In combination with the Delaware Court of Chancery’s decision in In re Trulia, Inc. Stockholder Litigation, 129 A.3d 884 (Del. Ch. 2016), Judge Posner’s blistering opinion In re Walgreen Company Stockholder Litigation, 2016 WL 4207962 (7th Cir. Aug. 10, 2016), may well close the door on disclosure-only settlements in shareholder challenges to mergers.  That certainly feels just.  And it may well go a long way toward discouraging meritless merger litigation.  But, as I’ve cautioned, I am concerned that we will regret it.  Lost in the cheering over Trulia and Walgreen is a simple and practical reality: the availability of disclosure-only settlements is in the interests of merging companies as much as it is in the interests of shareholder plaintiffs’ lawyers, because disclosure-only settlements are often the most timely and efficient way to resolve shareholder challenges to mergers, even legitimate ones.

I am offended by meritless merger litigation, and have long advocated reforms to fix the system that not only allows it, but encourages and incentivizes it.  Certainly, strict scrutiny of disclosure-only settlements will reduce the number of merger claims—it already has.  Let’s say shareholder challenges mergers are permanently reduced from 90% to 60% of transactions.  That would be great.  But how do we then resolve the cases that remain?  Unfortunately, there aren’t efficient and generally agreeable alternatives to disclosure-only settlements to dispose of a merger lawsuit before the closing of the challenged transaction.  Of course, the parties can increase the merger price, though that is a difficult proposition.  The parties can also adjust other deal terms, but few merger partners want to alter the deal unless and until the alteration doesn’t actually matter, and settlements based on meaningless deal-structure changes won’t fare better with courts than meaningless disclosure-only settlements.

If the disclosure-only door to resolving merger cases is shut, then more cases will need to be litigated post-close.  That will make settlement more expensive.  Plaintiffs lawyers are not going to start to settle for less money, especially when they are forced to litigate for longer and invest more in their cases.   And in contrast to adjustments to the merger transaction or disclosures, in which 100% of the cash goes to lawyers for the “benefit” they provided, settlements based on the payment of cash to the class of plaintiffs require a much larger sum to yield the same amount of money to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.  For example, a $500,000 fee payment to plaintiffs’ under a disclosure-only settlement would require around $2 million in a settlement payment to the class to yield the same fee for the plaintiffs’ attorneys, assuming a 25% contingent-fee award.

The increase in the cash outlay required for companies and their insurers to deal with post-close merger litigation will actually be much higher than my example indicates.  Plaintiffs’ lawyers will spend more time on each case, and demand a higher settlement amount to yield a higher plaintiffs’ fee.  Defense costs will skyrocket.  And discovery in post-close cases will inevitably unearth problems that the disclosure-only settlement landscape camouflaged, significantly increasing the severity of many cases.  It is not hard to imagine that merger cases that could have settled for disclosures and a six-figure plaintiffs’ fee will often become an eight-figure mess.  And, beyond these unfortunate economic consequences, the inability to resolve merger litigation quickly and efficiently will increase the burden upon directors and officers by requiring continued service to companies they have sold, as they are forced to produce documents, sit for depositions, and consult with their defense lawyers, while the merger case careens toward trial.

Again, it’s hard to disagree with the logic and sentiment of these decisions, and the result may very well be more just.  But this justice will come with a high practical price tag.

Following is an article we wrote for Law360, which gave us permission to republish it here:

The coming year promises to be a pivotal one in the world of securities and corporate governance litigation.  In particular, there are five developing issues we are watching that have the greatest potential to significantly increase or decrease the exposure of public companies and their directors, officers, and insurers.

1.  How Will Lower Courts Apply the Supreme Court’s Decision in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers Dist. Council Const. Industry Pension Fund?

If it is correctly understood and applied by defendants and the courts, we believe Omnicare will stand alongside Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308 (2007), as one of the two most important securities litigation decisions since the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995.

In Omnicare, 135 S. Ct. 1318 (2015), the Supreme Court held that a statement of opinion is only false if the speaker does not genuinely believe it, and that it is only misleading if – as with any other statement – it omits facts that make it misleading when viewed in its full context.  The Court’s ruling on what is necessary for an opinion to be false establishes a uniform standard that resolves two decades of confusing and conflicting case law, which often resulted in meritless securities cases surviving dismissal motions.  And the Court’s ruling regarding how an opinion may be misleading emphasizes that courts must evaluate the fairness of challenged statements (both opinions and other statements) within a broad factual context, eliminating the short-shrift that many courts have given the misleading-statement analysis.

These are tremendous improvements in the law, and should help defendants win more cases involving statements of opinion, not only under Section 11, the statute at issue in Omnicare, but also under Section 10(b), since Omnicare’s holding applies to the “false or misleading statement” element common to both statutes.  The standards the Court set should also add to the Reform Act’s Safe Harbor, and expand the tools that defendants have to defend against challenges to earnings forecasts and other forward-looking statements, which are quintessential opinions.

Indeed, if used correctly, Omnicare should also help defendants gain dismissal of claims brought based on challenged statements of fact, because of its emphasis on the importance of considering the entire context of a statement when determining whether it was misleading.   For example, the Court emphasized that whether a statement is misleading “always depends on context,” so a statement must be understood in its “broader frame,” including “in light of all its surrounding text, including hedges, disclaimers, and apparently conflicting information,” and the “customs and practices of the relevant industry.”

A good motion to dismiss has always analyzed a challenged statement (of fact or opinion) in its broader factual context to explain why it was not misleading.  But many defense lawyers unfortunately choose to leave out this broader context, and as a result of this narrow record, courts sometimes take a narrower view.  With Omnicare, this superior method of analysis is now explicitly required.  This will be a powerful tool, especially when combined with Tellabs’s directive that courts must weigh scienter inferences based not only on the complaint’s allegations, but also on documents on which the complaint relies or that are subject to judicial notice.

Omnicare bolsters the array of weapons available to defendants to effectively defend allegations of falsity, and to set up and support the Safe Harbor defense and arguments against scienter.  Because of its importance, we plan to write a piece critiquing the cases applying Omnicare after its one-year anniversary in March.

2.  Will Courts Continue to Curtail the Use of 10b5-1 Plans as a Way to Undermine Scienter Allegations?

All successful securities fraud complaints must persuade the court that the difference between the challenged statements and the “corrective” disclosure was the result of fraud, and not due to a business reversal or some other non-fraudulent cause.  Because few securities class action complaints contain direct evidence of fraud, such as specific information that a speaker knew his statements were false, most successful complaints include allegations that the defendants somehow profited from the alleged fraud, such as through unusual and suspicious stock sales.

Thus, stock-sale allegations are a key battleground in most securities actions.  An important defensive tactic has been to point out that the challenged stock sales were made under stock-sale plans under SEC Rule 10b5-1, which provides an affirmative defense to insider-trading claims, if the plan was established in good faith at a time when they were unaware of material non-public information.  Although Rule 10b5-1 is designed to be an affirmative defense in insider-trading cases, securities class action defendants also use it to undermine stock-sale allegations, if the plan has been publicly disclosed and thus subject to judicial notice, since it shows that the defendant did not have control over the allegedly unusual and suspicious stock sales.

Plaintiffs’ argument in response to a 10b5-1 plan defense has always been that any plan adopted during the class period is just a large insider sale designed to take advantage of the artificial inflation in the stock price.  Plaintiffs claim that by definition, the class period is a time during which the defendants had material nonpublic information – although they often manipulate the class period in order to encompass stock sales and the establishment of 10b5-1 plans.

There have been surprisingly few key court decisions on this pivotal issue, but on July 24, 2015, the Second Circuit held that “[w]hen executives enter into a trading plan during the Class Period and the Complaint sufficiently alleges that the purpose of the plan was to take advantage of an inflated stock price, the plan provides no defense to scienter allegations.” Employees’ Ret. Sys. of Gov’t of the Virgin Island v. Blanford, 794 F.3d 297, 309 (2d Cir. 2015).

Plaintiffs’ ability to plead scienter will take a huge step forward if Blanford, decided by an important appellate court, starts a wave of similar holdings in other circuits.

3.  Will Delaware’s Endorsement of Forum Selection Bylaws and Rejection of Disclosure-Only Settlements Reduce Shareholder Challenges to Mergers?

For the past several years, there has been great focus on amending corporate bylaws to try to corral and curtail shareholder corporate-governance claims, principally shareholder challenges to mergers.  Meritless merger litigation is indeed a big problem.  It is a slap in the face to careful directors who have worked hard to understand and approve a merger, and to CEOs who have worked long hours to find and negotiate a transaction that is in the shareholders’ best interests.  It is cold comfort to know that nearly all mergers draw shareholder litigation, and that nearly all of those cases will settle before the transaction closes without any payment by the directors or officers personally.  It is proof that the system is broken when it routinely allows meritless suits to result in significant recoveries for plaintiffs’ lawyers, with virtually nothing gained by companies or their shareholders.

In 2015, the Delaware legislature and courts took significant steps to curb meritless merger litigation.

First, the legislature added new Section 115 to the Delaware General Corporation Law (“DGCL”), which provides:

The certificate of incorporation or the bylaws may require, consistent with applicable jurisdictional requirements, that any or all internal corporate claims shall be brought solely and exclusively in any or all of the courts in this State.

This provision essentially codified the holding in Boilermakers Local 154 Ret. Fund v. Chevron Corp., 73 A.3d 934 (Del. Ch. 2013), in which the Delaware Court of Chancery upheld the validity of bylaws requiring that corporate governance litigation be brought only in Delaware state and federal courts.  The Delaware legislature also amended the DGCL to ban bylaws that purport to shift fees.  In new subsection (f) to Section 102, the certificate of incorporation “may not contain any provision that would impose liability on a stockholder for the attorneys’ fees or expenses of the corporation or any other party in connection with an internal corporate claim.” See also DGCL Section 109(b) (similar).

