The year-end vacation days are over, the holiday decorations have been taken down, and last year’s wall calendars have been replaced. We are now into the Narnia season (at least here in Cleveland), where it is always winter but never Christmas. The New Year has entered with a bang, and that means more than just inexplicable piles of dead birds. It also means there are lots of newsworthy developments to report. Here’s the latest:
FDIC Increases Number of Authorized Lawsuits: Earlier this week, the FDIC updated the Professional Liability Lawsuits page on its website to reflect that the number of lawsuits that it has authorized has been increased. The FDIC has now authorized lawsuits against 109 directors and officers of failed financial institutions, up from 82 as of the end of November 2010. The website also reports that the claims against these individuals represent claimed damages of $2.5 billion.
The web page includes a monthly table at the end, showing how the number of individuals against whom lawsuits are authorized has increased since the end of the third quarter. The page also reports that the FDIC has authorized four fidelity bond and attorney malpractice lawsuits.
The page reflects a number of interesting details regarding the FDIC’s approach to litigation and litigation history. Among other things, the page reports that the investigation preceding the decision whether or not to bring a lawsuit is usually completed "within 18 months," which explains in part why there have been relatively few FDIC lawsuits against directors and officers of failed banks so far (only two lawsuits against 15 individuals).
The page also includes some general information about the legal theories on which the FDIC can seek to recover, the applicable statute of limitations, and the FDIC’s prior history of D&O litigation during the S&L crisis.
Many thanks to the several loyal readers who sent me links to the New York Times Dealbook blog’s January 5, 2010 post about the updated FDIC web page.
2011’s First Filed Securities Suit Continues 2010 Trend: As far as I can tell, 2011’s first filed securities class action lawsuit is the lawsuit filed on January 3, 2011 in the Eastern District of New York against Tongxin International, Inc. and certain of its directors and officers. The plaintiffs’ lawyers corrected press release describing the suit can be found here and a copy of the complaint can be found here.
The lawsuit alleges that the defendants misled investors with respect to its financial reports. The plaintiffs allege that the company initially withheld its financial statements, and then was forced to withdraw previously reported results as unreliable. The company later sued its former CEO and CFO for wrongfully transferring the Company’s funds.
As I noted in my analysis of 2010 securities class action lawsuits, one of last year’s noteworthy securities suit filing trends was the significant number of lawsuits involving Chinese companies. From a practical perspective (if not strictly as a formal matter), the new Tongxin lawsuit appears to represent a continuation of that filing trend.
Tongxin itself is incorporated in the British Virgin Islands. However, it was formed as subsidiary of a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) that was formed to acquire an automotive manufacturing company in China. In April 2008, the SPAC acquired Hunan Enterprise Co., Ltd, a Chinese automotive supplier, and the SPAC merged into Tongxin. Tonxin’s operating company, and the events referenced in the complaint, all are or took place in China.
The litigation trend of new securities lawsuits involving Chinese companies seems to have carried over into the New Year.
Record Number of FCPA Enforcement Actions in 2010: According to the Gibson Dunn law firm’s January 3, 2010 memorandum entitled "2010 Year-End Update" (here), 2010 was a record setting year for FCPA enforcement activity. The memo reports that both the SEC’s and DoJ’s 2010 enforcement actions – which were essentially double the prior year’s record levels – "dwarfed the tally from any prior year in the statute’s 33-year history."
According to data reflected in the memo, during 2010 there were 48 DoJ FCPA enforcement actions (compared to 26 in 2009) and 26 SEC FCPA enforcement actions (compared to 14 in 2009). The memo also reports that "nearly every FCPA enforcement action from the past 12 months can be traced to multi-defendant, if not industry-wide investigation that involved numerous companies or persons engaged in coordinate or parallel schemes."
FCPA-related settlements in 2010 also were at record setting levels. According to a January 5, 2010 post on The FCPA Blog (here), eight of the top ten FCPA settlements of all time were reached in 2010. As it happens, eight of the top ten FCPA settlements involve non-U.S. companies as well.
As I have observed numerous times on this blog, FCPA enforcement activity increasingly is accompanied by follow-on civil litigation, a phenomenon that the Gibson Dunn memo notes "saw a marked increase in activity amongst the plaintiffs’ bar." The memo goes on to observe that "hardly an FCPA investigation or resolution was announced during the past year that was not followed in swift succession by a press release from any number of plaintiffs’ firms from any number of plaintiffs’ law firms that have creased a cottage industry for private FCPA enforcement."
Despite the absence of a private right of action under the FCPA, plaintiffs continue to "shoehorn" FCPA-related claims under a wide variety of theories, including securities fraud, breach of fiduciary duties, torts and breach of contract. The law firm memo sets out a long list of various cases that plaintiffs have pursued or are pursuing on FCPA-related allegations.
As I previously detailed (refer here), FCPA-related claims represent a growing area of D&O exposure, with important D&O insurance coverage implications.
Are Bylaw Forum Selection Clauses Unenforceable?: Many corporate litigants prefer the friendly confines of the Delaware Court system. It is not just that many companies are organized in Delaware and its courts are viewed as business friendly, but also the judges who serve on the Court of Chancery are viewed as both highly skilled and as experienced on complex business litigation issues.
Earlier this year, in the Revlon Shareholders’ Litigation, the Delaware Court of Chancery suggested that corporations organized under Delaware law are "free" to adopt "charter provisions selecting an exclusive forum or inter-entity disputes." In the wake of this suggestion, many lawyers began to recommend that their client companies adopt charter provisions designating the Delaware Court of Chancery as the preferred forum.
However, on January 3, 2011, Northern District of California Judge Richard Seeborg held, in a case of first impression, that a forum selection clause in Oracle’s bylaws was not enforceable, at least in the absence of shareholder approval. Significantly, Judge Seeborg did not reach issues of Delaware law; his ruling of unenforceability was reached as a matter of federal common law. A copy of Judge Seeborg’s opinion can be found here.
As might be expected, plaintiffs’ lawyers have welcomed Judge Seeborg’s ruling – refer for example to David Bario’s January 5, 2011 Am Law Litigation Daily article, here, quoting the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the case as saying that
The insertion of these forum selection clauses in bylaws, rather than by amending a company’s charter with shareholder approval, has been increasing….I think this decision will help to pull the cover off the practice. It shows that passing a bylaw on normal company business is one thing, but when you’re going to pass a bylaw that limits shareholders’ rights, that’s something much different, and I think that’s at the core of the decision.
Others have been more critical of the decision. Rebecca Beyer’s January 5, 2010 Daily Journal article (here, registration required) about the decision quotes Stanford Law School Professor Joseph Grundfest as saying that "the distinction as to shareholders who hold shares prior to the bylaw amendment and after the bylaw amendment makes no sense….Every bylaw amendment has to bind all shareholders or it can’t work."
Grundfest said when people buy shares in a company they agree to allow directors to amend bylaws. "If shareholders don’t like the unilateral amendment, the shareholders can – by shareholder vote – overrule the board," he said. Grundfest also said that there likely will be further litigation on this issue, and that the issue could eventually make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Time Out for A Couple of Technology Questions: What do you do when your Blackberry isn’t working? And why does the march of technological "progress" involve so many different kinds of fruit? (Special thanks to a loyal reader for a link to the video.)