Last October, when a federal jury in Cleveland concluded that Whirlpool was not liable to a class of Ohio washing machine purchasers who claimed the products had a tendency to develop a moldy smell, I said the outcome was a vindication of class actions. Whirlpool had argued in the years leading up to the trial in federal court in Cleveland that it couldn’t get a fair shake if consumers’ claims were tried en masse. I argued that the jury’s defense verdict showed that defendants – and not just plaintiffs – can reap the benefits of a trial of classwide claims.
Let’s state the obvious: Big Business did not get what it wanted Monday from the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused in Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund to overturn Basic v. Levinson, the 25-year-old precedent that permits shareholders to bring classwide claims of securities fraud.
Companies should not mislead consumers about their products. Some do anyway. Those companies should be held accountable for their deception, not only because they lied but also to deter other companies from lying.
Once again, we are reminded that defendants underestimate the creativity of the class action bar at their own peril.
Conventional wisdom has it that the future of most securities fraud class actions will come down to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts (and possibly Justice Samuel Alito, who, as a judge on the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, wrote quite interesting decisions about fraud-on-the-market reliance). Last term, in dissents in Amgen v. Connecticut Retirement Plans, Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy made clear their skepticism about the court’s 1988 precedent in Basic v. Levinson, the case that made securities fraud class actions possible via its holding that shareholders may be presumed to have relied on corporate misstatements about a stock that trades in an efficient market. Based on the Amgen majority opinion, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor seem disinclined to overturn Basic when the court once again takes up the issue of classwide shareholder reliance on March 5 in Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund.
In his latest update on class actions filed in the wake of deal announcements, Dealbook’s Deal Professor Steven Davidoff (whose day job is teaching law at Ohio State) found that in 2013, shareholder suits followed almost all – 97.5 percent – deals of more $100 million. That’s not quite as inevitable as night following day but it’s getting there, especially when you consider that the rate of post-M&A class action filings is up from 91.7 percent in 2012 and 39.3 percent in 2005. Companies grumble all the time that these suits are nothing more than a “deal tax,” a sort of legal extortion racket by plaintiffs lawyers whose true motive is not enhancing shareholder value but skimming millions in fees for holding up transactions with silly claims.
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 a notable 2001 opinion called In the Matter of Synthroid Marketing Litigation, Judge Frank Easterbrook of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals set out guidelines for trial judges awarding fees to plaintiffs lawyers in class action megacases, defined as those in which the class recovery exceeds $75 million. Easterbrook said there should be no automatic cap on fees, even in these very big cases. Instead, he pointed to the 7th Circuit’s oft-stated preference for fee awards that reflect both the risk borne by class counsel and “the normal rate of compensation in the market at the time.” The 7th Circuit has made it clear that the best way to assure a market rate is for class action lawyers and their clients to reach a fee agreement before the litigation begins, but the 2001 Synthroid opinion didn’t specify exactly how trial judges should approximate an arm’s-length negotiation if there’s no preset deal on fees. In a 2003 follow-up opinion, Easterbrook and his fellow panel members actually set class counsel fees themselves, finding that “a decent estimate of the fee that would have been established in ex ante arms’-length negotiations” was a sliding percentage of recovery that declined as the size of the settlement increased.
Last spring, when U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald of Manhattan decimated the consolidated private litigation over banks’ manipulation of the London Interbank Offered Rate, the only claims that remained upright in the rubble of her ruling were those brought under the Commodity Exchange Act, which makes tampering with the price of exchange-traded commodities or futures illegal. Buchwald’s opinion cited a plethora of Manhattan federal court decisions that permitted victims of futures price manipulation to move forward with their suits, including three consolidated class actions involving rigged prices for oil futures. I suspect we’re going to be hearing a lot more about those cases over the next several months. Even as the class action bar tries to persuade the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals to reinstate the Libor antitrust claims that Buchwald dismissed, plaintiffs lawyers are gearing up for the next big litigation: claims that BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Statoil and other unidentified conspirators violated commodity and antitrust laws by reporting false prices for North Sea Brent crude oil to the price-setting agency Platts.
In 2009, six retired pro football stars filed a class action against the National Football League in federal court in Minneapolis, claiming that the NFL misappropriated their names and images without their consent. The class action, led by (among others) former Houston Oiler Hall of Famer Elvin Bethea and former Los Angeles Ram All Pro and television star Fred Dryer, asserted that the NFL didn’t compensate its retired players when it used clips from old games to promote the league. In September 2011, the Dryer case was consolidated with two other similar class actions. Three firms, Zimmerman Reed, Hausfeld and Bob Stein, were named interim lead counsel.