SEC Commissioner Michael Piwowar recently said that the SEC is open to allowing companies that are going public to provide for mandatory shareholder arbitration in their corporate charters.  Piwowar’s remarks have prompted a firestorm of discussion of the issue of mandatory arbitration of securities class actions, including helpful analyses by Alison Frankel and Kevin LaCroix of issues that arbitration provisions would raise.

If Piwowar’s thought turns into action, there will be numerous public policy and legal issues to sort out—including whether a corporate charter can bind an individual purchaser of stock asserting an individual claim based on an offering or secondary-market purchase, as opposed to a current stockholder asserting a corporate claim in a derivative action.

I will set those tricky issues aside for now—they would be the subject of much analysis and intense battles between investor advocates and some corporate-interest advocates.

But first, we defense lawyers should sort out whether a system of securities litigation without securities class actions, including a system of arbitrations, would be helpful to defendants.

I believe the idea of mandatory securities disclosure arbitrations is a bad one—for defendants.

Our current securities-litigation system is straightforward, predictable, and manageable.  There is a relatively small group of plaintiffs’ firms that file securities class actions.  The Private Securities Litigation Reform Act provides a framework for the procedural and substantive issues.  Securities class actions rarely go to trial, and they settle for a predictable amount.  Indeed, 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.  There are certainly problems with the current system, but as I recently wrote, they primarily stem from the splintered structure of the defense bar and the skyrocketing legal fees charged by the typical defense firms—not from the litigation itself.

The allure of abolishing securities class actions is that securities disclosure litigation would be greatly reduced.  But that’s a Siren song.  A system of arbitration of securities disputes would not rid us of securities disclosure claims.  Plaintiffs’ securities lawyers handle securities cases for a living, and they aren’t going to become baristas or bartenders if securities claims must be arbitrated.  They will simply initiate arbitrations on behalf of their clients.

These arbitrations would be unmanageable.  Each plaintiffs’ firm would recruit multiple plaintiffs to initiate one or more arbitrations—resulting in potentially dozens of arbitrations over a disclosure problem.  Large firms would initiate arbitrations on behalf of the institutional investors with whom they’ve forged relationships, as the Reform Act envisioned.  Smaller plaintiffs’ firms would initiate arbitrations on behalf of groups of retail investors, which have made a comeback in recent years.  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.

Securities-disclosure arbitrations would cost multiple times more to defend and resolve.

  • Motions to dismiss would cost more.  Some motion to dismiss arguments would be the same, but some would be different due to differences in the cases and plaintiffs’ counsel, so the total cost of motions to dismiss would increase.  The defendants would need to defeat each and every arbitration claim on a motion to dismiss to avoid discovery of the same scope faced in a securities class action that has survived a motion to dismiss.
  • Discovery burdens would increase.  More cases would involve discovery.  If any of the arbitration claims were to survive a motion to dismiss, a company would be subject to discovery, meaning that there would likely be discovery in the vast majority of securities disclosure arbitrations, as opposed to just less than half today.  Discovery would be broader too.  If multiple claims survive, defendants would face overlapping and inconsistent obligations.  It’s easy to imagine at least one arbitrator out of the many arbitrators handling similar claims allowing very broad discovery.  That single ruling would define the defendants’ discovery burdens.
  • Settlement would be more expensive.  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.  Settlement logistics would be vastly more difficult too.  It’s hard enough to mediate with one plaintiffs’ firm and one lead plaintiff.  Imagine mediation with a dozen or more plaintiffs’ firms, each representing multiple plaintiffs.
  • Settlement would not yield finality and peace.  Even when settlement could be achieved, it wouldn’t preclude suits by other purchasers during the period of inflation alleged in the arbitrations 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 arbitrations by even smaller plaintiffs’ firms after the larger cases have settled.  There would be no peace absent the expiration of the statute of limitations.

This parade of horribles just scratches the surface, but it suffices to show that mandatory securities arbitration is a bad idea for defendants.

We have a prominent example of how disheveled securities litigation can be without the securities class action mechanism to provide certainty and peace: limited federal-court jurisdiction under Morrison v. National Australia Bank, 561 U.S. 247 (2010).  If the post-Morrison framework is any indication of what we would face with securities arbitrations, 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.

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 regulatory relief promised by new SEC Chair Jay Clayton, 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 securities class action, 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.

The idea of abolishing securities class actions comes up from time to time.  Fortunately for defendants, it hasn’t become reality.  The world of securities litigation with securities class actions is far safer for companies and their directors and officers than it would be without them.  Predictability of the process and outcomes are key to a manageable system of resolving securities disclosure disputes.  Mandatory arbitration would disrupt both process and outcomes.

I hope the current idea blows over.

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.

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

Among securities litigators, there is no consensus about the importance of developments in securities and corporate governance litigation.  For some, a Supreme Court decision is always supreme.  For others, a major change in a legal standard is the most critical.  For me, the key developments are those that have the greatest potential to significantly increase or decrease the frequency or severity of claims against public companies and their directors and officers.

Given my way of thinking, there are three developments in 2016 that stand out as noteworthy:

  • The persistence of securities class actions brought against smaller public companies primarily by smaller plaintiffs’ firms on behalf of retail investors—a trend that began five years ago and now appears to represent a fundamental shift in the securities class action landscape.
  • The 2nd Circuit’s robust application of the Supreme Court’s Omnicare decision in Sanofi, illustrating the significant benefits of Omnicare to defendants.
  • The demise of disclosure-only settlements under the Delaware Court of Chancery’s Trulia decision and the 7th Circuit’s subsequent scathing Walgreen opinion by Judge Posner.

I discuss each of these developments in detail, and then list other 2016 developments that I believe are important as well.

1. The Securities Class Action Landscape Has Fundamentally Changed

The Private Securities Litigation 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, have retained the more prominent plaintiffs’ firms, and smaller plaintiffs’ firms have been 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 companies 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 was 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 momentum that has kept them going, even after the wave of China cases subsided.  For the last several years, 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 (reducing the plaintiffs’ firms’ investigative costs) for which they can win the lead plaintiff role and that they can prosecute at a sufficient profit margin.

