Opinion

Alison Frankel

If U.S. defaults, can debt holders sue for payment?

Alison Frankel
Oct 9, 2013 21:22 UTC

To the long list of dire consequences if the United States defaults on debt obligations, here’s an addition you probably haven’t considered: litigation against the U.S. government for missed payments.

Let’s establish at the outset that if American owners of Treasury bills or U.S. bonds are counting on a suit against the U.S. government to recover any losses stemming from a default, their faith is misplaced. Litigation takes a long time in this country, especially when you’re talking about completely unprecedented claims arising from unique, unforeseeable circumstances. It’s just about unfathomable that the United States will fail to meet its obligations to bondholders for as long as it would take them to obtain a judgment, even assuming that bondholders somehow defied all reasonable expectations and managed to win their case. For that hypothetical to be realized, our economy would have to be so devastated that bondholder litigation would be a relatively small worry.

But what about a suit by foreigners who own U.S. debt? Or even foreign sovereigns? I talked Wednesday with several foreign debt and constitutional experts, both in academia and private practice. They outlined a set of hypotheticals under which foreign owners of U.S. debt could sue the U.S. government in their own courts and even attempt to enforce judgment against the United States by seizing U.S. assets. Granted, the scenario is based on speculation that’s incredibly unlikely to come to pass. In these strange days, though, a little mind-bending is good exercise.

The first thing to know is that T-bills and U.S. bonds don’t come with complicated purchase agreements. U.S. debt is sold under the full faith and credit of the government as a simple obligation to pay. That’s different from, say, the Argentine bonds that have occasioned so much litigation in federal district court in Manhattan and at the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. Argentina agreed in its bond offerings to submit to the jurisdiction of U.S. courts, which have acted as the interpreters of Argentina’s contracts with bondholders. T-bills and U.S. bonds do not specify any jurisdiction to oversee disputes in the event of default. The instruments don’t even contemplate the possibility of default, which is just another indication of the dilemma we’re in right now.

If the U.S. government misses a payment, American debt holders who wanted to litigate would presumably sue in either U.S. district court or the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, which oversees (among other things) disputes between the federal government and U.S. contractors. Jurisdiction would be a threshold question of first impression, in which the courts would have to determine whether there’s a contract between the government and debt holders.

3rd Circuit appeal throws light on shadowy class action claims process

Alison Frankel
Oct 8, 2013 20:15 UTC

In all my long years of reporting on class actions, I can’t remember ever writing a story about one of the handful of U.S. companies in the business of administering settlements. Sure, I’ve covered BP’s recent feud with court-appointed claims administrator Patrick Juneau and the alleged misconduct of some of Juneau’s staff. But not about Garden City Group, PricewaterhouseCoopers or Brown Greer, the companies that are actually processing claims from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill litigation, under both Juneau and his predecessor at the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, Kenneth Feinberg of Feinberg Rozen. I’ve written about U.S. District Judge William Pauley chastising the Securities and Exchange Commission for failing to exercise strict supervision over the investors’ compensation fund established in the SEC’s 2009 settlement with Zurich Financial, but not about the fees Garden City Group charged to administer the investor fund. Claims administrators are an essential part of the class action mechanism. They’re the businesses that help lawyers figure out how to inform potential class members that they may have claims and subsequently evaluate the claims that are submitted. Yet there’s scant scrutiny of the claims administration business by journalists, or, for that matter, judges.

For its part, the industry treasures its reputation for neutrality, according to Steven Weisbrot, an executive vice president at the recently-formed claims administration firm Angeion Group, which was founded by longtime executives from other firms in the business. “Both sides have to trust claims administrators,” Weisbrot said. “Trust allows the system to work.” So as a rule, he told me, businesses that make their money administering class actions prefer a low profile. Sometimes courts will ask a claims administrator to submit declarations explaining a class notice plan, Weisbrot said, and some judges insist on competitive bidding for settlement administration gigs. Generally, though, claims administrators would rather not attract attention.

That’s why I was surprised to see an amicus brief from Angeion in support of reconsideration of a ruling by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals that decertified a class of Florida purchasers of Bayer’s One-A-Day WeightSmart diet supplement. As I suspected it would, the reconsideration motion, filed by Deepak Gupta of Gupta Beck, has generated some impressive amicus support. Last week, Public Citizen and Public Justice both joined the Florida class in arguments that the 3rd Circuit panel set an impossible – and unnecessary – standard of ascertainability when it said that the class couldn’t be certified without a rock-solid plan to determine purchasers of the Bayer diet supplement. A group of 10 law professors specializing in civil procedure, led by Arthur Miller of Harvard Law School, asserted in another amicus brief advocating reconsideration that the appellate panel’s new ascertainability standard is “a notion entirely divorced from the text and purposes of Rule 23″ and a “doctrinal error (that) threatens to render the class action procedure unavailable in the very small-value consumer cases that necessitated Rule 23 in the first instance.”

Dish Network lesson: Risk lurks if majority shareholder grips power

Alison Frankel
Oct 7, 2013 20:38 UTC

In an order issued late Friday, Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez of Nevada state court in Las Vegas effectively informed Dish Network Chairman Charles Ergen and his fellow board members that Dish’s peculiar corporate governance practices pose real risks to them and the company.

Gonzalez, who is presiding over a shareholder derivative suit against Dish’s board, granted expedited discovery to minority shareholders who claim that Ergen is conflicted in Dish’s $2.2 billion stalking horse bid for spectrum licenses belonging to the bankrupt wireless communications company LightSquared. The judge also scheduled a Nov. 12 hearing on the shareholders’ motion for a preliminary injunction to bar Ergen – who is LightSquared’s largest creditor, holding $850 million in debt acquired through a personal investment vehicle – from participating in Dish’s attempt to acquire the LightSquared licenses.

Gonzalez’s order comes despite Dish’s 11th-hour attempt last month to forestall the minority shareholders’ suit by appointing a purportedly independent litigation committee, and despite arguments by the special committee’s counsel at Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor and Holland & Hart that permitting the shareholders to proceed would interfere with Dish’s ability to acquire those strategically crucial LightSquared assets. It seems clear to me that after a scant two months of litigation in the derivative suit, the judge is skeptical that Dish can muster an independent board committee – or even that its directors are trying very hard to assure any such committee’s independence.

Here’s what the government and judiciary think of serial whistleblowers

Alison Frankel
Oct 4, 2013 19:55 UTC

In a post earlier this week, I wrote about whistleblower lawyers’ concerns that unsuspecting tipsters will be misled into signing up with one of the many non-lawyer groups advertising on the Internet for Dodd-Frank whistleblowers. Unlike lawyers’ websites, ads by non-lawyers aren’t subject to state bar regulations. Nor are fee agreements between whistleblowers and non-lawyer agents. Lawyers who regularly represent tipsters told me that a proliferation of supposedly deceptive ads after the Securities and Exchange Commission implemented its whistleblower bounty program is one of the biggest problems in their business.

Repeat False Claims Act plaintiff Joseph Piacentile’s group, Whistleblowers Against Fraud, long predates the SEC program and is certainly not deceptive in representing its legal expertise online. WAF’s website says very clearly that the organization is composed not of lawyers but of former whistleblowers who want to “partner with our clients to develop the strongest case possible, recommend the right attorney for their case, and guide them through each phase of their case.” (As for fees, WAF says it takes a percentage of the whistleblower’s recovery but makes individual arrangements with each client.) Instead of legal advice, WAF sells its “experience and relationships,” which it says “are invaluable in developing large, successful whistleblower actions.” Government lawyers, the website says, have come to know and trust the (unidentified) principals of WAF, who have assisted the federal government and state authorities in recovering billions of dollars.

But relations between Piacentile and at least some of those government lawyers are decidedly frayed. On Sept. 30, U.S. District Judge Sterling Johnson of Brooklyn dismissed a False Claims Act case that Piacentile and a former Amgen sales representative brought against the pharma company, granting a motion by the U.S. Attorney’s office that claimed the whistleblowers’ information added little or nothing to the government’s $780 million settlement in 2011 of civil and criminal allegations against Amgen. Johnson’s opinion picked up the skeptical undertones of the government’s motion to dismiss. Like government lawyers in the U.S. Attorney’s dismissal brief, the judge cited Piacentile’s 1991 conviction for income tax evasion and conspiracy to make false Medicare claims, and said that after his conviction the former physician “gained notoriety as a repeat whistleblower.” Johnson’s dismissal of the suit effectively shuts Piacentile and his fellow Amgen whistleblower, Kevin Kilcoyne, out of any recovery because they previously rejected the government’s offer of a $1.8 million bounty from its 2011 settlement with Amgen.

