How will the 2017 arrival of Justice Neil Gorsuch influence the US Supreme Court’s securities-fraud jurisprudence?

My colleague Kristin Beneski and I discuss this question in a Washington Legal Foundation Working Paper titled “US Supreme Court Securities-Fraud Jurisprudence:  An Emerging New Direction?

In our Working Paper, we analyze whether Justice Gorsuch may urge the Court to chip away at the viability of securities class actions—such as by revisiting the Basic v. Levinson fraud-on-the-market presumption or narrowing the meaning of scienter—and whether he may push for a return to the days of caveat emptor and the puffery doctrine in evaluating the falsity and materiality of statements challenged as fraudulent.  We also question whether such possible jurisprudential shifts would be in the best interest of securities-fraud defendants.

I hope you’ll review our Working Paper (here).

 

 

The securities class action war is about far more than the height of the pleading hurdles plaintiffs must clear, the scorecard of motions to dismiss won and lost, or median settlement amounts.  It is a fight for strategic positioning—about achieving a system of securities litigation that sets up one side or the other to win more cases over the long term.  How this war plays out has real-world consequences for the people sued in securities class actions.

Defendants win a lot of battles.  The Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 was an enormous victory for the defense bar, imposing high pleading burdens on plaintiffs and establishing a safe harbor for forward-looking statements that, in Bill Lerach’s famous words, gives defendants “license to lie.”  The rate of dismissal is markedly higher than the dismissal rate in other types of complex federal litigation.  And cases that survive motions to dismiss typically settle for predictable amounts.

But despite their success in battle, defendants are losing the war.  The root of the problem is the defense side’s lack of a centralized command, which creates a mismatch in expertise, experience, and efficiency.

  • While the plaintiffs’ bar is relatively small, with about a dozen firms that dominate, the defense bar is highly splintered, comprising many dozens of firms that can credibly pitch a case, with multiple possible lead partners within each firm—some qualified and some, frankly, not qualified.  As a result, the average plaintiffs’ partner is many times more experienced than the average defense partner.
  • While the plaintiffs’ bar’s specialized composition and small size yield a unified approach, the splintered nature of the defense bar makes this impossible for defendants.
  • While the defense bar has achieved significant legislative and judicial success, it has come with costly collateral consequences.
  • While the plaintiffs’ bar’s contingent-fee structure incentivizes efficiency, the defense bar is wildly inefficient due to hourly billing and the view that D&O insurance reimbursement is “free money.”  This penalizes the defense firms’ clients—both in individual cases and on the whole—by leaving less insurance money for a vigorous defense and settlement.

How can the defense bar approximate the plaintiffs’ bar’s advantages?  Given the competitive legal environment and large-firm economics, the defense bar can’t achieve a centralized command on its own.  The only way to do so is to give greater control to D&O insurers, the player with the greatest economic and strategic stake in both individual cases and on the whole.

Winning the securities litigation war isn’t an abstraction or a dispute about allocation of money between law firms and insurance companies. It’s about the safety and comfort of real people who face securities litigation.  At the core of every securities case are people accused of doing something wrong—not just directors and officers, but also hard-working company employees who find themselves at the center of a securities suit.  Just the idea of securities class actions makes businesspeople uncomfortable.

So the most fundamental question we on the defense side must ask ourselves is: how does the system of securities litigation defense position directors and officers to withstand securities litigation safely and comfortably?

To state the obvious, defendants are entitled to a system that allows them a fair fight with sufficient insurance resources.

I have divided this analysis into three blog posts.  In this post (Part I), I explain how and why the plaintiffs’ bar is stronger than ever.  In my next post (Part II), I’ll analyze the current state of the defense bar and explain why defendants are losing the war despite winning many battles.  In the last post (Part III), I’ll explain why and how the solution to solving the current mismatch between counsel for plaintiffs and defendants lies in giving D&O insurers greater control of securities class action defense.

Part I: The Plaintiffs’ Bar Is Back—and Better than Ever

When I was a young lawyer, most of my cases were against Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach.  I still remember the San Diego office’s phone number by heart (619-231-1058)—remember when we had to call people to communicate with them?  Of course, there were several other strong plaintiffs’ firms and prominent lawyers, including some of my favorite lawyers in the plaintiffs’ bar—though from my vantage point, Lerach and Weiss loomed large.

The downfall of Lerach and Weiss is well-known, so I won’t recount it here.  Many defense lawyers still discuss it with odd glee.  To me, it was sad and unfortunate.  My direct contacts with them made huge impressions on me.  For example, one of Bill Lerach’s oral arguments remains the most impressive advocacy I’ve ever witnessed.  And I’ll always remember the throng of defense lawyers at the first IPO Securities Litigation hearing turning to watch Mel Weiss enter the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse Ceremonial Courtroom, on September 7, 2001.