Second, in a series of decisions in 2015, the Delaware Court of Chancery rejected or criticized so-called disclosure-only settlements, under which the target company supplements its proxy-statement disclosures in exchange for a payment to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.  See Acevedo v. Aeroflex Holding Corp., et al., C.A. No. 7930-VCL (Del. Ch. July 8, 2015) (TRANSCRIPT) (rejecting disclosure-only settlement); In re Aruba Networks S’holder Litig., C.A. No. 10765-VCL (Del. Ch. Oct. 9, 2015) (TRANSCRIPT) (same); In re Riverbed Tech., Inc., S’holder Litig., 2015 WL 5458041, C.A. No. 10484-VCG (Del. Ch. Sept. 17, 2015) (approving disclosure-only settlement with broad release, but suggesting that approval of such settlements “will be diminished or eliminated going forward”); In re Intermune, Inc., S’holder Litig., C.A. No. 10086–VCN (Del. Ch. July 8, 2015) (TRANSCRIPT) (noting concern regarding global release in disclosure-only settlement).

We will be closely watching the impact of these developments, with the hope that they will deter plaintiffs from reflexively filing meritless merger cases.  Delaware exclusive-forum bylaws will force plaintiffs to face the scrutiny of Delaware courts, and the Court of Chancery has indicated that it may no longer allow an easy exit from these cases through a disclosure-only settlement.  And with cases in a single forum, defendants will now be able to coordinate them for early motions to dismiss.  Thus, the number of mergers subject to a shareholder lawsuit should decline – and the early returns suggest that this may already be happening.

Yet defendants should brace for negative consequences.  Plaintiffs’ lawyers will doubtless bring more cases outside of Delaware against non-Delaware corporations, or against companies that haven’t adopted a Delaware exclusive-forum bylaw.  And within Delaware, plaintiffs’ lawyers will tend to bring more meritorious cases that present greater risk, exposure, and stigma – and while Delaware is a defendant-friendly forum for good transactions, it is a decidedly unfriendly one for bad ones.  If disclosure-only settlements are no longer allowed, defendants will no longer have the option of escaping these cases easily and cheaply.  This means that those cases that are filed will doubtless require more expensive litigation, and result in more significant settlements and judgments.  Thus, although the current system is undoubtedly badly flawed, many companies may well look back on the days of this broken system with nostalgia, and conclude that they were better off before it was “fixed.”

4.  Will Item 303 Claims Make a Difference in Securities Class Actions?

The key liability provisions of the federal securities laws, Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Section 11 of the Securities Act of 1933, both require that plaintiffs establish a false statement, or a statement that is rendered misleading by the omission of facts.  Over the last several years, plaintiffs’ lawyers have increasingly tried to bypass this element by asserting claims for pure omissions, detached from any challenged statement.

Plaintiffs base these claims on Item 303 of SEC Regulation S-K, which requires companies to provide a “management’s discussion and analysis” (MD&A) of the company’s “financial condition, changes in financial condition and results of operations.”  Item 303(a)(3)(ii) indicates that the MD&A must include a description of “any known trends or uncertainties that have had or that the [company] reasonably expects will have a material … unfavorable impact on net sales or revenues or income from continuing operations.”

Both Section 10(b) and Section 11 prohibit a false statement or omission of a fact that causes a statement to be misleading, while Section 11 also allows a claim based on an issuer’s failure to disclose “a material fact required to be stated” in a registration statement. 15 U.S.C. § 77k(a) (emphasis added).  Item 303 is one regulation that lists such “material fact(s) required to be stated.”  Panther Partners Inc. v. Ikanos Communications, Inc., 681 F.3d 114, 120 (2d Cir. 2012).  Based on this unique statutory language, Section 11 claims thus appropriately can include claims based on Item 303.

Last year, in Stratte-McClure v. Morgan Stanley, 776 F.3d 94 (2d Cir. 2015), the Second Circuit held that Item 303 also imposes a duty to disclose for purposes of Section 10(b), meaning that the omission of information required by Item 303 can provide the basis for a Section 10(b) claim.  This ruling is at odds with the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in In re NVIDIA Corp. Securities Litigation, 768 F.3d 1046 (9th Cir. 2014), in which the court held that Item 303 does not establish such a duty.  The U.S. Supreme Court declined a cert petition in NVIDIA.

Claims based on Item 303 seem innocuous enough, and even against plaintiffs’ interest. Plaintiffs face a high hurdle in showing that information was wrongfully excluded under Item 303, since they must show that a company actually knew:  (1) the facts underlying the trend or uncertainty, (2) those known facts yield a trend or uncertainty, and (3) the trend or uncertainty will have a negative and material impact.  In virtually all cases, these sorts of omitted facts would also render one or more of defendants’ affirmative statements misleading, and thus be subject to challenge regardless.  Moreover, in Section 11 cases, Item 303 injects knowledge and causation requirements in a statute that normally doesn’t require scienter and only includes causation as an affirmative defense.

Why, then, have plaintiffs’ counsel pushed Item 303 claims so hard?  We believe they’ve done so to combat the cardinal rule that silence, absent a duty to disclose, is not misleading.  Companies omit thousands of facts every time they speak, and it is relatively easy for a plaintiff to identify omitted facts – but much more difficult to explain how those omissions rendered an affirmative statement misleading.  Plaintiffs likely initially saw these claims as a way to maintain class actions in the event the Supreme Court overruled Basic v. Levinson as a result of attacks in the Amgen and Halliburton cases.  And even though the Supreme Court declined to overrule Basic in Halliburton II, the Court’s price-impact rule presents problems for plaintiffs in some cases.  As a result, plaintiffs may believe it is in their strategic interests to assert Item 303 claims, which plaintiffs have contended fall under the Affiliated Ute presumption of reliance, rather than under Basic.

But whatever plaintiffs’ rationale, Item 303 is largely a red herring.  Although it shouldn’t matter to securities litigation, it will matter, as long as plaintiffs continue to bring such claims.  And they probably will continue to bring them, given the current strategic considerations, and the legal footing they have been given by key appellate rulings in Panther Partners and Stratte-McClure.  Defense attorneys will have to pay close attention to these trends and mount sophisticated defenses to these claims, to ensure that Item 303 claims do not take on a life of their own.

5.  Cyber Security Securities and Derivative Litigation: Will There Be a Wave or Trickle?

One of the foremost uncertainties in securities and corporate governance litigation is the extent to which cyber security will become a significant D&O liability issue.  Although many practitioners have been bracing for a wave of cyber security D&O matters, to date there has been only a trickle.

We remain convinced that a wave is coming, perhaps a tidal wave, and that it will include not just derivative litigation, but securities class actions and SEC enforcement matters as well.  To date, plaintiffs generally haven’t filed cyber security securities class actions because stock prices have not significantly dropped when companies have disclosed breaches.  That is bound to change as the market begins to distinguish companies on the basis of cyber security.  There have been a number of shareholder derivative actions asserting that boards failed to properly oversee their companies’ cyber security.  Those actions will continue, and likely increase, whether or not plaintiffs file cyber security securities class actions, but they will increase exponentially if securities class action filings pick up.

While the frequency of cyber security shareholder litigation will inevitably increase, we are more worried about its severity, because of the notorious statistics concerning a lack of attention by companies and boards to cyber security oversight and disclosure.  Indeed, the shareholder litigation may well be ugly:  The more directors and officers are on notice about the severity of cyber security problems, and the less action they take while on notice, the easier it will be for plaintiffs to prove their claims.

We also worry about SEC enforcement actions concerning cyber security.  The SEC has been struggling to refine its guidance to companies on cyber security disclosure, trying to balance the concern of disclosing too much and thus providing hackers with a roadmap, with the need to disclose enough to allow investors to evaluate companies’ cyber security risk.  But directors and officers should not assume that the SEC will announce new guidance or issue new rules before it begins new enforcement activity in this area.  All it takes to trigger an investigation of a particular company is some information that the company’s disclosures were rendered false or misleading by inadequate cyber security.  And all it takes to trigger broader enforcement activity is a perception that companies are not taking cyber security disclosure seriously.  As in all areas of legal compliance, companies need to be concerned about whistleblowers, including overworked and underpaid IT personnel, lured by the SEC’s whistleblower bounty program, and about auditors, who will soon be asking more frequent and difficult questions about cyber security.

Conclusion

Of course, there are a number of other important issues that deserve to be on watch lists.  But given the line we’ve drawn – issues that will cause the most volatility in securities litigation liability exposure – we regard the issues we’ve discussed as the top five.

And the top one – whether lower courts will properly apply Omnicare – is a rare game-changer.  If defense counsel understands and uses Omnicare correctly, and if lower courts apply it as the Supreme Court intended, securities litigation decisions will be based on reality, and therefore far fairer and more just.  But if either defense counsel or lower courts get it wrong, companies and their directors and officers will suffer outcomes that are less predictable, more arbitrary, and often wrong.

In the world of securities and corporate governance litigation, we are always in the middle of a reform discussion of some variety.  For the past several years, there has been great focus on amendment of corporate bylaws to corral and curtail shareholder corporate-governance claims, principally shareholder challenges to mergers.*  Meritless merger litigation is indeed a big problem.  It is a slap in the face to careful directors who have worked hard to understand and approve a merger, or to CEOs who have spent many months or years working long hours to locate and negotiate a transaction in the shareholders’ best interest.  It is cold comfort to know that nearly all mergers draw shareholder litigation, and that nearly all of those cases will settle before the transaction closes without any payment by the directors or officers personally.  And we know the system is broken when it routinely allows meritless suits to result in significant recoveries for plaintiffs’ lawyers, with virtually nothing gained by companies or their shareholders.

There are three main solutions afoot, at different stages of maturity, involving amendments to corporate bylaws to require that: (1) there be an exclusive forum, chiefly Delaware, for shareholder litigation; (2) a losing shareholder pay for the litigation defense costs; and (3) a shareholder stake hold a minimum amount of stock to have standing to sue.  I refer readers to the blogs published by Kevin LaCroix, Alison Frankel, and Francis Pileggi for good discussions of these types of bylaws.  The purpose of this blog post is not to specifically chronicle each initiative, but to caution that they will cause unintended consequences that will leave us with a different set of problems than the ones they solved.

