The villain in the fight against securities class actions is the fraud-on-the-market presumption of reliance established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988 in Basic Inc. v. Levinson, 485 U.S. 224 (1988).  Without Basic, the thinking goes, a plaintiff could not maintain a securities class action, and without securities class actions, executives could speak their minds without worrying so much about securities law liability.  In the current environment, the risk of further attacks on Basic seems high.  (A general class action reform bill, the “Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017,”  has already been introduced in the House—analyzed by Alison Frankel here, and by Kevin LaCroix here.)

But Basic ballasts the system of securities-law enforcement by protecting investors, while providing companies with predictable procedures and finality upon settlement.  We have a lead plaintiff and class representative who prosecutes a claim that defendants can settle with a broad class-wide release.  Because the private plaintiffs’ bar is doing its job, the SEC stays away in most cases. Honest executives have nothing to fear with the current system—they routinely get through securities litigation without any real reputational or personal financial risk.

On the other hand, without Basic, plaintiffs’ lawyers would still file securities litigation.  In place of class actions, each plaintiffs’ firm would file an individual or multi-plaintiff collective action, resulting in multiple separate actions in courts around the country.  These would be difficult to manage, expensive to defend, and impossible to settle with finality until the statute of limitations expires.  SEC enforcement would become more frequent.  Companies and their D&O insurers and brokers would be unable to predict and properly insure against the risk of a disclosure problem.

Moreover, I have never understood the supposed benefits of abolishing Basic.  Although it is possible that the frequency of securities litigation would decline, I doubt it would.  A disclosure problem that would trigger a securities class action today would result in at least several non-class securities actions in a post-Basic system.

And any decrease in frequency would come at a high cost—in addition to the increased cost of defending and resolving those cases that are filed, investors and the economy would suffer from more securities fraud resulting from the diminished deterrence that class actions provide. Even an executive who detests securities class actions pictures prominent plaintiffs’ lawyers when he or she decides whether to omit an important fact.

So, to those who bash Basic, be careful what you wish for.

A Brief History of the Fraud-on-the-Market Doctrine

The fraud-on-the-market doctrine concerns the reliance element of a Section 10(b) claim.  Absent some way to harmonize individual issues of reliance, class treatment of a securities class action is not possible; individual issues overwhelm common ones, precluding certification under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3).  In Basic, the Supreme Court provided a solution: a rebuttable presumption of reliance based on the fraud-on-the-market theory, which provides that a security traded on an efficient market reflects all public material information. Purchasers (or sellers) rely on the integrity of the market price, and thus on a material misrepresentation.  Decisions following Basic have established three conditions to its application: market efficiency, a public misrepresentation, and a purchase (or sale) between the misrepresentation and the disclosure of the “truth.”

Over the years, defendants have argued that, absent a showing by plaintiffs that the challenged statements were material, or upon a showing by defendants that they were not, the presumption is not applicable or has been rebutted.  And, in a twist on such arguments, defendants sometimes argued that the absence of loss causation rebutted the presumption. In Erica P. John Fund, Inc. v. Halliburton Co., 563 U.S. 804 (2011), the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the latter argument, finding that loss causation is not a condition of the presumption of reliance.  But the Court explicitly left the door open for the argument that plaintiffs must prove materiality for the presumption of reliance to apply.

Later, the Court granted certiorari in Amgen Inc. v. Conn. Ret. Plans and Trust Funds, 133 S. Ct. 1184 (2013), to review the Ninth Circuit’s decision that plaintiffs are not required to prove materiality for the presumption to apply, and that the district court is not required to allow defendants to present evidence rebutting the applicability of the presumption before certifying a class.  In a majority opinion authored by Justice Ginsburg, and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan, the Amgen Court concluded that proof of materiality was not necessary to demonstrate, as Rule 23(b)(3) requires, that questions of law or fact common to the class will “predominate over any questions affecting only individual members.”

As Amgen was being litigated in the Supreme Court, the parties in Halliburton were briefing the plaintiffs’ class certification motion on remand.  The district court certified a class, prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Amgen.  Halliburton sought and obtained Rule 23(f) certification from the Fifth Circuit, which affirmed, after the Supreme Court decided Amgen.  The Halliburton case ended up before the Supreme Court once again, this time with the viability of Basic squarely presented.  The Court rejected Halliburton’s argument that Basic is inconsistent with modern economic theory, under which market efficiency is not a binary “yes or no” issue.  Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2398 (2014).  Thus, Basic survived the Halliburton battle.

What Would Securities Litigation Look Like without Basic?

Our current securities class action system is straightforward and predictable.  Like any other action, a securities class action starts with the filing of a complaint by a plaintiff.  But after that, the procedure for these actions is unique.  The Reform Act mandates that the first plaintiff to file a securities class action publish a press release giving notice of the lawsuit and advising class members that they can attempt to be the “lead plaintiff” by filing a motion with the court within 60 days of the press release.  Additional plaintiffs will often file their own complaints in advance of the deadline, or they may simply file a motion to become lead plaintiff at the deadline.

The Reform Act provides that the “presumptively most adequate lead plaintiff” is the one who “has the largest financial interest in the relief sought by the class” and otherwise meets the requirements of Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which governs class actions.  The Reform Act’s standards for lead plaintiff selection have caused plaintiffs’ firms to pursue institutional investors and pension funds as plaintiffs, since they are more likely to be able to show the financial interest necessary to be designated as lead plaintiffs.  But as I have chronicled, in recent years, smaller plaintiffs’ firms have won lead-plaintiff contests with retail investors as lead plaintiffs, primarily in securities class actions against smaller companies.  About half of all securities class actions are filed against smaller companies by these smaller plaintiffs’ firms.

This deeper and more diverse new roster of plaintiffs’ firms means that securities litigation won’t just go away if they can’t file securities class actions.  The larger plaintiffs’ firms have strong client relationships with the institutional investors the Reform Act incentivized them to develop.  Claims by the retail investors that the Reform Act sought to replace have made a resurgence through relationships with smaller plaintiffs’ firms.  Together, these plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ firms fully cover the securities litigation landscape.  These firms are competitive with one another. One will rush to file a case, and if one files, others will too.  They are specialized securities lawyers, and they aren’t going to become baristas or bartenders if Basic is abolished.  They will seek out cases to file.

So the plaintiffs’ bar would adjust, just as they have adjusted to limited federal-court jurisdiction under Morrison v. National Australia Bank, 561 U.S. 247 (2010).  And if the post-Morrison framework is any indication of what we would face post-Basic, look out—Morrison has caused the proliferation of unbelievably expensive litigation around the world, without the ability to effectively coordinate or settle it for a reasonable amount with certain releases.

In a post-Basic world, the plaintiffs’ firms with institutional investor clients would likely file large individual and non-class collective actions.  Smaller plaintiffs’ firms would also file individual and non-class collective actions.  The damages in cases filed by smaller firms would tend to be smaller, but the litigation burdens would be similar.

Non-class securities actions would be no less expensive to defend than today’s class actions, since they would involve litigation of the same core merits issues.  In fact, non-class litigation would be even more expensive in certain respects because, for example, there would be multiple damages analyses and vastly more complex case management.  And if securities class action opt-out litigation experience is indicative of the settlement value of such cases, they would tend to settle for a larger percentage of damages than today’s securities class actions.

In a new non-class era of securities litigation, the settlement logistics would be vastly more difficult.  It’s hard enough to mediate with one plaintiffs’ firm and one lead plaintiff.  Imagine mediation with a dozen or more plaintiffs’ firms and even more plaintiffs.  We often object to lead-plaintiff groups because of the difficulty of dealing with a group of plaintiffs instead of just one.  In a world without securities class actions, the adversary would be far, far worse—a collection of plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ firms with no set of rules for getting along.

Even when settlement could be achieved, it wouldn’t preclude suits by other purchasers during the period of inflation, because there would be no due process procedure to bind them, as there is when there’s a certified class with notice and an opportunity to object or opt out.  Indeed, there likely would develop a trend of random follow-up suits by even smaller plaintiffs’ firms after the larger cases have settled.  There would be no peace absent the expiration of the statute of limitations.

These unmanageable and unpredictable economics would disrupt D&O insurance purchasing decisions and cost. Under the current system, D&O insurers and brokers can reliably predict the risk a particular company faces based on its size and other characteristics.  A company can thus purchase a D&O insurance program that fits its risk profile.

Compounding the uncertainty of all of this would be the role of SEC and other government enforcement.  Even with the current U.S. administration’s relatively hands-off regulatory approach, the job of the human beings who work at the SEC is to investigate and enforce the securities laws.  They aren’t going to not do their jobs just because government regulation has been eased in the bigger picture.  And they will step in to fill the void left by the inability of plaintiffs to bring securities class actions.  Experienced defense counsel can predict how plaintiffs’ firms will litigate and resolve a case, but they have much less ability to predict how an enforcement person with whom he or she may never have dealt will approach a case.

Conclusion

Executives who do their best to tell the truth really have nothing to fear under the securities laws.  The law gives them plenty of protection, and the predictability of the current system allows them to understand their risk and resolve litigation with certainty.  It would be a mistake to try to abolish securities class actions.  Abandoning Basic would backfire—badly.

The history of securities and corporate governance litigation is full of wishes about the law that we later regret (or will), or are happy were not granted.  Many of these are not obvious—and some will surprise people.  From certain case-by-case tactical decisions such as establishment of special litigation committees, to the (failed) attempt to abolish the fraud-on-the-market doctrine, to the very high standard for director liability for oversight failures, not everything that seems helpful to companies really is.

I will publish a series of blog posts on this topic over the coming months.  This month’s post discusses the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, with a focus on two provisions: the safe harbor for forward-looking statements (“Safe Harbor”), and lead plaintiff procedures.

Overview of the Reform Act

The Reform Act was passed by the Contract-with-America Congress to address its perception that securities class actions were reflexive, lawyer-driven litigation that often asserted weak claims based on little more than a stock drop, and relied on post-litigation discovery, rather than pre-litigation investigation, to sort out the validity of the claims.  The Reform Act, among other things:

  • Imposed strict pleading standards for showing both falsity and scienter, to curtail frivolous claims by increasing the likelihood that they would be dismissed.
  • Created the Safe Harbor, to encourage companies to make forecasts and other predictions without undue fear of liability.
  • Imposed a stay of discovery until the motion-to-dismiss process is resolved, to prevent discovery fishing expeditions and to eliminate the burden of discovery for claims that do not meet the enhanced pleading standards.
  • Created procedures for selecting a lead plaintiff with a substantial financial stake in the litigation, to discourage lawyer-driven actions and the “race to the courthouse.”

Over my career as a securities litigator, I’ve seen both sides of the securities-litigation divide that the Reform Act created.  In the first part of my career, I witnessed the figurative skid marks in front of courthouses, as lawyers raced to the courthouse to file claims before knowing if there really was a claim to be filed—the emblem of the problems Congress sought to correct.  And in the 21 years since, I’ve seen the Reform Act both succeed and fail to achieve the results Congress intended.

Having lived the before and after, I would not argue that the Reform Act has not helped companies and their directors and officers.  It certainly has.  But it is a mixed bag.  Indeed, I can argue that even the heightened falsity and scienter pleading standards have caused harm.  For example, the pleading standards lead even the most prominent defense lawyers to rely heavily on the lack of words in a complaint—the securities litigation equivalent of “neener neener neener”—instead of using the complaint and judicially noticeable facts to cogently explain why the defendants didn’t say anything false, much less on purpose.

Over-reliance on the pleading standards is a strategic mistake.  The Reform Act’s standards give judges enormous discretion; they can dismiss most complaints, or not, with little room to challenge their decisions upon appeal.  Winning motions recognize the human element to this discretion.  Even if a complaint is technically deficient, judges are less likely to dismiss it (certainly less likely to dismiss it with prejudice) if they nevertheless get the feeling that the defendants committed fraud.  Effective motions use the leeway given to defendants by the Reform Act, and now the Supreme Court’s decisions in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers District Council Construction Industry Pension Fund, 135 S. Ct. 1318 (2015), and Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308 (2007), to build a robust factual record that gives judges a sense of comfort that they are not only following the law, but that by strictly applying the Reform Act’s protections, they are also serving justice.  And even if the judge doesn’t dismiss the case, he or she will leave the motion to dismiss process with a better feeling about the case going forward.  But the pleading standards can be an attractive nuisance, distracting defense lawyers from the best way to defend their clients.

The pleading standards have also spawned a sideshow of “confidential witnesses,” primarily former employees who provide plaintiffs’ lawyers with internal corporate information to help them meet the pleading standards.  In addition to raising whistleblower issues, causing fights over misuse of confidential information, and airing dirty laundry, the use of confidential witnesses has resulted in fights between plaintiffs’ lawyers and recanting witnesses requiring judicial intervention.

In one especially contentious dispute, Judge Rakoff spent a day taking testimony from recanting witnesses and a plaintiffs’ investigator, and took additional time to write an opinion commenting on this issue after the parties had settled the litigation.  He concluded his nine-page opinion as follows:

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 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.

We may well see this problem as one of the underpinnings of a legislative attempt to reform the Reform Act one day.

In any event, and regardless of one’s views of the pleading standards’ overall benefits, two other Reform Act provisions certainly have grown to be problematic for public companies: the Safe Harbor, and the lead plaintiff provisions.

The Safe Harbor for Forward-Looking Statements

The Safe Harbor was a centerpiece of the Reform Act.  Lawsuits prompted by announcements of missed earnings forecasts deterred companies from giving valuable earnings guidance.  Congress sought to encourage guidance and other forward-looking statements by precluding liability if the statements were accompanied by “meaningful cautionary statements” or made without “actual knowledge” that they were false.  15 U.S.C. § 77z-2(c)(1); 15 U.S.C. § 78u-5(c)(1).

Yet the Safe Harbor is anything but safe.  In the 21 years of the Reform Act, surprisingly few dismissals are based solely the Safe Harbor; instead, courts either use it as  fallback grounds for dismissal, or just sidestep it—which has resulted in some significant legal errors.  The most notorious erroneous Safe Harbor decision was written by one of the country’s most renowned judges, Judge Frank Easterbrook, in Asher v. Baxter, 377 F.3d 727 (7th Cir. 2004).  Judge Easterbrook read into the Safe Harbor the word “the” before “important” in the phrase “identifying important factors,” to then hold that discovery was required to determine whether the company’s cautionary language contained “the (or any of the) ‘important sources of variance’” between the forecast and the actual results.  Id. at 734.

The reason for this judicial antipathy was best articulated by Bill Lerach, who famously said that the Safe Harbor would give executives a “license to lie.”  Judges have tended to agree with his conclusion.  Some have been quite explicit about it.  For example, in In re Stone & Webster, Inc. Securities Litigation, the First Circuit called the Safe Harbor a “curious statute, which grants (within limits) a license to defraud.”  414 F.3d 187, 212 (1st Cir. 2005).  And the Second Circuit, in its first decision analyzing the Safe Harbor—15 years after the Reform Act was enacted, illustrating the degree of judicial avoidance—correctly interpreted “or” to mean “or,” but stated that “Congress may wish to give further direction on …. the reference point by which we should judge whether an issuer has identified the factors that realistically could cause results to differ from projections.  May an issuer be protected by the meaningful cautionary language prong of the Safe Harbor even where his cautionary statement omitted a major risk that he knew about at the time he made the statement?”  Slayton v. American Express Co., 604 F.3d 758, 772 (2d Cir. 2010).  Probably for this reason, the Safe Harbor has not deterred plaintiffs’ counsel from continuing to bring false forecast cases.  Twenty-one years later, a great many securities class actions still focus on earnings forecasts and other forward-looking statements.

Much of this problem is self-inflicted.  We defense lawyers have worsened the judicial antipathy and reluctance to issue rulings on Safe Harbor grounds by making hyper-technical arguments that are detached from any notion that the challenged forward-looking statements aren’t false in the first place.  Most challenged forward-looking statements are true statements of opinion—an especially strong argument under the Supreme Court’s Omnicare decision—and don’t even need the Safe Harbor’s protection.  But by bypassing the falsity argument, and falling back on the Safe Harbor, defense counsel plays right into plaintiffs’ hands.  Many defense lawyers try to overcome this problem by emphasizing that Congress intended to immunize even unfair forward-looking statements, if they are accompanied by appropriate warnings.  But judges don’t like caveat emptor, and they don’t like liars—regardless of Congressional intent.  A much better way to defend forward-looking statements is to show that they were true statements of opinion and then use the Safe Harbor as a fallback argument.  It makes the judge feel comfortable dismissing the claim in either or both ways.  But few defense lawyers take that approach.

Finally, companies and their outside corporate counsel have contributed to the Safe Harbor’s lack of safety by failing to describe their risks in a fresh and detailed way each quarter.  When I evaluate a securities class action complaint that challenges forward-looking statements and other statements of opinion (which comprise nearly all securities cases), one of the first things I look for is the progression of the risk factors each quarter.  Using a chart, I read them from start to finish, just as the judge will when we create the context for our arguments against falsity and to support the application of the Safe Harbor.  Are the risk factors specific or generic?  Do they change over time or are they static?  Do the changes in the risk factors track disclosed changes in business conditions?  Etc.  But companies and their outside corporate counsel frequently devolve to boilerplate, and fail to draft careful disclosures that make a judge feel comfortable that they were trying to disclose their real risks each quarter.

Lead Plaintiff Procedures

The symbol of the pre-Reform Act era is the race to the courthouse among plaintiffs’ lawyers to file a complaint first and thus win the lead counsel role.  Congress intended the heightened pleading standards and the Safe Harbor to play a role in fixing that problem, because they are meant to incentivize plaintiffs to do more pre-filing investigation.  However, the Reform Act’s lead plaintiff provisions—which require the court to choose a lead plaintiff and lead plaintiff’s counsel after a beauty contest—undermine that goal, since only the lead plaintiff has an economic incentive to invest much time and money in an investigation.  So although the initial filer no longer has a competitive advantage by being the first plaintiff to file, the initial complaint is still routinely filed without any real investigation or worry about satisfying the pleading standards.

The lead plaintiff procedures were also designed to prevent lawyer-driven litigation, by providing that the lead plaintiff is presumptively the plaintiff with the largest financial loss—i.e., a plaintiff with “skin in the game.”  While that goal is salutary, it has spawned complex and mixed results.  The Reform Act’s lead plaintiff process incentivized plaintiffs’ firms to recruit institutional investors to serve as plaintiffs.  For the most part, institutional investors, whether smaller unions or large funds, retained the more prominent plaintiffs’ firms, and smaller plaintiffs’ firms were left with individual retail investor clients who usually can’t beat out institutions for the lead plaintiff role.  At the same time, securities class action economics tightened in all but the largest cases.  Dismissal rates under the Reform Act are pretty high, and defeating a motion to dismiss often requires significant investigative costs and intensive legal work.  And the median settlement amount of cases that survive dismissal motions is fairly low.  These dynamics placed a premium on experience, efficiency, and scale.  Larger firms filed the lion’s share of the cases, and smaller plaintiffs’ firms were unable to compete effectively for the lead plaintiff role, or make much money on their litigation investments.

But nature abhors a vacuum—here, a securities litigation system that leaves out retail investors and smaller plaintiffs’ firms.  So, it was inevitable that these alienated groups would find a way to bring securities class actions. As I’ve chronicled previously, this void started to be filled with the wave of cases against Chinese issuers in 2010.  Smaller plaintiffs’ firms initiated the lion’s share of these cases, primarily on behalf of retail investors, as the larger firms were swamped with credit-crisis cases and likely were deterred by the relatively small damages, potentially high discovery costs, and uncertain insurance and company financial resources.  Moreover, these cases fit smaller firms’ capabilities well; nearly all of the cases had “lawsuit blueprints” such as auditor resignations and/or short-seller reports, thereby reducing the smaller firms’ investigative costs and increasing their likelihood of surviving a motion to dismiss.  The dismissal rate has indeed been low, and limited insurance and company resources have prompted early settlements in amounts that, while on the low side, appear to have yielded good outcomes for the smaller plaintiffs’ firms.

With these gains in efficiency, market share, and money, these smaller plaintiffs’ firms have continued to file a large number of securities class actions on behalf of retail investors.  Like the China cases, these tend to be against smaller companies.  Thus, smaller plaintiffs’ firms have discovered a class of cases—cases against smaller companies that have suffered well-publicized problems that reduce the plaintiffs’ firms’ investigative costs—for which they can win the lead plaintiff role and that they can prosecute at a sufficient profit margin.

We now have two classes of prominent plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ firms:  larger firms with institutional investor clients, as Congress intended, and smaller plaintiffs’ firms with smaller individual clients, which Congress sought to displace.   In a sense, we’re back to where we started, but now with more aggressive institutional investors to boot.

Smaller plaintiffs’ firms’ permanent arrival on the scene has led to two sets of additional problems.

First, smaller plaintiffs’ firms have ratcheted up the number of press releases by plaintiffs’ firms seeking plaintiffs to file a securities class action.  There have always been plaintiff law firm “investigations” to try to find plaintiffs to file lawsuits, but there has been nothing short of an avalanche in recent years.  This is so for a number of reasons. Unlike larger plaintiffs’ firms that have spent 21 years cultivating institutional investor clients as the Reform Act envisioned, smaller plaintiffs’ firms generally don’t have existing attorney-client relationships with potential plaintiffs who own a wide range of securities—so they need to recruit plaintiffs for particular cases. Smaller plaintiffs’ firm successes are drawing more smaller firms into the securities class action business.  This competition is resulting in an “investigation” following nearly every negative corporate announcement.  Increasingly, this is so even if the stock price drop is relatively small—indeed, I’ve seen more investigations and subsequent securities class actions follow single-digit stock drops than ever before, likely because the of the number of smaller-firm players and the reality that a small case is better than none.  The press release process is repeated after a lawsuit is filed.  As the Reform Act requires, the first filer publishes a press release announcing the filing. Other smaller plaintiffs’ firms then publish their own announcements that a lawsuit has been filed in order to find a good lead plaintiff contestant.  Each firm publishes their own notice, and the firms then publish reminders leading up to the lead plaintiff filing deadline 60 days later.

To put it mildly, this process is a real nuisance, especially for smaller companies. Investors, employees, and other stakeholders who don’t understand this process sometimes perceive that the company is falling apart.  Dealing with their concerns can cause officers and directors to become distracted.  The result can be further deterioration of the company’s business and financial condition, and an unwarranted sell-off of the company’s stock.  This can be about more than money—for example, development of life-saving drugs can be slowed or even derailed. Obviously, none of that is good.  I doubt the plaintiffs’ lawyers themselves would disagree, but instead would say that they’re simply working under the Reform Act’s lead plaintiff procedures.

Second, the fervent competition among smaller plaintiffs’ firms is affecting the types of cases filed and settlement dynamics.  Although the smaller plaintiffs’ firms’ bread-and-butter are “lawsuit blueprint” cases that often have difficult facts, they are also filing many low-merit cases, such as challenges to earnings guidance.  At the same time, the intense competition sometimes results in more difficult and protracted litigation, meritorious or not.  There are usually other smaller plaintiffs’ firms on the scene through tag-along derivative suits or as co-lead securities class action counsel, and none of the firms wants the others to see it as a pushover for wanting to settle for an amount they’d otherwise gladly take.  That said, it’s also true that smaller plaintiffs’ firms are defeating an increasing number of motions to dismiss and can be formidable adversaries—which of course gives them greater leverage and leads to more difficult litigation to defend and resolve.

Conclusion

Although these issues won’t make the legislative agenda anytime soon, we defense lawyers can make a difference.  We can:

  • Emphasize the truth of the challenged statements through the tools the Reform Act and Supreme Court have provided, and avoid over-reliance on the Safe Harbor and pleading standards.
  • Ask courts to impose clear leadership and coordination between and among securities class action and derivative plaintiffs’ counsel.
  • Educate companies about the reasons for the frustrating flurry of press releases.

