From time to time on this blog I try to draw generalizations from a variety of disparate claims as a way to identify emerging themes. However, a single recently filed securities class action manages to embody in a single complaint several themes I have previously tried to describe.


The case in question is the action filed on July 10, 2009 in the Southern District of New York on behalf of those who purchased common shares of Tronox, Inc. between November 28, 2005 and January 12, 2009. The complaint names as defendants certain former directors and officers of Tronox, as well as Kerr-McGee Corporation, Andarko Petroleum Corporation and certain Kerr-McGee executives.


According to the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ July 10, 2009 press release (here), the complaint alleges that:


Tronox was spun-off from Kerr-McGee in a two-step transaction. In November 2005, Kerr-McGee sold 17.5 million shares of Tronox Class A shares in an initial public offering for $14.00 per share (the "IPO") generating proceeds for Kerr-McGee of $225 million. After the IPO, Kerr-McGee continued to hold 56.7% of Tronox’s outstanding common stock. In March 2006, Kerr-McGee distributed the balance of the shares that it owned as Class B shares to its shareholders as a dividend (the "Spin-Off").

The Complaint alleges that, throughout the Class Period, Defendants failed to disclose material adverse facts about the Company’s true financial condition, business and prospects. Specifically, the Complaint alleges that Defendants failed to disclose the true scope and extent of Tronox’s environmental and tort liabilities. When the market learned of the true facts about the Company, the price of Tronox stock declined precipitously.


The complaint itself (which can be found here) alleges that the alleged misrepresentations and omissions


(i) deceived the investing public regarding the true nature and extent of the Company’s environmental and tort liabilities, Tronox’s business, operations, management, and the intrinsic value of Tronox’s stock; (ii) enabled Kerr-McGee to sell $225 million of Tronox stock to the unsuspecting public at artificially inflated prices; (iii) enabled Kerr-McGee to successfully rid itself of hundreds of millions of dollars of liabilities, thereby clearing the way for Kerr-McGee to sell itself to Andarko; and (iv) cause Plaintiff and other members of the Class to purchase Tronox common stock at artificial prices.


There are a number of interesting things to me about this complaint, all of which sound themes that will be familiar to readers of this blog.


First, this case represents yet another example of the way in which the spreading wave of corporate bankruptcies is extending the litigation consequences of the financial crisis beyond just the financial sector. (My prior post on this topic can be found here.) Tronox, the bankrupt company at the cent of this case, is engaged in the business of producing and marketing titanium dioxide, a white pigment used in a variety of products. Tronox, which definitely is not a financial services company, was not named as a defendant in the case owing to its bankrupt status.


Second, the complaint is based on alleged misrepresentations and omissions regarding Tronox’s environmental and tort liabilities. Among other things, the complaint alleges that the defendants ignored known information in setting Tronox’s reserves for environmental liabilities, and in particular that the reserves did not include any allowance for special sites (supposedly known as "secret sites") Kerr-McGee had identified as part of an investigation. The complaint also alleges that the defendants knew that independent third parties had reviewed the company’ s non-public information regarding its environmental liabilities and concluded that the company’s liabilities could be substantially larger.


These allegations may be noteworthy in and of themselves, but they are also noteworthy because they represent specific examples of what I have previously identified (most recently here) as the growing disclosure risks public companies face regarding their environmental liabilities. Although more recently I have emphasized the growing risks surrounding climate change related issues, as this case demonstrates, the disclosure risks also include the risks associated with more conventional environmental liability exposures.


Third, the roster of defendants involved in this case demonstrates a potential problem that can arise under D&O insurance policies in certain situations. Under the typical D&O insurance policy, coverage for the corporate entity is provided solely for "securities claim," which is a policy term that is typically defined in one of two ways. The first way is with respect to the securities involved, and the second way is with respect to the specific legal violations alleged.


In the first of these formulations, the policy includes within its definition of the term "securities claim" for which entity coverage is provided any claim based upon the purchase or sale of the securities of the Insured Entity itself. The alternative formulation pertains to claims alleging violation of any federal, state, local, or foreign securities law. (It should be noted that some current policies incorporate both formulations within the definition of the term "securities claim.")


The interesting thing about the Tronox lawsuit in connection with these alternative definitions of the term "securities claim" is that the Tronox complaint alleges violations of the securities laws against Kerr-McGee and Andarko, but not in connection with the purchase or sale of those companies’ own securities, but rather in connection with the securities of Tronox. Thus, to the extent these companies’ D&O insurance policies contain only the first of the two alternative formulations for the term "securities claim," their respective insurers might take the position that the Tronox complaint is not a "securities claim" with the meaning of their policies.


I should emphasize here that I have no familiarity with the specific terms or conditions of the D&O insurance policies of any party involved in this case and I am expressing no opinions one way or the other about the availability of coverage under any policies that may be applicable.


As I noted above, many policies available in the D&O insurance marketplace today actually incorporate both alternative formulations with the definition of the term "securities claim." But the Tronox complaint provides an example of how problems might arise in connection with D&O insurance policies containing more restrictive definitions of the term.


As for my first two observations noted above, I suspect that there will be many other securities lawsuits yet to come arising out of bankruptcies outside the financial sector. And I suspect strongly that in the months and years ahead we will see an increasing number of securities lawsuits raising allegations based on supposed misrepresentations or omissions relating to environmental liabilities and exposures, including but not limited to climate change issues.


And Speaking of Climate Change-Related Disclosure Issues: Just the other day I added a post (here) in which I raised the possibility that companies may soon find themselves facing the need to incorporate climate change-related disclosures in their periodic filings. A recent news article suggests that these changes may be even closer than I anticipated.


According to a July 13, 2009 New York Times article entitled "SEC Turnaround Sparks Sudden Look at Climate Disclosure" (here) federal regulators are preparing to launch a "very serious look" at requiring corporations "to assess and reveal the effects of climate change on their financial health."


According to the article, the SEC is following up on the landmark disclosure requirements enacted by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners this spring (and about which refer here). SEC representatives have also met with CERES, which submitted a petition in 2007 asking the SEC to clarify and strengthen requirements for climate change disclosure (and about which refer here).


Although the article hints strongly that formal disclosure requirements might be ahead, the article also acknowledges that nothing specific is actually underway now, and that a variety of practical and policy concerns would complicate any initiative that is launched.


Nevertheless, the message is that the SEC’s new leadership is more receptive to these possibilities and interested in pursing them further.


Hat tip to the Securities Docket for the link to the New York Times article.