Six months ago the Delaware Supreme Court upheld the right of an enterprise to include a loser-pays provision in its bylaws, specifying that losing shareholder-litigants would have to contribute reasonable legal fees to compensate what would otherwise be loss to other owners. Since then there’s been a concerted campaign to overturn the ruling, either in the Delaware legislature or if necessary elsewhere. But as I argue in a new Cato post, allowing scope for freedom of contract of this sort is one of the best and most promising ways to avert an ever-rising toll of litigation. Contractually specified alternatives to courtroom wrangling have played a vital role, and are under attack for that very reason, in curbing litigation areas like workplace and consumer arbitration, shrinkwrap and click-through disclaimers of liability, and risk disclaimers at ballparks and elsewhere. (& Stephen Bainbridge).
To the extent America has made progress in recent years in rolling back the extreme litigiousness of earlier years, one main reason has been the courts’ increased willingness to respect the libertarian and classical liberal principle of freedom of contract. Most legal disputes arise between parties with prior dealings, and if they have been left free in those dealings to specify who bears the risks when things go wrong, the result will often be to cut off the need for expensive and open-ended litigation afterward.
More on the Delaware bylaw controversy: D & O Diary (scroll), Andrew Trask on state of the merger class action, WSJ Law Blog first and second, Daniel Fisher, and ABA Journal in June, Alison Frankel/Reuters (forum selection bylaws).
Steve Bainbridge has a wish list for reforms to financial and securities law in the new Congress, especially the damaging Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley laws. Included: repeal of conflicts minerals disclosure, “say on pay,” and pay ratio disclosure; more leeway for public companies to opt out of various regulatory obligations to shareholders that their own shareholders have not contractually seen fit to impose; and litigation reform.
Meanwhile, my Cato colleague Mark Calabria points out that there “are numerous protectors of the status quo in both major political parties,” which may frustrate the relatively free-market instincts of the responsible committee chairs, Sen. Richard Shelby and Rep. Jeb Hensarling. “But at least financial regulation is unlikely to get any worse.”
Prof. Bainbridge flags this disturbing Wall Street Journal piece:
The Securities and Exchange Commission is increasingly steering cases to hearings in front of the agency’s appointed administrative judges, who found in its favor in every verdict for the 12 months through September, rather than taking them to federal court.
Previously, the agency had tended to use the ALJs (administrative law judges) for relatively cut-and-dried enforcement actions, while taking more complex or cutting-edge disputes to federal court. Now, following the Dodd-Frank expansion of its powers, it prefers ALJs even for many complex and demanding cases arising from charges such as insider trading. Defendants enjoy a range of protections in federal court that are not provided in administrative litigation, including juries as well as the presence of federal judges who are independent of agency control, held to a more demanding ethical code, and drawn generally from higher and more sophisticated circles within the legal profession. Read the entire Bainbridge commentary, with followups linking Henry Manne (adjudicatory actions are ways to avoid the more demanding process of rulemaking) and Keith Bishop (current system open to constitutional challenge?).
The Supreme Court’s refusal to revisit the fraud-on-the-market presumption in securities litigation leaves intact an economically irrational system that mostly benefits lawyers. “Indeed, the Court’s decision almost certainly will make this litigation even more expensive by increasing the scope of the class certification inquiry (while not changing the result in many cases). That means even more money out of the pockets of shareholders and into the pockets of lawyers and economic experts.” [Mayer Brown, earlier]
In yesterday’s Supreme Court decision in Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund, the Court unanimously agreed to narrow procedural relief for the corporate defendant, but declined 6-3 to revisit its 1988 mistake in creating from whole cloth the “fraud on the market” theory in Basic, Inc. v. Levinson. I have more at Cato at Liberty. Earlier on Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund here. More: Kevin LaCroix, & welcome Stephen Bainbridge, SCOTUSBlog readers.
More: Alden Abbott and Thom Lambert at Truth on the Market; Bainbridge with roundup of commentary; Beck, Drug & Device Law, on implications for concept of reliance in that area.
“Delaware’s Supreme Court has ruled that corporations can adopt bylaws requiring an investor who sues and loses to pay the company’s legal costs, potentially upending the economics of a booming type of shareholder litigation.” [Tom Hals, Reuters via Federalist Society Blog]
Andrew Grossman reports on yesterday’s oral argument in Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund, which “may be the biggest business case of the term. …Basic [Basic v. Levinson, 1988, in which the Court dispensed with the reliance requirement in favor of the "fraud on the market" theory] came at the tail-end of the Court’s decades-long experiment in policymaking by creating and defining the contours of civil actions. … The chief barrier to overturning Basic may not be its logic, its wisdom, or even its correctness as a matter of law, but instead stare decisis.” Earlier here, here, here, and here.
More: Kaye Scholer (possible “midway position” with impact on stock price considered at stage of class certification).
Fortune reporter Erika Fry profiles the lawyer-allied Louisiana Municipal Police Employees’ Retirement System, pronounced “Lampers,” which has been called a “serial plaintiff,” a “frequent filer,” and in one legal brief “the most prolific filer of shareholder litigation in U.S. history.”