Lerach and Weiss helped shape and police our system of disclosure and governance, and our markets, corporate governance, and retirement savings are better off for it.  I believe that most public company disclosure deciders see the image of Bill Lerach when they decide whether or not to disclose something.

So their exit naturally left a void in the plaintiffs’ bar.  But a remarkable thing has happened: their protégés, who are my contemporaries and counterparts—as well as other senior plaintiffs’ lawyers and their protégés, plus some new entrants into the plaintiffs’ securities class action market, described below—have not only filled the gap, but have bolstered the bar.  The plaintiffs’ bar is now back, and better than ever.

Looking back, several things converged to cause this.  The first was the stock options backdating scandal, which began with a study by University of Iowa professor Eric Lie that showed an unusually large number of stock option grants to executives at stock price lows.  Since few of the companies exposed in the scandal suffered stock-price drops, the vast majority of the dozens of options cases were filed as shareholder derivative claims, on behalf of the company, alleging breaches of fiduciary duty and proxy-statement misstatements.

At the time, the most prolific securities class action firm was Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins, the successor of Bill Lerach’s firm and the predecessor of Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd.  If they filed a derivative suit on behalf of a company, it meant they could not sue the company in a securities class action.  For this simple reason, many people, including me, did not think they would file many options backdating derivative cases.

But they did—and they filed a lot of them.  Not only did they file a lot of them, they defeated motions to dismiss and achieved settlements involving unprecedented types of corporate governance reforms and plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fee awards.  Their large fee awards increased the fee awards of smaller plaintiffs’ firms.  By the time they were finished, the plaintiffs’ firms that filed options backdating cases made a mint.

Then, toward the end of the options backdating scandal, the credit crisis happened and started a new wave of shareholder litigation, this time both securities class actions and shareholder derivative actions.  The plaintiffs’ bar had a war chest and was ready for battle.  The larger plaintiffs’ firms won lead plaintiff roles in the mega securities class actions and also represented plaintiffs in large individual actions.

While that was going on, the Chinese reverse-merger scandal happened.  That created a new breed of securities class action plaintiffs’ firms.  Historically, the Reform Act’s lead plaintiff provisions incentivized plaintiffs’ firms to recruit institutional investors to serve as plaintiffs.  For the most part, institutional investors have retained the larger 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, placing a premium on experience, efficiency, and scale.  As a result, 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.

The China cases changed this dynamic.  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 (and thus reducing the likelihood of dismissal and no recovery).  The dismissal rate was indeed low, and limited insurance and company resources prompted early settlements in amounts that, while on the low side, yielded good outcomes for the smaller plaintiffs’ firms.

With these recoveries, these firms built up momentum that 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.  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 is now more than five years old, and appears to be here to stay.

Plaintiffs firms thus have us surrounded—no public company can fly under the radar anymore.  Plaintiffs’ firms of all types have made a lot of money over the past decade.  They’re now filing a record number of cases, even subtracting out the federal-court merger cases.  And on the whole, they’re strong lawyers, with some genuine superstars among them.

Yet, though expanded, the number of firms is small, with about a dozen in the core group.  This gives them the practical ability to take common strategic, economic, and legal positions—even if they don’t always see eye-to-eye or get along.

***

Next week, in Part II, I’ll analyze the current state of the defense bar and explain why defendants are losing the war despite winning key legislative and judicial battles.  And the following week, in Part III, I’ll discuss why and how giving greater control of securities class action defense to D&O insurers would solve the current mismatch between counsel for plaintiffs and defendants.

Note:   I later published a wrap-up post in response to questions and comments I received.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problems with Using Corporate Counsel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Why is Corporate Counsel Used So Often?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Benefits of a Competitive Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grading the Reform Act’s Key Provisions

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

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

Following are my grades for each of these provisions:

Falsity Pleading Standard – Grade: D

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scienter Pleading Standard – Grade: C

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safe Harbor – Grade: D

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

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

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

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

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

So, I give the Safe Harbor a D.

Lead Plaintiff Procedures – Grade C

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discovery Stay – Grade: A

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

Conclusion:  The Reform Act’s Overall Grade

Grade: C+

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Problems with Using Corporate Counsel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Why is Corporate Counsel Used So Often?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Benefits of a Competitive Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

On November 3, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Laborers District Counsel Construction Industry Pension Fund v. Omnicare, Inc., which concerns the standard for judging the falsity of an opinion challenged in an action under Section 11 of the Securities Act of 1933.  In the Sixth Circuit decision under review (“2013 Omnicare decision”), the court held that a statement of opinion can be “false” even if the speaker genuinely believed the stated opinion. This holding is contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Virginia Bankshares, Inc. v. Sandberg, 501 U.S. 1083, 1095 (1991), which held that a statement of opinion is a factual statement as to what the speaker believes – meaning a statement of opinion is “true” as long as the speaker genuinely believes the opinion expressed, i.e., if it is “subjectively” true.