5th Circuit’s BP opinion adds to hot debate on use of class actions

Alison Frankel
Oct 3, 2013 23:15 UTC

Can a defendant buy global peace in sprawling litigation through a class action settlement that benefits people who haven’t suffered any harm? Should courts permit class settlements that might sweep in uninjured claimants? And if not, what obligation do judges have to assure that settlements compensate only class members who meet the constitutional threshold to assert a claim?

In a remarkable dialogue in Wednesday’s ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in BP’s challenge to the interpretation of some terms in its multibillion-dollar class action settlement with victims of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Judges Edith Clement and James Dennis expressed quite different answers to these questions. And though their discussion did not directly impact the majority holding that U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier must reconsider his interpretation of the settlement agreement’s definition of accounting terms for businesses that operate on a cash basis, the back-and-forth between Clement and Dennis raises important questions about the class action vehicle. We don’t often see appellate courts delve deeply into class action settlements (except those involving payments to charities in lieu of class members) because such agreements are rarely challenged. So the 5th Circuit’s clash of views on class membership and constitutional standing is noteworthy, especially in the context of the intensifying nationwide judicial reconsideration of class actions.

First, the 5th Circuit’s holding: Two members of the appellate panel, Judge Clement and Judge Leslie Southwick, agreed with BP and its lawyers at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher that the settlement agreement cannot be interpreted to define monthly revenue as cash received and variable expenses as cash paid out. The majority ordered Judge Barbier to reconsider his approval of those definitions for business and economic loss claims by businesses purporting to have been affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill. Judges Clement and Southwick rejected arguments by class counsel, represented on appeal by New York University law professor Samuel Issacharoff, that BP agreed to terms that were open to the interpretation Judge Barbier gave them, so the company must be bound by the deal it signed. BP, as you probably recall, had run an intense public relations campaign claiming that it was being robbed of billions of dollar by uninjured claimants taking advantage of Barbier’s misinterpretation. I’m sure the majority holding will assuage concerns that BP’s experience will dissuade future mass tort defendants from agreeing to class action settlements. (I didn’t buy those concerns, but greater minds – including some terrific mass tort defense lawyers – were convinced.)

Is SEC whistleblower program underregulated?

Alison Frankel
Oct 2, 2013 19:49 UTC

At around the time on Tuesday that the Securities Exchange Commission announced its latest award to a whistleblower – at $14 million, it’s by far the largest of the handful of tipster payments the SEC has made since implementing its Dodd-Frank whistleblower program in 2011 – Andrew Calamari of the SEC’s New York regional office was fielding questions about the program from Susan Brune of Brune & Richard. Brune, who was moderating a panel at the Practising Law Institute’s White Collar Crime conference, asked Calamari whether the commission has any policy on fee agreements between whistleblowers and the lawyers who represent them. Calamari, who had previously said that the tipsters his office sees are typically accompanied by lawyers who’ve whipped up nifty presentations on their clients’ allegations, said the SEC “hasn’t publicly announced a position.”

Brune pointed out that an entire industry seems to have sprung up in the last couple of years to attract SEC whistleblower clients (who can obtain bounties of 10 percent to 30 percent of the sanctions obtained by the SEC in enforcement actions with resolutions of more than $1 million). If whistleblower lawyers can collect big contingency fees simply for working up a presentation and then turning matters over to SEC enforcement, that’s a great business model. “Seems like there’s huge economic potential,” Brune said.

She’s right, but the SEC has no intention of overseeing the burgeoning business of representing Dodd-Frank whistleblowers. It turns out that the commission has already considered implementation of a rule to restrict fees for whistleblower lawyers and has made a policy decision not to impose restrictions. Nor does the agency have authority to solve what two whistleblower lawyers told me Wednesday is actually the biggest concern in their business: non-lawyers misrepresenting themselves in advertising to attract whistleblower clients. Right now, the prevailing rule in the rough-and-tumble market for SEC whistleblower advice seems to be caveat emptor, or buyer beware.

