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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Are D&O Insurers Alienated?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Can We Achieve Greater Insurer Involvement?

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

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

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

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

Securities litigation has a culture defined by multiple elements: the types of cases filed, the plaintiffs’ lawyers who file them, the defense counsel who defend them, the characteristics of the insurance that covers them, the way insurance representatives approach coverage, the government’s investigative policies – and, of course, the attitude of public companies and their directors and officers toward disclosure and governance.

This culture has been largely stable over the nearly 20 years I’ve defended securities litigation matters full time.  The array of private securities litigation matters (in the way I define securities litigation) remains the same – in order of virulence: securities class actions, shareholder derivative litigation matters (derivative actions, board demands, and books-and-records inspections), and shareholder challenges to mergers.  The world of disclosure-related SEC enforcement and internal corporate investigations is basically unchanged as well.  And the art of managing a disclosure crisis, involving the convergence of shareholder litigation, SEC enforcement, and an internal investigation, involves the same basic skills and instincts.

But I’ve noted significant changes to other characteristics of securities-litigation culture recently, which portend a paradigm shift.  Over the past few years, smaller plaintiffs’ firms have initiated more securities class actions on behalf of individual, retail investors, largely against smaller companies that have suffered what I call “lawsuit blueprint” problems such as auditor resignations and short-seller reports.  This trend – which has now become ingrained into the securities-litigation culture – will significantly influence the way securities cases are defended and by whom, and change the way that D&O insurance coverage and claims need to be handled.

Changes in the Plaintiffs’ Bar

Discussion of the history of securities plaintiffs’ counsel usually focuses on the impact of the departures of former giants Bill Lerach and Mel Weiss.  But although the two of them did indeed cut a wide swath, the plaintiffs’ bar survived their departures just fine.  Lerach’s former firm is thriving, and there are strong leaders there and at other prominent plaintiffs’ firms.

The more fundamental shifts in the plaintiffs’ bar concern changes to filing trends.  Securities class action filings are down significantly over the past several years, but as I have written, I’m confident they will remain the mainstay of securities litigation, and won’t be replaced by merger cases or derivative actions.  There is a large group of plaintiffs’ lawyers who specialize in securities class actions, and there are plenty of stock drops that give them good opportunities to file cases. Securities class action filings tend to come in waves, both in the number of cases and type.  Filings have been down over the last several years for multiple reasons, including the lack of plaintiff-firm resources to file new cases as they continue to litigate stubborn and labor-intensive credit-crisis cases, the rising stock market, and the lack of significant financial-statement restatements.

While I don’t think the downturn in filings is, in and of itself, very meaningful, it has created the opportunity for smaller plaintiffs’ firms to file more securities class actions.  As D&O Discourse readers know, 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 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 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 in amounts that, while on the low side, appear to have yielded good outcomes for the smaller plaintiffs’ firms.

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

To be sure, the larger firms still mostly can and will beat out the smaller firms for the cases they want.  But it increasingly seems clear that the larger firms don’t want to take the lead in initiating many of the cases against smaller companies, and are content to focus on larger cases on behalf of their institutional investor clients.

These dynamics are confirmed by recent securities litigation filing statistics.  Cornerstone Research’s “Securities Class Action Filings: 2014 Year in Review,” concludes that (1) aggregate market capitalization loss of sued companies was at its lowest level since 1997, and (2) the percentage of S&P 500 companies sued in securities class actions “was the lowest on record.”  Cornerstone’s “Securities Class Action Filings: 2015 Midyear Assessment” reports that two key measures of the size of cases filed in the first half of 2015 were 43% and 65% lower than the 1997-2014 semiannual historical averages.  NERA Economic Consulting’s “Recent Trends in Securities Class Action Litigation:  2014 Full-Year Review” reports that 2013 and 2014 “aggregate investor losses” were far lower than in any of the prior eight years.  And PricewaterhouseCoopers’ “Coming into Focus: 2014 Securities Litigation Study” reflects that in 2013 and 2014, two-thirds of securities class actions were against small-cap companies (market capitalization less than $2 billion), and one-quarter were against micro-cap companies (market capitalization less than $300 million).*  These numbers confirm the trend toward filing smaller cases against smaller companies, so that now, most securities class actions are relatively small cases.

