common stock and debentures.

The reorganization plan was carried out, the offering was registered with the SEC as required by the 1933 Act, and a prospectus was distributed to all offerees as required by § 5 of that Act, 15 U.S.C. § 77e. Somewhat more than 50% of the offered units were actually purchased. In 1970, two years after the offering, respondent, a former user of the stamp service and therefore an offeree of the 1968 offering, filed this suit in the United States District Court for the Central District of California. Defendants below and petitioners here are Old and New Blue Chip, eight of the nine majority shareholders of Old Blue Chip, and the directors of New Blue Chip (collectively called Blue Chip).

Respondent's complaint alleged, inter alia, that the prospectus prepared and distributed by Blue Chip in connection with the offering was materially misleading in its overly pessimistic appraisal of Blue Chip's status and future prospects. It alleged that Blue Chip intentionally made the prospectus overly pessimistic in order to discourage respondent and other members of the allegedly large class whom it represents from accepting what was

Page 421 U. S. 727

intended to be a bargain offer, so that the rejected shares might later be offered to the public at a higher price. The complaint alleged that class members, because of and in reliance on the false and misleading prospectus, failed to purchase the offered units. Respondent therefore sought on behalf of the alleged class some $21,400,000 in damages representing the lost opportunity to purchase the units; the right to purchase the previously rejected units at the 1968 price; and in addition, it sought some $25,000,000 in exemplary damages.

The only portion of the litigation thus initiated which is before us is whether respondent may base its action on Rule 10b-5 of the Securities and Exchange Commission without having either bought or sold the securities described in the allegedly misleading prospectus. The District Court dismissed respondent's complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief might be granted. [Footnote 2] On appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, respondent pressed only its asserted claim under Rule 10b-5, and a divided panel of the Court of Appeals sustained its position and reversed the District Court. [Footnote 3] After the Ninth Circuit denied rehearing en banc, we granted Blue Chip's petition for certiorari. 419 U.S. 992 (1974). Our consideration of the correctness of the determination of the Court of Appeals requires us to consider what limitations there are on the class of plaintiffs who may maintain a private cause of action for money damages for violation of Rule 10b-5, and whether respondent was within that class.


During the early days of the New Deal, Congress enacted two landmark statutes regulating securities.

Page 421 U. S. 728

The 1933 Act was described as an Act to

"provide full and fair disclosure of the character of securities sold in interstate and foreign commerce and through the mails, and to prevent frauds in the sale thereof, and for other purposes."

The Securities Exchange Act of 1934. 48 Stat. 881, as amended, 15 U.S.C. § 78a et seq. (1934 Act), was described as an Act

"to provide for the regulation of securities exchanges and of over-the-counter markets operating in interstate and foreign commerce and through the mails, to prevent inequitable and unfair practices on such exchanges and markets, and for other purposes."

The various sections of the 1933 Act dealt at some length with the required contents of registration statements and prospectuses, and expressly provided for private civil causes of action. Section 11(a) gave a right of action by reason of a false registration statement to "any person acquiring" the security, and § 12 of that Act gave a right to sue the seller of a security who had engaged in proscribed practices with respect to prospectuses and communication to "the person purchasing such security from him."

The 1934 Act was divided into two titles. Title I was denominated "Regulation of Securities Exchanges," and Title II was denominated "Amendments to Securities Act of 1933." Section 10 of that Act makes it

"unlawful for any person . . . (b) [t]o use or employ, in connection with the purchase or sale of any security registered on a national securities exchange or any security not so registered, any manipulative or deceptive device or contrivance in contravention of such rules and regulations as the Commission may prescribe as necessary or appropriate in the public interest or for the protection of investors."

The "Commission" referred to in the section was the Securities and Exchange Commission

Page 421 U. S. 729

created by § 4(a) of the 1934 Act. Section 29 of that Act provided that "[e]very contract made in violation of any provision of this chapter or of any rule or regulation thereunder" should be void.

In 1942, acting under the authority granted to it by § 10(b) of the 1934 Act, the Commission promulgated Rule 10b-5, 17 CFR § 240.10b-5, now providing as follows:

"§ 240.10b-5 Employment of manipulative and deceptive devices."

"It shall be unlawful for any person, directly or indirectly, by the use of any means or instrumentality of interstate commerce, or of the mails or of any facility of any national securities exchange,"

"(a) To employ any device, scheme, or artifice to defraud,"

"(b) To make any untrue statement of a material fact or to omit to state a material fact necessary in order to make the statements made, in the light of the circumstances under which they were made, not misleading, or"

"(c) To engage in any act, practice, or course of business which operates or would operate as a fraud or deceit upon any person,"

"in connection with the purchase or sale of any security."

