New Siemens Securities Suit: Did the Company Misprepresent Its Ability to Hit Targets Without Bribery?
More than three years have passed since the first blockbuster revelations about corrupt payments at Siemens, yet litigation arising from the scandal continues to emerge. On December 4, 2009, plaintiffs’ lawyers filed a securities class action lawsuit in the Eastern District of New York against Siemens, based on alleged misrepresentations following initial revelations of the improper payments. The complaint, which can be found here, has a number of interesting features and it potentially raises complicated issues.
As reflected in a prior post (here), the bribery scandal at Siemens hit the front pages of the world’s financial papers in late 2006 after more than 200 German police raided the offices and homes of over 30 current and former Siemens employees. The ensuing investigation and enforcement action culminated in the December 15, 2008 announcement (here), that Siemens had agreed to pay a total of $350 million in disgorgement to the SEC, a criminal fine of $450 million to the U.S., and a fine of 395 euros to the office of the Prosecutor General in Germany.
The recently filed securities suit refers extensively to the SEC’s enforcement complaint against the company. But though the class action complaint is inextricably linked to the company’s bribery revelations, the complaint is not about the bribery disclosures as such. Rather, the complaint purports to be based on company statements about its business prospects and its ability to compete without making improper payments.
That is, the complaint alleges that the company claimed that it "had cleaned up [the] corporate-wide scandal and that it would meet its publicly announced revenue and earning projections" – but, the complaint further alleges, "Siemens ability to generate revenues and achieve earnings expectations was clearly dependent on its corporate-wide bribery activities."
Consistent with the theory that the complaint is not about the bribery itself but about the company’s claims about how it would fare as a bribery-free competitor, the proposed class period does not commence at some time prior to the bribery revelations. Instead, the proposed class period begins more than a year after the scandal first emerged, in November 2007, when new management projected significant growth for the company.
During the class period, the complaint alleges, management sought to dispel concerns that the lingering bribery investigation would have an adverse impact on the company’s ability to meet its earnings projections. The proposed class period ends at the end of the company’s 2008 second fiscal quarter, when the company announced a sharp drop in second quarter profits.
So while the plaintiff’s complaint consists almost exclusively of a detailed recounting of the bribery scandal and its regulatory aftermath, the complaint isn’t about the bribery or even the revelations about the bribery at all; instead, the plaintiffs seek damages based on what the company allegedly said about whether it could meet its goals now that it was no longer getting business by paying bribes.
Plaintiffs will obviously face certain challenges demonstrating that their claimed damages are due to these statements about Siemens’ prospects without bribing officials, as opposed to ongoing revelations concerning the bribery investigation – which continued both during and after the proposed class period. Indeed, the class period ends at the same time as the company disclosed certain findings of the law firm the company had hired to investigate the bribery allegations.
In one sense it seems as if the plaintiffs arguably are trying to have it both ways with respect to damages. They do not allege what harm was due to the company’s supposedly misleading projections; rather they allege only that "as a result of defendant’s fraud and misconduct, Siemens’ shareholders have suffered, and will continue to suffer, billion of dollars of damages." These broad damages claims are arguably at odds with the complaint’s relatively narrow class period and narrow range of alleged misrepresentations.
The complaint may also be susceptible to challenges that it does not sufficiently allege scienter. In that regard, it is interesting to note that the sole defendant named is the company. No individuals are named as defendants. Without any individual defendants, the possibility for the complaint to survive a dismissal motion will depend on some kind of "collective scienter," based on the supposed knowledge or recklessness of responsible corporate officials.
Critically, for the plaintiff’s complaint to succeed, they will have to show that during the class period, senior company officials knew (or were reckless in disregarding) that the company could not make its earnings targets without resorting to bribery. To put it as neutrally as I can, it is unclear from the complaint what allegations the plaintiffs intend to rely upon to show that the company’s senior officials knew during the class period that without improper payments Siemens could not meet its earnings projections.
The complaint could also face certain hurdles with respect to the claims of so-called "f-cubed" claimants. The proposed class period is not limited solely to the claims of investors who purchased their Siemens securities on the NYSE. To the extent the class purports to include the claims of foreign-domiciled investors who bought their shares in Siemens on a foreign exchange, the complaint could present the same kinds of jurisdictional issues as were raised in the National Australia Bank case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court recently granted a petition for writ of certiorari.
Perhaps in anticipation of these kinds of concerns, the new class complaint quotes liberally from the SEC’s allegations concerning the "nexus" between the improper payments and the U.S. However, the misleading statements that are the basis of the new class action complaint clearly appear from the face of the complaint to have been made in Germany. It is therefore possible that the claims of "f-cubed" class members could be susceptible to jurisdictional challenge.
In any event, and at a minimum, this case presents yet another concrete example of the way in which regulatory or enforcement investigations into corrupt payments can lead to civil litigation, which many readers will recognize as a recurring theme on this blog.
The fact that no individuals are named as defendants in the lawsuit is unusual, and could generate any number of interesting D&O coverage issues. For example, at least in the early days when company coverage first began to be added to insurance policies that previously only protected individuals, the company’s coverage was only available if there were also claims against individuals. These co-defendant requirements largely have fallen by the wayside over time, but the policy’s bias towards protecting individuals in preference to the company still survive in a various respects.
A related question about the company’s coverage is whether or not the company’s various admissions in connection with the prior regulatory or other settlements would trigger the conduct exclusions found in most D&O policies. I suppose that if the exclusion is sufficiently narrow, the company could argue that whatever else the company may have admitted, it did not make any admissions about the statements alleged in this complaint to be fraudulent. However, if the exclusion has a broader preamble, a carrier might well argue that the wrongful acts alleged in this complaint arise out of, related to or are based upon improper conduct to which the company as admitted.