As a result of a spike in second half filings, the number of new securities class action lawsuits increased slightly in 2010 compared to the year before, although the 2010 filing levels remained below historical averages, according to the annual study released jointly by Cornerstone Research and the Stanford Law School Securities Class Action Clearinghouse. This year’s version of the study, entitled "Securities Class Action Filings: 2010 Year in Review," introduces some innovations that provide some interesting perspectives on securities class action lawsuit filings.


The study can be found here, and the joint January 20, 2011 press release about the study can be found here.


According to the study, there were 176 securities class action lawsuit filings in 2010, up 4.8% from 2009, but 9.7% below the 1997-2009 average number of filings (195). The increased number of filings in 2010 was largely due to the increased filing activity in the second half of the year, when 104 new securities suits were filed (compared to only 72 in the first half).


A significant factor in the increased number of 2010 filings was the number of lawsuits related to merger and acquisition transactions. According to the report, there were 40 filings with allegations related to M&A transactions, which represents a 471 percen increase from the seven M&A-related filings in 2009.


This increase in M&A-related litigation cannot be explained simply as reflection of increased M&A activity, since M&A activity increased only 20 percent in 2010. The increase, the report suggests "may be largely a result of changes in plaintiff law firm behavior rather than changes in underlying market forces." The press release quotes Stanford Law Professor Joseph Grundfest as saying that "plaintiffs lawyers are scrambling for new business as traditional fraud cases seem to be on the decline," adding that "there is little reason to believe that this trend will reverse or slow down."


The report also notes a number of trends that have previously been noted elsewhere, including the decreasing number of credit crisis-related lawsuits during the year, and the spate of lawsuits involving for-profit education companies and also involving Chinese companies.


With regard to the surge in lawsuits involving Chinese companies, the press release quotes Professor Grundfest as saying that this litigation is arising as "some Chinese issuers struggle to conform to Western market norms, adding that at the same time others might engage in outright fraud." The report itself adds the observation that most of the Chinese companies sued in 2010 were only recently listed on major U.S. exchanges; eight out of the 12 Chinese companies sued were listed during 2009 or 2010, while the remaining three issuers were listed toward the end of 2006, 2007 and 2008. On average these companies were sued within 1.4 years of their listing dates.


The report includes a status update for the credit crisis related filings. The report confirms an observation I had previously noted, which is that the credit crisis cases seem to be reaching the settlement stage more slowly than compared to securities cases generally. The report states that credit crisis filings "have significantly lower settlement rates compared to non-credit-crisis filings," largely as a result of the cases pending in the Second Circuit. The report shows a 9.8 percent settlement rate for credit-crisis filings compared to 24.1 percent for non-credit crisis filings. However, the dismissal rates for credit crisis-related filings "do not appear to be different from non-credit-crisis-filings."


A new feature added to this year’s report is an analysis of the litigation exposure following initial public offerings. The report analyzed the likelihood that a company would be sued in the eleven year period after its IPO, and compared that likelihood to the possibility that a company in the S&P 500 would be sued during that same eleven year period.


The report found that the exposure to securities class actions is the highest during the first few years after an IPO, although the exposure diminishes over time as the companies mature. The analysis showed that there is more than a 10 percent chance that firms would be hit with a securities suit within three years of an IPO, with the highest risk in the second year after an IPO, when they faced a 4.1 percent chance of being sued.


Interestingly enough, at least with respect to IPO companies that survived for eleven years, the possibility of those companies being sued during that eleven year period is actually lower than for the S&P 500 companies during that period. The S&P companies had a 49.9 percent chance of a suit during that period, compared to only 28.7 percent for the IPO companies. The report speculates that this lower risk over the longer period may be explained by the fact that the IPO companies tend to be much smaller than S&P 500 companies, and therefore represent less attractive targets for the plaintiffs’ lawyers.


One particularly interesting aspect of the report’s IPO review is its analysis of the survivability of IPO companies. The report shows that only 39.4% of IPO companies survived for the full eleven year study period (compared to 65.1% of S&O 500 companies).Indeed, more than 35 percent of companies failed to survive four years after their IPO (compared to less than 15% of the S&P 500 that failed to survive the first four years of the study period).


The report’s industry analysis shows that as filings against financial companies declined due to the diminution of the credit crisis litigation wave, filings against companies in the health care sector spiked.


The report also notes that as the number of M&A related cases has increased, the phenomenon noted in recent years of belated filings (in which the filing date came well after the stock price decline that precipitated the suit) has largely abated.


Overall, the report contains a number of interesting observations and findings, and the report warrants reading at length and in full.


Two final notes: First, the lawsuit count reflected in the Cornerstone report may differ from other published figures, as the Cornerstone report counts multiple filings against the same defendants as a single filing (compared to other commentators that may count separate complaints separately until they have formally been consolidated).


Second, while securities class action lawsuit filings may have been down in 2010 compared to historical averages, the overall level of corporate and securities litigation during the year was actually up – indeed, at "record" levels" – at least according to Advisen’s recently issue report about 2010 litigation activity, about which refer here.


My own analysis of the 2010 securities class action lawsuit filings can be found here.