Section 10(b) of the 1934 Act does not, by its terms, provide an express civil remedy for its violation. Nor does the history of this provision provide any indication that Congress considered the problem of private suits under it at the time of its passage. See, e.g., Note, Implied Liability Under the Securities Exchange Act, 61 Harv.L.Rev. 858, 861 (1948); A. Bromberg, Securities Law: Fraud -- SEC Rule 10b-5 § 2.2 (300)-(340) (1968) (hereinafter Bromberg); S.Rep. No. 792, 73d Cong., 2d

Page 421 U. S. 730

Sess., 5-6 (1934). Similarly, there is no indication that the Commission, in adopting Rule 10b-5, considered the question of private civil remedies under this provision. SEC Securities Exchange Act Release No. 3230 (1942); Conference on Codification of the Federal Securities Laws, 22 Bus.Law. 793, 922 (1967); Birnbaum v. Newport Steel Corp., 193 F.2d at 463; 3 L. Loss, Securities Regulation 1469 n. 87 (2d ed.1961).

Despite the contrast between the provisions of Rule 10b-5 and the numerous carefully drawn express civil remedies provided in the Acts of both 1933 and 1934, [Footnote 4] it was held in 1946 by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania that there was an implied private right of action under the Rule. Kardon v. National Gypsum Co., 69 F.Supp. 512. This Court had no occasion to deal with the subject until 25 years later, and, at that time, we confirmed with virtually no discussion the overwhelming consensus of the District Courts and Courts of Appeals that such a cause of action did exist. Superintendent of Insurance v. Bankers Life & Cas. Co.,404 U. S. 6, 404 U. S. 13 n. 9 (1971); Affiliated Ute Citizens v. United States,406 U. S. 128, 406 U. S. 150-154 (1972). Such a conclusion was, of course, entirely consistent with the Court's recognition in J. I. Case Co. v. Borak,377 U. S. 426, 377 U. S. 432 (1964), that private enforcement of Commission rules may "[provide] a necessary supplement to Commission action."

Within a few years after the seminal Kardon decision, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit concluded that the plaintiff class for purposes of a private damage action under § 10(b) and Rule 10b-5 was limited to actual purchasers and sellers of securities. Birnbaum v. Newport Steel Corp., supra.

Page 421 U. S. 731

The Court of Appeals in this case did not repudiate Birnbaum; indeed, another panel of that court (in an opinion by Judge Ely) had but a short time earlier affirmed the rule of that case. Mount Clemens Industries, Inc. v. Bell, 464 F.2d 339 (1972). But in this case. a majority of the Court of Appeals found that the facts warranted an exception to the Birnbaum rule. For the reasons hereinafter stated, we are of the opinion that Birnbaum was rightly decided, and that it bars respondent from maintaining this suit under Rule 10b-5.


The panel which decided Birnbaum consisted of Chief Judge Swan and Judges Learned Hand and Augustus Hand: the opinion was written by the last named. Since both § 10(b) and Rule 10b-5 proscribed only fraud "in connection with the purchase or sale" of securities, and since the history of § 10(b) revealed no congressional intention to extend a private civil remedy for money damages to other than defrauded purchasers or sellers of securities, in contrast to the express civil remedy provided by § 16(b) of the 1934 Act, the court concluded that the plaintiff class in a Rule 10b-5 action was limited to actual purchasers and sellers. 193 F.2d at 463-464.

Just as this Court had no occasion to consider the validity of the Kardon holding that there was a private cause of action under Rule 10b-5 until 20-odd years later, nearly the same period of time has gone by between the Birnbaum decision and our consideration of the case now before us. As with Kardon, virtually all lower federal courts facing the issue in the hundreds of reported cases presenting this question over the past quarter century have reaffirmed Birnbaum's conclusion that the plaintiff class for purposes of § 10(b) and Rule 10b-5 private damage actions is limited to purchasers and sellers

Page 421 U. S. 732

of securities. See 6 L. Loss, Securities Regulation 3617 (1969). See, e.g., Haterman v. Murchison, 468 F.2d 1305, 1311 (CA2 1972); Landy v. FDIC, 486 F.2d 139, 156-157 (CA3 1973), cert. denied, 416 U.S. 960 (1974); Sargent v. Genesco, Inc., 492 F.2d 750, 763 (CA5 1974); Simmons v. Wolfson, 428 F.2d 455, 456 (CA6 1970), cert. denied,400 U. S. 99 (1971); City National Bank v. Vanderboom, 422 F.2d 221, 227-228 (CA8), cert. denied, 399 U.S. 905 (1970); Mount Clemens Industries, Inc. v. Bell, supra; Jensen v. Voyles, 393 F.2d 131, 133 (CA10 1968). Compare Eason v. General Motors Acceptance Corp., 490 F.2d 654 (CA7 1973), cert. denied, 416 U.S. 960 (1974), with Dasho v. Susquehanna Corp., 380 F.2d 262 (CA7), cert. denied sub nom. Bard v. Dasho, 389 U.S. 977 (1967).