As smaller firms have gained further momentum, they have expanded the cases they initiate beyond “lawsuit blueprint” cases—and they continue to initiate and win lead-plaintiff contests primarily in cases against smaller companies brought by retail investors.  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 securities litigation landscape now clearly consists of a combination of two different types of cases: smaller cases brought by a set of smaller plaintiffs’ firms on behalf of retail investors, and larger cases pursued by the larger plaintiffs’ firms on behalf of institutional investors.  This change—now more than five years old—appears to be here to stay.

In addition to this fundamental shift, two other trends are an indicator of further changes to the securities litigation landscape.

First, the smaller plaintiffs’ firms often file cases against U.S. companies in New York City or California—regardless where the company is headquartered—diverging from the larger plaintiffs’ firms’ practice of filing in the forum of the defendant company’s headquarters.  In addition to inconvenience, filing cases in New York City and California against non-resident companies results in sticker-shock, since defense firms based in those venues are much more expensive than their home town firms.  The solution to this problem will need to include greater defense of cases in New York City and California by a more economically diverse set of defense firms.

Second, plaintiffs’ firms, large and small, are increasingly rejecting the use of historical settlement values to shape the settlement amounts.  This practice is increasing settlement amounts in individual cases, and will ultimately raise settlement amounts overall.  And it will be increasingly difficult for defendants and their insurers to predict defense costs and settlement amounts, as more mediations fail and litigation proceeds past the point they otherwise would.

2. Sanofi Shows Omnicare’s Benefits

In Tongue v. Sanofi, 816 F.3d 199 (2nd Cir. 2016), the Second Circuit issued the first significant appellate decision interpreting the Supreme Court’s decision in Omnicare, Inc. v. Laborers District Council Construction Industry Pension Fund, 135 S. Ct. 1318 (2015).  Sanofi shows that Omnicare provides powerful tools for defendants to win more motions to dismiss.

As a reminder, the Supreme Court in Omnicare 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 Lane Powell 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.  Omnicare governs the falsity analysis for all types of challenged statements. 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.

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 must also consider other statements made by the company, and other publicly available information, including the customs and practices of the relevant industry.

A good motion to dismiss has always analyzed a challenged statement (of fact or opinion) in its broader factual context to explain why it’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.   

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.

The early returns show that Omnicare is already helping defendants win more motions to dismiss.  The most significant such decision is Sanofi. In Sanofi, the Second Circuit became the first appeals court to discuss Omnicare in detail, and to examine the changes that it brought about in the previously governing law.  Sanofi was not, as some securities litigation defense lawyers have claimed, a “narrow” reading of the Court’s decision.  Rather, it was a straightforward interpretation of Omnicare that emphasized the Supreme Court’s ruling on falsity, and the intensive contextual analysis required to show that a statement is misleading.  It correctly took these concepts beyond the Section 11 setting and applied them to allegations brought under Section 10(b).

Statements about Lemtrada, a drug in development for treatment of multiple sclerosis, were at issue in the case.  Sanofi and its predecessor had conducted “single-blind” clinical trials for Lemtrada (studies in which either the researcher or the patient does not know which drug was administered), despite the fact that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had repeatedly expressed concerns about these trials and recommended “double-blind” clinical studies (studies in which both the researcher and the patient do not know which drug was administered).

The plaintiffs alleged that Sanofi’s failure to disclose FDA’s repeated warnings that a single-blind study might not be adequate for approval caused various statements made by the company to be misleading, including its projection that FDA would approve the drug, its expressions of confidence about the anticipated launch date of the drug, and its view that the results of the clinical trials were “unprecedented” and “nothing short of stunning.”  Although FDA eventually approved Lemtrada without further clinical trials, the agency initially refused approval based in large part on the single-blind studies concern, causing a large drop in the price of Sanofi stock.

In an opinion issued before Omnicare, the district court dismissed the claims, in part because it found that plaintiffs had failed to plead that the challenged statements of opinion were subjectively false, under the standard employed by the Second Circuit in Fait v. Regions Financial Corp.  The Second Circuit stated that it saw “no reason to disturb the conclusions of the district court,” but wrote to clarify the impact of Omnicare on prior Second Circuit law.

The court acknowledged that Omnicare affirmed the previous standard that a statement of opinion may be false “if either ‘the speaker did not hold the belief she professed’ or ‘the supporting fact she supplied were untrue.’”  However, it noted that Omnicare went beyond the standard outlined by Fait in holding that “opinions, though sincerely held and otherwise true as a matter of fact, may nonetheless be actionable if the speaker omits information whose omission makes the statement misleading to a reasonable investor.”

In reality, Omnicare did not represent a change in Second Circuit law.  Although Fait only discussed falsity, without considering what it would take to make an opinion “misleading,” prior Second Circuit law had been clear that “[e]ven a statement which is literally true, if susceptible to quite another interpretation by the reasonable investor, may properly be considered a material misrepresentation.”  Kleinman v. Elan Corp., 706 F.3d 145 (2nd Cir. 2013) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).  Omnicare simply brought together these two lines of authority, by correctly clarifying that, like any other statement, a statement of opinion can be literally true (i.e., actually believed by the speaker), but can nonetheless omit information that can cause it to be misleading to a reasonable investor.

The Second Circuit highlighted the Omnicare Court’s focus on context, taking note of its statement that “an omission that renders misleading a statement of opinion when viewed in a vacuum may not do so once that statement is considered, as is appropriate, in a broader frame.”  Since Sanofi’s offering materials “made numerous caveats to the reliability of the projections,” a reasonable investor would have considered the opinions in light of those qualifications.  Similarly, the Second Circuit recognized that reasonable investors would be aware that Sanofi would be engaging in continuous dialogue with FDA that was not being disclosed, that Sanofi had clearly disclosed that it was conducting single-blind trials for Lemtrada, and that FDA had generally made clear through public statements that it preferred double-blind trials. In this broader context, the court found that Sanofi’s optimistic statements about the future of Lemtrada were not misleading even in the context of Sanofi’s failure to disclose FDA’s specific warnings regarding single-blind trials.

