Each fall for the last three years I have taken a look at the current trends and hot topics in the world of D&O. There are of course the perennial topics that always remain important. However, this overview is intended to address the most significant concerns of current interest for D&O insurance professionals and their clients. My list of the current issues to watch is set out below.
Will Rising Corporate Bankruptcies Produce Increased D&O Claims?
According to the Administrative Office of the U. S. Courts (refer here), the number of business-related bankruptcies increased 63% (to 55,021 from 33,822) during the year ended June 30, 2009. Although there are some encouraging signs that the overall economy may be beginning to recover, significant numbers of individual companies could continue to face the risk of bankruptcy for some time to come.
Among other problems associated with bankruptcy filings is the risk of increased claims against officials at the bankrupt firms. For example, in its 2008 year end report on securities litigation activity, Advisen noted that since 1995, roughly 35 percent of the large public companies (defined as having assets of over $250 million in 2008 dollars) that filed for bankruptcy also sustained securities class action lawsuits against their directors and officers. During 2007 and 2008, the percentage increased to 77 percent. The directors and officers of private companies also face a heightened claims exposure when their companies file for bankruptcy.
Bankruptcy associated-claims present a host of complications, not least of which is the intricate (and sometimes problematic) way that D&O insurance policies respond in the bankruptcy context. One recent development illustrating the difficulties that can arise in the bankruptcy context was the July 2009 decision in the Visitalk case (about which refer here), in which the Ninth Circuit upheld the carriers’ denial of coverage for a lawsuit brought by a company as debtor in possession against former directors and officers of the company, as a result of the policies’ insured vs. insured exclusion.
These kinds of complications underscore the need for D&O insurance policies to be closely scrutinized for their ability both to withstand and to respond to claims arising in the context of bankruptcy.
One final concern is that the rising tide of corporate bankruptcies could trigger increased losses under Excess Side A insurance that many companies now carry. This possibility is one of several factors, many of which that are discussed below, that could represent a changing environment for carriers offering Excess Side A insurance. The increased number of bankruptcies in any event further reinforces the proposition that Excess Side A insurance is an indispensible part of a complete D&O insurance program for any corporate insured, whether public or private.
Will the Growing Number of Bank Failures Produce a Wave of Failed Bank Litigation?
The number of 2009 year to date failed banks is now up to 89 (as of September 4, 2009, about which refer here), and the total number of bank failures since January 1, 2008, is up to 114. Alarmist commentators have made predictions that as many as 1,000 banks could fail by the end of 2010, as discussed here. Whether or not the number of bank closures will come anywhere near that level, it is clear that we are in the midst of the most significant wave of bank failures since the S&L crisis.
The question remains whether this time around we will see the same level of litigation activity as we saw during the last failed bank wave. Somewhat surprisingly, so far the FDIC has initiated relatively little litigation to try to recoup its losses from the directors and officers of the failed financial institutions. However, for now the FDIC is preoccupied dealing with further bank closures. And even during the S&L crisis, the FDIC and the other regulatory agencies usually did not act until statutes of limitations were just about to expire. There could yet be another round of failed bank litigation, in a 21st Century edition.
Private litigants might also be expected to get in the act — for example, investors who lost their entire investment when a bank closes might well be expected to pursue claims. There has been a certain amount of that (refer here). There has also been some securities class action litigation activity involving failed banks whose shares were publicly traded. Of the 25 banks that failed in 2008, six of them are involved in securities class action litigation, even though only 11 of them were publicly traded.
However, the securities class action litigation involving the failed banks has not fared particularly well so far. For example, in the Downey Financial securities class action lawsuit (about which refer here), the district court recently granted the renewed motion to dismiss following the plaintiffs’ attempt to amend their complaint to try to remedy the pleading defects noted in the initial dismissal without prejudice. In addition, in the Fremont General securities lawsuit (refer here), the court also granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, albeit with leave to amend.
These early returns potentially could be discouraging some potential litigants. Nevertheless, if for no other reason than the fact that there was so much failed bank litigation last time around, it seems likely that when all is said and done, the growing number of bank failures will at some point lead to an extended round of failed bank litigation.