In 1957 and again in 1959, the Securities and Exchange Commission sought from Congress amendment of 10(b) to change its wording from "in connection with the purchase or sale of any security" to "in connection with the purchase or sale of, or any attempt to purchase or sell, any security." 103 Cong.Rec. 11636 (1957) (emphasis added); SEC Legislation, Hearings on S. 1178-1182 before a Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Banking & Currency, 86th Cong., 1st Sess., 367-368 (1959); S. 2545, 85th Cong., 1st Sess. (1957); S. 1179, 86th Cong., 1st Sess. (1959). In the words of a memorandum submitted by the Commission to a congressional committee, the purpose of the proposed change was "to make section 10(b) also applicable to manipulative activities in connection with any attempt to purchase or sell any security." Hearings on S. 1178-1182, supra, at 331. Opposition to the amendment was based on fears of the extension of civil liability under § 10(b) that it would cause. Id. at 368. Neither change was adopted by Congress.

Page 421 U. S. 733

The longstanding acceptance by the courts, coupled with Congress' failure to reject Birnbaum's reasonable interpretation of the wording of § 10(b), wording which is directed toward injury suffered "in connection with the purchase or sale" of securities, [Footnote 5] argues significantly in favor of acceptance of the Birnbaum rule by this Court. Blau v. Lehman,368 U. S. 403, 368 U. S. 413 (1962).

Available evidence from the texts of the 1933 and 1934 Acts as to the congressional scheme in this regard, though not conclusive, supports the result reached by the Birnbaum court. The wording of § 10(b) directed at fraud "in connection with the purchase or sale" of securities stands in contrast with the parallel anti-fraud provision of the 1933 Act, § 17(a), as amended, 68 Stat. 686, 15 U.S.C. § 77q, [Footnote 6] reaching fraud

Page 421 U. S. 734

"in the offer or sale" of securities. Cf. § 5 of the 1933 Act, 5 U.S.C. § 77e. When Congress wished to provide a remedy to those who neither purchase nor sell securities, it had little trouble in doing so expressly. Cf. § 16(b) of the 1934 Act, 15 U.S.C. § 78p(b).

Section 28(a) of the 1934 Act, 15 U.S.C. § 78bb(a), which limits recovery in any private damages action brought under the 1934 Act to "actual damages," likewise provides some support for the purchaser-seller rule. See, e.g., Bromberg § 8.8, p. 221. While the damages suffered by purchasers and sellers pursuing a § 10(b) cause of action may on occasion be difficult to ascertain, Affiliated Ute Citizens v. United States, 406 U.S. at 406 U. S. 155, in the main, such purchasers and sellers at least seek to base recovery on a demonstrable number of shares traded. In contrast, a putative plaintiff, who neither purchases nor sells securities but sues instead for intangible economic injury such as loss of a noncontractual opportunity to buy or sell, is more likely to be seeking a

Page 421 U. S. 735

largely conjectural and speculative recovery in which the number of shares involved will depend on the plaintiff's subjective hypothesis. Cf. Estate Counseling Service, Inc. v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 303 F.2d 527, 533 (CA10 1962); Levine v. Seilon, Inc., 439 F.2d 328, 335 (CA2 1971); Wolf v. Frank, 477 F.2d 467, 478 (CA5 1973).

One of the justifications advanced for implication of a cause of action under § 10(b) lies in § 29(b) of the 1934 Act, 15 U.S.C. § 78cc(b), providing that a contract made in violation of any provision of the 1934 Act is voidable at the option of the deceived party. [Footnote 7] See, e.g., Kardon v. National Gypsum Co., 69 F.Supp. at 514; Slavin v. Germantown Fire Insurance Co., 174 F.2d 799, 815 (CA3 1949); Fischman v. Raytheon Mfg. Co., 188 F.2d 783, 787 n. 4 (CA2 1951); Bromberg § 2.4(1)(b). But that justification is absent when there is no actual purchase or sale of securities, or a contract to purchase or sell, affected or tainted by a violation of § 10(b). Cf. Mount Clemens Industries, Inc. v. Bell, supra.