Under the Omnicare standards, the Second Circuit thus found nothing false or misleading about the challenged statements, holding that Omnicare imposes no obligation to disclose facts merely because they tended to undermine the defendants’ optimistic projections.  In particular, the Second Circuit found that “Omnicare does not impose liability merely because an issuer failed to disclose information that ran counter to an opinion expressed in a registration statement.”  It also reasoned that “defendants’ statements about the effectiveness of [the drug] cannot be misleading merely because the FDA disagreed with the conclusion—so long as Defendants conducted a ‘meaningful’ inquiry and in fact held that view, the statements did not mislead in a manner that is actionable.”

3. Companies May Regret the Decline of Disclosure-Only Settlements

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Significant Developments

There were a number of other 2016 developments that I believe may also significantly impact the frequency and severity of securities claims against public companies and their directors and officers.  These include:

  • The ongoing wave of Securities Act cases in state court, especially in California, and the Supreme Court cert petitions in Cyan, Inc. v. Beaver County Employees Retirement Fund, No. 15-1439, and FireEye, Inc., et al., v. Superior Court of California, Santa Clara County, No. 16-744.
  • The lack of a wave of cyber security shareholder litigation, and the conclusion in favor of the defendants in the Target and Home Depot shareholder derivative cases, which follows the dismissal of the Wyndham derivative case in 2014.
  • The challenge to the SEC’s use of administrative proceedings, including Lynn Tilton’s tilt at the process.
  • The Supreme Court’s decision on insider trading in Salman v. U.S. 137 S. Ct. 420 (2016), rejecting the 2nd Circuit’s heightened personal benefit requirement established in U.S. v. Newman, 773 F.3d 438 (2nd Cir. 2014).
  • The persistence and intractability of securities class actions against foreign issuers after Morrison v. National Australia Bank, 561 U.S. 247 (2010).
  • The 8th Circuit’s reversal of class certification under Halliburton II in IBEW Local 98 Pension Fund v. Best Buy Co., 818 F.3d 775, 777 (8th Cir. 2016).
  • The 9th Circuit becoming the first appellate court to hold that Section 304 of Sarbanes-Oxley allows the SEC to seek a clawback of compensation from CEOs and CFOs in the event of a restatement even if it did not result from their misconduct. U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission v. Jensen, 835 F.3d 1100 (2016).
  • The 2nd Circuit’s lengthy and wide-ranging decision in In re Vivendi, S.A. Securities Litigation, 838 F.3d 223 (2nd Cir. 2016), affirming the district court’s partial judgment against Vivendi following trial.

The history of securities litigation is marked by particular types of cases that come in waves:

  • the IPO laddering cases, which involved more than 300 issuers and their underwriters;
  • the Sarbanes-Oxley era “corporate scandal” cases, which involved massive litigation against Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Adelphia, HealthSouth, and others;
  • the mutual fund market timing cases;
  • the stock options backdating cases, most of which were actually derivative cases, but many plaintiffs’ firms devoted class action resources to them;
  • the credit crisis cases; and
  • the Chinese reverse-merger cases.

In fact, the out-of-the-ordinary type of securities case has become ordinary; we have been in a series of waves for the past 20 years.

But we are not in one now, and I’m often asked, “What’s next?”

Although I don’t know if we’re about to enter a period of quirky cases, like stock options backdating, I’m confident that we’re going to experience a storm of securities class actions caused by a convergence of factors: an increasing number of SEC whistleblower tips, a drumbeat for more aggressive securities regulation, a stock market poised for a drop, and an expanded group of plaintiffs’ firms that initiate securities class actions.

The SEC’s Whistleblower Program

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act directed the SEC to give bounties to certain whistleblowers.  With awards in the range of 10 percent to 30 percent of monetary sanctions over $1 million, the bounties were designed to attract meaningful tips.

The program caused a stir.  Plaintiffs’ law firms established whistleblower practice groups and hired former SEC enforcement officials.  The SEC created the Office of the Whistleblower, increased staffing, set up a website and hotline system, etc.  Corporate firms published myriad client alerts and held hundreds of seminars—and braced for their own bounties, in the form of new work caused by more internal and SEC investigations, and resulting securities class actions.  I told my family that I’d see them when I retired.

Yet it took a while for the whistleblower program to get rolling.  The number and amount of the early awards were surprisingly low.  But, as featured on the SEC’s website, they have increased steadily, and are now at significant levels.  In total, the SEC has paid out more than $100 million in bounties.  The number of tips has increased from 3,000 in the program’s first fiscal year to 4,000 last year.  SEC Chair Mary Jo White calls the bounty program a “game changer” and Director of Enforcement Andrew Ceresney says it has had a “transformative impact on the agency.”  Indeed, last year, the SEC filed 868 enforcement actions, a single-year high.

Calls for Increased Government Enforcement

Just as the bounty program is hitting its stride, the political environment again seems to be turning against corporations due to the perceived failure of the government’s securities enforcement efforts in the aftermath of the credit crisis and the recent Wells Fargo scandal, among other factors.  And, of course, this election season has been marked by widespread anti-establishment sentiment.

During my nearly 25 years as a securities defense lawyer, I have seen the pendulum swing back and forth, from outrage against corporations, to outrage against the unfairness of SEC enforcement and the ethics of plaintiffs’ lawyers.  Although I don’t think anti-corporate sentiment significantly changes the rate of government enforcement—they do the most they can with their resources, and are constrained by burdens of proof—I do strongly believe that anti-corporate sentiment increases the number and severity of private securities class actions.

We evaluate the state of the securities class action litigation environment primarily by reference to the rate at which cases are dismissed.  Over the history of securities litigation, the biggest driver of the rate of dismissal is not any legal standard, but instead is the overall public attitude toward the value of private securities litigation.  Whether facts are “particularized,” or an inference of scienter is “strong,” are subjective judgments that give judges wide latitude to dismiss a complaint, or not.  Judges are people.  They read the news.  They talk to friends.  They have children who are Millennials.  They have seen people they thought were good do bad things.  When public sentiment is anti-corporation, the judicial environment is inevitably influenced.

When the judicial environment changes, plaintiffs’ lawyers increase their investment in securities litigation—both in the number of cases they file, and how hard they litigate cases.  Two waves of cases provide examples:

  • In the Chinese reverse merger cases, plaintiffs’ firms filed securities class actions against virtually every Chinese company about which there was a report of a problem.  Plaintiffs defeated nearly every motion to dismiss, especially in the Central District of California.  Although the economic recoveries in those cases weren’t substantial due to a lack of company and insurance resources, several smaller plaintiffs’ firms went all in.
  • In the stock option backdating cases, plaintiffs’ firms filed against nearly every company that had a potential backdating problem.  Plaintiffs defeated motions to dismiss at a high rate, and settled cases for relatively large amounts.  The backdating cases greatly raised the level of derivative settlements, established several smaller plaintiffs’ derivative firms as players in shareholder litigation, and were incredibly lucrative for larger plaintiffs’ firms.

Expansion of Plaintiffs’ Securities Class Action Firms

The stock-options backdating cases and the Chinese reverse merger cases have another thing in common: they have fueled an expansion of the plaintiffs’ bar.

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, have retained a handful of prominent plaintiffs’ firms, and smaller plaintiffs’ firms have been 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 for cases that survive dismissal motions is fairly low.

These dynamics placed a premium on experience, efficiency, and scale.  Larger firms thus 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 them, 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 for amounts that, while on the low side, appear to have yielded good outcomes for the smaller plaintiffs’ firms.

These outcomes built on gains smaller plaintiffs’ firms made during the stock options backdating cases, in which several smaller plaintiffs’ firms did quite well picking up matters in which the larger plaintiffs’ firms didn’t win the lead role, or working with the larger firms as co-counsel. Fueled by their economic and lead-plaintiff successes, these smaller firms have built up a head of steam that has kept them going, even after the wave of China cases subsided.  For the last several years, 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.

Although it isn’t possible for me to know for sure, I strongly believe that there is a very large amount of capacity among the larger and smaller plaintiffs’ firms to increase securities class action filings.  Larger plaintiffs’ firms have only recently finished working through the bulge of the credit crisis cases, and employ a large number of securities class action specialists who have time for more cases.  And the smaller firms are aggressively filing cases and pursuing lead-plaintiff roles.

One of my mentors used to say that “nature abhors a vacuum,” when predicting that there would always be a steady supply of securities litigation.  In a twist on this maxim, I like to say that plaintiffs’ securities class action specialists aren’t going to become doctors or dentists—or even derivative litigation lawyers.  Instead, this large group of lawyers will always file as many securities class actions as they can.  And now, with smaller plaintiffs’ firms hitting their stride, the supply of plaintiffs’ securities class action lawyers is very large, and is looking for more work.

Is There a Securities-Litigation Storm on the Horizon?

I believe that the convergence of these factors, as well as the predicted drop in the stock market, will significantly increase the number of securities class actions.  Indeed, the next big wave in securities litigation may well not be a type of case caused by a unique event, such as options backdating, but instead a perfect storm of cases caused by a competitive blitz by plaintiffs’ firms, as companies report bad earnings results as the economy and stock market decline, and as whistleblower bounties and other SEC enforcement tools unearth disclosure problems.  And throw in other lawsuit-drivers, such as short-seller hit-pieces, and we could see an unprecedented storm of securities class actions.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Over the past three years, I’ve been outspoken about the need for better board oversight of cyber security, as well as the need for better cyber security disclosure.  The severity of the cyber threat is so significant to companies, as well as to the nation’s economy and security, that boards have no choice but to pay attention.  Indeed, I can easily envision a world where, as a practical matter, directors face a heightened risk of personal liability for cyber-security problems.  And over the past several years, there has developed an army of talented IT, legal, and insurance professionals ready to help boards manage this threat, and there are some very proactive, outspoken, and conscientious directors who are trying to lead the way.

Yet surveys still say that, on the whole, directors aren’t sufficiently engaged, and companies aren’t providing directors with sufficient information and support.

How in the world could that be so?

Below, I examine two of the underlying problems, and provide solutions: (1) a suite of problems that I call “cyber freak-out,” and (2) an odd lack of concern about director liability.

Cyber Freak-Out

The average corporate director was 47 years old when Amazon became a public company.  Although that was also almost 20 years ago, and most people who serve on boards have grown comfortable with computers and the basics of technology, there is nevertheless a fundamental sense of discomfort with discussion around the IT aspects of cyber security.

This discomfort yields a suite of problems that I diagnose collectively as “cyber freak-out.”  Cyber freak-out includes one or more of the following stated or unstated excuses for not tackling cyber security issues:

  • Excuse: The audit committee handles risks, so that’s the right group to handle cyber security.
    • Reality: Cyber security is an enterprise risk that the full board needs to understand and decide how to manage – even if it is ultimately given to a committee.  And the audit committee has too much work already.
  • Excuse: Being hacked is inevitable, so we can’t do much about it.
    • Reality: The reality is cyber security oversight isn’t just about preventing attacks – it’s also about deciding what assets to protect and how to respond to a breach, among other issues.
  • Excuse: Cyber security is an IT issue, and the IT folks have told us for years that we’re safe.
    • Reality: The world of cyber security poses higher risks now, and it’s incumbent upon the board to ask hard questions of the IT department.  There are outside consultants galore who can give the board an independent evaluation. And cyber security is not just an IT issue.  Most cyber attacks can be prevented through employee education – which presents issues of employee training and corporate culture, which even a Luddite director can help shape.
  • And there are several more things few people say out loud, but I fear that too many think:
    • Excuse: We should have been on top of this earlier, so engaging in a full-scale program of cyber security readiness will make us look bad.
    • Excuse: I don’t want to ask a dumb question, and don’t think I can ask a smart one.
    • Excuse: If I wait long enough, one of my fellow directors will get up to speed and lead us through what we need to do.

Reality: The absurdity of these excuses speaks for itself.

Another common mistake is to assume that cyber attacks are limited to companies with personal information, like credit card numbers or health information.  That is wrong:  Any company with valuable assets – including trade secrets – is and will be a target.  The reason that companies with personal information grab the headlines is that their breaches have become public because of breach-notification laws.  Companies that aren’t subject to breach-notification laws rarely disclose cyber breaches.  One of the country’s leading cyber-security lawyers to public companies said at the SEC’s Cybersecurity Roundtable in March 2014 – in the presence of SEC Chair White and Commissioners Aguilar (who gave an important speech in June 2014 on board oversight of cyber security), Gallagher, Piwowar, and Stein:

I would say that I really can’t think of a case – and we’ve worked a lot –  where the disclosure thinking or analysis was driven by the securities law issues, frankly.