On behalf of Washington Legal Foundation (“WLF”), my partner Claire Davis and I filed an amicus brief in Omnicare to emphasize the importance of clarifying the standard for challenging “false” statements of opinion under all the federal securities laws, not just Section 11.  WLF’s view that such clarification is needed was reinforced by an October 10, 2014 decision in a subsequently filed securities class action against Omnicare under Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.  In re Omnicare, Inc. Sec. Litig., — F. 3d —-, 2014 WL 5066826 (6th Cir. Oct. 10, 2014) (“2014 Omnicare decision”).  In the 2014 Omnicare decision, the Sixth Circuit appeared to embrace the proposition that a statement of opinion is not actionable if it is subjectively true – at least under Section 10(b) – but then held that the subjective falsity inquiry should be analyzed within the element of scienter.  The opinion shows the continued confusion that pervades analysis of this issue, jumbling subjective falsity with other concepts, and conflating the separate elements of falsity and scienter.

As part of its scienter analysis, the Sixth Circuit also grappled with another important question: whose state of mind counts for purposes of determining a corporation’s scienter?  Although the Sixth Circuit believes the standard it enunciated constitutes a “middle ground” between restrictive and liberal tests among the federal circuit courts, its ruling misunderstands the nature of the scienter inquiry and conflicts with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus Capital Group, Inc. v. First Derivative Traders, 131 S. Ct. 2296 (2011), and thus risks expanding corporate liability beyond the proper reach of Section 10(b).

Today, Claire and I posted an analysis of the 2013 and 2014 Omnicare decisions on WLF’s blog, The WLF Legal Pulse.  We invite our readers to read our post there.

Please stay tuned to D&O Discourse for more on the November 3, 2014 Supreme Court argument and the Court’s opinion.

Last fall, I wrote about board oversight of cybersecurity and derivative litigation in the wake of cybersecurity breaches.  I plan to update my thoughts later this year, after we see developments in the recently filed Target and Wyndham derivative actions, and learn the results of the 2014 installment of Carnegie Mellon’s bi-annual CyLab Governance of Enterprise Security Survey, which explores oversight of cybersecurity by boards of directors and senior management.

In this post, I’d like to focus on cybersecurity disclosure and the inevitable advent of securities class actions following cybersecurity breaches.  In all but one instance (Heartland Payment Systems), cybersecurity breaches, even the largest, have not caused a stock drop big enough to trigger a securities class action.  But there appears to be a growing consensus that stock drops are inevitable when the market better understands cybersecurity threats, the cost of breaches, and the impact of threats and breaches on companies’ business models.  When the market is better able to analyze these matters, there will be stock drops.  When there are stock drops, the plaintiffs’ bar will be there.

And when plaintiffs’ lawyers arrive, what will they find?  They will find companies grappling with cybersecurity disclosure.  Understandably, most of the discussion about cybersecurity disclosure focuses on the SEC’s October 13, 2011 “CF Disclosure Guidance: Topic No. 2” (“Guidance”) and the notorious failure of companies to disclose much about cybersecurity, which has resulted in a call for further SEC action by Senator Rockefeller and follow-up by the SEC, including an SEC Cybersecurity Roundtable on March 24, 2014.  But, as the SEC noted in the Guidance, and Chair White reiterated in October 2013, the Guidance does not define companies’ disclosure obligations.  Instead, disclosure is governed by the general duty not to mislead, along with more specific disclosure obligations that apply to specific types of required disclosures.

Indeed, plaintiffs’ lawyers will not even need to mention the Guidance to challenge statements allegedly made false or misleading by cybersecurity problems.  Various types of statements – from statements about the company’s business operations (which could be imperiled by inadequate cybersecurity), to statements about the company’s financial metrics (which could be rendered false or misleading by lower revenues and higher costs associated with cybersecurity problems), to internal controls and related CEO and CFO certifications, to risk factors themselves (which could warn against risks that have already materialized) – could be subject to challenge in the wake of a cybersecurity breach.