Consequences for Securities Litigation Defense

Securities litigation defense must adjust to this change.  Smaller securities class actions are still important and labor-intensive matters – a “small” securities class action is still a big deal for a small company and the individuals accused of fraud, and the number of hours of legal work to defend a small case is still significant.  This is especially so for the “lawsuit blueprint” cases, which typically involve a difficult set of facts.

Yet most securities defense practices are in firms with high billing rates and high associate-to-partner ratios, which make it uneconomical for them to defend smaller litigation matters.  It obviously makes no sense for a firm to charge $6 million to defend a case that can settle for $6 million.  It is even worse for that same firm to attempt to defend the case for $3 million instead of $6 million by cutting corners – whether by under-staffing, over-delegation to junior lawyers, or avoiding important tasks.  It is worse still for a firm to charge $2 million through the motion to dismiss briefing and then, if they lose, to settle for more than $6 million just because they can’t defend the case economically past that point.  And it is a strategic and ethical minefield for a firm to charge $6 million and then settle for a larger amount than necessary so that the fees appear to be in line with the size of the case.  .

Nor is the answer to hire general commercial litigators at lower rates.  Securities class actions are specialized matters that demand expertise, consisting not just of knowledge of the law, but of relationships with plaintiffs’ counsel, defense counsel, economists, mediators, and D&O brokers and insurers.

Rather, what is necessary is genuine reform of the economics of securities litigation defense through the creation of a class of experienced securities litigators who charge lower rates and exhibit tighter economic control.  Undoubtedly, that will be difficult to achieve for most securities defense lawyers, who practice at firms with supercharged economics.  The lawyers who wish to remain securities litigation specialists will thus face a choice:

  1. Accept that the volume of their case load will be reduced, as they forego smaller matters and focus on the largest matters (which Biglaw firms are uniquely situated to handle well, on the whole);
  2. Reign in the economics of their practices, by lowering billing rates of all lawyers on securities litigation matters, and by reducing staffing and associate-to-partner ratios; and/or
  3. Move their practices to smaller, regional defense firms that naturally have more reasonable economics.

I’ve taken the third path, and I hope that a number of other securities litigation defense lawyers will also make that shift toward regional defense firms.  A regional practice can handle cases around the country, because litigation matters can be effectively and efficiently handled by a firm based outside of the forum city.  And they can be handled especially efficiently by regional firms outside of larger cities, which can offer a better quality of life for their associates, and a more reasonable economic model for their clients.

Consequences for D&O Insurance

D&O insurance needs to change as well.  For public companies, D&O insurance is indemnity insurance, and the insurer doesn’t have the duty or right to defend the litigation.  Thus, the insured selects counsel and the insurer has a right to consent to the insured’s selection, but such consent can’t be unreasonably withheld.  D&O insurers are in a bad spot in a great many cases.  Since most experienced securities defense lawyers are from expensive firms, most insureds select an expensive firm.  But in many cases, that spells a highly uneconomical or prejudicial result, through higher than necessary defense costs and/or an early settlement that doesn’t reflect the merits, but which is necessary to avoid using most or all of the policy limits on defense costs.

Given the economics, it certainly seems reasonable for an insurer to at least require an insured to look at less expensive (but just as experienced) defense counsel before consenting to their choice of counsel – if not outright withholding consent to a choice that does not make economic sense for a particular case.  If that isn’t practical from an insurance law or commercial standpoint, insurers may well need to look at enhancing their contractual right to refuse consent, or even to offer a set of experienced but lower-cost securities defense practices in exchange for a lower premium.  It is my strong belief that a great many public company CFOs would choose a lower D&O insurance premium over an unfettered right to choose their own defense lawyers.

Since I’m not a D&O insurance lawyer, I obviously can’t say what is right for D&O insurers from a commercial or legal perspective.  But it seems obvious to me that the economics of securities litigation must change, both in terms of defense costs and defense-counsel selection, to avoid increasingly irrational economic results.

 

* Median settlement values are falling as well.  In 2014, the median settlement was just $6.5 million according to NERA and $6.0 million according to Cornerstone.  NERA found that “[o]n an inflation-adjusted basis, 2014 median settlement was the third-lowest since the passage of the PSLRA: only in 1996 and in 2001 were median settlement amounts lower on an inflation-adjusted basis.”  Cornerstone reports that 62% of settlements in 2014 were $10 million or less, compared to an average of 53% over 2005-13.  Since settlements in 2014 were of cases filed in earlier years, when the size of cases was larger, it stands to reason that median settlements should remain small or decrease further in future years.