Basically there are other state laws, other situations that are going to create a disclosure obligation, and that’s what drives it. And I think just to be someone speaking from the trenches in terms of the reality of what really happens, there is a tremendous disincentive to disclose a breach.

I believe that the well-known cyber breaches are the very tip of the iceberg, and the much larger cyber security problem is, and will be, beneath the surface until companies start disclosing cyber security issues because of their yet-unenforced federal securities law obligations.  A company whose IP has been stolen, or whose business has been interrupted, faces various disclosure issues.   The issue isn’t just whether a breach is material.  It’s much broader: a cyber security breach could make any number of statements misleading, including financial statements, earnings guidance, statements about internal controls, and statements about the status and prospects of the business operations.  Yet most directors seem to believe that cyber security is just a problem for banks, retailers, and health-care providers and insurers.  That’s just not so.

The problem with cyber freak-out is that it undercuts directors’ main defenses to shareholder claims of breach of fiduciary duty.  There are two main claims for breach of fiduciary duty in this area:

The first type of claim is for a failure to act, or a failure to engage in appropriate oversight, under a standard articulated in a leading case called Caremark.  The court in Caremark called the claim it branded “possibly the most difficult theory in corporation law upon which a plaintiff might hope to win a judgment.”  To be liable for a failure of oversight – a type of breach of the duty of loyalty – a director must fail to establish any system for detecting problems, or if a system exists, must deliberately fail to monitor it or follow up on red flags.  Thus, the only way a director can be liable for a failure of oversight is to not even try – or in the cyber security context, to be paralyzed by cyber freak-out.

In contrast to a claim for inaction, the second type of claim is based on director action.  Such claims are governed by the business judgment rule, which protects from second-guessing a decision made by informed and disinterested directors.  A shareholder can overcome the presumption, however, if the challenged decision was not informed.  Cyber freak-out can result in challenged cyber-security decisions being insufficiently informed, and thus outside the protection of the business judgment rule.

Thus, directors will not be liable if they in fact oversee cyber security, and make decisions about cyber security based on adequate information. Boards need to just pay attention and start somewhere – there’s no secret sauce, and perfection isn’t required.  There’s no cyber-security intelligence test.  An inquisitive director can do a good job overseeing cyber security without even being a computer user.

Director Liability

On the one hand, diligent directors don’t face real risk of liability for cyber security oversight.  On the other hand, I believe the fear of director and officer liability needs to increase before directors and officers and their companies sufficiently tune up their cyber security oversight and disclosures.

Although I don’t wish a lawsuit on anyone, much less actual liability, I think some jarring liability event is necessary: Just as Bill Lerach, Mel Weiss, and other prominent securities class action plaintiffs’ lawyers have greatly improved the quality of corporate disclosure, and corporate-law decisions like Smith v. Van Gorkom have improved board decision-making processes, so too would a cyber-security liability jolt improve cyber-security oversight and disclosure.  But at the moment, directors and officers observe that stocks generally haven’t dropped enough to trigger securities class actions, and the handful of shareholder derivative cases haven’t been virulent.  And the shareholder derivative litigation dismissal in Wyndham, while great for Wyndham’s directors, probably set cyber security oversight back.  The Wyndham decision, resting on the board’s post-breach process in deciding to reject a shareholder demand on the board, was virtually meaningless in its impact on the law governing board oversight of cyber security.

But securities and corporate governance litigation involving cyber security problems is indeed coming.  And it may be ugly.  The more directors and officers are on notice about the severity of cyber security problems, and the less action they take while on notice, the easier it will be for plaintiffs to prove their claims.  We not only could see a sharp uptick in the number of claims, but they could be quite difficult for directors and officers to defend, until cyber security oversight and disclosure improve.  I worry about this dynamic a lot.

I also worry about SEC enforcement concerning cyber security. The SEC has been struggling to refine its guidance to companies on cyber security disclosure, trying to balance the concern of disclosing too much and thus providing hackers with a roadmap, with the need to disclose enough to allow investors to evaluate companies’ cyber security risk.  But directors and officers shouldn’t think the SEC is going to announce new guidance or make new rules before it begins enforcement activity around cyber security disclosures.  All it takes to trigger an investigation of a particular company is some information that the company’s disclosures are rendered false or misleading by inadequate cyber security.  And all it takes to trigger broader enforcement activity by the staff is a perception that companies aren’t taking cyber security disclosure seriously.  That may or may not be preceded by further cyber security disclosure guidance.  And companies need to be concerned about whistleblowers, including over-worked and under-paid IT personnel, lured by the SEC’s whistleblower bounty program, and about auditors, who will soon be asking more frequent and difficult questions about cyber security.

Conclusion

Greater cyber security oversight, and better corporate disclosure, are inevitable.  I hope that they happen naturally, as the result of good counseling by the advisors who are ready and able to help, rather than only developing after we are hit by the inevitable wave of shareholder litigation and SEC investigations and enforcement actions.

One of the foremost uncertainties in securities and corporate governance litigation is the extent to which cybersecurity will become a significant D&O liability issue. Although many D&O practitioners have been bracing for a wave of cybersecurity D&O matters, to date there has been only a trickle. Some have come to believe that at most, there will be a surge of derivative litigation, due to the lack of significant and sustained stock drops on the announcement of even large cybersecurity breaches.

Yet I remain convinced that a wave is coming, perhaps a tidal wave, and it will include not just derivative litigation, but securities class actions and SEC enforcement matters as well. In this post, I will focus on securities class actions, since that is where most of the uncertainty lies, including the question I begged in my previous post on cybersecurity securities class actions: what will trigger securities class actions when, to date, even the largest breaches haven’t caused significant and sustained stock-price drops?   Unlike shareholder derivative actions, which do not require a significant stock drop, securities class actions require misrepresentations to cause loss to stock purchasers – loss that materializes upon the disclosure of bad news that causes the stock to drop. Thus, the advent of cybersecurity securities class actions will not occur unless stock prices begin to drop.

