I’ve sued several multinational banks for breaches of fiduciary duty and breaches of contract, and have always been amazed their lack of any accountability or responsibility. It’s not just a handful of instances of banks selling a company’s loan to their competitor and bank lawyers lying to federal regulators. They live in a different world from you and I.

In one of my cases, a bank fired a financial adviser because he was covering his gambling losses by stealing from clients. All well and good, until the bank covered up the whole mess and didn’t tell any of his clients about it. The thief left, opened up his own office, took a bunch of those same clients with him and continued all of his same old hijinks. When we sued, the bank blamed my clients for trusting the guy.

In another, the bank downright stole my client’s money — it was in the account one minute, then gone the next, because the bank wanted to cover its losses on a bad investment. The bank and their lawyers never once acknowledged, not even implicitly, that they did anything wrong. They blamed my clients for the “misunderstanding.”

So it wasn’t any surprise to see, via Barry Barnett, Fisher & Mandell LLP v. Citibank, N.A., No. 10-2155-cv, slip op. at 15 (2d Cir. Feb. 3, 2011), in which the Second Circuit affirmed dismissal of a lawyer’s negligence and breach of contract case against Citibank.

The case arose from a scam that lands in my inbox about once a week. Some overseas corporation asks for representation, typically by claiming they need my help to collect a six-figure debt from a customer. I’ve never responded to any of those e-mails, but apparently some lawyers do, and the scam works by the “client” sending a large check to the attorney and then immediately demanding some large portion of it be transferred out again.

The initial check is, of course, fraudulent and counterfeit, and the scam is supposed to work by fooling the attorney into sending a check out before the fraudulent check has bounced. Lawyers are supposed to protect themselves from this by waiting for the initial check to clear the bank before sending out the second transfer, which is apparently what the target in this case did.

Joke was on them: when Citibank claimed that the funds were “available,” they weren’t really. But even that wasn’t enough to make the fraud work. Even though the lawyer’s trust account was empty except for the not-really-available funds, Citibank had a way of fixing that:

That afternoon, the Federal Reserve Bank returned the Check as dishonored and unpaid. A Citibank representative telephoned F&M to advise that the Check was counterfeit and had been dishonored. Citibank charged back to the trust account the amount of the Check and a $10 returned check fee, resulting in an overdraft. Citibank then debited an amount necessary to satisfy the overdraft from a money market account F&M maintained at Citibank.

Got that? Citibank raided one of his the law firm’s own accounts to make the outbound check from its trust account clear.

But all of that is tucked into Citibank’s customer agreement. They can say funds are “available” even when they aren’t, and can raid your personal accounts to satisfy checks made from your lawyer’s trust account.

As Eric Turkewitz quotes another attorney, Stephen Chawkin:

When I was taking my commercial paper course in law school 8,000 years ago, the teacher – who was a good guy and nobody’s fool – said that the underlying principle that trumped all other is simply this: “the bank wins”. Everything else is a corollary, an elaboration, a commentary, or (once in a blue moon) an exception to this.

Pretty much the truth, although there are exceptions, since I’ve cashed checks from banks settling these cases.

Or at least I think I did, the funds just said “available.”

Read more about our fraud lawsuit services.


 

I am a fan of the American court system. There is no natural law requiring people to resolve their differences by asking third parties to represent them and advocate on their behalf in front of impartial decision-makers. The folks in classical Athens and Rome thought it was a good idea, the Europeans rediscovered the practice in the Middle Ages, and the adversarial system of law has been consistently practiced by England, and then America, ever since.

 

Since the classical time, there have always been restrictions on lawyers intended to keep them honest. Most of those “restrictions” have amounted to nothing more than an oath sworn by lawyers to the government, but, on the whole, lawyers really do tend to be honest in their practice. In the bulk of my cases, particularly those “routine” cases involving reasonable insurance coverage (like automobile accidents and medical malpractice), neither I nor my client believe that the opposing counsel is intentionally lying during the course of the case.

 

Sure, opposing counsel and I may have strong differences of opinion about the underlying facts, and even in those routine cases the defendants are frequently, shall we say, less than forthright in their telling of the facts and their production of relevant evidence, but I generally recognize — and a most of my clients understand and accept — that the lawyer for the other side has a job to do. They are there to zealously advocate on behalf of their client. They didn’t witness the event with their own eyes; they know only what their client is telling them, and, apart from knowingly participating in perjury or some other fraud on the court, opposing counsel has a duty to zealously advocate on their clients’ behalf, rightly or wrongly.

 

That’s appropriate. As I wrote before about The Limits of Advocacy, “there’s nothing wrong with advocating on behalf of your client an argument you believe ‘probably could not succeed.’ There are two sides to every story, and at least two interpretations of every legal issue. The United States uses an adversarial legal system precisely so that these stories and interpretations can be fully developed, critiqued, and challenged.”  Zealous advocacy and loyalty are two fundamental tenants underlying our adversarial system of law. I expect nothing less of opposing counsel, and I deliver nothing less to my own clients.

 

The situation changes considerably when you start talking about complex litigation, particularly cases alleging fraud by a business (such as racketeering and False Claims Act cases, neither of which are insurable) and cases involving seven figures or more in potential damages. Those are the cases that bring in the big corporate defense firms with whole teams of lawyers that can rack up five-figure bills for the corporate client in the course of a typical workday. (I suppose it’s money well spent when you consider the guilty corporation’s alternative: owing up to their responsibility to pay for the serious damage they caused.)