Plaintiffs will allege that the challenged statements were misleading because they omitted facts about cybersecurity (whether or not subject to disclosure under the Guidance).  In some cases, this allegation will require little more than coupling a statement with the omitted facts.  In cybersecurity cases, plaintiffs will have greater ability to learn the omitted facts than in other cases, as a result of breach notification requirements, privacy litigation, and government scrutiny, to name a few avenues.  The law, of course, requires more than simply coupling the statement and omitted facts; plaintiffs must explain in detail why the challenged statement was misleading, not just incomplete, and companies can defend the statement in the context of all of their disclosures.  But in cybersecurity cases, plaintiffs will have more to work with than in many other types of cases.

Pleading scienter likely will be easier for plaintiffs as well.  With increased emphasis on cybersecurity oversight at the senior officer (and board) level, a CEO or CFO will have difficulty (factually and in terms of good governance) suggesting that she or he didn’t know, at some level, about the omitted facts that made the challenged statements misleading.  That doesn’t mean that companies won’t be able to contest scienter.  Knowledge of omitted facts isn’t the test for scienter; the test is intent to mislead purchasers of securities.  However, this important distinction is often overlooked in practice.  Companies will also be able to argue that they didn’t disclose certain cybersecurity matters because, as the Guidance contemplates, some cybersecurity disclosures can compromise cybersecurity.  This is a proper argument for a motion to dismiss, as an innocent inference under Tellabs, but it may feel too “factual” for some judges to credit at the motion to dismiss stage.

As this analytic overview shows, cybersecurity securities class actions, on the whole, likely will be virulent.  Companies, of course, are talking about cybersecurity risks in their boardrooms – and they should also think about how to discuss those risks with their investors.  The best way for companies to lower their risk profile is to start to address this issue now, by thinking about cybersecurity in connection with all of their key disclosures, and enhancing their disclosures as appropriate.

Perfection and prescience are not required.  Effort matters most.  Companies that don’t even try will stand out.  As I’ve written in the context of the Reform Act’s Safe Harbor for forward-looking statements, judges are skeptical of companies whose risk factors remain static over time, and look favorably on companies who appear to try to draft meaningful risk factors.  I thus construct a defense of forward-looking statements by emphasizing, to the extent I can, ways in which the company’s risk disclosures evolved, and were tailored and focused.  I predict that the same approach will prove effective in cybersecurity cases.

 

In 1995, public companies and their directors and officers received one of the greatest statutory gifts in the history of American corporate law:  the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act.  The Reform Act established heightened standards for pleading falsity and scienter, among other protections, to allow for dismissal before discovery in a fair percentage of cases.  That was a tremendous change from the pre-Reform Act world, in which dismissals were infrequent and expensive discovery was the norm.

The provisions of the Reform Act make motions to dismiss in securities cases different from those in any other area of law, and guide our strategy in every case that we litigate.  As a full-time securities litigation defense lawyer, I feel a responsibility to understand the Reform Act and the cases applying it with as much sophistication as possible.  I have a sense of pride in my Reform Act analysis.  It may sound hokey, but I consider myself a craftsman, and I know that some of the most effective full-time securities litigators tend to feel the same.

I was recently asked about the biggest threats to the Reform Act’s protections, and have since been giving that question a lot of thought.  To be blunt, the biggest threat is the failure by many defense firms to make rigorous arguments on motions to dismiss that hold plaintiffs to the strict pleading standards of the Reform Act, allowing for court decisions that likewise lack rigor and fail to enforce the Act’s high pleading burdens.

This lack of technical rigor has many causes.  One factor is the dwindling number of securities litigation defense specialists, caused by the downturn in classic securities litigation cases calling for straightforward Reform Act motions to dismiss.  Beginning in 2006, securities litigation defense has mostly consisted of stock-option backdating derivative cases, large credit-crisis cases, and merger objection cases.  Through these waves, very few securities litigators remained dedicated to studying Reform Act developments and devising better arguments that take advantage of its provisions.  As a result, today there are relatively few practitioners whose practices are devoted to securities litigation defense – defense lawyers who sweat over subtleties in the law that in isolation may seem trivial, but which collectively make a big difference in the development of the law.

Another factor is the biglaw approach to writing motions to dismiss “by committee.”  Biglaw firms tend to write motions with large teams composed of new associates, mid-level associates, senior associates, and partners.  Writing by committee doesn’t work.  It is not only expensive, it is ultimately far less effective.  If the first draft of a motion is written without sufficient intellectual rigor and sophisticated understanding of the law and practice of securities litigation, it is difficult to reach an end result that will compensate for these deficiencies.  To draft the best motion to dismiss possible, Reform Act “craftsmen” should be involved in the process from the beginning, the entire drafting team needs to coordinate closely on the strategic objectives of the motion, and all the attorneys need to be well trained to appreciate the subtleties of the law.

