A wave of litigation followed in the wake of the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Among this litigation were several shareholder derivative suits filed against certain directors and officers of BP and of its U.S. subsidiary. At the time these cases first arose, I asked whether or not these suits involving (and ultimately for the benefit of) an English corporation and even asserting claims under English law would be permitted to go forward in U.S. courts.
A September 15, 2011 ruling from Judge Keith Ellison of the Southern District of Texas determined that, notwithstanding the fact that the Deepwater Horizon disaster took place in the U.S. and caused extensive environmental damage here, “the English High Court is a far more appropriate forum for this litigation,” and accordingly he granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the cases. Judge Ellison’s September 15 decision can be found here.
As discussed here, plaintiffs filed the first of several derivative lawsuits in connection with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in May 2010. Though many of the lawsuits were first filed in the Eastern District of Louisiana, the cases were ultimately consolidated through the multidistrict litigation process in the Southern District of Texas. However, while the lawsuits were filed in U.S. courts, they asserted claims under the English Companies Act of 2006 (about which refer here). The defendants moved to dismiss the consolidated derivative litigation in the grounds of forum non conveniens.
In his September 15 ruling, Judge Ellison granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss. He summarized his ruling by saying that “this case is a shareholder derivative action brought under a recently enacted U.K. statute on behalf of an English Company against numerous English defendants and other foreign nationals.” The Court, he said, is “persuaded that the Complaint should be dismissed under the doctrine of foreign non conveniens, as the English High Court is the more appropriate forum for this case.”
Judge Ellison found that considerations of public interest “most strongly favor England as the appropriate forum in which to proceed with this case.” He noted that the focus would not be the events in the Gulf that led up to the oil spill, but rather the actions of the company’s board, which took place in England. He commented that “this lawsuit is not intended to redress the devastating impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Unites States. Instead the lawsuit is intended to compensate BP for the financial and reputational harm the company suffered as a result of its high level management’s alleged disregard for the safety of its operations.”
Judge Ellison noted that “the primary concern of this derivative litigation is the internal affairs of an English corporation, and the suit seeks to recover damages for the benefit of BP only.” He concluded that England “has a far greater interest in the resolution of this dispute.”
Judge Ellison was particularly concerned that were the case to remain in a U.S. court, the court would have to interpret and apply the recently enacted Companies Act. If the case were to go forward in a U.S. court, “the Court would be faced with the formidable exercise of interpreting and applying a still nascent and evolving body of law.”
Judge Ellison did condition his dismissal on the defendants proferring adequate proof that they are amenable to service of process in England or submitting a stipulation that the will submit to the jurisdiction of the appropriate English court.
Although the claimants clearly would have preferred to pursue their mismanagement claims against the BP officials in the U.S., where the disastrous oil spill occurred, Judge Ellison found that the allegations in this case involve alleged actions or inactions that took place in England. The fact is that though the shareholders chose to file their action here in preference to England, with full awareness that English courts presented an alternative forum. The decision to file here rather than there undoubtedly had something to with a perception that a court in closer proximity to the damages cause by the spill might prove to be a more receptive forum. The selection of a U.S. court over an English one also reflects the more general advantages a plaintiff enjoys here by comparison to English courts – for example, the absence in the U.S. of a “loser pays” model, among other things.
These kinds of advantages often encourage plaintiffs with claims involving non-U.S. companies to try to pursue their claims in U.S. courts. But the outcome of the dismissal motion in the BP derivative suit represents just one more example of the many ways prospective litigants are finding it increasingly more difficult to pursue corporate and securities claims against non-U.S. companies in U.S. courts. Courts interpreting the U.S. Supreme Court’s Morrison decision have significantly narrowed the circumstances in which securities claims involving foreign companies can go forward in U.S. courts. Judge Ellison’s decision in the BP case underscores the difficulties prospective claimants may fact in pursuing derivative suits involving non-U.S. companies here as well.
Alison Frankel’s September 16, 2011 Thomson Reuters News & Insight article about Judge Ellison’s decision can be found here. Victor Li’s September 16, 2011 Am Law Litigation Article about the decision can be found here.
For Whom the Statute Tolls: Under Section 13 of the ’33 Act, liability actions alleging a violation of the statue must be brought within one year of “discovery of the untrue statute or omission.” Section 13 provides further that in no event shall the action be brought more than three years after the security was first offered to the public. The one year provision represents a statute of limitation and the three year provision represents a so-called “statute of repose.”
Questions of statutes of limitation and repose might seem obscure, but they can often be critical in determining whether or not a case will go forward. A September 15, 2011 decision by Southern District of New York Judge Laura Taylor Swain in the Morgan Stanley Mortgage Pass-Through Certificates Litigation (here) presents interesting and potentially significant rulings on both the statute of limitations and statute of repose issues.
