In a June 17, 2009 opinion (here), the Eleventh Circuit upheld the district court’s entry, in connection with the $445 million partial settlement of the HealthSouth securities action, of a bar order that extinguished Richard Scrushy’s contractual claims both for indemnification of any settlement he may enter in the case as well as for advancement of his legal defense costs. The opinion raises interesting and important issues and arguably includes some troublesome analysis, particularly with respect to the advancement issues.
In 1994, Scrushy and HealthSouth had entered an agreement requiring HealthSouth to indemnify Scrushy to the fullest extent permitted by law. The agreement also entitles Scrushy to receive advancement of attorneys’ fees as they become due, provided he agrees to repay the amount advanced if it is later determined that he is not entitled to be indemnified.
In 2003, HealthSouth, Scrushy and several other HealthSouth officials were sued in a series of securities class action lawsuits that were later consolidated. Refer here for background regarding the case. In 2006, HealthSouth and several of the officials reached a partial settlement agreement in which HealthSouth and its insurers agreed to pay the plaintiffs $445 million. (The insurance carriers paid $230 million of this settlement amount.) Scrushy was not a party to this settlement, and he has still not settled.
The parties’ stipulation of settlement proposed several bar orders for the court’s approval. Among other things, the proposed bar order extinguished any non-settling party’s claim for contribution against settling parties. The contribution bar order is reciprocal (that is, HealthSouth’s contribution claim against Scrushy is also barred), and is also balanced by a judgment credit, under which a future judgment against non-settling party is to be credited by the amount of the settlement.
The district court entered the bar order over Scrushy’s objections that the order extinguished his contractual indemnification and advancement rights. Scrushy appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.
Scrushy raised several arguments against the bar order, contending first that the mandatory contribution bar in the PSLRA was exclusive, and therefore the bar could extend only to his rights to contribution, but not to his separate contractual rights of indemnification and advancement. The Eleventh Circuit held that the PSLRA’s contribution bar was not exclusive, and in fact was enacted against a background of established case law which had approved bar orders precluding indemnification claims.
Scrushy also argued that under case law and the PSLRA if he were to be deprived of valuable rights in a contribution bar order, he is entitled to compensation. The Eleventh Circuit held that the judgment credit represented very valuable compensation, since if Scrushy were to take the case to trial, the plaintiffs "will recover nothing at all from Scrushy and other non-settling defendants unless the verdict exceeds $445 million." The court also noted that Scrushy should be able to use that fact as "a very significant bargaining chip" in settlement negotiations with plaintiffs.
Scrushy argued further that depriving him of his indemnification rights would be contrary to public policy under Delaware law designed "to encourage qualified individuals to serve as corporate officers." The court said that these considerations must be "balanced against countervailing policies in favor of settlement." The court also referenced extensive case law that indemnification of securities violations is inconsistent with policies underlying the securities laws. The court concluded that the bar order’s elimination of Scrushy’s indemnification right was not against public policy.
The court then turned to Scrushy’s argument that the bar order’s elimination of his advancement rights was inappropriate. Scrushy argued that his rights of advancement were independent of any liability he might have to plaintiffs, and therefore it inappropriate in a settlement involving plaintiffs’ liability claims to strip him of his independent contractual rights.
The court conceded that "no circuit court… has addressed this issue" and acknowledged that the injury to Scrushy with respect to his advancement rights is not measured with respect to amounts Scrushy might have to pay to the plaintiffs. However, the court said that "the attorneys’ fees are nonetheless paid on account of liability to the underlying plaintiffs or risk thereof." The court found that the claim for attorneys’ fees "clearly cannot be considered to be independent of his liability to the underlying plaintiffs" because it is "so close in nature of the claims which established case law holds are appropriately barred" that so holding is "a minimal and reasonable extension thereof."
Scrushy raised a separate public policy argument with respect to his advancement rights, arguing that Delaware law "supports advancement of litigation fees for officers and directors to ensure that they will resist unjustified claims, and to encourage qualified individuals to serve."
The court recognized that in the absence of fee advancement "an innocent officer might have difficulty proving his innocence, and thus might have difficulty realizing a prevailing status." But the court said these considerations have to be balanced by policies in favor of settlement. It noted that HealthSouth might well have been reluctant to settle if "it would continue to be liable for endless legal fees to fund Scrushy’s individual defense" as that would constitute "limited peace." The Eleventh Circuit also said (and I want to take care to quote this carefully here) "advancement of legal fees might be inconsistent with the policies underlying the securities laws."
The court rejected Scrushy’s argument that he was not compensated in the bar order for the elimination of his advancement rights; the court said the "overall compensation was adequate" given the judgment credit.
Accordingly the Eleventh Circuit held that the district court to not abuse its discretion in entering the bar order.
At one level, the outcome of this dispute is hardly surprising, as it is particularly difficult to meet the "abuse of discretion" standard applicable to the Eleventh Circuit’s review of the district court’s entry of the bar order.