Exclusive-forum bylaws offer the most targeted solution, albeit with some negative consequences.

Exclusive-forum bylaws best address the fundamental problem with merger litigation: the inability to coordinate cases for an effective motion to dismiss before the plaintiffs and defendants must begin negotiations to achieve settlement before the merger closes.  Although the merger-litigation problem is virtually always framed in terms of the oppressive cost and hassle of multi-forum litigation, good defense counsel can usually manage the cost and logistics.  Instead, the bigger problem, and the problem that causes meritless merger litigation to exist, is the inability to obtain dismissals.  This is primarily so because actions filed in multiple forums can’t all be subjected to a timely motion to dismiss, and a dismissal in one forum that can’t timely be used in another forum is a hollow victory.  Exclusive litigation in Delaware for Delaware corporations is preferable, because of Delaware’s greater experience with merger litigation and likely willingness to weed out meritless cases at a higher rate.  But the key to eradicating meritless merger litigation is consolidation in some single forum, and not every Delaware corporation wishes to litigate in Delaware.

The closest historical analogy to such bylaws is the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act’s provision requiring that covered class actions be brought in federal court and litigated under federal law to ensure that the least meritorious cases are weeded out early, as Congress intended through the Reform Act.  The Reform Act’s emphasis on early dismissal of cases that lack merit has been its best feature, and requiring litigation in federal court helped achieved it.

So too would litigation in an exclusive forum, because it would yield a more meaningful motion to dismiss process, which would weed out less-meritorious cases early, which in turn would deter plaintiffs’ lawyers from bringing as many meritless cases.  The solution is that simple.  There will be consequences, though.  Plaintiffs’ lawyers, of course, will tend to bring more meritorious cases that present greater risk, exposure, and stigma, and will bring more in Delaware, which is a defendant-friendly forum for good transactions but a decidedly unfriendly one for bad transactions.  So while it certainly isn’t good that there are shareholder challenges to 95% of all mergers, the current system reduces the stigma of being sued and tends to result in fairly easy and cheap resolutions.  In contrast, cases that focus on the worst deals and target defendants that the plaintiffs’ lawyers regard as the biggest offenders will require more expensive litigation and significant settlements and judgments.

Fee-shifting and minimum-stake bylaws are overly broad and will cause a different set of problems.

So exclusive-forum bylaws attack the merger-litigation problem in a focused and effective fashion, albeit with downside risk.  In contrast, fee-shifting bylaws and minimum-stake bylaws attack the merger-litigation problem, but do so in an overly broad fashion, and will cause significant adverse consequences.

Fee-shifting bylaws, of course, attempt to curtail the number of cases by forcing plaintiffs who bring bad cases to pay defendants’ fees.  I find troubling the problem of deterring plaintiffs’ lawyers from bringing meritorious cases as well, since many plaintiffs’ lawyers would be very conservative and thus refuse to bring any case that might not succeed, even if strong.  That concern probably will cause the downfall of fee-shifting bylaws, where the Delaware Senate just passed a bill that would outlaw fee-shifting bylaws, and the issue now goes to the Delaware House.  (The same bill authorizes bylaws designating Delaware as the exclusive forum for shareholder litigation.)  But to me, the bigger problem is an inevitable new category of super-virulent cases, involving tremendous reputational harm (e.g. the plaintiffs’ firm decided to risk paying tens of millions of dollars in defense fees because they decided those defendants are that guilty) and intractable litigation that quite often would head to trial – at great cost not just financially, but to the law as well because it is indeed true that bad facts make bad law.

The Reform Act’s pleading standards have created analogous negative consequences, but much less severe and costly.  The pleading standards (and the Rule 11 provision) weed out bad cases early on, but almost never is there a financial penalty to a plaintiff for bringing a bad case.  Instead, the bigger plaintiffs’ firms have tended to be more selective in the cases they bring, which has yielded a pretty good system overall – even though they sometimes still bring meritless cases, and meritless cases sometimes get past motions to dismiss.  The bigger and still-unsolved problem with pleading standards is the overly zealous and necessarily imperfect confidential-witness investigations they cause, to attempt to satisfy the statute’s elevated pleading requirements.  The fee-shifting bylaws would occasion those sorts of problems as well, in addition to the virulent-case problem I’ve described.

Fee-shifting bylaws advocates’ push for ultra-meritorious lawsuits strikes me as an extreme case of “be careful what you wish for.”  But it brings to mind a more mainstream situation that has worried me for many years: aggressive arguments in demand motions for pre-litigation board demands and shareholder inspections of books and records.  In arguing that a shareholder derivative lawsuit should be dismissed for failure to make a demand on the board, defendants have long asserted that a shareholder failed to even ask the company for records under Section 220 of the Delaware General Corporation Law or similar state laws, to attempt to investigate the corporate claims he or she is pressing.  Delaware courts, in turn, have chastised shareholders for failing to utilize 220, though thus far have stopped short of requiring it.  Likewise, defendants, sometimes with great disdain, have criticized shareholders for not making a pre-suit demand on the board.

Although these are correct and appropriate litigation arguments, I have observed that, over time, they have succeeded in spawning more 220 inspection demands and pre-suit demands on boards, which over time will create more costly and virulent derivative cases than plain vanilla demand-excused cases brought without the aid of books and records.  The solution is to just get those highly dismiss-able cases dismissed, without trying to shame the derivative plaintiffs into making a 220 or demand on the board next time.

Minimum-stake bylaws are problematic as well.  They have as their premise that shareholders with some “skin in the game” will evaluate cases better, and will help prevent lawyer-driven litigation.  Like fee-shifting bylaws, they will prevent shareholders from brining meritless lawsuits, and likewise tend to yield more expensive and difficult cases to defend and resolve.  But they also will create a more difficult type of plaintiff to deal with, much the same way as the Reform Act’s lead-plaintiff provisions have created a class of plaintiffs that sometimes make us yearn for the days when the plaintiffs’ lawyers had more control.  More invested plaintiffs increase litigation cost, duration, and difficulty, and increase the caliber and intensity of plaintiffs’ lawyering.

And I have no doubt that, despite the bylaws, smaller shareholders and plaintiffs’ firms will find a way back into the action, much as we’re seeing recently with retail investors and smaller plaintiffs’ firms brining more and smaller securities class actions that institutional investors and the larger plaintiffs’ firms with institutional-investor clients don’t find worth their time and money to bring.  So with securities class actions, I think a two-headed monster is emerging: a relatively small group of larger and virulent cases, and a growing group of smaller cases.  That, too, likely would happen, somehow, with minimum-stake bylaws.

What’s the harm with taking a shot at as many fixes as possible?

Even if someone could see the big picture well enough to judge that these problems aren’t sufficient to outweigh the benefits of fee-shifting and minimum-stake bylaws, I would still hesitate to advocate their widespread adoption, because governments and shareholder advocacy groups would step in to regulate under-regulation caused by reduced shareholder litigation.  That would create an uncertain governance environment, and quite probably a worse one for companies.  Fear of an inferior alternative was my basic concern about the prospect that the Supreme Court in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc. would overrule Basic v. Levinson and effectively abolish securities class actions.

Beyond the concern about an inferior replacement system, I worry about doing away with the benefits shareholders and plaintiffs’ lawyers provide, albeit at a cost.  Shareholders and plaintiffs’ lawyers are mostly-rational economic actors who play key roles in our system of disclosure and governance; the threat of liability, or even the hassle of being sued, promotes good disclosure and governance decisions.  Even notorious officer and director liability decisions, such as the landmark 1985 Delaware Supreme Court decision in Smith v. Van Gorkom, are unfortunate for the defendants involved but do improve governance and disclosure.

One final thought.  Shareholder litigation’s positive impact on governance and disclosure makes me wonder: will the quality of board oversight of cybersecurity, and corporate disclosure of cybersecurity issues, improve without the shock of a significant litigation development?

 

* Although indiscriminate merger litigation is the primary target of bylaw amendments, other types of securities and corporate-governance lawsuits, such as securities class actions and non-merger derivative litigation, are sometimes part of the discussion.  Those types of cases, however, do not pose the same problems as merger litigation.  And it is doubtful whether a company’s bylaws could regulate securities class actions, which are not an intra-corporate dispute between a current shareholder and the company, but instead direct class-period claims brought by purchasers or sellers, who do not need to be, and often are not, current shareholders.

This year will be remembered as the year of the Super Bowl of securities litigation, Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc. (“Halliburton II”), 134 S. Ct. 2398 (2014), the case that finally gave the Supreme Court the opportunity to overrule the fraud-on-the-market presumption of reliance, established in 1988 in Basic v. Levinson.

Yet, for all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the case, Halliburton II may well have the lowest impact-to-fanfare ratio of any Supreme Court securities decision, ever.  Indeed, it does not even make my list of the Top 5 most influential developments in 2014 – developments that foretell the types of securities and corporate-governance claims plaintiffs will bring in the future, how defendants will defend them, and the exposure they present.

Topping my Top 5 list is a forthcoming Supreme Court decision in a different, less-heralded case – Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers District Council Construction Industry Pension Fund.  Despite the lack of fanfare, Omnicare likely will have the greatest practical impact of any Supreme Court securities decision since the Court’s 2007 decision in Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308  (2007).  After discussing my Top 5, I explain why Halliburton II does not make the list.

5.         City of Providence v. First Citizens BancShares:  A Further Step Toward Greater Scrutiny of Meritless Merger Litigation

In City of Providence v. First Citizens BancShares, 99 A.3d 229 (Del. Ch. 2014), Chancellor Bouchard upheld the validity of a board-adopted bylaw that specified North Carolina as the exclusive forum for intra-corporate disputes of a Delaware corporation.  The ruling extended former Chancellor Strine’s ruling last year in Boilermakers Local 154 Retirement Fund v. Chevron, 73 A.3d 934 (Del Ch. 2013), which validated a Delaware exclusive-forum bylaw.  These types of bylaws largely are an attempt to bring some order to litigation of shareholder challenges to corporate mergers and other transactions.

