Has the "due diligence" standard articulated in the WorldCom securities litigation produced an increase in the Section 11 litigation? That is the question addressed in David J. Michaels’s November 29, 2008 paper entitled "An Empirical Study of Securities Litigation After World Com" (here).
In this post, I review the analysis based upon which Michaels contends that, due to the WorldCom due diligence decision, Section 11 filings have increased as a percentage of all securities lawsuits, followed by my own discussion of the data on which Michaels relies.
The Author’s Analysis
Outside directors historically have had little Section 11 liability exposure, owing to their ability to rely on Section 11’s due diligence defense. Michaels notes that courts generally have found outside directors’ due diligence obligations to be minimal. However, Michaels contends, the Southern District of New York’s Section 11 due diligence decision in In re WorldCom Securities Litigation, 2005 WL 638268 (S.D.N.Y. 2005) (refer here) "significantly changed the landscape for outside directors" by holding them to a "stringent standard of liability."
A more detailed review of the impact of the WorldCom litigation on the due diligence defense can be found here.
Michaels hypothesized that because the WorldCom decision represents a change in the due diligence standard, making it easier for plaintiffs to pursue Section 11 claims (particularly against outside directors), securities cases under Section 11 would increase. In order to test this hypothesis, Michaels examined the ratio of securities filings asserting Section 11 claims to Section 10b-5 filings during the period 2002 through 2007, using data from the Stanford Law School Class Action Clearinghouse website. Because the court issued the WorldCom opinion in March 2005, the period selected included both years preceding and following the decision.
Michaels reported the following ratios of Section 11 filings to Section 10b-5 filings for the years 2002 through 2007:
Michaels concludes that these data suggest an "abnormal rise in Section 11 filings." Michaels concedes that "it is difficult [to] prove a causal relationship between WorldCom and the rise in Section 11 filings," he nevertheless asserts that it "is reasonable to attribute causation of the rise in Section 11 filings to WorldCom." In support of this conclusion, Michaels states:
Consider the following series of events. Prior to WorldCom, Section 11 filings were relatively constant; WorldCom comes along and greatly alters 35 years of precedent by making it easier for plaintiffs to survive a motion for summary judgment; Section 11 filings increase.
Michaels ends his paper by arguing that the upward trend in Section 11 cases will continue, but also that WorldCom’s holding applying a stringent standard to outside directors’ "due diligence" defenses is contrary to the ’33 Act’s purposes. He proposes a safe harbor for outside directors that "would exclude from liability outside directors who follow certain procedures designed to inform them of all material information surrounding a given offering."
Michaels may be correct that the WorldCom decision will result in an increase in Section 11 filings. Reasonable minds may differ on whether the data support his conclusion that there already has been a demonstrable increase in Section 11 filings. Those same reasonable minds might hesitate before jumping to any conclusions about the causes of any increase that arguably may have taken place. A more conservative view is that it is at best premature to reach any conclusions in that regard.
First, the data on which Michaels relies represents only a brief time period. Since the WorldCom opinion was issued in 2005, that data from calendar year 2005 represent only a partial year. Michaels’s analysis places an enormous weight on data from just two years, 2006 and 2007. Michaels does not explain why he believes a data set that small is sufficient to support his conclusions.
Second, Michaels does not consider whether or not there were external factors that may have affected securities filings during the period after the WorldCom decision. In fact, it has been well documented (refer, for example, here) that there was a filing "lull" during the period from mid-2005 through mid-2007, in which there were an historically low number of securities filings overall. Michaels does not even mention this fact, nor does he consider whether the filing levels during that period may suggest that other factors may have been at work during this period.
Third, although Michaels is convinced that there was an "abnormal rise" in the Section 11 filings after WorldCom, the only thing I can conclude from looking at the data is that something was going on during 2007, as the 2005 and 2006 data are consistent with the prior years’ data. Michaels is essentially arguing the filing activity in a single year supports his hypothesis. Again, Michaels does not consider whether or not there may have been some anomalous factor behind the 2007 data.
My own prior review of the 2007 filing data (refer here) concluded that a significant number of the overall 2007 filings involved companies that conducted IPOs during the 12 months prior to getting sued. Many of these IPO cases involved foreign domiciled companies. Perhaps it may be concluded that the 2007 uptick in Section 11 litigation was due to a wave of IPOs involving foreign companies that were not ready to go public. At a minimum, there are certainly other plausible explanations for the 2007 uptick in Section 11 litigation other than the WorldCom decision alone.
Not only does Michaels fail to consider other possible explanations for the anomalies in the data, but the basis on which he nevertheless argues that WorldCom decision alone explains the supposed increase is also suspect.
In effect, he urges us to conclude that because the supposed increase in Section 11 filings came after the WorldCom decision, the decision must have been the cause of the supposed increase. This analysis arguably represents an example of the logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this). Essentially, Michaels is trying to substitute chronological sequence for causation. However, the mere order of events does not rule out other factors that might explain the data, as the preceding paragraph shows.
From my perspective, given the anomalousness of the 2007 data, it is premature to reach any conclusions without the opportunity to consider subsequent years’ data, to see, for example, whether the 2007 uptick represented a trend or (as I strongly suspect) is merely a statistical outlier. I can say from my own informal review of the 2008 year to date filing data, a much smaller percentage of 2008 cases involve IPOs (14 out of 195 year to date in 2008, compared to 29 out of 172 in 2007), which suggests that the number of Section 11 filings will prove to have been down substantially in 2008 compared to 2007.
The decline in 2008 IPO-related lawsuits is hardly surprising given the downturn in the number of IPOs in recent months. Given the low level of IPO activity during 2008, and indeed the low level of securities offerings of any kind, it seems probable that Section 11 litigation could well taper off in the months ahead. All of which suggests to me the inadvisability of trying to make a few months of filing data support sweeping conclusions.
It may well be, as Michaels argues, that WorldCom’s articulation of the Section 11 due diligence standard arguably is inconsistent with the ’33 Act’s goals, particularly to the extent it may result in the imposition of greater Section 11 liability on outside directors. I simply disagree with Michaels’s conclusion that WorldCom decision has demonstrably caused an increase in Section 11 filings. Michaels’s hypothesis may or may not eventually prove to be correct, but it will be a significantly longer period of time than he has allowed before we can reach any conclusions.
Special thanks to Werner Kranenburg of the With Vigour and Zeal blog for the link to Michaels’s article.