So why do I think stock prices will drop? It’s easiest to start to answer that question by thinking about why stock prices generally haven’t dropped to date. I’m not an economist, of course, but I’ve discussed this issue with some and have read and thought about it a lot. I believe that stock prices generally haven’t dropped significantly because the market believes that all companies are susceptible to a cyber-attack, and it’s basically random and unlucky when a company suffers one – it’s Company A this week and Company B next week, and so on. So a breach isn’t fundamental to the company’s business and doesn’t portend future negative financial consequences. That means that the market assesses the cost of the breach as the cost of remedying it through consumer notices, litigation defense and the like – which involves great but manageable and predictable cost, and does not view the breach as a fundamental or long-term problem.

That dynamic is bound to change, for several reasons. First, many companies have improved their cybersecurity and cybersecurity oversight significantly over the past few years. Those that are leaders will begin to tout their leadership, and criticize competitors who have had or may have problems. Cybersecurity thus will become a competitive issue, and the market will begin to pick winners and losers instead of regard as simply unlucky a company that suffered a breach.

Second, as companies begin to tout their cybersecurity for competitive reasons, they will do so through statements that will be susceptible to challenge as false or misleading if they suffer a breach. The most difficult statements to defend in securities class actions often are those based on business braggadocio, and I think cybersecurity statements ultimately will be no different. In terms of stock price impact, such statements will bake strong cybersecurity into companies’ stock prices, leading to disappointment and thus stock drops when a seemingly strong cybersecurity company suffers a breach.

Third, the number of companies that disclose breaches will increase, leading to a larger universe of companies who might suffer stock drops. To date, virtually the only type of companies to disclose breaches are consumer-oriented companies, driven by breach-notification privacy laws. There have been few disclosures of significant breaches by non-consumer companies, whose disclosure decisions are based not on consumer breach-notification laws, but on SEC disclosure requirements.

That will change. The SEC is focused on cybersecurity disclosure, and inevitably will start to more aggressively police disclosure by companies that aren’t compelled to disclose breaches under privacy laws. (Of course, SEC enforcement over cybersecurity disclosures will not require a stock drop.) Also, I predict that whistleblowers from IT departments will start to surface, drawn by increasingly large whistleblower bounties. And auditors will begin to prompt disclosure as they too increase their focus on the financial impact of cybersecurity breaches.

I don’t know if this all means that cybersecurity securities class actions will become the most prominent type of securities class action. I doubt it. But I do think that the risk is high enough that all companies need to pay more attention to their cybersecurity disclosures, and insurers, brokers and risk managers need to be mindful of the inevitable increase of securities class action risk in this area.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.         SEC v. Citigroup:  The Forgotten Important Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Halliburton II is Not a Top-5 Development

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

At long last, the United States Supreme Court is going to address the viability and/or prerequisites of the fraud-on-the-market presumption of reliance established by the Court in 1988 in Basic v. Levinson.  Securities litigators, on both sides of the aisle, are understandably anxious, because our entire industry is about to change – either a little or a lot.

I say “change,” and not something more ominous like “be obliterated,” because the Supreme Court’s ruling in Halliburton cannot and will not do away with securities litigation.  If the Court’s ruling were to undermine class actions, the plaintiffs’ securities bar would adjust – likely through burdensome large individual and non-class collective actions, and class actions that attempt to work around whatever ruling the Court makes – and the government would act to facilitate some type of securities class action and/or expand government enforcement of the securities laws.  Worse outcomes for companies in a new no-Basic era are far easier for me to imagine than better ones.  I’ll explain why, after a quick review of how we got here.

The Fraud-on-the-Market Presumption:  From Basic to Halliburton to Amgen to Halliburton

Reliance is an essential element of a Section 10(b) claim. Absent some way to harmonize individual issues of reliance, however, class treatment of a securities class action is not possible; individual issues would 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., the Supreme Court unanimously rejected loss causation as a condition of the presumption of reliance.

In Halliburton, the defendants did not dispute that proof of loss causation is not required for the fraud-on-the-market presumption to apply. Instead, they argued to the Supreme Court that, although the Fifth Circuit ruled on loss-causation grounds, it really ruled that the absence of loss causation means that the challenged statements were not material because the challenged statements did not impact the price of Halliburton’s stock, and a lack of materiality defeats the application of the presumption.  The Supreme Court disagreed: “Whatever Halliburton thinks the Court of Appeals meant to say, what it said was loss causation: ‘[EPJ Fund] was required to prove loss causation, i.e., that the corrected truth of the former falsehoods actually caused the stock price to fall and resulted in the losses.’ . . . . We take the Court of Appeals at its word.  Based on those words, the decision below cannot stand.”

But the Supreme Court explicitly left the door open for the argument that plaintiffs must prove materiality for the presumption of reliance to apply.  The Supreme Court granted certiorari in Amgen Inc. v. Connecticut Retirement Plans 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 based on the presumption.

In a majority opinion authored by Justice Ginsburg, and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan, the 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.” The Court reasoned that this was because: 1) materiality was judged according to an objective standard that could be proven through evidence common to the class, and 2) a failure to prove materiality would not just defeat an attempt to certify a class, it would also defeat all of individual claims, because it is an essential element to a claim under Section 10(b).

The majority’s conclusion was dubious.  Its chief flaw was its avoidance of the central question through circular reasoning.  The materiality of a statement is an essential prerequisite for the application of the fraud-on-the market presumption that the Court developed in Basic, as a device to overcome the need to prove actual, individual reliance on a false or misleading statement – which made securities class actions all but impossible to bring.  In Basic, the Court used then-emerging economic theory to create a rebuttable presumption of reliance, based on the assumption that a security traded in an efficient market reflects all public material information, and that traders in that market rely on the market price, and thus on any material misrepresentations that are reflected in the price.  The Amgen Court did not dispute that the materiality of a misrepresentation is necessary to create the fraud-on-the-market presumption, nor that the fraud-on-the-market presumption is essential to show under Rule 23 that common questions predominate for the class.