The principal express nonderivative private civil remedies,

Page 421 U. S. 736

created by Congress contemporaneously with the passage of § 10(b), for violations of various provisions of the 1933 and 1934 Acts are, by their terms, expressly limited to purchasers or sellers of securities. Thus, § 11(a) of the 1933 Act confines the cause of action it grants to "any person acquiring such security," while the remedy granted by § 12 of that Act is limited to the "person purchasing such security." Section 9 of the 1934 Act, prohibiting a variety of fraudulent and manipulative devices, limits the express civil remedy provided for its violation to "any person who shall purchase or sell any security" in a transaction affected by a violation of the provision. Section 18 of the 1934 Act, prohibiting false or misleading statements in reports or other documents required to be filed by the 1934 Act, limits the express remedy provided for its violation to "any person . . . who . . . shall have purchased or sold a security at a price which was affected by such statement. . . ." It would indeed be anomalous to impute to Congress an intention to expand the plaintiff class for a judicially implied cause of action beyond the bounds it delineated for comparable express causes of action. [Footnote 8]

Page 421 U. S. 737

Having said all this, we would by no means be understood as suggesting that we are able to divine from the language of § 10(b) the express "intent of Congress" as to the contours of a private cause of action under Rule 10b-5. When we deal with private actions under Rule 10b-5, we deal with a judicial oak which has grown from little more than a legislative acorn. Such growth may be quite consistent with the congressional enactment and with the role of the federal judiciary in interpreting it, see J. I. Case Co. v. Borak, supra, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that either Congress in 1934 or the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1942 foreordained the present state of the law with respect to Rule 10b-5. It is therefore proper that we consider, in addition to the factors already discussed, what may be described as policy considerations when we come to flesh out the portions of the law with respect to which neither the congressional enactment nor the administrative regulations offer conclusive guidance.

Three principal classes of potential plaintiffs are presently barred by the Birnbaum rule. First are potential purchasers of shares, either in a new offering or on the Nation's post-distribution trading markets, who allege that they decided not to purchase because of an unduly gloomy representation or the omission of favorable material which made the issuer appear to be a less favorable investment vehicle than it actually was. Second are actual shareholders in the issuer who allege that they decided not to sell their shares because of an

Page 421 U. S. 738

unduly rosy representation or a failure to disclose unfavorable material. Third are shareholders, creditors, and perhaps others related to an issuer who suffered loss in the value of their investment due to corporate or insider activities in connection with the purchase or sale of securities which violate Rule 10b-5. It has been held that shareholder members of the second and third of these classes may frequently be able to circumvent the Birnbaum limitation through bringing a derivative action on behalf of the corporate issuer if the latter is itself a purchaser or seller of securities. See, e.g., Schoenbaum v. Firstbrook, 405 F.2d 215, 219 (CA2 1968), cert. denied sub nom. Manley v. Schoenbaum, 395 U.S. 906 (1969). But the first of these classes, of which respondent is a member, cannot claim the benefit of such a rule.

A great majority of the many commentators on the issue before us have taken the view that the Birnbaum limitation on the plaintiff class in a Rule 10b-5 action for damages is an arbitrary restriction which unreasonably prevents some deserving plaintiffs from recovering damages which have, in fact, been caused by violations of Rule 10b-5. See, e.g., Lowenfels, The Demise of the Birnbaum Doctrine: A New Era for Rule 10b-5, 54 Va.L.Rev. 268 (1968). The Securities and Exchange Commission has filed an amicus brief in this case espousing that same view. We have no doubt that this is indeed a disadvantage of the Birnbaum rule, [Footnote 9] and if it

Page 421 U. S. 739

had no countervailing advantages it would be undesirable as a matter of policy, however much it might be supported by precedent and legislative history. But we are of the opinion that there are countervailing advantages to the Birnbaum rule, purely as a matter of policy, although those advantages are more difficult to articulate than is the disadvantage.

There has been widespread recognition that litigation under Rule 10b-5 presents a danger of vexatiousness different in degree and in kind from that which accompanies litigation in general. This fact was recognized by Judge Browning in his opinion for the majority of the Court of Appeals in this case, 492 F.2d at 141, and by Judge Hufstedler in her dissenting opinion when she said:

"The purchaser-seller rule has maintained the balances built into the congressional scheme by permitting damage actions to be brought only by those persons whose active participation in the marketing transaction promises enforcement of the statute without undue risk of abuse of the litigation process and without distorting the securities market."

Id. at 147.