Why do the costs of defending securities class actions continue to increase?  Because of my writing on the subject (e.g. here and here), I’m asked about the issue a lot.  My answer has evolved from blaming biglaw economics – a combination of rates and staffing practices – to something more fundamental.  Biglaw economics is a consequence of the problem, not its cause.  I believe the root cause is the convergence of two related factors:

  • The prevailing view, fueled by defense lawyers, that securities class actions are “bet the company” cases and threaten the personal financial security of director and officer defendants; and
  • As a result of these perceived threats, the reflexive hiring of biglaw firms, which companies and their directors and officers feel are uniquely equipped to defend them – in other words, they go to what they perceive to be the “Mayo Clinic” of defense firms.

But it simply isn’t necessary, and is often even strategically unwise, to turn to a biglaw firm for most securities class actions.

To be sure, securities class actions are serious matters that assert large theoretical damages.  But the vast majority of cases, if defended effectively and efficiently by securities litigation specialists, are easily managed and settled within D&O insurance limits, with no real risk of any out-of-pocket payment by a company’s directors and officers.

The Vast Majority of Securities Litigation Is Manageable

Companies and their directors and officers understandably feel threatened by securities class actions.  Plaintiffs asserting 10b-5 claims allege that the defendants lied on purpose, and claim theoretical damages in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in the lion’s share of cases.  Plaintiffs asserting Section 11 claims have relaxed standards of pleading and proof – the company’s liability is strict, and individuals have the burden of showing their due diligence.  Section 11 damages are typically lower than 10b-5 damages, but they are still substantial.  In the world of complex corporate litigation, securities lawsuits certainly are among the most threatening.

Not surprisingly, many biglaw lawyers exaggerate this threat – so that the obvious and necessary recourse seems to be to hire their firm.  In turn, in-house lawyers often reflexively turn to biglaw because “no one ever got fired for hiring _______ [fill in your favorite biglaw firm].”  This is especially so if such a “safe” biglaw firm is their regular outside firm.  Busy CEOs and CFOs, the typical individual defendants, rely on their in-house lawyers’ recommendation of which firm to hire, or firms to interview.  Boards often defer to management’s hiring process and recommendation or decision, even though board members often will become defendants themselves in a related shareholder derivative action shortly after the securities class action is filed.

In reality, however, very few securities class actions pose a real threat to the company or its directors and officers.  Most securities class actions are brought by a small group of plaintiffs’ firms, who have a playbook that experienced defense counsel know well.  There are few surprises in the vast majority of cases.  Indeed, at the outset of a securities class action, most good securities defense lawyers and D&O insurance professionals can accurately estimate the odds of prevailing on a motion to dismiss and, if the case is not dismissed, the settlement value.

Securities class actions follow a highly predictable course.  The first step, of course, is a motion to dismiss.  Because of the high pleading standards imposed by the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, the rate of dismissal of 10b-5 cases is high.  According to NERA Economic Consulting, approximately 50% of securities class actions filed and resolved from 2000 through 2013 were dismissed on a motion to dismiss.

Of cases that are not dismissed, nearly all are settled short of a trial verdict.  According to NERA, of the 4,226 securities class actions filed since the Reform Act, only 20 have gone to trial and only 14 have reached a verdict.  Settlements, moreover, are generally relatively modest.  For the past five years, the median settlement amount was, in millions (again according to NERA), $8.5, $11.0, $7.5, $12.3, and $9.1 respectively – well within the limits of a typical public company D&O insurance program.

Shareholder derivative litigation and shareholder challenges to M&A transactions likewise pose little real threat to companies and individual defendants as a general rule.  Corporate law imposes high hurdles for plaintiffs in the typical shareholder derivative case, which is often dismissed on motions to dismiss.  If not dismissed, the vast majority of such cases are settled through corporate governance changes and a six-figure payment to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.  Likewise, the vast majority of shareholder challenges to M&A transactions are resolved early in the litigation through proxy statement changes, and sometimes changes to the transaction, and a six-figure payment to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

These settlements are covered by D&O insurance, with limited exceptions.  Major D&O insurers typically handle D&O claims in an insured-friendly and responsive manner, owing in part to the fact that they are insuring the company’s directors and officers.  Actual D&O coverage litigation is uncommon.  Insurers’ in-house and outside claims professionals are experts in D&O liability litigation, and many of them have handled vastly more D&O claims than even the most experienced securities defense lawyers.  Good defense counsel are able to work cooperatively with D&O claims professionals through the litigation, utilize their experience to assist with strategic decisions to improve the defense of the litigation, and if the litigation isn’t dismissed, obtain funding of a reasonable settlement, typically within policy limits and without a contribution from the company – provided defense costs are in line with the settlement value of the litigation.

