Just before Christmas, a partner at one of the most perennially profitable law firms in the land told me a funny story about a former colleague’s explanation for jettisoning his career at the firm and entering academia. The Big Law refugee told his partners that being elected to their ranks was like winning a pie-eating contest, only to discover that the prize is more pie. It wasn’t worth it to put in years of crushing work to become a partner, he said, when partnership’s only reward (aside from heaps of money) is the right to continue to work yourself into numbness.
The relatively new industry of litigation funding, in which an investor otherwise uninvolved in a dispute agrees to front the money for one side or the other (almost always the plaintiffs) to litigate the case, has occasioned much soul searching about who has the right to bring a claim and control its prosecution. But there’s really nothing new about investors betting on litigation, albeit by acquiring a direct interest in a case. I’m speaking, of course, about hedge funds engaged in litigation arbitrage, in which they purchase a security in the hope that successful litigation will drive up its value. The phenomenon is best known in the distressed debt arena, where hedge funds have made heaps of money by buying up notes of bankrupt or near-bankrupt companies and then clawing for creditors’ rights by any means necessary. You also see trading in claims against receiverships, as in the brisk secondary market for claims belonging to Bernard Madoff’s investors, as well as trading in stock whose value is particularly driven by litigation developments, as, for instance, MBIA’s used to be. More recently, we’ve seen investors buying mortgage-backed notes with the intention of acquiring a big enough stake to force the MBS trustee to pursue repurchase claims. (Although, as I told you last week, that’s become a very low-odds bet, thanks to the New York state appellate court’s new ruling on the statute of limitations for put-back suits.)
The first paragraph of Facebook’s motion to dismiss a securities class action that raised allegations about disclosures in its initial public offering was a no-brainer. Last February, U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet of Manhattan tossed four shareholder derivative suits based on the same underlying facts, concluding in a voluminous opinion that Facebook had “repeatedly made express and extensive warnings” about potential weaknesses in its revenue model as users shifted from desktop computers to mobile devices. So in May, when Facebook’s lawyers at Kirkland & Ellis and Willkie Farr & Gallagher moved to dismiss the parallel securities class action, which is also before Judge Sweet, they quoted the judge’s own words right back to him, not just in the first paragraph but seven more times in the dismissal brief.
In October, when I told you about a malpractice suit against Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz by Carl Icahn’s CVR Energy, I pointed out the undertone of devilish glee that ran through the Kansas federal court complaint. Icahn is the ultimate activist investor, a perennial foe of corporate board defender and long-term value guru Martin Lipton. Icahn beat Wachtell when he succeeded in acquiring CVR last year, despite CVR’s anti-takeover advice from the firm and Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank. His suit accusing Wachtell of malpractice – for supposedly failing to warn CVR’s board about the fees the company would have to pay Goldman and Deutsche Bank if Icahn prevailed – seemed to be icing on Icahn’s already tasty cake.
The Dec. 12 arrest of Devyani Khobragade, a deputy consul general at India’s consulate in Manhattan, has precipitated quite a diplomatic brouhaha. Khobragade, who is accused of underpaying her nanny and falsifying documents to get the nanny into the United States, was handcuffed by diplomatic security staff, turned over to U.S. Marshals and strip-searched before being released on $250,000 bail. As anger escalated in India on Tuesday, with reports that Khobragade was forced to undergo a cavity search, Indian authorities retaliated by removing protective concrete barriers in front of the U.S. embassy in New Delhi. (The Marshals Service has said there was no cavity search.) On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed “regret” and “concern” to his Indian counterpart, and the White House told reporters that it is looking into Khobragade’s arrest “to ensure that all standard procedures were followed and that every opportunity for courtesy was extended.”
Has there ever been a more lopsided multibillion-dollar case than the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s fraud litigation against the banks that sold mortgage-backed securities to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? I don’t think U.S. District Judge Denise Cote of Manhattan, who is overseeing securities fraud suits against 11 banks that haven’t already settled with the conservator for Fannie and Freddie, has sided with the banks on any major issue, from the timeliness of FHFA’s suits to how deeply the defendants can probe Fannie and Freddie’s knowledge of MBS underwriting standards in the late stages of the housing bubble. But even in that context, Judge Cote’s summary judgment ruling Monday – gutting the banks’ defenses against FHFA’s state-law securities claims – is a doozy.
I’m going to confess right here that I don’t possess the requisite statistical skills to hazard an opinion on whether shareholders benefit when their corporation engages in lobbying and campaign expenditures. If you have a more powerful appetite for numbers than I do, John Coates of Harvard Law School offers a bibliography of academic studies that conclude corporate political spending is bad for shareholders at the Harvard Forum on Corporate Governance (including his own influential 2012 paper for the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies). Want a different view? A pair of economics consultants from Sonecon disputed Coates and those who think likewise in a 2012 paper for the Manhattan Institute that found corporate political spending has “a generally positive effect” on a company’s value, in terms of market returns. You can pick whichever analysis suits you because I’m not going to argue the merits of either. I do believe, however, that regardless of the benefits of lobbying and campaign contributions, shareholders have a right to know when and how their money is being spent on politics.
In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court schooled the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on the primacy of arbitration clauses in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion. The high court’s landmark ruling reversed a 9th Circuit holding that AT&T’s prohibition of classwide arbitration was unconscionable under California law, finding instead that the Federal Arbitration Act preempts state laws restricting the use of arbitration. In combination with the Supreme Court’s ruling last term in American Express v. Italian Colors, Concepcion pretty much wiped out any hope that consumers and employees can avoid mandatory arbitration if they’ve signed contracts with arbitration provisions.
What a difference a day – and a data source – makes.
Yesterday I told you about a new study of class action outcomes that Mayer Brown conducted at the urging of clients like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The law firm looked at 148 consumer and employment class actions filed in federal court in 2009, and found evidence that a grand total of one case – a $1.2 billion settlement of ERISA claims rooted in Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme – delivered meaningful recoveries to class members. Of the five other cases in which claims data was publicly disclosed, Mayer Brown found distressingly minimal participation in settlement funds by class members: 0.000006 percent, 0.33 percent, 1.5 percent, 9.66 percent and 12 percent.
I would have been shocked if Mayer Brown‘s new study of 148 federal-court class actions filed in 2009 concluded that the cases are of any real benefit to class members. Mayer Brown Supreme Court litigator Andrew Pincus, remember, is not only frequently counsel to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but was also the winner of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2011 endorsement of mandatory arbitration in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion. Pincus told me that the firm decided to collect information on the outcome of consumer and employment class actions filed in 2009 at the behest of clients worried about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s study of arbitration agreements. The Chamber and other clients, he said, have been frustrated at CFPB’s refusal to disclose exactly what it’s looking at. So, as the Chamber explained in a Dec. 11 letter to CFPB, Mayer Brown and its clients seized the initiative and compiled empirical evidence to show the agency what will happen if it precludes arbitration and forces consumers to litigate through class actions. “If you’re going to take away arbitration,” Pincus said, “you have to understand the alternative.”