The opinion of the court was delivered by: John F. Keenan, United States District Judge.
This Document Relates To: All of the Actions on Schedule 1
This Opinion considers the petition of the lead plaintiffs for class certification and final approval of a proposed settlement and plan of allocation in twenty putative securities class actions brought on behalf of direct purchasers of securities that were the subject of allegedly false or misleading Merrill Lynch research reports. The Court also considers Lead Counsels' application for an award of attorneys' fees and reimbursement of litigation expenses. For the reasons that follow, the Court (i) grants class certification to the settling plaintiffs, (ii) approves the settlement and plan of allocation, (iii) awards attorneys' fees in the amount of 24% of the settlement fund, and (iv) awards reimbursement of litigation expenses to counsel.
These twenty securities class actions (collectively, the "Actions") were among numerous securities class actions brought against Merrill Lynch on behalf of classes of direct purchasers of stock in Internet-based companies that were the subject of allegedly misleading research reports written and disseminated by the defendants. The cases originally were assigned to the late Honorable Milton J. Pollack for pre-trial purposes, in In re Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc. Research Reports Sec. Litig., 02 MDL 1484, pursuant to an order of the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation ("MDL") which consolidated before Judge Pollack numerous claims, alleging securities fraud against Merrill Lynch and other defendants. The cases were reassigned to me upon Judge Pollack's death. This is the second global settlement of the cases consolidated under this MDL. The first global settlement involved three consolidated cases, relating to claims brought on behalf of shareholders of three different Merrill Lynch proprietary mutual funds (the "Mutual Fund Cases") and was approved by this Court on February 1, 2007. See In re Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc. Research Reports Sec. Litig., 02 MDL 1484 (JFK), 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9450 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 1, 2007) (the "MF Decision").
Plaintiffs in these Actions are shareholders who held stock, during the relevant class periods, in twenty different internet-based companies that were the subject of allegedly false and/or misleading Merrill Lynch research reports.*fn1 Defendants are Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc.; Merrill Lynch's broker-dealer affiliate, Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Incorporated ("MLPF&S"); and various Merrill Lynch research analysts, including Henry Blodgett, a Merrill Lynch vice president and the primary analyst for companies in the Internet sector.*fn2
Plaintiffs alleged that the favorable ratings given by Merrill Lynch's analysts to the Internet-based stocks at issue were materially misleading and the result of a conflict of interest between Merrill Lynch's research and investment banking operations. Plaintiffs claimed that the defendants' conduct violated Sections 10(b) and 20(a) and Rule 10b-5 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934. The factual background of the Actions and the plaintiffs' claims are set forth in previous decisions and orders of Judge Pollack, including In re Merrill Lynch & Co. Research Reports Sec. Litig., 272 F. Supp. 2d 243 (S.D.N.Y. 2003) and In re Merrill Lynch & Co. Research Reports Sec. Litig., 289 F. Supp. 2d 429 (S.D.N.Y. 2003); in Judge Pollack's decision and order in a related class action case, In re Merrill Lynch & Co. Research Reports Sec. Litig., 273 F. Supp. 2d 351 (S.D.N.Y. 2003); and in the MF Decision. Familiarity with those decisions is assumed.
The first of these Actions commenced on July 26, 2001, with the filing of a complaint on behalf of shareholders of the stock InfoSpace (the "InfoSpace Complaint"). The InfoSpace Complaint alleged that the defendants had recommended the purchase of InfoSpace stock despite being in possession of negative material information regarding an impending merger of InfoSpace and Go2Net, another internet company. On April 8, 2002, while the defendants' motion to dismiss the InfoSpace Complaint was pending, the Office of the New York Attorney General (the "NYAG") submitted an affidavit in New York Supreme Court, in support of the NYAG's attempt to compel the defendants' to produce certain records (the "Dinallo Affidavit"). The Dinallo Affidavit alleged in detail the defendants' practice of regularly publishing misleading and/or false recommendations on Internet-based stocks in order to generate investment banking business for Merrill Lynch. The NYAG's investigation into Merrill Lynch's conduct received a great deal of publicity and led to the filing of over one hundred class action complaints, in courts throughout the country, on behalf of purchasers of approximately two dozen Internet-based securities that had been the subject of allegedly false Merrill Lynch research reports. In October 2002, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation transferred all the cases to Judge Pollack for pre-trial proceedings, under the caption In re Merrill Lynch Research Reports Securities Litigation, No. 02 MDL 1484.
On December 9, 2002, Judge Pollack issued Case Management Order #1, directing that the cases be consolidated according to the security that was the subject of each complaint. On February 5, 2003, March 31, 2003, and July 22, 2003, Judge Pollack issued Orders that, among other things, appointed Lead Plaintiffs in each of the twenty Actions; appointed firms to act as Lead Counsel in these Actions*fn3 ; appointed the Co-Chairs of a Plaintiffs' Executive Committee (the "Co-Chairs")*fn4 ; and appointed Liasion Counsel*fn5 .
