W. Palm Beach Firefighters' Pension Fund v. Conagra Brands, Inc., Case No. 19-cv-01323

Decision Date15 October 2020
Docket NumberCase No. 19-cv-01323
Citation495 F.Supp.3d 622
Parties WEST PALM BEACH FIREFIGHTERS’ PENSION FUND, Plaintiff, v. CONAGRA BRANDS, INC. et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Illinois

Joseph E. White, III, Lester R. Hooker, Saxena White P.A., Boca Raton, FL, Steven B. Singer, Saxena White P.A., White Plains, NY, Carol V. Gilden, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, Chicago, IL, for Plaintiff.

City of Taylor Police and Fire Retirement System, pro se.

City of Sarasota Police Officers' Pension Plan, pro se.

Theodore Thomas Chung, Jones Day, Chicago, IL, Geoffrey J. Ritts, Pro Hac Vice, Jones Day, Cleveland, OH, Marjorie Patricia Duffy, Pro Hac Vice, Jones Day, Columbus, OH, for Defendant Conagra Brands, Inc.

Theodore Thomas Chung, Jones Day, Chicago, IL, for Defendants Sean M. Connolly, David S. Marberger, Robert G. Wise, Anil Arora, Thomas K. Brown, Stephen G. Butler, Joie A. Gregor, Rajive Johri, Richard H. Lenny, Ruth Ann Marshall, Craig P. Omtvedt.

Robert Y. Sperling, Joseph Laurence Motto, Michael James Stern, Jeffrey John Huelskamp, Winston & Strawn LLP, Chicago, IL, Geoffrey J. Ritts, Pro Hac Vice, Jones Day, Cleveland, OH, Marjorie Patricia Duffy, Pro Hac Vice, Jones Day, Columbus, OH, for Defendants Goldman Sachs & Co. LLC, J.P. Morgan Securities, LLC, Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner & Smith Incorporated, Mizuho Securities USA LLC, MUFG Securities Americas Inc., Wells Fargo Securities, LLC, Barclays Capital, Inc., HSBC Securities (USA) Inc., Scotia Capital (USA) Inc., BNP Paribas Securities Corp., Rabo Securities USA, Inc., RBC Capital Markets, LLC, Suntrust Robinson Humphrey, Inc.

Robert Y. Sperling, Joseph Laurence Motto, Michael James Stern, Jeffrey John Huelskamp, Winston & Strawn LLP, Chicago, IL, for Defendant BTIG, LLC.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Martha M. Pacold, Judge In 2018, Conagra Brands, Inc. acquired Pinnacle Foods. To fund the merger, Conagra held a secondary public offering ("SPO"). After the merger was complete, Conagra reported disappointing financial results and Conagra's stock fell. Plaintiffs National Elevator Industry Pension Fund, City of Taylor Police and Fire Retirement System, and City of Sarasota Police Officers’ Pension Plan sued Defendants Conagra, Sean Connolly (Conagra's CEO), David Marberger (Conagra's CFO), a slate of Conagra directors, and the underwriters to the SPO, alleging violations of the Securities Act of 1933 (the "Securities Act") and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (the "Exchange Act"). Defendants move to dismiss. [75]. For the reasons below, the motion is granted.

Background

For purposes of Defendantsmotion to dismiss, the court accepts as true the well-pleaded factual allegations of the consolidated class action complaint and draws all reasonable inferences in Plaintiffs’ favor. Tamayo v. Blagojevich , 526 F.3d 1074, 1081 (7th Cir. 2008). The court also considers the documents attached to the complaint, documents that are critical to the complaint and referred to in it, information that is subject to proper judicial notice, and additional facts set forth in Plaintiffs’ opposition to the motion to dismiss, to the extent those facts are consistent with the pleadings. See Geinosky v. City of Chicago , 675 F.3d 743, 745 n.1 (7th Cir. 2012) ; Phillips v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am. , 714 F.3d 1017, 1020 (7th Cir. 2013) ; Larkin v. Bd. of Educ. of City of Chicago , No. 17-cv-09298, 2020 WL 1904087, at *1–2 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 17, 2020).

I. The Merger

This case concerns a merger between Conagra and Pinnacle, both food companies with large portfolios of well-known brands. [68] ¶¶ 2–3.1 Defendant Sean Connolly has been Conagra's CEO since April 2015. [68] ¶¶ 5, 37. Defendant David Marberger has been Conagra's Executive Vice President and CFO since August 2016. [68] ¶ 38.

In 2014, while CEO of Hillshire Brands, Inc., Connolly executed an agreement to merge Pinnacle with Hillshire. [68] ¶ 124. Ultimately, Tyson Foods ended up acquiring Hillshire, and Pinnacle stayed independent. [68] ¶ 124.

As CEO of Conagra, Connolly again approached Pinnacle about a potential acquisition. [68] ¶ 136. In March 2017, he proposed a deal that Pinnacle rejected. [68] ¶¶ 137–38. Conagra's board continued to study Pinnacle, including devoting two days in December 2017 to the topic, and authorized Connolly to reengage Pinnacle. [68] ¶ 138. In January 2018, Pinnacle inquired about a supply chain partnership with Conagra. On April 17, Connolly rejected that proposal, but again expressed interest in an acquisition. [68] ¶ 139. On April 19, a Conagra investor called JANA announced a 9.5% stake in Pinnacle and expressed its interest in Pinnacle's sale. [68] ¶ 140. In May, Conagra made another offer to buy Pinnacle. [68] ¶ 141.

