One of my “5 Wishes for Securities Litigation Defense” (April 30, 2016 post) is to increase the involvement of boards of directors in decisions concerning D&O insurance and the defense of securities litigation, including defense-counsel selection. Far too often, directors cede these critical strategic decisions to management.
For most directors, securities litigation is a mysterious world ruled by sinister plaintiffs’ lawyers, powerful judges, and a unique legal framework that must be navigated by fancy defense lawyers who charge exorbitant fees. Directors react to this litigation with everything from unnecessary panic to an unjustified feeling of invincibility. The right approach is somewhere in the middle: “attentive concern.” Securities litigation can pose personal risk to directors as well as to their companies, but if directors educate themselves and pay attention, this risk is almost always manageable.
Of course, part of what makes the risk manageable is D&O insurance. But in the event of a claim, independent directors share their D&O insurance with the company and its management. Despite this competition for policy proceeds, directors typically leave management to handle D&O insurance decisions. Directors need to protect their own interests by having a greater role in deciding the features of their D&O insurance program and how the company uses the policy proceeds in the event of a claim.
Greater Involvement by Directors in Securities Litigation Defense
Why Should Directors Care?
Although much of the recent discussion about securities litigation has revolved around meritless merger litigation, securities class actions and associated shareholder derivative actions have always posed greater risk than merger actions. A securities class action alleges that a company and its representatives made false or misleading statements that artificially inflated the stock price. Directors are virtually always included in Section 11 cases, which challenge statements in registered offerings, and increasingly are also named in Section 10(b) actions, which can challenge any public corporate statement. Directors are often named in “tag-along” shareholder derivative actions as well, which allege that the directors failed to properly oversee the company’s public disclosures.
Often, it is difficult to know from the initial complaint whether a securities case will pose a personal risk to directors because it is merely a placeholder. Only after the court selects the lead plaintiff and lead counsel will the plaintiffs’ attorneys draft more substantial allegations and add defendants through an amended complaint. But regardless of any personal risk, directors have a duty to oversee the significant potential liability the company faces. For these reasons, directors should treat each one of these cases as if they are personally named.
The Economics of Securities Litigation Matter
One emerging risk to companies is that ever-increasing securities defense fees no longer match the economics of most cases, and are quickly outpacing D&O policy limits. In the past, securities class actions were initiated by an oligopoly of larger plaintiffs’ firms with significant resources and mostly institutional clients that tended to bring larger cases against larger companies. But recently, smaller plaintiffs’ firms with retail-investor clients have been initiating more cases, primarily against smaller companies. Indeed, in recent years, approximately half of all securities class actions were filed against companies with $750 million or less in market capitalization. As a result, securities class actions have shrunk in size to a level last seen in 1997.
Yet at the same time, the litigation costs of most defense firms have increased exponentially. This two-decade mismatch—between 1997 securities-litigation economics and 2016 law-firm economics—creates the danger that a company’s D&O policy will be insufficient to cover the fees for a vigorous defense and the price to resolve the case. Indeed, inadequate policy proceeds due to skyrocketing defense costs is directors’ biggest risk from securities litigation—by far.
Historically, most securities defense firms have marquee names with high billing rates. Especially in cases against small-cap companies—now the lion’s share—it is more difficult for these firms to vigorously defend an action without risking that there will be too little D&O insurance left for settlement. To avoid this result, firms either cut corners or settle early for bloated amounts that make the defendants look like they did something wrong.
Quite obviously, directors should not be subjected to these hazards—which are created not by the securities class action itself, but by law-firm economics. The vast majority of securities class actions—if handled in the right way by the right defense counsel—can be defended and either won or settled, within D&O insurance policy limits, leaving no residual liability for either the company or its directors. With just a little time and effort at the beginning of the litigation, directors can put these cases on the right track.
The Importance of Directors’ Involvement in Defense-Counsel Selection
First and foremost, directors must ensure their company selects the right counsel. Securities litigation is a specialty field, and it can be nearly impossible to differentiate between the claims of expertise and experience made by the herd of lawyers that descends upon a company after a suit is filed. And it is a serious error—especially for mid-size and smaller companies—to use a law firm brand name as a proxy for quality and fit. Fortunately, many pitfalls of counsel selection can be avoided if directors keep in mind a few key principles:
- Select a securities litigation specialist, and not a multi-discipline commercial litigator, even one who is highly regarded and/or from a marquee firm.
- Educate yourself about the strategic differences between firms.
- Avoid defaulting to your regular corporate firm.
- Conduct an interview process.
An interview process is essential, in all cases. Directors should use the interview process to insist on a better alternative than the rote decision by most companies to simply retain their regular outside counsel, or a firm with a marquee name. To state the obvious, the most effective securities defense lawyers do not all work at marquee firms. Directors should insist that management interview a range of firms, including those that emphasize a combination of superior quality and reasonable cost—in other words, firms that offer good value. And directors should insist that management push for price concessions from all defense firms that management interviews.
The key is for directors to pay attention and to use the leverage of a competitive hiring process to find counsel to help them through the litigation safely, strategically, and economically.
Directors’ Oversight of D&O Insurance
As a refresher, a D&O insurance policy has three categories of coverage.
- Side A coverage reimburses directors and officers for losses not indemnified by the company.
- Side B coverage reimburses the company for indemnification of its directors and officers.
- Side C coverage insures the company for its own liability.
Directors’ exposure to securities litigation has changed. Due in part to the changes in the plaintiffs’ bar noted above, directors are now much more frequent targets in securities class actions and related shareholder derivative claims—and the trend is very likely to continue. Even as directors’ involvement in securities and derivative suits is increasing, their share of the D&O insurance is effectively decreasing, due to more competition for policy proceeds.
For example, companies frequently seek D&O insurance coverage for various types of investigations, which may help the company, but can significantly erode the policy limits. Companies also deplete limits by, among other things, requesting coverage for employees beyond directors and officers, and seeking ways to avoid triggering the fraud exclusion, which can result in large defense-costs payments to rogue officers. These types of decisions might make sense in certain circumstances, but they should be subject to director oversight.
Perhaps the biggest threat to the sufficiency of directors’ D&O insurance policy is from their own lawyers, due to skyrocketing defense costs. Some insurers have a pre-set list of lawyers from which defendants are encouraged or required to choose. This means that some of the counsel-selection process is done before a claim is filed—which is another reason directors should be involved in the D&O insurance purchasing decision.
Some companies try to eliminate the competition between the company and individuals for policy proceeds by purchasing separate Side A policies that cover only individuals, but these policies do not address erosion from other individuals or by attorneys’ fees, and they only apply if the company cannot indemnify the directors. There are Side A products available specifically for outside directors, but those are infrequently purchased, probably because directors are usually not involved in D&O insurance purchasing decisions.
Independent directors don’t need to take over the process of handling the company’s D&O insurance, or spend an inordinate amount of time on these issues, in order to adequately protect themselves. Rather, they need to become more involved and understand their D&O insurance options and the realities of the claim process. They can do this simply by asking for direct access to the D&O broker and insurer, and by spending some time on D&O insurance decisions at board meetings.
At the same time directors’ securities litigation risk is increasing, they share an increasing percentage of their D&O insurance with the company, officers, and even their own lawyers. Directors can mitigate the risks of these trends by simply becoming more involved in purchasing their D&O insurance and overseeing the defense of securities litigation, including defense-counsel selection. In doing so, they will not only protect their own interests, but will also better oversee and manage the company’s risks as well.