Securities Suit Filings Continue Apace in Year's First Half

The number of securities class action lawsuit filings came in slightly above historical averages during the first half of 2012, with filings against natural resources companies, life sciences companies, and foreign issuers leading the way. Filings related to mergers and acquisitions transactions continued to be an important factor in the number of filings, although not as significant of a factor as was the case in 2011.

During the first half of 2012, there were 103 new securities class action lawsuit filings. This figure annualizes to 206, which would be above the 1997-2010 annual laverage number of filings of 194. Though securities suit filings were active during the year's first half, the filings were not evenly distributed during the period. There were 58 filings in the first quarter -- 44 in January and February alone -- but only 45 filings in the second quarter. Given the relative filing slowdown after the first two months of the year, it may be that by year's end the overall filing level may not remain at the relatively elevated levels that we saw in the first half. .

A surprising number of the first half filings involved companies domiciled or with their principle place of business outside the U.S. There were 18 filings in the year's first six months against these non-U.S. companies, representing about 17.5% of all filings. This level of filings against non-U.S. companies is down from 2011, when 36.2% of all filings involved non-U.S. companies, but the filings against non-U.S. companies are still up from 2008-2010, when the filings against non-U.S. companies averaged about 13.4% of all filings.

The largest numbers of these filings involving non-U.S. companies related to companies domiciled in or with their principal place of business in China. There were seven of these suits against Chinese companies during the first half. In addition, there were three more companies that are headquartered or domiciled in Hong Kong but that have their operations in China .Taking all of these into account, there were ten China-related filings. This level of filing against China-related companies is down from 2011, when filings against Chinese reverse merger companies largely drove the filings during the year. The numbers of filings against Chinese-related companies in 2012 still is a little unexpected, as the wave of filings involving Chinese companies in 2011 was largely assumed to be a temporary phenomenon. To be sure, the filings against Chinese-related companies is down significantly from 2011. Nevertheless, the continued level of filings against Chinese-related companies is noteworthy.

It should be noted that there were also six filings against Canadian companies, many of them natural resources companies (about which see more below).

There were a number of "ripped from the headline" lawsuits in the first six months, including in particular the fillings during the first half against J.P. Morgan, Wal-Mart, Facebook and Netflix. Given the anemic rate of IPO activity during the first six months of 2012, the numbers of IPO related lawsuits are a little bit of a surprise. There were six suits involving IPO companies, including the high profile IPO fizzles Facebook and Groupon.

About 15% of the first half filings involved M&A related allegations, which while significant is down from 2011, when M&A related filings accounted for about 22.9% of all filings.

The first half securities suits were filed in 38 different district courts. The court with the largest number of filings in the year's first six months was the Southern District of New York, which had 33 filings (or roughly a third of all filings in the first half). No other court had nearly as many filings. The courts with the highest filing levels after the Southern District of New York were the Central District of California (6); and the Northern District of California, Northern District of Illinois and District of Massachusetts, each of which had five filings. These top five courts together had more than half of all first half filings (52.42%).

Many kinds of companies were sued in securities suits in the first half. The companies involved were drawn from 62 different Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) code categories.  However, there were concentrations of filings in certain specific areas

The largest concentration of filings was in the 283 SIC code grouping (Drugs), where there were a total of 13 filings, included eight  in the 2834 SIC code category (Pharmaceutical Preparations). Another area of concentration was in the 384 SIC code group (Surgical, Medical and Dental Instruments), which had six filings. The single category within this group that had the highest number of filings was SIC code category 3845 (Electrochemical and Electromagnetic Apparatus). Taking all of these groups and categories together, there were a total of 19 filings against life sciences companies, or about 18.4% of all filings.

Outside of life sciences companies, the next highest concentration of filings was in the SIC code series from 1000 to 1400 (which includes mining and natural resources companies), in which there were 15 first half filings (about 14.5% of all filings). The largest single category with this group was SIC code category 1311 (Crude Petroleum and Natural Gas), which had eight filings.

Another group with a significant number of first half filings was the SIC code group 737 (Computer Programming and Data Processing), which had a total of eight filings. Finally, there were four filings in SIC code group 8200 (Educational Services),.

It is worth noting that there were only a modest number of filings in the 6000-level SIC code series (Finance Insurance and Real Estate). In recent years, subprime and credit crisis-related filings has driven filings among companies in these categories, which as recently as 2010 predominated all filings. However, during the first half of 2012, there were only ten filings against companies in these SIC Code categories, representing about 9.7% of all filings.

Discussion

The above comparison to historical filing levels is based on absolute numbers of filings. It could be argued that on a relative basis, the filing rate is actually increasing. According to data on the World Federation of Exchanges website, in the ten year period between January 1, 2002 and December 31, 2011, the number of companies trading on either NYSE or NASDAQ has declined by about 25% (from 6,586 to 4,900), yet in absolute terms the number of filings remains within about the same range (that is, around 200 per year). Relative to the declining numbers of public companies, the rate of securities class action lawsuit filings arguably is increasing.