The case involves claims asserted by investors who purchased certain mortgage-backed securities issued by various Morgan Stanley related entities. The plaintiffs allege that the offering documents related to these securities misrepresented and omitted material facts regarding the underwriting standards applied by the loan originators. As detailed in Alison Frankel’s September 16, 2011 article in Thompson Reuters News & Insight (here), this lawsuit has a convoluted procedural history, in part due to the plaintiffs’ efforts to assemble a group of prospective class representatives whose claims were not time-barred. This latest dismissal motion round involved amended allegations and additional named plaintiffs. The defendants again moved to dismiss based on the statute of limitations and the statute of repose.
Judge Swain’s 40- page opinion reflects a number of interesting rulings, particularly with respect to the timeliness questions. First, she rejected the defendants’ arguments, based on information that was publicly available more than a year before the initial complaint was filed, that the claims of the Public Employees’ Retirement System of Mississippi (MissPERS) were untimely. Judge Swain said that though there was ample publicity on issues pertaining to circumstances relevant to the securities, none of the various items of publicity “addresses, even at a speculative level, the disregard of underwriting practices, neglect of appraisal standards, or consequent LTV ration misrepresentations alleged in the [amended complaint]”
Nevertheless, though she found that the early warnings were not sufficient to trigger inquiry notice, she also found that the plaintiffs had not alleged with sufficient specificity the time and circumstances of their discovery of the conduct alleged in their claims. Accordingly she allowed the plaintiffs leave to replead to establish the circumstances of their discovery in order to establish compliance with the one year statute of limitations.
Perhaps even more interesting is Judge Swain’s ruling on the question of the three-year statute of repose, and in particular her application of what is known as the American Pipe tolling doctrine. Under this doctrine, which derives from a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court opinion, the initiation of an earlier class action suit tolls the running of the statute of limitations for other purported class members who may later seek to intervene and represent the class. The application of the American Pipe tolling doctrine to the running of the statute of limitations is well established. A long standing question has been whether American Pipe tolling also applies to the statute of repose. Judge Swain held that American Pipe tolling does apply to the statue of repose, and denied defendants’ argument that the claims of certain new plaintiffs were barred by the statue of repose in the ’33 Act.
In holding that American Pipe tolling applies even to the three-year statute of repose, Judge Swain declined to follow two recent decisions by other Southern District of New York judges. She reasoned that the tolling doctrine is equitable in nature and “permits a court – after weighing the equities in the discrete case before it – to authorize plaintiffs to bring actions outside the limitations period.”
Judge Swain’s ruling about the statute of repose represents a potentially big deal. If followed by other courts, it could potentially be very significant in cases where an initial plaintiff’s purported class action is dismissed for the plaintiff’s lack of standing. Other prospective claimants who might want to come forward at that point might find their claims blocked by the statute of repose, if the initial filing did not toll the statute’s running.
This possibility is not merely theoretical, particularly with respect to the many mortgage-backed securities class action claims that have been asserted in the wake of the financial crisis. In many of these cases, the claimants have had some of their initial claims dismissed because the named plaintiff did not actually buy securities in all of the offerings in which the securities were sold. Judge Swain’s ruling, if followed, would remove one potentially significant impediment that might other wise exist for other prospective claimants who did buy securities in the other offerings and who might want to come forward and assert class claims on behalf of other investors who bought those securities.
The question is whether other courts will follow Judge Swain on these issues, or will follow the other two Southern District of New York decisions that recently went the other way and held that American Pipe tolling does not apply to the statute of repose. In her September 16, 2011 Am Law Litigation Daily article about Judge Swain’s ruling in the Morgan Stanley case (here), Susan Beck identifies and links to the two other recent Southern District of New York rulings that Judge Swain declined to follow. She also speculates that the Second Circuit will likely weigh in on these issues, given that the two prior cases (which resulted in dismissals) are on appeal to the Second Circuit and have been consolidated for one hearing before that court.
Special thanks to a loyal reader for sending me a copy of Judge Swain’s decision in the Morgan Stanley case.
When Words Fail: Here in the blogosphere, the deadline is always right now. Because of the need for speed and the fact that I work alone (often late at night or very early in the morning), mistakes sometimes make their way into my blog posts. Because I don’t the benefit of an editor’s surveillance, I am always grateful when readers point out the errors to me, so that I at least have the opportunity to make a correction.
Massive media organizations publishing on a regular weekly basis with the benefit of a large editorial staff have fewer excuses for errors. For that reason, I am always appalled at the slips that make their way into print in some traditional print publications.
This week’s candidate for the boo-boo that someone really should have caught appears in the current issue of Time Magazine (cover date September 26, 2011). In an article entitled “After Three Years and Trillions of Dollars, Our Banks Still Don’t Work” (here, subscription required), Stephen Gandel writes, with reference to comments by analyst Meredith Whitney about the banking sector, “Eventually, Whitney says, growing litigation issues and a continued drop in housing market were bound to burst the levy.” I am pretty sure Whitney meant that eventually the “levee” was bound to burst, as a "levy" might be on a ballot or be imposed but I have never heard of one bursting. In addition, I feel pretty confident that if this were pointed out to Gandel, a “damn” would burst out as well.