Meritless merger litigation is a big problem.  Indiscriminate merger litigation is a slap in the face to careful directors who have worked hard to understand and approve a merger, or to CEOs who have spent many months or years working long hours to locate and negotiate a transaction in the shareholders’ best interest.  It is cold comfort to know that nearly all mergers draw shareholder litigation, and that nearly all of those cases will settle before the transaction closes without any payment by the directors or officers personally.  And we know the system is broken when it routinely allows meritless suits to result in significant recoveries for plaintiffs’ lawyers, with virtually nothing gained by companies or their shareholders.

Two years ago, I advocated for procedures requiring shareholder lawsuits to be brought in the company’s state of incorporation.  Exclusive state-of-incorporation litigation would attack the root cause of the merger-litigation problem: the inability to consolidate cases and subject them to a motion to dismiss early enough to obtain a ruling before negotiations to achieve settlement before the transaction closes must begin.  Although the problem is virtually always framed in terms of the oppressive cost and hassle of multi-forum litigation, good defense counsel can usually manage the cost and logistics.  Instead, the bigger problem, and the problem that causes meritless merger litigation to exist, is the inability to obtain dismissals.  This is primarily so because actions filed in multiple forums can’t all be subjected to a timely motion to dismiss, and a dismissal in one forum that can’t timely be used in another forum is a hollow victory.  If there were a plenary and meaningful motion-to-dismiss process, less-meritorious cases would be weeded out early, and plaintiffs’ lawyers would bring fewer meritless cases.  The solution is that simple.

Exclusive litigation in Delaware for Delaware corporations is preferable, because of Delaware’s greater experience with merger litigation and likely willingness to weed out meritless cases at a higher rate.  But the key to eradicating meritless merger litigation is consolidation in some single forum, and not every Delaware corporation wishes to litigate in Delaware.  So I regard First Citizens’ extension of Chevron to a non-Delaware exclusive forum as a key development.

4.         SEC v. Citigroup:  The Forgotten Important Case

On June 4, 2014, in SEC v. Citigroup, 752 F.3d 285 (2d Cir. 2014), the Second Circuit held that Judge Rakoff abused his discretion in refusing to approve a proposed settlement between the SEC and Citigroup that did not require Citigroup to admit the truth of the SEC’s allegations.  Judge Rakoff’s decision set off a series of events that culminated in the ruling on the appeal, about which people seemed to have forgotten because of the passage of time and intervening events.

Once upon a time, way back in 2012, the SEC and Citigroup settled the SEC’s investigation of Citigroup’s marketing of collateralized debt obligations.  In connection with the settlement, the SEC filed a complaint alleging non-scienter violations of the Securities Act.  The same day, the SEC also filed a proposed consent judgment, enjoining violations of the law, ordering business reforms, and requiring the company to pay $285 million. As part of the consent judgment, Citigroup did not admit or deny the complaint’s allegations.  Judge Rakoff held a hearing to determine “whether the proposed judgment is fair, reasonable, adequate, and in the public interest.”  In advance, the court posed nine questions, which the parties answered in detail.  Judge Rakoff rejected the consent judgment.

The rejection order rested, in part, on the court’s determination that any consent judgment that is not supported by “proven or acknowledged facts” would not serve the public interest because:

  • the public would not know the “truth in a matter of obvious public importance”, and
  • private litigants would not be able to use the consent judgment to pursue claims because it would have “no evidentiary value and      no collateral estoppel effect”.

The SEC and Citigroup appealed.  While the matter was on appeal, the SEC changed its policy to require admissions in settlements “in certain cases,” and other federal judges followed Judge Rakoff’s lead and required admissions in SEC settlements.  Because of the SEC’s change in policy, many people deemed the appeal unimportant.  I was not among them; the Second Circuit’s decision remained of critical importance, because the extent to which the SEC insists on admissions will depend on the amount of deference it receives from reviewing courts – which was the issue before the Second Circuit.  It stands to reason that the SEC would have insisted on more admissions if courts were at liberty to second-guess the SEC’s judgment to settle without them.  Greater use of admissions would have had extreme and far-reaching consequences for companies, their directors and officers, and their D&O insurers.

So it was quite important that the Second Circuit held that the SEC has the “exclusive right” to decide on the charges, and that the SEC’s decision about whether the settlement is in the public interest “merits significant deference.”

3.         Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Indiana Elec. Workers Pension Trust Fund IBEW:  Delaware Supreme Court’s Adoption of the Garner v. Wolfinbarger “Fiduciary” Exception to the Attorney-Client Privilege Further Encourages Use of Section 220 Inspection Demands

On July 23, 2014, the Delaware Supreme Court adopted the fiduciary exception to the attorney-client privilege, which originated in Garner v. Wolfinbarger, 430 F.2d 1093 (5th Cir. 1970), and held that stockholders who make a showing of good cause can inspect certain privileged documents.  Although this is the first time the Delaware Supreme Court has expressly adopted Garner, it had previously tacitly adopted it, and the Court of Chancery had expressly adopted it in Grimes v. DSC Communications Corp., 724 A.2d 561 (Del. Ch. 1998).

In my view, the importance of Wal-Mart is not so much in its adoption of Garner – given its previous tacit adoption – but instead is in the further encouragement it gives stockholders to use Section 220.  Delaware courts for decades have encouraged stockholders to use Section 220 to obtain facts before filing a derivative action.  Yet the Delaware Supreme Court, in the Allergan derivative action, Pyott v. Louisiana Municipal Police Employees’ Retirement System  (“Allergan”), 74 A.3d 612 (Del. 2013), passed up the opportunity to effectively require pre-litigation use of Section 220.  In Allergan, the court did not adopt Vice Chancellor Laster’s ruling that the plaintiffs in the previously dismissed litigation, filed in California, provided “inadequate representation” to the corporation because, unlike the plaintiffs in the Delaware action, they did not utilize Section 220 to attempt to determine whether their claims were well-founded.  Upholding the Court of Chancery’s presumption against fast-filers would have strongly encouraged, if not effectively required, shareholders to make a Section 220 demand before filing a derivative action.

In Wal-Mart, however, the Delaware Supreme Court provided the push toward Section 220 that it passed up in Allergan.  Certainly, expressly adopting Garner will encourage plaintiffs to make more Section 220 demands.  That should cause plaintiffs to conduct more pre-filing investigations, which will decrease filings to some extent.  But increased use of 220 also means that the cases that are filed will be more virulent, because they are selected with more care, and are more fact-intensive – and thus tend to be more difficult to dispose of on a motion to dismiss.

2.         City of Livonia Employees’ Retirement System v. The Boeing Company:  Will Defendants Win the Battle but Lose the War?

On August 21, 2014, Judge Ruben Castillo of the Northern District of Illinois ordered plaintiffs’ firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd to pay defendants’ costs of defending a securities class action, as Rule 11 sanctions for “reckless and unjustified” conduct related to reliance on a confidential witness (“CW”) whose testimony formed the basis for plaintiffs’ claims.  2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 118028 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 21, 2014).

I imagine that some readers may believe that, as a defense lawyer, I’m including this development because one of my adversaries suffered a black eye.  That’s not the case at all.  Although I’m not in a position to opine on the merits of the Boeing CW matter, I can say that I genuinely respect Robbins Geller and other top plaintiffs’ firms.  And beware those who delight in the firm’s difficulties: few lawyers who practice high-stakes litigation at a truly high level will escape similar scrutiny at some point in a long career.

But beyond that sentiment, I have worried about the Boeing CW problem, as well as similar problems in the SunTrust and Lockheed cases, because of their potential to cause unwarranted scrutiny of the protections of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act.  I believe the greatest risk to the Reform Act’s protections has always been legislative backlash over a perception that the Reform Act is unfair to investors. The Reform Act’s heavy pleading burdens have caused plaintiffs’ counsel to seek out former employees and others to provide internal information.  The investigative process is often difficult and is ethically tricky, and the information it generates can be lousy.  This is so even if plaintiffs’ counsel and their investigators act in good faith – information can be misunderstood, misinterpreted, and/or misconstrued by the time it is conveyed from one person to the next to the next to the next.  And, to further complicate matters, CWs sometimes recant, or even deny, that they made the statements on which plaintiffs rely.  The result can be an unseemly game of he-said/she-said between CWs and plaintiffs’ counsel, in which the referee is ultimately an Article III judge.  At some point, Congress will step in to reform this process.

Judge Rakoff seemed to call for such reform in his post-dismissal order in the Lockheed matter:

The sole purpose of this memorandum … is to focus attention on the way in which the PSLRA and decisions like Tellabs have led plaintiffs’ counsel to rely heavily on private inquiries of confidential witnesses, and the problems this approach tends to generate for both plaintiffs and defendants.  It seems highly unlikely that Congress or the Supreme Court, in demanding a fair amount of evidentiary detail in securities class action complaints, intended to turn plaintiffs’ counsel into corporate ‘private eyes’ who would entice naïve or disgruntled employees into gossip sessions that might help support a federal lawsuit. Nor did they likely intend to place such employees in the unenviable position of having to account to their employers for such indiscretions, whether or not their statements were accurate. But as it is, the combined effect of the PSLRA and cases like Tellabs are likely to make such problems endemic.

Rather than tempt Congress to revisit the Reform Act’s protections (which defendants should want to avoid) and/or allow further unseemly showdowns (which plaintiffs and courts should want to avoid), plaintiffs, defendants, and courts can begin to reform the CW process through some basic measures, including requiring declarations from CWs, requiring them to read and verify the complaint’s allegations citing them, and requiring plaintiffs to plead certain information about their CWs.  As I’ve previously written, these reforms would have prevented the problems at issue in the Boeing, SunTrust, and Lockheed matters, and would result in more just outcomes in all cases.

1.         Omnicare:  In My Opinion, the Most Important Supreme Court Case Since Tellabs

Omnicare concerns what makes a statement of opinion false.  Opinions are ubiquitous in corporate communications.  Corporations and their officers routinely share subjective judgments on issues as diverse as asset valuations, strength of current performance, risk assessments, product quality, loss reserves, and progress toward corporate goals.  Many of these opinions are crucial to investors, providing them with unique information and insight.  If corporate actors fear liability for sharing their genuinely held beliefs, they will be reluctant to voice their opinions, and shareholders would be deprived of this vital information.