Judge Friendly in commenting on another aspect of Rule 10b-5 litigation has referred to the possibility that unduly expansive imposition of civil liability "will lead to large judgments, payable in the last analysis by innocent investors, for the benefit of speculators and their lawyers. . . ." SEC v. Texas Gulf Sulphur Co., 401 F.2d 833, 867 (CA2 1968) (concurring opinion). See also

Page 421 U. S. 740

Boone & McGowan, Standing to Sue under SEC Rule 10b-5, 49 Tex.L.Rev. 617, 64649 (1971).

We believe that the concern expressed for the danger of vexatious litigation which could result from a widely expanded class of plaintiffs under Rule 10b-5 is founded in something more substantial than the common complaint of the many defendants who would prefer avoiding lawsuits entirely to either settling them or trying them. These concerns have two largely separate grounds.

The first of these concerns is that, in the field of federal securities laws governing disclosure of information, even a complaint which by objective standards may have very little chance of success at trial has a settlement value to the plaintiff out of any proportion to its prospect of success at trial so long as he may prevent the suit from being resolved against him by dismissal or summary judgment. The very pendency of the lawsuit may frustrate or delay normal business activity of the defendant which is totally unrelated to the lawsuit. See, e.g., Sargent, The SEC and the Individual Investor: Restoring His Confidence in the Market, 60 Va.L.Rev. 553, 562-572 (1974); Dooley, The Effects of Civil Liability on Investment Banking and the New Issues Market, 58 Va.L.Rev. 776, 822-843 (1972).

Congress itself recognized the potential for nuisance or "strike" suits in this type of litigation, and, in Title II of the 1934 Act, amended § 11 of the 1933 Act to provide that:

"In any suit under this or any other section of this title the court may, in its discretion, require an undertaking for the payment of the costs of such suit, including reasonable attorney's fees. . . ."

§ 206(d), 48 Stat. 881, 908.

Senator Fletcher, Chairman of the Senate Banking and Finance Committee, in introducing Title II of the 1934

Page 421 U. S. 741

Act on the floor of the Senate, stated in explaining the amendment to § 11(e): "This amendment is the most important of all." 78 Cong.Rec. 8669. Among its purposes was to provide "a defense against blackmail suits." Ibid.

Where Congress in those sections of the 1933 Act which expressly conferred a private cause of action for damages, adopted a provision uniformly regarded as designed to deter "strike" or nuisance actions, Cohen v. Beneficial Loan Corp.,337 U. S. 541, 337 U. S. 548-549 (1949), that fact alone justifies our consideration of such potential in determining the limits of the class of plaintiffs who may sue in an action wholly implied from the language of the 1934 Act.

The potential for possible abuse of the liberal discovery provisions of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure may likewise exist in this type of case to a greater extent than they do in other litigation. The prospect of extensive deposition of the defendant's officers and associates and the concomitant opportunity for extensive discovery of business documents, is a common occurrence in this and similar types of litigation. To the extent that this process eventually produces relevant evidence which is useful in determining the merits of the claims asserted by the parties, it bears the imprimatur of those Rules and of the many cases liberally interpreting them. But, to the extent that it permits a plaintiff with a largely groundless claim to simply take up the time of a number of other people, with the right to do so representing an in terrorem increment of the settlement value, rather than a reasonably founded hope that the process will reveal relevant evidence, it is a social cost, rather than a benefit. Yet to broadly expand the class of plaintiffs who may sue under Rule 10b-5 would appear to encourage the least appealing aspect of the use of the discovery rules.

Page 421 U. S. 742

Without the Birnbaum rule, an action under Rule 10b-5 will turn largely on which oral version of a series of occurrences the jury may decide to credit, and therefore, no matter how improbable the allegations of the plaintiff, the case will be virtually impossible to dispose of prior to trial other than by settlement. In the words of Judge Hufstedler's dissenting opinion in the Court of Appeals:

"The great ease with which plaintiffs can allege the requirements for the majority's standing rule and the greater difficulty that plaintiffs are going to have proving the allegations suggests that the majority's rule will allow a relatively high proportion of 'bad' cases into court. The risk of strike suits is particularly high in such cases; although they are difficult to prove at trial, they are even more difficult to dispose of before trial."

492 F.2d at 147 n. 9.

The Birnbaum rule, on the other hand, permits exclusion prior to trial of those plaintiffs who were not themselves purchasers or sellers of the stock in question. The fact of purchase of stock and the fact of sale of stock are generally matters which are verifiable by documentation, and do not depend upon oral recollection, so that failure to qualify under the Birnbaum rule is a matter that can normally be established by the defendant either on a motion to dismiss or on a motion for summary judgment.

