The Latest Securities Litigation Target

The Latest Securities Litigation Target

Among the very, very latest trends in securities class action lawsuit filings are suits against for-profit educational companies. Just since the middle of last week, at least five companies in this sector have been tagged with new lawsuits, four of which were securities class actions.

These lawsuits have been accumulating in the wake of an August 3, 2010 Government Accountability Office report (here) which alleged that several companies in the for-profit education industry encouraged fraud and engaged in deceptive advertising. The report was prepared in connection with the August 4, 2010 hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

The GAO report said that undercover tests revealed that at least four schools encouraged fraudulent practices and all 15 tested made deceptive or questionable statements to the GAO's undercover applicants. The fraud involved encouraging falsified financial aid applications. A summary of the report can be found here. A statement of the report's highlights can be found here.

Though no specific companies are named in the report (or perhaps because no specific companies are named in the report), the share prices of many of the publicly traded for-profit education companies fell after the news about the GAO report circulated. And, perhaps inevitably, the lawsuits started coming in.

As far as I am aware, at least four for-profit education companies have been named in securities class action lawsuits just since the end of last week. These companies include the following:

Education Management Corp., against which the first suit was filed on August 11, 2010. A copy of the complaint filed in the Western District of Pennsylvania can be found here.

American Public Education, against which the first suit was filed on August 12, 2010. A copy of the complaint filed in the Northern District of West Virginia can be found here.

Lincoln Educational Services, against which the first suit apparently was filed on August 13, 2010. A copy of the complaint can be found here.

Apollo Group, Inc., against which the first suit apparently was filed on or about August 16, 2010. A copy of complaint can be found here.

In addition to these securities class action lawsuits, a separate class action lawsuit against Alta Colleges, Inc. (parent of Westwood College) and related entities and persons was filed on August 11, 2010 in the District of Colorado alleging violations of the Colorado Consumer Protection Act. A copy of the Alta/Westwood complaint can be found here.

With five suits in already, it seems safe to predict that other publicly-traded for-profit education companies could also get hit with one of these suits. This seems to be one of those classic contagion events that produces an epidemic of similar lawsuits that comes up every now and then. Last year it was ETFs (refer here); this year it seems to be for-profit educational companies.

The name Apollo Group may be familiar to many readers, as the company was the target of a prior securities class action lawsuit that has achieved a certain amount of notoriety because it is one of the few securities cases that has actually gone to trial. The trial resulted in a plaintiffs' verdict, although the presiding judge later set the verdict aside in a response to a post-trial motion. More recently, the Ninth Circuit reversed the trial court's ruling and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings, a development that has sparked significant interest and discussion.

Unfortunately for Apollo Group, all of the long-running drama in the prior case was no shield against another case being filed.

It remains to be seen how these cases will fare. But this industry-specific litigation outbreak is a reminder of the many odd and circumstance-specific events that can drive securities class action lawsuit filings. Many things determine filing levels, many of which cannot be captured or predicted in historical filing data. As a result, it can be misleading to try to generalize from short term trends about future filing levels. Simply put, the numbers vary over time, because, for example, contagion events and industry epidemics happen.

New Securities Suit Based on FCPA-Related Allegations: Regular readers know that I have frequently commented that one result of increased Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement has been the growth in the number of follow-on private civil lawsuits based on the underlying corruption allegations.

The latest example of this phenomenon is the lawsuit filed against SciClone Pharmaceuticals and certain of its directors and officers. According to the plaintiffs' lawyers' August 16, 2010 press release (here), the complaint they filed in the Northern District of California alleges that:

defendants were engaged in illegal and improper sales and marketing activities in China and abroad regarding its products. This ultimately caused the Company to become the focus of a joint investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission ("SEC") and the Department of Justice ("DOJ") for possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act ("FCPA"). It was only at the end of the Class Period, however, that investors ultimately learned the truth about the Company's operations after it was reported that the SEC and DOJ were investigating the Company for violations of the FCPA. At that time, shares of the Company declined almost 40% in the single trading day.

This case presents further support for the proposition that increased anticorruption enforcement activity represents a growing area of liability exposure for company executives.

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.