Over the years, legislative reforms of the U.S. securities laws have cycled back and forth, between initiatives, on the one hand, to discourage abusive litigation and, on the other hand, to restrain corporate misconduct. In the current Wall Street bailout, post-Madoff environment, sentiment may be running high for legislative reforms that could expand liabilities under the federal securities laws. But though the time for reform may be now, the window of opportunity may be short.
According to a January 2010 Wall Street Lawyer article by Boris Feldman of the Wilson Sonsini firm entitled "The Coming Counter-Reformation in Securities Litigation" (here), the best shot for reforms favorable to the plaintiffs’ bar "may be right now—before the mid-term elections in 2010 can create a filibuster firewall in the Senate." In his article, Feldman looks at the most likely areas of reform and the likelihood of the initiatives’ success.
The "most important priority for the plaintiffs’ bar" will be the institution of private securities liability for aiding and abetting violations of the securities laws. (There are in fact already current Congressional initiatives to accomplish that very change, about where refer here and here.) This change, were it enacted, would made the biggest difference in the "big frauds," where the "primary wrongdoer is usually bust." If the company’s professionals were "on the hook," then the "entire calculus would change," as the "pot" would then "consist of more than a claim in bankruptcy and some D&O insurance policies."
The "real battle" about prospective aiding and abetting liability, according to Feldman, will be how — not whether– it is instituted. Questions such as who bears the burdens of proof and persuasion and the state of mind required for liability "will determine whether aiding and abetting liability is a measured response to the current situation or a license to subject outside advisors to in terrorem risk."
The next likely target for the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Feldman suggests, is the discovery stay, which has been one of the PSLRA’s "great frustrations" for the plaintiffs’ bar. Feldman suggests that the plaintiffs’ will seek to modify the discovery stay, rather than try to have it overturned. He suggests that one alternative might be a "good cause" exception to the stay. Another alternative is the creation of an exception to the stay for documents already produced to governmental authorities.
Feldman also suggest that the plaintiffs’ bar may attack the PSRLA’s pleading requirements, or alternatively seek to rely on initiatives to set aside the "facial plausibility" pleading standard of Twombley and Iqbal (about which refer here).
Finally, Feldman suggests that the plaintiffs’ bar may see to limit the impact of Dura Pharmaceuticals, perhaps through reforms specifying that the loss causation issue is to be addressed only at the summary judgment or trial stage.
One area Feldman suggests that plaintiffs are unlikely to seek reforms is with respect to the PSLRA’s lead plaintiff requirements. Though these provisions were controversial when first enacted, the plaintiffs’ bar has now "adapted happily" to the requirements, and with institutional investor relationships firmly in place, there is "no incentive for the plaintiffs’ bar to tinker with these provisions."
Feldman closes by noting that the "electoral clock is ticking," with the likelihood of legislative action, if any, before fall 2010. He confesses "surprise" that the legislative reforms were not launched a year ago, when the 2008 electoral results were still fresh. Feldman notes that the fact that the plaintiffs’ bar missed this opportunity "may have something to do with absences in their leadership ranks in recent years."
Feldman suggests that the "most likely" way these reforms may come about is through the activities of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which, Feldman notes, has "strong ties to the plaintiffs’ bar" (about which refer here), a fact that may allow the plaintiffs’ bar "to try to get some of their reforms into the recommendations of the Commission."
I note that Feldman published his article before last week’s special election in Massachusetts. The election of Republican Scott Brown to the Senate seat vacated by the late Edward Kennedy seems to have scrambled everything. Although I don’t profess to have any particular insight into Congressional dynamics, I wonder whether the possible November effect Feldman anticipates in his memo has now been pushed forward through the calendar. The "filibuster firewall" may already be gone. Without a doubt, every member of Congress facing election this fall is proceeding with significantly greater wariness in the wake of the recent Massachusetts senatorial election. All of which makes me wonder whether or not the window of opportunity on some of these legislative proposals may have been substantially narrowed, if not altogether closed.
Opt-Outs Down and Out: Much has been written (refer for example here) about the growing phenomenon of class action securities lawsuit settlement opt-outs – that is, the investor class members who choose not to participate in the class action lawsuit settlement and instead pursue their own individual claims. One of the recurring themes has been how much better the opt-outs do than they would have if they remained in the class.
However, as shown in the outcome of a recent case involving Aspen Technology, there is no guarantee that the opt outs will do better by proceeding separately.
Aspen and several of its directors and officers had been sued in a securities class action lawsuit in November 2004 (about which refer here). The securities class action lawsuit ultimately settled for $5.6 million, but several class members representing 1.4 million shares of common stock opted out of the class action settlement and filed their own "direct action" lawsuit against the defendants in Massachusetts state court.
As reported on the Securities Litigation Watch blog (here), the Aspen Technology investors’ direct action lawsuit didn’t go so well for them. In a January 13, 2010 opinion (here), Massachusetts (Suffolk County) Superior Court Justice Judith Fabricant ruled that "no fraud occurred" and that "defendants are entitled to judgment on all counts of the complaint." In a memo about the decision (here), Skadden, the defense firm in the case, reports that Justice Fabricant also awarded defendants recovery from the plaintiffs of their costs in the case.
Options Backdating Securities Suit Dismissal Affirmed: One of the 39 options backdating related securities class action lawsuits involved claims against Jabil Circuit. The case may have been among the more noteworthy options backdating-related securities lawsuit filings, because Jabil Circuit was among the small group of companies specifically mentioned by name in the original March 2006 Wall Street Journal article ("The Perfect Payday") that launched the options backdating scandal. Among other things, the article calculated the likelihood that the Jabil options grants occurred randomly as "one in a million."
As noted in an earlier post (here), the Jabil Circuit options backdating-related securities lawsuit was dismissed without prejudice in April 2008. In a January 2009 order (here) on the defendants’ renewed motion to dismiss, the complaint was dismissed with prejudice.
In a January 19, 2010 decision (here), the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the case, holding the plaintiffs’ allegations "fail to meet the heightened pleading standards" under the PSLRA.
Among other things, the court said that "the allegations of misrepresentations, responsibility for granting misdated options, and personal profiteering fail to raise a strong enough inference of scienter" and that "the allegations contained in the complaint do not create an inference of scienter that is at least as probable as a non-fraudulent explanation—namely that none of the Appellees knew of the accounting errors until the investigation began in 2006"
I have updated my table of the outcomes in the Options Backdating-related lawsuits to reflect the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Jabil Circuit. The table can be accessed here.