Obviously there is no general legal principle that courts, in fashioning substantive law, should do so in a manner which makes it easier, rather than more difficult, for a defendant to obtain a summary judgment. But in this type of litigation, where the mere existence of an unresolved lawsuit has settlement value to the plaintiff not only because of the possibility that he may prevail on the merits, an entirely legitimate component of settlement value, but because of the threat of extensive discovery

Page 421 U. S. 743

and disruption of normal business activities which may accompany a lawsuit which is groundless in any event, but cannot be proved so before trial, such a factor is not to be totally dismissed. The Birnbaum rule undoubtedly excludes plaintiffs who have, in fact, been damaged by violations of Rule 10b-5, and, to that extent, it is undesirable. But it also separates in a readily demonstrable manner the group of plaintiffs who actually purchased or actually sold, and whose version of the facts is therefore more likely to be believed by the trier of fact, from the vastly larger world of potential plaintiffs who might successfully allege a claim but could seldom succeed in proving it. And this fact is one of its advantages.

The second ground for fear of vexatious litigation is based on the concern that, given the generalized contours of liability, the abolition of the Birnbaum rule would throw open to the trier of fact many rather hazy issues of historical fact the proof of which depended almost entirely on oral testimony. We in no way disparage the worth and frequent high value of oral testimony when we say that dangers of its abuse appear to exist in this type of action to a peculiarly high degree. The Securities and Exchange Commission, while opposing the adoption of the Birnbaum rule by this Court, states that it agrees with petitioners

"that the effect, if any, of a deceptive practice on someone who has neither purchased nor sold securities may be more difficult to demonstrate than is the effect on a purchaser or seller."

Brief for the Securities and Exchange Commission as Amicus Curiae 225. The brief also points out that frivolous suits can be brought whatever the rules of standing, and reminds us of this Court's recognition "in a different context" that "the expense and annoyance of litigation is part of the social burden of living under

Page 421 U. S. 744

government.'" Id. at 24 n. 30. See Petroleum Exploration, Inc. v. Public Service Comm'n,304 U. S. 209, 304 U. S. 222 (1938). The Commission suggests that, in particular cases additional requirements of corroboration of testimony and more limited measure of damages would correct the dangers of an expanded class of plaintiffs.

But the very necessity, or at least the desirability, of fashioning unique rules of corroboration and damages as a correlative to the abolition of the Birnbaum rule suggests that the rule itself may have something to be said for it.

In considering the policy underlying the Birnbaum rule, it is not inappropriate to advert briefly to the tort of misrepresentation and deceit, to which a claim under Rule 10b-5 certainly has some relationship. Originally, under the common law of England, such an action was not available to one other than a party to a business transaction. That limitation was eliminated in Pasley v. Freeman, 3 T.R. 51, 100 Eng.Rep. 450 (1789). Under the earlier law, the misrepresentation was generally required to be one of fact, rather than opinion, but that requirement, too, was gradually relaxed. Lord Bowen's famous comment in Edgington v. Fitzmaurice, [1882] L.R. 29 Ch. Div. 459, 483, that "the state of a man's mind is as much a fact as the state of his digestion," suggests that this distinction, too, may have been somewhat arbitrary. And it has long been established in the ordinary case of deceit that a misrepresentation which leads to a refusal to purchase or to sell is actionable in just the same way as a misrepresentation which leads to the consummation of a purchase or sale. Butler v. Watkins, 13 Wall. 456 (1872). These aspects of the evolution of the tort of deceit and misrepresentation suggest a direction away from rules such as Birnbaum.

But the typical fact situation in which the classic tort

Page 421 U. S. 745

of misrepresentation and deceit evolved was light years away from the world of commercial transactions to which Rule 10b-5 is applicable. The plaintiff in Butler, supra, for example, claimed that he had held off the market a patented machine for tying cotton bales which he had developed by reason of the fraudulent representations of the defendant. But the report of the case leaves no doubt that the plaintiff and defendant met with one another in New Orleans, that one presented a draft agreement to the other, and that letters were exchanged relating to that agreement. Although the claim to damages was based on an allegedly fraudulently induced decision not to put the machines on the market, the plaintiff and the defendant had concededly been engaged in the course of business dealings with one another, and would presumably have recognized one another on the street had they met.