SEC Enforcement co-director: We’re bringing ‘swagger’ back

Alison Frankel
Oct 1, 2013 18:37 UTC

Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz put out a plaintive client alert last week, responding to SEC Chair Mary Jo White‘s speech to the Council of Institutional Investors. White, who is, as you know, a former U.S. Attorney, emphasized the agency’s enforcement power and obligations. “The more successful we are at being – and being perceived as – the tough cop that everyone rightfully expects, the more confidence in the markets investors will have, the more level the playing field and the more wrongdoing that will be deterred,” she said in her speech on Sept. 26. Wachtell’s response questioned whether the SEC ought to be playing cops.

“As a regulator, the SEC’s only enforcement function is remedial – to shine a light on and improve business conduct, protect investors and markets, and deter future misconduct,” Wachtell’s memo said. “Historically, the SEC has been most effective when it has kept its focus on performing that regulatory function.” The agency already has a “robust and aggressive” enforcement program, argued Wachtell partners Theodore Levine, John Savarese, Wayne Carlin and David Anders (acknowledging that their view is not shared by the “many commentators and observers” who believe SEC enforcement is “anemic and faltering”). “It is our hope,” the memo said, “that the SEC will keep its eye on its regulatory role in charting the future course of its enforcement program.”

But based on a talk Tuesday at the Practising Law Institute by SEC co-director of enforcement Andrew Ceresney, the SEC has no intention of unflexing its muscles. In fact, Ceresney explicitly took issue with “those who believe the commission has become overly aggressive,” insisting to the contrary that there’s still plenty of “room for bolder action” by SEC enforcers. “My goal was to help bring the SEC’s swagger back,” Ceresney said. “I think we’re doing that.”

3rd Circuit is trying to kill consumer class actions: new en banc brief

Alison Frankel
Sep 30, 2013 20:18 UTC

There’s an ideological battle under way in the federal courts of America that will determine the future viability of class actions.

The conservative wing of the U.S. Supreme Court is leading a camp that believes the rules governing class actions establish high barriers for class certification, even if those obstacles are sometimes so high that legitimate claims can’t be asserted. (The exception to this general rule is securities class actions, which the justices have so far treated with relative gentleness.)Opposing the Supreme Court are a few federal circuits – most notably, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, in opinions by the wise and contrarian Judge Richard Posner – that continue to believe class actions are an efficient vehicle to determine whether defendants are responsible for wronging large groups of people, no matter how small their individual damages might be. You can bet that cert petitions in October by Sears and Whirlpool in the infamous moldy washer class action litigation are going to be a flashpoint in this debate, focusing on whether alleged victims with disparate damages claims can litigate as a class. But in the meantime, a three-judge panel of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals has provoked a new controversy with a holding in August that classes may not be certified unless individual class members can be ascertained. According to a motion for reconsideration filed Friday, the 3rd Circuit’s “unprecedented” theory has the potential to eliminate corporate accountability to private consumers who buy their products.

The new motion asks the 3rd Circuit for en banc reconsideration of an Aug. 21 opinion in Carrera v. Bayer by Judges Anthony Scirica, Brooks Smith and Michael Chagares, who decertified a class of Florida purchasers of Bayer’s One-A-Day WeightSmart diet supplement. The consumers claimed they were deceived by Bayer’s representation that green tea extract in the supplement would boost their metabolism. U.S. District Judge Jose Linares of Newark, New Jersey, refused to approve a nationwide class asserting claims under New Jersey consumer laws, but granted the name plaintiff’s subsequent motion for certification of a class of Florida purchasers under that state’s consumer-friendly trade practices statute.

Judge approves stock-for-class securities settlement, with tweaks

Alison Frankel
Sep 27, 2013 18:28 UTC

U.S. District Judge William Alsup of San Francisco has the instincts of a really great reporter. He is a skeptic who pushes for answers, even if that means hauling the CEOs of Google and Oracle into settlement talks or demanding that state pension funds disclose their lead counsel selection process. So when shareholders proposed an unusual settlement of their securities class action against Diamond Foods, in which nearly 90 percent of the class recovery would come in the form of new stock in the company, I was really curious to see what Alsup would make of the deal. If the judge thought class members were being rooked in this peculiarly structured settlement, he’d say so.

