The close of 2014 saw the SEC’s Division of Enforcement take a victory lap. Following the release of the statistics for the fiscal year ended September 30, Division Director Andrew Ceresney touted a few records—the largest number of enforcement actions brought in a single year (755); the largest total value of monetary sanctions awarded to the agency (over $4 billion); the largest number of cases taken to trial in recent history (30). As Ceresney noted, numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. And it is in the details that one sees just how aggressive the Division has become, and how difficult the terrain is for individuals and entities caught in the crosshairs of an SEC investigation under the current administration.
Posts Tagged ‘Securities litigation’
In my forthcoming article in the Journal of Legal Studies, I empirically test a claim made by institutional investors in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Morrison v. National Australia Bank Ltd. In Morrison, the Supreme Court limited investors’ ability to bring private 10b-5 securities fraud actions to cases where the securities at issue were purchased on a United States stock exchange or were otherwise purchased in the U.S. Because many foreign firms’ securities trade simultaneously on non-U.S. venues and on U.S. exchanges, institutional investors claimed after Morrison that, such was the importance of the 10b-5 private right of action, they would look to such firms’ U.S-traded securities to preserve their rights under 10b-5.
A tenet of corporate law is that directors—not shareholders—manage a company’s business and affairs. Recognizing that proposals adopted through the Rule 14a-8 process could allow shareholders to intrude on matters traditionally within the directors’ discretion and control, Rule 14a-8(i)(7) permits the exclusion of shareholder proposals from a company’s proxy statement that relate to a “company’s ordinary business operations.” This ordinary business exception to Rule 14a-8 is an acknowledgement that certain “tasks are so fundamental to management’s ability to run a company on a day-to-day basis that they could not, as a practical matter, be subject to direct shareholder oversight.”
In interpreting Rule 14a-8(i)(7), the staff of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has found that proposals otherwise related to an ordinary business matter may not be permissibly excluded from a company’s proxy statement where they also relate to a significant social policy issue. In this circumstance, the SEC’s staff will not provide its concurrence (in the form of a no-action letter) with a company’s decision to exclude a shareholder proposal on the basis of the ordinary business exception if the staff determines that the issue “transcend[s] the day-to-day business matters and raise[s] policy issues so significant that it would be appropriate for a shareholder vote.” The line between a proposal related to ordinary business and one related to a significant social policy issue is often blurry, and it is the subject of intense debate between companies and shareholder proponents.
A unanimous Delaware Supreme Court yesterday reaffirmed the ability of Delaware companies to organize corporate litigation in the Delaware courts. United Technologies Corp. v. Treppel, No. 127, 2014 (Del. Dec. 23, 2014) (en banc).
The case involved an action to produce corporate books and records under Section 220 of the Delaware General Corporation Law, an increasingly frequent preliminary battleground in derivative litigation. Following a familiar pattern, stockholder plaintiffs demanded access to certain books and records of United Technologies Corporation, allegedly to assist in their consideration of potential derivative litigation. UTC asked that all demanding stockholders agree to restrict use of the materials obtained in the inspection to cases filed only in Delaware, pointing out that litigation had already been filed relating to the same matters in the Delaware courts and that any derivative lawsuit would be governed by Delaware law. Then, further evincing its concern to organize corporate governance litigation in the courts of Delaware, UTC’s board adopted a forum selection bylaw during the pendency of the Section 220 lawsuit.
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.
Earlier today [Wednesday, December 10, 2014], the Second Circuit Court of Appeals issued an important decision overturning the insider trading convictions of two portfolio managers while clarifying what the government must prove to establish so-called “tippee liability.” United States v. Newman, et al., Nos. 13-1837-cr, 13-1917-cr (2d Cir. Dec. 10, 2014). The Court’s decision leaves undisturbed the well-established principles that a corporate insider is criminally liable when the government proves he breached fiduciary duties owed to the company’s shareholders by trading while in possession of material, non-public information, and that such a corporate insider can also be held liable if he discloses confidential corporate information to an outsider in exchange for a “personal benefit.”
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.
“[T]he fact that a federal statute has been violated and some person harmed does not automatically give rise to a private cause of action in favor of that person.”
—Touche Ross & Co. v. Redington, 442 U.S. 560, 568, 99 S.Ct. 2479, 61 L.Ed.2d 82 (1979).
In June 2008, I posted a short piece on this website entitled A Different Perspective on CSX/TCI: Should Courts Reject a Private Right of Action Under Section 13(d)? In that posting, I questioned whether, after Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275 (2001), a private right of action existed to enforce the Williams Act, in that case, section 13(d) of the 1934 Securities and Exchange Act. It drew a grand total of zero comments.
Let’s fast forward to the lawsuit du jour. Allergan and one of its employees who was a shareholder that sold some shares while Bill Ackman was buying and before Valeant announced its intent to acquire Allergan have sued Ackman in the United States District Court for the Central District of California for allegedly violating Rule 14e-3. Judge David O. Carter concluded that Allergan did not have standing to sue Ackman but that that a selling shareholder did have standing and that there were “serious questions” that need to be decided by a jury to determine whether Ackman violated Rule 14e-3. A number of respected commentators have weighed in on the merits of the case and about a potential class action lawsuit to recoup Ackman’s “illegal” profits.
A federal district court today ruled that serious questions existed as to the legality of Pershing Square’s ploy to finance Valeant’s hostile bid for Allergan. Allergan v. Valeant Pharmaceuticals Int’l, Inc., Case No. SACV-1214 DOC (C.D. Cal. November 4, 2014).
As we wrote about in April, Pershing Square and Valeant hatched a plan early this year attempting to exploit loopholes in the federal securities laws to enable Pershing Square to trade on inside information of Valeant’s secret takeover plan, creating a billion dollar profit at the expense of former Allergan stockholders that could then be used to fund the hostile bid. Since then, Pershing Square and Valeant have trumpeted their maneuver as a new template for activist-driven hostile dealmaking.
Leo Strine, Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court, and the Austin Wakeman Scott Lecturer on Law and a Senior Fellow of the Harvard Law School Program on Corporate Governance, gave a lecture to a the Delaware Business Law Forum that will be published in The Business Lawyer in May, next year. The essay, titled Documenting The Deal: How Quality Control And Candor Can Improve Boardroom Decision-making And Reduce The Litigation Target Zone, is available here.