 

Those complex business, commercial and class action cases also tend to get bogged down in the court system with endless motions, oral arguments, status conferences, and settlement conferences, anything and everything except for, of course, an actual jury trial, the last thing that a guilty corporation wants to go through. Justice delay is justice denied.

 

At trial, lawyers tend to stay within the normal bounds of zealous advocacy because fabrications and falsehoods tend to be exposed rapidly and brutally before the jury.

 

The same does not apply to all of those motions, oral arguments, status conferences, and settlement conferences. There is little space or time to rebut every misrepresentation made by a lawyer in a motion or at an oral argument, and virtually no way to prove that your opponent has lied in the middle of the conference before the judge. The situations simply do not present that type of opportunity. In a status conference, for example, the judge will be familiar with the case, but they will of course not have every document and every deposition memorized, and will have no way to evaluate the mere words of one lawyer versus another.

 

It is in many ways a license to lie. The lawyer will never get caught for a “misunderstanding” or “having a different view” or “being stupid” at one of these non-testimonial court events. The client will rarely be held responsible for their lawyer’s lie, even if it was made right in front of the client, who listened silently and nodded in approval. (“Though silence is not necessarily an admission, it is not a denial, either.” — Cicero.) I cannot cross-examine the opposing party to ask them if they agree with what their lawyer just said, and refer them to documents establishing the opposite.

 

At these pre-trial events, the only thing stopping a lawyer from looking the judge in the eye and telling him or her an outright lie is that oath the lawyer made to the government years ago.

 

Unfortunately, some lawyers out there apparently do not take that oath seriously.

 

In the last few weeks I have had a few occasions where, in the midst of one of these conferences during a complex case, opposing counsel has told the judge an outright lie. I do not mean “lie” in that their client has one version of the facts and my client has another version. I mean “lie” in that the opposing lawyer has said something to the judge that cannot be supported by any document or testimony in the case, a “lie” that I assure you would never be told to a jury under oath, since it would be swiftly disproven.

 

After each of those instances I was asked by my client, “can their lawyer just lie like that?”

 

As much as I would like to maintain the good reputation of the legal profession with the standard litany about the duty to be a “zealous advocate,” there’s nothing about being a zealous advocate which requires someone to lie, and I knew that these were, in fact, lies, pure and simple, lies designed to frustrate the judicial process by misleading the judge and thereby prolonging the case and introducing frivolous diversions from the real facts of the case.

 

How does this happen? Lawyers are not any more pure of heart than the population as a whole, but surely it cannot be that a substantial portion of lawyers have made the conscious decision to tell outright lies to judges. “In spite of everything, I still believe that people really are good at heart,” said Anne Frank, but maybe her experience proves the contrary. Some scholars think morality is hard-wired into the human brain, and I tend to agree. Few people see themselves as bad actors.

 

There must be some other explanation.

 

Clancy Martin, a philosopher turned liar turned philosopher again, explains:

 

As I would tell my salespeople: If you want to be an expert deceiver, master the art of self-deception. People will believe you when they see that you yourself are deeply convinced. It sounds difficult to do, but in fact it’s easy—we are already experts at lying to ourselves. We believe just what we want to believe. And the customer will help in this process, because she or he wants the diamond—where else can I get such a good deal on such a high-quality stone?—to be of a certain size and quality. At the same time, he or she does not want to pay the price that the actual diamond, were it what you claimed it to be, would cost. The transaction is a collaboration of lies and self-deceptions.

 

Here’s a quick lesson in selling. You never know when it might come in handy. … Use the several kinds of lies Aristotle identified in Nicomachean Ethics: A good mixture of subtle flattery, understatement, humorous boastfulness, playful storytelling, and gentle irony will establish that “you’re one of us, and I’m one of you.” We are alike, we are friends, we can trust each other.

 

The problem is, once lying to your customer as a way of doing business becomes habitual, it reaches into other areas of your business, and then into your personal life.

 

“There is nothing so ridiculous that some philosopher has not said it,” said Cicero, but the lying philosopher (he’s known these days as “The Lie Guy”) is right.

 

Recall those duties of zealous advocacy and loyalty. Sure, there are competing duties duties of merit, candor and fairness, but meeting those duties does not pay the bills. Loyalty and zealous advocacy pay the bills, and if lawyers really invest themselves emotionally, financially, and philosophically in their clients’ clause, then of course some lawyers will not even see the line drawn in the sand, the liar line, when they cross it.

 

So that is my answer to the clients wondering where the legal system has gone wrong: no, the opposing lawyer cannot just lie like that, but they might not even realize they’re doing it — before they tried to deceive you, they deceived themselves.

Via the WSJ Law Blog, Amy Kolz at The American Lawyer has a new article about the False Claims Act:

"[FCA cases] are a big gamble," says Piacentile’s counsel, former Boies, Schiller & Flexner partner David Stone of Stone & Magnanini, who cites cost-benefit analyses and good relationships with prosecutors as essential to his qui tam practice. "That’s why you have to know what you’re doing. Otherwise you can be in a case for ten years and not get anything."