The fifth of my “5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense” (April 30, 2016 post) is to move securities class action damages expert reports and discovery ahead of fact discovery.  This simple change would allow the defendants and their D&O insurers to understand the real economics of cases that survive a motion to dismiss, and allow the parties to make more informed litigation and settlement decisions.

Securities class actions are often labeled “bet the company” cases because they assert large theoretical damages and name the company’s senior management and sometimes the board as defendants.  In reality, however, very few securities class actions pose a real threat to the company or its directors and officers.  Most securities class actions follow a predictable course of litigation and resolution.  Nearly all cases settle before trial.  And, with the help of economists, experienced defense lawyers and D&O insurance professionals can predict with reasonable accuracy the settlement “value” of a case based on historical settlement information and their judgment.

Historically, settlement amounts were driven by an accurate understanding of the merits of the litigation and damages exposure.  Cases that weren’t dismissed on a motion to dismiss were often defended through at least the filing of a summary judgment motion and the completion of damages discovery.  This kind of vigorous defense is no longer economically rational in the lion’s share of cases, because of the high billing rates and profit-focused staffing of the typical defense firms—primarily firms with marquee names.  Those firms’ skyrocketing defense costs threaten to exhaust most or all of the D&O insurance towers in cases that are not dismissed on a motion to dismiss.  Rarely can such firms defend cases vigorously through fact and expert discovery and summary judgment anymore.

The reality of these economics is increasingly leading to mediations and settlements very early in the litigation, if a case isn’t dismissed.  But, though rational, this comes at a high price.  Early settlements are, by definition, less informed than later settlements.  Plaintiffs’ lawyers must push for a higher settlement payment to compensate for the risk that they are settling a meritorious case for too little, and to increase the baseline for a smaller percentage fee due to a lower lodestar.  Defendants and their insurers tend to be willing to overpay because they are saving on defense costs by not litigating further, and because there may be some downward pressure on the settlement amount since the plaintiffs’ lawyers will be doing less work too.

Damages considerations also loom large.  At an early mediation, before damages expert discovery, the parties typically come to the mediation only with a preliminary damages estimate that neither side has thoroughly analyzed, much less tested through intensive work with the experts and expert discovery.  Rigorous expert work often significantly reduces realistic damages exposure.  For example, stock drops that lead to a securities class action are often the result of multiple negative news items.  A rigorous damages analysis parses each item from the total stock drop to isolate the portion caused by the revelation of the allegedly hidden truth that made the challenged statements false or misleading.  A defense firm that is motivated to settle the litigation sometimes does not want to do this work, so that it can use the large bet-the-company damages figure to pressure the insurer into settling for an amount that the plaintiffs will take.  A defense lawyer might say, “Our economist says that damages are $1 billion, so the $30 million the plaintiffs are demanding is a reasonable settlement.”  But expert analysis and discovery may well push the $1 billion number down to a much lower number, which in turn would dramatically reduce a reasonable settlement amount.  Worsening this problem is the increasing unwillingness of mediators and plaintiffs’ lawyers to base settlement amounts on historical data—which places the preliminary damages analysis at the center of the negotiations.

This problem leads to my fifth wish: expert damages analysis and discovery should be the first thing we do after a motion to dismiss is denied.  This will help us know if the case is really a big case, or is a small case that just seems big.  Everyone would benefit.  Plaintiffs and defendants would be able to reach a settlement more easily, based on true risk and reward.  Insurers would know that they are funding a settlement that reflects the real risk, in terms of damages exposure.  And courts would feel more comfortable that they are approving (or rejecting) settlements based on a litigated assessment of damages.  Indeed, placing damages expert work first would help serve the core policy of our system of litigation: “to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action and proceeding.”  Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 1.

Although the logic of my wish would lead to full fact discovery before mediation as well, so that settlements can be fully informed, I favor a continued stay of fact discovery during early expert discovery.  Early expert discovery can be accomplished relatively quickly and efficiently, whereas fact discovery can be immediately and wildly expensive—which is primarily what drives very early settlements.  And although plaintiffs and defendants often disagree about the relevance of fact discovery on damages, the absence of fact discovery for consideration in damages analysis is a factor the parties can weigh in evaluating the damages experts’ opinions.  Unless and until the cost of discovery becomes more manageable, continuing the fact-discovery stay while expert damages discovery proceeds would strike the right balance.

Accelerating the timing of damages expert discovery would align it with the work required by damages experts to analyze price-impact issues under the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2398 (2014) (“Halliburton II“).  In Halliburton II, the Supreme Court held that defendants may seek to rebut the fraud-on-the-market presumption of reliance, and thus defeat class certification, through evidence that the alleged false and misleading statements did not impact the market price of the stock.   Unifying these two overlapping economic expert projects would create efficiencies for the lawyers and economists.  Completing both of them before fact discovery starts would avoid unnecessary discovery costs if the Halliburton II opposition defeated or limited class certification, or if the damages analysis facilitated early settlement.

I’m sure it is not lost on readers that I just argued for a fundamental reform in the procedure for securities class action litigation to fix a problem that is primarily caused by the inability of typical defense firms to efficiently and effectively defend a securities class action even through summary judgment.  To say the least, a system of litigation that can’t accommodate actual litigation is broken.  Significant change in securities litigation defense is inevitable.

I hope that this series has provoked thought and discussion about ways to re-focus our system of securities litigation defense on its mission: to help directors and officers through litigation safely and efficiently, without losing their serenity or dignity, and without facing any real risk of paying any personal funds.  Here, again, are my five wishes:

  1. Require an interview process for the selection of defense counsel, to allow the defendants to understand their options; to evaluate conflicts of interest and the advantages and disadvantages of using their corporate firm to defend the litigation; and to achieve cost concessions that only a competitive interview process can yield.  (5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense: A Defense-Counsel Interview Process in All Cases)
  2. Increase the involvement of D&O insurers in defense-counsel selection and in other strategic defense decisions, to put those who have the greatest overall experience and economic stake in securities class action defense in a position to provide meaningful input.  (5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense: Greater Insurer Involvement in Defense-Counsel Selection and Strategy)
  3. Make the Supreme Court’s Omnicare decision a primary tool in the defense of securities class actions.  Obviously, Omnicare should be used to defend against challenges to all forms of opinions, including statements regarded as “puffery” and forward-looking statements protected by the Reform Act’s Safe Harbor for forward-looking statements.  But defense counsel should also take advantage of the Supreme Court’s direction in Omnicare that courts evaluate challenged statements in their full factual context.  Omnicare supplements the Court’s previous direction in Tellabs that courts evaluate scienter by considering not just the complaint’s allegations, but also documents incorporated by reference and documents subject to judicial notice.  Together, Omnicare and Tellabs allow defense counsel to defend their clients’ honesty with a robust factual record at the motion to dismiss stage.  (5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense: Effective Use of the Supreme Court’s Omnicare Decision)
  4. Increase the involvement of boards of directors in decisions concerning D&O insurance and the defense of securities litigation, including counsel selection, to ensure their personal protection and good oversight of the defense of the company and themselves.  (5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense: Greater Director Involvement in Securities Litigation Defense and D&O Insurance)
  5. Move damages expert reports and discovery ahead of fact discovery, to allow the defendants and their D&O insurers to understand the real economics of cases that survive a motion to dismiss, and to make more informed litigation and settlement decisions.

In this installment of the D&O Discourse series “5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense,” we discuss the third of five changes that would significantly improve securities litigation defense:  to make the Supreme Court’s Omnicare decision a primary tool in the defense of securities class actions.

As a reminder, in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers District Council Construction Industry Pension Fund, 135 S. Ct. 1318 (2015), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a statement of opinion is only false under the federal securities laws if the speaker does not genuinely believe it, and is only misleading if it omits information that, in context, would cause the statement to mislead a reasonable investor.  This ruling followed the path we advocated in an amicus brief on behalf of Washington Legal Foundation.

The Court’s ruling in Omnicare was a significant victory for the defense bar for two primary reasons.

First, the Court made clear that an opinion is false only if it was not sincerely believed by the speaker at the time that it was expressed, a concept sometimes referred to as “subjective falsity.”  The Court thus explicitly rejected the possibility that a statement of opinion could be false because “external facts show the opinion to be incorrect,” because a company failed to “disclose[] some fact cutting the other way,” or because the company did not disclose that others disagreed with its opinion.  This ruling resolved two decades’ worth of confusing and conflicting case law regarding what makes a statement of opinion false, which had often permitted meritless securities cases to survive dismissal motions.

Second, Omnicare declared that whether a statement of opinion (and by clear implication, a statement of fact) was misleading “always depends on context.”  The Court emphasized that showing a statement to be misleading is “no small task” for plaintiffs, and that the court must consider not only the full statement being challenged and the context in which it was made, but also other statements made by the company, and other publicly available information, including the customs and practices of the relevant industry.

Omnicare governs the falsity analysis for all types of challenged statements.  Obviously, Omnicare should be used to defend against challenges to all forms of opinions, including statements regarded as “puffery” and forward-looking statements protected by the Reform Act’s Safe Harbor for forward-looking statements.  But defense counsel should also take advantage of the Supreme Court’s direction in Omnicare that courts evaluate challenged statements in their full factual context.  Evaluating challenged statements in their broader context almost always benefits defendants, because it helps the court better understand the challenged statements and makes them seem fairer than they might in isolation. Omnicare now explicitly requires courts to evaluate challenged statements—both statements of fact and statements of opinion—within their broader contexts.

Although Omnicare arose from a claim under Section 11 of the Securities Act, all of its core concepts are equally applicable to Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act and other securities laws with similar falsity elements.  Due to the importance of its holdings and the detailed way in which it explains them, Omnicare is the most significant post-Reform Act Supreme Court case to analyze the falsity element of a securities class-action claim, laying out the core principles of falsity in the same way that the Court did for scienter in Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308 (2007).  If used correctly, Omnicare thus has the potential to be the most helpful securities case for defendants since Tellabs, providing attorneys with a blueprint for how to structure their falsity arguments in order to defeat more complaints on motions to dismiss.

A good motion to dismiss has always analyzed a challenged statement (of fact or opinion) in its broader factual context to explain why it’s not false or misleading.  But many defense lawyers unfortunately leave out the broader context, and courts have sometimes taken a narrower view.  Now, this type of superior, full-context analysis is clearly required by Omnicare.  And combined with the Supreme Court’s directive in Tellabs that courts consider 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, courts clearly must now consider the full array of probative facts in deciding both whether a statement was false or misleading and, if so, whether it was made with scienter.   

Yet Omnicare will fail to achieve its full potential unless defense lawyers understand and use the decision correctly.  Following the Omnicare decision, many defense lawyers commented publicly that Omnicare expanded the basis for defendants’ liability, and was otherwise plaintiff-friendly.  That is simply wrong.  We have published several articles that address these misunderstandings, explain how defense counsel should use the decision, and analyze how lower courts are applying it.  The early returns show that Omnicare is already helping defendants win more motions to dismiss.

Here is a link to our most recent article, Omnicare, Inc. One Year Later: Its Salutary Impact on Securities-Fraud Class Actions in the Lower Federal CourtsCritical Legal Issues Working Paper Series, Washington Legal Foundation (No. 195, June 2016).

One of my “5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense” (April 30, 2016 post) is greater D&O insurer involvement in securities class action defense.

This simple step would have extensive benefits for public companies and their directors and officers. D&O insurers are repeat players in securities litigation, and they have the greatest economic interest in the outcome – both in particular cases, and overall.  They want the defendants – their insureds – to win.  They employ highly experienced claims professionals, many of whom have been involved in exponentially more securities class actions than even the most experienced defense lawyers.

Given insurers’ stake and expertise, defendants should involve them in key strategic decisions – working with them to help find the right defense counsel for the particular case, to help shape the overall defense strategy at the inception of the case, and to help make good decisions about the use of policy proceeds.  With such an approach, I have no doubt that directors and officers would make it through securities cases more successfully, efficiently, and comfortably.

