Category Archives: Financial Reporting

Plaintiffs’ Class Action Counsel Running on Empty: “Fear of ID Theft” and “Lost Time and Effort” Damages Theories Just Don’t Cut It

While some data breach victims will eventually sustain an ID theft, it is generally acknowledged that the vast majority will not.  Accordingly, the direct damages sustained by ID theft victims are not very helpful in a class action — there are just not enough plaintiffs.  Over the years, plaintiffs’ class action counsel have spent many hours trying to create a damages theory that would actually be common to all victims of a data breach event.   The two theories that have gotten the most class action traction are based on “fear of ID theft” or “lost time and effort” allegations.  Unfortunately — for plaintiffs’ counsel, that is — neither theory really fits the bill.

Damages Based on the “Fear of ID Theft”

Plaintiffs’ class action counsel chasing down data breach events have generally been unsuccessful in pursuing claims based solely on the “fear of identity theft” or related incidental damages.  Although Ruiz v. Gap, Inc, instructs us there may be an outside chance of surviving a motion to dismiss, a defendant’s summary judgment motion will eventually kill any claim brought by those who have not actually sustained theft of their identities.  In effect, an actual incidence of ID theft – which after a breach can take quite a while to happen – has become the de facto precursor to compensable damages.

Despite what some plaintiffs’ counsel have said after the standing ruling in Krottner v. Starbucks, Nos. 09-35823 and 35824 (9th Cir. , Dec. 14, 2010), nothing has really changed this dynamic.   In fact, as shown in Ruiz and other cases cited below, Krottner is not even the first court to rule federal standing exists for “fear of identity theft” claims.

By way of background, employees at Starbucks sued the company after the October 29, 2008 theft of a laptop computer containing “names, addresses, and social security numbers of approximately 97,000 Starbucks employees.”  Id.  The trial court had previously dismissed the case, finding that Washington law doesn’t recognize a cause of action where the only financial damage is “risk of future harm.” The trial court also found insufficient facts to carry an implied contract claim.

In a pair of rulings issued last month, the Ninth Circuit agreed with the lower court and affirmed dismissal of the action given that, under Washington law, “actual loss or damage is an essential element” of a negligence claim.  This opinion on the merits was not approved for publication.

It is the standing ruling – which was actually approved for publication – that has excited some in the data breach litigation business.  The Ninth Circuit ruled [insert big yawn here] plaintiffs had Article III standing given that “‘generalized anxiety and stress’ as a result of [a data breach] is sufficient to confer standing”.   It is very important to note that the court, quoting from Equity Lifestyle Props., Inc. v. County of San Luis Obispo, 548 F.3d 1184, 1189 n.10 (9th Cir. 2008), recognized as a threshold matter that “[t]he jurisdictional question of standing precedes, and does not require, analysis of the merits.”  In other words, with jurisdictional standing you can reach the federal courthouse but once inside, you still need to prove your case – something plaintiffs here were unable to do given they lost at the district court level and on appeal.

In reaching its decision, the Ninth Circuit cites to cases on both sides of the issue.  Compare Doe v. Chao,540 U.S. 614, 617-18, 624-25 (2004) (suggesting that a plaintiff who allegedly “was ‘torn . . . all to pieces’ and `was greatly concerned and worried’ because of the disclosure of his Social Security number and its potentially ‘devastating’ consequences’” had no cause of action under the Privacy Act, but nonetheless had standing under Article III) and Pisciotta v. Old National Bancorp, 499 F.3d 629, 634 (7th Cir. 2007) (holding that plaintiffs whose data had been stolen but had not yet been misused suffered an injury-in-fact sufficient to confer Article III standing) with Lambert v. Hartman,517 F.3d 433, 437 (6th Cir. 2008) (although plaintiff’s actual financial injuries resulting from the theft of her personal data were sufficient to confer standing, the risk of future identity theft was “somewhat ‘hypothetical’ and ‘conjectural.’”).

Looking to exploit its Pyrrhic victory, plaintiffs’ counsel deftly uses the December 15, 2010 standing decision to solicit Starbucks employees who may have actually sustained an ID theft:

[We] received a favorable precedential opinion from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Krottner v. Starbucks Corporation, No. 09-35823.  In the opinion, the Ninth Circuit judges held that plaintiffs whose personal information had been stolen, but not misused, had standing to bring their case in federal court. The opinion held on the facts before it that the increased risk of future harm from identity theft was a credible enough treat [sic] to provide an injury-in-fact for Article III standing…

If you have any information regarding the Starbucks data breach, or if you believe you have been affected by the data breach and would like to discuss your rights and interests in this matter, please contact our Washington D.C. office.

