In our post in the immediate wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Amgen Inc. v. Connecticut Retirement Plans, we concluded that rather than being a new threat to the defense of securities class actions, Amgen basically endorsed the status quo: In holding that plaintiffs do not need to establish that allegedly false statements
The Supreme Court released its anxiously awaited decision in Amgen Inc. v. Connecticut Retirement Plans yesterday. On the face of the decision, it was a loss for defendants in that case, and for companies everywhere that are forced to defend themselves against securities class action lawsuits – as the Court found that plaintiffs do not…
The Reform Act’s heightened pleading standards were designed to increase the number of securities class actions dismissed at the pleading stage. An unintended consequence, however, has been a liberal application of the already liberal standards for amendment under Rule 15. In Eminence Capital v. Aspeon, Inc., the Ninth Circuit explained the rationale for this approach:…
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:
- 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.
- 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.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers are facing intense judicial scrutiny of problems with their use of “confidential witnesses” (“CWs”) in the Lockheed Martin and SunTrust securities class actions. Courts have recently addressed similar CW problems in two other high-profile securities class actions, Sears Holdings (affirmed by the Second Circuit) and Boeing.
Courts need to scrutinize CWs more closely in deciding motions to dismiss – not just in post-denial motions for reconsideration or summary judgment following CW discovery. After discussing the two current cases, I propose two modest reforms.
In SunTrust, the court denied defendants’ motions to dismiss the First Amended Complaint (“FAC”), based primarily on purported claims from a CW, Mr. Trapani, that the individual defendants knew that certain financial reporting at the end of 2007 was false.* Mr. Trapani left SunTrust in August 2007, but the FAC alleged that Mr. Trapani worked at SunTrust from “2005 through 2007” and contained several references to information he provided concerning knowledge “throughout 2007.” During the motion to dismiss process, SunTrust asserted that Mr. Trapani left SunTrust in August 2007. The court acknowledged the assertion but expressly left the issue for later, stating it “must assume Trapani had personal knowledge” and if he does not, “the Court will consider later whether these allegations support a violation of the pleading standards under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.”
Defendants moved for reconsideration based on declarations from Mr. Trapani that he left SunTrust in August 2007, knew nothing about the challenged financial reporting thereafter, and never told plaintiffs’ investigator that he discussed the individual defendants’ knowledge of SunTrust’s financial reporting thereafter. Based on Mr. Trapani’s declarations, the court reconsidered its motion to dismiss order and dismissed the action. The court “reluctantly” decided against sanctions because it appeared that notes from plaintiffs’ investigator, Ms. Torres, supported the FAC’s allegations based on Mr. Trapani.
So it appeared that plaintiffs’ counsel was off the hook. But they might not be. Ms. Torres contacted the court to say she was concerned about the accuracy of plaintiffs’ counsel’s arguments against sanctions. In particular, she “stated that she had information she wished to share with the Court, including that Plaintiff’s counsel were involved in the interviews of Mr. Trapani and that, in those interviews, Mr. Trapani made clear that he did not have any knowledge after August 2007 ….”
The court has set a hearing for November 9, 2012 to hear more from Ms. Torres, her firm, and the parties. “The Court will, after the proceeding, evaluate whether further inquiry or action is required.”
City of Pontiac General Employees’ Retirement System v. Lockheed Martin
In Lockheed, Judge Rakoff denied defendants’ motion to dismiss. Discovery commenced. Discovery of the CWs revealed two categories of problems: (1) several CWs disputed telling plaintiffs’ investigator the facts the complaint attributed to them; and (2) certain of the CW allegations were not based on the CWs’ personal knowledge because the information they provided was outside of their employment dates and/or job responsibilities. Defendants moved for summary judgment, pointing out the flaws with the CW allegations on which Judge Rakoff relied in denying defendants’ motion to dismiss.
On October 1, 2012, Judge Rakoff held a day-long evidentiary hearing to determine “who the heck tried to pull a fraud on this court.” The 218-page hearing transcript allows a rare look into the securities-class-action-complaint-preparation kitchen. Plaintiffs and defendants submitted post-hearing briefs that slice and dice the complaint’s allegations and evidence revealed during discovery and during the October 1 hearing. At the hearing’s conclusion, Judge Rakoff offered some tentative thoughts about the witnesses’ credibility. He remarked that some CWs were credible and others were not, and that plaintiffs’ investigator was credible “on the whole.”
For more background, see here.