Yet in most cases, insurers are shut out of meaningful involvement in the defense, with many defense lawyers treating them almost like adverse parties, and other defense lawyers merely humoring them as they would a rich relative.  Although this dysfunction is rooted in a complex set of factors, it could easily be fixed.

Why Are D&O Insurers Alienated?

When the general public thinks about insurance, they usually think of auto insurance or other duty-to-defend insurance, under which the insurer assumes the defense of the claim for the insureds.  In contrast to duty-to-defend insurance, public company D&O insurance is indemnity insurance, under which the insurer is obligated to reimburse the company and its directors and officers for reasonable and necessary defense costs and settlement payments, up to the policy’s limit of liability.

Indemnity insurance gives the defendants control over the litigation, including counsel selection and strategic approach, with the insurer retaining limited rights to participate in key decisions.  Although those rights give insurers a foot in the door, competitive pressures among primary D&O insurers work to minimize insurers’ involvement.  For example, an insurer faced with unreasonably high defense costs must decide whether to pay them in full to avoid conflict, or to pay only the “reasonable and necessary” amounts, as the policy specifies – an approach that  maximizes the policy proceeds for the insureds by not squandering policy limits on excessive legal fees.  But if the insurer pays only reasonable and necessary amounts, it may be criticized in the marketplace by the broker or other insurers as being stingy with claims handling – and the insureds may be left holding the bill for the unreasonable excess fees.

In general, insurers take a relatively hands-off approach to D&O claims because they assume that their customers want them to stay out of the defense of the claim.  But in my experience, this is a misconception.  The priority for most companies and their directors and officers is simply the greatest protection possible, including assurances that they will not be left to pay any uncovered legal fees or settlement payments.  In fact, not only do most insureds not want to be stuck paying their lawyers for short-pays, they don’t even want to write any checks at all after satisfying the deductible – instead preferring the insurer to take charge of the bills and pay the lawyers and vendors directly.

In other words, most public companies actually want their D&O insurance to respond more like duty-to-defend insurance.  And if given a choice between having the freedom to choose any defense counsel and having total control over the defense, and saving on their premium and giving the insurers greater rights to be involved, I’m confident most public companies would choose to save on the premium, as long as they are confident that they will still be well-defended.  This is especially so for smaller public companies, for whom the cost of D&O insurance can be a hardship, and against whom the plaintiffs’ bar is bringing more and more securities class actions.  And few companies, large or small, would knowingly spend more on their premiums just to subsidize skyrocketing biglaw partner compensation – the D&O insurance elephant in the corner of the room.

Why do insurers have this misconception?  To be sure, after a claim is filed, the insurer often gets an earful from the insureds’ lawyers and broker about the insureds’ indemnity-insurance freedoms.  But these aggressive positions are typically not the positions of the insureds themselves.  Instead, these positions are driven by defense counsel, usually for self-interested reasons: to get hired, to justify excessive billing, or to settle a case for a bloated amount because the defense is compromised by mounting defense costs or the defense lawyer’s inability to take the case to trial.

Frequently, defense lawyers will set the stage for their clients to have a strained relationship with their insurers by feeding them a number of stock lines:

  • This is a bet-the-company case that requires all-out effort by us to defend you, so we have to pull out all the stops and do whatever is necessary, no matter what the insurer has to say.
  • The insurer may ask you to interview several defense firms before choosing your lawyers. Don’t do that. They’ll just want to get some inferior, cut-rate firm that will save them money.  But you’ll get what you pay for – we’re expensive for a reason! (And don’t forget that we have stood by you, through thick and thin, since before your IPO, back when you were a partner here.  Plus, we gave you advice on your disclosures and stock sales, so we’re in this together.)
  • The business of any insurance company is to try to avoid paying on claims, so the insurer may try to curtail our level of effort, and may even refuse to pay for some of our work.  But trust us to do what we need to do for you.  You might need to make up the difference between our bills and what the insurer pays, but we can go after the insurer later to try to get them to pay you back for those amounts.
  • The insurer will ask us for information about the case.  They’ll say they want to help us, but they’re really just trying to find a way to deny coverage.
  • We’ll tell you when we think the time is right to settle the case, and for how much.  The insurer will try to avoid paying very much for settlement.  But if we say the settlement is reasonable, they won’t have a leg to stand on.
  • We’ll need you to support us in these insurance disputes.  You don’t need to get involved directly – we can work with the insurer and broker directly if you agree.  Agree?  Good.

In this way, defense lawyers set the insurer up as an adversary.  But these self-serving talking points get myriad things wrong.

First, and most importantly, D&O insurers are not the insured’s adversaries in the defense of a securities class action.  To the contrary, insurers’ economic interests are aligned with those of the insureds.  Insurers want to help minimize the risk of liability, through good strategic decisions.  Although keeping defense costs to a reasonable level certainly benefits the insurer, it also benefits the insureds by preserving policy proceeds for related or additional claims on the policy, so that the insureds will not need to pay any defense or settlement costs out-of-pocket, and will avoid a significant premium increase upon renewal.  And insurers want their insureds to have superior lawyers – inferior lawyers would increase their exposure.  Their interest in counsel selection is to help their insureds choose the defense counsel that is right for the particular case.  The key to defense-counsel selection in securities class actions, for insureds and insurers alike, is to find the right combination of expertise and economics for the particular case – in other words, to find good value.

A D&O insurer’s business is not to avoid paying claims.  D&O insurance is decidedly insured-friendly – which isn’t surprising given its importance to a company’s directors and officers.  D&O insurers pay billions of dollars in claims each year, and there is very little D&O insurance coverage litigation.  Although D&O insurance excludes coverage for fraud, the fraud exclusion requires a final adjudication – it does not even come into play when the claim is settled, and even if the case went to trial and there was a verdict for the plaintiffs, it would only be triggered under limited circumstances.  Indeed, if they are utilized correctly, D&O insurers can be highly valuable colleagues in securities class action defense.  Because they are repeat players in securities class actions, they are able to offer valuable insights in defense-counsel selection, motion-to-dismiss strategy, and overall defense strategy.  They have the most experience with securities class action mediators and plaintiffs’ counsel, and often have key strategic thoughts about how to approach settlement.  The top outside lawyers and senior claims professionals for the major insurers have collectively handled many thousands of securities class actions.  Although their role is different than that of defense counsel, these professionals are more sophisticated about securities litigation practice than the vast majority of defense lawyers.

I have achieved superior results for many clients by working collegially with insurers – from helping shape motion-to-dismiss arguments, to learning insights about particular plaintiffs’ lawyers and their latest tricks, to selecting the right mediator for a particular case, to achieving favorable settlements that don’t leave the impression of guilt.  Treating insurers as adversaries robs defendants of this type of valuable guidance.

How Can We Achieve Greater Insurer Involvement?

D&O insurers should set aside their preconceived notions about what the insureds really care about and want.  Insurers need to appreciate that their insureds often welcome their expertise and experience – especially at smaller public companies that have less familiarity with securities class actions, and a more pressing need to control their costs.  Not only is there an opportunity for greater involvement within the current D&O insurance product, but there is a market for new terms and products that allow greater insurer involvement, with corresponding premium or coverage advantages to the insureds.

Many insurers correctly address their claim-handling capabilities as part of the underwriting process.  As part of this discussion, insurers should set the expectation that the insureds will consult with the insurer about the defense-counsel selection process before the defendants select counsel.  Insurers have a unique perspective on the pros and cons of particular defense counsel, since they know the capabilities and economics of the relatively small bar of securities class action defense counsel very well.  They can help the insureds identify several defense firms that would be a good match for the substantive characteristics of the case.  For example, they might know that a particular firm has helpful experience in cases involving a particular industry or type of allegation, or has a good or bad track record with the assigned judge.  Insurers can also help match the economics of the litigation with particular firms.  They would know whether or not a particular firm is able to effectively defend a case within the limits of the D&O insurance, and conversely, they would know whether a firm has enough resources to effectively handle a large claim.

Although I am not an insurance lawyer, I believe this type of discussion is perfectly appropriate within the terms of existing insurance contracts.  But if there is any doubt, existing policy forms could be tweaked to explicitly include greater insurer involvement.  For example, the insurance contract could require the insureds to consult with the insurer about the defense-counsel process before engaging defense counsel, such as with a provision similar to the explicit requirement in D&O policies that insureds speak with the insurer before engaging in any settlement discussions.

Last, but certainly not least, I strongly believe that a public company duty-to-defend product for a “Securities Claim” would be highly attractive to many public companies, especially smaller companies.  Many companies would gladly pay somewhat less for their D&O insurance in exchange for giving insurers somewhat greater control, as long as they know that they will be defended well.  Such a policy would eliminate the risk that clients will have to make up for insurance short-pays, as they are often asked to do under indemnity insurance, while allowing the insurers to manage defense costs to help ensure that the policy proceeds will adequately cover the cost of defending and settling the litigation, and will not be needlessly expended.  As the cost of securities class action defense continues to skyrocket, even as the size of the typical securities case continues to decline, it is time for the D&O insurance industry to consider introducing a product that will provide excellent coverage at a fair price that is affordable to smaller companies.

One of my “5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense” (April 30, 2016 post) is to require an interview process for the selection of defense counsel in all cases.

When a public company purchases a significant good or service, it typically seeks competitive proposals.  From coffee machines to architects, companies invite multiple vendors to bid, evaluate their proposals, and choose one based on a combination of quality and cost.  Yet companies named in a securities class action frequently fail to engage in a competitive interview process for their defense counsel, and instead simply retain litigation lawyers at the firm they use for their corporate work.

To be sure, it is difficult for company management to tell their outside corporate lawyers that they are going to consider hiring another firm to defend a significant litigation matter.  The corporate lawyers are trusted advisors, often former colleagues of the in-house counsel, and have usually made sacrifices for the client that make the corporate lawyers expect to be repaid through engagement to defend whatever litigation might arise.  A big litigation matter is what makes all of the miscellaneous loss-leader work worth it.  “You owe me,” is the unspoken, and sometimes spoken, message.

Corporate lawyers also make the pitch that it will be more efficient for their litigation colleagues to defend the litigation since the corporate lawyers know the facts and can more efficiently work with the firm’s litigators.  Meanwhile, they tell the client that there is no conflict—even if their work on the company’s disclosures is at issue, they assure the company that they will all be on the same side in defending the disclosures, and if they have to be witnesses, the lawyer-as-witness rules will allow them to work around the issue.

All of these assertions are flawed.  It is always—without exception—in the interests of the defendants to take a day to interview several defense firms of different types and perspectives.  And it is never—without exception—in the interests of the defendants to simply hand the case off to the litigators of the company’s corporate firm.  Even if the defendants hire the company’s corporate firm at the end of the interview process, they will have gained highly valuable strategic insights from multiple perspectives; cost concessions that only a competitive interview process will yield; better relationships with their insurers, who will be more comfortable with more thoughtful counsel selection; greater comfort with the corporate firm’s litigators, whom the defendants sometimes have never even met; and better service from the corporate firm.

Problems with Using Corporate Counsel

A Section 10(b) claim involves litigation of whether the defendants:  (1) made a false statement, or failed to disclose a fact that made what they said misleading in context; and (2) made any such false or misleading statements with intent to defraud (i.e. scienter).

Corporate counsel is very often an important fact witness for the defendants on both of these issues.  For example, in a great many cases, corporate counsel has:

  • Drafted the disclosures that plaintiffs challenge, so that the answer to the question “why did you say that?” is “our lawyers wrote it for us.”
  • Advised that omitted information wasn’t required to be disclosed, so that the answer to the question “why didn’t you disclose that” is “our lawyers told us we didn’t have to.”
  • Reviewed disclosures without questioning anything, or not questioning the challenged portion.
  • Drafted the risk factors that are the potential basis of the protection of the Reform Act’s Safe Harbor for forward-looking statements.
  • Not revised the risk factors that are the potential basis of Safe Harbor protection.
  • Advised on the ability of directors and officers to enter into 10b5-1 plans and when to do so, and on the ability of directors and officers to sell stock at certain times, given the presence or absence of material nonpublic information.
  • Advised on individual stock purchases.

