On April 1, 2008, the Wilmer Hale law firm released a report entitled “West Coast Securities Litigation & Enforcement” (here), in which the law firm reports, among other things, that “investors sued 44 public companies in the West in 2007, a striking 56 percent increase over 2006, reversing what some had hoped was a permanent post-Enron decline in securities class actions.” A copy of the law firm’s April 1 press release about the report can be found here.

The report attributes the “surge” in filings against West Coast companies to the “subprime crisis” which “precipitated lawsuits.” The report also attributes the apparent “upswing in filings” to the “increased capacity of the dozen-plus law firms that bring most of these class actions.”

The report notes that while there were more lawsuits filed, there were also more lawsuits dismissed (29) than settled (18) in the Ninth Circuit during 2007, from which the report happily concludes that “last year’s spike in filings was the product of opportunistic lawyers filing in a falling stock market, and not an indication that corporate malfeasance is on the rise.”

The report also considers 2007 settlement developments and concludes that “it has become cheaper to settle in the Ninth Circuit,” based on the fact that in 2007, the median West Coast settlement was $6 million, the “lowest point since 2004” and 40% below the national median of $9.6. The report concludes because of the lower settlement figures that “the recent wave of California cases appears weaker than those filed in New York and elsewhere and –as in the past – negotiated settlements reflect the financial condition of the defendant issuer or the magnitude of the market loss.” The report also notes that “favorable dismissal rates may have – indeed, should have – encouraged plaintiffs’ lawyers to scale back their expectations.”

The report also has a number of interesting observations about the backlog of pending options backdating cases. The Ninth Circuit courts have been “far less receptive to those cases than have courts in the other regions.” In addition, West Coast issuers “have successfully defended a large number of [options backdating-related] derivative actions; by year end, courts had dismissed 14 such cases and allowed only two to proceed.” The report notes that West Coast courts have thrown out a number of options backdating-related securities lawsuits, while courts in other jurisdictions have permitted these cases to go forward.

The report concludes with a number of observations about the activities of the SEC’s West Coast enforcement offices, which offices apparently remain active.

The law firm’s report is interesting, but many of the report’s statistical observations consist of numerators yearning for denominators to give their existence meaning.

First, while the number of lawsuits against companies based in the Ninth Circuit may well have increased 56% percent between 2006 and 2007, lawsuits overall increased 43% (going from 116 lawsuits in 2006 to 166 in 2007, according to Cornerstone, here). The report’s feature stat would be significantly less compelling had the report more accurately stated that increase in the number of lawsuits on the West Coast in 2007 was 13% greater than the increase nationwide.

Second, the methodology used to conclude that California companies were 63% likelier to be sued than companies elsewhere in not revealed. For example, is report saying that the ratio of California companies sued to the total number of companies in California is 63% higher than the same ratio for all other states? Or is the report just making some comparison about the raw numbers of 2007 lawsuits against companies inside and outside California? It would have been helpful for the report to specify its methodology, because this particular conclusion is, well, challenging, given that 52 of the 166 securities lawsuits in 2007 were filed in the Southern District of New York, far more than any other federal district. (Refer here for my full analysis of the 2007 lawsuit filings.)

Third, the report seems to imply that the West Coast companies are being sued because they are located on the West Coast.. The report is written by the law firm’s West Coast office and is clearly intended for West Coast companies, and the statistical analysis is clearly intended to convey meaning for those companies as West Coast companies.

But if plaintiffs’ lawyers really were targeting West Coast companies as West Coast companies in 2007, you would expect the lawsuits against the West Coast firms to have continued in 2008. Actually, the exact opposite has happened. While West Coast companies arguably were sued frequently in 2007, they have been sued infrequently in 2008. Through the first quarter of 2008, only six companies located in the Ninth Circuit have been sued in securities lawsuits, even though the number of filings overall in the first quarter  (52) was up compared the number of filings in 2006 and 2007, as I detailed in yesterday’s post.

The increased number of lawsuits against West Coast companies in 2007 can only have meaning for those companies as West Coast companies if the reduced number of lawsuits against West Coast companies so far in 2008 also has meaning for the companies as West Coast companies. The strong suggestion is that something other than geography alone explains both ends of this equation.

(As an aside, the potential role of geography in predicting securities lawsuit frequency was a recurring statistical question in my former life as a D & O underwriter. Brokers in the Midwest contended that Midwestern companies were less likely to be sued, and therefore all Midwestern companies should receive a D & O insurance premium discount. We could never prove that geography alone was an accurate predictor of securities litigation frequency; rather, what we found was that geography coincided with some other factor – usually industry – that was the true frequency predictor. An esteemed former colleague who taught me everything I know on this topic referred to this phenomenon as “multicollinearity “.)

The report also strains when it attempts to use the 2007 dismissals and settlements to analyze the 2007 filings.

Obviously, the cases that were dismissed or settled in 2007 were mostly filed before 2007. The fact that cases filed before 2007 were dismissed in 2007 really doesn’t tell you whether or not the cases filed in 2007 are meritorious or if “corporate malfeasance” is or is not “on the rise.” It is likely that the cases dismissed or settled in 2007 were actually filed over the course of several calendar years, so the raw numbers of dismissals, settlements and filings in a single calendar year may have little or no meaningful interrelationship, and further data (such as, for example, the total number and filing dates of pending cases) is required to make any useful comparisons or even to try to conclude, for example,  that West Coast courts have become "less receptive."  

The fact that median settlements in 2007 in the Ninth Circuit were lower than prior years’ median settlements tells you only that the median was lower. It does not tell you whether or not the 2007 settlements were “cheaper” than settlements in prior years in the Ninth Circuit or than 2007 settlements elsewhere, as these kinds of comparisons require not only the dollar figure at which the cases settled, but also the amount of investor loss that was at stake for each case category compared. Without further information, there is no way to know whether or not the lower 2007 median is simply due to smaller cases being settled in 2007 than in prior years in the Ninth Circuit, or in 2007 elsewhere. There is certainly nothing about the lower 2007 median alone that analytically supports the view that 2007 cases filed in California are “weaker than those filed in New York and elsewhere.”

The report’s commentary about the options backdating cases is interesting, and the most useful addition I can make to the report’s analysis about option backdating case dispositions is to refer readers to my running list of options backdating settlements, dismissals and denials, which can be accessed here.

And finally, because I can’t seem to write a concluding paragraph for this post without discretion making me hit the delete button, that’s a wrap.