Read Case Study 13-1, “Accounting for Contingent Assets: The Case of Cardinal Health,” from Chapter 13 in the textbook.
In a 300-word executive summary to the Cardinal Health CEO, address the following:
13.2 Analyzing and interpreting disclosures on the provision
13.1 Accounting for contingent assets: the case of
13.1 Accounting for contingent assets: the case of
13.1 Accounting for contingent assests: the case of Cardinal Health
In a complaint dated 26 July 2007, and after a four-year investigation, the US Securities
and Exchange Commission (SEC) accused Cardinal Health, the world’s second largest
distributor of pharmaceutical products, of violating generally accepted accounting
principles (GAAP) by prematurely recognizing gains from a provisional settlement of a
lawsuit ﬁled against several vitamin manufacturers. Weeks earlier, the company agreed
to pay $600 million to settle a lawsuit ﬁled by shareholders who bought stock between 2000 and 2004, accusing Cardinal of accounting irregularities and inﬂated earnings. The
recovery from the vitamin companies should have been an unqualiﬁed positive for
Cardinal Health. What happened?
The story begins in 1999 when Cardinal Health joined a class action to recover over-
charges from vitamin manufacturers. The vitamin makers had just pled guilty to charges
of price-ﬁxing from 1988 to 1998. In March 2000, the defendants in that action reached a
provisional settlement with the plaintiffs under which Cardinal could have received $22
million. But Cardinal opted out of the settlement, choosing instead to ﬁle its own claims
in the hopes of getting a bigger payout.
The accounting troubles started in October 2000 when senior managers at Cardinal
began to consider recording a portion of the expected proceeds from a future settlement
as a litigation gain. The purpose was to close a gap in Cardinal’s budgeted earnings for
the second quarter of FY 2001, which ended 31 December 2000. According to the SEC, in
a November 2000 e-mail a senior executive at Cardinal Health explained why Cardinal
should use the vitamin gain, rather than other earnings initiatives, to report the desired
level of earnings: “We do not need much to get over the hump, although the preference would be the vitamin case so that we do not steal from Q3.”
On 31 December 2000, the last day of the second quarter of FY 2001, Cardinal recorded
a $10 million contingent vitamin litigation gain as a reduction to cost of sales. In its
complaint, the SEC alleged that Cardinal’s classiﬁcation of the gain as a reduction to
cost of sales violated GAAP. It is worth noting that had the gain not been recognized,
Cardinal would have missed analysts’ average consensus EPS estimate for the quarter
Later in FY 2001, Cardinal considered recording a similar gain, but its auditor at the
time, PricewaterhouseCoopers (hereafter PwC), was opposed to the idea. Accordingly, no
litigation gains were recorded in the third or fourth quarters of FY 2001. Moreover, PwC
advised Cardinal that the $10 million recognized in the second quarter of FY 2001 as a
reduction to cost of sales should be reclassiﬁed “below the line” as nonoperating income.
Cardinal management ignored the auditor’s advice, and the $10 million gain was not
The urge to report an additional gain resurfaced during the ﬁrst quarter of FY 2002, and
for the same reason as in the prior year: to cover an expected shortfall in earnings. On
30 September 2001, the last day of the ﬁrst quarter of FY 2002, Cardinal recorded a $12
million gain, bringing the total gains from litigation to $22 million. As in the previous
year, Cardinal classiﬁed the gain as a reduction to cost of sales, allowing the company to
boost operating earnings. However, PwC disagreed with Cardinal’s classiﬁcation. The auditor advised Cardinal that the amount should have been recorded as nonoperating
income on the grounds that the estimated vitamin recovery arose from litigation, was
nonrecurring, and stemmed from claims against third parties that originated nearly 13
By May 2002, PwC had been replaced as Cardinal’s auditor by Arthur Andersen.
Andersen was responsible for auditing Cardinal’s ﬁnancial statements for the whole of
FY 2002, ended 30 June 2002, and thus, it reviewed Cardinal’s classiﬁcation of the $12
million vitamin gain. The Andersen auditors agreed with PwC that Cardinal had mis-
classiﬁed the gain. After Cardinal’s persistent refusal to reclassify the gains, Andersen
advised the company that it disagreed but would treat the $12 million as a “passed
adjustment” and include the issue in its Summary of Audit Differences.
In spring 2002 Cardinal Health reached a $35.3 million settlement with several vita-
min manufacturers. The $13.3 million not yet recognized was recorded as a gain in the
ﬁnal quarter of FY 2002. But while management thought its accounting policies had
been vindicated by the settlement, the issue wouldn’t go away.
On 2 April 2003, an article in the “Heard on the Street” column in The Wall Street
Journal sharply criticized Cardinal Health for its handling of the litigation gains.
CARDINAL rule of accounting:” the article begins, pun intended. “Don ’t count your
chickens before they hatch. Yet new disclosures in Cardinal Health Inc.’s latest annual
report suggests that is what the drug wholesaler has done not just once, but twice.”
Nevertheless, management continued to defend its accounting practices, partly on the grounds that the amounts later received from the vitamin companies exceeded the
amount of the contingent gains recognized in FY 2001 and FY 2002. Moreover, after
the initial settlement, Cardinal Health received an additional $92.8 million in vitamin-
related litigation settlements, bringing the total proceeds to over $128 million.
Cardinal management ﬁnally succumbed to reality in the following year, and in the
Form 10-K (annual report) ﬁled with the SEC for FY 2004, Cardinal restated its ﬁnancial
results to reverse both gains, restating operating income from the two affected quarters.
But the damage had already been done. The article in The Wall Street Journal triggered
the SEC investigation alluded to earlier. A broad range of issues, going far beyond the
treatment of the litigation gains, were brought under the agency’s scrutiny, culminating
in the SEC complaint. Two weeks after the complaint was ﬁled, Cardinal Health settled
with the SEC, agreeing to pay a $35 million ﬁne.
Arthur Andersen ceased operating months later in the aftermath of the Enron scandal. The Cardinal Health audit was then taken over by Ernst & Young.
A Summary of Audit Differences is a nonpublic document that lists the errors and adjustments identiﬁed by
the auditor. It serves as the basis for the audit opinion. If the net effect of the errors exceeds the materiality
threshold established for the client, the auditor will require an adjustment to the ﬁnancial statements. “Passed
adjustment” means that the error in question was waived; that is, no adjustment was demanded by the auditor.
“Cardinal Health’s Accounting Raises Some Questions,” by Jonathan Weil, The Wall Street Journal, 2 April
2003, p. C1.