Funding Plaintiff Securities Class Actions in Canada

April 20, 2011

The race to US style litigation just went from go-cart speeds to F1.

Prompted by contingency fees, promoted by the plaintiff bar, a little nitrous oxide boost by Bill 198 and recent class action certification decisions, and now we are rounding the corner to see the checkered flag.

In Dugal v. Manulife Financial Corp, here, a funding agreement has been (conditionally) approved by Justice Strathy of the Ontario Superior Court. The interesting thing is the entity funding a portion of plaintiff costs is an unrelated third party Irish corporation that is advancing up to $50,000 for plaintiff disbursements and “will indemnify the plaintiffs against their exposure to the defendants’ costs, in return for a seven percent (7%) share of the proceeds of any recovery in the litigation”

Perhaps the people behind this are investors and players recently forced out of the online poker business, here, and are looking for their next big gamble.

But this is an underwriteable gamble, so I guess we can be expecting ‘prospectus’ type documents on prospective plaintiff securities class actions. Actually, this not too far fetched. I remember receiving an insurance submission, back in the 90’s, for D&O coverage for a new entity that was proposing a public offering of common shares where the proceeds would be used to fund plaintiff class action suits. This entity did not end up pursing the offering (or even the business plan) that I know of, and I have no knowledge of any similar public or private entities in Canada. It is well known that US plaintiff counsel with shop their potential claims to other plaintiff law firms and ‘syndicate’ the deal, but I don’t know if that deal sharing exists among Canadian law firms. Justice Strathy’s decision (par. 29) says “indemnities given by class counsel are commonplace” and provides two Supreme Court decisions. But, lawyers tend to be fairly conservative so they are likely much more selective than private litigation funding entities. Also, indemnities from plaintiff class counsel may jeopardize their independence.

Class action funding by private ventures could be profitable, because the main competitor is the Law Society Amendment Act’s Class Proceedings Fund. As per par 31 of the decision, “The Fund was established by the Law Society Amendment Act (Class Proceedings Funding), 1992, S.O. 1992, c. 7. The Fund was given initial seed money in the form of a $500,000 grant from the Law Foundation of Ontario. The CPC receives a levy in the amount of 10% on any awards or settlements in funded proceedings, together with repayment of any funded disbursements. Its annual report indicates that from its inception to June 2010 it had awarded funding to class proceedings in the amount of $6.8 million, it had paid costs awards in favour of defendants in the amount of $1.9 million and it had received $18.6 million in revenues from its entitlement to 10% of settlements or judgments. At June 30, 2010 its account stood at a balance of $11.3 million. From 1992 until June 30, 2010 the CPC received 96 applications for funding. Of those applications, 52 had been approved for funding, 28 had been denied or deferred and 16 had been withdrawn or are currently in abeyance.”

The corporate Defendant is obviously very well connected in Canada, but the court decision suggests that none of the 25 largest pension fund/investment fund investors in Canada, nor any of the individual investors notified of the proposed funding agreement, came to the defence of the Defendant or objected to the funding agreement. This is a big surprise to me because the concept of outside funding of class action claims is still relatively new to Canada, and this court decision sets a very significant precedent. Class action securities claims are a balancing act for investors because, on one hand, they (at least the small individual retail investor) need class support for any realistic opportunity to seek damages, but, on the other hand, the publicity of a class action securities litigation can cause a significant stock price drop to their underlying investment and create a major distraction for directors, officers (their D&O insurers), management, employees, customers and analysts of their portfolio companies. I also thought that institutional investors would oppose anything that supports class action securities claims, because they have the means to pursue individual securities claim and don’t need to rely on class proceedings. But, since a large local pension plan is a lead plaintiff in this action, and no other fund manager objected to proceedings, my assumptions must be wrong. 

The  underlying allegations (see the decision on the application to amend the statement of claim, here, under “The Nature of the Action” 6-10, and here) include : “misrepresentations concerning the defendant’s risk management practices in its public disclosure documents”, “artificially inflating the values of its stock.”  The alleged culprits were the seg funds and variable annuities, which the plaintiff alleges were not sufficiently hedged against financial meltdown of the fourth quarter of 2008 despite claims of rigorous enterprise-wide risk management systems, and therefore caused a $5 billion increase in reserves for future payments and a significant stock drop in the defendant’s shares.

There were a bunch of other allegations, and the plaintiff named individual directors and officers as defendants, but this blog post is about the funding, not the “tapping of D&O insurance limits”, (which I will be sure to blog about if the action is certified as a class proceeding in September.)

The proposed class – all purchasers of the defendant’s securities between January 26, 2004 and February 12, 2009.

The alleged damages – $2,500,000,000.

The best case scenario payday for the Irish plaintiff securities class action funder – $10,000,000. Yes the agreement is for 7% of the proceeds of any recovery (settlement or judgement less costs and expences), but the agreement capped it at $5 million if resolution is reached prior to pre-trial conference brief, and $10 million after that. Too bad for the Irish funder, because it could have been worth $187,500,000.

