Pomerantz LLP

July/August 2019

Plantiffs' Attorneys and "Blow Provisions": An Uneasy Coexistence



During a settlement hearing on June 18 in the matter of In re RH, Inc. Securities Litigation, U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers of the Northern District of California took plaintiffs’ and defendants’ counsel to task for failing to disclose the existence of a confidential side deal between the parties. By all indications, the agreement in question related to a so-called “blow” or “blow-up” provision. Blow provisions provide settling defendants with an option to terminate the settlement agreement if a specified threshold of investors elect to exclude themselves (or “opt out”) of the settlement. Opt-out thresholds can be pegged to the dollar amount of the defendants’ potential exposure to opt outs, the per­centage of the shares purchased by class members, the percentage of shares outstanding, or the percentage of shares traded. From a settling defendants’ standpoint, the rationale is obvious: if too many class members opt out of the settlement, those same class members are likely to pursue their own cases against the defendants based on the same underlying conduct alleged in the class action. This makes the value of the class action settlement far less attractive to the defendants. No one wants to pay millions to settle a class action, only to be subjected to massive subsequent claims from investors who have opted out of the class. Where a defendant cannot sufficiently minimize its liability exposure in potential post-settlement “opt out” cases, settlement of the class action becomes a significantly less palatable proposition. The catch, as it were, is that the presence of an exces­sive number of opt-outs cannot and will not be known until the settlement has been inked, preliminarily approved by the court, and notice has gone out, making the blow provision a kind of insurance policy for defendants.  

While the blow provision-related side deal in RH was referred to in the parties’ settlement agreement, it went unmentioned in the motion for preliminary approval. In response to the omission, the judge ordered the parties to file the confidential agreement with the court under seal and advised both firms that she had informed the entire Northern District bench of the incident and of the firms’ respective identities.  

Given that the RH court characterized the settlement as a good deal for the class, counsels’ decision to bury the confidential agreement, and thereby incur the court’s ire, seems like a major unforced error. Certainly, failing to acknowledge the existence of a blow provision in prelim­inary approval motion is indefensible; indeed, plaintiffs’ counsel in RH acknowledged their “poor job” of disclosing the agreement at the June 18 hearing. Courts have a duty to assess the fairness, reasonableness, and adequacy of proposed class action settlements, an objective that is thwarted where the settlement is presented in an incomplete or misleading manner. On the other hand, plaintiff’s counsel was correct in noting that such agree­ments are “standard” in securities cases. Moreover, it is also quite common for the settling parties to request that blow provisions, which are typically memorialized in separate agreements like the one in RH, be subject to confidential treatment, i.e., that they not be publicly disclosed, even to class members. However, the court itself needs to be informed of the provision.  

On the surface, this type of secrecy seems antithetical to the informative aims of class action settlements: settle­ment proponents (plaintiffs and their counsel) are required to provide adequate notice of the settlement’s material terms to the class; in turn, class members are able to make an informed decision on whether to remain part of, opt out of, or object to, the settlement. More generally, absent class members who are not class representatives, and are therefore not directly involved with the litigation, should be kept abreast of critical developments by the plaintiffs and counsel who seek to represent their interests. This is especially true in cases such as RH, where a class had already been certified prior to the parties’ negotiating a settlement, thus creating, arguably, an even stronger presumption in favor of notice than in instances where a class is certified for the settlement purposes only. A previously-certified class has achieved a continuing and ongoing right to all material information about the case, making it difficult to advance the view that the blow provision’s terms have no bearing on individual class members’ decisions on how to proceed with respect to their claims, as has been argued in the settlement-only class certification context.  

Still, there are good reasons for both plaintiffs and defendants to resist public dissemination of the details of the blow provisions. Most prominently, publishing the number or percentage of opt-outs necessary to “blow up” a settlement may give excessive leverage to opt-out activists and threaten the stability of the settlement. Specifically, a group of class members with knowledge of the terms of the blow provision (and holding the requisite number of shares to trigger it) could band together for the purpose of preventing the settlement, or simply extracting special concessions from the settlement proponents. Even if the group did not initially have enough shares to trigger the termination provision, it could seek to recruit enough additional class members to do so. In cases where the claimed damages per share differ significantly among class members, tying the opt-out threshold to a specified dollar value could serve to impede this type of opt-out activism by making it more difficult to assemble the right mix of class members to trigger the blow provision.

