According to its November 13, 2009 press release (here), Marsh & McLennan has agreed to pay $400 million to settle the consolidated securities class action lawsuit pending in the Southern District of New York against the company, its insurance brokerage unit, and certain former officers of the company. The company also agreed to pay $35 million to settle the related ERISA class action suit filed on behalf of the company’s employees. Both settlements are subject to court approval.
As reflected in the press release, the company expects that $205 million of the $400 million securities settlement and $25 million of the $35 million ERISA settlement will be covered by the company’s insurance.
These two consolidated class action lawsuits were both initiated in October 2004, in the wake of then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s announcement that he had launched a fraud lawsuit against Marsh and others alleging that Marsh had engaged in bid-rigging, price-fixing and had accepted payoff from insurers in the form of "contingent commissions."
As reflected in greater detail here, the investor plaintiffs in the subsequently filed securities suit alleged that the defendants had failed to disclose that "the Company had implemented and executed an unsustainable business practice whereby the Company designed and executed a business plan under which insurance companies agreed to pay so-called ‘contingent commissions’ in return for Marsh to steer them business and shield them from competition." The securities suit further alleged that "the Company’s revenues and earnings would have been significantly less had the Company not engaged in such unlawful practices."
The ERISA suit alleged that the defendants had breached their fiduciary duties by "imprudently permitting" the company’s benefit plans to invest in and hold MMC stock, despite the fact that defendants knew or should have known that the company or its subsidiaries were engaging in bid-rigging and other illegal activities. As a result, it was alleged, the plan’s investment in MMC stock was no longer prudent and appropriate.
Based on the data reflected in the most recent Risk Metrics Group table of the 100 largest securities class action settlements (here), the $400 million securities lawsuit settlement, if approved, would represent the twenty-fourth largest securities largest securities settlement ever. The $35 million ERISA settlement would also be among the larges all-time ERISA class action settlements, as reflected in my table of ERISA case settlements, which can be accessed here.
The Marsh lawsuits were among several that were filed in the wake of Spitzer’s "contingent commission" investigation. And though some of these other cases also resulted in settlements, none were any near as large as the recent Marsh settlements.
For example, AON paid a comparatively modest $30 million to settle its contingent commission-related securities suit (about which refer here). The contingent commission-related securities suit filed against Hilb, Royal & Hobbs (about which refer here) was actually dismissed, and while the plaintiffs appeal was pending the parties negotiated a stipulation of dismissal.
The massive size of the Marsh settlements is impressive, but similarly noteworthy is the extent to which both of these settlements exceeded the amount of insurance available. One of the perennial questions in D&O insurance placement is the issue of "limits adequacy" – that is, the question of how much insurance is enough. The significant extent to which these settlements exceeded the available insurance underscores the dramatic potential for catastrophic claims to exceed the limits of even very large D&O insurance programs.
A smart-alecky observer might be tempted to try to extract some irony from the fact that an insurance advisor like Marsh was caught short with insurance limits that proved insufficient. The reality is that very serious claims of the kind filed against Marsh have the terrible potential to exceed any realistically available amount of insurance. As a practical matter, as some level, there is no available and affordable amount of insurance that could be sufficient to ensure limits sufficiency for every possible claim. In any insurance program, even one that is very large, there will always be some risk that the costs associated with serious claims could exceed the available limits.
This inherent potential for limits inadequacy underscores the extraordinary importance of limits selection issues. Well-advised insurance buyers will want to purchase limits calculated to reduce the risk of limits insufficiency as much as practicable, consistent with competing concerns regarding affordability and insurance availability.
As the same time, the inherent risk of limits inadequacy highlights the need for well-advised insurance buyers to consider program structure issues as well program limits. A well-constructed insurance program should incorporate not only appropriate limits of liability, but should also include appropriate alternative insurance structures, such as Excess/Side A DIC insurance and perhaps even independent director liability insurance, as a way to try to reduce the possibility that individuals might face further potential liability without insurance available to protect them.