Whatever the cause, the declining quality of many motions to dismiss is leading to a deterioration of the law that is eroding the Reform Act’s protections.  The rate of dismissals remains relatively high, but I predict that the dismissal rate will decrease, perhaps dramatically, over time as the law becomes more lax.

Below, I discuss the building blocks of a strong motion to dismiss and then address flaws found in many that I have seen filed lately – both by practitioners who do not specialize in the field, and by some “go to” biglaw firms with departments that specialize in securities litigation.

Constructing a Strong Motion to Dismiss

The Reform Act erected high hurdles for plaintiffs to clear before requiring a company to be put through the burdens of discovery:

  • To plead the falsity of a challenged statement of fact, plaintiffs must plead inconsistent contemporaneous facts.
  • To plead a false statement of opinion, in most circuits plaintiffs must plead that the statement was both objectively false and subjectively false, meaning they must show the speaker did not genuinely believe the opinion expressed.
  • To plead that the defendant made a false statement with intent to defraud, plaintiffs must plead facts demonstrating a strong inference that the defendant either knew the statement was false or was extremely and deliberately reckless in choosing not to find out whether it was true or false.
  • Even if plaintiffs plead facts demonstrating it was false, a forward-looking statement is not actionable under the Safe Harbor provisions of the Reform Act if either: (1) the statement was accompanied by meaningful cautionary statements, or (2) plaintiffs fail to plead that the speaker had actual knowledge of the statement’s falsity.

A rigorous motion to dismiss uses the Reform Act’s pleading tools in the most advantageous way possible, by really understanding them and maximizing their usefulness.  These tools give defense lawyers the opportunity to delve into factual issues in a manner that is unusual in motion -to-dismiss practice, and which may feel unnatural to attorneys who are not securities litigation specialists or who didn’t become securities litigation specialists during the Reform Act era.  An effective motion to dismiss not only dismantles the complaint with these tools, but capitalizes upon them to tell the judge a compelling story of an honest company that did its best to make straightforward disclosures to the market.

The Reform Act’s standards give judges enormous discretion; they can dismiss most complaints, or not, with very little room to challenge their decisions upon appeal.  Winning motions recognize the human element to  this discretion.  Even if a complaint is technically deficient, judges are less likely to dismiss it (certainly less likely to dismiss it with prejudice) if they nevertheless get the feeling that the defendants committed fraud.  Effective motions use the leeway given to defendants by the Reform Act to give judges a sense of comfort that they are not only following the law, but that by strictly applying the Reform Act’s protections, they are also serving justice.  On the other hand, one of the most common flaws in ineffective motions to dismiss is the use of formulaic and hyper-technical arguments, which fail to take advantage of the Reform Act to dig into the facts of the individual case, expose the flaws of each complaint in detail, and tell the judge a compelling story of the case that negates the inference of scienter.

Flaws Found in Many Motions to Dismiss

Flaws in Arguments against Falsity

The first element of a claim under Rule 10b-5(b) – the classic securities claim – is a false or misleading statement.  As we recently wrote, it is an incorrect statement of law to characterize this element as requiring a “materially false statement or omission.”  An omission is only actionable if it made what the defendant said materially misleading (or he or she otherwise had a duty to disclose it, which is a rare assertion as the main claim in a securities class action).

Yet if I had a dollar for every motion to dismiss that contained this misstatement of law, I would be writing this blog from a vacation home in Hawaii.  This is not a semantic issue; the difference between an “omission” and a “misleading statement” is enormous.  Every disclosure problem involves dozens or even hundreds of omitted facts that seem “material” in the sense that an investor would want to know them, but far fewer involve statements that were materially misleading (it is the statement that must be material, not the omitted fact) as a result of the omission.  I realize that many courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, use this incorrect terminology.  But that doesn’t mean we need to parrot it – and every time that we do, we weaken the standard that is an explicit part of the Reform Act statute.

Defense lawyers’ loose language is a symptom of a bigger problem:  a lack of focus on falsity.  The allegedly false statements frame the entire case; other defense arguments are derived from the attack on plaintiffs’ falsity claims.  Foremost among the arguments derived from a strong falsity argument is the argument against scienter.  Scienter requires plaintiffs to show that a speaker knew what he or she said was false.  Falsity thus sets the stage for the scienter analysis – if there was no false statement to begin with, there can be no knowledge of that falsity.  On the other hand, the more egregiously false plaintiffs can make a statement appear, the easier it will be for them to show knowledge of falsity.  A strong scienter argument has as its North Star, “scienter as to what?”  That “what” must be a false statement, and a good motion to dismiss will enforce that structure from the beginning.  I cringe when I read a motion to dismiss that addresses scienter before falsity.  That is simply backwards.

