In our paper, SEC Investigations and Securities Class Actions: An Empirical Comparison, we compare investigations by the SEC with securities fraud class action filings involving public companies. Critics of securities class actions commonly contrast those suits with enforcement actions brought by the SEC. According to those critics, the SEC is superior to plaintiffs’ lawyers both in targeting defendants and securing sanctions against them. With respect to targeting, critics of securities class actions claim that the settlement dynamics of class actions encourage plaintiffs’ lawyers to bring a high proportion of non-meritorious suits. If companies must pay substantial costs when they are unjustifiably targeted, the deterrent value of class actions is diluted. With regard to sanctions, class action settlements are almost always paid by the company and its directors’ & officers (D&O) insurance; the corporate officers responsible for the fraud rarely contribute. By contrast, SEC enforcement actions commonly lead to payments from the responsible officers; the SEC also has the authority to bar individuals from serving as directors and officers of public companies, a career death sentence for the individual subjected to a bar. Critics of class actions argue that the combination of more precise targeting of suits and more individual sanctions yields a stronger deterrent punch for SEC enforcement relative to class actions.
Editor’s Note: The following post comes to us from Stephen J. Choi, Murray and Kathleen Bring Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, and Adam C. Pritchard, Professor of Law at University of Michigan.