The risk to the funder, $50,000 towards the plaintiffs’ disbursements and the funder “will pay any adverse costs award made against the plaintiffs.” If this leaves you scratching your head, me to. If the Plaintiff loses and the Defendant is awarded costs (Loser Pays), the funder could be out millions, but their reward is only millions. Not a great return when there is little precedent in Canada regarding the outcome of actions brought under Bill 198 (Section 130 and 138 of the Securities Act – relatively new legislation regarding a cause of action for misrepresentation in the secondary market – as opposed to the former legislation requiring the misrepresentation be in the IPO prospectus document (not the secondary market documents) and only where the plaintiff can prove reliance.)  And, as I read the March 21, 2011 decision from Justice Strathy denying an important part of the Plaintiff’s Amended Pleading, it seems like a good chunk was taken out of their case. The decision suggests the original action only “sought leave to asset the cause of action for secondary market misrepresentation set out in s. 138.3 of the Securities Act”, but “there was no specific pleading of s. 130” and no mention the word “prospectus.” When the Plaintiff moved to amend the statement of claim and assert a cause of action for misrepresentation in ten prospectuses filed by the defendant, Justice Strathy agreed with the Defendant and denied that portion of the amendment based on missing the 180 limitation period under s. 130. They issues raised in determining the denial included, 1) the Plaintiff was sophisticated, 2) they had very experienced securities lawyers, 3) Feb 12, 2009 was the first major write-down announced by the Defendant, and that would be the date they should have known about all potential damages, 4) the original statement of claim was issued July 29, 2009 (167 days), 5) amended statement of claim was November 17, 2009 (278 days), but no mention of s. 130 or prospectuses, 6) motion for certification and for leave under 138.8(1) was on May 18, 2010 (460 days), and this included amendments “which contained, for the first time, specific allegation of prospectus misrepresentation under s 130 of the Securities Act”, 7)  s 130 and prospectus misrepresentation could not be inferred from the original statement of claim, and, 8) the extension of limitation allowed in McCann v. CP Ships “was decided more than a year before this action was commenced”  and involved the same counsel and therefore “it is inconceivable that counsel would have asserted a s. 130 claim without specifically pleading the section or referring to the prospectus containing the alleged misrepresentation.”

With the decision on the first amended statement of claim, released January 19, going in favour of the Plaintiff, and the limitation period and funding agreement decisions not released until March 21, 2011, it will be interesting to see what direction this case takes. If the limitation period decision is in fact bad for the case, the funding company would simply have to reject the court’s requirements, and walk away.

I wonder if third party litigation funding will actually reduce the contingency fees paid to plaintiff counsel, because they were not taking any risk of indemnifying their clients. This answer will come over time, as there are still many securities class action claims in the pipeline and certainly more to surface.

If you would like to “stress-test” your Directors’ and Officers’ liability policy (D&O) against this type of potential claim, or if you would like an independent third party review of your insurance policy, please don’t hesitate (I really mean, don’t hesitate, because policy negotiation can quickly become impossible if a potential claim surfaces against you or your entity) to contact me directly. Greg Shields, Partner, Mitchell Sandham Insurance Services, gshields@mitchellsandham.com, or at 416 862-5626.

CAUTION: The information contained in the Mitchell Sandham website or blog does not constitute a legal opinion or insurance advice and must not be construed as such. It is important to always consult a registered insurance broker and a lawyer who is a member of the Bar or Law Society of the relevant jurisdiction with regard to this material before making any insurance or legal decisions. All material is copyrighted by Mitchell Sandham Inc. and may not be reproduced in any form for commercial purposes without the express written consent of Mitchell Sandham Inc. Anyone seeking to link this site from any external website must receive the consent of Mitchell Sandham Inc. by sending an e-mail to gshields@mitchellsandham.com.


Skip Arbitration, Go Straight to Class Action

April 12, 2011

The Supreme Court of Canada has released a new decision in Seidel v. TELUS Communications, here, that will be followed closely by Canadian class action plaintiff lawyers. If you don’t want to read the whole case, Osler has released a paper, here, by Jennifer Dolman and Matthew Thompson, discussing the decision, some of the SCC precedent cases like Dell v Union des consommateurs, here, and Rogers v Muroff, here, the conflicting precedent, the narrow 5-4 decision and dissenting opinion with the court,  and the impact. The most interesting quote from this article “be prepared for an increased number of claims proceeding to the court system.” Interestingly, this paper makes a specific reference to franchisors and generous interpretation of the Arthur Wishart (Franchise Disclosure) Act, 2000 favouring franchisees.

This Supreme Court decision will put smiles on the faces of plaintiff and defence lawyers, but it will also help identify existing and new risks that must be managed by corporations, their management, directors, shareholders, and their insurers. 