The standard that the federal securities laws use to determine whether an opinion is “false” is therefore of widespread importance. Although this case only involves Section 11, it poses a fundamental question: What causes an opinion or belief to be a “false statement of material fact”?  The Court’s answer will affect the standards of pleading and proof for statements of opinion under other liability provisions of the federal securities laws, including Section 10(b), which likewise prohibit “untrue” or “false” statements of “material fact.”

In the Sixth Circuit decision under review, the court held that a showing of so-called “objective falsity” alone was sufficient to demonstrate falsity in a claim filed under Section 11 of the Securities Act – in other words, that an opinion could be false even if was genuinely believed, if it was later concluded that the opinion was somehow “incorrect.”  On appeal, Omnicare contends, as did we in our amicus brief on behalf of the Washington Legal Foundation (“WLF”), that this ruling was contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Virginia Bankshares, Inc. v. Sandberg, 501 U.S. 1083, 1095 (1991).  Virginia Bankshares held that a statement of opinion is a factual statement as to what the speaker believes – meaning a statement of opinion is “true” as long as the speaker honestly believes the opinion expressed, i.e., if it is “subjectively” true.

Other than a passing and unenthusiastic nod made by plaintiffs’ counsel in defense of the Sixth Circuit’s reasoning, the discussion at the oral argument assumed that some showing other than so-called “objective falsity” would be required to establish the falsity of an opinion. Most of the argument by Omnicare, the plaintiffs, and the Solicitor General revolved around what this additional showing should be, as did the extensive and pointed questions from Justices Breyer, Kagan, and Alito.

It thus seems unlikely from the tone of the argument that the Court will affirm the Sixth Circuit’s holding that an opinion is false if it is “objectively” untrue.  If the pointed opening question from Chief Justice Roberts is any indication, the Court also may not fully accept Omnicare’s position, which is that an opinion can only be false or misleading if it was not actually believed by the speaker.  It seems more probable that the Supreme Court will take one of two middle paths – one that was advocated by the Solicitor General at oral argument, essentially a “reasonable basis” standard, or one that was advanced in our brief for the WLF, under which a statement of opinion is subjected to the same sort of inquiry about whether it was misleading as for any other statement.  Under WLF’s proposed standard, plaintiffs would be required to demonstrate either that an opinion was false because it was not actually believed, or that omitted facts caused the opinion – when considered in the full context of the company’s other disclosures – to be misleading because it “affirmatively create[d] an impression of a state of affairs that differs in a material way from the one that actually exists.” Brody v. Transitional Hosps. Corp., 280 F.3d 997, 1006 (9th Cir. 2002).

Such a standard would be faithful to the text of the most frequently litigated provisions of the federal securities laws – Section 11, at issue in Omnicare, and Section 10(b) – which allow liability for statements that are either false or that omit material facts “required to be stated therein or necessary to make the statements therein not misleading . . . .”  At the same time, this standard would preserve the commonsense holding of Virginia Bankshares – that an opinion is “true” if it is genuinely believed – and prevent speakers from being held liable for truthfully expressed opinions simply because someone else later disagrees with them.

Why Halliburton II is Not a Top-5 Development

After refusing to overrule Basic, the Halliburton II decision focused on defendants’ fallback argument that plaintiffs must show that the alleged misrepresentations had an impact on the market price of the stock, as a prerequisite for the presumption of reliance.  The Court refused to place on plaintiffs the burden of proving price impact, but agreed that a defendant may rebut the presumption of reliance, at the class certification stage, with evidence of lack of price impact.

Halliburton II has a narrow reach.  The ruling only affects securities class actions that have survived a motion to dismiss – class certification is premature before then.  It wouldn’t be economical to adjudicate class certification while parties moved to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) and the Reform Act, and adjudicating class certification before rulings on motions to dismiss could result in defendants waiving their right to a discovery stay under the Reform Act.  Moreover, most securities class actions challenge many statements during the class period.  Although there could be strategic defense benefit to obtaining a ruling that a subset of the challenged statements did not impact the stock price – for example, shortening the class period or dismissing especially awkward statements – a finding that some statements had an impact would support certification of some class, and thus would allow the case to proceed.

Defendants face legal and economic hurdles as well.  For example, in McIntire v. China MediaExpress Holdings, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 113446, *40 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 15, 2014), the court held that a “material misstatement can impact a stock’s value either by improperly causing the value to increase or by improperly maintaining the existing stock price.”  Under this type of analysis, even if a challenged statement does not cause the stock price to increase, it may have kept the stock price at the same artificially inflated level, and thus impacted the price.  Plaintiff-friendly results were predictable from experience in the Second and Third Circuits before the Supreme Court’s rulings in Amgen Inc. v. Connecticut Retirement Plans and Trust Funds, 133 S. Ct. 1184 (2013), and Halliburton II.  Despite standards for class certification that allowed defendants to contest materiality and price impact, defendants seldom defeated class certification.

Halliburton II may also be unnecessary; it is debatable whether the decision even gives defendants a better tool with which to weed out cases that suffer from a price-impact problem.  For example, cases that suffer from a price-impact problem typically also suffer from some other fatal flaw, such as the absence of loss causation or materiality.  Indeed, the price-impact issue in Halliburton was based on evidence about the absence of loss causation.

Yet defendants no doubt will frequently oppose class certification under Halliburton II.  But they will do so at a cost beyond the economic cost of the legal and expert witness work:  they will lose the ability to make no-price-impact arguments in settlement discussions in the absence of a ruling about them.  Now, defendants will make and obtain rulings on class certification arguments that they previously could have asserted would be resolved in their favor at summary judgment or trial, if necessary. Plaintiffs will press harder for higher settlements in cases with certified classes.

***

In addition to Halliburton II, there were many other important 2014 developments in or touching on the world of securities and corporate governance litigation, including: rare reversals of securities class action dismissals in the Fifth Circuit, Spitzberg v. Houston American Energy Corp., 758 F.3d 676 (5th Cir. 2014), and Public Employees’ Retirement System of Mississippi v. Amedisys, Inc., 769 F.3d 313 (5th Cir. 2014); the filing of cybersecurity shareholder derivative cases against Target (pending) and Wyndham (dismissed); a trial verdict against the former CFO of a Chinese company, Longtop Financial Technologies; the Second Circuit’s significant insider trading decision, United States v. Newman, — F.3d —, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 23190 (2d Cir. Dec. 10, 2014); increasingly large whistleblower bounties, including a $30 million award; the Supreme Court’s SLUSA decision in Chadbourne & Parke LLP v. Troice, 134 S. Ct. 1058 (2014); the Delaware Supreme Court’s ruling on a fee-shifting bylaw in ATP Tour, Inc. v. Deutscher Tennis Bund, 91 A.3d 554 (Del. 2014), and the resulting legislative debate in Delaware and elsewhere; the Supreme Court’s ERISA decision in Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer, 134 S. Ct. 2459 (2014); the Ninth Circuit’s holding that the announcement of an internal investigation, standing alone, is insufficient to establish loss causation, Loos v. Immersion Corp., 762 F.3d 880 (9th Cir. 2014); the Ninth Circuit’s rejection of Item 303 of Regulation S-K as the basis of a duty to disclose for purposes of a claim under Section 10(b), In re NVIDIA Corp. Sec. Litig., 768 F.3d 1046 (9th Cir. 2014); and the Ninth Circuit’s holding that Rule 9(b) applies to loss-causation allegations, Oregon Public Employees Retirement Fund v. Apollo Group Inc., — F.3d —, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 23677 (9th Cir. Dec. 16, 2014).

Shareholder litigation comes in waves.  There is a widespread belief that the next big wave will be shareholder derivative litigation – a shareholder’s assertion of a claim belonging to the corporation, typically brought against directors and officers, alleging corporate harm for a board’s failure to prevent corporate problems.

Derivative cases filed as tag-alongs to securities class actions have long been commonplace, and frequently are little more than a nuisance.  Over the years, there have been sporadic large derivative actions concerning other areas of legal compliance – typically over a very large corporate problem.   Non-disclosure derivative litigation filings recently have seemed more frequent, and there have been some large settlements that have come as a result.  And the specter of cyber liability derivative suits looms large – not surprisingly, Target shareholders just filed derivative litigation related to the recent customer data breach.  Whether the forecasted non-disclosure derivative-litigation wave materializes, or remains a sporadic occurrence in the larger world of D&O litigation, is one of the issues I’m watching closely in 2014 and beyond.

This potential wave raises issues that are unique to derivative litigation.  One key issue that has not been analyzed enough is representation: which lawyers can and should represent the company and the individual defendants in derivative litigation?

Because a derivative litigation claim belongs to the corporation, it puts the corporation in an odd spot.  A shareholder, as one of the corporation’s “owners” (usually a really, really small owner – but an owner nevertheless), is trying to force the company to bring a claim against the people who run the company.  The law says, however, that those people, the directors, get to decide whether the company should sue someone – including themselves – unless a shareholder can show that they couldn’t make a disinterested and independent decision.   Thus, to bring a derivative action, a shareholder must allege that it would have been futile to demand that the board take action, and defendants will typically challenge the lawsuit with a motion to dismiss for failure to make a demand (“demand motion”) on the basis that the demand-futility allegations aren’t sufficiently probative or particularized.

It is often said that the interests of the company and defendants are aligned through the demand motion, because they all have an interest in making sure that the shareholder follows proper governance procedures – namely, making a pre-suit demand on the board.  But this sort of statement prejudges the demand-futility allegations; it assumes that the allegations of futility are insufficient.  In Delaware and states that follow its demand law, proper corporate governance procedures require a shareholder either to make a demand or to plead demand-futility.  Only if and when the court rules that demand was required can we truly say that the interests of the company and defendants on the demand issue were aligned.  However, I don’t think this means that legal ethics require the company to be separately represented from the inception of a derivative action in all cases; the shared-interest view is arguable.   So if there are good practical reasons for joint representation from inception, and it causes no harm, so be it.  (That the primary lawyers are expensive relative to the D&O insurance limits isn’t a good reason for joint representation – it’s a good reason why those lawyers were the wrong lawyers for the matter.  But I digress.)