Damages Based on “Lost Time and Effort”

Thankfully (for defendants), there is no compelling precedent that expressly recognizes negligence or contract damages derived solely from the time and effort spent to remediate an alleged wrongdoing.  Although mitigation damages are sometimes awarded in addition to other damages such damages generally never rest as the sole measure of injury in either a negligence or contract setting.  This general rule manifests as the “economic loss rule” in some jurisdictions (used to bar recovery in negligence when the only loss is pecuniary) or is simply bolted on to the concept of damages in other jurisdictions.

Seeking to resolve a “lost time and effort” argument made by plaintiffs in a very public data breach context, on November 24, 2009, Judge D. Brock Hornby, the federal district judge in Maine presiding over the Hannaford Brother data breach litigation, certified the following question to the Maine Supreme Court:

In the absence of physical harm or economic loss or identity theft, do time and effort alone, spent in a reasonable effort to avoid or remediate reasonably foreseeable harm, constitute a cognizable injury for which damages may be recovered under Maine law of negligence and/or implied contract?

See In re Hannaford Bros. Co. Customer Data Sec. Breach Litig., 671 F. Supp. 2d 198, 201 (D. Me. 2009).

On September 21, 2010, the Maine Supreme Court answered this question in the negative.  Relying on longstanding law, Maine’s highest court responded to Judge Hornby without equivocation:  “[Maine case law] does not recognize the expenditure of time and effort alone as a harm.”  In re Hannaford Bros. Co. Customer Data Sec. Breach Litig., 4 A.3d 492 (Me. 2010).  Rejecting a “mitigation of damages” argument that would elevate expended time and effort to the status of a compensable legal injury, the court ruled, “[u]nless the plaintiffs’ loss of time reflects a corresponding loss of earnings or earning opportunities, it is not a cognizable injury under Maine law of negligence.”  Id. And, given that “the time and effort expended by the plaintiffs here represent ‘the ordinary frustrations and inconveniences that everyone confronts in daily life’” damages were also not available under the implied contract claim.  Id. (quoting lower court).

Although other courts have made passing comments regarding the relevance of “lost time” as the sole measure of harm, the Maine Supreme Court decision is the only decision on all fours within a data breach context.  Id. (“In other cases, a passing mention of loss of time without adequate facts to demonstrate how those damages were being measured is insufficient to persuade us that the expenditure of time and effort alone is a harm recoverable in negligence.”) (citing Kuhn v. Capital One Fin. Corp., No 05-P-810, 2006 WL 3007931, at *3 (Mass. App. Ct. Oct. 23, 2006); Freeman v. Missouri Pac. Ry. Co., 167 P. 1062, 1063-65 (Kan. 1917)).

Even if a future court found these damages standing alone somehow compensable, there exists another barrier that would likely stymie future class certification motions relying on this damages theory — courts would have a tough time finding an efficient means of determining on a class-wide basis the value of a plaintiff’s “time and effort”.  Although courts have recognized that the need for individualized proof of damages is not per se an obstacle to class certification, the measure of a plaintiff’s relative “time and effort” would likely not predominate any data breach putative class.

To the extent such thorny class certification issues would possibly resolve differently among the federal circuits, the U.S. Supreme Court may soon add some needed clarity.  On December 6, 2010, the Court agreed to review the April 27, 2010 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granting class certification in the massive Wal-Mart sexual discrimination case.  See Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. , 603 F.3d 571 (9th Cir. 2010), cert. granted, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 178 L. Ed. 2d 530 (2010) (“Petition for writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted limited to Question I presented by the petition.  In addition to Question I, the parties are directed to brief and argue the following question: “Whether the class certification ordered under Rule 23(b)(2) was consistent with Rule 23(a).”) (emphasis added).

Although named plaintiffs in the Wal-Mart case “waived any claim for compensatory damages, forfeiting the rights of individual class members to recover damages authorized by Congress solely in order to facilitate class treatment”, an important commonality ruling remains likely given the Court specifically requested that the parties brief the applicability of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(a).  See Petitioners Brief at 35, dated January 20, 2011.  One way or the other, the Supreme Court’s decision in Wal-Mart will impact the class action landscape – including the potential landscape surrounding breach class action suits.

