A new Delaware law that would restore the rights of stockholders to bring class action lawsuits without fear of having to pay legal costs if they don't win every single part of their legal claim is being slammed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its affiliate, the Institute for Legal Reform (ILR). But even right-wing media outlet Forbes isn't sold on their arguments.
In May, the Delaware Supreme Court surprisingly ruled in ATP Tour v. Deutscher Tennis Bund that corporations were allowed to unilaterally add bylaws forcing the loser in shareholder litigation to pay all the associated legal fees. These sorts of “loser pays” provisions are atypical in the U.S. but have been promoted by conservative organizations like the Chamber and the ILR under the guise of ending "frivolous lawsuits." Ultimately, though, such provisions have the effect of deterring or outright blocking many meritorious class action lawsuits brought by victims of corporate malfeasance.
In response to the state supreme court's holding in ATP Tour, Delaware legislators have proposed SB 236, a bill that would reinstate the normal prohibition on “loser pays” bylaws. The ILR is already registering its vocal opposition to the bill, arguing that it will leave corporations vulnerable to “abusive litigation.”
Usually, right-wing media can be counted on to recycle the Chamber and ILR's pro-business talking points, in particular The Wall Street Journal editorial board. This time, however, even Forbes' Daniel Fisher questioned ILR's arguments. According to Fisher, who has supported anti-consumer provisions like forced arbitration clauses in the past, “opponents of SB 236 may be pushing too far” by promoting a loser pays system:
The bill's sponsor, Democratic Sen. Bryan Townsend, said he will set the bill aside for a while amid vocal opposition by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, according to the Wilmington News Journal.
The bill seems to restore the status quo by affirming the limited liability nature of corporations, where shareholders can only lose money to the extent of their investment. But the ILR said the proposed law -- passed, it noted, on “an extraordinarily expedited basis” -- would reverse a decision that “gives corporations a way to protect their shareholders” against the costs of “abusive litigation.”
By pushing to retain the option implied by the ATP Tour decision, opponents of SB 236 may be pushing too far. Delaware courts have granted them ample tools to deal with shareholder litigation and chipping away at limited liability might be a cure that is worse than the disease.
Fisher's skepticism of ILR's issues with the bill are well-founded. According to Paul Bland, executive director of Public Justice, the Delaware Supreme Court's decision not only runs afoul of the basic concepts of contract law by allowing corporations to unilaterally change the rules of the game on their investors, it makes it “far easier for corporations to insulate themselves from accountability if they cheat shareholders or break the law. By contrast, the vast majority of courts in the U.S. disapprove of this kind of loser-pays provision.”
It's not just states like Delaware that are threatening the viability of investor class action lawsuits, one of the best ways for defrauded stakeholders to get legal relief from the corporation who harmed them. Any day now, the Supreme Court will issue its decision in Halliburton v. Erica P. John Fund, a case that could make it nearly impossible for investors who have been the victims of corporate fraud to join together as a class and sue. Watch Bland explain in two minutes how Halliburton could be yet another in a long line of pro-business decisions from the conservative majority at the Court: