On December 15, 2009, NERA Economic Consulting released its annual study of securities class action litigation trends. The study, entitled "Recent Trends in Securities Class Action Litigation: 2009 Year-End Update," and written by my friends Stephanie Plancich and Svetlana Starykh, can be found here. The study concludes that, notwithstanding the decline in credit crisis related filings in the second half of 2009, the projected year-end filing levels will be within historical norms. Average and median securities class action settlements are also consistent with recent trends.


According to the study, credit crisis related filings, which predominated class action filings during 2007 and 2008, "gradually declined" as 2009 progressed. Despite this decline, the total number of securities suit filings has not dropped off, "as other types of cases replaced credit crisis filings."


Based on NERA’s own counting methodology (which, as is explained in footnote 2 of the report, counts separate filings in separate circuits as separate lawsuits until the cases are consolidated), NERA counted 215 securities class action lawsuit filings through November 30, 2009, which projects to 235 filings by year end. Though the projected total of 235 would be below the 2008 level of 253 filings, it is well within the 1997-2004 average of 231 annual filings.


Although the 2009 filing levels look as if they will fall within historical levels, the 2009 filings were swollen by at least a several phenomena that may be short lived. Thus, for example, 36 of the 2009 filings involve Ponzi schemes. Though there may continue to be Ponzi scheme revelations as we head into 2010, it does seem likely that there may be fewer of those stories ahead.


Similarly, the 2009 filings were also increased by 13 new cases related to leveraged ETFs. (My prior post about ETF-related lawsuits can be found here). Though there may be further ETF cases yet to come, this group of cases seems likely to decline, as virtually all of these filings relate to a single family of funds and all relate to a single set of disclosures about the funds’ performance over time.


A third filing pattern that may not continue going forward is the number of cases in which the filing date falls well after the proposed class action cutoff date. (My most recent post about these apparently belated securities suit filings can be found here.) The NERA study shows that during the second half of 2009, the average time between the end of the class period and the date of the first filing lengthened to 279 days (versus a period of 161 days for suits filed during the preceding three years). The NERA study speculates that this may be a reflection of the fact that plaintiffs firms have been "focused on the large credit crisis cases over the last two years," but that they are "now able to focus on bringing other, non-credit-crisis cases with older class periods."


The NERA study reports that cases in 2009 continued to be clustered in the financial sector, with 53% of all filings naming a defendant in the finance sector. Another sector that has continued to see substantial activity is the health technology and services sector.


As far as case resolutions, the NERA study reports that for cases that were filed in 2000, 36% have been dismissed and 61% have settled, but that "even almost a decade after filing, there are still approximately 3% of cases that have yet to reach a final resolution," which underscores the fact that in some instances these cases can take as much as a decade or more to resolve.


Of course, the majority of cases filed in recent years remain pending. For these most recent cases, a higher proportion of resolutions have been dismissals rather than settlements, which the NERA study notes "is unsurprising, as motions to dismiss are usually fled relatively early in the litigation process, often before settlement discussions commence." Ultimately however, the NERA study comments, "we expect that a higher proportion of these recent filings will result in settlements."


With respect to the credit crisis cases, the NERA study notes that over 80% of the cases remain pending, with only 15% of the cases dismissed compared to only 4% (nine cases that have settled.) My running tally of subprime case resolutions can be accessed here. The NERA report comments that this pattern is consistent with observed patterns in which early on more cases are dismissed but that ultimately over time a large proportion of cases settle than are dismissed.


As far as settlements, the NERA study reports that the average securities class action settlement in 2009, if the IPO laddering settlement is removed from the equation, was $42 million, which is substantially above the 2003-2009 average of $29 million, but which is consistent with the overall trend, which is that "there has been a general increase in the average settlement values since 1996."


But though the average settlements continue to increase, median settlements have held relatively steady. In 2009, the median settlement was $9 million, similar to the medians in 2007 ($9.4 million) and 2008 ($8.0 million).


Over the past several years, the ratio of settlement to investor losses has held steady at around 2.5%. The NERA study speculates that because this ratio has held reasonably steady and because investor losses historically have been correlated with settlement values, the fact that investor losses in cases filed during 2007 and 2008 were significantly higher than prior years may be "a signal of potentially higher settlements in the future," as the 2007 and 2008 cases move toward settlement.


As always, the 2009 version of the NERA study provides interesting and thorough analyses. It is worth noting that, because the NERA study "counts" separate filings in separate circuits as separate filings as separate cases, the NERA filing will differ from (and almost certainly be higher than) the figures that other commentators may report in their year end reports.


One thing about the average and median settlement figures that I think all observers should keep in mind is that these figures do not include defense expense, which can be considerable and in many cases can represent a significant percentage of the settlement amounts. In addition, these class settlement figures do not reflect the value of any separate opt-out settlements, nor do they reflect the amounts of other litigation settlements, such as might be incurred in connection with parallel derivative or ERISA class action lawsuits.


My point is that as impressive as the settlement figures reflected in the NERA report are, they represent only a portion of the litigation exposure that the affected companies may have faced, and therefore represent only a partial and incomplete measure, for example, of what insurance limits may be sufficient to protect companies and their directors and officers from their claim exposures.


NERA’s December 15, 2009 press release regarding the 2009 study can be found here.