A couple of years ago, a "worrisome trend" developed in securities class action litigation, in which large institutional investors began routinely opting out of plaintiff class to separately pursue their own individual claims under the securities laws. The settlement of these individual opt out actions in many cases rivaled, in the aggregate, the amount of the class action settlement, and often exceeded the class settlement in terms of percentage of shareholder losses recovered.


These developments caused some observers to question whether we were headed toward a two-tiered system of securities litigation, where the large institutional investors separately pursued their own claims and the class action proceeded on behalf of other investors.


As it turned out, however, the phenomenon of the large individual opt out settlement separate from the class has ceased to be as prominent as it briefly was during the period 2006 to 2008. Since that time, there have been fewer high profile opt out settlements, and the predictions about fundamental alterations of securities class action litigation have died down.


However, in a development that seems to raise the possibility that the high profile opt-out action may be back, on July 22, 2010, New York Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli announced that he had filed two separate individual actions on behalf of New York state pension funds against Merrill Lynch and Bank of America and their respective individual directors and officers.


In the Merrill Lynch complaint (a copy of which can be found here), DiNapoli alleges that between October 17, 2006 and December 31, 2008, the defendants misrepresented the company’s "true exposures to poorly underwritten subprime mortgages, as well as the value of the Company’s subprime-exposed assets and liabilities and the effectiveness of Merrill’s risk management. The complaint alleges beginning in October 2007 the company began a series of stair step writedowns of the value of the company’s toxic assets, and that ultimately the company was forced to merge with Bank of America as a result of its exposure to subprime mortgages.


In the Bank of America Complaint (a copy of which can be found here), DiNapoli alleges in the documents for BoA’s merger with Merrill, the company and three of its senior executives failed to disclose Merrill’s massive fourth quarter 2008 losses and also failed to disclose BofA’s and Merrill’s agreement to permit Merrill to pay up to $5.8 billion in bonuses. The Complaint also alleges that the defendants violated the securities laws through a series of misleading statements and omissions during the period September 15, 2008 (when the merger was announced) and January 21, 2009 (when the information about the fourth quarter losses and the bonuses were made public).


The New York State Pension funds owned 17.7 million BofA shares at the time of the merger and acquired another 3 million between September 15, 2008 and January 21, 2009.


The circumstances described in DiNapoli’s complaints have previously been the subject of extensive litigation. Among other things, the allegations in DiNapoli’s complaint against the Bank of America defendants previously were the subjective of a high profile SEC enforcement action that ultimately resulted in a $150 million settlement. (For a discussion of the events surrounding this SEC settlement, refer here.)


In addition, there previously have been securities class action lawsuits filed against both the Merrill defendants and Bank of America defendants. The Bank of America class action lawsuit is in fact being driven by a group of public pension fund defendants, led by Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray on behalf of Ohio public pension funds.

The circumstances referenced in DiNapoli’s Merrill Lynch complaint were also the subject of a separate securities class action lawsuit, about which refer here. Indeed, the parties to the Merrill Lynch lawsuit have already entered a $475 million settlement on behalf of the class, which the Southern District of New York Judge Jed Rakoff approved on August 4, 2009.


In bringing his separate lawsuits on behalf of the New York public pension funds, DiNapoli has made a conscious and deliberate decision to opt out of the preexisting class action litigation against the two sets of defendants. Public statements by representatives of DiNapoli’s office made it clear the reason he took the separate action on behalf of the public pension funds is because "our attorneys believe this gives us a chance to get a better recovery." The possible recovery on behalf of the funds could reach "tens of millions of dollars."


DiNapoli’s action to opt out of the class action on the theory that the funds’ recovery will be greater if they proceed individually rather than part of the class is exactly what commentators had been predicting a couple of years ago, before the opt-out phenomenon faded into the background. DiNapoli’s action is all the more noteworthy with respect to the Merrill Lynch suit is all the more noteworthy, given the fact that the class has already entered a massive $475 million settlement. DiNapoli’s action not only raises the question whether other institutional plaintiffs might opt out in these cases, but whether the plaintiffs will opt out in other cases as well.


The interesting thing about the public explanations for DiNapoli’s action is that the decision seems to be the result of persuasion from the attorneys who convinced DiNapoli’s office to opt out. The presence of an entrepreneurial group of plaintiffs’ lawyers motivated to try to obtain individual institutional investor representations by convincing the investors to opt out of the class suggests that, even if the prevalence of high profile opt out actions may have faded into the background, we are likely to continue more of these kinds of developments going forward. The political motivations of public pension fund representatives clearly support these developments.


Of course, it remains to be seen if the New York funds will actually fare better than the classes in these cases. As Adam Savett pointed out in an interesting January 22, 2010 post on the Securities Litigation Watch, even if some claimant fare better by opting out, there can also be a "downside." The post refers to the claimants that opted out of the Aspen Technology class action (which settled for $5.6 million) but ultimately had their claims dismissed based on lack of proof of fraud, and so received nothing.


Nevertheless, if other institutional investors are persuaded that they will do better by proceeding individually, securities class action litigation could become even more complicated than it already is. The existence of separate proceedings could both drive up total litigation costs and increase both the cost and complexity of case settlements. My prior discussion of the potential problems the opt-out phenomenon might represent can be found here.


DiNapoli’s decision to separate the New York funds from the Bank of America class action, in which the Ohio Attorney General is taking the lead, presents an interesting contrast to DiNapoli’s actions in connection with the securities litigation pending against BP, in which the Ohio AG and DiNapoli are collaboratively pursing the class action litigation on behalf of their respective states’ pension funds, and, as reflected here, are in fact together seeking lead plaintiff status in the litigation. Whatever else might be said, it seems that DiNapoli has not been persuaded that the New York funds will always do better outside of the class action process.


Understanding the Global Economy: If like me you find so much about the current circumstances of the global economy confusing, you will want to watch the following John Clark and Bryan Dawe video in which they summarize the basics in an admirable fashion, particularly the way the unbroken chain of governmental borrowing ultimately presents unanswerable questions. (Special thanks to the CorporateCounsel.net blog for the link to this entertaining video.)