Biglaw Securities Defense Tends to Over-Litigate or Under-Litigate

To illustrate the way that biglaw firms tend to over-litigate or under-litigate securities actions, let’s use a hypothetical case.  Acme and its CEO and CFO are sued in a securities class action.  Acme has $25 million in D&O insurance, which is an appropriate amount based on Acme’s market capitalization, risk profile, and other company and industry considerations.  Acme hires a biglaw firm to defend the litigation.  Defense counsel’s billing rates range from $1,200 for the senior partner to $600 for a new associate.  There are 2 partners and 6 associates at various levels assigned to the case.*

At the outset of the case, Acme’s economist conducts a preliminary “plaintiffs’-style” damages analysis, and estimates that plaintiffs will assert damages of around $500 million.  Based on this estimate of asserted damages and analysis of various other factors, Acme’s economist, D&O insurer, and defense counsel suggest that the case should settle in the range of $10–15 million.

Acme makes a motion to dismiss the securities class action, and loses.  Acme’s defense counsel’s fees through the motion to dismiss total $1.5 million.  Acme’s D&O insurer asks defense counsel for a budget through completion of discovery and summary judgment – i.e., the budget does not include trial.  Defense counsel gives the insurer an estimate of $10 million (and, in most matters, the defense budget understates what the actual defense costs will be).  Around the same time, an Acme shareholder files a tag-along shareholder derivative action against Acme’s directors and officers.  Acme intends to move to dismiss the shareholder derivative action.  Depending on the outcome of the motion, defense counsel gives a budget estimate of $1–5 million up to, but not including, trial.

Let’s pause here.  At this point, at least $12.5 million of Acme’s $25 million of D&O insurance will be depleted for work up to, but not including, trials in the two matters:  $1.5 million incurred, plus $11 million estimated.  That amount could grow to $16.5 million if the derivative action survives a motion to dismiss.  And the actual cost could be even higher if the biglaw defense firm’s estimates are indeed low.  So let’s say a better estimate of total defense costs for the securities and derivative actions, not including trials, would be $20 million.  Based on that estimate, Acme would have as much as $12.5 million and as little as $5 million with which to settle the litigation if it were to litigate through summary judgment – which is normal in complex commercial cases, because litigation through summary judgment helps the parties reach a settlement that reflects the actual merits of the litigation.  And if the case did not settle at that point, there would not be enough insurance proceeds left to take the case to trial.

What are Acme’s options?

First, it could proceed to defend the litigation through summary judgment.  However, absent a denial of plaintiffs’ motion for class certification or dismissal on summary judgment, at most there would remain just enough to settle within insurance limits, and if in fact the defense firm has underestimated defense costs, there probably would not be sufficient proceeds left for settlement – which means that Acme itself would need to write a check to pay for the settlement.

Second, Acme could try to settle the case at this point, before incurring further defense costs.  This would allow for a settlement within policy limits.  However, early settlements tend to be more expensive than later settlements – i.e., they overpay the plaintiffs.  And Acme and its directors and officers feel they did nothing wrong, and would prefer to litigate the case further and try to obtain dismissal at class certification or summary judgment – and perhaps even consider taking the case to trial.  (Acme has tried several large commercial and IP cases over the years, and likes to take cases to trial if they can’t be settled reasonably.)

Thus, Acme has two options: (1) it can defend the case past its insurance limits, or (2) it can settle early and probably pay more than the merits say it should.  To avoid this dilemma, biglaw firms sometimes employ a third alternative: they under-litigate cases, cutting corners to make their economics fit matters that don’t justify the billing they would generate based on their “normal” rates and staffing practices.  The result, of course, is a diminished defense.  I suppose with client and insurer permission, deliberate under-litigation and corner-cutting would be a legitimate strategy.  But who would knowingly want a diminished defense?