Data Breach Class Action Suits — Will the Floodgates Ever Open?

It may not arrive this year or next but the time will likely eventually come when class actions are routinely certified after a significant data breach.  As discussed above, these future certified class actions will not likely derive from courts applying a new and improved “fear of” or “lost time” damages theory.   Moreover, this shift certainly won’t happen using a newly varnished claim theory based on lost chattel, conversion, or a constructive bailment.

In part two of this post, I’ll outline the one data breach claim that will very likely eventually clog the class action dockets of judges throughout the country.

UK Law Firms Face a Sea Change that May Impact US Firms

As reported in this recent article in American Lawyer, in less than a year, “the UK’s legal landscape will change forever.”   This sea change is taking place given the third and final stage of the UK’s Legal Services Act comes into effect in October 2011 — allowing for UK law firms to accept outside equity investments for the first time.   Specifically,  Alternative Business Structure (ABS) will be allowed to have both lawyer and non-lawyer ownership and management.   These entities will be able to solely provide legal services or provide legal services in combination with non-legal services such as financial services. 

Not surprisingly, UK law firms are busy preparing for this change — a change that will likely reshape the legal profession in the UK and beyond.   Unlike law firms in most parts of the world — including the United States — UK law firms will no longer have an ethical bar prohibiting them from taking on non-lawyer equity owners or managers.  The ethical prohibitions barring non-lawyer equity ownership of US law firms were discussed earlier this year in a post that challenged the status quo.

Come next October, the UK legal community will no longer have several significant barriers to growth and in so doing will reap an immediate advantage compared to US peers.  UK firms will see an influx of capital that mimics what happened after financial services firms first went public years ago.  Coupled with this new capital infusion and partner equity bonanza will be demands from investors for improved processes tied to a reduction in expense.   That’s where the new managers will come in to improve the bottom line.  These changes will likely lead to competitive advantages and a rapid increase in revenue.   US firms will be at a marked disadvantage for years to come on those legal services that can more easily be commoditized and outsourced.   ABS entities may find that success higher up the legal food chain will be more difficult to achieve and will take more time to address.  That is where traditonal firms may be able to obtain an advantage.

In other words, in the short-term, there may actually be some good news for US-based firms competing with ABS entities.  Complex corporate and litigation work may eventually increase — not only will firms be wary of using a hybrid law firm that may sometimes have a perceived conflict of interest, these process/outsource driven firms may not be perceived sophisticated enough to handle high-end business.  Moreover, the “professional touch” found in a traditional firm may also be perceived to be missing from these new UK hybrid firms.  This is obviously all speculation at this point given ABS entities may be part of a yet-unknown corporate structure that takes into account the above potential weaknesses.

All in all, the change that will take place next year in the UK will likely eventually lead to greater billing transparency and stronger competition.   Maybe having such competition will cease $60 empty emails and law firms charging for  nice window views.  It may also prod US state bars to recognize there can be no expanding “business of law” until law firms are allowed to conduct business more like other businesses — which may or may not entail the seismic changes taking place in the UK.   It would be nice, however, if those changes were at least discussed.

NJ Appellate Division Rules Shareholders Can Inspect Board Minutes

An August 17, 2010 New Jersey decision may be negative for businesses in New Jersey despite what on the surface is  a win for a large corporation.   In Cain v. Merck & Co., Inc., the New Jersey Appellate Division addressed whether the New Jersey Business Corporation Act entitles shareholders to inspect the minutes of the board of directors and the minutes of executive committees, and if so, the breadth of that right of inspection.  According to the court, resolution of these questions:  centers on the proper construction of N.J.S.A. 14A:5-28(4) of the Act. In pertinent part, that statute allows shareholders, upon proof of a “proper purpose,” to examine “the books and records of account, minutes, and record of shareholders of a corporation.” N.J.S.A. 14A:5-28(4).

In what appears to be a case of first impression in New Jersey, the Appellate Division concluded that the qualified right of inspection under the statute extends to the minutes of the board of directors and the executive committee – and not just to the minutes of the shareholder meeting.   The court, however, limited this right of inspection to only those portions of the board minutes that address their “proper purpose.”  In other words, shareholders are “not entitled to examine the minutes in order to explore unsubstantiated allegations of general mismanagement.”

