Does Litigation Encourage or Deter Real Earnings Management?

58 Pages Posted: 18 May 2017 Last revised: 10 May 2018

See all articles by Sterling Huang

Sterling Huang

Singapore Management University - School of Accountancy

Sugata Roychowdhury

Boston College

Ewa Sletten

The Ohio State University

Date Written: May 4, 2018


We examine whether litigation risk encourages or deters real earnings management (REM). The literature documents that litigation risk restricts earnings management via accruals. Reduced ability to manipulate accruals in the presence of high litigation risk can encourage managers to engage in REM, which is more opaque and difficult to litigate against. However, a significant number of class action lawsuits accuse managers of issuing misleading disclosures whose origins are rooted in REM. This occurs because REM can lead to situations in which managers are forced to misrepresent the true intent underlying their actions. Thus by disciplining disclosure decisions, litigation can also deter REM. We conduct differences-in-differences tests centered on an unanticipated court ruling that reduced shareholders’ ability to initiate class action lawsuits against firms headquartered in the Ninth Circuit. We observe significant increases in REM following the ruling for Ninth-Circuit firms relative to other firms, consistent with litigation deterring REM. Additional analyses reveal that REM rises more for firms that exhibit more positive tone and higher obfuscation in the MD&A sections of their 10-K reports, and issue optimistic forecasts. Finally, results confirm that the deterrence role of litigation is more salient when managers have incentives to manipulate earnings and when governance mechanisms are weaker.

Keywords: Real Earnings Management, Earnings Management, Deterrence, Litigation, Corporate Governance

JEL Classification: G30, G32, K22, M41, M1, M4

Suggested Citation

Huang, Sterling and Roychowdhury, Sugata and Sletten, Ewa, Does Litigation Encourage or Deter Real Earnings Management? (May 4, 2018). Available at SSRN: or

Sterling Huang (Contact Author)

Singapore Management University - School of Accountancy ( email )

60 Stamford Road
Singapore 178900
6808 7929 (Phone)

Sugata Roychowdhury

Boston College ( email )

140 Commonwealth Avenue
Chestnut Hill, MA 02467
United States
617-552-1764 (Phone)

Ewa Sletten

The Ohio State University ( email )

Fisher Hall
2100 Neil Avenue
Columbus, OH 43210
United States
6142922451 (Phone)

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