Securities class action lawsuit filings were "down sharply" according to the annual study of securities class action litigation released jointly today by the Stanford Law School Securities Class Action Clearinghouse and Cornerstone Research. The full report can be found here and the January 5, 2010 press release accompanying the report can be found here.


According to the study, which found that there were a total of 169 securities class action lawsuit filings through December 21, 2009, the 2009 filings were both 24% below the 223 filings in 2008 and 14% below the annual average of 197 filings during the years 1997 through 2008.


The Stanford study reports a lower lawsuit count than previously published studies of the 2009 securities lawsuit filings, including the prior report of NERA Economic Consulting (refer here) as well as my own prior analysis (refer here). I discuss these differences below.


The relative decline in the number of lawsuit filings in 2009 compared to prior years, according to the Stanford report, is attributable in part to the decline in subprime and credit crisis related filings. Among other things, the report notes that there were only 17 subprime and credit crisis related lawsuits in the second half of 2009.


The press release accompanying the report also quotes Dr. John Gould of Cornerstone Research as saying that the observed decline is consistent with the decline in stock market volatility during 2009, noting that after increasing during the preceding two years, volatility declined both in the first and second halves of 2009.


The study also details the large number of filings that were characterized by "a substantial lag between the end of the class period and the filing" date, a phenomenon about which I written extensively in the past (most recently here). The report notes that the percentage of filings with a lag of more than a year has increased steadily from 5% in 2005 to a historical high of 18% in 2009.


According to the study, historically, class action lawsuit with longer filing lags "have been dismissed at a higher rate than class actions with shorter filings lags," at a rate of 55% for the one-year lag filings versus 42% for filings with a lag between one year and six months, and 36% with a lag of less than six months.


The study also notes that the lag filings are largely the work of the Coughlin Stoia law firm, which was "involved in 63% of the filings with lags longer than six months and 58% of filings with lags longer than a year." This activity levels compares to the firms involvement in 39% of all filings and 29 percent of filings with lags shorter than six months.


The press release quotes Stanford Law Professor Joseph Grundfest as saying, with respect to the lag filings, that the belated filings suggest that "plaintiffs are trying to fill the litigation pipeline by bringing older lawsuits that weren’t attractive enough to file while the firms were busy pursuing financial sector claims," adding that "these lawsuits are more likely to be dismissed and can therefore be characterized as lower quality claims" and that the filings may "reflect factors idiosyncratic to one large plaintiff firm’s strategy, and have little to do with larger market forces."


In addition to tracking the overall number of filings, the report also notes the number of lawsuits filed against unique issuers, which declined even more sharply than the overall number of filings. Thus, while the report found that overall filings declined by 24% between 2008 and 2009, the total number of unique issuers involved in securities lawsuits decreased by 32 percent. The difference in the attributable to the number of multiple filings against the same target, as well as the relatively large number of filings against private companies and other non-exchange traded entities.


The report further notes that of all exchange traded companies, 1.8 percent were defendants in federal securities class action lawsuits filed in 2009 compared to 2.6% in 2008 and compared to a 2.4% annual average for the 12 years ending December 2008.


The number of lawsuits against foreign issuers also declined in 2009, according to the study. After peaking at 16.4% of all filings in 2007, the percentage of filings against foreign issuers declined to 12.4% in 2009. The study attributes the relative decline to the falling off of the credit crisis lawsuits, because so many of the suits against foreign companies were related to the subprime and credit crisis.


Finally, the decline in 2009 credit crisis filings was also associated with a decline in market capitalization losses in 2009. The disclosure dollar loss attributable to 2009 class actions was $83 billion, a 62 percent decrease from 2008.


Some Thoughts about the Numbers: As noted above, the Stanford study’s 2009 lawsuit count varies from previously published figures, including my own. NERA reported 235 filings in 2009, and I reported 189 (I discuss the difference between my count and NERA’s in my prior post, here), compared to the 169 reported by Stanford.


I know that part of the explanation lies in the fact that the Stanford report cutoff at December 21, 2009, which meant that the Stanford study missed at least three more lawsuits filed before year end.


The Stanford study also counts multiple filings related to the same allegation against the same companies only once. This provides a partial explanation for the differences between the Stanford study and the NERA study, which separately counts separate actions in separate circuits unless and until the lawsuits are later consolidated.


Another difference between the studies may be the fact that the NERA study reported a projected year end number, as the result of an extrapolation from filings through mid-December. Though the Stanford study ended prior to year end, it did not incorporate any extrapolation for cases filed after the cutoff date and before year end.


All of these factors clearly are relevant but even collectively they don’t seem sufficient to explain the entire difference. Of course, another factor may simply be differences in information, but given that the plaintiffs’ lawyers put out press releases when they file lawsuits, the information differences likely account for only a small part of the differences in lawsuit counts.


All of this underscores a point that I made at length in connection with my own study of the 2009 filings, which is that readers would benefit enormously from knowing more about what protocols the various study publishers use when the are deciding what "counts."


The Stanford analysis is certainly easier to decode in this respect that other reports since the Stanford Clearinghouse publishes its list of lawsuits on its website — for free, which is a tremendous public service for which all of us should be grateful. But merely knowing which cases were put on the list does not tell us why those cases were included, nor does it tell us what other cases might have been omitted and why. (Indeed, the reason I continue to do my own count and analysis every year, even though Stanford publishes its own list for free on the web, is the uncertainty about what the list does and does not include.)


The Stanford report also gets high marks for stating right on its cover what it is included in its "research sample," which is very helpful and very commendable. But even taking this very explicit information into account, it still seems like there must be more going on that would explain the differences between the various reports.


Here are some illustrations of questions that would be helpful to know: Are securities lawsuits filed in state courts included? Are merger objection suits included? Are proxy solicitation misrepresentation cases included? How about lawsuits filed separately on behalf of equity shareholders and bondholders – one lawsuit or two? How about lawsuits that only allege state securities law violations? What kinds of cases are omitted from the count? What other sorting criteria are used?


The more of this type of information that readers are provided, the more helpful the published reports would be for readers. The approach that would be most helpful to readers would be for the reports to identify the way that their counting protocols differ from those used by other studies, in order to help readers understand the differences.