On the other hand, the Eleventh Circuit’s apparent commitment to upholding the settlement and to rejecting Scrushy’s claims seems to have driven their consideration of these issues, and whether or not the outcome ultimately is appropriate, there are parts of the court’s analysis that I find less than comfortable.
Although I also have issues with respect to the court’s analysis of indemnification issues, my real concerns relate to the court’s holding regarding Scrushy’s advancement rights.
In particular, the court gave very short shrift to Scrushy’s public policy arguments regarding advancement. True, the court did concede that an innocent officer "might" have difficulty proving his innocence if his advancement rights are eliminated, and (the court delicately added) "might have difficulty realizing a prevailing status."
A fair assessment of these points would not be written in the conditional sense – there is no "might" about it. The reality is that company official whose advancement rights are cut off is pretty much screwed unless he or she has individual resources to defend him or herself. (I am setting insurance issues to the side here, in order to concentrate on the advancement issues).
I also think the court strained very hard but not very convincingly to substantiate its conclusion that Scrushy’s advancement rights are not independent of the plaintiffs’ liability claims against him.
My overwhelming impression of this opinion is that the outcome was dictated by the identity of the appellant. The fact that it was the notorious and reviled Richard Scrushy before the court clearly seems to have had an impact, and in particular a presumption of Scrushy’s liability for the violation of which he is accused pervades the Eleventh Circuit’s opinion. For example, the Eleventh Circuit said that "Scrushy made no showing in the district court that he was merely an innocent bystander with respect to the violations at issue here."
The court also noted, approvingly, that "a party in HealthSouth’s shoes might well have been more willing to leave extant the contractual claims for advancement of fees on the part of an outside director who could adduce evidence of excusable ignorance of the violations."
The unmistakable message seems to be that it is OK for the bar order to extinguish Scrushy’s advancement rights because we all know that he is a bad guy. Indeed, the popular consensus is that Scrushy is a bad guy and even that he did all the stuff that plaintiffs allege. But in our system, we generally require these kinds of things to be proven before they can serve as the basis for depriving someone of their contractual rights. Scrushy was in fact acquitted in the criminal trial relating to these allegations, though later convicted on unrelated bribery and racketeering charges. The entry of the bar order did not follow a trial, it followed only a fairness hearing. (Readers who feel I am disregarding some important findings of fact in connection with these proceedings are invited to let me know if I am overlooking something.)
Several days ago I defended Bank of America’s advancement of Angelo Mozilo’s defense fees (see my prior post here), and many of the things I said there seem applicable here. In reflecting on these issues, I find myself wondering about the Eleventh Circuit’s consideration of public policy under Delaware law. I can’t help but find the contrast overwhelming between the outcome of the Eleventh Circuit’s analysis on the advancement issue here, and the ruling of the Delaware Chancery Court in the Sun-Times case (linked in my earlier post about Mozilo) that the company had to continue to advance defense costs even though the former officers had been convicted of crimes, had been sentenced and were in jail.
It seems to me that the right way to think about the advancement issue is to forget that the appellant here was Richard Scrushy and imagine instead that we are talking about some poor anonymous sucker that got cut out of a settlement and now faces a panoply of securities law allegations by himself. Imagine further that unlike Scrushy the poor sucker has no independent resources with which to defend himself. Perhaps the outcome on the question of the appropriateness of a bar order extinguishing advancement rights might be the same for the poor sucker as it was here. But I find the impression overwhelming that the outcome of this case had to do with the fact that it was about Scrushy and not some anonymous poor sucker.
My final concern about this opinion is that in its zeal to uphold the settlement against Scrushy’s challenge the court managed to say some things that simply don’t stand up. The worst example is the court’s statement (which I quoted carefully above) that "the advancement of legal fees might be inconsistent with the policies underlying the securities laws." I really cannot explain or understand this statement, but it seems to be a very radical suggestion to even pose the possibility that it is against public policy for companies to advance defense fees on behalf of corporate officials who have merely been accused of securities laws violations.
I feel confident that this is a proposition that would elicit no assent in any quarter, but if it were an accurate statement of the law, I think we would see a wave of mass resignations as no one would voluntarily undertake the kind of risks that this proposition implies.
I have said some strong things here. I hope readers who disagree with my view of this case will take the time to add their comments to this post.
Many thanks to a loyal reader for providing me with a copy of the Eleventh Circuit opinion.
UPDATE: On June 18, 2008, a Jefferson County (Alabama) Circuit Court judge entered a $2.8 billion judgment against Richard Scrushy following a bench trial in a derivative lawsuit filed against him. Although there are no findings of fact in the Final Judgment (copy here), the order clearly represent a finding that Scrushy engaged in the alleged misconduct. This ruling obviously puts the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in a different light. However, this ruling had not yet been issued at the time the Eleventh Circuit issued its decision, so I think many if not all of my questions raised above remain valid given the record before the Eleventh Circuit at the time it ruled.