I have previously noted (most recently here) the increasing significance of opt-out actions as a part of securities lawsuit resolution. Columbia Law School Professor John Coffee, in a March 27, 2008 paper entitled “Accountability and Competition in Securities Class Actions: Why ‘Exit’ Works Better Than ‘Voice’” (here) examines the opt-out phenomenon and concludes that while the increased recoveries in opt-out actions compared to class recoveries will encourage competition among plaintiffs’ counsel, shareholder litigation could become even costlier to resolve.

Coffee also concludes, contrary to what others have “prematurely predicted,” that shareholder class action lawsuits “will not die or whither away, but that the current system of shareholder class action lawsuits may be abandoned in favor of a “two-tier system,” in which “the largest investors will opt-out and sue in state court individual actions, with the class action becoming the residual vehicle for smaller investors.” These possibilities have enormous implications for the future of securities litigation, which Coffee’s paper explores.

Coffee opens his paper comparing the changes wrought by the opt-out phenomenon with prior legislative efforts to reform class action litigation. Specifically, Coffee notes that unlike legislative efforts to give the class greater control, such as the lead plaintiff provision of the PSLRA, the increasingly utilized opt-out option may offer true oversight, actual competition, and even lead to better results for the plaintiff class.

In analyzing these developments, Coffee adopts terminology from the writings of economist Albert O. Hirschman. Hirschman describes two ways in which organizational behavior may be modified: (i) participants can be given greater “voice”; or (ii) participants can be given increased ability to “exit” the system. Coffee contrasts the legislative reforms, such as the lead plaintiff provision, designed to give class members greater “voice,” with the alternative of “exit” offered by the opt-out option. Coffee concludes that “ ‘exit’ works better than ‘voice,’” at least within realm of securities class actions.”

A critical component of Coffee’s analysis is that “when institutional investors exit the class and sue individually, they appear to do dramatically better – by an order of magnitude!” Coffee views this as an “optimistic development” because the opt-out outperformance can “kickstart active competition” among plaintiffs’ attorneys, by contrast to the PSLRA reforms which have had the perverse effect of reducing competition.

As Coffee notes, these developments have significant implications for the future of class litigation, as large institutional investors increasingly may conclude that their interests are better served by proceeding separately. Coffee specifically notes that the current wave of subprime-related cases are “particularly likely to produce a high rate of opt-outs,” because of the predominance of institutional investors among purchasers of the kinds of asset-backed securities that are at the heart of many of these lawsuits.

Coffee speculates that defendants (and indeed all class litigants) may seek to employ adaptive practices to offset these developments. Among other possibilities Coffee reviews are such practices as advancing the time of the opt-out decisions before the settlement is reached; structuring the settlement in a way to give class members “priority” over individual recoveries, such as given them a security interest in company assets to the extent of the settlement amount; including a “most favored nation” provision in class settlements so that class members are entitled to increase their recovery if opt-outs reach a higher settlement; or even reducing the settlement amount in respect of each opt-out.

In the final analysis, each of these potential adaptations has shortcomings. Over the long run, Coffee anticipates, “increased opting out will place class counsel under increased competitive pressure to improve the class settlement.” For that reason, Coffee concludes that “greater competition is coming.”

I very much agree with Professor Coffee that the emergence of significant opt-out settlements represents a watershed development in securities class action litigation, with the potential to have an enormous impact. However, I think it does still remain to be seen how widespread the opt-out phenomenon will prove to be.

The increased recovery percentages (so far) in the high profile opt out actions do provide obvious incentives for institutional investors to become more focused on their opt-out opportunities. But so far the significant opt-out activity has been limited to “mega” cases where the aggregate recoveries, for both the class and the opt-out litigants have run into the hundreds of millions and even the billions of dollars. It is entirely possible that rather than becoming a universal phenomenon affecting all, most, or even many securities class actions, significant opt-out activity will be limited only to a small handful of cases where the dollars involved reach this rarified range. Without more, it seems premature to project that shareholder litigation is about to enter a two-tier system where institutional litigants have abandoned class resolutions altogether.

That said, even if the phenomenon proves to be limited only to a small subset of securities cases, the opportunities and incentives involved could still affect the overall outcome of many securities cases. Just the threat of material opt-outs could affect the class action settlement dynamic. As Professor Coffee notes, some adaptive behavior is likely, as litigants seek to suppress or minimize the prospects for opt-outs. The likeliest adaptive behavior is that class settlements overall could be driven upward, as all class settlement participants seek to remove the incentive to opt out by improving the class settlement itself.

We are already in an era of increasing average claim severity. The emergence of the opt-out phenomenon can only amplify these trends. In any event, the developments related to opt-outs also present important implications for D&O insurers’ severity assumptions and for insurance purchasers’ assumptions about limits adequacy. The direct and indirect impacts from the emergence of significant opt out activity could make historical assumptions in this regard obsolete.

Very special thanks to Professor Coffee for his permission to cite and quote his paper, which, he emphasizes, is preliminary only.

Hat tip also to Werner Kranenburg of the With Vigour and Zeal blog (here) for the link to Professor Coffee’s paper.