Whether or the failed bank litigation ultimately emerges, the D&O insurers have responded defensively to the wave of bank failures. Many financial institutions, including even smaller community banks, are facing significantly more challenging circumstances when trying to renew their D&O insurance. Many banks find that they can obtain coverage, if at all, at significantly greater cost for significantly restricted terms and conditions, and in many instances with significant new limitations such as reduced limits of liability or the addition of additional exclusions, such as a regulatory exclusion. The wave of failed banks has already had a significant impact in the D&O insurance marketplace.
Will the Rising Number of Derivative Lawsuit Mega Settlements Mean Significant Excess Side A Losses?
Within the last several years, there have been a rising number of unprecedented mega settlements in shareholders’ derivative lawsuits, particularly during the last 12 to 24 months. These massive derivative lawsuit settlements include the $900 million UnitedHealth Group options backdating settlement (refer here); the $118 Broadcom options backdating settlement (refer here); and the $115 AIG settlement (refer here).
One consequence of this outbreak of massive derivative lawsuit settlements is that now for the first time Excess Side A carriers are being called upon to contribute significantly toward settlement outside of the insolvency context. The recent Broadcom settlement, in which the Excess Side A insurers collectively contributed $40 million to settlement, appears to represent a milestone development in that regard. While there may well have been prior occasions on which Excess Side A insurance contributed toward settlement outside of insolvency, the Broadcom settlement is by far the most public example. Based on the reactions I have heard, the Broadcom settlement has been a wake up call of sorts for many players throughout the D&O industry.
Among other things, the Broadcom settlement underscores the value for companies and their directors and officers of the Excess Side A product, which, along with the insolvency related considerations noted above, should further encourage policyholder take up of this product. As also noted above, Excess Side A protection increasingly will become a standard part of any well designed D&O insurance program.
The Broadcom settlement also represents a significant development for D&O insurers as well, who until now have enjoyed the opportunity to offer Excess Side A insurance in a relatively low loss cost environment, particularly outside the insolvency context. The Broadcom settlement highlights the potential for Excess Side A insurers to sustain significant claims losses on this product, even outside of the insolvency context. The increasing incidence of mega derivative lawsuit settlements underscores the growing possibility of these kinds of losses.
Another significant side effect of the Broadcom settlement is that the plaintiffs’ lawyers clearly will now have developed an appreciation of the value of presenting claims that trigger the Excess Side A coverage. The question arises whether they might now attempt to craft claims for the express purposes of accessing the Excess Side A limits. The attempt to pursue this strategy would face considerable challenges – derivative lawsuits, for example, are subject to formidable defenses, including the demand requirement and the business judgment rule defense. Nevertheless, the possibility of claims targeted expressly at the Excess Side A limits is a consideration that should not simply be disregarded.
Will Securities Lawsuit Filings Return to Historical Levels?
As discussed in a prior post (here), securities class action lawsuit filings dropped during the second quarter of 2009. This decline was largely due to the low filing activity during May (when there were only 11 new securities class action lawsuits) and during June (when there were only six new securities lawsuits), compared to historical monthly filing levels in the range of 15 to 20 new lawsuits a month.
At least to this point in the third quarter, it seems as if the second quarter filing decline was just a temporary dip that has already ended. There were at least 20 new securities class action lawsuits in July, and at least 17 in August, both of which monthly filing levels are well within historical norms.
Another interesting attribute of the most recent lawsuit filings is that so far the third quarter filings are not nearly as concentrated in the financial sector. During the first half of the year, about two-thirds of the securities class action lawsuit filings involved financial companies. However, of the 37 securities lawsuits filed in July and August, only about 13 (or roughly a third) involved financial institutions. In other words the proportion of lawsuits filed against financial companies to lawsuits filed against nonfinancial companies seems to be completely reversed from the first half of the year.
The other interesting thing about the third quarter filings is the extent to which the cases involve proposed class period cutoff dates that are well in the past, sometimes by as much as a year or more prior to the actual filing date. As I have previously noted on this blog (most recently here), these belated filings suggest that while the plaintiffs lawyers were scrambling to file subprime and credit crisis-related lawsuit against financial companies in the first part of the year, they were also developing a backlog of other cases that they are now working off.
All signs indicate that by the end of this year, securities class action filing levels will likely have returned to historical levels after the brief and apparently temporary decline in the second quarter. The concentration of filings in the financial sector also seems to be abating, with distribution of filings by industry starting to look more like historical norms.
