What a difference a year makes. Just 12 months ago, the subprime and credit crisis litigation wave was in full spate, and the onslaught of Madoff and other Ponzi scheme cases had just begun to surge. And while both of these lawsuit filing trends continued well into 2009, by year’s end both of these phenomena had largely played out. At the same time, however, other litigation trends emerged as the year progressed, and in the end, the number of new securities class action lawsuits filed during 2009, though significantly below the number filed in 2008, was well within historical norms.


First, let’s run the numbers. By my count — please see the note below about how I "counted" — there were 189 new securities class action lawsuits in 2009, which is just below but within range of the 1966-2007 annual average of 192, although 15.6% below the 2008 total of 224 new securities lawsuits.


As was the case for the two preceding years, the 2009 lawsuit filings were largely driven by lawsuits against financially-related firms. Of the 189 new securities suits in 2009, 69 were against companies in the 6000 Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) code series (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate). In addition, another 39 of the defendant firms targeted in 2009 securities class action lawsuits lacked SIC Codes. These lawsuit targets without SIC code designations included mutual funds, ETFs, and closed end funds. In general, the defendant entities that lacked SIC codes were all financially related.


If these two groups, the companies in the 6000 SIC code series and the entities that lacked SIC code designations, are added together, the total is 108. So these two groups together represented roughly 57.1% of the new lawsuits filed in 2009.


A significant factor driving this concentration of filings in the financial sector was the number of credit crisis-related lawsuits. By my count, there were 62 new credit crisis-related securities lawsuits filed in 2009, bringing to 205 the total number of credit crisis related securities lawsuits that were filed since the litigation wave commenced in February 2007. (My complete list of the subprime and credit crisis-related securities suits can be found here.)


But though the credit crisis litigation wave carried over into 2009, as the year progressed the number of credit crisis-related filings dropped off. So too did the concentration of filings against financial companies. Thus, while 72.6% of the lawsuits in the first half of 2009 were against financially-related companies, only 41.3% of the filings in the year’s second half involved financial companies.


And even though the lawsuits filed against financially related companies declined in the second half of the year, by and large, the rate of lawsuit filings overall did not decline. Thus, while there were 95 new securities class action lawsuits in the first half of 2009, there were 94 in the second half – virtually the same filing rate in both halves of the year.


Part of the reason that the overall lawsuit filing rate did not decline in the second half of the year even though the credit crisis-related lawsuits trailed off is that a couple of filing trends emerged in the second half of the year that fueled lawsuit filings and took up the slack.


The first of these two trends was the outbreak of a rash of lawsuits against leveraged exchange-traded funds (ETFs), which I discussed in a prior post here. By my count, there were twelve separate securities lawsuits filed against ETFs, all during the second half of 2009. These suits largely have been filed against leveraged ETFs drawn from within a single fund family, and all present more or less the same allegations (essentially that investors were not told that the funds would track their target measures or ratios only for very short periods). Because these lawsuits represent more than 6% of all new 2009 securities lawsuits, they represent a significant part of the year’s securities litigation activity.


The second trend that emerged during the second half of 2009 was the emergence of a significant number of belated lawsuit filings, where the lawsuit filing date came long after the proposed class period cut-off date, a phenomenon I discussed several times in the latter half of the year (most recently here). These belated filings appear to be the result of a lawsuit backlog that developed while the plaintiffs’ lawyers were preoccupied with the credit crisis related lawsuit filings.


By my count, 22 of the 94 securities lawsuits filed during the second half of 2009 were filed more than a year after their proposed class period cut-off date. In some instances, the lawsuit filings came at the very end of the two-year limitations period. For example, the Pitney Bowes securities class action lawsuit was filed one year and 364 days after the proposed class period cutoff date. Indeed, in at least two cases (the Avanir Pharmaceuticals case and the Regions Financial case), the filing came nearly three years after the proposed class period cutoff, raising a rather obvious question about how these cases will withstand statute of limitations objections.


The belated filings continued to arrive right through the end of the year, with several of December’s filings including cases with filing dates more than a year after the proposed class period cutoff date, including the new lawsuits filed against Siemens (about which refer here), NightHawk Radiology Holdings (here), and Terex (refer here).


Almost all of these backlog cases have been filed against companies outside the financial sector, which accounts in part for the shift in filings away from financial companies in the second half of 2009. That is, it appears that while the plaintiffs’ lawyers were rushing to file credit crisis-related lawsuits during the period mid-2007 through mid-2009, they were also building up a backlog of cases against nonfinancial companies, and now they are working off the backlog.


And so, while over half of the new securities lawsuits filed in 2009 involved financial companies, by year’s end, the 2009 securities lawsuits overall involved a broad spectrum of kinds of companies. The 2009 securities lawsuits were filed against firms in 90 different SIC Code categories. Many of these categories had lawsuits against only a single company. Outside the financial sector, the SIC code categories with the highest number of lawsuits were SIC Code category 2834 (Pharmaceutical Preparations), which had five lawsuits, and SIC Code category 2836 (Biological Products), which had four lawsuits.