The Solution is Non-Biglaw Alternatives

Some securities cases are well-suited for biglaw securities defense practices, primarily large cases that are relatively cost-insensitive and require large teams.  And some biglaw firms and partners do a better job than others defending securities matters within the biglaw system.  But, as the Acme hypothetical illustrates, there are many cases for which biglaw economics just don’t work.  Public companies and their directors and officers need an alternative to biglaw defense practices in such cases.

Let’s briefly re-analyze the Acme hypothetical assuming incurred fees of $500,000 and a capped defense-cost budget of $5 million for the securities class action and $500,000–$2.5 million for the derivative action.   If Acme were to litigate up to trial, it would have $17 to $19 million left with which to settle the litigation – leaving plenty of room under the policy for settlement, as well as potentially for trial.

There are a handful of firms (including mine) that can handle the hypothetical case with those economics while providing the same, or better, quality of defense, and can litigate nationwide.  D&O brokers and insurers can help companies find them.  But there need to be more.  The ideal profile of a biglaw alternative is a team comprising former biglaw lawyers, who can offer the best of both worlds: the sophistication and quality of defense biglaw offers, without the economic difficulties that biglaw can present.  I hope that other biglaw partners will consider doing what I did, and move their practice to a strong non-biglaw firm, and build a team that is a good alternative to biglaw in the right cases.

Public companies, their directors and officers, and their D&O insurers would be better served with more of us providing an attractive alternative to the standard defense practice.

* As we have written previously (e.g., here and here), the associate-heavy structure of the team is, in large part, simply a function of biglaw firms’ economic model – high associate-to-partner ratios designed to increase profits-per-partner.  That system invites over-litigation and economic inefficiency, including make-work, over-delegation, and inadequate supervision.  Even partners acting with the utmost good faith often can’t overcome the pressures biglaw’s economic system imposes.

 

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.

 

When I moved my securities litigation practice to a regional law firm from biglaw, I made a bet.  I bet that public companies and their directors and officers would be willing to hire securities defense counsel on the basis of value, i.e., the right mix of experience, expertise, efficiency, and price – just as they do with virtually all other corporate expenditures – and not simply default to a biglaw firm because it is “safer.”

My bet certainly was made less risky by the quality of my new law firm (a 135-year-old renowned firm that has produced past and present federal judges, and is full of superior lawyers); my confirmatory discussions with public company directors, officers, and in-house lawyers; my observations and analyses about the evolving economics of securities litigation defense and settlement; and my knowledge that I could recruit other talented full-time securities litigators to join me in my new practice.  But it was still a bet.

Well, so far, so good – my experience to date has confirmed my belief.  So, too, did a recent article titled, “Why Law Firm Pedigree May Be a Thing of the Past,” on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network (“HBR article”), reporting on scholarship and survey results indicating that public companies are increasingly willing to hire firms outside of biglaw to handle high-stakes matters.

The HBR article frames the issue in colorful terms:

Have you ever heard the saying: “You never get fired for buying IBM”? Every industry loves to co-opt it; for example, in consulting, you’ll hear: “You never get fired for hiring McKinsey.” In law, it’s often: “You never get fired for hiring Cravath”. But one general counsel we spoke with put a twist on the old saying, in a way that reflects the turmoil and change that the legal industry is undergoing. Here’s what he said: “I would absolutely fire anyone on my team who hired Cravath.” While tongue in cheek, and surely subject to exceptions, it reflects the reality that there is a growing body of legal work that simply won’t be sent to the most pedigreed law firms, most typically because general counsel are laser focused on value, namely quality and efficiency.

The HBR article reports that a study of general counsel at 88 major companies found that “GCs are increasingly willing to move high-stakes work away from the most pedigreed law firms (think the Cravaths and Skaddens of the world) … if the value equation is right.  (Firms surveyed included companies like Lenovo, Vanguard, Shell, Google, NIKE, Walgreens, Dell, eBay, RBC, Panasonic, Nestle, Progressive, Starwood, Intel, and Deutsche Bank.)”

The article reports on two survey questions.

The first question asked, “Are you more or less likely to use a good lawyer at a pedigreed firm (e.g. AmLaw  20 or Magic Circle) or a good lawyer at a non-pedigreed firm for high stakes (though not necessarily bet-the-company) work, assuming a 30% difference in overall cost?”