The level of securities litigation activity involving mining and natural resources companies is interesting. Historically, companies in these categories have seen relatively little securities class action filing activity. The single largest factor in the increase of filing activity is litigation arising from M&A transactions. But litigation has also arisen due to the fluctuating pricing of minerals or petroleum; questions about mineral or petroleum reserves; or as a result of extraction mishaps, such as crude oil spills. It does seem as if the increased global competition for natural resources has made companies in these categories more vulnerable to securities class action litigation activity than they have been in the past.

There are some important aspects in which my analysis will likely vary from other published versions. There is a significant amount of judgment about what to include in the tally of filings and then about how to categorize the various filings. To use one example of this problem, it is unlikely that other published versions will show the same figures as I have for the number of China-related companies. There are a variety of ways these companies might be tracked, whether limited purely to Chinese domiciled companies, or broadened to also include companies that have their principal place of business in China or companies that have their principal business activities in China. I have used the most inclusive grouping, including within the group companies that have the business activities in China, even if they are not Chinese domiciled and even if they don't have their principle place of business in China. This categorization may result in a larger tally of China-related companies than you may see published elsewhere. This same precaution about categorization applies equally to the more basic task of tallying up the lawsuit filings; due to differences in counting methodology, my tally is likely to vary from other published counts.

Failed Bank Litigation Fizzle?: A number of commentators, including even me, had been projecting that as 2012 progressed then numbers of FDIC failed bank lawsuits would escalate sharply. In the event, quite the opposite has happened, at least so far. In particular, during 2Q12, new FDIC filed bank lawsuit filings have slowed to a crawl.

As reflected on the FDIC's website (here), during the first quarter of 2012, there were nine new FDIC lawsuits against the former directors and officers of failed banks, including four in March along. However, during the second quarter of 2012, the FDIC filed only three new failed bank lawsuits total. The agency filed no lawsuits at all during June.

It may well be that new failed bank lawsuit activity will pick back up in the year's second half. Indeed. on its website, the FDIC indicates that a lawsuits involving a total 65 failed institutions have been authorized (inclusive of the 30 lawsuits involving 29 institutions that have already been filed), which suggests that there may be as many as 36 lawsuits that have been approved but not yet filed.

With all of these authorized lawsuits, it seems probable that new lawsuit filings will soon resume and that the period during the second quarter will turn out to have been a short-term lull only. Nevertheless, the relative dearth of new failed bank lawsuit filings during the second quarter is noteworthy and even a little puzzling.

The FDIC has in any event continued to take control of failed financial institutions during the first half of the year. There were a total of 31 bank failures during the period, which though well below the  pace of closures during the last few years, is still above even the annual total for 2008, where there were 25 bank failures during the entire year. In other words, even if the pace of failed bank litigation filing seems to have dipped during the second quarter, the problems associated with the current wave of bank failures continue to accumulate and the likelihood is that the fallout from the bank failures will have to be sorted out for years to come.

Collegiate Hunter Gatherers: An article in the July 2, 2012 issue of the New Yorker entitled "The Hunter Games" (here)  takes a look at the annual Scavenger Hunt at the University of Chicago known to the undergraduate students there simply as "Scav." What began a few years ago as a modest diversion has grown into an enormous nerd ritual that exceeds traditional limits of normal human behavior. To cite but one example of the kinds of things the annual event leads to, the article mentions that "in 1999, for five hundred points, a pair of physics students built a working breeder reactor in a Burton-Judson dorm room in one day, converting thorium powder collected from inside of vacuum tubes into weapon-grade uranium, using a device made from scrap aluminum and carbon sheets. A concerned nuclear physicist attested to the machine's efficacy."

The list of objects to be found or constructed is devised by a group of judges, whose bylaws provide that the planning meeting "could not be adjourned while beer remained on the table."  Here is a representative sample of a typical challenge: "Build a laptop charger using only materials available in the sixteenth century." Another requirement is to create "a Scrabble game consisting of nonexistent words, for which the player has to supply definitions ('mervifeet' is a medical condition in which only the outer edges of the afflicted person's feet touch the ground)."

The article catalogues the event's sheer lunacy. However, the article also notes that, despite its "pervasive commotion," only about ten percent of the undergraduate student body takes place in the event. Others consider it a distraction. The student newspaper parodied the kinds of items on the Scav search list with its own spoof list, including items such as: "Bite your own teeth. Birth a child that is larger than yourself." One undergraduate is quoted in the article as saying that the Scav is "just really white and socially awkward," adding that "there's nothing wrong with being white and socially awkward, but as someone who is not white or socially awkward, it's not exactly appealing to me."

The Scav may not be universally popular, and it is undeniably a veritable nerd Olympics, but it still stands as an ironic contrast to the University of Chicago's well-known tag (quoted in the article) that the school is the place "Where Fun Goes to Die." The contestants come off in the article as brainy and humorous. And seriously odd.

Read other items of interest from the world of directors & officers liability, with occasional commentary, at the D&O Diary, a blog by Kevin LaCroix.

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