The lack of focus on falsity infects the way defense firms tend to argue against falsity.  The Reform Act falsity standard generally requires the plaintiffs to allege contemporaneous facts that are inconsistent with each challenged statement.  That is a high hurdle.

To be sure, it isn’t easy to make a fact-specific argument against falsity; it requires a great command of the complaint and judicially noticeable documents, which isn’t the forte of most litigators.  And it can seem “too factual” to general litigators, or to many senior securities litigators who became securities litigation specialists under the pre-Reform Act regime, where motions to dismiss had to be simple and safe to have any chance of success under lenient pleading standards.  Perhaps for these reasons, in addition to those discussed above, a large number of motions to dismiss bypass this advantageous and fundamental argument, or fail to emphasize it, and instead opt for arguments that lump statements together by type and argue against them as a group in a boilerplate fashion.  In my view, one of the worst arguments of this type is the “puffery” defense – which basically concedes that a statement was false, but contends it was too immaterial to be actionable.  The subtext is cavalier, and unlikely to reassure a dubious judge: “sure the defendant lied, but it doesn’t matter because no one cared.”  Although courts do sometimes accept this argument, whether to do so or not amounts to an unprincipled coin-flip, and it is often made at the expense of better and more definite arguments.  For example, statements constituting “puffery” also generally qualify as statements of opinion, which have a standard for falsity that is protective and can be analyzed specifically.

The Reform Act called out forward-looking statements for special analysis and protection.  As we have previously written, the Safe Harbor is not as safe as Congress intended.  Because they think it goes too far, and can give companies a “license to lie,” many judges go to great lengths to avoid the statute’s plain language.  Many defense lawyers’ arguments not only fail to address this judicial skepticism, but actually reinforce it.  They do this by relying solely on the Safe Harbor’s technical elements, while failing to simultaneously contend that the forward-looking statements in question also had a reasonable basis, and the company’s cautionary language was a good-faith effort to describe specific risks the company faced.  Such arguments based only on the letter of the Safe Harbor ring of “caveat emptor,” which the law has been trying to shake for centuries.

Flaws in Arguments against Scienter

Scienter allegations are of two types:  allegations pleading facts about what the defendant knew, to attempt to plead that he or she knew the challenged statements were false; and, far more prevalent, allegations that the defendant “must have” meant to lie, based on circumstantial considerations such as a defendants’ stock sales, corporate transactions, the temporal proximity of the challenged statement to the disclosure of the “truth,” and the relationship of the subject of the challenged statements to the company’s “core operations.”  As with falsity, the primary flaw in most defense arguments against scienter is with their failure to engage in a fact-specific analysis of the complaint’s allegations about what the defendants knew in regard to each specific challenged statement. All too often, defendants allow themselves to be drawn to the plaintiffs’ preferred ground of battle, focusing just on arguing about the sufficiency of the circumstantial evidence that plaintiffs use to create the impression that the defendants must have done something wrong.

Circumstantial scienter allegations are only ways to try to make an educated guess about what the speaker knew or intended.  But the Reform Act’s scienter standard requires particularized pleading yielding a “strong inference” that the defendant lied on purpose – a very high standard.  So it makes no sense for defense counsel not to approach the issue directly, by making it clear that the speaker did not lie, and holding plaintiffs to the strict standard of showing specific scienter as to each challenged statement.

For this reason, all effective motions to dismiss start by testing the complaint’s allegations that the defendants actually knew, or were intentionally reckless about not knowing, the facts establishing falsity.  This means that, for each statement and each defendant, the motion to dismiss needs to isolate the statement and the reasons that the complaint alleges it was false, and analyze what the complaint alleges each defendant knew about those facts at the time he or she made each challenged statement. Without this focus on each specific challenged statement, the scienter inquiry is vague, and becomes more about whether the defendant seems bad, or had generally bad motives, than whether he lied on purpose.  A good motion to dismiss does not let plaintiffs get away with these kinds of generalized allegations.

The problem is made worse if defense counsel approaches falsity categorically, without careful scrutiny of the reasons the complaint alleges the challenged statements were false.  Without this focus, defense counsel can’t meaningfully answer the central question in the Reform Act analysis – “scienter as to what?” – because there isn’t a sufficient nexus between the challenged statements and contemporaneous facts that made the statements false.  The scienter inquiry thus becomes unmoored from knowledge that specific statements were false.  The result is a lower burden for plaintiffs:  if they are able to plead falsity, and the defendants seemed to know something about the general subject matter, scienter is almost a foregone conclusion.