Some courts have found these concerns sufficiently persuasive to warrant non-disclo­sure of supplemental agreements containing the opt-out threshold. Such courts will typically permit counsel to submit the supplemental agreement to the court through confidential means, so that the court’s mandate to review the settlement’s fairness is not impeded. Other courts have required that the supplemental agreement be publicly filed, reasoning that class members are entitled to review all aspects of the deal, even where that entails the possibility of a concerted effort to upend the settlement. Regardless, it does not appear that counsel risk any prejudice by not filing supplemental agreements memorializing blow provisions so long as they (a) refer to the existence of any such agreement in their motion papers and (b) file a timely request for confidential review of the agreement, e.g., a motion to file under seal. Alternately, the settling parties might elect simply to inform the court about the existence of the agreement and their non-intention to submit it in any form, confidential or otherwise, absent a specific order to do so. This course of action is not recommended, not only because it is likely to raise the court’s suspicions about the content of the agreement, but also because the court is then forced to issue a request for information in order to carry out its duty to evaluate the settlement’s fairness.

Plaintiffs and their counsel have no real interest in ensuring that a blow provision or appurtenant side agreement be included as part of a settlement – it is inevitably a condition imposed by defendants for purposes of limiting their own exposure to future cases brought by opt-out class members. Nevertheless, these agreements have become standard practice. This is unsurprising in light of research demonstrating that the number of opt-outs – and the potential for separate opt-out litigation – has increased in recent years. Large class action settlements represent a disproportionate percentage of cases that ultimately face an opt-out: between 2012 and 2014, three of four settlements of $500 million or greater involved opt-outs. Consequently, members of the securities plaintiffs’ bar must learn to effectively balance the informational risk posed by opt-out thresholds with both the notice due to class members and the court’s independent obligation to fully review the terms of class-wide settlements.

Statements About [The Absence of] Gender Discrimination Can Constitute Securities Fraud



With the emergence of the #MeToo movement, courts have seen an increasing number of securities fraud class actions based on allegations involving sexual discrimina­tion, harassment and other types of sexual misconduct. Such misconduct by itself does not constitute securities fraud. The added element that makes it a fraud is some public statement by the company to the effect that it does not engage in such conduct.  

When securities fraud actions involve allegations of sexual misconduct, the claims asserted typically involve public statements issued by a company about corporate values, integrity, and adherence to ethical standards, which are alleged to be false and misleading in light of actual misconduct known inside the company. That is exactly what happened at Signet Corporation.  

The company had gone out of its way to portray itself as harassment-free in its securities filings and other public statements. It highlighted its Code of Conduct, which said that Signet “made employment decisions ‘solely’ on the basis of merit”; that it was “committed to a workplace that is free from sexual, racial, or other unlawful harassment” and does not tolerate “[a]busive, harassing, or other offensive conduct ... whether verbal, physical, or visual”; that it has “[c]onfidential and anonymous mechanisms for reporting concerns”; that it disciplines “[t]hose who violate the standards in this Code”; and that it requires its senior officials to“[e]ngage in and promote honest and ethical conduct.” In its Form 20-F, filed with the SEC, Signet represented that adherence to the Codes, including by senior executives, was of “vital importance.” It represented that, in adopting both the Code of Ethics and the Code of Conduct, the company has “recognized the vital im­portance to the Company of conducting its business sub­ject to high ethical standards and in full compliance with all applicable laws and, even where not required by law, with integrity and honesty.” It said that it was committed to disciplining misconduct in its ranks and providing employees with a means to report sexual harassment with­out fear of reprisal.  

According to the securities class action complaint, reality was far different. The alleged sexual misconduct at Signet was at the heart of an arbitration proceeding (the “Jock” action) brought by approximately 200 allegedly victimized employees. Although the Jock proceeding was supposed to be confidential, some details about the experiences of these employees became public in February 2017 and were published in the Washington Post. Many female em­ployees had accused the company of discriminatory pay and promotion practices based on their gender. There were also credible accusations in the Jock proceeding that Signet had a culture of rampant sexual harassment – including, but not limited to, conditioning subordinate female employees’ promotions to their acceding to the sexual demands of their male supervisors (even those who held the highest positions in the company), and retaliating against those who reported this misconduct. Women alleged that sexual harassment routinely occurred at the company’s “Managers’ Meetings,” where male executives “sexually prey[ed]” on female subordinates.  

As discussed in the previous article in this issue, the recent decision in the Signet securities litigation forcefully rejected defendants’ argument, based on the Second Circuit’s decision in Singh v. Cigna Corp., that descriptions of codes of conduct are always inherently puffery that investors cannot take seriously. Archetypal examples of puffery include “statements [that] are explicitly aspirational,” “general statements about reputation, integrity, and compliance with ethical norms,” “mere[] generalizations regarding [a company’s] business practices,” and generalized expressions of “optimis[m].” As with the gen­eral standard governing materiality, determining whether certain statements constitute puffery entails looking at “context,” including the “specific[ity]” of the statements and whether the statements are “clearly designed to distinguish the company” to the investing public in some meaningful way. Finding that Signet’s statements about its code of conduct were very specific and went well beyond vague generalizations, the court in Signet refused to dismiss the action.  

