The Importance of Being Dismissive: The Efficiency Role of Pleading Stage Evaluation of Shareholder Litigation
82 Pages Posted: 21 Aug 2015 Last revised: 17 Sep 2015
Date Written: August 19, 2015
It has been claimed that the risk/reward dynamics of shareholder litigation have encouraged quick settlements with substantial attorneys’ fee awards but no payment to shareholders, regardless of the merits of the case. Fee-shifting charter and bylaw provisions may be too blunt a tool to control agency costs associated with excessive shareholder litigation, and are in any event now prohibited by Delaware statute. We claim, however, that active judicial supervision of public company shareholder litigation at an early stage reduces the costs of frivolous litigation to shareholders by separating meritorious from unmeritorious litigation before the full costs of discovery are incurred. Using procedures and doctrines that have not previously been catalogued and appreciated as a coherent set of interrelated dynamics, the Delaware Court of Chancery has relied on the motion to dismiss as the primary procedural vehicle for accomplishing that early stage triage. Such early stage analysis depends upon consideration of essentially undisputed facts, and upon the availability of such facts to the plaintiff shareholder through sources that compensate for the problem of asymmetric access to relevant information. The motion to dismiss in representative shareholder litigation has thus come to resemble, and substitute for, the motion for summary judgment. The Delaware courts’ atypical demand for, and unusual willingness to consider, extensive facts in resolving motions to dismiss encourage defendants to supply relevant information voluntarily, on a cost efficient basis that avoids largely unlimited discovery. Where time constraints preclude disposition via a motion to dismiss, the motion for expedited discovery must necessarily come to serve the same efficiency promoting functions as the motion to dismiss, and the Court of Chancery has come to apply essentially the same level of substantive factual review of the merits encountered in resolving motions to dismiss. The result is a system in which cases are dismissed or settle at the motion to dismiss stage: from 2011 through 2014, for example, there were only four public company shareholder class or derivative suits in which the Court of Chancery resolved the case after trial. With the likely concentration of deal litigation in the Delaware courts resulting from increasingly prevalent exclusive forum charter and bylaw provisions, the motion to dismiss and the motion to expedite discovery are likely to become even more important in promoting the efficient conduct of shareholder class and derivative litigation involving public companies.
Keywords: shareholder class actions, shareholder derivative suits, expedited discovery, pleading standards, motion to dismiss, information asymmetry, litigation agency costs
JEL Classification: K22, K41
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation