The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform released a study and related article this week on securities class action litigation. The lead author on both papers is Anjan V. Thakor, a professor at the Olin School of Business at Washington University in Saint Louis.
(1) "The Economic Reality of Securites Class Action Litigation," a study done in conjunction with Navigant Consulting, finds that large institutional investors generally break even from their investments in stocks impacted by fraud allegations because the losses resulting from ill-timed purchases of inflated shares of one company are, over time, largely offset by financial gains generated from well-timed sales of inflated shares of a different company. As a result, institutional investors are often overcompensated as the result of securities fraud litigation. Less diversified investors (i.e., individual investors) are at greater risk of losing money as the result of securities fraud because they lack the natural "hedge" of institutional investors.
(2) "The Unintended Consequences of Securities Litigation" examines the financial impact of securities litigation on defendant companies and their stock holders. The article finds that the mere filing of a securities class action lawsuit on average results in a 3.5% drop in the defendant company's equity value. Moreover, the economic losses to a defendant company caused by securities fraud litigation are likely to far exceed the gains to the plaintiffs (especially for smaller companies).
In this interview with the Toronto Globe and Mail, the CEO of Deloitte Touche wonders whether investors are asking too much of company auditors.
Quote of note: "He said investors expect a level of detail that audits are not designed for, and expect a certification to assure the company's financial health when it simply is meant to attest to the accuracy of the financial statements, based on information provided by the company. Auditors are now being held responsible for failing to detect outright fraud perpetrated by several company insiders who go to great lengths to hide their illicit activity, he said."
The author of The 10b-5 Daily has an op-ed in The National Law Journal this week on the overlap between the SEC's Fair Funds program and private securities litigation.
As posted on The 10b-5 Daily last July, the D. of Conn. held in the Crompton securities class action that discovery should be stayed in a parallel state court derivative action pursuant to SLUSA. To obtain this stay, the defendants only needed to show "a likelihood that the federal Plaintiffs will obtain state Plaintiff's discovery."
In an interesting follow-up decision - In re Crompton Corp. Sec. Litig., 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23002 (D.Conn. Aug. 16, 2005) - the court also ordered the return of the discovery that had already been produced. Although the derivative plaintiff argued that it was beyond the federal court's authority to force the return of the 2.5 million pages of electronic discovery in question, the court found that Congress had intended courts to apply the SLUSA stay provision "liberally."
Quote of note: "In granting Defendants' motion to stay discovery in [the derivative case], this Court sought to prevent the erosion of its jurisdiction during the pendency of the motion to dismiss in the federal securities class action suit. By refusing to return discovery produced to date, Plaintiff violates the letter and the spirit of the PSLRA and SLUSA, and thereby circumvents this Court's determination to preserve its jurisdiction."
Last week, the Houston Chronicle had a feature article discussing the status of the Enron securities litigation.
Quote of note: "Assuming all the existing settlements get court approval, there already is more than $7.8 billion — that's billion with a b — gaining interest in the name of disappointed Enron shareholders and ex-employees. Lawyers inside the class-action cases, where most of the cash is accumulating, think it's possible that in a year or two there will be $10 billion or more ready to be doled out."
"Whether, as the Seventh Circuit held earlier this month and in direct conflict with the decision below, SLUSA preempts state law class action claims based upon allegedly fraudulent statements or omissions brought solely on behalf of persons who were induced thereby to hold or retain (and not purchase or sell) securities?"
For more on the decision below, see this post.
In a special Sarbanes-Oxley section, today's Wall Street Journal has an article (subscrip. req'd) on the recent trend of requiring corporate governance reforms as part of the settlement of shareholder litigation. Although the article is generally positive about this trend, it has been the subject of some debate.
Quote of note: "There can be immediate advantages, too, such as helping to avoid a protracted fight inside a courtroom, and, more important, possibly reducing payouts. . . . [I]n a handful of cases tracked by NERA since Sarbanes-Oxley was enacted in 2002, evidence suggests that the plaintiffs in a majority of those cases agreed to reduced cash payouts in return for governance reforms. Of the eight settlement agreements tracked that included cash and governance reforms, five included financial payments that were at least 40% lower than NERA's model had predicted, and only two turned out to be higher."
