Opinion

Alison Frankel

Forum selection clauses are killing multiforum M&A litigation

Alison Frankel
Jun 24, 2014 21:00 UTC

It was entirely predictable that last spring, after Safeway announced that it had agreed to accept a $9.2 billion offer from the private equity firm Cerberus Capital, shareholders would rush to file suits challenging the deal. As you know, shareholder M&A suits have become an inevitable consequence of merger announcements, and, to the frustration of defendants, are often brought in more than one jurisdiction — which has meant, in years past, that if defendants couldn’t persuade judges to defer to other courts, they sometimes had to defend against the same claims by multiple plaintiffs firms in multiple courts.

Defendants thought they’d at least solved the multiforum problem a year ago, when then Chancellor Leo Strine ruled in Boilermakers v. Chevron that corporations may adopt and enforce bylaws requiring shareholders to bring suits in Delaware. The plaintiffs firms that had challenged bylaws adopted by Chevron and Fedex decided not to appeal Strine’s decision to the Delaware Supreme Court, though the state justices may yet have a say on Chevron’s forum selection clause via a parallel shareholder suit that was filed in federal court in San Francisco. (U.S. District Judge William Alsup has said he may certify the bylaw validity to the Delaware Supreme Court in that case.) Under prevailing Delaware precedent, the only way forum selection bylaws wouldn’t work for Delaware corporations was if judges in other jurisdictions refused to honor the provisions.

So far, all of the out-of-state judges to consider Delaware forum selection bylaws have deferred to the provisions — with the California state judge presiding over a wing of the Safeway litigation the latest to rule that a forum bylaw is enforceable. (Sullivan & Cromwell has a client alert describing all four decisions; I first heard about the S&C memo from The Chancery Daily.)

The California ruling, by Judge Wynne Carvill of Alameda County Superior Court, is particularly good news for Delaware corporations that have adopted or are contemplating a forum selection bylaw amendment directing shareholder litigation to Chancery Court. And now lawyers for Safeway and Cerberus are using it to try to erase yet more Safeway shareholder M&A class actions in federal court. It’s worth paying attention to what happens next in this case: If the Safeway shareholder litigation turns out to be a paradigm of M&A class actions in the age of forum selection clauses, plaintiffs lawyers are going to be collecting less in deal taxes than they’re accustomed to.

Safeway’s board adopted its forum selection bylaw amendment in October 2013, after the company began exploring a sale but before any agreement with Cerberus. That deal was announced on March 6, and, almost immediately, seven shareholders sued in Delaware and four others in Alameda County. The Delaware cases were consolidated before Vice-Chancellor Travis Laster, who appointed Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann, Grant & Eisenhofer, Kessler Topaz Meltzer & Check and Saxena White as lead counsel (with another four firms as members of an “executive committee”). Safeway agreed to expedited discovery in the Delaware litigation.

SCOTUS Halliburton ruling could backfire for securities defendants

Alison Frankel
Jun 23, 2014 21:29 UTC

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.

The justices didn’t even adopt the alternate approach — suggested by some Halliburton supporters in friend-of-the-court briefs — of requiring plaintiffs who want to sue as a class to show that supposed corporate misstatements had an impact on share prices. Instead, the court ruled only that defendants may argue against class certification with evidence that share prices didn’t drop as a result of the alleged fraud.

Halliburton’s lawyer, Aaron Streett of Baker Botts, told me that’s still a “significant win,” especially considering that the justices might have upheld the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and barred defendants from using such price-impact evidence to keep shareholders from banding together.

Bain, Goldman settlements in collusion case undercut shareholder releases

Alison Frankel
Jun 12, 2014 21:25 UTC

As inevitably as thunder follows lightning, shareholder class actions follow deal announcements. Debate has been raging for years now about whether shareholders derive any real benefits from the resolution of these cases, with judges increasingly skeptical about awarding big fees to plaintiffs lawyers who win only enhanced disclosures in deal documents. For defendants, the upside of settlements is more obvious: They obtain global releases of shareholder claims related to the transactions.