How are Plaintiffs Faring in the Subprime and Credit Crisis-Related Securities Lawsuit?
We are now more than two and a half years into the subprime and credit crisis-related litigation wave, yet in many respects the cases are still only in their earliest stages. But there have been a number of recent significant developments suggesting that the evolving subprime litigation wave recently may have passed a significant milestone, and that it could be an appropriate time to take a closer look at the status of the subprime and credit crisis cases. For that reason, I will be publishing a post within the next few days providing a detailed status report on the litigation wave. I will update this post with a link when the status report is available. UPDATE: My September 8, 2009 status report on the subprime and credit crisis related litgation can be found here.
In the meantime, though the wave is still in its early stages, it is possible to make a number of generalizations. First, it seems like the defendants again have the upper hand at the motion to dismiss stage. Among other things, the Eighth Circuit’s recent decision affirming the district court’s dismissal in the NovaStar Financial case (about which refer here) represents a significant victory for defendants. The Downey Financial dismissal, discussed above in connection with the failed banks is another example. The recent dismissals in the Citigroup subprime-related derivative lawsuit (refer here) and Citigroup ERISA lawsuit (refer here, scroll down) also suggest that plaintiffs may be faring poorly in those cases as well.
On the other hand, there have also been some significant recent settlements suggesting that if the plaintiffs can survive motions to dismiss in these cases, the cost of settlement can be significant. Along those lines, the recent $32 million settlement in the RAIT Financial case (refer here) and the $22 million settlement in the Accredited Home Builders case (refer here) illustrate how costly it can be to try to settle cases that survive motions to dismiss.
Two equally significant settlements in cases in which the dismissal motions had not yet even been heard – the $37.25 million settlement in the American Home case (refer here) and the $30.5 million settlement in the Beazer Homes case (refer here) – suggests that in cases that are sufficiently serious the plaintiffs may be able to avoid the initial pleading hurdle altogether.
The American Home settlement may be particularly noteworthy because in that case both the offering underwriter defendants and the company’s auditor contributed substantially toward the cost of settlement. That, together with the Judge Scheindler’s September 2, 20009 partial denial of the motion to dismiss the claims against the rating agencies in the Cheyne Finance lawsuit (about which refer here), could suggest that in at least some of these cases the possibility of gatekeeper liability could be an important part of the overall claims resolution.
The final point is that these cases are proving to be extremely costly to litigate. The most dramatic illustration of this point is State Street’s August 10, 2009 announcement (here) that the approximately $625 million subprime-related litigation expense reserve the company had established in January 2008 was as of June 30, 2009 already down to $193 million, and further that there could be no assurances that the remaining amount would be adequate for the company’s continuing litigation.
So while the defendants may have won some important victories in the courtroom, the overall costs of defending and settling these cases taken in the aggregate nevertheless continues to look as if it will be enormous. By any measure, the subprime and credit crisis-related litigation wave continues to represent a tremendous loss exposure for D&O insurers.
Will the SEC’s Renewed Aggressiveness Expand Individual Liability Exposures for Corporate Officials?
The SEC is under considerable pressure to reestablish its regulatory credentials and to try to restore its tarnished reputation. As a result, the SEC recently has shown a renewed aggressiveness and even an apparent willingness to try to expand the weapons in its arsenal, in ways that may pose increased threats to corporate officials.
Two recent enforcement actions underscore this pronounced new aggressiveness. First, in July 2009, the SEC launched an enforcement action against the CEO of CSK Auto. As discussed here, the SEC is seeking to clawback the compensation the CEO earned during the period for which the company later restated its financial statements. Significantly, the SEC is pursuing this claim even though the CEO is not alleged to have engaged in any wrongful misconduct or even to have had any role in or knowledge of the issues that triggered the company’s restatement.
The second example of the SEC’s recent aggressiveness is the July 2009 enforcement action filed against two corporate officials at Nature’s Sunshine Products. As discussed here, the SEC sought to impose control person liability on the two officials for the company’s activities that violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, even though the two individuals were not themselves alleged to have been involved in or even aware of the corrupt activities.
