Questions surrounding the susceptibility of foreign domiciled companies to U.S. securities laws and to the jurisdiction of U.S. court are frequently recurring issues, as I noted most recently here. However, a new case filed in Ontario under Ontario’s securities laws presents an interesting variation on these questions.
The Ontario Action Against AIG
According to its November 13, 2008 press release (here), the Siskinds law firm has filed a class action application and accompanying statement of claim in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice under the Ontario Securities Act against American International Group, American International Group Financial Products, and ten current or former AIG directors and officers. According to the press release, the claim is brought on behalf of Canadian investors who bought AIG securities between November 10, 2006 and September 16, 2008.
A copy of the application and statement of claim can be found here. According to the press release, the statement of claim alleges as follows:
The AIG class action arises out of AIGFP’s credit default swaps and the crippling decline in AIG’s stock price when the true effect of those credit default swaps became known to the investing public. The AIG disclosures out of which the class action arises are currently the subject of investigation by law enforcement authorities, and are alleged in the class action to have caused massive losses to Canadian investors.
The Ontario Securities Act
The action is brought under the investor protection provisions in Part XXIII.1 of the Ontario Securities Act. (Refer here for the provision of the Act.) The statutory provision specifies the liability standards in connection with "secondary market disclosure."
Section 138.3 of the statute provides a cause of action for damages on behalf of persons who trade in a company’s security — "without regard to whether the person or company relied on the misrepresentation" — where "a responsible issuer or a person or company with actual, implied or apparent authority to act on behalf of a responsible issuer releases a document that contains a misrepresentation."
The persons against whom the action may be brought are specified to include, among others, the issuer, "responsible" directors and officers, as well as persons who "knowingly influenced" the issuer or responsible persons.
The plaintiff’s statement of claim takes great pains to emphasize that the action has "a real and substantial connection with Ontario." Indeed, in paragraph 155, the statement of claim alleges that the financial disclosures that are the basis of the action were "disseminated in Ontario"; that "a substantial proportion of the Class Members reside in Ontario"; that AIG "carries on business in Ontario"; that AIG considers its Canadian revenue as "domestic" for accounting purposes"; that "key AIG personnel charged with oversight of the above conduct were domiciled in Ontario and undertook part of that effort from Ontario."
The pains taken in the statement of claim to specify the claim’s connection to Ontario suggests an anticipation of a question whether the case properly belongs in Ontario courts. AIG is, after all, domiciled outside of Canada, and its shares do not trade on Canadian securities exchanges (or at least the plaintiff does not so allege). The alleged misstatements were prepared and issued outside of Canada.
On the other hand, the statement of claim does allege misconduct, harm and damages within Ontario. Without presuming the outcome, allegations of this type are of the kind that at least some U.S. courts have found a sufficient basis for the exercise of jurisdiction and the application of U.S. securities laws on companies domiciled outside the U.S.
Setting aside these subject matter jurisdiction issues, and disregarding potential personal jurisdiction issues, there are some larger questions about this case. AIG faces extensive litigation in the U.S. on similar or related issues. Should any particular jurisdiction’s court have priority? Should courts defer to another jurisdiction’s courts?
These kinds of questions have come up before, for example, in connection with the Royal Dutch Shell cases, where there were also parallel proceedings in different countries (refer here). The way that these proceedings should coordinate is very much an evolving issue. But the noteworthy difference between that prior example and this instance is that here the target company is a U.S.-based company. It will be interesting to see whether that distinction makes a difference and how the respective cases unfold.
I also have these vague, unformed questions whether or not it makes a difference that AIG is now effectively owned by U.S. taxpayers. The taxpayers’ highest priority right now is getting repaid for the astonishing obligations to the U.S. treasury that AIG has recently undertaken. I haven’t worked it all out yet, but there does seem to be something inconsistent with the U.S. taxpayers’ interest in having the company’s limited resources siphoned off to defend and possibly to pay damages in a foreign jurisdiction. Canadian investors probably don’t care much about that, I suppose.
Of course, it might be argued that U.S. courts have been doing similar things to other countries’ companies (including Canadian companies) for some time now. Indeed, the plaintiff’s lawyers’ press release quotes one of the plaintiff’s attorneys as saying:
for many years, Canadian corporations have had to confront the long arm of America’s justice system. But with the enactment of Part XXIII.1 of the Ontario Securities Act, Canadian investors can finally pursue remedies in our own Courts against American corporations that fail to respect Canada’s securities laws. Canadian investors are entitled to have Canadian Courts hear their claims.
The one thing that is clear is that a class action under the Ontario securities laws is a serious matter. As I noted in a prior post (here), a prior class under the Ontario securities laws against FMF Capital recently settled for over CAN$28 million. This settlement apparently represents the largest securities class action settlement in Canada, and while the amount may seem small compared to some of the massive U.S. settlements, the amount did represent a very significant percentage of the investors’ claimed investment loss.
At a minimum, the FMF Capital settlement suggests that a claim under the Ontario securities laws represents a serious potential liability exposure. Along those lines, it should be noted that the press release states that the plaintiff class seeks damages of $550 million. (The press release does not state whether or not those are U.S. or Canadian dollars.)
UPDATE: Dimitri Lascaris of the Siskinds law firm has written a guest column on the Securities Docket blog (here), in which he explains the basis of jurisdiction in Ontario for the AIG lawsuit, as well as the operation and effects of the Ontario securities laws.
Two Final Observations
First, this new lawsuit represents yet another demonstration that the threat of securities litigation outside the United States continues to grow.
Second, this new lawsuit presents an interesting and potential dangerous expansion of this growing threat, which is the possibility that U.S. domiciled companies could find themselves the target of securities litigation in other jurisdiction’s courts under other jurisdiction’s laws.
To the extent it proves to be successful, the Ontario plaintiff’s new lawsuit against AIG could represent a very unwelcome and potentially complicated expansion of the liability exposures of U.S companies and their directors and officers.
Special thanks to Adam Savett of the Securities Litigation Watch blog (here) for providing a copy of the Ontario court application and statement of claim.
Now This: In this time of financial turmoil, it pays to be resourceful. And so, The D&O Diary is giving serious consideration to converting itself into a bank holding company, in order to be able to join other leading American business enterprises and participate in the bailout process.
While there might be those who would contend that we are not "too big to fail," we certainly are feeling the effects of the economic downturn, and recent 401(k) statements suggest that radical measures may be required. Capital infusions would be particularly welcome here.