The result: 74% of GCs answered that they are less likely to use a pedigreed firm, and 13% answered the “same.”  Only 13% responded that they are more likely to use a pedigreed firm than other firms.

The second question asked, “On average, and based on your experiences, are lawyers at the most pedigreed, “white shoe” firms more or less responsive than at other firms?”

The result:  57% answered that pedigreed firms are less responsive than other firms, and 33% answered they are the “same.”  Only 11% responded that pedigreed firms are more responsive than other firms.

The survey results ring true, and are reinforced by other recent scholarship and analysis on the issue, including a Wall Street Journal article titled, “Smaller Law Firms Grab Big Slice of Corporate Legal Work” (“WSJ article”), and an article featured on www.law.com Corporate Counsel blog titled, “In-House Counsel Get Real About Outside Firm Value” (“Corporate Counsel article”).  As all three articles emphasize, skyrocketing legal fees are a notorious problem in general.  And corporate executives are increasingly becoming attuned to this issue.  Indeed, during the in-house counsel panel discussed in the Corporate Counsel article, a general counsel noted that in explaining outside counsel costs to the CEO and CFO of his company, “it’s very, very difficult … to say why someone should [bill] over $1,000 per hour . . . It just doesn’t look good.”  The problem is especially acute in securities class action defense, in which the defense is largely dominated by biglaw firms with high billing rates and a highly leveraged structure (i.e. a high associate-to-partner ratio), which tends to result in larger, less-efficient teams.

Now, as the economy has forced companies to be more aware of legal costs, including the fact that using a biglaw firm often results in prohibitively high legal fees, it is unsurprising that companies are increasingly turning to midsize firms.  According to the WSJ article, midsize firms have increased their market share from 22% to 41% in the past three years for matters that generate more than $1 million in legal bills.  Indeed, both Xerox’s general counsel and Blockbuster’s general counsel advocated that companies control legal costs by using counsel in cities with lower overhead costs.

Some companies, and many law firms, see securities class actions as a cost-insensitive type of litigation to defend: the theoretical damages can be very large, they assert claims against the company’s directors and officers, and the defense costs are covered by D&O insurance.

But these considerations rarely, if ever, warrant a cost-insensitive defense.  Securities class actions are typically defended and resolved with D&O insurance.  D&O insurance limits of liability are depleted by defense costs, which means that each dollar spent on defense costs decreases the amount of policy proceeds available to resolve the case.  At the end of a securities class action, a board will very rarely ask, “why didn’t we hire a more expensive law firm?”  Instead, the question will be, “why did we have to write a $10 million check to settle the case?”  Few GCs would want to have to answer:  “because we hired a more expensive law firm than we needed to.”

That takes us to the heart of the HBR article: “do we need to hire an expensive law firm?”  After all, in a securities class action, the theoretical damages can be very large, often characterized as “bet the company,” and the fortunes of the company’s directors and officers are theoretically implicated.  Certainly, when directors and officers are individually named in a lawsuit, their initial gut reaction may be to turn to biglaw firms regardless of price, if they believe that the biglaw brand name will guarantee them a positive result.

Biglaw capitalizes on these fears.  But, of course, hiring a biglaw firm does not guarantee a positive result.  The vast majority of securities class actions are very manageable.  They follow a predictable course of litigation, and can be resolved for a fairly predictable amount, regardless how high the theoretical damages.  And it is exceedingly rare for an individual director or officer to write a check to settle the litigation.  Indeed, the biggest practical personal financial risk to an individual director or officer is exhaustion of D&O policy proceeds due to defense costs that are higher than necessary.

Lurking behind these considerations are two central questions: “aren’t lawyers at biglaw firms better?” and “don’t I need biglaw resources?”

“Aren’t lawyers at biglaw law firms better?”  Not necessarily.  That’s the main point of the GC survey discussed in the HBR article.

To be sure, there are excellent securities litigators at many biglaw firms.  But the blanket notion that biglaw securities litigators are more capable than their non-biglaw counterparts is false.  And it’s not even a probative question when comparing biglaw lawyers to non-biglaw lawyers who came from biglaw.  In the WSJ article, Blockbuster’s general counsel, in explaining why his company often seeks out attorneys from more economical areas of the country, pointed out that many of the attorneys in less expensive firms came from biglaw firms.  Many top law school graduates and former biglaw attorneys practice at non-biglaw firms, not because they were not talented enough to succeed at a biglaw firm, but for personal reasons, including a desire to live in a city other than New York, the Bay Area, or Los Angeles, to find work-life balance, to have the freedom to design a better way of defending cases, or to develop legal skills at a faster pace than is usually available at a biglaw firm.