He doesn’t think that. On Thursday, Alsup granted preliminary approval of the settlement, in which class members will receive $11 million in cash – according to the brief in support of the deal, that’s pretty much everything left of the company’s D&O insurance coverage – and 4.45 million shares of newly-issued Diamond common stock, worth $85 million as of the date plaintiffs moved for approval of the settlement. Alsup said an all-cash deal would have been preferable, but that he’s convinced Diamond’s perilous finances preclude it. (For good measure, he refused to permit shareholders to file their expert witness report on Diamond’s balance sheet under seal, so you can see for yourself how very little cash the debt-laden company has.) “Given Diamond’s strained financial state and the uncertainty (over) lead plaintiff’s ability to collect on any judgment,” the judge wrote, the class’s decision to settle for a mostly stock deal is justified.

The judge did insist that Diamond and the Mississippi public pension fund leading the shareholders’ case narrow the scope of the release of class claims, which originally exceeded the class certification ruling. He also called for changes in the notice to class members. But as you can see from the supplemental brief on the amended deal filed by class counsel from Chitwood Harley Harnes and Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, these are minor tweaks. On the big question of whether it’s OK to compensate allegedly deceived shareholders with more stock in the company that supposedly lied to them, Alsup answered with a reluctant yes.

Dish Network’s corporate governance problem

Alison Frankel
Sep 26, 2013 20:57 UTC

In a board meeting on July 21, the satellite television company Dish Network disbanded a two-member independent committee that had been established in May to vet Dish’s $2.2 billion bid for the spectrum licenses of the bankrupt company LightSquared. A few days later, one of the directors on the committee, Gary Howard, resigned from the board in what The Wall Street Journal has reported to be a protest over the abrupt end of the special committee, whose members expected to have an ongoing role in the bidding process for LightSquared’s licenses. Dish’s directors – including majority shareholder Charles Ergen – have said that the independent committee’s work ended when the company finalized its stalking-horse offer in LightSquared’s Chapter 11. But shareholders in a derivative suit in state court in Las Vegas say that’s not why Ergen and his allies on Dish’s board ditched the independent committee. They claim that Ergen was looking out for his own conflicting interest as the holder of $1 billion in LightSquared debt. According to the shareholders, Dish’s “fundamental corporate governance breakdown” has endangered the company’s bid for LightSquared’s licenses and exposed Dish to liability for interfering with LightSquared bankruptcy.

At a hearing last Thursday on shareholders’ motion for a preliminary injunction barring Ergen from participating in the LightSquared bidding process, lawyers for the company told Clark County District Court Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez that Ergen and the board have the exact same interests as outside shareholders. They also said, however, that Dish has formed another independent committee, this one to weigh the outside shareholders’ allegations. Meanwhile, at least three other shareholders filed their own derivative suits last week, one also in state court in Nevada, where Dish is incorporated, and two in federal district court in Colorado, where the company is headquartered. At the very least, Dish’s impetuous disbanding of the original independent committee is going to cost the company a fortune in director time and legal fees (in addition to Las Vegas firms, the company and board are represented by Sullivan & Cromwell and Ergen by Willkie Farr & Gallagher). And if shareholders’ direst predictions come true, Ergen’s supposedly untoward influence on the company could cost Dish the LightSquared spectrum licenses it so badly wants.

Ergen began acquiring LightSquared debt after the wireless networking company, which is backed by Philip Falcone and his Harbinger Capital hedge fund, entered Chapter 11 in May 2012. The Dish chairman is now LightSquared’s biggest creditor, holding more than $1 billion in secured debt. He’s also involved in bitter litigation with Harbinger, which sued Dish and Ergen in August, claiming manipulation of the bankruptcy process. Harbinger wants to hold onto LightSquared’s valuable licenses in the company’s reorganization, so it is trying to block Ergen and Dish from acquiring them. LightSquared, moreover, wants to disallow Ergen’s debt, claiming he acquired it improperly.

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