Class Action Litigation on the Rise: How Safe are Safe Harbor Statements?

History has a way of repeating itself. With 2017 statistics of all kinds starting to be compiled, one offered by the Stanford Securities Class Action Clearinghouse should make public company management teams and their boards take notice: the number of securities class-action lawsuits is on the rise … in a startling way.

 

The clearinghouse reported that the number of annoying and costly public company securities class action lawsuits increased to 413 in 2017, up from 213 in 2016, and up from an average of 190 in the years 2002 through 2015.                        

                                            

classaction_law

Law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati recently issued a paper highlighting the trend, which can impact companies of all sizes, from micro- to mega-cap. The three biggest reasons for the suits are material misstatements or omissions in registration statements and prospectuses for IPOs; challenges to merger and acquisition transactions, many if not most of which defense lawyers say are boilerplate in nature and meritless; and greater scrutiny by the SEC to disclosures being made by private companies.

 

Disclosures, or lack thereof, in press releases, which are totally in management’s control, often play a role in such lawsuits. While most companies are careful about including safe harbor statements in their press releases, which offer some legal protection, many companies do not use those statements properly. Often, they fail to customize those paragraphs to include the actual forward-looking statements mentioned in the press release. Worse yet, sometimes the safe harbor paragraphs are being included as boilerplate, even when there are no forward-looking statements at all.

 

Remember the term, “You’ve been Lerached?” A couple of decades ago, class action securities lawsuits were rampant, with a San Diego-based law firm, long since shuttered its doors, leading the pack in filing them. The firm’s principal ultimately went to jail for fabricating many such suits, looking for plaintiffs to buy a few shares of a given company, allegedly based on a CEO’s statement about future performance, then at the first sign of non-performance, voila, the company was “Lerached,” with the term affectionately named after lawyer Bill Lerach. Copycats followed.

 

Many of those lawsuits were legit, and they ultimately gave birth to the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 and the safe harbor statements in press releases, followed by Reg FD in 2002. But despite the safe harbor protection, a case involving guidance issued in a press release by Quality Systems last July may signal a frightening change: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which governs California, reversed the district court’s dismissal of a securities fraud suit, saying various aspects of the safe harbor were “hostile in tone and application, when compared to many prior forecasting decisions.”  

 

What does all this mean?  Maybe nothing, but today more than ever, it pays to listen carefully to your SEC lawyer and to your investor relations advisor on all corporate communications matters. It also may be a good idea to place close attention to those safe harbor statements, and be sure to stay tuned as to whether those statements turn out to be not so safe as hoped.

– Roger Pondel, rpondel@pondel.com