There obviously is a baseline amount of expertise and experience that is necessary to handle a case well, and there are a number of non-biglaw lawyers in the group of lawyers who meet that standard.  One easy way to judge the quality of firms is by reading recently filed briefs of biglaw and midsize firms.  While this type of analysis takes more time than simply looking up a lawyer or law firm ranking, it will be the best indicator of the type of work product to expect from a firm.  As with all lawyer-hiring decisions, the individual lawyer’s actual abilities, strategic vision for the litigation, and attention to efficiency are key considerations.  A lawyer’s association with a biglaw firm name can be a proxy for quality, but it does not ensure quality.

Indeed, the opposite can be true – by paying for the biglaw expertise and experience of a particularly accomplished senior partner (the partner likely to pitch the business), companies often end up with the majority of the work being done by senior associates and junior partners.  A company should consider the impact of the economic realities of biglaw versus non-biglaw firms.  Senior partners at biglaw firms, with higher associate-to-partner ratios, must have a lot of matters to keep their junior partners and associates busy, and thus necessarily spend less time on each matter – even if they have good intentions to devote personal time to a matter.  Biglaw firms’ largest clients and cases, moreover, often demand much of a senior partner’s time, at the expense of other cases.  And given the reality that partners practice less and less law the more senior they become, it is fair to question whether they are the right people for the job anyway.  In contrast, senior partners at non-biglaw firms typically have fewer people to keep busy, and have lower billing rates – which means that they can spend more time working on their cases, and they spend more time actually practicing law.

Further, for smaller and less significant projects that should be handled by associates, and should not require the higher billing rates of partners, biglaw is similarly unable to offer a cost-effective solution for companies.  Associates at biglaw firms typically have less hands-on experience than their counterparts at mid-sized firms.  In litigation, for example, biglaw associates generally spend their first few years solely on discovery or discrete research projects.  The end result is that many projects that could be handled by a junior or mid-level associate at a mid-sized firm would have to be handled by a senior associate or junior partner at a biglaw firm.  So, even putting aside differences in billing rates between a fifth-year biglaw associate and a fifth-year midsize firm associate, going with a biglaw firm typically means that projects are being assigned to attorneys too senior (and accordingly too costly) to be handling the assignments.

Don’t I need biglaw resources?  There are two primary answers.  First, from both a quality and an efficiency standpoint, securities litigation defense is best handled by a small team through the motion–to-dismiss process.  Prior to a court’s decision on the motion to dismiss, the only key tasks are a focused fact investigation and the briefing on the motion to dismiss.   As to both, fewer lawyers means higher quality.

If a case survives a motion to dismiss, most firms with a strong litigation department will have sufficient resources to handle it capably.  That, of course, is something a company can probe in the hiring process.   There are cases that necessarily will require a larger team than some mid-size firms can provide.  However, such cases are rare, and it is often the case that biglaw firms, in an effort to maintain associate hours at a certain level, will heavily staff associates on discovery projects such as document review.  While the exceptional case will require a team of more than around five associates, for the most part, discovery can and should be handled most efficiently by a team of contract attorneys supervised by a small team of associates – or by utilizing new technologies that allow smaller teams to review documents more efficiently and effectively.

Second, as reflected in the HBR article’s discussion of GCs’ answers to the second question, there isn’t a correlation between a firm’s pedigree and its responsiveness – which is a key facet of law firm resources.  Indeed, responsiveness is a function of effort, and it stands to reason that non-biglaw firms will make the necessary effort to give excellent client service.

The bottom line of all this is simply common sense: within the qualified group of lawyers, a company should look for value – the right mix of experience, expertise, efficiency, and cost – as it does with any significant corporate expenditure.