Or do they? On Wednesday, Goldman Sachs and Bain Capital agreed to pay a combined $121 million ($54 million from Bain, $67 million from Goldman) to resolve antitrust class action claims that they and several other private equity defendants cheated shareholders in eight companies acquired in private equity LBOs by colluding to depress acquisition prices. According to Patrick Coughlin of Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, who is one of the lead lawyers in the antitrust case, the beneficiaries of the Bain and Goldman settlements will include shareholders who previously released claims against the private equity funds in shareholder M&A class action settlements.

Bain and Goldman, along with their fellow antitrust defendants — Blackstone, TCG, KKR, TPG and Silverlake — had argued in a motion in January that shareholder releases in the original M&A cases should preclude certification of a class of onetime shareholders injured by their supposed conspiracy to depress LBO prices. It was a pretty creative argument, based on a ruling in the collusion case that shareholders who sold stock in the various LBO deals could not introduce evidence from those transactions against defendants they released from liability in M&A settlements. That patchwork of evidence, the defendants contended, meant that the collusion case did not meet commonality and typicality standards for class actions.

Judge says Cleary Argentina memo is privileged, he won’t ‘make use of it’

Alison Frankel
Jun 10, 2014 21:11 UTC

The hedge fund NML Capital is going to have to execute some fancy footwork to maintain its argument that Argentina is plotting to evade a ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that prohibits the foreign sovereign from making payments to holders of its restructured debt before paying off hedge funds that refused to exchange defaulted bonds.

As I told you last week, NML presented U.S. District Judge Thomas Griesa with what it considered smoking-gun evidence: published accounts of a May 2 memo from Argentina’s lawyers recommending that the country’s “best option” if the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear Argentina’s appeal of the 2nd Circuit decision would be to default “and then immediately restructure all of the external bonds so that the payment mechanism and the other related elements are outside of the reach of American courts.”

But in a June 3 letter to lawyers for NML and for Argentina, Judge Griesa said that the memo, written by Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton for Argentina’s Minister of Economy and Public Finance, “is clearly privileged,” based on his assumption that Cleary didn’t intend the document to become public. (It was leaked in the Argentine press, then was reported by the Financial Times’s FT Alphaville blog, which links to an English translation of the entire five-page memo, entitled “Possible Outcomes of the Petition for Certiorari and Issues Regarding the Settlement of the Debt.”) The judge said he would “not make use of” the privileged document.

SCOTUS repose opinion is good news for securities defendants

Alison Frankel
Jun 9, 2014 21:37 UTC

As of April, the Federal Housing Finance Agency has recovered about $15 billion from 15 big banks that supposedly misrepresented the quality of the mortgage-backed securities they peddled to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. FHFA is expecting more to come: The conservator still has cases under way against Goldman Sachs, HSBC, Nomura and Royal Bank of Scotland. The National Credit Union Administration, meanwhile, has netted more than $330 million in settlements with banks that duped since-failed credit unions into buying deficient MBS. NCUA is also still litigating against several other defendants, some of which it sued only last September. When you add in MBS suits by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation on behalf of failed banks, there are about four dozen ongoing cases, involving some $200 billion in rotten mortgage-backed securities, brought by congressionally created stewards.

Just about all of those cases are alive only because of so-called “extender statutes” in which Congress lengthened the time frame for the agencies to bring claims under the Securities Act of 1933. (The Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 addressed claims by NCUA and FDIC; the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, which created FHFA, gave it extra time for Fannie and Freddie claims.) As you know if you’re a faithful reader, bank defendants have tried to argue that the nearly identical extender provisions in FIRREA and HERA only addressed the Securities Act’s one-year statute of limitations, not the law’s three-year statute of repose. Unfortunately for them, both the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in an FHFA case against UBS, and the 10th Circuit, in an NCUA case against Nomura, concluded that when Congress enacted the FIRREA and HERA extender provisions, it intended to lift both time bars, the statutes of limitations and repose.

On Monday, in a case called CTS Corporation v. Waldburger, the U.S. Supreme Court gave the banks that have stuck it out in litigation against FHFA, NCUA and FDIC a glimmer of hope. The Waldburger case presented the question of whether an extender statute in the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 pre-empts the statute of repose under North Carolina tort law. Seven justices, in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, ruled that it does not. More broadly, though, the court drew a clear line between the statutes of limitation and repose — which is what bank defendants in MBS litigation have long argued for. It’s going to be very interesting to see now what the justices do about Nomura’s pending petition for certiorari in the NCUA case in which 10th Circuit rejected its statute of repose defense. The petition was first scheduled to be considered back in March but the justices haven’t yet issued an order, presumably because they’ve been waiting to rule in Waldburger.

The dubious new high-frequency trading case against the Merc

Alison Frankel
Apr 14, 2014 19:02 UTC

For all of the outrage kicked up by Michael Lewis’s depiction of fundamentally rigged securities exchanges in his book “Flash Boys,” there’s a giant obstacle standing in the way of punishing high-frequency traders or the exchanges that facilitate them: the blessing of federal regulators. As Dealbook’s Peter Henning wrote in his White Collar Crime Watch column on why high-frequency trading is unlikely to result in criminal charges, securities exchanges openly sell access to high-speed data feeds and to physical proximity that increases trading speed by milliseconds. Exchanges are, in the words of Andrew Ross Sorkin, “the real black hats” of high-frequency trading, since they unabashedly profit from differentiating access to trading information.

That may be true, but exchanges do so with the full knowledge of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Georgetown professor James Angel, who specializes in the structure and regulation of financial markets, told me Monday that as long as securities exchanges don’t discriminate in the sale of high-speed access, they’re acting within their regulatory bounds. He compared the system to airlines selling different tiers of service: It’s perfectly fine to sell first-class seats to high-frequency traders as long as people in coach had the same opportunity to sit up front and opted instead for the cheap seats.

I had called Angel to ask his opinion of a new class action against the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Filed Friday in federal district court in Chicago, the suit claims that the Merc’s parent, CME Group, has defrauded the derivatives market by representing that it’s providing real-time market information when, in fact, it has entered into “clandestine” contracts to provide order information to high-frequency traders before anyone else. Angel’s take? “This is a bogus case,” he said after reading the suit. “This is clearly about somebody who bought a coach ticket and is now complaining that they didn’t get first class service.”

Can SAC insider trading target Elan force hedge fund to pay legal fees?

Alison Frankel
Apr 8, 2014 20:57 UTC

Elan Pharmaceuticals believes it was victimized twice over by SAC Capital, the notorious hedge fund now called Point72. The first time was when SAC obtained insider information about unsuccessful trials of the Alzheimer’s drug bapineuzumab and dumped $700 million in shares of the Irish drug company and its drug development partner Wyeth. But to add insult to that injury, Elan had to spend a small fortune, about $1.6 million, in legal fees and costs stemming from the government’s investigation of SAC’s insider trading. That is money SAC should have to pay, according to Elan. With the hedge fund due to be sentenced Thursday by U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain of Manhattan, the pharma company’s lawyers at Reed Smith have submitted a letter asking Swain to recognize Elan as a victim of SAC’s crimes and order the hedge fund to pay it $1.6 million in restitution.

It’s a fascinating request. You probably recall that in a couple of high-profile cases in the recent spate of insider-trading prosecutions, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs won rulings that former employees (in a broad sense of that word) were on the hook for legal fees the banks incurred as a result of the employees’ crimes. In February 2013, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff held that under the federal victims’ restitution law, former Goldman director Rajat Gupta owes the bank $6.2 million — the money Goldman laid out to Sullivan & Cromwell to investigate Gupta’s conduct internally and to cooperate with government investigators. Last July, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a similar ruling by U.S. District Judge Denise Cote. She had concluded in 2012 that Morgan Stanley was the victim of insider trading by FrontPoint hedge fund manager Chip Skowron, so Skowron was responsible not just for repaying the bank the cost of his own defense but also for restitution of the legal fees Morgan Stanley advanced to other FrontPoint employees.

The 2nd Circuit’s ruling in the Skowron case didn’t leave much doubt that employers can receive restitution as victims for the money they spend to cooperate with government investigations of employees who go on to plead guilty or be convicted. Elan, however, didn’t employ SAC or Mathew Martoma, the former SAC trader who was convicted of trading on inside information about the company. On Monday, in a response to Elan’s letter requesting restitution, SAC’s lawyers at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison said Elan’s theory of restitution is “without precedent.”

Can banks force clients to litigate, not arbitrate?

