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NYU Journal of Law & Business (2010)
  • Victor D. Quintanilla

This article examines the element of scienter (fraudulent intent) in claims of federal securities fraud under Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act and, more specifically, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308 (2007) from a social-psychological perspective. The field of social psychology has documented a pervasive phenomena—the Fundamental Attribution Error—the failure of decision-makers to consider situational explanations, including the force of environments and social and situational norms on human conduct. In light of robust social-psychological research on the Fundamental Attribution Error, legal concepts such as intent, intentionality, mens rea, and scienter should be reexamined and reconstructed.

In Tellabs, the Supreme Court instructed federal courts to dismiss federal securities complaints, unless a reasonable person would deem the inference of scienter to be cogent, and at least as compelling as any opposite inference one could draw from factual allegations in the complaint. The Courts of Appeals are divided, however, on whether this framework applies at summary judgment.

When viewed from a social-psychological perspective, Tellabs promotes effective judicial-decision making. Tellabs broadens the epistemic goal of decision-making to include consideration of both dispositional and situational factors. When federal courts explicitly consider alternative explanations and causes of the defendants’ actions, jurists are more likely to consider situational explanations. Jurists would avoid the Fundamental Attribution Error and make more accurate decisions. Tellabs, therefore, offsets the tendency to over-attribute fraudulent intent to conduct appearing unreasonable only in hindsight. Applying the Tellabs framework at summary judgment, in the federal securities context, is consistent with Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and modern summary judgment jurisprudence.

  • Law and Psychology,
  • Social Psychology,
  • Fundamental Attribution Error,
  • Scienter,
  • Intent,
  • Inferences,
  • Securities Litigation
Publication Date
Winter December, 2010
Citation Information
Victor D. Quintanilla, (Mis)Judging Intent: The Fundamental Attribution Error In Federal Securities Law, 7 NYU Journal of Law & Business 195 (2010).