But there is a darker perspective on Joseph Piacentile. Unlike most qui tam relators, he doesn’t blow the whistle as an employee or business partner of the companies he has sued. Instead he relies on secondhand information collected through his own investigations. (Piacentile declined to comment for this article.) Defense counsel call him a professional mudslinger; some qui tam lawyers and former government lawyers say that he’s a parasitic bully who files vague or questionable complaints and then pushes his way into settlements based on his qui tam savvy and his willingness to litigate. And Piacentile has a criminal history of his own–a 1991 conviction on fraud and tax charges–which some lawyers say can undercut his credibility as a plaintiff.

It’s an interesting argument, worth the read, not least to see how lame most objections to the False Claims Act are these days. Piacentile "pushes his way into settlements based on his qui tam savvy and his willingness to litigate?"

Do billion-dollar companies lack the "willingness" to defend themselves in litigation? Do they hire lawyers who are not "qui tam savvy?"

Do they roll over every time some doctor from New Jersey with a fraud conviction "pushes" them?

That’s what the corporate PR departments want you to believe, but even for Piacentile:

Out of 14 unsealed cases in which Piacentile has been a named relator, just four have successfully settled, seven have been dismissed (some without prejudice), and three are ongoing. In two of the three ongoing cases, those filed against Novartis and Sanofi-Aventis, the government has declined to intervene, a negative sign. And Piacentile’s share in at least two of the four successful settlements has been relatively small. Two of the three corelators in Medco earned a combined award that was seven times greater than Piacentile’s. Of the approximately $52 million in relators’ awards in the 2007 Bristol-Myers settlement, Piacentile earned $7.3 million.

"Relatively small" is indeed relative. Though $7.3 million is a good chunk of change in most contexts, that’s not necessarily the case in False Claims Act litigation, which typically require the relator prove systematic fraud by highly sophisticated entities that have covered their tracks thoroughly, often with the assistance of counsel. The cases frequently go on for years without trial, requiring thousands of attorney hours on plus extensive efforts by investigators, experts, and an army of support staff. It’s not uncommon for relators to provide the U.S. Attorney’s office several thousand pages of organized, indexed documents with explanatory memos at the very first meeting.

Qui tam cases are intense. They’re expensive. They’re prolonged.

Consequently, they’re rare. There’s ample incentive against filing them.

Maybe, in the big scheme of things, Piacentile is reaping more reward than some people think he should. It’s hard to even evaluate; we don’t know the details of the sealed cases. It bears mention here that, in all these cases, the U.S. Attorney’s office and the Court obviously didn’t have a problem with the awards that Piacentile received.

But let’s keep our eye on the ball here. The rewards received by relators are but a fraction of the size of the fraud perpetrated by the defendants. The awards are capped by statute at 25% of the overall resolution of the case, 30% if the government doesn’t intervene. Typically, courts (and lawyers) start around 15% and then adjust it up or down based on the facts of the case. See the Department of Justice’s Relator’s Share Guidelines (p. 17).

When we weigh the scales of equity, which is really worth of more complaint — that Piacentile has reaped a few million dollars for questionable investigation techniques, or that dozens of companies defraud the government of billions of dollars every year?

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act ("RICO") is not all that complicated.

Section 1962(c) provides:

It shall be unlawful for any person employed by or associated with any enterprise engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate or foreign commerce, to conduct or participate, directly or indirectly, in the conduct of such enterprise’s affairs through a pattern of racketeering activity or collection of unlawful debt.

In case you think "racketeering activity" is too vague, don’t worry — the RICO Act defines it specifically. If the plain meaning rule was applied as strictly as courts say it should be, then we would see these claims prevail in every case involving a systematic fraud.

Instead, over the years defense lawyers and activist courts have imposed a broad swath extra-statutory requirements on RICO claims, such as two separate requirements of "distinctiveness." A plaintiff alleging RICO claims must allege that the "enterprise" at issue is "distinct" from the "persons" in the enterprise, and must allege that the "enterprise" has a "distinct" structure separate from the racketeering.

Of course, if we applied the dual "distinctiveness" requirements the way defense lawyers say we should, then Al Capone and his organization couldn’t be prosecuted for racketeering, because Capone’s organization was not "distinct" from itself and because Capone and his organization had no structure "distinct" from the racketeering itself.

Thankfully, after a handful of recent Supreme Court cases recognizing the broad language of the RICO Act (e.g., the Cedric Kushner and Boyle cases) , common sense is beginning to prevail again in the federal courts:

In a major setback for several title insurers, a federal judge has refused to dismiss a trio of class action consumer RICO suits that accuse the companies of engaging in a pervasive pattern of overcharging for title insurance by systematically ignoring entitlement to statutory discounts.

Although title insurers have been battling a wave of consumer litigation in recent years, the three decisions by U.S. District Judge Joel H. Slomsky mark the first time that a court has green-lighted RICO claims.

Defense lawyers had urged Slomsky to dismiss the RICO claims, arguing that the plaintiffs failed to plead a proper RICO enterprise since an insurer and its agents cannot be considered legally "distinct."

Slomsky disagreed, saying "plaintiffs have satisfied the minimum ‘person’ and ‘enterprise’ distinctiveness requirement because the combination of Commonwealth Land and the title agents constitute a single ‘enterprise’ separate and distinct from the ‘person’ of defendant Commonwealth Land and this combination is permissible under RICO jurisprudence."

The opinion is a victory for common sense. Will the plaintiffs prevail? Beats me. But a plaintiff who can marshal plausible allegations of systematic mail and wire fraud should not have the courthouse doors closed to them on grounds of sophistry.