There’s also a compelling strategic reason to separate the representation from the beginning of the case.  A demand motion asks the court to allow the defendants to be the judge – to require the plaintiff to ask the directors to evaluate and bring claims against themselves and senior officers.  Thus, the company must overcome a judge’s skepticism that such an evaluation presents a “fox-guarding-the-chicken-coop” problem.  This is far easier to do if the company is separately represented and makes the demand motion.  It is true that courts frequently grant demand motions made during joint representation of the company and defendants.  But it is also true that joint representation always carries strategic risk, and the more serious the derivative litigation, the more unwise it is to take the risk.  Rather than make judgments in advance about which derivative litigation is serious, warranting a split, and which isn’t, allowing joint representation, I advocate splitting the representation from the outset – since the representation must be split up if demand is excused, splitting it from the outset imposes relatively little additional cost burden, if there’s appropriate coordination.

Representation between and among the defendants has strategic components, in addition to ethical considerations.  It can be strategically advantageous for individuals who aren’t accused of active wrongdoing to be separately represented from those who are.  That typically means officers and outside directors are represented separately in groups.  With this division, the court can see that the directors who would evaluate a demand don’t have the same lawyers as the people who allegedly engaged in active wrongdoing.  However, I don’t think that’s as strategically important for purposes of the demand motion as splitting up the company and defendants.  In evaluating a demand, the directors, acting as directors and not director-defendants, should be represented by counsel other than their litigation defense counsel.  Moreover, demand futility is judged at the time the suit is filed, not when the court decides the demand motion.  Thus, it isn’t technically necessary or legally accurate to send a “signal” of independence to the court through splitting up the representation further.  That said, in a very significant derivative case, and/or one in which the judge is new to derivative litigation, such an approach could be strategically advantageous.

It can sometimes be appropriate to consider even more divisions – for example, splitting the outside directors into audit-committee and non-audit-committee groups where audit-committee oversight is the main oversight allegation.  Such divisions may be ethically prudent or necessary later, but for purposes of the demand motion, they often don’t add much, if anything, since the demand motion is about the ability of a majority of the full board to consider a demand.

So, a typical case needs at least two lawyers from the outset – one for the company, and another for the individual defendants.  The type of derivative litigation we’re discussing often arises in the context of an underlying legal problem for which the company has lawyers – in a disclosure-related matter for a related securities class action, and in non-disclosure matters for other types of underlying matters (FCPA, antitrust, privacy, etc.).   To what extent should the lawyers defending the underlying matters be involved in the derivative action?

In general, I believe that the lawyers defending the underlying proceedings that created the corporate liability or harm (actual or potential) at issue in the derivative case should not defend the derivative case.  The reasons are similar to those I have written about in the context of using corporate counsel to defend a securities class action that may involve corporate counsel’s advice – there are tricky and hidden conflict issues, and the lawyers can be of better service to their clients as witnesses.

In derivative litigation, the problem can be even worse.  Corporate counsel typically advises on relevant corporate governance issues, such as compliance programs, the severity of legal risks that ultimately trigger the derivative litigation, board review of various risks, and preparation or review of board minutes.  Some companies are heavily guided in these areas by their corporate counsel, either directly in the boardroom or indirectly through advice to in-house counsel.   It is in the interests of the company and the board to be able to testify that they took a course of action, or didn’t do so, because of their lawyers’ advice.  The problem is greater than that of lawyer-as-witness – defense counsel should not be in the position of making judgments or recommendations that might be influenced by the law firm’s concerns about the public airing of its corporate work.

In derivative cases based on a disclosure problem, another representation issue arises:  whom should the securities class action defense counsel represent – the company or the defendants?   Securities class action defense counsel take different approaches to dividing derivative litigation representation.  Some will represent the company only, and have their securities class action individual defendant clients be represented by a different firm.  Others represent the individual defendants in the derivative action, and have the company represented by a different firm.   The right approach is a judgment call, but I prefer to have the securities class action defense counsel represent the individual defendants in the derivative action and have another firm represent the company.  That approach allows the lawyers in defense mode to fully remain in defense mode – they can defend the lack of merit to the charges of wrongdoing in all proceedings.   It also allows the defending lawyers to avoid the tension involved in simultaneously defending individuals in the securities class action and representing the potentially adverse company in the related derivative action.  This approach is possible with the right waivers, but I prefer the pure-defense approach.

Once the right lawyers are in place, how can and should the lawyers interact to prepare motions to dismiss and conduct other preliminary projects effectively – and cost-effectively?  The gating question is who should make the demand motion – the company or the defendants?  The company is really the right movant.  The demand motion is about the company’s corporate governance procedures, and the directors are involved not as directors but as individual defendants, so the purest approach is for the company to make the demand motion.

The same result makes sense from a strategic perspective.  The defendants have 12(b)(6) motions to make, and having them make both motions is awkward.   Although both motions say that the allegations (not the claims) aren’t good enough – the demand motion asserts that the allegations don’t raise a substantial likelihood of liability or other disabling interest sufficient to excuse demand, and the 12(b)(6) motion asserts they are not sufficient to state a claim – having the directors simultaneously assert that they could impartially consider a demand, but that the claims should be dismissed, is slicing the issues pretty finely.   If the defendants don’t make a 12(b)(6) motion, that problem is alleviated.  Many defense lawyers – including me from time to time – opine that the 12(b)(6) motions will fail if the demand motion fails, so defendants should just forego the 12(b)(6) motion entirely and make a 12(c) motion later, if necessary.  However, that foregoes the initial line of defense for the individuals.

It will be interesting to see if there is indeed a wave of more serious derivative litigation coming.  I will be on the look-out, and will write about other derivative-litigation issues that I think are of interest.

Cyber security is top of mind for companies, and cyber-security oversight is top of mind for corporate directors.  I recently co-moderated a panel discussion for directors on board oversight of cyber security and cyber-security disclosures.  I thought I’d share my thoughts on some of the key issues.

What are the board’s fiduciary duties in the area of cyber-security oversight?  Board oversight of cyber security conceptually is no different than oversight of any other area of risk.  The board must take good-faith steps to ensure that the company has systems designed to address cyber-attack prevention and mitigation, and to follow up on red flags it sees.  The board’s decision-making is protected by the business judgment rule.

It is important for directors to understand that cyber-security oversight isn’t exotic.  Because cyber security is a highly technical area, some directors may feel out of their depth – which may help explain why Carnegie Mellon’s 2012 CyLab survey revealed that some boards are not sufficiently focused on cyber-security oversight.  But with the help of experts – on which directors are entitled to rely – boards can ask the same types of questions they’re used to asking about other types of risk, and gain a similar degree of comfort.

How do I pick the right experts?  Directors should be comfortable that they are receiving candid and independent advice, and need to be mindful that the company’s internal IT group may have trouble being self-critical.  So in addition to receiving appropriate reports from the IT group, directors should periodically consult outside advisors who are capable of giving independent advice.

Given the importance of cyber security, will courts impose a higher standard on directors?  Directors’ basic duties are not heightened by general political and economic concerns about cyber security, or even the magnitude of harm that the company itself could suffer from a cyber attack.  But the magnitude of potential harm does matter.  If a substantial portion of a company’s value depends on the security of its cyber assets, common sense dictates that directors will naturally spend relatively more time on cyber security.  In my experience, that’s the way directors think and work – they analyze and devote more time to their companies’ most important issues.  And from a practical perspective, directors’ actions, or inaction, will be judged against the backdrop of a really bad problem.  Judges are human beings, and often do make decisions that are influenced by the presence of particularly severe harm.

How does cyber insurance fit in to the board’s job?   Cyber insurance allows the company to shift a specific and potentially very large risk.  As such, it is important that boards consider cyber insurance among the types of expenditures appropriate to prevent and mitigate cyber attacks.  Shifting risk through cyber insurance also can help directors avoid a shareholder derivative action, by reducing the attractiveness of the suit to plaintiffs’ lawyers, or reduce the severity of an action that is filed, making it easier and less expensive to resolve.

Are there any court decisions on directors’ duties in the area of cyber security?  No.  Although a TJX Companies, Inc. shareholder brought a derivative suit following a significant data breach, Louisiana Municipal Police Employees Retirement Fund v. Alvarez, Civil Action No. 5620-VCN (Del. Ch. July 2, 2010), the case settled early in the litigation.  As a result, the court never had the opportunity to make any substantive rulings on the plaintiffs’ allegations that the board failed to adequately oversee the company’s cyber security.

What is the board’s role in overseeing the company’s disclosures concerning cyber security?  The board’s duty is the same as it is with any corporate disclosure.

Does the SEC’s October 13, 2011 guidance on cyber-security disclosures enhance the board’s oversight responsibilities?   No.  As the guidance itself notes, it does not change disclosure law, but rather interprets existing law.  The guidance does, however, put a sharper focus on cyber-security disclosures, and provides the SEC and plaintiffs’ counsel with a checklist of potential criticisms – though those criticisms would really just be based on existing law.

The sharper focus on cyber-security disclosure isn’t meaningless, however.  The SEC has issued cyber-security comments to approximately 50 public companies since issuing its guidance.  The guidance, moreover, provides another opportunity for the board to discuss cyber security with management, and the increased focus should result in incrementally better disclosure.  And the SEC may well speak again on the subject; last spring, Senator Rockefeller asked new SEC Chair Mary Jo White to further address cyber-security disclosures.  (For a good discussion of the SEC’s guidance, I recommend an article by Dan Bailey, which was reprinted in the D&O Diary, and a recent D&O Diary post discussing a Willis survey of cyber-security disclosures.)

