One of the recurring issues in securities litigation is the way the erstwhile class counsel and their clients, the prospective class representatives, come together. In what one federal judge described as a "blatant, shocking conflict of interest," it appears, from testimony at a recent lead plaintiff selection hearing, that the leading plaintiffs’ firms are providing investment portfolio "monitoring services" for which the firms are paid only if their public pension fund clients pursue litigation recommended by the law firm. In a post-hearing brief in the case, the firm involved defended its practices as appropriate.
These issues arose at an April 1, 2009 hearing before Southern District of New York Judge Jed Rakoff, involving two cases, the Credit Based Asset Servicing case (about which refer here) and the Merril Lynch Mortgage Pass Through Certificate case (refer here). Both cases involve alleged misrepresentations in connection with the initial public sale of certain mortgage-backed securities.
At the April 1 hearing, Judge Rakoff consolidated the two cases. The primary purpose of the April 1 hearing was to determine which of the two proposed plaintiffs was the "most adequate" to represent the class in the consolidated case.
As reflected in the hearing transcript (here), Judge Rakoff first heard testimony from an administrator for Iron Workers Local No. 25 Pension. In response to questions from the Judge, the administrator testified that they way he learned about the allegations in the case was that "they were brought to me by counsel."
The administrator explained that the lead plaintiffs’ firm representing the pension fund in the case has a long-standing investment portfolio monitoring contract with the fund. Under this contract, the law firm monitors the fund’s investments and advises the firm when circumstances arise that would warrant a lawsuit. The plaintiffs’ firm is only paid if they bring a lawsuit and recover.
Among other things, Judge Rakoff called this arrangement "about as obvious an instance of conflict of interest as I’ve ever encountered in my life," noting that the plaintiffs’ counsel,
under the guise of monitoring the [pension fund’s] investment to determine whether or not there are any violations of the law …have made an arrangement whereby they will only get paid if there are lawsuits brought that they can recover on, and that they will be plaintiffs’ counsel in that lawsuit.
Judge Rakoff observed that "if that isn’t a gross conflict of interest in violation of the most elementary fiduciary duties, I don’t see what is." He added that the arrangement inherently compromises the objectivity of the monitoring they’ve been asked to undertake. Indeed, to be frank, I’m shocked that any law firm would enter into such an arrangement."
Counsel for the Iron Workers gamely defended the arrangement, among other things asserting that "this portfolio monitoring is not something unique to this firm," an argument that did not impress Judge Rakoff. In response to plaintiffs’ counsel’s suggestion that his law firm analyzes and evaluates the merits of the case before recommending that the fund become involved in litigation, Judge Rakoff said that arrangement "makes crystal clear that the Iron Workers are being led by counsel rather than the other way around," a circumstance the PSLRA had tried to eliminate.
Judge Rakoff then heard testimony from the Special Assistant to the Mississippi Attorney General, on behalf of the other proposed lead plaintiff, the Mississippi Public Employees Retirement System. The representative’s testimony established that Mississippi also had monitoring arrangements with plaintiffs’ law firms, but with twelve separate firms rather than just one. The representative also testified that the possibility of bringing this particular action had been brought to the state’s attention by a separate firm that performs bankruptcy related services for the state.
The representative explained by using plaintiffs’ firms for monitoring , rather that paying for independent monitoring services, the state was able to save costs. The state representative described the use of plaintiffs’ firms for monitoring services as a "commonplace practice," in response to which Judge Rakoff observed
Yes, well, I’m learning that, and to be frank, that doesn’t make me less shocked, that makes me more shocked, because what you’re telling me is that persons, entities with a fiduciary duty, which includes a fiduciary duty to monitor the investments they’re making with their members’ money, have concluded that to save a few bucks they will employ as monitoring entities firms that can only profit of their advice goes one way and not the other.
Judge Rakoff did find certain distinguishing characteristics in Mississippi’s case, in that one of its twelve monitoring firms had not brought the case to the state (although it turns out that the bankruptcy firm that did bring the case to the state does have a contingency fee interest in the case); and that even if one of the twelve firms were to bring a case forward, the case would be independently evaluated by other firms and the state’s own representatives. Finally, the state representative testified that in this case the state had reached out to the lead plaintiffs’ firm, rather than the other way around.
Ultimately Judge Rakoff did not rule at the April 1 hearing on the question of which of the two proposed plaintiffs would be the lead plaintiff in the case. Rather, he asked for further briefing, noting a concern that at the hearing he might have been "overreacting because of hearing about this arrangement for the first time."
Even though Judge Rakoff ultimately did not rule at the April 1 hearing, his shocked response to the practices that were described multiple times at the hearing as "commonplace" does seem to suggest that there may be concerns with the monitoring arrangements. Certainly, the language the Judge used to characterize the arrangements is impressive, to say the least.
Pursuant to Judge Rakoff’s briefing schedule, and in response to his comments, on April 8, 2009, the Iron Workers filed a legal brief (here), that among other things defends the monitoring arrangements on the grounds that the monitoring agreement does not itself authorize the firm to initiate litigation on the fund’s behalf without the fund’s authorization, and that the fund is under no obligation if it decides to pursue litigation to use that particular law firm.
In addition, the Iron Workers’ brief cites multiple cases in which various courts found that the existence of similar monitoring arrangements were not a barrier to the proposed plaintiffs’ service as a class representative.
Finally, the brief also includes an opinion from the distinguished legal scholar Geoffrey Hazard that the portfolio monitoring services were not "professionally improper" and that there is no conflict of interest in these circumstances because the pension fund is not obligated to bring suit even if the firm recommends it. Hazard also stated that the mere fact that the plaintiffs’ firm was "working for a contingent fee" does not present an "inappropriate bias."
The Mississippi Public Empoyees’ Retirement System’s brief regarding the alleged conflict and the lead plaintiff issue can be found here. Merrill’s brief can be found here.
UPDATE: In an April 23, 2009 order (here), Judge Rakoff appointed the Mississippi Public Retirement System as the lead plaintiff in the cases. In the April 23 order, Judge Rakoff also stated that the lead plaintiff determination "involved the Court’s resolution of several difficult issues, which will be elaborated in a written opinion." Judge Rakoff said that he would issue the detailed opinion after he completed an ongoing criminal trial that he has been conducting.
Special thanks to a loyal reader for providing a copy of the hearing transcript.