This problem is even worse under the “core operations” inference of scienter, and the “corporate scienter” doctrine.  Each of these theories allows a plaintiff to avoid pleading specific facts establishing the speaker’s scienter.  For example, the core operations inference posits that scienter can be inferred where it would be “absurd to suggest” that a senior executive doesn’t know facts about the company’s “core operations.”  Many motions to dismiss set up some formulation of this statement as a legal rule and make a simplistic syllogistic argument from it.  Such arguments devolve into “did not, did so” debates, and thus play into plaintiffs’ hands because they are detached from knowledge of falsity.

Instead, the right approach to the core operations inference is to understand that it requires a falsity so blatant that we can strongly infer that the executive had knowledge of the exact facts that made the statement false – not just the subject matter of the facts.  The most effective defense against the core operations inference thus focuses on falsity first, to show that even if a statement is false, it is at least a close call – making it hard for plaintiffs to contend that defendants must have known of this falsity.  This can’t be done effectively, of course, if the argument against falsity is categorical (i.e., embraces arguments such as “puffery,” rather than discussing the specific statements), or otherwise fails to address the falsity allegations in detail.  Of course, it is impossible to make this argument effectively if the scienter section precedes the falsity section of the brief.

***

We plan to address in greater depth some of the technical Reform Act issues in later posts, in hopes that we can improve the craftsmanship of motions to dismiss.  These are important issues to discuss as a defense bar, because each motion to dismiss that fails to maximize the Reform Act’s protections runs the risk of weakening the law for the rest of us.

 

 

In defending a securities class action, a motion to dismiss is almost automatic, and in virtually all cases, it makes good strategic sense.  In most cases, there are only four main arguments:

  • The complaint hasn’t pleaded a false or misleading statement
  • The challenged statements are protected by the Safe Harbor for forward-looking statements
  • The challenged statements weren’t made with scienter, even if the complaint has adequately pleaded their falsity
  • The complaint hasn’t adequately pleaded loss causation

For me, the core argument of virtually every brief is falsity – I think that standing up for a client’s statements provides the foundation for all of the other arguments.  For most clients, it is important to stand up and say “I didn’t lie.”   And an emphasis on challenging the falsity allegations encompasses clients’ most fundamental responses to the lawsuit:  they reported accurate facts; made forecasts that reflected their best judgment at the time; gave opinions about their business that they genuinely believed; issued financial statements that were the result of a robust financial-reporting process; etc.

The Reform Act, and the cases which have interpreted it, provide securities defense lawyers with broad latitude to attack falsity.  In my mind, a proper falsity analysis always starts by examining each challenged statement individually, and matching it up with the facts that plaintiffs allege illustrate its falsity.   Then, we can usually support the truth of what our clients said in numerous ways that are still within the proper scope of the motion to dismiss standard:  showing that the facts alleged do not actually undermine the challenged statements, because of mismatch of timing or substance; pointing out gaps, inconsistencies, and contradictions in plaintiffs’ allegations; showing that the facts that plaintiffs assert are insufficiently detailed under the Reform Act; attacking allegations that plaintiffs claim to be facts, but which are really opinions, speculation, and unsupported conclusions; putting defendants’ allegedly false or misleading statements in their full context to show that they were not misleading; and pointing to judicially noticeable facts that contradict plaintiffs’ theory.  These arguments must be supplemented by a robust understanding of the relevant factual background, which defines and frames the direction of any argument we ultimately make based on the complaint and judicially noticeable facts.

Yet many motions to dismiss do not make a forceful argument against falsity, supported with a specific challenge to the facts alleged by the plaintiffs.  Some motions superficially assert that the allegations are too vague to satisfy the pleading standard, and do not engage in a detailed defense of the statements with the available facts.  Others simply attack the credibility of the “confidential witnesses,” without addressing in sufficient detail the content of the information the complaint attributes to them.  And others fall back on the doctrine of “puffery,” which posits that even if false, the challenged statements were immaterial.*  By focusing on these and similar approaches, a brief may leave the judge  with the impression that defendants concede falsity, and that the real defense is that the false statements were not made with scienter.

That’s risky.

It’s risky for several reasons.  First, detailed, substantive arguments against falsity are some of the strongest arguments that defendants can make.  Second, those arguments provide the foundation for the rest of the motion.  The exclusion of a strong falsity argument weakens the argument against scienter, and fails to paint the best possible no-fraud picture for the judge – which is ultimately what helps a judge to be comfortable in granting a motion to dismiss.

Failing to emphasize the falsity argument weakens the scienter argument.