Alison Frankel
Apr 3, 2014 20:38 UTC

If you are a customer of a big bank — let’s say a merchant unhappy about the fees you’re being charged to process credit card transactions — good luck trying to bring claims in federal court when you’re subject to an arbitration provision. As you probably recall, in last term’s opinion in American Express v. Italian Colors, the U.S. Supreme Court continued its genuflection at the altar of the Federal Arbitration Act, holding definitively that if you’ve signed an agreement requiring you to arbitrate your claims, you’re stuck with it even if you can’t afford to vindicate your statutory rights via individual arbitration.

But what if you’re a bank customer who wants to go to arbitration — and, in a weird role-reversal, the bank is insisting that you must instead bring a federal district court suit? Will courts show the same deference to arbitration when a plaintiff, rather than a defendant, is invoking the right to arbitrate and not litigate?

On Friday, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals will hear a rare tandem argument in two cases that present the question of whether bank clients have the right to arbitrate their claims even though they’ve signed contracts with forum selection clauses directing disputes to federal court. Believe it or not, the 2nd Circuit will be the third federal appellate court to answer this question, which has divided its predecessors. In January 2013, the 4th Circuit ruled that a UBS client may proceed to arbitration, but on Friday, the 9th Circuit held that a Goldman Sachs customer who agreed to a nearly identical forum selection clause must sue in federal court. To add to the confusion, the 9th Circuit panel was split, which led the majority to call the case “a close question.”

Sotheby’s shareholders defend activist investors in suit vs board

Alison Frankel
Apr 2, 2014 20:13 UTC

The heat surrounding so-called activist investors — hedge funds that buy up big chunks of a company’s stock, then leverage their position to mount proxy campaigns or otherwise force boards to change the way the company is managed — could hardly be more intense than it is now. Well, okay, maybe there would be even more controversy if Michael Lewis wrote a book about a genius upstart who defied accepted deal conventions and revolutionized corporate takeover battles. But putting aside the Wall Street tizzy inspired by this week’s publication of Lewis’s new book about high-frequency trading, the deal world’s favorite topic remains activist investors like Carl Icahn, Paul Singer, William Ackman and Dan Loeb.

Just in the last two weeks, Chief Justice Leo Strine of the Delaware Supreme Court published his extraordinary essay on shareholder activism at the Columbia Law Review, the Wall Street Journal did a fabulous story on hedge funds tipping each other off about their targets, and Martin Lipton of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz — whose avowed disdain for short-term investors has recently manifested in litigation with Icahn — revealed at the Tulane M&A fest that there are actually a couple of activist funds he respects. (He said he wouldn’t go so far as to say he “likes” them, though.)

A new shareholder derivative complaint against the board of the auction house Sotheby’s is the latest contribution to the furor over activist investors. Two of the most successful shareholder firms in the game, Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann and Grant & Eisenhofer, filed the class action Tuesday night in Delaware Chancery Court on behalf of St. Louis’s employee pension fund. The suit squarely aligns shareholders with activist investor Loeb and his Third Point hedge fund, which owns nearly 10 percent of Sotheby’s stock and has launched a proxy contest for three board seats at the auction house.

U.S. stays out of Argentina pari passu case at SCOTUS – for now

Alison Frankel
Mar 26, 2014 19:18 UTC

France, Brazil and Mexico told the U.S. Supreme Court this week that the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals has endangered sovereign debt markets with its ruling last year against the Republic of Argentina. In amicus briefs supporting Argentina’s petition for Supreme Court review, the foreign sovereigns argue that the 2nd Circuit gravely misinterpreted the so-called “pari passu” (or equal footing) clause of Argentina’s sovereign debt contracts. By ruling that Argentina may not pay bondholders who exchanged defaulted bonds for restructured debt before it pays hedge fund creditors that refused to exchange their defaulted bonds, the amicus briefs argue, the 2nd Circuit has undermined international debt restructurings, permitting vulture investors to hold entire foreign economies hostage.

The United States made quite similar arguments, as you may recall, when Argentina’s pari passu case was before the 2nd Circuit. But there’s no filing from the Justice Department among the 10 new amicus briefs urging the Supreme Court to take Argentina’s appeal. Does that mean Argentina has lost its most influential friend in the U.S. court system?

It does not, but it does mean that the administration is waiting for an invitation from the Supreme Court justices before it takes a position in the Argentina pari passu case. And there’s at least some chance the invitation will never come.

  •