Following up on my post of two weeks ago on judicial immunity in the "kids for cash" Luzerne County scandal, Judge Caputo of the Middle District of Pennsylvania issued his ruling yesterday, which holds in pertinent part:

For judicial immunity to apply, only two requirements need to be met: jurisdiction over the dispute, and a judicial act. As to the first, a judge is not immune only when he has acted in the “clear absence of all jurisdiction." Stump 435 U.S. at 349 (citation omitted). Second, a judicial immunity extends only to “judicial acts,” not administrative, executive, or legislative ones. Id. at 360-61.

The Plaintiffs argue that because Ciavarella’s acts contravened the Constitution of the United States, he was acting in the “clear absence of jurisdiction” and therefore is not immune from suit. The Plaintiffs cite no authority for this proposition, nor is there any. They allege that Ciavarella violated the constitutional rights of the juveniles brought before him in the following ways: (1) his court or tribunal was not impartial; (2) he failed to advise them of the right to counsel and therefore assure that any waiver of counsel was knowing and voluntary; and (3) he failed to determine that the pleas of guilty were knowing and voluntary. While these acts constitute egregious, unjustifiable judicial behavior, they do not make out a case for the absence of jurisdiction. If unconstitutional acts by a judge deprived the court of jurisdiction, and hence eliminated judicial immunity, it could be argued that all erroneous decisions in constitutional tort cases would subject the judge to civil liability. Such is not, and should not be, the case. As to their courtroom behavior, I conclude that both Ciavarella and Conahan had jurisdiction.

Conahan’s issuance of an injunction for an alleged corrupt motive is identical to the conduct the Supreme Court considered when granting immunity in Dennis v. Sparks. Dennis, 449 U.S. at 28 (illegal injunction allegedly based upon corruption). As to Ciavarella, focusing only on the nature of the act performed, as I am required to do by law, I also find that the determinations of delinquency and the sentences imposed were judicial acts. As the Supreme Court has made clear, the alleged motivations, be they corrupt or with malice, are irrelevant to this determination. As to the courtroom acts of Conahan and Ciavarella, I find that they are protected by judicial immunity.

That is not to say, however, that every act alleged of the two was judicial in nature. For example, Conahan’s signing of a “Placement Agreement” would be an administrative, not a judicial act. Similarly, any acts in making budget requests to the Luzerne County commissioners would also be administrative or executive in nature. And the actions of Conahan and Ciavarella in coercing probation officers to change their recommendations is outside of the role of a judicial officer. Probation officers are to advise the court, not the other way round, on sentencing matters. The nature of these acts are not judicial in nature, and therefore judicial immunity does not shield such conduct.

(Emphasis added.)

I disagree, but Judge Caputo’s ruling has strong support in precedent and policy going back well before the founding of our nation and the founding of Pennsylvania.

Also, even though Judge Caputo in general accepted the judicial immunity of the defendants, there’s also a strong argument to be made that Judge Caputo had to rule this way, for he had no appellate court precedent supporting a ruling otherwise, no matter how persuasive the plaintiffs’ arguments may have been to him. Some questions are not for the District Court to decide in the first instance.

The opinion — which is very clear and concise — is worth reading by anyone interested in the subject. An article that will appear in Monday’s The Legal Intelligencer is available here.

[Updated to clarify a distinction between securities suits and investment company act suits.]

This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Jones v. Harris. Briefly, the Oakmark complex of mutual funds "hired" Harris Associates as investment advisers, paying Harris 1% (per year) of the first $2 billion of the fund’s assets, 0.9% of the next $1 billion, 0.8% of the next $2 billion, and 0.75% of anything over $5 billion. I write "hired" because the situation is murky: Harris is directly affiliated with Oakmark. Importantly, the fee charged by Harris to Oakmark is more than double the fee it charges unaffiliated mutual funds.

Plaintiffs are investors in Oakmark funds who sued Harris under a variety of claims, including a claim that Harris’s fees were "excessive," in violation of Section 36(b) of the Investment Company Act.

Section 36(b), which was added in 1970, is almost poetic in its ambiguity:

For the purposes of this subsection, the investment adviser of a registered investment company shall be deemed to have a fiduciary duty with respect to the receipt of compensation for services, or of payments of a material nature, paid by such registered investment company, or by the security holders thereof, to such investment adviser or any affiliated person of such investment adviser. An action may be brought under this subsection by the Commission, or by a security holder of such registered investment company on behalf of such company, against such investment adviser . . . . With respect to any such action the following provisions shall apply:

(1) It shall not be necessary to allege or prove that any defendant engaged in personal misconduct, and the plaintiff shall have the burden of proving a breach of fiduciary duty.

(2) In any such action approval by the board of directors of such investment company of such compensation or payments, or of contracts or other arrangements providing for such compensation or payments, and ratification or approval of such compensation or payments, or of contracts or other arrangements providing for such compensation or payments, by the shareholders of such investment company, shall be given such consideration by the court as is deemed appropriate under all the circumstances. . . .

In essence, the statute says only that the plaintiff can recover against the investment adviser by "proving a breach of fiduciary duty." Subsections (1) and (2) fill in a little detail — i.e., the investor need not prove "personal misconduct" and the court shall "consider" board of directors and/or shareholder ratification — but that’s it.

Congress might as well have written, "investors can sue if investment advisers do something bad, but ‘bad’ doesn’t necessarily mean really bad."

