Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Options Backdating Litigation Update

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting On January 16, 2007, the Lerach Coughlin firm filed a purported securities class action lawsuit in federal court in the District of Columbia against Sunrise Senior Living and several of its directors and officers. A copy of the law firm’s press release can be found here and a copy of the complaint can be found here. The complaint raises a variety of different allegations but also contains allegations that the defendants manipulated the company’s stock option program by backdating or springloading option grants.

The Complaint alleges that the “top insiders of Sunrise took advantage of the artificial inflation in Sunrise’s shares to bail out of the stock, unloading almost a million shares of the stock.” What is interesting about the plaintiffs’ insider trading allegation is their assertion that the defendants stock sales were triggered “in early 2006, as widespread revelations of a stock option backdating scandal began to sweep corporate America.” The allegedly backdated or springloaded options were awarded during the period 1997 to 2001.

The plaintiffs do not specify why the unfolding scandal supposedly motivated the defendants to sell their shares; the suggested inference, I suppose, is that defendants sold their shares because they knew when the marketplace found out about the backdating in the company’s options, the company’s share price would drop. But in fact, the company’s share price declined in value as a result of its announcement (here) that it would be restating its financial statements for the years 2003 through 2005, not because of disclosures relating to options backdating.

Apparently in anticipation of the defendants’ likely arguments that their share sales were made pursuant to Rule 10b5-1 trading plans, the plaintiffs raise a number of interesting allegations. The plaintiffs not only contend that the plan terms “did not comply with regulatory requirements” but also that when the defendants put the plans in place, they knew “that they were already pursuing a scheme to defraud and falsify Sunrise’s reported financial results” hoping that the plans “would give them protection from the legal liability they knew they would otherwise face.” In other words, the plaintiffs are trying to argue that the Rule 10b5-1 plans themselves were part of the scheme to defraud.

Updated Options Backdating Litigation Tally: The initiation of the lawsuit against Sunrise brings the total number of options backdating related securities class action lawsuits to 23. The number of companies named as nominal defendants in shareholders’ derivative lawsuits based on options backdating allegations now stands at 131. The D & O Diary’s running tally of the options backdating related lawsuits can be found here.

Courts Reject SOX Whistleblower’s Claim: Employees of public companies who believe they have been retaliated against because they engaged in “protected” whistleblowing activity may assert a claim against their employer under Section 806 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. The burden is on the employee to show that the protected activity was a contributing factor in the adverse employment action. The D & O Diary’s prior post about the difficulty employees are having obtaining relief under the SOX Whistleblower provisions can be found here.

There is still relatively little case authority establishing what constitutes “protected activity.” A recent federal court decision from Michigan examined how direct the causal connection has to be between the allegedly protected activity and the job action.

In the case (Sussman v. K-Mart Holding Corp.) the plaintiff (Sussman) alleged that he had sent the company’s President a letter alleging that his supervisor was accepting kickbacks from vendors. K-Mart investigated the supervisor, but before the investigation was complete, the supervisor was terminated for unrelated reasons. Five months later, Sussman’s performance came under criticism, and he received a warning. Sussman asked his (new) supervisor whether the warning was related to his complaints about his prior supervisor. After additional performance shortcomings, Sussman was terminated.

In SOX whistleblower case that Sussman filed against K-Mart, the court held that Sussman had failed to establish a causal link between the job action and the activity he claimed was protected. The court did observe that Sussman was not engaging in protected activity when he raised with his new supervisor that he had blown the whistle on his prior supervisor’s kickbacks. The court found that his comments about his previous supervisor’s actions could not be related to protecting shareholders from fraud because his prior supervisor was fired for unrelated reasons five months before he made the remarks to his new supervisor.

A detailed summary of the decision, as well as a brief overview of the “protected activity” case law, can be found a memorandum by the Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan law firm, here.

The Ultimate Team Building Video: This YouTube video is for anyone who has ever felt like a team of one. The video takes about a minute to watch, but rewards a complete viewing.

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