Instead, to avoid the logical conclusion that a showing of materiality was thus necessary to certify the class, the Court reasoned backwards: because plaintiffs must also show the materiality of the alleged misstatements in order to prove the underlying merits of a Section 10(b) claim, a finding that there was no materiality would defeat claims for all plaintiffs, whether brought as a class or individually.  Therefore, the Court concluded, materiality (or the lack of it) was a “common question,” that should not be decided until summary judgment, or theoretically, trial.

As Justice Thomas wrote in his dissent (joined by Justice Scalia (in part) and Justice Kennedy), the majority essentially “reverse[d]” the inquiry.  Although class certification is supposed to be decided early in the litigation, and depends upon a showing of materiality to invoke the fraud-on-the-market presumption, the majority effectively said that that portion of the class certification inquiry can be skipped, merely because it is also a question that will be asked at the merits stage. Justice Thomas wrote: “A plaintiff who cannot prove materiality does not simply have a claim that is ‘dead on arrival’ at the merits. . .he has a class that never should have arrived at the merits at all because it failed in Rule 23(b)(3) certification from the outset.”

Perhaps the most striking part of the Amgen decision was Justice Alito’s one paragraph concurrence, which baldly called for a reconsideration of the fraud-on-the-market presumption.  Alito concurred with the majority, but only with the understanding that Amgen had not asked for Basic to be revisited. Alito thus signaled that he agreed with Thomas’s contention in footnote 4 of the dissent that the Basic decision was “questionable.”  The majority, in turn, did not come to the defense of Basic, but simply noted with apparent relief (in footnote 2) that even Justice Thomas had acknowledged that the Court had not been asked to revisit that issue.  Considered together, these three opinions put out a welcome mat for the right case challenging Basic’s fraud-on-the-market presumption, with four votes already supporting the view that the decision was “questionable,” and the other five failing to come to its defense.

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 Fifth Circuit held that the inquiry of the challenged statements’ lack of impact on the price of Halliburton’s stock was more analogous to materiality than it is to the permissible prerequisites to the fraud-on-the-market presumption (market efficiency and a public misrepresentation).  The Fifth Circuit reasoned that while price impact is not an element, as is materiality, “a plaintiff must nevertheless prevail on this fact in order to establish loss causation.”  Thus, “if Halliburton were to successfully rebut the fraud-on-the-market presumption by proving no price impact, the claims of all individual plaintiffs would fail because they could not establish an essential element of the action.”  Because the Fifth Circuit believed that the absence of price impact would doom all individual claims, it concluded that price impact is not relevant to common-issue predominance and is therefore not relevant at class certification.

Halliburton filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, and the Court granted the petition on Friday November 15, 2013.  That day, many plaintiffs’ and defense lawyers predicted the demise of securities litigation as we know it.  One defense lawyer put it in blunt terms:  “If the Supreme Court rejects the ‘fraud-on-the-market presumption of reliance altogether, then it would effectively end securities class action litigation in the United States.”

I disagree.

What’s Next?  How Will the Supreme Court Rule?  If the Court Overrules Basic, What Will Happen?   

There are three primary possible outcomes in the Supreme Court:

1.  The Court will affirm the Fifth Circuit without overruling or adjusting Basic.  This seems unlikely.

2.  The Court will adjust Basic.

One adjustment might be to require that a putative class plaintiff show that the market for the issuer’s stock be efficient as to the specific information that the defendants allegedly misrepresented – which is Halliburton’s alternative grounds for relief, and a proposition that Amgen included in a footnote in its Supreme Court briefs.  I predict that this will be what the Supreme Court decides.  Such a decision would address the primary economic criticism of the fraud-on-the-market presumption – that market efficiency is not a binary “yes” or “no” question, and instead depends on the specific information at issue – and would preserve salutary features of private securities litigation, which long has been an important means of securities regulation.

Another adjustment might be to allow the fraud-on-the-market presumption for purposes of satisfying the element of reliance, but require proof of actual reliance on the challenged statements for purposes of recovering money damages.  This is the position taken in an amicus brief in support of cert filed by a group of prominent law professors and former SEC commissioners, primarily relying on the elements of the Exchange Act’s only express private right of action, set forth in Section 18.

3.  The Court will overrule Basic and leave nothing in its place – thus negating the primary support for securities class actions.

What would happen then?

The plaintiffs’ securities bar would adjust. 

The plaintiffs’ bar would seek to work around Halliburton in some fashion.  That would result in much uncertainty and expensive litigation of the scope of Halliburton in the district courts, circuit courts, and likely the Supreme Court.

Worse, the largest firms with large institutional investor clients – clients the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act encouraged them to court, and with which they now work closely to identify and pursue securities claims – would 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.  Non-class litigation would be even more expensive in certain respects – e.g. 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.  One reason we sometimes oppose lead-plaintiff groups is the difficulty of dealing with a group of plaintiffs instead of just one.

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.

The government would act.

The government would not allow the securities markets to be profoundly less regulated.  So it would do something.  It might legislatively enable securities class actions.  If it did so, would it also make other adjustments, such as lessen the Reform Act’s protections?  Who knows, but I wouldn’t bet on an improvement for companies.  I strongly believe that the biggest securities-litigation threat to companies is erosion of the Reform Act’s protections.

The government might also, or instead, enhance public enforcement of the securities laws.  This would be a negative development.  Companies have much greater ability to predict the cost and outcome of today’s securities class action than they do the outcome of a government enforcement action.  Experienced defense counsel can predict how plaintiffs’ firms will litigate and resolve a case.  Defense counsel have much less ability to predict how an enforcement person with whom he or she may have never dealt will approach a case.

Finally, I must say that I am not one who thinks that the fraud-on-the-market presumption results in much injustice, especially given the protections of the Reform Act.  The Reform Act weeds out a lot of cases.  To be sure, some cases incorrectly survive motions to dismiss.  The only real policy problem with class actions regarding Basic is with the subset of these cases that also are certified as class actions at the class-certification stage but are destined to be decertified at summary judgment or trial – defendants in those cases are unjustly subjected to burdensome class action litigation.  The combination of these errors, however, isn’t frequent.  And even when it does occur, experienced plaintiffs’ and defense counsel are able to handicap the merits on both counts, i.e. the lack of merit to the claims and to the case temporarily surviving as a class action, and adjust the settlement value of the case accordingly.

