Surging levels of M&A-related litigation and a wave of lawsuits involving U.S.-listed Chinese companies drove federal securities class action lawsuit filings during 2011 to the highest levels since 2008. However, due to the growing wave of M&A-related litigation, much of which is filed in the state courts, the federal securities lawsuit filing statistics, while interesting, represent only a part of the overall corporate and securities litigation story. State court litigation, particularly state court M&A-related litigation, represents an increasingly important part of the picture.
According to my count (about which see more below), there were 218 securities class action lawsuit filings in 2011, well above the 176 filed in 2010, and also above the 1997-2009 average number of filings of 195, but below the 2008 credit crisis fueled total of 223. The 2011 filings were fairly evenly balanced throughout the year, with 113 in the year’s first half and 105 in the year’s second half.
The single largest factor driving the increase in 2011 filings were merger-related lawsuits. Sixty-one of the 218 filings during 2011 (or about 28%) were merger-related. By way of comparison, the M&A-related lawsuits represented slightly less than 20% of all 2010 filings, While these federal court filings represented an important part of the year’s overall federal securities class action lawsuit filings, these federal court filings represented only a fraction of all M&A-related litigation, most of which was filed in state court. Taking all of the cases, state and federal, into account, the number of M&A related lawsuits now greatly exceeds the number of federal securities class action lawsuits that are not merger-related. As discussed further below, the counts and relative comparisons can get tricky.
A second significant factor driving the 2011 securities class action lawsuit filings is the number of filings against non-U.S. companies, particularly U.S.-listed Chinese companies. 55 (or about 25%) of the 2011 federal securities filings involved non-U.S. companies. The targeted non-U.S. companies are domiciled in 12 different countries. 39 of these 55 foreign companies are U.S.-listed Chinese companies (or U.S. listed companies that have their executive offices or principal places of operation in China). These 39 alone represent about 18% of all 2011 filings. Though the 39 lawsuit filings involving Chinese companies were heavily weighted to the first part of the year, there were still 13 in the year’s second half (which is more the 10 total filed against U.S.-listed Chinese companies during all of 2010) — including two in December.
At one level, the fact that a quarter of all 2011 securities class action lawsuit filings involved non-U.S. companies is surprising, given that it seemed probable that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Morrison v. National Australia Bank case would result in a reduction in litigation involving non-U.S. But the 2011 actions involving non-U.S. companies either (like the cases involving the Chinese companies) involved firms with shares or ADRs listed on U.S. exchanges – and that therefore come within the requirements of Morrison – or were filed only on behalf of shareholders who purchased their shares in the U.S. The November 2011 action on behalf of the very few Olympus Corporation shareholders who purchased their Olympus ADRs over the counter in the U.S. is a good example of this latter kind of case. The Olympus case, which involves only a very small fraction of the company’s shareholders, show that Morrison is still having a very significant impact on filings, notwithstanding the number of filings involving non-U.S. companies.
The merger cases and the cases involving U.S.-listed Chinese companies together represented 100 of the 218 securities class action lawsuit filings during 2011, or nearly 46% of all filings. Clearly these two lawsuit phenomena were significant factors in driving 2011 filings, and more than account for all of the increase in 2011 filings compared to filing levels in 2010 and 2009.
The companies targeted in the 2011 securities class action lawsuit filings were very diverse, representing 114 Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) code categories. Unlike recent years in which filings against companies in the financial services industries predominated, filings against companies in the 6000 SIC code category (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate) represented only about 12% of all filings, compared to 2010, when filings against companies in that group represented about 20% of all filings, and 2009, when suits against financial companies accounted for over half of all filings.
This decline in the percentage of cases involving financial companies is largely due to the winding down of the subprime and credit crisis-related litigation wave. But while the wave is fading, it is not yet completely gone. There were still four new subprime relates securities class action lawsuit filings in 2011. However, none of these were filed during the year’s second half, which suggests that we could be very close to the end of the litigation wave, at least in terms of new filings.
There really was no SIC code classification that predominated in the 2011 filings. However, as always seems to be the case, there were a large number of cases involving companies in the life sciences sector. The SIC code classification with the single largest number of filings was SIC Code classification 2834 (Pharmaceutical Preparations), in which there were 11 lawsuits in 2011. Overall there were 13 lawsuits in SIC Code Group 283 (Drugs). There were another 5 companies sued in SIC Code classifications 3841 (Surgical and Medical Instruments) and 3845 (Electromedical and Electrotheropeutical Apparatus), meaning that overall there were 18 new lawsuits filed against life sciences companies, or about 8% of all 2011 filings. These 2011 figures were down from filings against companies in the SIC Code categories in 2010, when there were 27 lawsuits against companies in these sectors, representing about 15% of all filings.
Another sector that had a significant number of filings was SIC Code Group 737 (Computer Programming, Data Processing and Other Computer-Related Services). There were a total of 21 lawsuits involving companies in this group. There were also another 11 lawsuits filed against companies in SIC Code Group 367 (Electrical Components and Processors), including nine in SIC Code classification 3674 (Semiconductors) alone. Together, these various technology categories accounted for 32 of all 2011 filings, or about 15%.
The 2011 securities class action lawsuits were filed in 47 different federal district courts, although a few courts accounted for most of the filings. 48 of the filings, or about 22%, were in the Southern District of New York (both the merger filings and the lawsuits against Chinese companies helped to swell the number of filings in this judicial district). The Central District of California accounted for 33 of the filings (again swollen by filings involving Chinese companies), and the Northern District of California accounted for 16, largely as a result of the number of lawsuits involving technology companies. These three districts together accounted for 97 of the 2011 filings, or nearly 45% of the total.
My tally of the 2011 securities class action lawsuit filings will differ from other published counts of the 2011 lawsuits. My count is larger than the tally of the Stanford Law School Securities Class Action Lawsuit Clearinghouse, because I included all federal court merger objection lawsuits while the Stanford web site chose to omit some. My count is smaller than that of NERA Economic Consulting (about which refer here) for a number of reasons, primarily because I count multiple lawsuits involving a corporate defendant only once, whereas NERA will count multiple lawsuits in multiple jurisdictions involving the same company multiple times, unless the separate lawsuits are consolidated in a single case in a single jurisdiction.
The differences in counting the M&A lawsuits underscores a recurring general difficulty with trying to count federal securities class action lawsuits. There is an inevitable definitional issue, as deciding whether or not to “count” individual cases presents recurring questions abut exactly what it is that you are trying to count. The M&A related cases present a particularly challenging category of cases, because increasingly a single merger transaction will give rise to multiple lawsuits in multiple different jurisdictions, sometimes based on a differing legal theories. Because there cases are sometimes filed in different states’ courts, or in both federal and state courts, there are recurring and vexing issues involved with trying to count these cases, all of which is compounded by the fact that it can be very difficult to accurately track the state court filings.
Though I have elected to include all federal court M&A-related lawsuit filings in my tally, these filings represent only a fraction of all M&A-related lawsuit filings in 2011. The vast majority of 2011 corporate and securities lawsuits – particularly the merger objection cases – were filed in state court. The fact that my 2011 count, like most of the published securities class action lawsuit filing counts, is based on federal filings necessarily means that it omits numerical recognition and analysis of the state court filings. At least from a frequency standpoint, the exclusively federal court focus could lead to a distorted impression of corporate and securities litigation activity levels.
At the same time, my inclusion of the federal merger objection lawsuits could result in a distortion the other way as well. There is a very legitimate argument that these cases should not be included, or at least many of them should not be included, in a tally of federal securities class action lawsuit filings. Some of them may not allege a breach of the U.S. securities laws. For that reason, the Stanford website omits some of these cases. I decided to go ahead and include all of them and not just some of them, first, because it can become extraordinarily difficult to make selections at the individual case level. The categorical distinctions are not always apparent. But the larger reason I decided to include these is that I felt that without including these cases, the overall levels of federal court litigation might appear understated.
There is another significant way in which the federal court litigation may be understated, at least as a matter of analysis. That is, most analysis of federal securities lawsuit filings levels focus exclusively on the absolute numbers of filings. Though the absolute number of annual filings has fluctuated over the years, they have generally held pretty steady, even allowing for the occasional annual blip up or down. But a simple focus on the absolute numbers of filings levels does not consider the relative filing levels – that is, the number of filings relative to the number of public companies.
The fact is that there are significantly fewer public companies than there were only a few years ago, due to bankruptcies and mergers, along with declining numbers of IPOs. As I discussed here, by one estimate, there are 40% fewer public companies than there were in 1997, yet the annual number of new securities class action lawsuits is more or less consistent with that earlier time. All of which supports the argument that because absolute filing numbers have held steady while the number of publicly traded companies has declined, overall filing levels have actually increased over time. In any event, regardless of what you make of this argument, I think that consideration of relative filing levels is a part of the analysis that is routinely omitted from the consideration of the changes in annual litigation activity.
Looking ahead to 2012, it seems probable that the wave of new lawsuits involving Chinese companies will wind down, since sooner or later the plaintiffs’ lawyers will simply run out of companies to sue. However, there seems to be no reason to expect that the surge of M&A-related litigation will not continue to grow. The procedural and substantive barriers to traditional securities litigation and the prospects for quick settlements and attorneys’ fee recoveries in the M&A suits have encouraged many of the smaller plaintiffs’ securities firms to adapt M&A litigation as their new business approach. The vexing problems this type of litigation presents will increasingly challenging in the New Year. My own view is that the growth in M&A litigation represents a secular rather than a merely cyclical change.
The bottom line is that with growing levels of M&A-related litigation and relatively greater frequencies of federal securities class action lawsuit filings, the likelihood that any particular public company will get hit with a serious corporate or securities lawsuit has never been greater (as I analyze in greater detail here).