On June 26, 2018, the deal was finalized: Conagra would buy 100% of Pinnacle's outstanding equity for $68.00 per share, paid in cash and Conagra common stock. [68] ¶ 141. The following day, June 27, 2018, Conagra announced the proposed merger. [68] ¶ 3. The deal was valued at around $10.9 billion. [68] ¶ 3.

Conagra conducted due diligence on Pinnacle "as part of the acquisition." [68] ¶ 124. Defendants received access to an electronic data room that among other things contained a copy of the "2018 Modified Management Case for fiscal years 2018 through 2020." [68] ¶ 124.

On October 10, 2018, Conagra commenced an SPO and sold 16.3 million shares of Conagra common stock for a total of $575 million. [68] ¶ 15. The SPO served in part to finance the Pinnacle merger. [68] ¶ 15.

The deal closed on or about October 26, 2018. [68] ¶ 122.

II. The Challenged Statements

Plaintiffs allege that before the SPO and merger, Defendants made the following series of false or misleading statements about Pinnacle.

On June 27, 2018, the day the deal was announced, Defendants filed a Form 8-K with the SEC that disclosed Conagra board approval of the Pinnacle acquisition. [68] ¶ 60. Both the form and an accompanying press release stated: "The combination of two growing portfolios of iconic brands will serve as a catalyst to accelerate value creation for shareholders." [68] ¶¶ 60, 100, 101. The press release also described Conagra and Pinnacle as "two of the fastest-growing companies in the consumer packaged foods industry by consumption." [68] ¶ 99.

During a conference call that day, Defendants predicted a "seamless integration of Pinnacle," and a "+" impact on adjusted gross margin. [68] ¶¶ 61, 111. They also represented that Pinnacle's "full year 2017 net sales were $3.1 billion," which was a year-over-year (YOY) increase of $17 million. [68] ¶ 62. They continued: "We expect top line growth to continue at the pace both companies have delivered, but by combining 2 very strong portfolios, the sustainability of that growth is enhanced. And with the addition of Pinnacle, we expect an improved margin profile and EPS [earnings per share] accretion versus the Conagra base business." [68] ¶ 63. Connolly anticipated a "smooth integration process." [68] ¶¶ 104, 110.

On September 4, Connolly described Pinnacle's Birds Eye brand as "an absolutely terrific business." [68] ¶ 114. More generally, he commented that the merger was "as much of a no-brainer of a deal as I think you're going to see," and noted that Conagra liked "the growth prospects in frozen." [68] ¶ 114. On September 21, Conagra filed a Form 425 with an attachment that again referenced Pinnacle's "growing portfolios of iconic brands." [68] ¶ 117.

The Offering Documents for the SPO (which as noted above commenced on October 10, 2018) said that the merger would combine "two of the fastest-growing companies in the consumer packaged foods industry by consumption," and reported that Pinnacle's net sales had grown in 2017 and the first half of 2018. [68] ¶ 64. Specifically, Pinnacle's net sales in 2017 totaled $3.144 billion ($17 million more than in 2016), and as of July 1, 2018, Pinnacle's net sales in 2018 totaled $1.52 billion ($10 million more than that period in 2017). [68] ¶ 65. The Offering Documents also represented that with respect to Pinnacle's 2018 third quarter (3Q18) results, declines in the grocery segment were "offset by ongoing growth in Pinnacle's Frozen segment, led by the Birds Eye franchise, which continued to drive Pinnacle's robust innovation program." [68] ¶ 97.

III. Post-Merger Developments

As noted above, the deal closed on or about October 26, 2018. [68] ¶ 122. On December 20, Conagra reported its quarterly results and disclosed that Pinnacle's 2018 sales were $160 million below Pinnacle's target. [68] ¶ 155. According to Connolly, $30 million of that difference was driven by Conagra's "postclose decisions to exit some year-end promotions that we saw as extremely low ROI." [68] ¶¶ 72, 155. In Connolly's view, Pinnacle had used promotions "to jump-start volume" using "low ROI trade," which he believed was "chasing volume over value." [68] ¶¶ 70, 78. Marberger stated that Pinnacle's promotions continued through the second half of 2018. [68] ¶ 70. He further explained: "given the volume declines that Sean's discussed on the big 3,[2 ] Pinnacle attempted to add price promotions on the second half to make up for the volume. These were not efficient programs and resulted in additional price erosion." [68] ¶ 158. Additionally, Connolly expressed his belief that Pinnacle's "innovation was insufficient to sustain growth, primarily because it was subpar in its execution." [68] ¶ 157.

From December 20 to December 24, Conagra's stock price fell from $29.09 to $20.96. [68] ¶ 161. On June 27, 2019, Connolly and Marberger held a quarterly earnings call and said, among other things: "As expected, the implementation of our value-over-volume approach resulted in short-term sales declines as we pruned the low-performing SKUs to clear the decks for our new innovations. ... We also are in the midst of doing some value-over-volume in particular on the Pinnacle business as we clear the decks for our new innovation." [68] ¶ 162. That...

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