Pomerantz LLP

The Struggle Over the Use of Confidential Witnesses

Pomerantz Monitor, May/June 2014

In 1995, Congress passed the PSLRA to eliminate what it considered to be abusive practices in federal securities litigation. Among other things, it raised plaintiffs' burden in pleading federal securities fraud actions. It heightened the standard to plead scienter, requiring that the complaint plead facts "giving rise to a strong inference that the defendants acted with the required state of mind." At the same time, it instituted an automatic discovery stay until resolution of the defendant's motion to dismiss. In combination, these requirements can pose a significant hurdle to securities plaintiffs in making sufficiently specific allegations of wrongdoing. 

Plaintiffs often attempt to meet this burden by relying on statements from former company insiders. Because they often are wary of the possibility of retaliation from their former employers, or because they are still employed, or hope to be employed, in the same line of business, they typically demand that their names be kept confidential, and complaints usually refer to them as “CWs,” or confidential witnesses. Ultimately, their names must be disclosed to defendants, which must be relayed to the CW at the time of the interview. In ruling on motions to dismiss, some federal judges have expressed discomfort in relying on statements of anonymous CWs, worrying that they may not be in a position to know what they are talking about, or that they may be disgruntled former employees looking for revenge while hiding behind a smokescreen of anonymity. Other federal judges believe that CWs are reliable where there is strength in the number of confidential witnesses, their corroborative aspects, and the specific descriptions of each of them. Many cases have required that allegations based on information from CWs must disclose enough about them to substantiate that they were in a position to know what they are talking about. This requirement, of course, makes it easier for the former employers to figure out their identity. Once that happens, defendants have often tried to discredit their allegations or even to contact them to pressure them to “recant.” Southern District of New York Judge Jed Rakoff, a leading jurist in securities litigation, has noted that heightened pleading standards in securities class actions have left confidential plaintiffs' witnesses in a tough spot—sometimes lured by plaintiffs lawyers to exaggerate wrongdoing, and/or unfairly pressured by defendants to recant truthful allegations. 

Defense attorneys have different theories on what can be done to alleviate these concerns; however, many of these “theories” are not practical, such as, for example, requiring plaintiffs’ lawyers to include a sworn declaration from a confidential witness verifying the allegations in the complaint. Such disclosures would reveal the name of the signatory, defeating the protection of confidentiality. As Judge Rakoff noted, once the identities of confidential witnesses are known, they can then be “pressured into denying outright the statements they had actually made.” In fact, fear of retaliation by the former employer accounts for most of witness recantation. Moreover, any requirement that former employees sign a formal legal document, especially under oath, would have a chilling effect on their willingness to reveal what they know. 

Defense attorneys have also suggested that plaintiffs’ lawyers themselves, and not just investigators, participate in the witness interviews. While this might help ensure that the complaint’s summary of CW allegations is accurate, it would be impractical. The involvement of a lawyer, rather than an investigator alone, would be a deterrent for some CWs. Investigators would have to coordinate meetings among counsel and the witnesses, making information collection much more burdensome and time-consuming. 

There are, however, some steps that plaintiffs’ counsel can take to make the CW process more reliable. Investigators should be required to state clearly that they work for a law firm adverse to the former employer, and that they do not represent the witness. They should also be required to ensure that the witness is not currently employed with the defendants and that there is no confidentiality agreement that precludes disclosure. Counsel should also make sure that the information from the CW is consistent with all of the other evidence gathered in the case. The court’s decision in Tellabs III provides that corroborating evidence is the key to CW allegations. Because the Reform Act requires plaintiffs to plead the details of the CW’s position and ability to know the facts alleged, the defendants often can figure out who the CWs are, and “reach out” to them. As Judge Rakoff has stated, the witness often feels pressure to recant or water down what s/he has said. If defendants succeed in this effort and the complaint is dismissed, defendants often file a Rule 11 motion seeking sanctions against plaintiff’s counsel. Such “recantation” should not be the basis for a Rule 11 motion. Plaintiffs’ attorneys should not be deterred by defendants’ latest attempt to dismiss valid securities fraud cases through Rule 11 motions. However, plaintiffs’ counsel should take care to ensure that the allegations in any complaint are accurate, and move for cross-sanctions where appropriate.