Twenty-seven years ago, faced with the same opaque language, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals came up with its own standard for "excessive fee" claims:

[T]he test is essentially whether the fee schedule represents a charge within the range of what would have been negotiated at arm’s-length in the light of all of the surrounding circumstances.

[and]

[t]o be guilty of a violation of §36(b) . . . the adviser-manager must charge a fee that is so disproportionately large that it bears no reasonable relationship to the services rendered and could not have been the product of arm’s-length bargaining.

Gartenberg v. Merrill Lynch Asset Management, Inc., 694 F.2d 923, 928 (2d Cir. 1982).

Last year, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals came up with a different standard for "excessive fee" claims:

Having had another chance to study this question, we now disapprove the Gartenberg approach. A fiduciary duty differs from rate regulation. A fiduciary must make full disclosure and play no tricks but is not subject to a cap on compensation. The trustees (and in the end investors, who vote with their feet and dollars), rather than a judge or jury, determine how much advisory services are worth. …

Federal securities laws, of which the Investment Company Act is one component, work largely by requiring disclosure and then allowing price to be set by competition in which investors make their own choices. Plaintiffs do not contend that Harris Associates pulled the wool over the eyes of the disinterested trustees or otherwise hindered their ability to negotiate a favorable price for advisory services. The fees are not hidden from investors—and the Oakmark funds’ net return has attracted new investment rather than driving investors away.

In short, the Seventh Circuit held that, regardless of what the Investment Company Act says, investment advisers don’t have a fiduciary duty to investment companies; instead, they’re held to the same fraud and misrepresentation standards as total strangers.

The Seventh Circuit opinion was remarkable not only because it eviscerated the Investment Company Act — which clearly does not require personal misconduct like "pulling the wool over [investors’] eyes" — but also because it produced a sharp disagreement on the underlying economics between Judges Easterbrook and Posner, two of the most notable adherents to the conservative "law and economics" doctrine.

It goes almost without saying that there are reasonable arguments in favor of both the investors and the investment advisers. The statute is ambiguous; there’s no clear answer for what the standard "should" be in these cases, but there’s also little doubt that something has gone awry with investment adviser fees in the context of affiliated mutual funds.

I write "almost," however, because Professor John Coates of Harvard Law School wants nothing to do with reasonable arguments:

How can such cases make it to the highest court in the land? Plaintiffs’ lawyers are able to file these cases because of three features of the US legal system. First, investors are dispersed, and cannot easily work together to protect their own interests. Collective action costs are often identified as a reason that investors cannot protect themselves from predatory institutions – and sometimes that is true. But those same costs also make it impossible for investors to control the lawyers who nominally represent them. Investors cannot stop lawyers from using weak or even frivolous claims to extract rich legal fees. Nor need lawyers even listen to investors with the most at stake in a case. Unlike the advisers, the lawyers are not required to negotiate with independent trustees, or to submit their lawsuit for approval to the investors. Once lawyers have appointed themselves as investor guardians, they face little competition – again, unlike the advisers, who compete with other advisers to attract new investments.

In Professor Coates’ world, a lawyer can, on her own, file a "weak or even frivolous" case and "extract rich legal fees" without any involvement of the actual investors.

What a great racket! Lawyers must be filing these cases all the time and collecting big fat checks for nothing.

Or maybe fewer than 200 securities class actions are filed every year, and maybe only half of them settle for any amount, with the other half of investors and their lawyers recovering nothing for their losses.

Since Coates has never represented any investors in a lawsuit, much less represented a class of investors on a contingent fee, I suppose he needs a few reminders on how the process works.

"Jones" in Jones v. Harris is an investor, not a lawyer. Only investors can bring lawsuits and they can only win if they prove every element of their case. Like I wrote above, most of these cases are sent to the rubbish heap without any payment.

If the investors are in the lucky half that survive years of litigating over dismissal (for reference, Jones v. Harris was filed five years ago and is still at the dismissal stage), the court will carefully analyze which investor should represent the class as the lead plaintiff, giving preference to the investors with the "most at stake in a case." Nonetheless, every investor with a stake in the case, even if not the lead plaintiff, can participate in, and object to any part of, the process, including any settlement and any award of attorneys’ fees.

Unsurprisingly, three-quarters of successful investor lawsuits are lead by large institutional investors (p. 27) such as public and union pensions, the ones with "the most at stake in the case."

Coates thus has it backwards: it’s not "impossible for investors to control the lawyers who nominally represent them," it’s impossible for lawyers to bring and win a lawsuit without the participation and support of the investors, particularly the ones with "the most at stake."

Indeed, in most potential investor class action cases, it’s impossible for the lawyers to collect any fee at all: you never know when a court will read an act that says "it shall not be necessary to allege or prove that any defendant engaged in personal misconduct" and nonetheless require the investor prove personal misconduct. Based on this week’s oral argument, it looks like the Supreme Court will do just that, leaving the investors and their lawyers with nothing after five years of litigation.

So much for a "rich legal fee." And that’s the greatest irony: in the nearly forty years since Section 36(b) was passed, not one single court (see pp. 3–4) has ever held an investment adviser’s fee was "excessive."

The Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog points us to a WSJ story on the absurd language used in copyright contracts these days:

Decked out in sequined black and gold dresses, Anne Harrison and the other women in her Bulgarian folk-singing group were lined up to try out for NBC’s "America’s Got Talent" TV show when they noticed peculiar wording in the release papers they were asked to sign.