The element of scienter requires a plaintiff to demonstrate that the defendant said something knowingly or recklessly false – in order to do this, plaintiffs must tie their scienter allegations to each particular challenged statement.  It is not enough to generally allege, as plaintiffs often do, that defendants had a general “motive to lie.”  When I analyze scienter allegations, I ask myself, “scienter as to what?”  Asking this question often unlocks strong arguments against scienter, because complaints often make scienter allegations that are largely detached from their allegations of falsity.  Often, this is the case because the falsity allegations are insufficient to begin with.  But many motions to dismiss are unable to point out this lack of connection, because they don’t focus on falsity in a rigorous and thorough way.

Focusing on falsity also is necessary because of how courts analyze falsity and scienter.  Although falsity and scienter are separate elements – and should be analyzed separately – courts often analyze them together.   See, e.g., Ronconi v. Larkin, 253 F.3d 423, 429 (9th Cir. 2001) (“Because falsity and scienter in private securities fraud cases are generally strongly inferred from the same set of facts, we have incorporated the dual pleading requirements of 15 U.S.C. §§ 78u-4(b)(1) and (b)(2) into a single inquiry.”).  Arguing a lack of falsity thus provides essential ingredients for this combined analysis.  Even when courts analyze falsity and scienter separately,  a proper scienter analysis requires a foundational falsity analysis, because as noted above, scienter analysis asks whether the defendant knew that a particular statement was false.  Without an understanding of exactly why that challenged statement was false, and what facts allegedly demonstrate that falsity, the scienter analysis meanders, devolving into an analysis of knowledge of facts that may or may not be probative of the speaker’s state of mind related to that statement.

The tendency to lump scienter and falsity together is exemplified by the scienter doctrines that I call “scienter short-cuts:” (1) the corporate scienter doctrine (see, e.g., Teamsters Local 445 Freight Division Pension Fund v. Dynex Capital, Inc., 531 F.3d 190, 195-96 (2d Cir. 2008) and Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd. v. Tellabs Inc., 513 F.3d 702 (7th Cir. 2008)), and (2) the core operations inference of scienter (see, e.g., Glazer Capital Management LP v. Magistri, 549 F.3d 736 (9th Cir. 2008)).  Under these doctrines, courts draw inferences about what the defendants knew based upon the prominence of the falsity allegations.  The more blatant the falsity, the more likely courts are to infer scienter.  A superficial falsity argument weakens defendants’ ability to attack these scienter short-cuts, which plaintiffs are asserting more and more routinely.

Failing to emphasize the falsity argument fails to paint the best possible no-fraud picture for the judge.

I contend that it is a good strategy for a defendant to thoroughly argue lack of falsity, even if there are better alternative grounds for dismissal, and even if the challenge to falsity is unlikely to be successful as an independent grounds for dismissal.  This is for the simple reason that judges are humans – they will feel better about dismissing a case based on other grounds if you can make them feel comfortable that there was not a false statement to begin with.  For example, courts are often reluctant to dismiss a complaint solely on Safe Harbor grounds because it is seen as a “license to lie,” so it is strategically wise also to argue that forward-looking statements were not false in the first place.  Similarly, even if lack of scienter is the best basis for dismissal, it is good strategy to defend on the basis that no one said anything wrong, rather than appearing to concede falsity and being left to contend, “but they didn’t mean to.”

Judges have enough latitude under the pleading standards to dismiss or not, in most cases.  The pivotal “fact” is, in my opinion, whether the judge feels the case is really a fraud case, or not.  A motion to dismiss that vigorously defends the truth of what the defendants said is more likely to make the judge feel that there really is no fraud there.  Conversely, if defendants make an argument that essentially concedes falsity and relies solely on the argument that the falsity was immaterial, wasn’t intentional, or is not subject to challenge under the Safe Harbor, a judge may stretch to find a way to allow the case to continue.  Put simply, a judge is more likely to dismiss a case in which a defendant says “I didn’t lie,” than when defendants argue that “I may have lied, but I didn’t mean to,” or “I may have lied, but it doesn’t matter,” or “I may have lied, but the law protects me anyway.”  Even when a complaint might ultimately be dismissed on other grounds, I think that a strong challenge to falsity is essential to help the judge feel that he or she has reached a just result.

*Many statements that defense counsel argue are “puffery” are really statements of opinion that could and should be analyzed under the standard that originated in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Virginia Bankshares decision:  in order to adequately allege that a statement of opinion is false or misleading, a plaintiff must plead with particularity not only that the opinion was “objectively” false or misleading, but also that it was “subjectively” false or misleading, meaning that the opinion was not sincerely held by the speaker.  My partner Claire Davis recently posted a discussion of statements of opinion.