The 2009 securities lawsuits were filed in 38 different federal district courts, but, due to the number of lawsuits against financial companies, the largest number of lawsuits (78, or about 41% of all 2009 lawsuits) were filed in the S.D.N.Y. The courts with the next highest number of 2009 securities lawsuit filings were N.D. Cal (12) and C.D. Cal. (9). There were five different courts — D.N.J., E.D.N.Y., N.D. Ill., S.D. Fla., and S.D. Tex. – that had six securities lawsuit filings each. The eight courts with the highest number of 2009 filings together had 128 new lawsuits, or 67.7% of all 2009 securities lawsuit filings.


24 (or 12.7%) of the 2009 securities lawsuit filings involved companies that are domiciled outside the United States. These lawsuits involved companies from 12 different countries. The countries with the highest number of companies suit were the U.K. (with 6), Germany (with 5), and Canada (3).


Some Thoughts about Counting Securities Lawsuits: I know that many readers wonder why the various annual securities litigation studies report such materially different lawsuit filing numbers. The reason the studies’ lawsuit counts vary so widely is not just that the various studies’ authors have different information; another significant factor is that the different studies use different protocols to count lawsuits.


For example, some of the studies count duplicate complaint filings in separate circuits as a single lawsuit (that is, the case counts only once), while other studies count duplicate complaints filed in different circuits as separate lawsuits until they are formally consolidated (that is, the case can be counted multiple times). For my purposes, I count duplicate complaints only once regardless of whether there are duplicates filed in different circuits, which is one reason why my 2009 securities lawsuit count appears lower than, for example, NERA’s 2009 securities litigation study.


There is of course absolutely no reason why separate studies should not use their own preferred counting protocol. But I do believe that the studies’ readers would be enormously benefitted if each study would explicitly state what their study "counted" – that is, what does the study include in its tally of securities lawsuits, and what does it omit?


In the best of all worlds, the studies would also explain how their methodology differs from those used by other published reports. These reports do not after all exist in a vacuum, and by and large the audience for each of the various reports basically consists of the same group of readers. It would be helpful, I think, if the reports were to recognize both the fact that their audience reads the other reports and that these readers want to understand any and all identifiable reasons why the various reported numbers differ.


In my own analysis of the 2009 securities lawsuit filings, I have tried to tally up the separate class action lawsuits seeking to recover damages under the federal securities laws. I don’t count lawsuits that were not filed as class actions; that do not seek to recover damages; or that don’t allege violations of the federal securities laws. Thus, for example, I would not count a lawsuit that alleges common law fraud but that does not allege a securities fraud under the federal statutes. I would not count an indiviudal lawsuit that does not purport to proceed as a class action.


Two particular recurring lawsuit categories that I do not count are merger objection lawsuits, where the lawsuit’s goal is simply to increase a proposed acquisition price; and lawsuits against private entities in which the plaintiffs’ allegation is that the defendants failed to register securities.


Even within my overall counting criteria, it can sometimes be very difficult to determine whether or not a new complaint represents a new lawsuit or is merely a duplicate of a previously filed complaint. For example, in December, when plaintiffs’ lawyers filed a complaint on behalf of Bank of America bondholders relating to the Merrill Lynch acquisition and bonus payments, the question arose whether the complaint counted as a separate lawsuit, or was just a duplicate of the suit filed earlier in the year on behalf a purported class of Bank of America equity securityholders?


In the end, I concluded that because the two complaints involved separate classes of claimants, the bondholder suit represented a separate lawsuit that should be counted separately. This is undeniably a very close question, and reasonable minds might well reach a different conclusion.


Because there are many of these kinds of close questions in the course of trying to keep a count of securities lawsuit filings, it is almost inevitable that different lawsuit counts will vary. But though the variance of lawsuit counts may be inevitable, readers at least want to be able to understand the reasons why the lawsuit counts vary. The publishers of the various annual securities litigation studies would significantly benefit their readers if they were to explicitly and expressly state (and not just in footnotes or endnotes, but in a conspicuous way) what their study purports to be counting, and what protocols were used to determine what was and what wasn’t included in the count.


It would be even more helpful to readers if the reports were to recognize that their readers also read the other reports and to state explicitly and expressly how their methodology may differ from the other annual litigation studies.


I know the various annual litigation study publishers view themselves as in competition with each other, and so it may be difficult for them to acknowledge each other’s existence. They may believe that it as not their job to explain competing analyses. However, each publisher’s silence on these issues means the readers are left on their own trying to figure out why the numbers vary so widely.


The fact is that most of us read all of the reports. I feel quite confident in saying that readers would find it extremely helpful to have better information to understand why the studies’ numbers differ. The reports that recognize and their readers’ needs into account would win their readers’ loyalty, gratitude and appreciation.


Speakers’ Corner: On January 4, 2010, I will be presenting with Jason Cronic of the Wiley Rein law firm on a panel entitled "Directors and Officers Liability Insurance" at the Practicing Law Institute’s Current Developments in Insurance Law 2010 conference. Background regarding the conference can be found here.