The fact that the lawyer has given such advice, or not given such advice, can win the case for the defendants.  For example, for any case turning on a statement of opinion, the lawyer’s advice that the opinion had a reasonable basis virtually guarantees that the defendants won’t be liable.  Likewise, a lawyer’s drafting, revising, or advising on disclosures virtually guarantees that the defendants didn’t make the misrepresentation with scienter, and a lawyer’s advice on the timing of entering into 10b5-1 plans or selling stock makes the sales benign for scienter purposes.

To the defendants, it doesn’t matter if the lawyer was right or wrong.  As long as the advice wasn’t so obviously wrong that the client could not have followed it in good faith, the lawyer’s advice protects the defendants.  But to the lawyer, it matters a great deal for purposes of professional reputation and liability.  Deepening the conflict is the specter of the law firm defending its advice on the basis that the client didn’t tell them everything.  The interests of the lawyer and defendant client thus can diverge significantly.

That this information may be privileged doesn’t change this analysis.  Of course, the privilege belongs to the client, who can decide whether to use the information in his or her defense, or not.  But with corporate counsel’s litigation colleagues guiding the development of the facts, privileged information is rarely analyzed, much less discussed with the client.  The reality is that most privileged information isn’t truly sensitive to the client, but instead reflects a client seeking advice—and seeking the liability protection the lawyer’s advice provides.  But from the lawyer’s perspective, there can be much to protect.  Privileged communications may reflect poor legal advice, and internal files may contain candid discussions about the client and the client’s issues that would result in embarrassment to the firm, and possible termination, if produced.

Perhaps even more importantly, regular corporate counsel’s litigation colleagues may often fail to assess the case objectively, in part because it implicates the work of their corporate colleagues, and in part because of a desire not to ask hard questions that could strain the law firm’s relationship with the client.  Sometimes the problem arises from a deliberate attempt by the lawyers to protect a particular person who may have made an error leading to the litigation, such as the General Counsel (often is a former colleague), the CFO, or the CEO—all of whom are important to the client relationship.  Sometimes, though, the failure to thoughtfully analyze a case is due to a more generalized alliance with the people with whom the law firm works regularly.  It’s hard for a lawyer to scrutinize someone who will be in the firm’s luxury box at the baseball game that night, much less report a serious problem with him or her to the board.

Yet the defendants, including the board of the corporate client, need candid advice about the litigation to protect their interests.  For example, some problematic cases should be settled early, before the insurance limits are significantly eroded by defense costs and documents are produced that that will make the case even more difficult, and could even spawn other litigation or government investigations.  Defendants and corporate boards need to know this.

Corporate firms might counter that their litigation colleagues will give sound and independent advice, because they are a separate department and will face no economic or other pressure from the corporate department.  But that undermines one of the main reasons corporate lawyers urge that their litigation colleagues be hired: that it is more efficient to use the firm’s litigators since they work closely with the corporate lawyers, if not the company itself.  The corporate firm can’t have it both ways: either the litigators are close to the corporate lawyers and the company, and suffer from the problems outlined above, or they are independent, and their involvement yields little or no benefit in efficiency.  Indeed, it is most likely that the corporate firm’s litigators will be hindered by conflict, while nevertheless failing to create greater efficiency.  Just because lawyers are in a same firm doesn’t mean that they can read each other’s minds.  They still have to talk to one another, just as litigators from an outside firm would have to do.

So Why is Corporate Counsel Used So Often?

I doubt many directors or officers would disagree with the analysis above.  So why do so many companies turn to their corporate counsel without conducting an audition process?  Several practical factors impede the proper analysis of counsel selection in the initial days of a securities class action.

The single most important factor is probably that the corporate firm is first on the scene. Many companies reflexively hire their corporate firm immediately after the initial complaint is filed, or even after the stock drop, before a complaint is even filed.  By the time the defendants start to hear from other securities defense practices, they often have retained counsel.  And then it’s very difficult from a personal and practical perspective to walk the decision back.

This decision, moreover, is often made by the legal department, sometimes in consultation with the CEO and CFO.  The board is often not involved.  Instead, the board is merely presented with the decision, which can seem natural because the firm hired is familiar to them.  The directors often aren’t personally named in the initial complaint, so they might not pay as much attention as they would if they understood if they were likely to become defendants later – either in the main securities action, especially if the case involves a potential Section 11 claim, or in a tag-along shareholder derivative action.

Initial complaints can also mislead the company as to the real issues at stake.  Regular corporate counsel and the defendants may review the first complaint and incorrectly conclude that the allegations don’t implicate the lawyer’s work.  But these initial complaints are merely placeholders, because the Reform Act specifies that the lead plaintiff appointed by the court can later file an amended complaint.  Initial filers have little incentive to invest the time or effort into making detailed allegations in the initial complaint, because they may be beaten out for the lead plaintiff role.  The lead plaintiff’s amended complaint thus typically greatly expands the case to include new alleged false and misleading statements, more specific reasons why the challenged statements were false or misleading, and more detailed scienter allegations, including stock-sale and confidential-witness allegations that most initial complaints lack.  If a conflict becomes apparent at that point, however, it can be very difficult and even prejudicial to the defendants for corporate counsel to bow out.

Regular corporate counsel will often advise their clients that there is no issue with them defending the litigation, or even that doing so makes sense because they advised on the underlying disclosures.  But even if the corporate firm is trying to be candid and look out for its client’s interests, it may have blind spots in seeing its potential conflicts—especially when the corporate lawyers are facing pressure from their firm management to “hold the client.”

The pressures that lead a company to hire its corporate firm to defend the securities litigation are very real, and sometimes this decision is ultimately fine.  But I strongly believe that it is never in a client’s interest to take its corporate counsel’s advice on these issues without obtaining analysis from other securities practices as part of a competitive interview process.

The Benefits of a Competitive Process

In addition to obtaining important perspectives about potential problems with corporate counsel’s defense of the securities class action, an interview process involves myriad benefits – including tens of thousands of dollars of free legal advice.  The only cost to the company is a few hours to select the 3-5 firms that it wants to interview, and a day spent hearing presentations from those firms and discussing their analysis and approach with them.

An interview process gives defendants the opportunity to hear from several experienced securities litigators, who will offer a range of analyses and strategies on how best to defend the case.  It also allows defendants to evaluate professional credentials and personal compatibility, which are both important criteria.  It is difficult, if not impossible, for a company to evaluate how their corporate counsel’s litigators stack up against other litigators in this specialized and national practice area, without first hearing from some other firms.  Sometimes, a company will not even meet its corporate firm’s securities litigators in person before engaging them, which obviously makes it impossible for them to make judgments about personal compatibility and trust.

An interview process, if properly structured, is highly substantive.  The firms that fare best in a new-case interview typically prepare thorough discussions of the issues, and come prepared to analyze the case in great detail.  And the best ones look beyond the issues in the initial complaint to the issues that might emerge in the amended complaint, analyzing the full range of the company’s disclosures, to forecast future disclosure and scienter allegations, and evaluating the defenses that will remain even after allegations are added.

An interview process also helps the company to achieve a better deal on billing rates, staffing, and alternative fee arrangements.  Without an interview process, a law firm is much more likely to charge rack rates and do its work in the way it sees fit—which defendants are rarely in a position to challenge without having done some comparison shopping.  Even though securities class action defense costs are covered by D&O insurance, price matters in defense-counsel selection.  It is a mistake to treat D&O insurance proceeds as “free money.”  Without appropriate cost control, defendants run the risk of not having enough insurance proceeds to defend and resolve the case.  Appropriate cost control can help the litigation from resulting in a difficult or expensive D&O insurance renewal, and can allow the company to save money if the fees are less than the deductible.

An interview process also helps get the defendants off to a better start with its D&O insurers.  In addition to appreciating the cost control that an interview process yields, insurers also appreciate the defendants making a thoughtful decision on defense counsel, including vetting the potential problems with use of the company’s corporate firm.  D&O insurers and brokers are “repeat players” in securities litigation, and know the qualifications of defense counsel better than anyone else—a seasoned D&O insurance claims professional has overseen hundreds of securities class actions.  Asking insurers and brokers to help identify defense counsel to interview may therefore not only yield helpful suggestions, but may also make it easier to develop a relationship of strategic trust with the insurers—which will make it easier to obtain consent to settle early if appropriate, and if not, to defend the case through summary judgment or to trial.

Perhaps most importantly, an interview process results in a closer relationship between the defendants and their lawyers, whoever they end up being.  Most securities class action defendants are troubled by being sued, and need lawyers that they can trust to walk them through the process.  An interview process is the best way to find the lawyers who have the right combination of relevant characteristics—including skills, strategy, and bedside manner—that will best fit the needs of the defendants.

On March 24, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers Dist. Council Const. Industry Pension Fund, 135 S. Ct. 1318 (2015).  My partner Claire Davis and I are publishing a forthcoming one-year anniversary article on Omnicare.  In addition to discussing the lower courts’ application of the decision, we take apart the fallacy that Omnicare is “plaintiff-friendly” – a proposition that led to my June 2015 rant “Hey There Fellow Securities Defense Lawyers: Omnicare is GOOD for Us!”  We will post a link to the anniversary article when it’s out.  For now, I want to further explain why I care so much about Omnicare.

As a reminder, Omnicare holds 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.  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.

In my tax law class in law school, my professor said that he could teach all of tax law through the U.S. Supreme Court case Old Colony Trust Co. v. Commissioner, 279 U.S. 716 (1929).  Similarly, Omnicare provides the foundation for multiple legal and strategic elements of a strong defense of a securities class action.  It is truly a case study in how to defend a securities case.  Below, I address three of those components. 

1. Omnicare’s directive that courts consider context better allows defense lawyers to show the defendants said nothing false.

Our North Star in defending any securities class action is to explain that the defendants said nothing false.  At the core of every securities class action is a person who is alleged to have lied.  Clients generally feel strongly that they did their best and told the truth.  The reasons for their belief are always the right place to start constructing the defense, and usually remain the gist of the defense after categorizing the facts under the relevant legal standards.

Sticking up for the truth of what our clients said also gives them a voice during the long initial stages of the motion-to-dismiss process.  Although the Reform Act’s prolonged introductory stages were designed to help defendants, they don’t allow defendants to tell their side of the story – which is frustrating and often harmful to the reputations of real people.

But the Reform Act, and now Omnicare’s context standard, leave securities defense lawyers with broad latitude to support the truth of what their clients said, and to attack allegations of falsity, as to both statements of fact and statements of opinion.  A proper falsity analysis always starts by examining each challenged statement individually, and matching it up with the facts that plaintiffs allege illustrate its falsity.  From there, the truth of what the defendants said can be supported in numerous ways that are still within the proper scope of the motion-to-dismiss standard:  showing that the facts alleged do not actually undermine the challenged statements, because of mismatch of timing or substance; pointing out gaps, inconsistencies, and contradictions in plaintiffs’ allegations; demonstrating that the facts that plaintiffs assert are insufficiently detailed under the Reform Act; attacking allegations that plaintiffs claim to be facts, but which are really opinions, speculation, and unsupported conclusions; putting defendants’ allegedly false or misleading statements in their full context to show that they were not misleading; and pointing to judicially noticeable facts that contradict plaintiffs’ theory.

A good motion to dismiss has always analyzed a challenged statement (of fact or opinion) in its broader factual context to explain why it’s not false or misleading.  But many defense lawyers unfortunately leave out the broader context, and courts have sometimes taken a narrower view.  Now, this type of superior, full-context analysis is clearly required by Omnicare.  And combined with the Supreme Court’s directive in Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308 (2007), that courts consider 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, courts clearly must now consider the full array of probative facts in deciding both whether a statement was false or misleading and, if so, whether it was made with scienter.  Plaintiffs can’t cherry-pick what the court considers anymore. 

2. Omnicares subjective falsity holding allows us to stick up for the truth of all of our clients’ statements.  

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, earnings forecasts, and progress toward corporate goals.  Indeed, I would guess that more than 75% of all securities class actions involve one or more statements of opinion as a core allegation.