One final note is that there have now been a couple of dozen securities class action settlements of $400 million or greater. While settlements of this enormous size are still noteworthy, the fact is that it is becoming increasingly common for securities class action settlements to exceed any theoretically available amount of insurance. This troublesome fact has significant risk management implications. Simply put, insurance alone may be insufficient to fully protect against liability exposures under the federal securities laws. There is a longer essay for another day here, but the unmistakable conclusion is that corporate risk management must address far more than just insurance-related issues.
The November 13, 2009 press release of Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray relating to his office’s role in negotiating the Marsh settlement on behalf of various Ohio pension funds can be found here. A post on the 10b-5 Daily blog discussing the settlement and linking to various rulings in the underlying securities suit can be found here. Ben Hallman’s November 13, 2009 AmLaw Litigation Daily article discussing the attorneys involved in the settlement can be found here.
DoJ Targets Pharma Company FCPA Violations: Earlier this week, I linked to a recent Business Insurance article suggesting the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act-related claims could produce increasing claims costs for D&O insurers. But knowing that there could be growing numbers of FCPA claims does not tell D&O insurance underwriters which of their policyholders or prospective policyholders are likeliest to produce these kinds of claims.
Recent comments by a DoJ official suggest at least one industry that could prove to be a significant source of FCPA-related losses. According to a November 12, 2009 Blog of the Legal Times article (here), Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer recently told a pharmaceutical industry conference that the application of the FCPA to the pharmaceutical industry will be a priority in the "months and years ahead."
The particular concern is that government involvement in foreign health care systems means that health care and medical officials in many countries are government officials, creating a "significant risk that corrupt payments will infect the process." Breuer and others emphasized that their enforcement actions will not be limited to corporate actors, but where facts warrant will also include criminal actions against individuals.
Dick Cassin has a post on his FCPA Blog (here) with a link to a complete copy of Breuer’s remarks, as well as Cassin’s own comments on the prospects for increased FCPA enforcement activity in the pharmaceutical industry.
And in This Week’s Ponzi Scheme News: I was struck by the news late last week that prosecutors had brought criminal charges against two computer programmers for aiding Bernard Madoff’s fraudulent investment scheme. I think we all suspected that a fraud as massive as Madoff’s could not have been sustained without the complicity of other individuals. Of course there were individuals like these programmers, who apparently were actively complicit – along with those like the regulators and other gatekeepers who may have been passively complicit.
The latest Ponzi scheme story involving Florida lawyer Scott Rothstein is all too familiar. The November 14, 2009 Wall Street Journal’s front-page story about Rothstein reflects all of the now-standard features, including large boats, expensive homes and fast cars – all of the accoutrements of accomplishment, where all that had been accomplished was deception. The Miami Herald reports that investigators "do not believe this was a one-man show." That is, the Rothstein scheme may have had other features in common with other Ponzi schemes, including the complicity of others.
The Journal’s account of Rothstein’s fraudulent scheme brought home to me that these schemes require yet another kind of complicity — that is, the complicity of investors seeking outsized returns. It would be unduly harsh (not to mention smug) to presume to blame the investors for their losses. They were, after all, actively misled. By the same token, however, the schemes would have gone nowhere if investors had not been willing to accept the schemes’ unconventional investment proposition in exchange for the promise of returns unavailable from conventional sources. A November 9, 2009 Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel article examining this angle of the Rothstein story can be found here.
We can bemoan the failure of regulators and other gatekeepers that allowed the schemers to escape detection. But at the same time, a healthy skepticism, including in particular a suspicion of consistently market-beating returns, may be something that no investor can afford to do without. I do not mean to suggest that the victims of these schemes are to blame for their own losses. Rather, I am saying that the rest of us can learn from these events, and with benefit of the lessons from these examples perhaps avoid these kinds of losses in the future.