In a recent post (here), I raised concerns about the possibility of U.S.-domiciled companies becoming subject to securities litigation under the Ontario Securities Act. Now, a recent decision by an Ontario Superior Court judge interpreting the Act’s provisions suggests the possibility of litigants using a parallel Ontario proceeding to circumvent the PSLRA’s discovery stay.
The decision arose in connection with the prospective securities action that claimants seek to pursue in Ontario court against IMAX and certain of its directors and officers. Under the provisions of Bill 198, enacted in 2005 and codified in Section XXIII.1 of the Ontario Securities Act (which can be found here), a preliminary procedure is required to determine whether a liability action under the Act can proceed.
Section 138.8 (1) of the statute, a liability action cannot be commenced "without leave of court granted upon motion with notice to each defendant." The court is to grant leave only "where it is satisfied" that the action "is being brought in good faith" and there is a "possibility" the plaintiff will prevail at trial.
The procedure specified for this determination is that the plaintiff and each defendant are to serve affidavits "setting forth the material facts upon which each intends to rely." The affiant may be "examined" on the affidavit "in accordance with the rules of the court."
The issue addressed in the recent decision in the IMAX case is the breadth of the examination that is to take place in connection with this authorization proceeding. In addressing this question, Madame Justice Katherine van Rensberg issued a ruling that potentially could compel defendants to answer questions under oath about a broad range of issues, even issues the claimants have not initially raised. A November 18, 2008 Globe and Mail article regarding the decision can be found here.
Justice van Rensberg wrote that the Act itself "provides no guidance as to the interpretation of the threshold test and what type, quality and quantity of evidence the court is to consider." IMAX had urged her to restrict examination to publicly available information. However, she found that shareholders seeking leave to proceed under the Act have "special powers" generally not available otherwise and she held that anyone being examined must answer questions that have a "semblance of relevance" even if it "might also reveal some other potential issues or wrongdoing not currently contemplated by the statutory claim."
The "semblance of relevance" test Judge Van Rensberg used is the threshold used in connection with discovery, the procedures with respect to which ordinarily apply once a case is underway. In effect, the Judge’s ruling permits discovery in the precertification stage, before the case has even been authorized to proceed. As comments quoted in the article note, defense advocates had militated in favor of inclusion of the precertification procedure in the Act as a way to bar frivolous claims, but now it appears that procedure can be used to compel defendants "to disclose evidence relevant to the merits."
This development, if it stands, not only seems to authorize plaintiffs to use the procedure to conduct a fishing expedition, it also could be used as a way to aid a parallel proceeding filed in U.S. courts, by allowing shareholders to examine company officials, even as to matters not raised either case.
As Adam Savett points out on his Securities Litigation Watch blog (here), this procedure, pursued in parallel with a U.S. filed lawsuit, could permit claimants to use the Ontario procedure to circumvent the PSLRA’s stay of discovery. Savett points out that IMAX itself is not only subject to the Ontario action but also to a separate action under the U.S. securities laws in the Southern District of New York, in which a motion to dismiss is pending. Savett observes that the Ontario court’s IMAX ruling "raises the specter of cases being filed cooperatively in Canadian and U.S. courts, with discovery in the Canadian action possibly being allowed to be used in the U.S. action."
This possible PSLRA discovery stay end-around takes on even greater potential significance in combination with the possibility of U.S.-domiciled companies and their directors and officers getting hauled into securities litigation in the Ontario courts. As I noted in my prior post (here), discussing the Ontario securities lawsuit recently filed against AIG, the prospect for U.S. companies of securities litigation outside the U.S. is unattractive. But perhaps even more unwelcome is the possibility of litigants using a parallel Ontario case against a U.S. company as a way to try to get material to be used to support a separate U.S. proceeding against the company.
If the recent IMAX ruling stands, U.S. securities litigators might have to become a great deal more familiar with Ontario’s securities laws and procedures.
Special thanks to Mark Renzel for providing me a link to the Globe and Mail article.
More about the AIG Lawsuit: A couple of interesting items about the AIG lawsuit appeared after I wrote my recent post about the case.
First, in a Guest Column on the Securities Docket (here), Dimitri Lascaris of the Siskinds law firm provides interesting additional detail about the "substantive and procedural advantages" offered to aggrieved claimants under the Ontario Act, as well as the potential damages available. The Siskinds firm is lead counsel in the Ontario proceedings filed against both AIG and against IMAX.
Lascaris also wrote in his column that "for a long time, America has largely dictated the standards by which issuers are obliged to conduct themselves in a globalized capital market. Like much else that is coming to an end in today’s capital markets, that era may be over. "
Second, Law.com has a November 19, 2008 article (here) about the case against AIG filed in Ontario. Among other things the article quotes Lascaris as saying that the AIG action is the first use of the use of the liability provisions of the Ontario Securities Act against a non-Canadian company.
And Finally: I would like to thank all of the many Canadian readers who commented to me about the AIG case. Numerous readers provided me with helpful additional information about the Ontario Act and about securities litigation in Canada. In that respect, several readers added helpful and interesting comments to the blog post about the AIG case, and I commend those comments to everyone’s attention.