If you still don’t want to read the case or paper, here is my short summary:

Plaintiff (P) entered into a consumer contract for cellular service and later alleged false representation in how the defendant (D) calculated air time for billing. The contract included “private and confidential” mediation and arbitration and waiver of right to commence or participate in a class action. P sought certification of a class action; D was denied its application for a stay on proceedings by the trial judge but Court of Appeal stayed P’s action and sent the case to arbitration. P appealed and The Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) lifted the stay of the class action but only in relation to claims regarding Section 172 of the Business Practices and Consumer Protection Act, S.B.C. 2004, c. 2 (the BPCPA), saying this legislation “should be interpreted generously in favour of consumers”, supporting a “public interest plaintiff” and encouraging “private enforcement in the public interest” through a “well-publicized court action to promote adherence to consumer standards.”

The conflict seems obvious. The SCC suggested they did not negate their decisions in Dell, Rogers and others, which supported arbitration as a means to avoid lawsuits. In par 41 of the decision they explain by suggesting “the outcome turned on the terms of the Quebec legislation” and “contained no provision similar to s. 172 of the BPCPA.”

This court was specifically looking for “public denunciation” and notoriety that could not have been achieved through private and confidential arbitration.

The risk management spin:

If you have used or expect to use arbitration clauses to quash any rebellion by clients, you better hope you are not subject to any legislation where indirect statutory interpretation could suggest that such legislation was “enacted to encourage private enforcement in the public interest” and intended to “shine a spotlight on allegations of shabby corporate conduct.”

Good luck avoiding such legislation, because this case dealt  directly with section 172 of the BPCPA, but cited cases reference the Copyright Act, the Labour Code, the Insurance Act, and others.

Continue to use the arbitration and mediation provisions (as well as “hold-harmless” and “limitation of liability” clauses) in your customer agreements, but also invest in a corporate communication system (CRM) that will help identify and classify customer claims on a real time basis. Also create policies and procedures to deal with individual consumers before they become sufficiently upset to take their complaints to the social networks. Today, versus even two years ago, consumers have exponentially greater ability to reach similarly-minded individuals, and class-action remedy is far more popular. Data-mining in twitter, facebook, myspace, and the broader blog-world is a reality, so use it to your advantage, because it is impossible to determine which complaints will go viral, and no containment strategy can move as fast as a viral complaint.

As for insurance, don’t rely on anything you currently have, unless you have recently “stress-tested” your program for this exact risk exposure.

If the consumer lawsuit names individual directors and officers, the D&O policy might respond to the defence costs of the individuals, excess of the corporate retention (if the corporation is financially and legally able to indemnify the individuals.) But it won’t likely respond to the costs of the corporate entity because a consumer complaint would not be classified as a “securities claim”, which is where most “entity coverage” under a D&O policy can be found. Some private company management liability policies provide entity coverage that is not limited to a securities claim, but the exclusions (which are also hidden in the definition of Loss) typically exclude “fines or penalties”, costs of remedial relief, or any circumstance or situation existing prior to the inception of the policy, and many others.

If a lawsuit of this nature actually gets through the definitions and exclusions in the policy, most D&O and Management Liability policies require that an individual director or officer be continuously named in the case in order for the policy to respond. And the double edge sword to this case is that if the lawsuit is covered by the policy, there is only one policy limit of liability, and exhaustion of that limit based on loss of the corporation entity, could ultimately be to the detriment of individual directors and officers for their downstream personal liability.

The Commercial General Liability policy would not typically respond to claims brought with regards to consumer protection from a consumer contract or agreement because there is no underlying “bodily injury” or “property damage” to trigger the policy.

A Professional Liability policy (aka Errors and Omissions (E&O)) might respond, but there is no standard or regulated wording in this product, so the policy will have to be examined closely. Also, E&O is more commonly purchased in the commercial products industry (where arbitration provisions are more likely to survive), and less often purchased in the retail consumer products industry.

There comments are not meant as fear-mongering. The reality is that the SCC did not allow all of the P’s allegations to go through to private litigation, and the decision is not a certification of a class proceeding. However, whenever a SCC decision goes in favour of an individual P seeking class action status and remedy that includes disgorging of profits, it presents financial and reputational risk exposures that cannot be ignored by any company of any size.

Greg Shields, Partner, Mitchell Sandham Insurance Brokers, 416 862-5626, gshields@mitchellsandham.com  

CAUTION: The information contained in the Mitchell Sandham website or blog does not constitute a legal opinion or insurance advice and must not be construed as such. It is important to always consult a registered insurance broker and a lawyer who is a member of the Bar or Law Society of the relevant jurisdiction with regard to this material before making and insurance or legal decision. All material is copyrighted by Mitchell Sandham Inc. and may not be reproduced in any form for commercial purposes without the express written consent of Mitchell Sandham Inc. Anyone seeking to link this site from any external website must seek the consent of Mitchell Sandham Inc. by sending an e-mail to gshields@mitchellsandham.com.