On my beat here at The D&O Diary, I cover the liabilities of corporate directors and officers. One objection I frequently hear is that I focus too much public companies and not enough on private companies. The reason I write about public company issues more than private company concerns is that the public company world usually is more eventful. However, every now and then, something comes up involving a privately-held company that reminds all of us that plenty happens in the private company D&O world, too. The most recent example is the shareholder derivative and class action lawsuit filed last week against executives of the electronic cigarette company, Juul Labs. As discussed below, this new lawsuit highlights the exposures that private company directors and officers can face and underscores the fact that even private companies can get hit with shareholder class action lawsuits.
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WeWork may not have been able to complete its once-planned IPO, but even so it now has something that many IPO companies often experience – a shareholder class action lawsuit. On November 4, 2019, a WeWork investor filed a lawsuit in California state court on behalf the company’s minority shareholders as well as on behalf of the company itself. As discussed below, the shareholder complaint makes a number of interesting allegations and raises some interesting issues as well.
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One of the more interesting developments in the financial markets this year has been the number of so-called “unicorns” that have completed their IPOs. Among others, Uber, Lyft and Pinterest made their debut in recent weeks. Some of these companies have stumbled as they began trading, and indeed some have already been sued in securities class action lawsuits (as I noted here with respect to Lyft). Among the companies completing IPOs in recent weeks is Jumia Technologies AG, an African e-commerce platform that has been called Africa’s first unicorn, whose American Depositary Shares began trading on the NYSE on April 12, 2019. Even though Jumia’s securities have been trading barely a month, the company has been hit with a securities lawsuit, following a short-seller’s report about the company.
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On March 28, 2019, amidst much fanfare, the rideshare company Lyft went public at $72 a share, raising more than $2.2 billion.  In the first trading day following the offering, the company’s share price rose 8.7 percent. However, despite the initial euphoria, Lyft’s share price then began to slump. Lyft shares closed at $58.36 on Thursday afternoon (April 18), representing a decline of nearly 20% from the company’s IPO share price. Apparently, at least one investor who purchased shares is fighting mad about the decline. On April 16, 2019 – just 13 trading days after the IPO– the shareholder filed a securities class action lawsuit against the company in California state court. A copy of the plaintiff’s complaint can be found here. An April 17, 2019 Bloomberg article about the lawsuit can be found here.
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The news late last week that London’s transport authority had stripped ride-hailing firm Uber of its ride-hire license on the grounds that it was “unfit to operate” in the U.K. capital was merely the latest blow to the company, following a string of scandals, probes, and damaging revelations. Now the company – which, despite its enormous size, is still a privately held firm — has been hit with a federal court securities class action lawsuit, the most recent instance where one of the high-flying “unicorn” companies has been hit with a securities fraud lawsuit after a decline in fortune. The new lawsuit has a number of interesting features, discussed below.
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TheranosEarlier this year, the SEC announced a “Silicon Valley Initiative,” reflecting the agency’s concerns about private and pre-IPO companies that were scoring sky-high valuations in private offerings. The agency said that it is particularly focused on so-called “unicorns” – that is, private companies with valuations greater than $1 billion. Although the agency did not name any of the specific companies in which it was interested, it soon became clear that one of the companies the agency was investigating was Theranos, the start-up company whose blood-testing technology and practices have recently gained media and regulatory scrutiny. The SEC’s scrutiny of a private company’s fund-raising practices was itself noteworthy; now, in yet another notable development, the privately-held company has drawn an investor lawsuit alleging securities fraud.
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TheranosIn a speech last month, SEC Chair Mary Jo White signaled that the agency was going to be paying closer attention to private companies, particularly so-called “unicorns” – that is, the private venture-backed start-ups with valuations over $1 billion (as I discussed in a recent post). In her speech, White highlighted the concerns that can surround companies with these kinds of lofty valuations, noting that “the concern is whether the prestige associated with reaching a sky-high valuation fast drives companies to appear more valuable than they actually are.”   It wasn’t clear at the time exactly what the agency’s scrutiny of these private companies might mean, but recent news involving the high-flying start-up company Theranos shows what White had in mind.  The developments involving Theranos, in turn, raise the question of whether other high-flying privately held companies might also face scrutiny, as well.
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