Because gender issues involving corporate management have moved center stage, in recent years many companies have adopted codes of conduct prohibiting this kind of misconduct, and have discussed those codes in their securities filings and elsewhere. While that is certainly a step in the right direction, it is now clear that systematic violations of those codes can lead to securities claims.  

It is concerning to note that Signet’s egregious misconduct might never have become public, because the employees’ complaints were forced into secret arbitration proceed­ings. It was only by chance that the claims came to light and were picked up by the Washington Post. Mandatory arbitration clauses, a common business practice requiring workers and customers to waive their right to sue the com­pany in court, have kept sexual harassment complaints (such as those in the Jock action) hidden from the public.  

For some time, Democrats have introduced bills to ban or limit arbitration clauses. There now appears to be some bipartisan agreement that such practice raises concerns. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, recently scheduled a hearing on the topic, saying “in 2019, I want to look long and hard on how the system works; are there any changes we can make?” 

Statements About Corporate Legal and Regulatory Compliance Can Constitute Securities Fraud


In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, investors have become more attuned to and concerned about the risks companies face, yet may fail to disclose to the market. Consequently, when previously undisclosed news of, for example, a company’s legal liability is revealed to the market or actually materializes, the company’s stock price may well drop sharply, damaging investors. Over the last few years, investors have increasingly brought securities claims over such conduct, sometimes referred to as “event-driven” litigation.  

In March of this year, the Second Circuit issued a decision in Singh v. Cigna Corp., which had one such event-driven claim which turned on whether the company’s public statements concerning its legal compliance were “material” to investors.  

Singh arose from Cigna Corp.’s acquisition of HealthSpring, Inc. for $3.8 billion in early 2012. Cigna, a health insurance and services company, acquired HealthSpring in order to grow its Seniors and Medicare business segment. At the time of the acquisition, HealthSpring was one of the largest private Medicare insurers in the United States. Accordingly, HealthSpring was heavily regulated by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”).  

Prior to the acquisition, HealthSpring had a spotless compliance track record—having never been cited for non-compliance by the CMS. That changed following the acquisition. Although Cigna’s acquisition first appeared to be successful, with HealthSpring becoming Cigna’s largest source of revenue within one year, shortly after the acqui­sition was completed Cigna began to receive CMS notices for non-compliance in its HealthSpring operations.  

Between October 2013 and January 2016, Cigna received a total of 75 Notices of Non-Compliance from CMS, culmi­nating in January 2016, when the regulator imposed severe sanctions on the company. On January 21, 2016, CMS notified Cigna that it would be imposing immediate sanctions which would prohibit it from writing any new Medicare policies, a significant blow to its most profitable business segment. Notably, CMS specifically concluded that “Cigna substantially failed to comply with CMS requirements” and that it “had a longstanding history of non-compliance with CMS requirements” as demonstrated by the receipt of numerous prior notices.  

By November 2016, Cigna had spent $100 million to remedy the problems identified by CMS, and was not yet finished. The sanctions were finally lifted on June 16, 2017.  

Plaintiff, representing a class of investors who purchased Cigna stock after the acquisition, alleged four sets of mis­representations concerning Cigna’s track record of legal compliance. First, Cigna stated in an annual report on Form 10-K filed with the SEC that it had “established policies and procedures to comply with applicable requirements.” Second, the Company repeatedly stated in its annual reports that it “allocate[s] significant resources to [its] compliance, ethics and fraud, waste and abuse programs to comply with the laws and regulations[.]” Third, Cigna acknowledged in its annual reports that failure to comply with state and federal health care laws and regulations can result in “fines, limits on expansion, restrictions or exclusions from programs or other agreements with fed­eral or state governmental agencies that could adversely impact [Cigna’s] business, cash flows, financial condition and results of operation.” Finally, the Plaintiff alleged that Cigna’s Code of Ethics and Principles of Conduct included a quote by one of the officer defendants which stated that it is important for Cigna to do things “the right way,” which includes reporting financial results fairly and accurately. Moreover, the quote continued that “it’s so important for every employee on the global Cigna team to handle[,] maintain, and report on this information in compliance with all laws and regulations.”  

The district court dismissed the action, holding that Cigna’s statements about compliance were so vague and conclusory that they amounted to mere “puffery,” and were so immaterial that investors could not reasonably rely on them. After plaintiff appealed the district court’s decision to dismiss his claims, the Second Circuit reviewed the materiality of the alleged misstatements. A misrepresen­tation is material if “there is a substantial likelihood that a reasonable person would consider it important in deciding whether to buy or sell shares of stock.” The statement must also be “mislead[ing],” which is evaluated not only by “literal truth,” but by “context and manner of presentation.” 

The plaintiff in Singh argued that the each of the three sets of alleged misrepresentations were material and misleading because “a reasonable stockholder would rely on these statements as representations of satisfactory legal compliance by Cigna.” The Second Circuit disagreed, affirming the dismissal.  

First, the Second Circuit characterized the Code of Ethics statement as “a textbook example of puffery,” as it ex­pressed “general declarations about the importance of acting lawfully and with integrity.” Accordingly, the Court found that no investor would rely on such statements.  

Similarly, the Court categorized Cigna’s statements in its annual reports concerning its “established policies” and its “significant”’ allocation of resources to compliance programs as mere “representations of satisfactory compli­ance,” which again, the Court found that no investor would reply upon. In making this determination, the Court dis­tinguished Cigna’s statements in its annual reports from the “descriptions of compliance efforts [which] amounted to actionable assurances of actual compliance” made by defendants in Meyer v. JinkoSolar Holding Co., which were found to be actionable.  

Finally, the Second Circuit found that each of Cigna’s statements in its annual reports were “framed” by acknowledgements of the complexity of applicable regulations. As a result, the Court found that Cigna sufficiently “caution[ed] (rather than [instill] confidence) regarding the extent of Cigna’s compliance,” and therefore, “these statements seem to reflect Cigna’s uncertainty as to the very possibility of maintaining adequate compliance mechanism in light of complex and shifting government regulations.”  

The defense bar has already hailed this decision as a lethal arrow in their quiver, claiming that it “will likely in­crease the dismissal rate of [event-driven securities] claims” and instructing defendants to “rely aggressively on Singh in seeking to have such suits dismissed.” Adam Hakki and Agnès Dunogué, “2nd Circ.’s Logical Take On ‘Event-Driven’ Securities Claims,” LAW360, May 13, 2019.  

Singh, however, is far from the decisive victory the defense bar promotes it to be. In the short time since it was handed down, district courts have continued to uphold securities claims concerning statements of legal compliance. In a recent decision following Singh, Signet Jewelers Limited argued that the Second Circuit’s opinion demanded that the plaintiff’s pleadings concerning Signet’s harassment protections in its Code of Conduct and Code of Ethics did not amount to material misrepresentations, and must be dismissed. Judge Colleen McMahon of the Southern District of New York found otherwise. Judge McMahon explicitly held that “Cigna did not purport to change the well-established law regarding materiality. It did not an­nounce a new legal rule, let alone one deeming an entire category of statements — those contained in a company’s code of conduct — per se inactionable.”  

Signet is not an outlier. In March of 2019, two months after Singh was decided, Judge Louis L. Stanton was presented with alleged misrepresentations in the Code of Ethics of Grupo Televisa, S.A.B., a multinational media conglomer­ate, following criminal charges that the company illegally paid bribes to obtain television rights to the FIFA world cup. Just as in Signet, defendants argued that the statements contained in the company’s code of ethics were mere puffery. Judge Stanton disagreed and found that the broad statements in the code of ethics (affirming the company’s commitment to legal compliance and prohibition of bribery) were actionable because they “were made repeatedly in an effort to reassure the investing [public] about the Company’s integrity, a reasonable investor could rely on them as reflective of the true state of affairs at the Company.”  

The Second Circuit’s decision in Singh demon­strates the importance and challenges of bringing securities claims over legal and regulatory failures by public corporations. The take-away of Singh for securities plaintiffs is that they must be evermore diligent in their pleadings, ensuring that judges are presented with specific and detailed representations concerning a company’s compliance such that in­vestors would be justified in taking them seriously.  Signet and Grupo Telavisia demonstrate that Singh certainly does not ring the death knell for similar types of event-driven litigation. Nevertheless, as the defense bar continues to rely upon this decision, it is critical for securities plaintiffs to monitor the decision’s precedential value. 

The Supreme Court Closes Another Door to Class Arbitration



In Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela, the Supreme Court issued the latest in a series of recent 5-4 decisions that have transformed arbitration law so as to make it much more difficult for plaintiffs to pursue claims as a class, whether in court or before an arbitrator. Following this decision, if an arbitration agreement is ambiguous about class arbi­tration, courts cannot rely on state contract law to interpret it in a way that best effectuates the contracting parties’ bargain. Instead, courts are now required to adopt a heavy presumption that arbitration agreements always prohibit class actions unless they include explicit authorization for class arbitration.   