Any of their actions that day last February, the contract said, could be "edited, in all media, throughout the universe, in perpetuity."

She and the other singers, many of whom are librarians in the Washington, D.C., area, briefly contemplated whether they should give away the rights to hurtling their images and voices across the galaxies forever. Then, like thousands of other contestants, they signed their names.

The terms of use listed on Starwars.com, where people can post to message boards among other things, tell users that they give up the rights to any content submissions "throughout the universe and/or to incorporate it in other works in any form, media or technology now known or hereafter developed."

Lucasfilm Ltd., Star Wars creator George Lucas’s entertainment company that runs the site, said the language is standard in Hollywood.

"But, to be honest with you, we have had very few cases of people trying to exploit rights on other planets," says Lynne Hale, a Lucasfilm spokeswoman.

In a May 15, 2008, "expedition agreement" between JWM Productions LLC, a film-production company, and Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc., a shipwreck-exploration outfit, JWM seeks the rights to footage from an Odyssey expedition. The contract covers rights "in any media, whether now known or hereafter devised, or in any form whether now known or hereafter devised, an unlimited number of times throughout the universe and forever, including, but not limited to, interactive television, CD-ROMs, computer services and the Internet."

It reminds me of a draft settlement I received not too long ago that, notwithstanding the statute of limitations, required my client release all claims "from the beginning of the world until the present." Just for fun, I negotiated that down to "from the dawn of mankind."

Ken Adams, the blogosphere expert on contract language (and who is interviewed in the article), blogged about the same problem nearly three years ago, and updated his post today to note:

The phrase occurs most often in contracts in which a consultant or employee assigns to a company all rights to any intellectual property the consultant or employee develops in the course of providing services under the contract. An example: "Employee hereby irrevocably assigns, licenses and grants to Company, throughout the universe, in perpetuity, all rights, if any, of Employee to …." In that context, saying "all rights" is entirely comprehensive; adding "throughout the universe" constitutes needless elaboration.

Indeed, making your contract apply to "all rights … throughout the universe" could be worse than applying to "all rights," because it redefines an unambiguous word and makes it more likely that other ambiguous parts of the contract will be interpreted against whoever inserted the "throughout the universe" language.

"All" means "all." "All rights… throughout the universe" means "all" with a caveat. When faced with unambiguous contract terms (e.g., "all") that are specifically defined by the parties (e.g., "throughout the universe"), a court will ask itself, why did someone try to further specify the unambiguous term?

The court will then presume there must have been some reason for the additional language and try to figure that reason out. The danger of needless elaboration like "throughout the universe" is that the court will view additional language as narrowing the unambiguous terms, which is usually not what the party demanding the additional language wanted.

Moreover, the court will presume that, if one party keeps adding language to "clarify" the meaning of general words (such as "all"), then any ambiguity in the contract should be interpreted against that party, because that party was the one with the most control over the contract’s language.

In the contexts above, those distinctions are probably irrelevant. But, as Adams notes, "it’s symptomatic of the broader dysfunction in contract language." It’s also a bad habit: once you become comfortable with this type of ridiculous language redefining the word "all," how do you know if the ambiguity will stop there?

Via Atrios, we have Stanley Fish’s recent NYTimes column, The Rise and Fall of Academic Abstention:

As recently as 1979, legal academics Virginia Nordin and Harry Edwards were able to say that “historically American courts have adhered fairly consistently to the doctrine of academic abstention in order to avoid excessive judicial oversight of academic institutions” (Higher Education and the Law). Academic abstention is the doctrine (never formally promulgated) that courts should defer to colleges and universities when it comes to matters like promotions, curricula, admission policies, grading, tenure, etc. The reasoning is that courts lack the competence to monitor academic behavior; they should get out of the way and let the professionals do the job. “Courts are particularly ill-equipped,” Chief Justice Rehnquist declared in 1978, “to evaluate academic performance.” (Board of Curators of the University of Missouri v. Horowitz)

In 2009, courts still pay lip service to this doctrine but in practice, Amy Gajda tells us in her terrific new book, “The Trials of Academe,” they now boldly go where their predecessors feared to tread. Once, “if a student or faculty member had the temerity to bring a grievance to court, is was likely to be bounced out in short order.” Now, however, “courts feel free to enter . . . from the ground up, parceling out the right and obligations of each disputant down to the last dollar.” Indeed, “litigation and ‘rights talk’ have permeated every crease and wrinkle of academic life.”

Fish concludes,

When I began teaching in 1962 at the University of California in Berkeley, I asked older colleagues about the decorums and rules of the classroom. In response, I was given the Myron Brightfield rule. Brightfield was then a very senior member of the department. His rule (and I paraphrase) was, When you close the door, there’s nothing they can do to you. Those were the days, and they had their injustices as well as their advantages. Now we have justice, or at least the demand for justice, all the time and it may, Gajda suggests, be killing us.

Rubbish.

Fish highlights several cases to make his argument-by-anecdote. Let’s look at his “favorite:”

My favorite (and Gajda’s, too) involves a student in osteopathic medicine who, after failing an important rotation, was dismissed because “he didn’t have the basic understanding that he should have as a fourth-year medical student.” The student sued on the grounds that he had been promised a degree by a phrase in a student handbook that described the program he was enrolled in as “a four-year curriculum leading to the DO degree.”