I recently had occasion to review a number of motion-to-dismiss rulings, including some in which denial of the motion seemed to be an easy call.  I’ve since been mulling over whether there are circumstances in which it would be strategically advantageous not to make a motion to dismiss in a Reform Act case, or a motion to dismiss for failure to make a demand on the board in a derivative case.  I have never foregone such a motion, even when it was relatively weak.  But is that the right strategic and economic approach?*

Routine motions to dismiss are certainly part of the predominant, formulaic approach to securities litigation defense.  As I noted in my recent Law360 Q&A, a formulaic approach can yield inefficiency and insufficient strategic thought.  Two obvious examples are class certification and document discovery:

  • Courts rarely deny class certification motions based on shortcomings in the proposed class representative – and often, even if they did, it would not be to the advantage of the defense.  Yet in virtually every case, defense attorneys travel around the country to take depositions of class representatives to support futile class certification oppositions.
  • The universe of important documents in a securities case usually distills to a relatively small number.  Yet in virtually every case, defense attorneys review every page of a vast number of documents collected as potentially responsive to overreaching document requests – ignoring the efficiency and other advantages of a more strategic approach.

I’ve vowed to take a more strategic and efficient approach in these and other areas.  A superior defense doesn’t require that we do everything, including tasks with little or no strategic value.  It means that we position the case for the best possible resolution.  That goal involves strategic and economic considerations.

So, then, what about motions to dismiss:  are there circumstances in which it would make sense to forego one?  It’s hard to imagine all conceivable circumstances under which this question may be posed, but I think the answer is probably “no.”  But in all cases, including those in which the motion to dismiss is weak, we need to think about how we use the motion to the defendants’ strategic advantage.

In my experience, there is a small group of cases – maybe 10% of those filed – that are bound to get past a motion to dismiss.  In those cases, neither the quality of the lawyers, on either side, nor the temperament or ability of the judge even matters.  Among these cases, some are meritorious and some aren’t.  Sometimes the initial allegations appear strong, although the plaintiffs’ ultimate case is not, and sometimes they involve high-profile situations or defendants, in which a judge is almost certain to allow the plaintiffs a chance to develop their case.  Regardless, these are all hard cases that are not going to be dismissed on a motion.

I can make a strong prima facie strategic case for not moving to dismiss this class of case, especially cases that are ultimately defensible.  The motion to dismiss is the judge’s first look at the case.  Judges are people, and they form first impressions.  The emphasis that a motion to dismiss can bring to the one-sided presentation of the “evidence” in the complaint can do harm to later rulings.  So, I could argue that a better strategy is to answer the complaint and wait for a chance to make a good first impression with the judge, at a time when the defendants can introduce favorable evidence.  This strategy also has the benefit of saving the client and/or carriers a substantial amount of money.

On balance, however, I think that other strategic considerations outweigh the advantages of foregoing motions to dismiss.  The vast majority of securities and derivative complaints are potentially dismiss-able.  Plaintiffs assume that a motion to dismiss will be made and – because of the high pleading standards required for complaints in Reform Act cases, and to excuse demand in derivative cases – they fear dismissal even in the strongest cases.  Thus, to not make a motion to dismiss would be significant, and would suggest to plaintiffs (and to the judge, too, if she or he is experienced in securities cases) that the plaintiffs’ case is extraordinarily strong.  It might even seem to be a concession of some kind.  Just as importantly, a motion to dismiss is the defendants’ only real leverage before summary judgment, and because of the discovery stay, the defendants have an informational advantage during the motion-to-dismiss process (setting aside the availability of a books and records inspection in the context of derivative litigation).

The combination of these factors strongly suggests that defendants make a motion to dismiss, even if they know it is very unlikely to succeed – but that they do so within a larger strategic framework geared toward the best ultimate resolution of the case.  In a great many cases, mediating while the motion to dismiss is still pending will be the right strategy, to take advantage of the leverage and the informational advantage that defendants have during this time.  This strategy requires the utmost strategic thought and risk analysis at the outset of the case, and then impeccable communication among the defendants, defense counsel, and the insurers and broker.  Even if this process leads these parties to the conclusion that it is better to continue to litigate the case, rather than attempt an early settlement, it will lend strategic shape and direction to the litigation process.

The worst strategy – although it unfortunately seems to be a prevalent one – is to simply litigate the case full tilt, without serious evaluation of whether an early settlement is strategically or economically wise, and without adequate communication with the client or the carriers about the risks of the case.

 

* I don’t include merger cases in this analysis, because they present special considerations – principally quick settlements and multi-jurisdictional issues – that often make a motion to dismiss impractical.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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