Yet for decades before Omnicare, it was difficult to defend the truth of an opinion.  The law was hopelessly muddled.  For a full discussion, I invite you to review pages 13-19 of our Omnicare amicus brief on behalf of Washington Legal Foundation.  To argue the truth of statements of opinion, we would provide the best possible statement of the legal standard under the law of the circuit we were in, try to convince the court that the real standard should be the standard that is now the Omnicare standard, and then argue that the opinion was true and not misleading under the standard we advanced.  Now, under Omnicare, we can stick up for the truth of all of our clients’ statements, both fact and opinion, without having to first engage in a mini-argument of the law governing opinions.

3. Omnicare allows judges wider latitude to rule in defendants’ favor.

Judges want to figure out if the defendants tried to tell the truth.  The law provides wide latitude for judges to dismiss claims, and we want to give them every reason to do so.  If the judge accepts that the defendants did their best to be fair and candid in their public statements, he or she will be more inclined to accept other arguments.

So the argument against falsity, utilizing the tools Omnicare has provided, is the right place to start, even if there are stronger alternative arguments.  For example, in an earnings forecast case, the best approach is to first defend the truth of the forecast – a statement of opinion – and then use the Reform Act’s Safe Harbor as a fallback argument.  Likewise, a strong argument against scienter is best set up by a strong argument against falsity.  The element of scienter requires plaintiffs to demonstrate that the defendants said something knowingly or recklessly false – in order to do this, plaintiffs must tie their scienter allegations to each particular challenged statement.  A scienter argument that doesn’t build on a strong falsity argument is a strategic mistake.

I hope that this short guide to how to use the powerful tool the Court gave us in Omnicare is helpful.  If we in the defense bar use the decision correctly, companies and their directors and officers will have greater freedom to speak without undue fear of liability, and we will win more cases in which their opinions are challenged.

In 2015, the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act* turned twenty years old.

Over my career as a securities litigator, I’ve seen both sides of the securities-litigation divide that the Reform Act created.  In the first part of my career, I witnessed the figurative skid marks in front of courthouses, as lawyers raced to the courthouse to file claims before knowing if there really was a claim to be filed – the emblem of the problems Congress sought to correct.  And in the 20 years since, I’ve seen the Reform Act both succeed and fail to achieve the results Congress intended.

In this blog post, I assign grades to each of the Reform Act’s key provisions, and an overall grade.  The Reform Act’s successes and failures derive from an amalgam of factors, ranging from Congressional insight and oversight, to good and bad lawyering by plaintiffs’ and defense lawyers alike, to good and bad judging.  The grades I assign are necessarily based on a defense perspective, and mine at that – but I do try to be fair.

Grading the Reform Act’s Key Provisions

The Reform Act was passed by the Contract-with-America Congress to address its perception that securities class actions were reflexive, lawyer-driven litigation that often asserted weak claims based on little more than a stock drop, and relied on post-litigation discovery, rather than pre-litigation investigation, to sort out the validity of the claims.  The Reform Act, among other things:

  • Imposed strict pleading standards for showing both falsity and scienter, to curtail frivolous claims by increasing the likelihood that they would be dismissed;
  • Created a Safe Harbor for forward-looking statements, to encourage companies to make forecasts and other predictions without undue fear of liability;
  • Imposed a stay of discovery until the motion-to-dismiss process is resolved, to prevent discovery fishing expeditions and to eliminate the burden of discovery for claims that do not meet the enhanced pleading standards; and
  • Created procedures for selecting a lead plaintiff with a substantial financial stake in the litigation, to discourage lawyer-driven actions and the “race to the courthouse.”

Following are my grades for each of these provisions:

Falsity Pleading Standard – Grade: D

The Reform Act requires a plaintiff to plead the element of a false or misleading statement with particularity.  Indeed, the statute says that “if an allegation regarding the statement or omission is made on information and belief, the complaint shall state with particularity all facts on which that belief is formed.” 15 U.S.C. § 78u-4(b)(1) (emphasis added).

Yet this powerful tool is now almost a museum piece.  I don’t just mean the “all facts” part – an issue plaintiffs and defendants heavily litigated for years,  before courts converged around the proposition that plaintiffs only need to include enough detail to adequately plead the claim.  Rather, I mean that most defense firms now merely go through the motions of attacking and analyzing plaintiffs’ falsity allegations.

How could that have happened?  To be blunt, it’s mostly through bad lawyering by defense lawyers, who got sidetracked by the Safe Harbor and the scienter pleading standard (see below), and by self-indulgent statutory analysis, such as what Congress meant by the term “all facts.”  In doing so, they overlooked the more basic but powerful point: the Reform Act’s falsity standard must be a higher and different hurdle than Rule 9(b), requiring a robust analysis of the falsity allegations.  And when they got distracted, defense counsel took their eye off their main job: to stick up for their clients’ honesty.

Indeed, the core argument of virtually every motion to dismiss should be that the defendants told the truth and said nothing false.  The Reform Act, and now the Supreme Court’s decision in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers Dist. Council Const. Industry Pension Fund, 135 S. Ct. 1318 (2015), leave securities defense lawyers with broad latitude to attack falsity.  A proper falsity analysis always starts by examining each challenged statement individually, and matching it up with the facts that plaintiffs allege illustrate its falsity.  From there, the truth of what the defendants said can be supported in numerous ways that are still within the proper scope of the motion-to-dismiss standard:  showing that the facts alleged do not actually undermine the challenged statements, because of mismatch of timing or substance; pointing out gaps, inconsistencies, and contradictions in plaintiffs’ allegations; demonstrating that the facts that plaintiffs assert are insufficiently detailed under the Reform Act; attacking allegations that plaintiffs claim to be facts, but which are really opinions, speculation, and unsupported conclusions; putting defendants’ allegedly false or misleading statements in their full context to show that they were not misleading; and pointing to judicially noticeable facts that contradict plaintiffs’ theory.

These arguments must be supplemented by a robust understanding of the relevant factual background, which defines and frames the direction of any argument based on the complaint and judicially noticeable facts.  Yet most motions to dismiss do not make a forceful argument against falsity that is supported with a specific challenge to the facts alleged by the plaintiffs.  Some motions superficially assert that the allegations are too vague to satisfy the pleading standard, but do not engage in a detailed defense of the challenged statements.  Others simply attack the credibility of “confidential witnesses” without addressing in sufficient detail the content of the information the complaint attributes to them.  And others fall back on the doctrine of “puffery,” essentially conceding that the statements may have been lies, but contending that they were not specific or important enough to be taken seriously.  By focusing on these and similar approaches, a brief may leave the judge with the impression that defendants concede falsity, and that the real defense is that the false statements were not made with scienter.  Not only is this an argument not available for Section 11 and 12 claims, but defense counsel’s failure to attack falsity allegations in detail actually undermines the argument that defendants did not have scienter.

The Reform Act’s falsity pleading standard was an enormous gift for defense attorneys, which enables them to mount a strong and vibrant defense on a motion to dismiss if it is used correctly.  But because it has not been used to its potential, I give it a D.

Scienter Pleading Standard – Grade: C

The Reform Act says that “with respect to each act or omission alleged to violate this chapter, [plaintiffs must] state with particularity facts giving rise to a strong inference that the defendant acted with the required state of mind,” i.e., scienter. 15 U.S.C. § 78u-4(b)(2).

Defense lawyers have billed billions of dollars analyzing and briefing what these simple words mean.  We argued for years about the meaning of “the required state of mind” – did it mean actual intent, recklessness, or a hybrid?  We litigated how courts must consider whether plaintiffs have pleaded a “strong inference” of that state of mind, an issue ultimately decided by the Supreme Court in Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308 (2007), which held that courts must weigh inferences of scienter to decide whether the alleged inference of fraud is stronger than opposing innocent inferences.  We then argued over whether Tellabs did away with the various “rules” courts had established, such as the amount or percentage of stock holdings a defendant had to sell before his or her sales suggested scienter, and whether looking at stock sales, or any other type of scienter allegation, in isolation was even allowed.  And we have argued over the degree of particularity Congress intended to require, and engaged in thousands of “did so, did not” spats over whether the allegations met the standard for which we were arguing.

For defendants, the overall outcome of all of this is decent.  The dismissal rate is pretty good, and the vast majority of dismissals are based on plaintiffs’ failure to plead scienter.  But the defense counsel community’s intense focus on improving the defendant-friendly scienter standard contributed to the distraction that sidetracked good falsity analysis.  And to what end?  I would bet a great deal that the difference between plain old “recklessness” and a slightly higher degree of recklessness has made no real difference in the dismissal rate.  A judge who believes that a defendant didn’t mean to say something false would not deny a motion to dismiss simply over a slightly different formulation of the legal standard.

But defendants have achieved this decent dismissal rate without their defense counsel making the best possible arguments for them.  As with falsity, the primary flaw in most defense arguments against scienter is with defense counsel’s failure to engage in a fact-specific analysis of the complaint’s allegations about what the defendants knew in regard to each specific challenged statement.  All too often, defendants allow themselves to be sidetracked by technicalities, or even worse, drawn to the plaintiffs’ preferred ground of battle, focusing on arguing about the sufficiency of the circumstantial evidence that plaintiffs use to create the impression that the defendants must have done something wrong.

Both of these flaws are found in defense counsel’s typical approach to plaintiffs’ arguments under the “core operations” inference of scienter and the “corporate scienter” doctrine.  Each of these theories allows a plaintiff to avoid pleading specific facts establishing the speaker’s scienter.  For example, the core operations inference posits that scienter can be inferred where it would be “absurd to suggest” that a senior executive doesn’t know facts about the company’s “core operations.”  Many motions to dismiss set up some formulation of this statement as a legal rule and then use it to make a simplistic syllogistic argument.  Such arguments devolve into “did not, did so” debates, and thus play into plaintiffs’ hands because they are detached from knowledge of falsity.  Instead, the right approach to the core operations inference is to understand that it requires a falsity so blatant that we can strongly infer that the executive had knowledge of the exact facts that made the statement false – not just the subject matter of the facts.  The most effective defense against the core operations inference thus focuses on falsity first, to show that even if a statement is false, it is at least a close call – making it hard for plaintiffs to contend that defendants must have known of this falsity.  But this can’t be done effectively if the argument against falsity does not vigorously attack the falsity allegations.

For these reasons, I give defense counsel’s use of the scienter pleading standard an overall grade of C: a B for the results and a D for how we got there.

Safe Harbor – Grade: D

The Safe Harbor for forward-looking statements was a centerpiece of the Reform Act.  Companies were being sued following announcements of missed earnings forecasts, which deterred companies from giving valuable earnings guidance.  Congress sought to encourage companies to give guidance and make other forward-looking statements by shielding such statements from liability if they are accompanied by “meaningful cautionary statements” or made without “actual knowledge” that they were false.  15 U.S.C. § 77z-2(c)(1); 15 U.S.C. § 78u-5(c)(1).

Yet the Safe Harbor is anything but safe.  In the 20 years of the Reform Act, surprisingly few dismissals are based solely the Safe Harbor; instead, courts either use it as  fallback grounds for dismissal, or just sidestep it – which has resulted in some significant legal errors.  The most notorious erroneous Safe Harbor decision was written by one of the country’s most renowned judges, Judge Frank Easterbrook, in Asher v. Baxter, 377 F.3d 727 (7th Cir. 2004).  Judge Easterbrook read into the Safe Harbor the word “the” before “important” in the phrase “identifying important factors,” to then hold that discovery was required to determine whether the company’s cautionary language contained “the (or any of the) ‘important sources of variance’” between the forecast and the actual results.  Id. at 734.