Anyone with the slightest familiarity with the way universities work would know that ‘”leading to” included the qualification “provided that the requirements for graduating were met” — a medical degree is not equivalent to the certificate you get for having completed six weeks of a summer camp — but the courts were persuaded to a more literal (and perverse) reading and awarded the plaintiff a partial tuition reimbursement. But he wanted more and he got it by arguing that he should receive an amount commensurate with the earnings he would have accumulated had the “promised” degree been conferred. Jurors ordered the medical school to pay him $4.3 million.

The case is Sharick v. Southeastern Univ. of the Health Scis., 780 So. 2d 136, (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 3d Dist. 2000).

Indeed, as Fish says, anyone with “the slightest familiarity” with academia knows that the award of a degree is predicated on meeting the school’s requirements — except, of course, for the school in question, which argued the student “contracted with [the school] solely to provide an education in exchange for payment of tuition.” Id., 139 (emphasis added).

Got that? The school’s argument was that, regardless of whether the student met the requirements, all the school contracted to do was “provide an education” and not actually award the degree. That is to say, the school argued that it was free to destroy the student’s career for any reason, a bad reason, or no reason, so long as it had “educated” him in a way the student couldn’t possibly use without the actual degree. The court disagreed. So do I. So, too, apparently, does Fish.

Contrary to Fish and Gadja’s description, the student didn’t allege the school “promised” a degree but didn’t give it because he failed, he alleged that “Southeastern’s decision to dismiss him [two months before his graduation] was arbitrary, capricious, and/or lacking any discernable rational basis.” Id., 138. It’s the only way he could recover under Florida law, in light of the “academic abstention” doctrine that Fish claims has been “increasingly narrowed to the point that it is in danger of vanishing.”

A jury agreed with the student. In fact, the evidence against the school was so overwhelming that Southeastern didn’t even appeal the jury’s findings. The school only appealed the trial judge’s rejection of their ridiculous and insulting “solely to provide an education” argument.

Let me tell you, as a plaintiff it’s not easy to prove “arbitrary and capricious” behavior. It’s one of the highest bars a plaintiff can ever face, and typically results in the plaintiff losing. Do you have any doubt that, if Southeastern had any credible defense at all, it would have appealed the jury’s findings? All they had to show was some reason — any reason — justifying the student’s dismissal and the verdict would have been overturned.

Yet, they didn’t even try, presumably because they knew they couldn’t. Rather than making things right, however, they forced him into over fifteen years of litigation, litigation which is still going on. See the most recent appeal, Nova Southeastern Univ. of the Health Scis., Inc. v. Sharick, 2009 Fla. App. LEXIS 12494 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 3d Dist. Aug. 26, 2009)

How are we to take Fish or Gadja seriously when their “favorite” example shows why academic institutions should not be above the law?

SCOTUSBlog reports:

The Supreme Court agreed on Tuesday to rule on claims that “searing media attacks” on longtime Enron executive Jeffrey K. Skilling tainted his criminal trial and conviction on various fraud charges.  The case of Skilling v. U.S. (08-1394) also raises an issue on the scope of the federal law punishing the failure to provide “honest services” as a corporate executive.

In his petition to the Supreme Court, Skilling argued,

In closing argument, the government declared that Skilling and Lay committed honest-services fraud because they violated a duty to Enron’s “employees”—a duty the government described as “a duty of good faith and honest services, a duty to be truthful, and a duty to do their job, ladies and gentlemen, to do their job and do it appropriately.”

Of critical importance here, the government argued that Skilling committed every alleged act of misconduct with the specific intent to advance Enron’s interests—by increasing reported earnings, maintaining an investment-grade credit rating, and improving the price of Enron’s stock. … The government did not contend, and the record did not suggest in any way, that Skilling intended to put his own interests ahead of Enron’s. To the contrary, the government’s stated theory was that its evidence needed only to show—and did only show—“a material violation of a fiduciary duty that defendants owed to Enron and its shareholders.”

The Fifth Circuit erred in holding that a conviction under § 1346 is valid even where the defendant did not seek to elevate material private interests over his employer’s. Even that limitation may not suffice to save the statute from unconstitutional vagueness, but it at least establishes some reasonably clear and intelligible boundary to the statute. It also reflects the pre-McNally understanding of honest-services fraud Congress sought to adopt in § 1346.

As Justice Scalia recently observed, the statute on its face sweeps in a breathtaking range of conduct. Sorich, 129 S.Ct. at 1310. The phrase “honest services” itself provides no clear guidance as to “how far the intangible rights theory of criminal responsibility really extends.” Bloom, 149 F.3d at 656; see Sorich, 523 F.3d at 707 (§ 1346 is “amorphous and open-ended”); Urciuoli, 513 F.3d at 294 (“the concept of ‘honest services’ is vague and undefined”); Brown, 459 F.3d at 520 (§ 1346 is a “facially vague criminal statute”); Murphy, 323 F.3d at 116 (“the plain language of § 1346 provides little guidance as to the conduct it prohibits”); U.S. v. Handakas, 286 F.3d 92, 105 (2d Cir. 2002) (“the text of § 1346 simply provides no clue to the public or the courts as to what conduct is prohibited”), overruled in part by Rybicki, 354 F.3d at 144; U.S. v. Brumley, 116 F.3d 728, 736 (5th Cir. 1997) (Jolly & DeMoss, JJ., dissenting) (§ 1346 is “general, undefined, vague, and ambiguous”). …

Several lower courts, however, have sought to resolve the problem of the statute’s facial ambiguity by reading into the text limitations on “honest services” fraud. The “private gain” requirement is among the clearest of those limitations, and it is drawn directly from the pre-McNally cases that created the concept of honest-services fraud. McNally itself stated the rule: “Under [the prior honestservices] cases, a public official owes a fiduciary duty to the public, and misuse of his office for private gain is a fraud.” Id. at 355 (emphasis added).