This is just a start on our analysis.  We’ll certainly write more during the long wait for the Court’s ruling.

 

Last Tuesday, new SEC Chairman Mary Jo White said at The Wall Street Journal’s annual CFO Network Event that the SEC “in certain cases” will seek admissions of liability as part of settlements. The statement made headlines, and for good reason: for decades, the SEC has allowed settling defendants to neither admit nor deny wrongdoing. The policy shift, moreover, comes during the appeal to the Second Circuit of District Judge Jed Rakoff’s rejection of the SEC-Citigroup settlement, where he rejected a no-admit-or-deny settlement based in part on his determination that any consent judgment that is not supported by “proven or acknowledged facts” would not serve the public interest. (Last year, the SEC stopped allowing civil defendants to neither admit nor deny fraud, if they had already pleaded guilty in a parallel criminal case.)

Chairman White’s remarks last Tuesday indicated that a new policy requiring admissions of liability will be applied in cases of “widespread harm to investors” and “egregious intentional misconduct.” An internal SEC email from co-directors of the SEC Enforcement Division to the Enforcement staff, obtained by Alison Frankel of Reuters, and author of the blog On the Case, elaborates on the scope of the policy’s application:

“While the no admit/deny language is a powerful tool, there may be situations where we determine that a different approach is appropriate,” Ceresney and Canellos said in the email, which was provided to me by an SEC representative. “In particular, there may be certain cases where heightened accountability or acceptance of responsibility through the defendant’s admission of misconduct may be appropriate, even if it does not allow us to achieve a prompt resolution. We have been in discussions with Chair White and each of the other commissioners about the types of cases where requiring admissions could be in the public interest. These may include misconduct that harmed large numbers of investors or placed investors or the market at risk of potentially serious harm; where admissions might safeguard against risks posed by the defendant to the investing public, particularly when the defendant engaged in egregious intentional misconduct; or when the defendant engaged in unlawful obstruction of the commission’s investigative processes. In such cases, should we determine that admissions or other acknowledgement of misconduct are critical, we would require such admissions or acknowledgement, or, if the defendants refuse, litigate the case.”

What will this mean in actual SEC enforcement matters and related shareholder cases? Comments from plaintiffs’ lawyers and defense lawyers in Frankel’s blog post provide a useful start to the discussion. Not surprisingly, plaintiffs’ lawyers Max Berger, Gerald Silk and Steve Toll feel the policy will help them by providing them with ammunition to use to bolster their private securities cases. My former partner Boris Feldman of Wilson Sonsini said that the “proof of the sausage is in the making,” and feels the policy won’t change SEC enforcement matters much because the SEC will only insist on an admission when “the defendant is hosed anyway.” Thomas Gohrman of Dorsey & Whitney is worried that, “unless applied on a very sparing basis,” the policy “may well significantly undercut the entire enforcement program” because defendants will refuse to settle and the SEC will expend its resources litigating these cases.

My view lies somewhere in between these. The SEC doesn’t currently have the enforcement resources to litigate a significant additional number of additional cases, so in the near term it really can only apply the policy to particularly gnarly cases, where there is egregious or notorious misconduct, and where they are very confident they would win at trial. This approach won’t impact defendants significantly, because in cases that fall into these categories, the defendants already have significant problems stemming from the underlying facts, and there would be little collateral damage from the admission the SEC seeks.

But, to be sure, the SEC is bound to apply the policy to some close cases as well, because of a misapprehension of the case’s strength, or an overly zealous interpretation of White’s edict by the SEC staff. (There may also be a temptation by the SEC to apply this policy too broadly to high-profile cases of questionable merit, although I believe that tendency will be limited by a concern over suffering too many high-profile defeats.) The defendants will refuse to agree to settlements requiring admissions in most close cases, because of collateral consequences in otherwise defensible cases, thus yielding an increase in the number of cases the SEC litigates. How many more cases will be litigated will depend in large part on the rigor of the SEC’s screening process and on whether the SEC staff facilitates frank and meaningful discussions with defense counsel about the facts of each case.

What we know for sure is that the amount of litigation will increase in proportion to the SEC’s implementation of this new policy. Unless the new policy is interpreted very narrowly, the SEC will very quickly have a decision to make: it will either need to find new resources to finance the additional litigation; divert resources into litigation from investigation and enforcement, resulting in fewer actions being filed in the first place; or pull back on the implementation of the new policy.

I predict that after some initial overreaching, the SEC will re-calibrate its no-admission policy to limit its application to only the gnarliest cases with the worst facts. Otherwise, the government will have to fundamentally rethink the SEC’s funding and/or its enforcement role, in order to accommodate substantially more active litigation. This is possible, of course, but it seems unlikely.

On the other hand, the SEC is in control of the process only up to the point of judicial review of a proposed settlement. The uncertainty surrounding judicial review of no-admit-or-deny settlements is a wild card – increased judicial insistence on admissions likely would prompt the SEC to apply its policy to more cases than it otherwise would. Thus, the Second Circuit’s response to Judge Rakoff in the SEC-Citigroup case remains an important development to watch.

As I previously wrote, increased insistence on admissions, whether by the SEC or courts, would have significant consequences on private litigation and D&O insurance coverage. Obviously, making these admissions would increase the risk of liability in related private litigation, while at the same time creating insurance coverage problems – not to mention the impact they would have on a company’s reputation and directors’ and officers’ careers.

Deciding to litigate with the SEC will create difficult issues as well. Increased litigation will strain D&O insurance policies, not just because it creates another piece of litigation, but because it is inherently expensive litigation, which is likely to go to trial and will frequently require separate representation for each defendant. That will leave less insurance to settle the private cases, which in turn will mean that more private shareholder cases will go to trial as well.

These forces, along with the problem of increasing defense costs (about which I’ve posted here and here), will create a financial problem for many companies and their directors and officers. And, of course, they could create a serious liability problem as well, since the odds are that a decent percentage of the cases that go to trial under these circumstances will result in determinations of liability. Depending upon how these factors play out, it will become even more critical for defense counsel to adopt a more efficient, effective, and trial-focused approach to securities litigation.