Are there any disclosure securities class actions alleging a false or misleading statement based on failure to follow the guidance?  No.  There was a securities class action against Heartland Payment Systems for a stock price drop that plaintiffs attributed to Heartland’s alleged misstatements concerning its cyber-security protections.  In re Heartland Payment Sys., Inc. Sec. Litig., CIV. 09-1043, 2009 WL 4798148 (D.N.J. Dec. 7, 2009).  The litigation was dismissed because the plaintiffs had not sufficiently alleged that the company made a false or misleading statement or, if it had, did so with scienter.  However, that case was filed prior to the SEC’s cyber-security guidance.  At least one commentator has suggested the outcome might have been different if the SEC guidance had informed the analysis.

Is there a wave of cyber-security shareholder suits coming?  What type of suits will there be?  If there is a wave, it looks like the lawsuits primarily will be shareholder derivative actions, not securities class actions.

There has not been a wave of cyber-attack securities class actions because companies’ stock prices generally haven’t fallen significantly following disclosure of cyber attacks.  If that trend remains, shareholder litigation over cyber security primarily will take the form of shareholder derivative litigation, seeking to recover from directors and officers damages for the harm to the corporation caused by a cyber attack.

The vast majority of options backdating lawsuits were derivative actions due to the lack of significant stock drops, and many of them survived motions to dismiss and resulted in significant settlements.  However, unlike the options backdating cases, in which many motions to dismiss for failure to make a demand on the board were complicated by directors’ receipt of allegedly backdated options or service on compensation committees that allegedly approved backdated options, directors’ governance of cyber security should be judged by more favorable legal standards and with a more deferential judicial attitude.  For that reason, I anticipate that plaintiffs’ attorneys will file derivative cases mostly over larger cyber-security breaches, in which the litigation environment will help them overcome the legal obstacles, and will not routinely file over less significant breaches.

 

 

On April 4, 2013, in the Allergan decision, the Delaware Supreme Court reversed the Court of Chancery’s ruling last year that the dismissal of a shareholder derivative action in California did not preclude other stockholders from bringing the same corporate claim in Delaware.  The Delaware Supreme Court’s decision was based on a Constitutional Full Faith and Credit analysis.

The Court of Chancery, in contrast, had looked to Delaware’s internal affairs doctrine and demand futility requirement, which the Supreme Court said was error.  Central to the Court of Chancery’s analysis was a presumption that the California plaintiffs provided inadequate representation because they did not conduct a Section 220 books and records inspection before filing.  However, the Supreme Court rejected this “‘fast filer’ irrebuttable presumption of inadequacy,” holding that plaintiffs who fail to do a Section 220 action are not necessarily inadequate.

The commentary about the Delaware Supreme Court’s decision understandably has focused on the Full Faith and Credit analysis and the Supreme Court’s apparent rejection of a Delaware-centric attitude toward shareholder litigation involving Delaware corporations.  Defense lawyers have lauded the decision as a step towards solving the problem of multi-jurisdictional shareholder litigation.

In my opinion, however, the more important and enduring feature of the decision is the Delaware Supreme Court’s rejection of the “fast filer” presumption of inadequacy.  For a further discussion of the fast-filer issue, please see my prior post on the Allergan and Hecla Mining Court of Chancery decisions.  For a helpful discussion of the Allergan Delaware Supreme Court decision, please see Kevin LaCroix’s blog, The D&O Diary.

Upholding the Court of Chancery’s presumption against fast-filers would have strongly encouraged, if not effectively required, shareholders to make a Section 220 demand before filing a derivative action.  Such a rule inevitably would have reduced the number of shareholder cases filed, because plaintiffs’ counsel would have had to be more selective about the cases in which it invested the time and money to investigate.  Thus, the Delaware Supreme Court passed up an opportunity to actually reduce the number of shareholder derivative actions – especially those without merit.   On the other hand, as I wrote in my prior post, a 220 requirement would make cases that are filed more virulent, because they would be more difficult to dispose of on a motion to dismiss.

Leaving the system as is, however, means that stockholders will continue to file a lot of bad cases – in Delaware and elsewhere, and sometimes in multiple places.  And the root cause of the multi-jurisdictional shareholder litigation problem is more this reflexive, thoughtless filing of meritless cases than the fact that they are filed in multiple jurisdictions.  The Delaware Supreme Court thus passed up an opportunity to craft a rule that would have had profound impact on all shareholder litigation, including merger cases.

But I doubt that the Full Faith and Credit aspect of the decision in Allergan will have a significant impact on merger litigation, the most prolific and meritless type of shareholder litigation.  This is so for two reasons.

First, Allergan was a shareholder derivative action concerning the board’s alleged failure to prevent an off-label marketing problem, asserting the derivative claim that the corporation was damaged by the board’s breaches of fiduciary duties.  Most merger cases are filed as class actions asserting shareholders’ direct claims, not as derivative actions asserting corporate claims.  The collateral estoppel analysis in Allergan was dependent upon a determination of privity that is unique to the context of a shareholder derivative action.  Thus, Allergan’s collateral estoppel analysis doesn’t break new ground regarding merger class actions, and therefore would have no direct effect on most merger litigation.

Second, few merger cases are litigated to dispositive decisions that a Delaware court is even asked to respect.  The vast majority of them settle long before that point.  As a result, there has hardly been a wave of Delaware decisions failing to honor another state’s dismissal of a merger case.  Indeed, one of the central problems with merger litigation is the fact that there are too few decisions on the merits.  In a prior post on merger litigation, I discuss some of the reasons why there is too little merits litigation in merger cases.

A rule requiring stockholders to use Section 220 would be a mixed bag – as discussed above, there may be fewer cases, but those that remained would be harder to dispose of on a motion to dismiss.  But the Delaware Supreme Court’s rejection of such a rule was a bit of a letdown.  Such a presumption against fast filers, even if fashioned strictly in the context of derivative actions, would likely have had a domino effect, and also led to greater investigation by stockholders before filing merger class actions.  That would have had a positive impact; even a little more investigation would be better than the current system of no investigation at all.

This promises to be an eventful  year in securities and corporate governance litigation.  A number of looming developments have the potential to change the landscape for many years to come. This is the first of two posts – or three, if I get carried away – discussing some of these developments.

The Delaware Supreme Court’s decision in Louisiana Municipal Police Employees’ Ret. Sys. v. Pyott (the Allergan derivative case)

In Allergan, the Delaware Supreme Court will decide whether the dismissal of a hastily filed shareholder derivative action precludes a subsequently filed action that was based on information obtained under a request to inspect books and records under Section 220 of the Delaware General Corporation Law.  Section 220 allows a stockholder to inspect a corporation’s “books and records” for a “proper purpose.”   On February 5, 2013, the Delaware Supreme Court heard oral argument.

In the Court of Chancery, Vice Chancellor Travis Laster ruled that the plaintiffs in the previously dismissed litigation, filed in California, provided “inadequate representation” to the corporation because, unlike the plaintiffs in the Delaware action, they did not utilize Section 220 to attempt to determine whether their claims were well-founded.  46 A.3d 313, 335-51 (Del. Ch. 2012).  The failure to provide adequate representation deprived the dismissal of preclusive effect.  In South v. Baker (the Hecla Mining derivative case), Vice Chancellor Laster similarly ruled that derivative plaintiffs who filed without the benefit of 220 provided inadequate representation.  2012 WL 4372538, at *20 (Del. Ch. Sept. 25, 2012).

Delaware courts have long urged shareholders to use Section 220 before filing derivative litigation.  A ruling that a derivative action filed without the benefit of 220 constitutes inadequate representation would be tantamount to a requirement that stockholders use Section 220 before filing a derivative complaint in many types of derivative cases.

Many defense counsel believe that a pre-filing 220 requirement would be a positive development, because they believe that in many cases, plaintiffs’ lawyers do not want to go to the time and expense of a 220 demand, and would therefore file fewer derivative cases.

I say be careful what you wish for: 220 demands impose compliance costs, risk interference with the discovery stay in related securities litigation, and can create more virulent derivative cases, because they facilitate pleading with factual support, which the defendants sometimes can’t combat effectively on a motion to dismiss.  In contrast, although they are a nuisance, fast-filed derivative cases are routinely dismissed.  And a dismissal can be achieved without great cost – if the defense firm defends the case strategically and efficiently.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Amgen

Amgen Inc. v. Connecticut Retirement Plans, pending before the Supreme Court, could bring significant change to securities litigation.  At issue is whether plaintiffs need to establish that the allegedly false statements were material to the market, before a court can certify a securities lawsuit as a class action.  If the answer is “yes,” class certification will become a more meaningful stage in securities class actions, providing defendants with a new tool for stopping unmeritorious cases relatively early on.

If the answer is “no,” class certification will remain mostly inconsequential, with the arguments centering around whether the class representative is adequate and typical, which in the vast majority of cases has little impact on the case as a whole – even if successful, these efforts often just mean a new class representative.  The discovery and motion practice associated with such efforts costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.  I’ve found the cost/benefit calculation isn’t worth it in most cases, and have become more conservative about opposing class certification absent compelling circumstances. But the ruling in Amgen could change this analysis, and breathe new life into the class certification process.

Federal courts’ application of the scienter decision in Matrixx

After the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Matrixx Initiatives, Inc. v. Siracusano, 131 S. Ct. 1309 (2011), it initially seemed to be an innocuous ruling that would have very little impact.  At issue was whether a drug manufacturer had a duty to disclose statistically insignificant adverse health impacts.  The issue was narrow, and the plaintiffs had the better legal argument.  So I was puzzled about why the parties litigated the issue to the Supreme Court and why the Supreme Court took the case.

Supreme Court decisions can have unintended consequences, and Matrixx may well end up altering courts’ scienter analysis for reasons that the Supreme Court almost certainly didn’t intend.  After deciding that Matrixx had a duty to disclose the adverse events, because they made its statements misleading, the Court found that the plaintiffs had pleaded scienter adequately under Tellabs.  Given that scienter was not the central issue before the Court, the Court’s scienter analysis was not elaborate, and it fairly easily found that the plaintiffs’ allegations sufficed to plead scienter.  The Court applied Tellabs, and in no way indicated that it was fashioning a new type of scienter analysis.