Applying a private-gain limitation to honest services fraud is the only way to even arguably “avoid the constitutional question” raised by the vagueness of the phrase “honest services.” Jones v. U.S., 529 U.S. 848, 858 (2000). Absent that limitation, the statute is nothing more than a common-law fiduciary-breach statute, impermissibly criminalizing whatever wrongful or unethical corporate acts a given prosecutor decides to attack. Brown, 459 F.3d at 521-22; Bloom, 149 F.3d at 654.

 Here’s the whole statute at issue:

For the purposes of this chapter, the term “scheme or artifice to defraud” includes a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.

It defines part of the statute for "fraud by wire, radio, or television:"

Whoever, having devised or intending to devise any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises, transmits or causes to be transmitted by means of wire, radio, or television communication in interstate or foreign commerce, any writings, signs, signals, pictures, or sounds for the purpose of executing such scheme or artifice, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both. …

He may be on to something.

Then again, is there really any "vagueness" to the notion that fraud is criminal? Does anyone really throw their hands up into the air and proclaim that they don’t know if it’s illegal to defraud investors for the benefit of a company that pays that person millions every year, a company of which they own millions of dollars worth of shares?

That’s the conclusion of new scholarship by law professors Dave Hoffman and Cristy Boyd, in a draft just published here on SSRN, with blogging about it here. After analyzing 690 cases that sought to pierce the corporate veil between 2000 and 2005, they conclude:

The part that extra-legal influences play in veil piercing cases should caution corporate lawyers and scholars. Although jurists have focused on the influence of law and lawyers’ craft on the likelihood of defending the veil, we find that two previously ignored factors – ideology, and firm size, play as important a role, if not more so. This finding reminds us that legal rules create only loose constraints on judges, even those in the trial courts. …

We contest the conventional wisdom not just in its specifics but in its general theme that veil piercing doctrine is especially random and freakish. We think that the patterns we have observed fit well with a set of cases influenced by selection. Plaintiffs do win far more often during litigation than popular accounts of the doctrine’s rare nature would have had us expect, but their ultimate chance of obtaining relief on the merits is obscured by settlement, which disposes two of three veil piercing cases filed in federal court. …

Litigation results can tell us nothing more, and nothing less, than the kinds of factors
courts have found important in previous decided cases. Here, two extra-factors appear to be both important and surprising: ideology and firm size. Formalities, plaintiffs’ tactics, and defendants’ legal planning, have modest relationships to observed outcomes. To owners of the smallest of businesses, the message coming from this data is unfortunately both clear and unsatisfying: neither reliance on legal formalities nor pat expectations about the pro-business orientation of conservative judges will protect your firm from the need to dispute its veil in
court.
To scholars, the message is also unsettling: to predict how judges will react to veil piercing facts, and to understand their motivations, observation must yield to experiment.

In short, they found that the smaller the company, or the more conservative the judge, the more likely it is that the veil will be pierced and the owners of the company held personally liable.

One might think that smaller company size was positively correlated with veil piercing success because "undercapitalization," which is generally the most effecive veil piercing theory, is closely correlated with company size. (Common sense suggests that, although it’s easy to set up a fly-by-night small business, it’s quite difficult to establish an large corporation, even an "undercapitalized" one.) The above findings, however, control for factors like the type of veil piercing claim (i.e., "undercapitalization" as compared to "alter ego" or the like), which means that company size alone is a significant factor in veil piercing. That suggests something else at work, possibly a systematic bias against smaller companies (or a bias in favor of larger companies).

Frankly, I was surprised to see that "in nearly 78% of litigations, plaintiffs likely realized some value from their veil piercing claims" because the veil piercing claims had either (a) succeeded or (b) had not been dismissed at the time of settlement.

I don’t believe all of those plaintiffs realized some value from it — the mere fact that a claim has not yet been dismissed doesn’t necessarily mean the defendant sees a reasonable chance of it succeeding — but the sheer size of that figure (almost four in five!) is hard to argue with. Veil piercing claims apparently have a lot more traction than most lawyers believe.

Then again, the presumption among most plaintiff’s lawyers that veil piercing is inordinately difficult and rare likely leads to a strong selection bias prior to filing suit, such that only the strongest veil piercing claims are ever brought at all.

I recommend the authors journey down this road:

This relationship also implies that the particular grounds for relief asserted in complaints generally reflect the underlying facts of the case. To some, this result will surprise, as notice pleading rules, together with the expectation that plaintiffs will learn and shape their cases through discovery, might lead scholars to expect that the framing of the complaint functions as mere rhetorical gloss, insignificant in its particulars. Our contrary finding suggests that complaints are themselves objects worthy of further study beyond the confines of this particular project.

In the world of Ashcroft v. Iqbal, complaints are anything but "rhetorical gloss." These days, they’re often the strongest case the plaintiff can put forward.