Rejecting Enron class action poses stark choice: Injustice for plaintiffs or injustice for defendants?
Candidly conceding that its ruling "may not coincide ... with notions of justice and fair play," the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit yesterday decertified the shareholder class action against the banks that allegedly helped perpetrate Enron's frauds -- a case that has already produced more than $7 billion in settlements. The ruling, if it is not overturned by the full appeals court or the U.S. Supreme Court, will benefit Merrill Lynch (MER), Credit Suisse First Boston, and Barclays (BCS), which had not settled, saving each potentially billions in liability.

Though the issues are complicated, and have lots of twists and turns, the heart of the problem has actually been apparent to most lawyers watching this case from the moment it was filed in 2002. Back in 1995, in a 5-4 ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court that shocked lawyers at the time -- it ran counter to what every appeals court that had faced the question had previously assumed -- the Court found that the securities laws did not create liability for those who "aid and abet" fraud (i.e., knowingly help others to commit fraud), as opposed to those who act as "principals" in such schemes. Even as they rendered that ruling, several of the justices in the majority acknowledged that the outcome of the ruling was unjust, and they urged Congress to fix the problem by amending the law to include aiding and abetting liability. In almost every other legal arena -- including the criminal arena -- aiders and abettors are treated as every bit as responsible as principals. (Indeed, the distinction between the two is often hard to draw.)

Congress never fully fixed the problem, however. It did allow the Securities and Exchange Commission to go after aiders and abettors, but not private plaintiffs attorneys. The reason is simple: it did not trust the latter to use good judgment in doing so; rather, it anticipated -- no doubt correctly -- that allowing aiding and abetting liability would result in banks, accountants, and law firms being routinely named in nearly every shareholder class action suit filed, no matter how frivolous. (Fittingly, the Enron case is brought by Bill "Partner B" Lerach, who is king of both the wheat and the chaff when it comes to class actions. He is lead counsel in the Enron case, and yet earlier in his career, for example, his firm also brought a series of civil RICO class actions against baseball trading card manufacturers for allegedly promoting gambling among children by giving away bonus trading cards in some, but not all, packs.)

But the omission leaves fraud victims uncompensated in obviously legitimate cases, like the Enron case, and may even help encourage such frauds to the extent that aiders and abettors are emboldened by their apparent immunity. The Enron case is the ultimate example. Here, banks allegedly -- and, by now, the evidence against certain banks seems overwhelming -- knowingly helped Enron manipulate its financial statements by engaging in numerous shady deals and sham transactions. It may well be that the banks felt free to do so at least in part because they thought they were immune from aiding and abetting liability.

When these suits were filed, the banks immediately brought motions to dismiss, claiming that the complaint only accused them of being, at worst, aiders and abettors in these frauds on Enron shareholders. (The bank officials had no direct fiduciary duty to Enron shareholders, the way the Enron officials did.) U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon found a way around the obstacle at that time, ruling that the banks were so deeply involved here that they could be considered principals. And it was on the basis of that early ruling that shareholders have recovered, to date, more than $7 billion. (Which they can keep.) But yesterday that ruling finally received, in effect, appellate scrutiny (though in a slightly different procedural context), and was overturned.

The Fifth Circuit panel majority (one judge would have decertified the class on other grounds) was quite candid about the dilemma it felt the courts face, and that it believed the Supreme Court had already resolved in a direction that is harsh toward plaintiffs: "the rule of liability must be either overinclusive or underinclusive so as to avoid what [has been] called “in terrorem settlements” resulting from the expense and difficulty of, even meritoriously, defending this kind of litigation." It's a difficult call, but I actually come down on Lerach's side on this one.

How about you?
Posted by Roger Parloff 7:33 AM 6 Comments comment | Add a Comment

I'm surprised (although not shocked) to learn that those who aid and abet fraud are not liable under securities laws. I can understand the argument about frivolous lawsuits being brought against banks, but perhaps there should be some level of involvement which qualifies an individual or organization for liability. If one judge was willing to consider the financial institutions as principles, then it seems to me that these institutions would meet this level.
Posted By James, Washington DC : 10:43 AM  

the ruling stinks.enron was a criminafraud and i should be allowed to write it off my taxes as such,instead our govt. makes me take the loss on enron shares as a capital loss,in my case only 3000 dollars a year against income.this is another fraud the govt. works against me and the other enron shareholders
Posted By gary willey mechanicsville,va : 11:36 AM  

In this already too litigious society, I am relieved that someone is putting the brakes on frivolous lawsuits. I am not implying that the Enron case against the principals was not justified, but banks which simply provide financing should not be included. If the bank recommended a particular strategy, it is another story.
Posted By Zoran, New York, NY : 5:58 PM  

Do you have anything better to write about than this mess, Music as torture, what about when they are cutting peoples heads off, is that better, they can get use to the music. Why don't you have your head chopped off!!!!!
Posted By Missy, Dallas, TX : 10:20 AM  

Is it just me, or did the blog about torture as fair-use disappear?
Posted By Anonymous : 1:06 PM  

For Anonymous:
Yes, I accidentally did something that seems to have put the piece about torture as 'fair use ' back into an unpublished "draft" file. But, thanks to your note, I've republished now. Sorry about that.
Posted By Roger Parloff NYC : 5:02 PM  

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About this blog
This blog is about legal issues that matter to business people, and it's geared for nonlawyers and lawyers alike. Roger Parloff is Fortune magazine's senior editor (legal affairs). He practiced law for five years in Manhattan before becoming a full-time journalist. To join in the discussion or suggest topics, please email rparloff@fortunemail.com.

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.