It is not clear whether Merck will appeal given that it, in effect, won its alternative argument, namely that the review should be limited to discussions related to a study conducted by Merck rather than a broader review that on its face does not have such a  “proper purpose.”  According to a Merck spokesman, “we’re evaluating our next steps.” 

If left as binding authority, this decision may have huge ramifications for large and public businesses in New Jersey.   As it stands, the decision extends the reach of the statute – which appears on its face to be limited to shareholder meetings – to the much more deliberative board meetings of a corporation.  It gives litigants a new tool and may cause directors to be more restrained when providing advice given their decision-making process may now be opened up to a much greater extent.  Moreover, this obviously potentially increases the liability of directors and officers so there may be a potential increase in claims – with a resulting increase in D&O insurance premiums.   Although the lower court did recognize that the minutes should be redacted for privileged material, now that the door is open, future judges will have free reign to decide what is deemed “a proper purpose” or privileged material.   In other words, there is no guarantee a future judge won’t allow the fishing expedition rejected by the Appellate Division in this case.

Business Method Patents Live on Another Day: Bilski Decided by SCOTUS

Today’s Bilski v. Kappos decision rejected having a Federal Circuit test for determining patentable subject matter as a “knock out” test for business methods.  If affirmed, this Machine-or-Transformation Test (if applied as the sole test) would have likely rejected all business method patent applications.  As it stands, the United States is the only country that allows for business method patents.  After today’s United States Supreme Court decision, that remains the case.

In today’s decision, the Court ruled that “business methods” can be patentable if they meet the requirements set forth in longstanding precedent notwithstanding the fact they do not “recite a particular machine or apparatus, nor transform any article into a different state or thing.”  Although the Court ruled that the Machine-or-Transformation Test remains as a helpful tool when resolving patentable subject matter questions, it should not be considered a “knock-out” test.

This is a huge win for financial institutions and software companies with strong patent portfolios — as well as those law firms who help build and protect those portfolios.

CyLab Survey: Corporate Protection of Digital Assets Not a Priority

The recently released Carnegie Mellon CyLab 2010 Corporate Governance survey confirms that there is little change in senior management’s views towards data security – it’s not really a priority.   The CyLab annual survey, which measures board and management attitudes towards the protection of digital assets, is based upon results received from respondents at the board or senior executive level from Fortune 1000 companies.   Given public filing requirements, you would think protection of digital and related intangible assets – which now comprise the bulk of a firm’s value – would be a top of mind issue.  It’s not. 

When asked to identify their boards’ three top priorities, “improving computer and data security” was not selected by 98% of the respondents.  The respondents also indicated that their boards were not “actively addressing” IT operations or vendor management.  In essence, privacy and security of data inside or at outside vendors is receiving little oversight from management.  

Interestingly, 65% of the respondents also indicated that their boards were not reviewing their companies’ insurance coverage for data risks even though most standard policies offer little or no coverage.   Standing alone, this approach may not be an example of sound business judgment given the availability of specific insurance policies able to cover loss or destruction of digital assets. 

Not quite sure if this survey is a real wake up call or not.  The only thing for certain is that these attitudes are hardly what one would consider a best practice.  Sarbanes Oxley Section 404 requires a “top down” audit on internal controls which should provide some guidance on how digital assets are protected.  Indeed, under 15 U.S.C. § 7262(a), the Section 404 report must “contain an assessment, as of the end of the most recent fiscal year of the Company, of the effectiveness of the internal control structure and procedures of the issuer for financial reporting.”  It is difficult to see how management can in good conscious sign off on these assessments while still maintaining that “improving computer and data security” is not a priority.  

Notwithstanding how firms may perceive their Section 404 obligations, recognizing the potential “materiality” of computer security failings, Google, Intel, Symantec and Northrop Grumman recently added new warnings to their SEC filings informing investors of such risk.  The fact that some companies have come forward to detail recent breaches and the possibility of future breaches should indicate to other companies the need to address this reporting issue in a more proactive manner.  And, once risk disclosures are publicly made, the next obvious step is to ensure that proper protections are in place to address the risk.   Reporting uncoupled with affirmative preventive action is simply fodder for class action litigation the next time an event takes place.  What may be even worse is completely turning a blind eye to the entire problem.

