Settlement opt-outs have been always been a feature of securities class action litigation. However, as part of the settlements of the huge cases filed during the era of corporate scandals at the beginning of the last decade, opt outs became more prevalent and they represented an increasingly significant part of the case resolution. Many of the opt out recoveries during that period were substantial, both in absolute dollars and in terms of recovery percentages, a phenomenon that occasioned much commentary and even some discussion about whether the rise in class action opt outs represented a fundamental change in the securities class action lawsuit paradigm.


But after a seeming cascade of opt out settlements as the securities cases associated with the corporate scandals were resolved, the phenomenon seemed to die down, or at least fade into the background. However, it seems that in connection with the larger cases associated with the credit crisis, the phenomenon of significant opt out cases may be back, at least if recent developments in one case are representative.


The securities lawsuit in question is the case filed by shareholders of Countrywide, which previously settled for $624 million. One of the questions I asked at the time was whether or not the class settlement, as large as it was, would be “enough” to keep the class intact. As it turned out, a number of large institutional investors opted out of that settlement and on July 28, 2011, they filed their own collective action against Countrywide and certain of its directors and officers in the Central District of California. (A copy of their massive 425-page complaint can be found here.)


The lengthy list of plaintiffs is interesting. The list includes the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS). There are pension funds from Guam and Montana; Dutch pension funds; and investment funds from the Nuveen, American Century, T.Rowe Price, BlackRock and TIAA-CREF fund families; and many others. The list of plaintiffs alone is seven pages long. So if this isn’t a class action, then it is a group action of sorts, for sure.


In earlier interview (summarized here), counsel for the opt out plaintiffs was quoted as saying that the opt out litigants losses were “far greater than what they would have received in the proposed settlement” and that they were unwilling to settle for just "pennies on the dollar. " The attorney said that his clients, "are fully committed to recovering the substantial damages caused by the fraudulent conduct at Countrywide,” adding that "the conduct by the former officers of Countrywide was particularly egregious. And prominent institutional investors were completely blind-sided by [its] pervasiveness."


It certainly was the case with respect to many of the opt out cases filed in the wake of the class settlements associated the corporate scandals that many of the opt out litigants claimed to have recovered substantially more than they would have if they had remained in the class. It remains to be seen whether the Countrywide opt outs will fare as well.


But while the value of opting out of the Countrywide settlement for these institutional claimants remains to be seen, the spectacle of all of these institutional investors leaving the class and heading out on their own has to be truly daunting for both plaintiff and defense counsel in the other large unresolved credit crisis cases. At least in the large credit crisis cases where there is either a solvent or successor entity, the challenge that counsel on both sides will face is trying to come up with a settlement that is practically feasible yet  also “large enough” to keep the institutional investors in. And meanwhile, while the counsel struggle to complete a settlement, legal costs mount on both sides.


 If large institutional investors conclude that their interests are served by proceeding outside the class, the class action could quickly become a sideshow. Indeed opt outs get to a critical level, it could trigger the “blow up” provision that is a part of many settlement agreements. Even if the class action litigants can pull a class settlement together, the defendants may not achieve the finality and repose that are among the usual reasons for settling cases in the first place. Instead, the defendants may face the possibility of continuing litigation with a well-financed subset of the original class.


To be sure, the actions of the Countrywide opt outs may or may not be representative of the actions that institutional investors in the other large credit crisis cases will take. Nevertheless, with the apparent reemergence of the institutional investor class lawsuit opt out action, it seems  hard to disagree with the words of Columbia Law Professor John Coffee who called the emergence of the large class action opt-outs “probably the most significant new trend in class action litigation.”


Victor Li’s July 29, 2011 Am Law Litigation Daily article discussing the institutional investors Countrywide action can be found here.