The reason for this judicial antipathy was best articulated by Bill Lerach, who famously said that the Safe Harbor would give executives a “license to lie.”  Judges have tended to agree with this conclusion.  Some have been quite explicit about it.  For example, in In re Stone & Webster, Inc. Securities Litigation, the First Circuit called the Safe Harbor a “curious statute, which grants (within limits) a license to defraud.”  414 F.3d 187, 212 (1st Cir. 2005).  And the Second Circuit, in its first decision analyzing the Safe Harbor – 15 years after the Reform Act was enacted, illustrating the degree of judicial avoidance – correctly interpreted “or” to mean “or,” but stated that “Congress may wish to give further direction on …. the reference point by which we should judge whether an issuer has identified the factors that realistically could cause results to differ from projections.  May an issuer be protected by the meaningful cautionary language prong of the safe harbor even where his cautionary statement omitted a major risk that he knew about at the time he made the statement?”  Slayton v. American Express Co., 604 F.3d 758, 772 (2d Cir. 2010).  Probably for this reason, the Safe Harbor has not deterred plaintiffs’ counsel from continuing to bring false forecast cases.  Twenty years later, a great many securities class actions still focus on earnings forecasts and other forward-looking statements.

We as a defense community have worsened the judicial antipathy and reluctance to issue rulings on Safe Harbor grounds, by making hyper-technical arguments that are detached from any notion that the challenged forward-looking statements aren’t false in the first place.  Most challenged forward-looking statements are true statements of opinion, and don’t even need the Safe Harbor’s protection.  But by bypassing the falsity argument, and falling back on the Safe Harbor, defense counsel plays right into plaintiffs’ hands.  Many defense lawyers try to overcome this problem by emphasizing that Congress intended to immunize even unfair forward-looking statements, if they are accompanied by appropriate warnings.  But this species of the disfavored defense of caveat emptor rings hollow.  Judges don’t like caveat emptor, and they don’t like liars – regardless of Congressional intent.  A much better way to defend forward-looking statements is to show that they were true statements of opinion, and then use the Reform Act as a fallback argument.  It makes the judge feel comfortable dismissing in either or both of two ways.  But few defense lawyers take that approach.

Finally, companies and their outside corporate counsel have contributed to the Safe Harbor’s lack of safety by failing to describe their risks in a fresh and detailed way each quarter.  When I evaluate a securities class action that challenges forward-looking statements and other statements of opinion (which comprise nearly all securities cases), one of the first things I look for is the progression of the risk factors each quarter.  I have a chart made, and I read them start to finish, as the judge will when we create the context for our arguments against falsity and to support the application of the Safe Harbor.  Are the risk factors specific or generic?  Do they change over time or are they static?  Do the changes in the risk factors track disclosed changes in business conditions?  Etc.  But companies and their outside corporate counsel frequently devolve to boilerplate, and fail to draft careful disclosures that make a judge feel comfortable that they were trying to disclose their real risks each quarter.

So, I give the Safe Harbor a D.

Lead Plaintiff Procedures – Grade C

The symbol of the pre-Reform Act era is the race to the courthouse among plaintiffs’ lawyers to file a complaint first and thus win the lead counsel role.  Congress intended the heightened pleading standards and the Safe Harbor to play a role in fixing that problem, because they are meant to incentivize plaintiffs to do more pre-filing investigation.  However, the Reform Act’s lead plaintiff provisions – which require the court to choose a lead plaintiff and lead plaintiff’s counsel after a beauty contest – undermine that goal, since only the lead plaintiff has an economic incentive to invest much time and money in an investigation.  So although the initial filer no longer has a competitive advantage by being the first plaintiff to file, the initial complaint is still routinely filed without any real investigation or worry about satisfying the pleading standards.

The lead plaintiff procedures were also designed to prevent lawyer-driven litigation, by providing that the lead plaintiff is presumptively the plaintiff with the largest financial loss – i.e., a plaintiff with “skin in the game.”  While that goal is salutary, it has spawned complex and mixed results.  The Reform Act’s lead plaintiff process incentivized plaintiffs’ firms to recruit institutional investors to serve as plaintiffs.  For the most part, institutional investors, whether smaller unions or large funds, retained the more prominent plaintiffs’ firms, and smaller plaintiffs’ firms were left with individual investor clients who usually can’t beat out institutions for the lead plaintiff role.  At the same time, securities class action economics tightened in all but the largest cases.  Dismissal rates under the Reform Act are pretty high, and defeating a motion to dismiss often requires significant investigative costs and intensive legal work.  And the median settlement amount of cases that survive dismissal motions is fairly low.  These dynamics placed a premium on experience, efficiency, and scale.  Larger firms filed the lion’s share of the cases, and smaller plaintiffs’ firms were unable to compete effectively for the lead plaintiff role, or make much money on their litigation investments.

This started to change with the wave of cases against Chinese issuers in 2010.  Smaller plaintiffs’ firms initiated the lion’s share of these cases, as the larger firms were swamped with credit-crisis cases and likely were deterred by the relatively small damages, potentially high discovery costs, and uncertain insurance and company financial resources.  Moreover, these cases fit smaller firms’ capabilities well; nearly all of the cases had “lawsuit blueprints” such as auditor resignations and/or short-seller reports, thereby reducing the smaller firms’ investigative costs and increasing their likelihood of surviving a motion to dismiss.  The dismissal rate has indeed been low, and limited insurance and company resources have prompted early settlements in amounts that, while on the low side, appear to have yielded good outcomes for the smaller plaintiffs’ firms.

The smaller plaintiffs’ firms thus built up a head of steam that has kept them going, even after the wave of China cases subsided.  For the last year or two, following almost every “lawsuit blueprint” announcement, a smaller firm has launched an “investigation” of the company, and they have initiated an increasing number of cases.  Like the China cases, these cases tend to be against smaller companies.  Thus, smaller plaintiffs’ firms have discovered a class of cases – cases against smaller companies that have suffered well-publicized problems that reduce the plaintiffs’ firms’ investigative costs – for which they can win the lead plaintiff role and that they can prosecute at a sufficient profit margin.

To be sure, the larger firms still mostly can and will beat out the smaller firms for the cases they want.  But it increasingly seems clear that the larger firms don’t want to take the lead in initiating many of the cases against smaller companies, and are content to focus on larger cases on behalf of their institutional investor clients.  The result is now two classes of plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ firms:  larger firms with institutional investor clients, as Congress intended, and smaller plaintiffs’ firms with smaller individual clients, which Congress sought to displace.   In a sense, we’re back to where we started, but now with more aggressive institutional investors to boot.

As a result, from the defense perspective, I give the lead plaintiff procedures a C.

Discovery Stay – Grade: A

The Reform Act’s automatic stay of discovery was also meant to prevent plaintiffs from filing a lawsuit without adequate investigation, and conducting formal discovery to fish for facts to support it.  The discovery stay has saved defendants and their insurers many billions of dollars in discovery costs, and prevented millions of hours of unnecessary distraction by employees who have been able to focus on their jobs instead of helping their lawyers and electronic discovery consultants collect documents.  Although the statute contains several exceptions, there has been relatively little litigation over their application, especially over the last decade; the plaintiffs’ bar has shown restraint and efficiency in not over-litigating the discovery stay.  The discovery stay has worked well.

Conclusion:  The Reform Act’s Overall Grade

Grade: C+

In outlining this post, I originally organized my thoughts around this question: Are companies and their directors and officers really better off than they were 20 years ago?  Although it may seem absurd that a defense lawyer could even think about answering that question “no,” it really is a fair question.  I could make the case that the Reform Act’s tools have actually hindered the overall effectiveness of securities litigation defense by distracting from its core purpose: to convince a judge or jury that the defendants didn’t say anything false.  That is best done by thinking about the defense of the litigation overall, through trial – which not only sets the case up for a better defense on the merits, but results in better motion-to-dismiss results, for the reasons I’ve described.  But instead, the Reform Act tempts defense counsel to rely on technicalities, which can result in a mediocre defense, and an increased liability and economic exposure that overall are harmful to public companies, their directors and officers, and insurers.

 

* I never call the Reform Act the “PSLRA.”  The Reform Act was meant to reform securities litigation, not PSLRA-ize it.

Does Item 303 of Regulation S-K matter in private securities litigation?  In Stratte-McClure v. Morgan Stanley, 776 F.3d 94 (2nd Cir. 2015), the Second Circuit held that Item 303 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.

I’m glad the Supreme Court didn’t take the case, because while this issue seems important, it really isn’t – as a practical matter, a claim under Item 303 doesn’t add much, if anything, to a plain vanilla claim alleging that a statement was misleading for omitting the same information.

Evolution of the Legal Issue

SEC forms, under both the Securities Act and the Exchange Act, require the disclosure of various items described in SEC Regulation S-K.  Some of the most important disclosures are found in S-K Item 303(a), which includes “management’s discussion and analysis” (MD&A) of the company’s “financial condition, changes in financial condition and results of operations.”  And 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.”  This is a high hurdle for a plaintiff to clear: a company must actually know: (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.

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, prohibit a false statement or omission of a fact that causes a statement to be misleading.  In addition, the text of Section 11 allows a claim to be based on the issuer’s failure to disclose “a material fact required to be stated” in a registration statement. 15 U.S.C. § 77k(a) (emphasis added).  One such requirement is Item 303.  Panther Partners Inc. v. Ikanos Communications, Inc., 681 F.3d 114, 120 (2nd Cir. 2012).  Based on this statutory language – which is unique to Section 11 – Section 11 claims thus appropriately can include claims based on Item 303.

Panther Partners is the decision that has fueled plaintiffs’ counsel’s use of Item 303. In Panther Partners, the Second Circuit held that Item 303 required the issuer, Ikanos Communications, to disclose information about a high product defect rate, and that the omission of this information from a registration statement gave rise to a cause of action under Section 11.  There are two important facets of the decision that have largely been forgotten.  First, the court emphasized Section 11’s language, which isn’t present in the statute or decisions under Section 10(b), that an issuer must disclose “a material fact required to be stated” in a registration statement.  Second, the court was troubled by the fact that the company’s risk factor about product defects suggested there were no defects when, in fact, there were:

In light of these allegations, the Registration Statement’s generic cautionary language that “[h]ighly complex products such as those that [Ikanos] offer[s] frequently contain defects and bugs” was incomplete and, consequently, did not fulfill Ikanos’s duty to inform the investing public of the particular, factually-based uncertainties of which it was aware in the weeks leading up to the Secondary Offering.

Id.at 122.  I could make a strong argument that the driver of the court’s decision was a false or misleading risk factor, and Item 303 was just the way the court articulated its conclusion.  As I’ve written, courts are often troubled by boilerplate risk factors, especially those that cast as hypothetical risks that have materialized.

In NVIDIA, plaintiffs alleged that several of NVIDIA’s SEC filings contained materially false and misleading statements because they omitted information relating to a defect in NVIDIA’s graphics processing unit (“GPU”) chips.  Plaintiffs also argued that certain omissions in filing statements were actionable under Section 10(b) because the chip defects constituted a “known trend” under Item 303 – but did not present this theory in the complaint itself.

The district court found that plaintiffs had pled “at least one” material misrepresentation – a risk factor saying that defects “might occur,” which falsely suggested that NVIDIA was not already aware of the same defect in other products.  The district court did not inquire into whether any of the other specific statements were also materially misleading.  Nonetheless, the district court dismissed the complaint on the ground that plaintiffs had failed to plead scienter.  The district court opinion only mentioned Item 303 briefly, as it was not (yet) a centerpiece of plaintiffs’ theory.

Before the Ninth Circuit, plaintiffs argued that the district court should have considered scienter in the context of Item 303, focusing on whether defendants had acted with scienter in violating that rule.  The Ninth Circuit rejected this line of argument on the ground that Item 303 does not establish an independent duty of disclosure for the purposes of Section 10(b).  The Ninth Circuit did not consider whether plaintiffs had successfully pled a material misrepresentation (as the district court had found), focusing instead on scienter, and affirming the district court’s judgment on this ground.

Shortly thereafter, the Second Circuit, in Stratte-McClure, held that Item 303 does establish an independent duty of disclosure for purposes of Section 10(b).  The court began with the cardinal rule that silence, absent a duty to disclose, is not actionable, and such a duty is created when a company omits facts that make a statement misleading.  768 F.3d at 101-02.  The court then grappled with whether omission of facts required to be disclosed under Item 303 creates a duty of disclosure for purposes of Section 10(b).  In analyzing this issue, the court relied on the Panther Partners holding, though the court compared Section 10(b)’s requirements to Section 12(a)(2) of the 1933 Act, which does not contain Section 11’s unique statutory language, i.e., Section 11 makes actionable not just a false or misleading statement, but also a failure to disclose “a material fact required to be stated” in a registration statement.