In today's universe of transactions governed by the 1934 Act, privity of dealing or even personal contact between potential defendant and potential plaintiff is the exception and not the rule. The stock of issuers is listed on financial exchanges utilized by tens of millions of investors, and corporate representations reach a potential audience, encompassing not only the diligent few who peruse filed corporate reports or the sizable number of subscribers to financial journals, but the readership of the Nation's daily newspapers. Obviously neither the fact that issuers or other potential defendants under Rule 10b-5 reach a large number of potential investors or the fact that they are required by law to make their disclosures conform to certain standards should in any way absolve them from liability for misconduct which is proscribed by Rule 10b-5.

But in the absence of the Birnbaum rule, it would be sufficient for a plaintiff to prove that he had failed to

Page 421 U. S. 746

purchase or sell stock by reason of a defendant's violation of Rule 10b-5. The manner in which the defendant's violation caused the plaintiff to fail to act could be as a result of the reading of a prospectus, as respondent claims here, but it could just as easily come as a result of a claimed reading of information contained in the financial pages of a local newspaper. Plaintiff's proof would not be that he purchased or sold stock, a fact which would be capable of documentary verification in most situations, but instead that he decided not to purchase or sell stock. Plaintiff's entire testimony could be dependent upon uncorroborated oral evidence of many of the crucial elements of his claim, and still be sufficient to go to the jury. The jury would not even have the benefit of weighing the plaintiff's version against the defendant's version, since the elements to which the plaintiff would testify would be, in many cases, totally unknown and unknowable to the defendant. The very real risk in permitting those in respondent's position to sue under Rule 10b-5 is that the door will be open to recovery of substantial damages on the part of one who offers only his own testimony to prove that he ever consulted a prospectus of the issuer, that he paid any attention to it, or that the representations contained in it damaged him. [Footnote 10]

Page 421 U. S. 747

The virtue of the Birnbaum rule, simply stated, in this situation, is that it limits the class of plaintiffs to those who have at least dealt in the security to which the prospectus, representation, or omission relates. And their dealing in the security, whether by way of purchase or sale, will generally be an objectively demonstrable fact in an area of the law otherwise very much dependent upon oral testimony. In the absence of the Birnbaum doctrine, bystanders to the securities marketing process could await developments on the sidelines without risk, claiming that inaccuracies in disclosure caused nonselling in a falling market and that unduly pessimistic predictions by the issuer followed by a rising market caused them to allow retrospectively golden opportunities to pass.

While much of the development of the law of deceit has been the elimination of artificial barriers to recovery on just claims, we are not the first court to express concern that the inexorable broadening of the class of plaintiff

Page 421 U. S. 748

who may sue in this area of the law will ultimately result in more harm than good. In Ultramares Corp. v. Touche, 255 N.Y. 170, 174 N.E. 441 (1931), Chief Judge Cardozo observed with respect to "a liability in an indeterminate amount for an indeterminate time to an indeterminate class":

"The hazards of a business conducted on these terms are so extreme as to enkindle doubt whether a flaw may not exist in the implication of a duty that exposes to these consequences."

Id. at 179-180, 174 N.E. at 444.

In Herpich v. Wallace, 430 F.2d 792, 804-805 (CA5 1970), a case adopting the Birnbaum limitation on the class of plaintiffs who might bring an action for damages based on a violation of Rule 10b-5, Judge Ainsworth expressed concern similar to that expressed by Chief Judge Cardozo. Judge Stevens, writing in Eason v. General Motors Acceptance Corp., 490 F.2d at 660, stated that court's view that these concerns were unduly emphasized, and went on to say that "we may not for that reason reject what we believe to be a correct interpretation of the statute or the rule." He relied in part on the view that Rule 10b-5 should be interpreted, in keeping with this Court's repeated admonition, "not technically and restrictively, but flexibly to effectuate its remedial purposes.'" Affiliated Ute Citizens v. United States, 406 U.S. at 406 U. S. 151.

We quite agree that, if Congress had legislated the elements of a private cause of action for damages, the duty of the Judicial Branch would be to administer the law which Congress enacted; the Judiciary may not circumscribe a right which Congress has conferred because of any disagreement it might have with Congress about the wisdom of creating so expansive a liability. But, as we have pointed out, we are not dealing here with

Page 421 U. S. 749

any private right created by the express language of § 10(b) or of Rule 10b-5. No language in either of those provisions speaks at all to the contours of a private cause of action for their violation. However flexibly we may construe the language of both provisions, nothing in such construction militates against the Birnbaum rule. We are dealing with a private cause of action which has been judicially found to exist, and which will have to be judicially delimited one way or another unless and until Congress addresses the question. Given the peculiar blend of legislative, administrative, and judicial history which now surrounds Rule 10b-5, we believe that practical factors to which we have adverted, and to which other courts have referred, are entitled to a good deal of weight.