Though the SEC’s apparently needs no further encouragement to pursue liability claims against individuals, the agency nevertheless is facing significant additional pressure to target individuals as part of its enforcement activities. Indeed, among other reasons that Judge Jed Rakoff has questioned the proposed settlement of the enforcement action involving the Merrill Lynch bonuses is that the settlement does not involve any specific allegations against or claims against the individuals who caused the alleged wrongdoing to take place. (Refer here for additional details regarding Judge Rakoff’s objections). Regardless of the outcome of the Merrill Lynch settlement, going forward the SEC likely will have to anticipate this objection and incorporate targeted allegations against individuals in an effort to forestall further objections of this kind.
The bottom line is that as a result of these developments, corporate officials could find themselves increasingly on the firing line. Of particular concern is that the CSK Auto and Nature’s Sunshine Products enforcement actions evidence an arguably disturbing willingness on the SEC’s part to try to impose liability on corporate officials even in the absence of culpable involvement in or even awareness of the alleged wrongdoing.
Will Claimants Increasingly Target Outside Directors?
The $61.55 million settlement earlier this year of the claims against the outside director defendants in the Peregrine Systems securities lawsuit is merely the latest example where outside directors have found themselves required to contribute toward a separate settlement of significant liability claims against them. As discussed at greater length here, at least some of the outside director defendants appear to have been required to contribute toward the Peregrine Systems settlement out of their own assets.
As was also shown in the now infamous Just for Feet settlement (about which refer here), the threat that outside directors will be targeted and could be called upon to contribute toward settlement out of their own assets is a growing concern, and one that is significantly increased in the bankruptcy context. Given the growing number of corporate bankruptcies, outside directors could find increasingly find themselves on the front lines of D&O claims.
These developments underscore yet again the need for alternative insurance structures such as Excess Side A insurance to be included as an important part of the corporate D&O insurance program. Indeed, among the defendants whose potential liabilities were settled by the Excess Side A insurers’ contribution in the Broadcom options backdating derivative lawsuit settlement were several of that company’s outside directors.
These cases also highlight the extent to which the outside directors’ liability exposures and interests should be separately considered as part of the construction of a company’s D&O insurance program. Simply put, the outside directors’ interests and the interests of the company’s officers may or may not be completely aligned. These developments and considerations suggest that the non-officer directors could be well advised to have their insurance interests independently reviewed, in order to ensure that their interests are appropriately addressed in the way the company’s insurance program is constructed, as I discuss at greater length here.
What Will be the Next Industry Event for the D&O Insurance Industry?
It is commonly understood that the D&O insurance industry’s historical experience is characterized by a sequence of industry events – for example, we went from the bursting of the Internet bubble to the era of corporate scandals, and we went from options backdating to the subprime litigation wave.
So what will be the next industry event? It might be one or more of the issues discussed above, like the failed bank litigation wave, or the rising number of derivative lawsuits. Or it could be a further extension of existing trends, like the rising numbers of FCPA follow-on civil lawsuits. Or it could be something entirely new, like lawsuits arising from climate change related disclosures.
Only time will tell for sure what the next industry event will be. The one thing that is for certain is that there will another event that will emerge and define the industry’s experience in the months and years that follow.
Is the D&O Insurance Marketplace Headed for a "Hard Market"?
Earlier this year, Advisen took the bold and provocative step of predicting that the D&O insurance marketplace is headed toward a "hard market" as early as late 2009 or early 2010, as discussed at greater length here. Whether or not we are actually headed to an overall harder insurance market remains to be seen, though as 2009 progresses, the possibility to that we will see a hard market earlier rather than later seems less and less likely.
To be sure, the D&O insurance marketplace for companies in the financial sector is definitely harder than for the rest of the marketplace, and some financial institutions are now "hard to place." The speed with which the D&O marketplace for community banks firmed up shows how quickly conditions can change.
Nevertheless, for most companies, particularly those that are financially stable, the D&O marketplace remains competitive, with ample capacity and coverage available on favorable terms and conditions. The pricing declines that have characterized the marketplace over the last several years have largely ended, but outside the financial sector significant pricing increases (at least for financial stable companies) remain the exception.
That is not to say that the possibility of a generalized harder market is completely out of the question. The losses and defense expense associated with the subprime and credit crisis related litigation wave, in combination with several years’ of pricing declines and coverage expansions, could start to affect carriers’ overall results and trigger pricing increases and marketplace restrictions. Whether and when these circumstances might arise remains to be seen.