These cases involved the Federal Arbitration Act (the “FAA”), a 1925 law intended “to enable merchants of roughly equal bargaining power to enter into binding agreements to arbitrate commercial disputes.” Arbitration offers contracting parties procedural flexibility to tailor a dispute resolution process to their specific commer­cial needs, which may include the efficient resolution of simpler disputes as well as expert resolution of technical disputes using procedural and evidentiary rules tailored to the industry. The FAA sought to overcome judicial hostility to arbitration by requiring courts to interpret and enforce arbitration agreements the same as any oth­er contract—i.e., to apply the same state law governing all other contracts and to effectuate the bargain of the parties instead of imposing courts’ own views of pro-cedural fairness and efficiency.  

However, commercial contracts are very different from most consumer and employment contracts. Procedural flexibility is less likely to be abused in commercial contracts because both parties have a shared incentive to structure a neutral process that can efficiently provide real relief. But in consumer and employment contexts, com­panies know they will be defendants and so have strong incentives to design and impose arbitral procedures that are one-sided at best and sometimes even deliberately inefficient in order to deter plaintiffs from bringing claims. (For example, prohibiting class actions essentially mandates individualized proceedings, which can be pro­hibitively costly and inefficient for many employee and consumer claims.) And in the past decade, the Supreme Court’s conservative wing—driven by its own hostility towards class actions—has not only approved of this prac­tice but has increasingly used the FAA to create its own special rules for arbitration agreements, overriding state laws governing every other type of contract.   

Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela illustrates this perfectly. The arbitration agreement in that case was part of an employ­ment contract. Unlike commercial contracts, employment and consumer contracts are usually written entirely by the company and then offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Ordinarily, under the law of all 50 states, any ambiguities in a contract written entirely by a company are interpret­ed against the company and in favor of the employee or consumer. The rationale is that the company had every opportunity to protect its interests by writing clearer contractual language and so should not be able to benefit from any ambi­guities it created.   

But the Supreme Court did not apply this rule. The arbitration agreement did not explicitly authorize or waive class arbitration, but it did suggest in several places that class arbitration was available. First, it stated that “arbitration shall be in lieu of any and all lawsuits or other civil legal proceedings”—and “any and all law­suits” plainly includes class actions. Second, it allowed the arbitrator to “award any remedy allowed by applicable law”—which plainly includes a judgment on behalf of a class. Third and most importantly, the agreement provided for arbitration “‘in accordance with’” the rules of a specific arbitral forum whose rules allowed for class arbitration. As Justices Kagan and Sotomayor pointed out in their dissents, an employee reading the con­tract would have little reason to think they were waiving the right to proceed as a class. Thus, under ordinary contract law, an ambiguous contract like this should be interpreted in favor of the employee. If the employer cared about avoiding class arbitration, it had every opportunity to be clearer.  


Nevertheless, the Supreme Court held that arbitration agreements did not have to be clear in order to prohibit class arbitration. The majority’s stated rationale was that “shifting from individual to class arbitration is a ‘fundamental’ change … that ‘sacrifices the principal advantage of ar­bitration’ and ‘greatly increases risks to defendants” and therefore was so “markedly different from the traditional individualized arbitration contemplated by the FAA” that ambiguity was not enough. However, this rationale had no basis in the FAA, which never specifies any primary “advantage” of arbitration nor favors any particular kind of arbitral proceeding. (If anything, the whole point of the FAA was that contracting parties get to decide what they consider the “principal advantage” of arbitration for them­selves, and courts can’t use their own procedural views as excuses to treat arbitration agreements differently from other contracts.) Rather, as Justice Kagan pointed out in dissent, the Court simply used its “policy view … about class litigation” to “justify displacing generally applicable state law about how to interpret ambiguous contracts.” Moreover, while the conservative majority took great pains to protect corporate defendants from “increased risk,” it ignored the risks that its ruling will create for the other contracting parties, i.e., consumers and employees, who will have no practical remedy to vindicate their contractual rights.  

Notably, class-action waivers outside arbitration agree­ments rarely receive such special treatment, and their enforceability is much less clear. So after Lamps Plus, an arbitration agreement that is silent or deliberately vague about class arbitration is more reliable at blocking class claims than an explicit class-action waiver in a normal non-arbitration contract. This creates some strange incen­tives for companies that might otherwise have no interest at all in arbitration.