There is no question that the Amsterdam Court of Appeals’ May 29, 2009 action authorizing Royal Dutch Shell to begin funding the April 2007 securities settlement represents a landmark development. Under the ruling (a copy of which can be found here, in Dutch), Shell will begin paying a total of $381 million to a foundation that represents over 150 institutional investors in 17 European countries, Canada and Australia, in settlement of their securities fraud claims arising from allegations that Shell had overstated its oil and gas reserves.
But while the court’s approval of the settlement unquestionably is a significant development, it remains unclear what this development implied about the likelihood of further collective settlements of the same kind, and in the short term it seems unlikely to overcome non-U.S. investors’ interest in pursuing relief in U.S courts, at least when that option is available.
Royal Dutch Shell and certain of its directors and officers were first sued in a U.S.-based securities lawsuit in the District of New Jersey on January 29, 2004, following the company’s January 9, 2004 announcement that it was writing down its "proved" oil and gas reserves by 20%. Background regarding the U.S. securities suit can be found here. The class on whose behalf the U.S. action was initially brought purported to include European investors who had purchased their shares on exchanges outside the U.S.
In July 2005, Netherlands enacted the Dutch Act on Collective Settlements of Mass Damages, which, subject to considerations discussed below, allows for collective settlement of the claims of the members of a class who do not opt out.
Shell and its biggest investors are located in the Netherlands. As discussed at length in a January 7, 2008 American Lawyer article (here), the Dutch Act gave Shell and its European investors a way to settle "on their home turf." On April 11, 2007, Shell agreed to pay $352.6 million, plus administrative expenses, to Shell investors who purchased their shares and resided outside the U.S. (As explained in the foundation’s May 29 press release linked above, the amount of the settlement was later increased to align the Non-U.S. shareholders’ settlement with the settlement Shell had reached in the U.S action with U.S. investors.) A detailed description of the settlement can be found here.
The settlement was contingent on its approval by the Amsterdam Court of Appeals, which the court granted in its May 29 declaration. The Dutch Court’s approval is likely enforceable throughout Europe based on the European regulation on jurisdiction and recognition of judgments.
The Dutch court’s refusal to approve the settlement would have represented a significant setback for the prospect of future similar settlements, as would the court’s refusal, for example, to approve the participation in the settlement of non-Dutch investors.
But while the court’s approval avoided these setbacks and while the settlement itself clearly provides an example of a way in which European investors were able to resolve their grievances against a European company in a European court, that does not mean that the Amsterdam Court of Appeals is now about to be inundated with these kinds of settlements. Indeed, given the clear advantages to proceeding in U.S. courts under the U.S. securities laws, aggrieved non-U.S. investors are likely to continue to attempt to pursue their claims in U.S. courts, as long as and to the extent that U.S. relief and remedies are available to them.
First, while the Dutch Act allows for collective settlements of the type involved in the Shell claim, it does not allow for collective damages claims. Indeed, as stated in the American Lawyer article linked above, the "innovative solution" involved in the Shell settlement was that Shell and the European investors used the Dutch Act to settle the European investors’ U.S.-based damages claims. While this allowed the European investors to "settle litigation on their home turf," it depended on the existence of the U.S. lawsuit on the front end, in order for there to be a Dutch settlement on the back end.
The Shell settlement basically represented an innovation, but the ability for other litigants to use the Shell settlement itself as a model will largely depend on the existence of a similar combination of circumstances. It is far likelier that the next set of European investors to try to use the Dutch Act will need to establish their own "test case" rather than simply modeling off of the Shell settlement. In other words, change in the form of a European collective action remedy for aggrieved investors has been and appears likely to continue to be episodic and incremental, rather than categorical.
In the meantime, the U.S. courts continue to offer potential claimants, even those located outside the U.S., with a host of potential advantages. The U.S lacks a loser pays rule; it allows contingency fees; it uses a jury system for civil cases; and it has a well recognized and understood class action mechanism. It also has a highly motivated, entrepreneurial plaintiffs bar. Its courts recognize the fraud on the market theory, which spares claimants from having to prove that the relied on alleged misrepresentations.
Of course, many potential claimants would prefer a remedy in their home country if one were available. However, the reason for which non-U.S. investors would seek to resort to non-U.S. courts is less likely to be due to the availability of possible alternatives like the Dutch Act and more likely to be due to jurisdictional constraints on their access to U.S. courts. Non-U.S. investors in Non-U.S. companies who bought their shares outside the U.S. – so-called "foreign cubed" or "f-cubed" claimants – who have jurisdictional access to the U.S courts are likely to continue to take advantage of it, at least as long as and to the extent that the access remains available. A detailed comment on ClassActionBlawg.com about the interaction between U.S. jurisdiction for f-cubed claims and the possibility of further Shell-type settlements can be found here.
As discussed in a recent post (here), last October, the Second Circuit declined to rule that U.S. courts could never exercise jurisdiction over the claims of f-cubed claimants. In the National Bank of Australia case, the Second Circuit held that subject matter jurisdiction exists if "activities in this country were more than merely preparatory to a fraud and culpable acts or omissions occurring here directly caused the losses abroad." However the court declined to find jurisdiction in that specific case.
The petition of the plaintiffs in the National Australia Bank case for a writ of certiorari case to the U.S. Supreme Court is pending. The 10b-5 Daily blog (here) reported earlier this week that the Supreme Court has asked the Solicitor General to present her views on the petition. A June 1, 2009 Bloomberg article discussing the Supreme Court’s request for the SG’s views in the NAB case can be found here.
There is of course no way of knowing now, but it is at least possible that the f-cubed jurisdiction issue will soon wind up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, the Second Circuit’s decision continues to allow for the possibility of subject matter jurisdiction in f-cubed cases, at least under certain circumstances.
All of that said, the movement toward the development of collective remedies in jurisdictions outside the U.S. is now well-established and the Dutch Court’s approval of the Shell settlement undeniably represents another step in support of that movement. We are likely to continue to hear in the weeks and months ahead about the growing threat of collective investor actions outside the U.S. What remains to be seen is where the next "test case" will come from and how it will be framed.
My prior post comparing and contrasting in detail European and U.S. collective action procedures and approaches can be found here.
Very special thanks to Werner R. Kranenburg (who can be found on Twitter, here) for a copy of the Dutch Court’s ruling.