Thus, we conclude that what may be called considerations of policy, which we are free to weigh in deciding this case, are by no means entirely on one side of the scale. Taken together with the precedential support for the Birnbaum rule over a period of more than 20 years, and the consistency of that rule with what we can glean from the intent of Congress, they lead us to conclude that it is a sound rule, and should be followed.


The majority of the Court of Appeals in this case expressed no disagreement with the general proposition that one asserting a claim for damages based on the violation of Rule 10b-5 must be either a purchaser or seller of securities. However, it noted that, prior cases have held that persons owning contractual rights to buy or sell securities are not excluded by the Birnbaum rule. Relying on these cases, it concluded that respondent's status as an offeree pursuant to the terms of the consent decree served the same function, for purposes

Page 421 U. S. 750

of delimiting the class of plaintiffs, as is normally performed by the requirement of a contractual relationship. 492 F.2d at 142.

The Court of Appeals recognized, and respondent concedes here, [Footnote 11] that a well settled line of authority from this Court establishes that a consent decree is not enforceable directly or in collateral proceedings by those who are not parties to it, even though they were intended to be benefited by it. United States v. Armour & Co.,402 U. S. 673 (1971); Buckeye Co. v. Hockng Valley Co.,269 U. S. 42 (1925). [Footnote 12]

A contract to purchase or sell securities is expressly defined by § 3(a) of the 1934 Act, 15 U.S.C. § 78c(a), [Footnote 13]

Page 421 U. S. 751

as a purchase or sale of securities for the purposes of that Act. Unlike respondent, which had no contractual right or duty to purchase Blue Chip's securities, the holders of puts, calls, options, and other contractual rights or duties to purchase or sell securities have been recognized as "purchasers" or "sellers" of securities for purposes of Rule 10b-5 not because of a judicial conclusion that they were similarly situated to "purchasers" or "sellers," but because the definitional provisions of the 1934 Act themselves grant them such a status.

Even if we were to accept the notion that the Birnbaum rule could be circumvented on a case-by-case basis through particularized judicial inquiry into the facts surrounding a complaint, this respondent and the members of its alleged class would be unlikely candidates for such a judicially created exception. While the Birnbaum rule has been flexibly interpreted by lower federal courts, [Footnote 14] we have been unable to locate a single decided case from any court in the 20-odd years of litigation since the Birnbaum decision which would support the right of persons who were in the position of respondent here to bring a private suit under Rule 10b-5. Respondent was not only not a buyer or seller of any security,

Page 421 U. S. 752

but it was not even a shareholder of the corporate petitioners.

As indicated, the 1934 Act, under which respondent seeks to assert a cause of action, is general in scope, but chiefly concerned with the regulation of post-distribution trading on the Nation's stock exchanges and securities trading markets. The 1933 Act is a far narrower statute chiefly concerned with disclosure and fraud in connection with offerings of securities -- primarily, as here, initial distributions of newly issued stock from corporate issuers. 1 L. Loss, Securities Regulation 130-131 (2d ed.1961). Respondent, who derives no entitlement from the antitrust consent decree and does not otherwise possess any contractual rights relating to the offered stock, stands in the same position as any other disappointed offeree of a stock offering registered under the 1933 Act who claims that an overly pessimistic prospectus, prepared and distributed as required by §§ 5 and 10 of the 1933 Act, has caused it to allow its opportunity to purchase to pass.

There is strong evidence that application of the Birnbaum rule to preclude suit by the disappointed offeree of a registered 1933 Act offering under Rule 10b-5 furthers the intention of Congress as expressed in the 1933 Act. [Footnote 15] Congress left little doubt that its purpose in imposing the prospectus and registration requirements of the 1933 Act was to prevent the "[h]igh pressure salesmanship, rather than careful counsel," causing inflated

Page 421 U. S. 753

new issues, through direct limitation by the SEC of "the selling arguments hitherto employed." H.R.Rep. No. 85, 73d Cong., 1st Sess., 2, 8 (1933).

"Any objection that the compulsory incorporation in selling literature and sales argument of substantially all information concerning the issue, will frighten the buyer with the intricacy of the transaction, states one of the best arguments for the provision."

Id. at 8. The SEC, in accord with the congressional purposes, specifically requires prominent emphasis be given in filed registration statements and prospectuses to material adverse contingencies. See, e.g., SEC Securities Act Release No. 4936, Guides for the Preparation and Filing of Registration Statements 6,

Official Supreme Court caselaw is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia caselaw is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.