The court’s comparison of Section 10(b) to Section 12(a)(2) instead of to Section 11 resulted in a large legal leap.  The court in Panther Partners stated that “[o]ne of the potential bases for liability under §§ 11 and 12(a)(2) is an omission in contravention of an affirmative legal disclosure obligation” (i.e. making actionable the omission of “a material fact required to be stated” in a registration statement).  681 F.3d at 120.  But, in fact, only Section 11, and not Section 12(a)(2), contains that provision.  Instead, Section 12(a)(2), like Section 10(b), imposes liability for a false or misleading statement, and doesn’t contain the alternative basis of liability for a failure to disclose “a material fact required to be stated ….”  As a result, Stratte-McClure doesn’t fairly portray the rationale for the holding in Panther Partners.

Nevertheless, the court in Stratte-McClure supplied a separate basis, grounded in Section 10(b)’s requirement of a false or misleading statement, for concluding that Item 303 supplies a duty to disclose that can be actionable under Section 10(b):

Due to the obligatory nature of [Item 303], a reasonable investor would interpret the absence of an Item 303 disclosure to imply the nonexistence of “known trends or uncertainties … that the registrant reasonably expects will have a material … unfavorable impact on … revenues or income from continuing operations.” …  It follows that Item 303 imposes the type of duty to speak that can, in appropriate cases, give rise to liability under Section 10(b).

776 F.3d at 102 (citations omitted).  In other words, a company that fails to disclose information required to be disclosed by Item 303 has misled investors by creating an impression of a state of affairs (that there are no materially negative trends or uncertainties) that differs from the one that actually exists (that there are such trends or uncertainties).  Thus, what the court implicitly held is that an Item 303 omission makes the whole set of the company’s affirmative statements misleading.

Item 303’s Lack of Practical Impact

The Item 303 issue is certainly interesting.  My colleagues and I have had lively discussions about the questions it raises.  But we keep concluding that it doesn’t really add anything.

We first reached this conclusion in a roundabout way in a case a few years ago.  There were two offerings at issue, and just after Panther Partners, plaintiffs’ counsel featured the Item 303 allegations.  We drafted a detailed motion to dismiss section on the Item 303 issue.  As we evaluated our arguments in light of the page limit, we kept shortening the Item 303 argument.  In the end, we decided that the Item 303 claim was redundant: the court wasn’t going to deny the motion to dismiss under Item 303 without also finding that the plaintiffs had sufficiently pleaded a false statement and scienter, because the plaintiffs challenged many statements and pleaded scienter using the same allegations that formed the basis of the Item 303 claim.  So in the filed version of the motion, the argument became a fraction of the size of the original one.  And in the reply brief, the Item 303 argument was in a short footnote.

Since then, the plaintiffs’ bar’s focus on the issue, and various court decisions, and even a cert petition, have kept me re-thinking the importance of Item 303 to securities claims.  But I haven’t changed my view that Item 303 is redundant: very rarely, if ever, would there be an omitted fact that gives rise to an Item 303 claim without also rendering false or misleading one or more challenged statements; and the knowledge required under Item 303 is at least as great as is necessary to establish scienter.  Even under Section 11, where the unique statutory language allows for a claim, Item 303’s multiple knowledge requirements, if appropriately applied, make the claim difficult to plead and prove.

The NVIDIA case provides a good illustration.  Recall that the plaintiffs alleged that NVIDIA made false statements related to a defect in its GPU chips, and argued that the chip defects constituted a known trend under Item 303.  The complaint challenged many statements, and the district court concluded that “at least one” was misleading as a result of the defects:

*          “Our core businesses are continuing to grow as the GPU becomes increasingly central to today’s computing experience in both the consumer and professional market segments.”

*          “Fiscal 2008 was another outstanding and record year for us. Strong demand for GPUs in all market segments drove our growth. Relative to Q4 one year ago, our discrete GPU business grew 80%.”

*          “As we have in the past, we intend to use this [R&D] strategy to achieve new levels of graphics, networking and communications features and performance and ultra-low power designs, enabling our customers to achieve superior performance in their products.”

*          “[W]e believe that close relationships with OEMs, ODMs and major system builders will allow us to better anticipate and address customer needs with future generations of our products.”

*          “The growth of GPUs continues to outpace the PC market. We shipped 42 percent more GPUs this quarter compared to the same period a year ago, resulting in our best first quarter ever. … We expect this positive feedback loop to continue to drive our growth.”

*          “In the past, we have discovered defects and incompatibilities with customers’ hardware in some of our products. Similar issues in the future may result in delays or loss of revenue to correct any defects or incompatibilities.”

*          “If our products contain significant defects our financial results could be negatively impacted, our reputation could be damaged and we could lose market share.”

*          In a statement disclosing the defects: “We are evaluating the potential scope of this situation, including the nature and cause of the alleged defect and the merits of the customer’s claim, and to what extent the alleged defect might occur with other of our products.”

This list of challenged statements illustrates that companies affirmatively say many things on the subject matter of an omission sufficient to yield an Item 303 claim.  Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a case in which an issue is so major as to require Item 303 disclosure but isn’t something about which the company has spoken.

And given that is the case, and Item 303’s disclosure requirements are infused with knowledge requirements, it also would be an anomalous case in which there is an Item 303 violation but not scienter.  For example, if a company violates Item 303 by not disclosing that its biggest customer is switching suppliers next quarter, and proceeds to say things about its business and financial outlook as it of course would, it has made misleading statements with intent to defraud.  The Item 303 claim adds nothing.  Stratte-McClure, on its face, is an anomalous case.  After concluding that Morgan Stanley had a duty to disclose certain facts about subprime lending that were likely to cause material trading losses, the court concluded that the failure to disclose those facts wasn’t done with scienter.  The analysis is fact-specific and technical.  Suffice it to say that I could easily re-write the opinion, using the court’s own scienter analysis, to conclude that no disclosure was required under Item 303 in the first place – it’s really a matter of six of one, half a dozen of another.

Why, then, have plaintiffs’ counsel pushed Item 303 claims so hard?  I believe it’s mostly 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’s relatively easy for a plaintiff to identify omitted facts – but it’s analytically difficult work, and often unsuccessful, to challenge affirmative statements.

Another important reason is defendants’ attack on the fraud on the market presumption of reliance over the past several years – first to the legitimacy of Basic v. Levinson, which gave rise to securities class actions, and now to its viability in specific cases under the price-impact rule of Halliburton II.  Claims of pure omission under Item 303 arguably would fall under the Affiliated Ute presumption of reliance, rather than under Basic, which would make class certification easier and more certain.  But the court’s reasoning in Stratte-McClure that an Item 303 violation makes what the company said misleading would make the claim a statement-based claim that would be evaluated under Basic, not Affiliated Ute.

Whatever the reason, I hope parties and courts don’t waste time litigating over Item 303 further.  It just doesn’t matter.

In my last D&O Discourse post, “The Future of Securities Class Action Litigation,” I discussed why changes to the securities litigation defense bar are inevitable: in a nutshell, the economic structures of the typical securities defense firms – mostly national law firms – result in defense costs that significantly exceed what is rational to spend in a typical securities class action.  As I explained, the solution needs to come from outside the biglaw paradigm; when biglaw firms try to reduce the cost of one case without changing their fundamental billing and staffing structure, they end up cutting corners by foregoing important tasks or settling prematurely for an unnecessarily high amount.  That is obviously unacceptable.

The solution thus requires us to approach securities class action defense in a new way, by creating a specialized bar of securities defense lawyers from two groups: lawyers from national firms who change their staffing structure and lower their billing rates, and experienced securities litigators from regional firms with economic structures that are naturally more rational.

But litigation venues are regional.  We have state courts and federal courts organized by states and areas within states.  Since lawyers need to go to the courthouse to file pleadings, attend court hearings, and meet with clients in that location, the lawyer handling a case needs to live where the judge and clients live.

Right?

Not anymore.

Although the attitude that a case needs a local lawyer persists, that is no longer how litigation works.  We don’t file pleadings at the courthouse.  We file them on the internet from anywhere – even from an airplane.  There are just a handful of in-person court hearings in most cases.  And the reality is that most clients don’t want their lawyers hanging around in person at their offices – email, phone calls, and Skype suffice.  Even document collection can be done mostly electronically and remotely.  And with increasingly strict deposition limits, and witnesses located around the country and world, depositions don’t require much time in the forum city either.

In a typical Reform Act case, where discovery is stayed through the motion-to-dismiss process, the amount of time a lawyer needs to spend in the forum city is especially modest.  If a case is dismissed on a motion to dismiss, the case activities in the forum city in a typical case amount only to (1) a short visit to the clients’ offices to learn the facts necessary to assess the case and prepare the motion to dismiss, and (2) the motion-to-dismiss argument, if there is one.  Indeed, assuming that a typical securities case requires a total of 1,000 hours of lawyer time through an initial motion to dismiss, fewer than 50 of those hours – one-half of one percent – need to be spent in the forum city.  The other 99.5% can be spent anywhere.

Discovery doesn’t change these percentages much.  Assume that it takes another 10,000 hours of attorney time to litigate a case through a summary judgment motion, or 11,000 total hours.  Four lawyers/paralegals spending four weeks in the forum city for document collection and depositions (a generous allotment) yields only another 640 hours.  So in my hypothetical, only 0.63% of the defense of the case requires a lawyer to be in the forum city.  The other 99.37% of the work can be done anywhere.  Because a biglaw firm would litigate a securities class action with a larger team, the total number of hours in a typical biglaw case would be much higher – both the total defense hours and the total number of hours spent in the forum city – but the percentages would be similar.

Nor does the cost of travel move the economic needle.  Of course, if a firm is willing not to charge for travel time and travel costs to the forum city, there is no economic issue.  My firm is willing to make this concession, and I would bet others are as well.  Even if a firm does charge for travel cost and travel time, the cost is miniscule in relationship to total defense costs.  For example, my total travel costs for a five-night trip to New York City – both airfare and lodging – are typically less than the cost of two biglaw partner hours.

Of course, there are some purposes for which local counsel is necessary, or at least ideal – someone who knows the local rules, is familiar with the local judges, and is admitted in the forum state.  But the need to utilize local counsel for a limited number of tasks doesn’t present any economic or strategic issue either, if the lawyers’ roles are clearly defined.  Depending on the circumstances, I like to work either with a local lawyer in a litigation boutique that was formed by former large-firm lawyers with strong local connections, or with a lawyer from a strong regional firm.  I just finished a case in which the local firm was a boutique, and a case in which the local firm was another regional firm.  In both cases, the local firms charged de minimis amounts.  In some cases, the local firm can and should play a larger role, but whatever the type of firm and its role, the lead and local lawyers can develop the right staffing for the case and work together essentially as one firm – if they want to.

All of these considerations show that securities litigation defense can and should be a nationwide practice.  It is no longer local.  We need look no farther than the other side of the “v” for a good example.  Our adversaries in the plaintiffs’ bar have long litigated cases around the country, often teaming up with local lawyers from different firms.  Like securities defense, plaintiffs’ securities work requires a full-time focus that has led to a relatively small number of qualified firms.  The qualified firms litigate cases around the country, not just in their hometowns or even where their firms have lawyers.

This all seems relatively simple, but it requires us all to abandon old assumptions about the practice of law that are no longer applicable, and embrace a new mindset.  Biglaw defense lawyers need to obtain more economic freedom within their firms to reduce their rates and staffing for typical securities cases, or they must face the reality that their firms perhaps are well suited only for the largest cases.  Regional firms must recruit more full-time securities litigation partners and be willing not to charge for travel time and costs.  And companies and insurers must appreciate that securities litigation defense will improve – through better substantive and economic results in both individual cases and overall – if they recognize that a good regional firm with dedicated securities litigators can defend a securities class action anywhere in the country, and can usually do so more effectively and efficiently than a biglaw firm.