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A federal judge refused on Monday to dismiss the lead shareholder class action securities case alleging that UnitedHealth Group Inc. and several of its executives backdated stock options. In a colorful but brief order, U.S. District Judge James M. Rosenbaum of the District of Minnesota likened the plaintiff’s theory to the 1973 movie, “The Sting,” in which two con-men outwit a mob boss by betting on horse races after the results are known. “Plaintiffs claim defendants were playing a game with a stacked deck,” the judge wrote in his ruling. “When awarded options, with deliberately selected grant dates which were already in the money, defendants were playing a game they knew they could not lose; and, unsurprisingly, defendants won.” The judge continued: “It is a poker axiom that if a player has his knees under the table and cannot tell who the sucker is, he’s it. In this game, according to plaintiffs, the patsy was either the hapless corporation, which in varying ways defendants controlled, or the corporation’s shareholders, whose equity provided the game’s antes and bloated pot.” The judge also chastised the defendants’ dismissal motions as “expending forests of trees and trillions of electrons.” He emphasized that he has not issued a decision on the merits of the case. Lead defense counsel Peter Carter, a partner at Minneapolis-based Dorsey & Whitney, did not return calls. Bill Lerach, a partner at San Diego-based Lerach Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins, who represents the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), the lead plaintiff in the case, did not return calls seeking comment.

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