The PSLRA states that securities class action plaintiffs, within 20 days of filing a complaint, shall publish a notice advising the proposed class of the suit. After the publication of this notice, it is not uncommon for other plaintiffs' firms (who have not filed complaints) to publish similar notices in the hopes of attracting a client who can be put forward as a lead plaintiff candidate. Not surprisingly, as discussed in this post on Securities Litigation Watch, the initial plaintiffs' firms do not care for this practice. (Click here for more on the battle of the press releases from last June.)
The Associated Press reports that the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to grant cert in the Lentell v. Merrill Lynch case. In Lentell, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of two research analyst cases based on the plaintiffs' failure to adequately plead loss causation. The 10b-5 Daily's summary of the Second Circuit decision can be found here.
In a typical securities class action, the dismissal of the claims against the individual defendants leads to the dismissal of the claims against the company. In the absence of an underlying Rule 10b-5 violation, there also can be no control person liability. But consider this scenario: the suit is stayed against the controlled entity because it is in bankruptcy. Can the control person claims continue against the individual defendants even if the Rule 10b-5 claims against them have been dismissed? The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit says yes, but how the district court is supposed to implement the decision is unclear.
In In re Stone & Webster, Inc. Sec. Litig., 414 F.3d 187 (1st Cir. 2005), the court affirmed the dismissal of the Rule 10b-5 claims against the CEO and CFO of Stone & Webster (the only individual defendants in the case) based on the failure to adequately plead scienter (i.e., fraudulent intent). The Section 20(a) claims for control person liability against the CEO and CFO, however, were allowed to continue. The CEO and CFO petitioned for rehearing on this issue, arguing that the dismissal of the underlying Rule 10b-5 claims necessitated the dismissal of the Section 20(a) claims.
In a separate opinion, the court denied the petition. See In re Stone & Webster, Inc. Sec. Litig., 2005 WL 2216319 (Sept. 13, 2005). The claims against the company had not been dismissed. Instead, they had been stayed when the company filed for bankruptcy protection. The court held that the dismissal of the Rule 10b-5 claims against the CEO and CFO "is in no way incompatible with the establishment of their secondary liability under Sec. 20(a) as controlling persons of Stone & Webster, predicated on Stone & Webster having violated Rule 10b-5."
On remand, however, the district court appears to be presented with a difficult puzzle. Whether a defendant corporation has acted with scienter is normally determined by looking "to the state of mind of the individual corporate official or officials who make or issue the statement . . . rather than generally to the collective knowledge of all the corporation's officers and employees acquired in the course of their employment." Southland Sec. Corp. v. INSpire Ins. Solutions, Inc., 365 F.3d 353 (5th Cir. 2004). The CEO and CFO were the only individual defendants in the case. If the case is not going to proceed against them, how can the corporation be found to have acted with scienter? The opinion refers to the possibility that "the acts of other agents might also serve as predicates for the Sec. 20(a) liability," but this seems like merely a theoretical assertion if all of the individual defendants have been dismissed. Stay tuned.
France has been considering the implementation of a class action system. Those plans are coming under criticism, however, as at least one French attorney (who recently filed a suit against Vivendi on behalf of shareholders) looks to the Internet to recruit clients. The Associated Press has an article.
Section 304 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 provides that a company's CEO and CFO must disgorge certain bonuses, equity-based compensation, and trading profits if the company is required "to prepare an accounting restatement due to the material noncompliance of the issuer, as a result of misconduct, with any financial reporting requirement under the securities laws." Although Congress did not create an express private right of action in the statute, recent securities class actions and derivative suits often include a tag-along Section 304 claim.
The Legal Intelligencer reports (via law.com - free regist. req'd) that a federal judge finally has had the opportunity to address whether private litigants, as opposed to the SEC, can bring a Section 304 claim. In a derivative suit brought against Stonepath Group in the E.D. of Pa., Judge Dalzell has ruled that Congress did not intend to create an implied private right of action. The court found that another Sarbanes-Oxley provision expressly creates a private right of action, leading to the conclusion that Section 304's silence should be interpreted as restricting enforcement of the statute to the SEC. The case is Neer v. Pelino - a Westlaw cite will be added to this post when available.
Addition: Neer v. Pelino, 389 F.Supp.2d 648 (E.D.Pa. 2005).