“The law does not afford relief to every unfulfilled expectation”, said Judge Cecilia M Altonaga of the Florida Southern District Court as she ruled in favor of Robinhood in the “Robinhood tranche” of the multi-district litigation concerning the short squeeze that occurred in January 2021.
The traders accusing the online trading company of breaches of various duties stemming from the agreement it signed with its customers suffered a bitter defeat this week. The Judge agreed with the broker and dismissed the traders’ complaint with prejudice, that is, the traders will not be allowed to amend and refile the complaint again.
The order, signed by Judge Altonaga, and seen by FX News Group, finds that the plaintiffs have failed to state a claim against Robinhood.
This case is about meme stocks. In January 2021, scores of retail investors rushed to purchase stocks that hedge funds and institutional investors had bet would decline in value, causing a dramatic increase in those stocks’ share prices. The mass rush to purchase these “meme stocks” led to a highly volatile securities trading market, with the prices of certain stocks varying wildly by the hour.
When meme stock share prices took off in January 2021, regulators reacted. In a span of three days, Robinhood Securities, a clearing broker, incurred both a deposit surplus of $11 million and a deposit deficit of over $3 billion. These oscillating collateral requirements were driven primarily by Robinhood customers’ concentrated positions in meme stocks. Robinhood Securities proved able to meet its daily deposit requirements each day up to January 28, 2021.
Still, it and its affiliates — parent company Robinhood Markets and introducing broker Robinhood Financial — grew concerned about the rapidly changing circumstances. It then made the decision to restrict purchases of the meme stocks on the Robinhood platform for a week. That decision helped fix Robinhood’s compliance quandary. But, Robinhood customers say, it also forced share prices of the meme stocks into a steep decline.
Several of those customers sued Robinhood, and their suits were consolidated into this Multi-District Litigation. Robinhood has moved to dismiss. The Motion to Dismiss challenges whether any of Plaintiffs’ seven claims is viable.
Defendants moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint. They argue that their duties to Plaintiffs are defined by the Customer Agreement rather than by tort law. And because the Customer Agreement permitted Robinhood to restrict customers’ abilities to trade, Defendants assert that their decision to impose the PCO restrictions did not transgress their obligations under the Agreement.
The Court agrees with Robinhood that the duty that Plaintiffs seek to impose is remarkably broad: they assert Defendants owe a tort duty to permit trading in all securities, at all times, to all “foreseeable” Plaintiffs, even during periods of market volatility. Plaintiffs offer virtually no limiting principle to this theory of duty, other than to point to Robinhood’s retail investor-focused marketing tactics.
All the while, they do not cite a single California case holding that a company’s marketing or business philosophy created an independent duty in tort — much less a duty of the breadth that Plaintiffs propose.
Further, the Judge finds that the plaintiffs repackage their dissatisfaction with the PCO restrictions as negligence claims. In doing so, they seek to obtain precisely what the Customer Agreement that they freely entered denied: a right to unrestricted trading. They also ask the Court to extend California tort law into uncharted waters by imposing on Robinhood a tort duty to all foreseeable investors to permit trading of any security, at any time.
California law does not endorse such freewheeling liability, and it is not the Court’s role to second-guess that policy determination. Counts I and II fail under California law.
Also, the Customer Agreement merits judicial respect under Florida law. And the Court declines Plaintiffs’ invitation to rewrite the Agreement under the guise of novel negligence claims. Because Counts I and II do not adequately allege the existence of a tort duty under either California or Florida law, they were dismissed.
Robinhood’s relationships with its many customers are not special or confidential, the Court finds. Plaintiffs might not be finance experts, but they do not allege that they lack the capacity to make their own decisions or that Robinhood Financial personally took advantage of them. Tellingly, they cite no example of a confidential relationship arising from a garden-variety consumer contract signed by millions of customers. And understandably so. Extending fiduciary obligations to all such relationships would revolutionize the brokerage industry — a consequence California courts have not embraced.
The result in this case comes down to a simple truth: both California and Florida law require courts to respect and enforce the terms of valid contracts, even when one party to a contract boasts greater bargaining power. Plaintiffs have not argued or alleged that the Customer Agreement is unenforceable. Thus, both California and Florida law require holding Plaintiffs to the Agreement’s terms. Those terms permitted Defendants to do precisely what they did.
The Judge notes that Plaintiffs’ request to enlarge Defendants’ obligations beyond those contained in the Agreement is understandable but misguided. California and Florida law each carve out a vital gatekeeping function for courts faced with novel tort claims. Indeed, both California and Florida recognize that tort law is an imperfect — and often, an undesirable — mechanism for allocating financial risk and responsibility.
Unlike contract law, which encourages parties to allocate risks related to future events, tort law concerns itself with after-the-fact determinations of fault. Expanding tort law at contract law’s expense may cause uncertainty. And the uncertain threat of ruinous tort liability can discourage behavior that benefits society.
That is why California, Florida, and virtually every other state in the nation make a point of setting “meaningful limits” on tort liability.
The Judge explains that one of those limits is a healthy skepticism of tort claims better suited for resolution by contract law — for example, claims for purely economic losses, like those asserted by Plaintiffs in this case.
The Court concludes:
“No doubt, Plaintiffs were gravely disappointed when Robinhood suspended purchases of the meme stocks and their holdings declined in value. But the law does not afford relief to every unfulfilled expectation. Sometimes, it requires “denying recovery in negligence cases like this one even though purely economic losses inflict real pain.”
Accordingly, the Court granted Robinhood’s Motion to Dismiss the Robinhood Tranche Complaint.