Yet some courts have read the Matrixx Court’s short scienter analysis as a signal that scienter analysis no longer should review scienter allegations individually as well as “holistically.”  For example, in Frank v. Dana Corp., 646 F.3d 954, 961 (6th Cir. 2011), the Sixth Circuit said (citations omitted):

In the past, we have conducted our scienter analysis in section 10(b) cases by sorting through each allegation individually before concluding with a collective approach. However, we decline to follow that approach in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in [Matrixx]. There, the Court provided for us a post-Tellabs example of how to consider scienter pleadings “holistically” in section 10(b) cases. Writing for the Court, Justice Sotomayor expertly addressed the allegations collectively, did so quickly, and, importantly, did not parse out the allegations for individual analysis. This is the only appropriate approach following Tellabs’s mandate to review scienter pleadings based on the collective view of the facts, not the facts individually. Our former method of reviewing each allegation individually before reviewing them holistically risks losing the forest for the trees. Furthermore, after Tellabs, conducting an individual review of myriad allegations is an unnecessary inefficiency. Consequently, we will address the Plaintiffs’ claims holistically.

The Tenth Circuit took a similar view in In re Level 3 Communications, Inc. Securities Litigation, 667 F.3d 1331, 1344 (10th Cir. 2012).

On the other hand, more recently, the Ninth Circuit in In re VeriFone Holdings, Inc. Securities Litigation, 2012 WL 6634351, *5-*6, ___ F.3d ___ (9th Cir. Dec. 21, 2012), affirmed the permissibility of a two-step analysis – first, a review of the individual scienter allegations and then a holistic review – and correctly ruled that the Supreme Court in Matrixx did not prescribe a particular analysis that a court must undertake, nor did it purport to alter the scienter analysis articulated in Tellabs:

Matrixx on its face does not preclude this approach and we have consistently characterized this two-step or dual inquiry as following from the Court’s directive in Tellabs. In cases where an individual allegation meets the scienter pleading requirement, whether we employ a dual analysis is most likely surplusage because the individual and the holistic analyses yield the same conclusion. Also, as a practical matter, some grouping and discussion of individualized allegations may be appropriate during a holistic analysis.

In its own analysis, the Ninth Circuit skipped analysis of the individual allegations and instead went right to a holistic review, to avoid the “potential pitfalls” of a “focus on the weakness of individual allegations to the exclusion of the whole picture.  The risk, of course, is that a piecemeal analysis will obscure a holistic view.”  The court emphasized, however, that it was not ignoring the individual allegations or the inferences drawn from them.

A solely holistic review risks expanding judicial discretion in applying a rule of law that already allows for significant judicial discretion.  Standards governing individual scienter allegations – for example, that stock sales of a certain percentage generally are not suspicious – impose some objectivity on an otherwise subjective analysis.  And discussion of the allegations individually invites a certain measure of thoughtfulness and skepticism.  A rule that eschews analysis of individual scienter allegations is unfriendly to defendants because it invites judges to engage in a less rigorous analysis that ignores the shortcomings of the individual allegations – and the easy decision in securities cases is usually to deny the motion to dismiss.  Regardless, a cursory analysis of scienter allegations is not fair to defendants, who at least deserve judicial scrutiny of the fraud allegations against them, and is contrary to Congress’ intent that courts play a gatekeeper function in this particularly vexatious type of litigation.

I am frequently asked about the safety of director service.  Below is the text of a short article I wrote for a forthcoming issue of a business publication.

Although the article is short and non-technical, I decided it was a good opportunity to start a discussion here on director service.  I would enjoy a dialogue with readers on these issues, so please post comments or email or call me.  I may write follow-up blog posts on issues that generate discussion.

D&O insurance is an essential component of the analysis of the safety of director service.  “The ‘Nuts and Bolts’ of D&O Insurance,” by Kevin LaCroix, author of The D&O Diary, is an excellent primer on the subject.

Here is the text of my article:

Disclosure dilemmas and legal problems are a reality of business, and shareholder lawsuits often follow.

So, is it safe to serve on a public company board of directors?  The answer is easy:  yes, it indeed is safe, as long as the director is conscientious and has appropriate corporate protections against personal liability.

Shareholder lawsuits are frequent, but outside director liability is rare.  Shareholder litigation almost never affects the personal finances of outside directors, due to a combination of factors.

  • Shareholder litigation rarely goes to trial.  This is true for many reasons, including potential exceptions under corporate indemnification and Directors’ & Officers’ (“D&O”) liability insurance contracts if a defendant were to lose at trial.
  • Nearly all shareholder cases are settled with D&O insurance proceeds and/or a payment by the company.  Only in exceptional cases have outside directors ever made any significant financial contribution toward the settlement of public company shareholder litigation.
  • Outside directors are not the target defendants in securities class actions.  They are often sued in shareholder derivative actions challenging the directors’ oversight of the company, but plaintiffs face high hurdles to establish liability.  They also are often named as defendants in shareholder challenges to mergers, but such cases almost always settle for modest amounts.

Yet, no director wants to be sued, so prevention of problems is key — the fewer problems, the less risk of litigation, and preventive measures actually establish substantive defenses to liability.  In simple terms, the law expects directors to make sure that their companies have systems in place to prevent and detect problems, and to follow up on indications of a lack of compliance.  Attention is essential.  The Sargent Schultz defense (“I know nothing!”) doesn’t work.

Sarbanes-Oxley’s certification requirements are central to a company’s systems for compliance with the securities laws. Because of Sarbanes-Oxley, more work goes into internal controls, financial reporting, and other public disclosures than ever before, and more issues bubble-up and are addressed at the senior management and board level.  Even though the burdens that these requirements have imposed are onerous, they have made outside directors’ compliance with their oversight duties easier.

Legal compliance on matters other than disclosures is highly company-specific.  In a nutshell, directors need to understand the company’s legal risks, implement the appropriate compliance and reporting systems, and act to address problems as they are identified.  Directors can easily satisfy their oversight duty if they understand their responsibility, ask the right questions and engage the right legal advisors.

If problems and litigation arise, directors have several protections against personal liability.

The most fundamental protection is an “exculpation,” or “raincoat” protection in the company’s corporate charter or articles of incorporation.  In general terms, such a provision provides that directors shall not be liable to the corporation for money damages unless they acted disloyally, intentionally or in bad faith.

Corporate indemnification is a director’s primary financial protection.  Directors should ensure that the company’s indemnification provisions are well-crafted and provide the maximum protection the law allows, and should ask a securities litigator to review them from time to time.

D&O insurance, of course, also provides important protections.  Three points are important to keep in mind:

  1. Engage a broker who is a specialist in D&O insurance coverage and claims.  Such a broker will best know what coverage provisions are possible and at what price, and will know the right structure and amount of insurance.
  2. Focus on protections for outside directors.  Ensure that the insolvency provisions are state-of-the-art, and there is sufficient Side A coverage.
  3. From time to time, ask a securities litigator to review your D&O insurance program.

 

On October 24, Kevin LaCroix’s D&O Diary discussed a report called “The Trial Lawyers’ New Merger Tax,” published by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform.  The report proposes several legislative approaches that would funnel all shareholder lawsuits challenging mergers to the seller corporation’s state of incorporation.  Kevin has been a leading commentator in the discussion of the M&A-case problem.  I started to write a reply to his October 24 post but my reply became too involved for a simple comment.  So, I decided to turn it into a post here.

I doubt I need to convince many people, including a great many plaintiffs’ lawyers, that the explosion of M&A cases is a problem.  The problem, of course, is not that shareholders bring lawsuits challenging mergers.  Challenges to transactions based on problematic processes, such as the one at issue in Smith v. Van Gorkom, have improved corporate decision-making.  Rather, the problem is that virtually every acquisition of a public company draws a lawsuit, even though very few transactions are actually problematic, and most cases are filed very quickly, before plaintiffs’ lawyers could possibly have enough information to decide whether the case might have merit.

The result is spurious and wasteful litigation.  But very few cases present significant risk, so the vast majority of cases present a simple nuisance that can be resolved through painless additions to the proxy statement and a relatively small payment to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.  Although companies that are sued bemoan the macro M&A-case problem, each individual company understandably focuses on its own case, and the vast majority conclude that it’s best to settle it rather than defend it to the bitter end.  Collectively, however, the M&A-case problem is significant and needs to be addressed.

Everyone suffers from the M&A-case problem.  Public companies being acquired now expect to be sued, regardless how favorable the transaction and how pristine the process, and are paying higher D&O insurance premiums.  D&O insurers collectively have suffered the full brunt of the problem through payment of defense costs and settlements.  Plaintiffs’ securities lawyers who don’t bring M&A cases, or who bring them more thoughtfully than others, suffer from guilt by association.  Defense lawyers’ law practices have benefited from the increase in M&A cases, but I for one – and I’d bet that the vast majority of my peers would agree with me – would prefer to defend more legitimate M&A cases or other types of matters than the type of M&A cases I’m addressing.

I believe there are two sets of related root causes of the M&A-case problem:

  1. There are too many plaintiffs’ lawyers who bring M&A cases, and too many lawyers file cases over the same transaction with too little coordination among the cases.
  2. Too few cases are weeded out on a motion to dismiss, before the time to settle arrives.  This is due to a number of factors and dynamics, including pleading standards, expedited discovery, and the timing of the transaction.

These sets of causes are intertwined.  Companies are willing to settle because they want certainty that the deal will close on time.  They need to settle to ensure certainty, even if the case lacks merit, because too few cases are dismissed.  They are able to settle because they usually can do so quickly and cheaply.  This is so because few of the plaintiffs’ M&A firms are set up to vigorously litigate even a small percentage of the cases they file; instead, these law firms take a low-intensity, high-volume approach.  Such firms can survive in the M&A-case “market” because of the two root causes: (1) there is too little coordination of the cases – which means that firms often obtain some recovery just by filing a case – and (2) too few cases are weeded out at the dismissal stage – which means that companies must settle to obtain certainty that the deal will close on time.

All of the foregoing adds up to make the M&A litigation business an attractive one for certain plaintiffs’ lawyers.  That attraction increases the number of plaintiffs’ lawyers trolling for cases, which in turn leads to more filings.

Continue Reading M&A Litigation: A Potential Partial Solution to a Big Problem