What would happen to shareholder litigation if the class action disappeared? In my article, Shareholder Litigation Without Class Actions, forthcoming in the Arizona Law Review as part of its symposium on Business Litigation and Regulatory Agency Review in the Era of the Roberts Court, I sketch out some possible futures of post-class action shareholder litigation. For now, such litigation persists despite recent existential challenges, most notably the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year in Erica P. John Fund v. Halliburton. While these actions may continue in their current form, sustained criticism from sectors of the academy, and from business lobbies, suggest that existential threats to these suits will continue. Such threats have already re-emerged in the form of mandatory arbitration provisions and “loser pays” (more accurately, “plaintiff pays”) fee-shifting provisions in corporate bylaws or certificates of incorporation. While it is possible that such provisions will not spread widely—perhaps because of organized shareholder opposition—the rapid adoption of fee-shifting provisions suggests the possibility that mandatory arbitration or “plaintiff pays” or both could become ubiquitous. If so, either type of provision could eliminate the shareholder class action, or at least drastically reduce its prevalence. As I describe in greater detail in the article, mandatory arbitration provisions requiring bilateral arbitration of claims and barring consolidation of such claims would eliminate the class action in either litigation or arbitration form. (Importantly, even if Delaware were to try to curb arbitration provisions, such action could be preempted by federal law under the Supreme Court’s recent Federal Arbitration Act decisions). Similarly, fee-shifting provisions would greatly increase the risk to plaintiffs generally, and to entrepreneurial plaintiffs’ lawyers in particular, who bear the risks and costs of this litigation, potentially threatening the existence of the plaintiffs’ bar itself and restricting class actions to only a small handful of the most egregious cases. I discuss arbitration and fee shifting provisions in the article, and in the summary below, but I do not confine my analysis to these provisions. Rather, my focus is to assess what would happen to shareholder litigation if the class action disappeared, regardless of the particular mechanism of its demise.
Posts Tagged ‘Class actions’
Motions to dismiss have been called “the main event” in securities class actions. They are filed in over 90% of securities class actions and they result in dismissal close to 50% of the time they are filed. In contrast, out of 4,226 class actions filed between 1995 and 2013, only 14 were resolved through a trial, and of those, only five resulted in verdicts for the defendant. In between a denial of a motion to dismiss and a trial are i) discovery, ii) opposition to class certification, iii) motion for summary judgment, iv) mediation, and v) settlement. Unfortunately for defendants in securities class actions, class certification is granted in whole or in part 84% of the time, and there is no summary judgment decision at all over 90% of the time. Thus, for most defendants in securities class actions, a denial of a motion to dismiss usually results in writing a settlement check, often after years of costly discovery. Defendants that fail to give adequate attention to motions to dismiss are shortchanging the very best opportunity they have to avoid what may otherwise become multi-year, expensive litigation.
Number and Size of Filings
- Plaintiffs filed 78 new federal class action securities cases (filings) in the first six months of 2014—13 fewer than in the second half of 2013, but slightly higher than the 75 filings in the first half of 2013. This number was 18 percent below the historical semiannual average of 95 filings observed between 1997 and 2013.
- The total Disclosure Dollar Loss (DDL) of filings remained at low levels. Total DDL was $30 billion in the first half of 2014, 52 percent below the historical semiannual average of $62 billion.
It almost goes without saying that the first half of 2014 brought with it the most significant development in securities litigation in decades: the U.S. Supreme Court decided Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc.—Halliburton II. In Halliburton II, the Court declined to revisit its earlier decision in Basic v. Levinson, Inc.; plaintiffs may therefore continue to avail themselves of the legal presumption of reliance, a presumption necessary for many class action plaintiffs to achieve class certification. But the Court also reiterated what it said 20 years ago in Basic: the presumption of reliance is rebuttable. And the Court clarified that defendants may now rebut the presumption at the class certification stage with evidence that the alleged misrepresentation did not affect the security’s price, making “price impact” evidence essential to class certification.
In Hamilton Partners, L.P. v. Highland Capital Management, L.P., C.A. No. 6547-VCN, 2014 WL 1813340 (Del. Ch. May 7, 2014), the Court of Chancery, by Vice Chancellor Noble, in connection with a challenge to a going-private transaction whereby American HomePatient, Inc. (“AHP”) was acquired by an affiliate of one of its stockholders, Highland Capital Management, L.P. (“Highland”), refused to dismiss breach of fiduciary duty claims against Highland. The Court held that, for purposes of defendants’ motion to dismiss, plaintiff alleged facts sufficient to support an inference that Highland, which owned 48% of AHP’s stock and 82% of AHP’s debt, was the controlling stockholder of AHP and that the merger was not entirely fair.
In this year’s Foreword, Dougherty differentiates the need for directors to focus on their core mission of informed oversight and vigilance rather than merely reacting to the constant influx of “daily corporate governance commentary,” and explores other front-burner issues, such as the marked increase in SEC enforcement actions and other recent SEC initiatives; the continuing trend of class action suits as de facto settlement instruments; proxy advisory firm priorities for directors; and new guidance from the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) that recommends that audit committee directors discuss internal auditing deficiencies with their auditors.
On June 23, 2014, the United States Supreme Court issued its much-anticipated decision in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc. Halliburton called into question the very foundation of a securities class action—the presumption of class-wide reliance. A unanimous Court answered the question today, and the presumption of reliance lives. The Court’s decision may, however, have given defendants new opportunities to rebut the presumption in the earlier stages of a case.
The number of accounting case settlements in 2013 increased for the second year in a row, but remained low compared with the previous 10 years, according to Cornerstone Research’s latest report, Accounting Class Action Filings and Settlements—2013 Review and Analysis. While the number of securities class action filings that included accounting allegations (47) remained relatively constant in 2013 compared with 2012, the market capitalization losses associated with these filings more than doubled.
On February 26, 2014, the Supreme Court decided Chadbourne & Parke LLP v. Troice, 571 U.S. ___ (2014), ruling by a 7-2 vote that the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act of 1998 (“SLUSA”) does not bar state-law securities class actions in which the plaintiffs allege that they purchased uncovered securities that the defendants misrepresented were backed by covered securities. The decision is the first in which the Court has held that a state-law suit pertaining to securities fraud is not precluded by SLUSA, suggesting that there are limits to the broad interpretation of SLUSA’s preclusion provision that the Court has recognized in previous cases. While Chadbourne leaves many questions unanswered concerning the precise contours of SLUSA preclusion, and could encourage plaintiffs to pursue securities-fraud claims under state-law theories, the unusual facts in Chadbourne could limit the reach of the holding and provide defendants with avenues for distinguishing more typical state-law claims in other cases.
On March 5, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., No. 13-317, which presents whether to overrule or significantly limit plaintiffs’ ability to rely on the legal presumption that each would-be class member in a securities fraud class action relied on the statements challenged as fraudulent in the lawsuit. Without this so-called fraud-on-the-market presumption of classwide reliance, putative class action plaintiffs would face substantial barriers in maintaining securities fraud class actions. The Court’s decision in Halliburton, which is expected by June 2014, could lead to a significant change in the conduct of securities class actions. Even if the Court ultimately retains some formulation of the fraud-on-the-market presumption of reliance, the Court could increase defendants’ ability to contest what in practice has evolved into a virtually irrebuttable presumption.