Lehman, D&O Liability and Mark-to-Market Reporting

The Devil’s Casino, Vicky Ward’s first book, is the latest account of the fall of Lehman Brothers.  Released in April, this Lehman tome applies  a gossipy approach to storytelling.  Although we learn much about the shopping habits of some Lehman wives, repo transactions are nowhere to be found.   The book, however, becomes noteworthy when Ward details a September 9, 2008 meeting between JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon and the Fed’s head Ben Bernake (on page 200) that purportedly directly led to JPMorgan’s request that Lehman provide $5 billion more in collateral. Less than a week later, Lehman filed its bankruptcy petition (the largest in US history) ostensibly given its lack of liquidity brought on by the collateral call of its clearing bank, JPMorgan. 

In a Report by Lehman’s bankruptcy examiner, dated March 11, 2010, the issue of JPMorgan’s collateral demand was analyzed and determined to be barely actionable.  The Report states: 

the Examiner concludes that the evidence may support the existence of a colorable claim – but not a strong claim – that JPMorgan breached the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing by making excessive collateral requests to Lehman in September 2008.  A trier of fact would have to consider evidence that the collateral requests were reasonable and that Lehman waived any claims by complying with the requests.  

(Report of Anton R. Valukas, Examiner at page 1073)

On the heels of this Report and the Ward book, on May 27, 2010, the Lehman estate sued JPMorgan.  The suit takes a different position regarding the relationship between JPMorgan and Lehman by alleging that JPMorgan’s breach of duty was actionable. 

Unlike JPMorgan, Lehman’s board and officers were essentially given a free pass by Lehman’s bankruptcy estate as well as all regulators.  The Lehman Examiner’s Report actually spends much ink analyzing Delaware fiduciary law yet concludes numerous potential fiduciary lapses were not colorable claims.   On the other hand, a bank that potentially obtains crucial information from a third party (a governmental third party with a near real-time raw account of Lehman’s financial status) and merely seeks to protect its own interests, is forced to defend itself in a costly legal battle.   To many, it makes little sense that Lehman’s directors and officers were exonerated by regulators and Lehman’s bankruptcy Examiner.  Although the existing shareholder suits and claims made by those who sustained direct harm may eventually hit their mark, it is just not the same as potential jail time or a large personal SEC fine.  Not even close.  It is easy to argue that some Lehman folks should have paid with more than the inconvenience of a deposition.

If FASB had acted a bit more aggressively two years ago, maybe none of this would have even happened.  It would have been interesting to have seen FASB actually go through with its Exposure Draft of two years ago regarding FASB Statement 5 (loss contingency accounting) and FASB Statement 133 (hedging strategy accounting).  The vast opposition to the drafts caused FASB to abandon its plans.   Much of the opposition was typified in the McDermott Will & Emery letter that opined if the suggested changes to FASB Statement 5 were made, the opposing side to a filing entity would be able to learn litigation strategy.  If the proposed changes had matured (FASB Statement 5 has not changed since 1975) some of the decisions made by Lehman may have been altered or some of the actions may have been more cleanly delineated as wrongful.  Either way, there would have been more clarity regarding the propriety of their actions. 

As it stands, the Lehman saga provides some guidance to directors and officers looking to see how insulated they are from their financial accounting decisions.  They are pretty insulated given current standards. 

FASB may now be ready to change that dynamic.  It will revive the FASB Statement 5 Exposure Draft in the second quarter of 2010 – now with only a 30-day comment period.  And, FASB issued on May 26, 2010 an Exposure Draft that provides guidance regarding the financial reporting of derivative instruments and hedging strategies.  The overall approach taken moves towards a “mark-to-market” approach for derivative instruments that will have a “seismic effect” on how banks value loan portfolios beginning in 2013 (for large banks) and 2017 (for regional and community banks).  It remains to be seen what FASB will ultimately do given the negative comments it is certain to receive prior to the September 30, 2010 comment deadline.   The takeaway is that FASB  is finally taking a serious look at how companies report on loss contingencies and asset valuations.

All reporting companies – not just financial institutions – should obviously monitor how this and other related financial reporting initiatives evolve.   To a large degree, these accounting standards dictate the extent to which firms such as Lehman can push the envelope.  Although a widening of the reporting net may bring with it a separate set of problems, the change will certainly cause executives to think twice before being coy about a lack of liquidity.  As seasoned investors themselves, reporting officers should probably apply a “Would I want to know this information?” test the next time they are on the fence about the materiality of an item.  True mark-to-market reporting (not Lehman’s “mark-to-make believe” strategy) may bring on headaches for companies with many assets  having big value swings.  Nevertheless, it certainly seems to be part of the reporting standard of the future so you might as well get used to it.