On March 13, 2003, Lead Plaintiffs filed consolidated amended complaints in each of the Actions. On April 30, 2003, the defendants filed motions to dismiss the complaints in two cases designated as "test cases" by Judge Pollack, In re Merrill Lynch 24/7 Real Media Inc. Research Reports Sec. Litig. No. 02 Civ. 3210 (MP), and In re Merrill Lynch Interliant Inc. Research Reports Sec. Litig., No. 02 Civ. 3221 (MP) (the "Test Cases"). On June 30, 2003, Judge Pollack dismissed the complaints in the Test Cases with prejudice, on the grounds, inter alia, that the plaintiffs had failed adequately to plead loss causation; that the plaintiffs had failed to plead fraud with sufficient particularity; and that the complaints were untimely, because the plaintiffs had been put on inquiry notice more than one year before the commencement of the actions. See In re Merrill Lynch & Co. Research Reports Sec. Litig., 273 F. Supp. 2d 351 (S.D.N.Y. 2003). Lead Plaintiffs in the Test Cases filed a motion for reconsideration of the statute of limitations ruling and for leave to amend the complaints. Judge Pollack denied those motions, and the plaintiffs timely appealed.
The defendants then filed motions to dismiss nine of the Actions (the "Phase I Cases"). On October 29, 2003 and November 17, 2003, Judge Pollack dismissed the Phase I Cases with prejudice, and Lead Plaintiffs in those cases timely filed notices of appeals. Those appeals were pending at the time the parties agreed upon the instant settlement.
On December 8, 2003, the defendants moved to dismiss the complaints in seven additional Actions (the "Phase II Cases"). Those motions to dismiss were pending at the time the parties agreed upon a settlement.
Four of the instant Actions, brought on behalf of purchasers of Merrill Lynch-created "baskets" of Internet-based securities (the "HOLDRs Cases"), were not subjected to motions to dismiss.
On October 6, 2004, following Judge Pollack's death, the Judicial Panel for Multidistrict Litigation reassigned the cases consolidated in In re Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc. Research Reports Sec. Litig., 02 MDL 1484, including these Actions, to this Court.
On January 20, 2005, the Second Circuit issued its decision in the appeal of Judge Pollack's dismissal-with-prejudice of the Test Cases. In Lentell v. Merrill Lynch, 396 F.3d 161 (2d Cir. 2005), cert. denied, 126 S.Ct. 421 (2005), the Circuit affirmed Judge Pollack's dismissal on the ground of loss causation. Id. at 178. The Second Circuit, however, reversed Judge Pollack's ruling that the claims were time-barred.
Appeal of the dismissals of the Phase I cases had been stayed pending the Circuit's ruling in the appeal of the dismissals of the Test Cases. On June 21, 2005, the Circuit lifted the stay of the appeal in the Phase I cases.
The parties began conducting settlement discussions prior to the Second Circuit's ruling in Lentell. The first settlement discussion occurred on October 1 ,2003. Counsel for the defendants and the Co-Chairs continued settlement discussions throughout 2004 and 2005. On February 16, 2006, the Co-Chairs and the defendants came to a preliminary agreement regarding settlement of the Actions, and the terms of that preliminary agreement were set forth in a letter of understanding. The preliminary agreement called for a cash payment of $125 million, with interest to begin accruing at rate equal to the three-month London Offered Interbank Rate ("LIBOR") rate as of March 30, 2006. On January 11, 2007, the parties executed a Stipulation and Agreement of Settlement ("Stipulation"). The parties submitted the Stipulation to the Court, along with a Proposed Preliminary Order Approving the Settlement ("Preliminary Order"), to which were attached as exhibits a "Notice of Pendency and Proposed Settlement of Class Actions ("Notice"), a Proof of Claim and Release Form ("Proof of Claim"), and a Summary Notice of Proposed Class Action Settlement and Hearing Thereon ("Summary Notice").
The Stipulation provides for the cash payment of $125 million plus accruing interest*fn6 (the "Settlement Fund"). The Stipulation defines the classes in each of the Actions as consisting of persons who purchased one or more of the securities that are the subject of the instant Actions during the relevant class period for each security and who do not exclude themselves from the Settlement (collectively, the "Class Members").
Pursuant to the Stipulation, the Settlement Fund will be used to pay taxes and tax expenses; administrative costs of the Actions, including the costs of providing notice; and attorneys' fees and litigation expenses. The remaining amount of the Settlement Fund ("Net Settlement Fund") then will be distributed to valid claimants pursuant to the Plan of Allocation. The Stipulation also contains a release and waiver, barring any participating Class Members from bringing against any defendant or former defendant in these Actions any future claims, known or unknown, that arise out of or relate to the Actions.
Plaintiffs moved for preliminary approval of the Settlement on January 17, 2007. On January 24, 2007, the Court entered the Preliminary Order. The Preliminary Order granted preliminary class certification to the Actions for settlement purposes and certified the Lead Plaintiffs in the Actions as class representatives. The Preliminary Order also approved the form of the proposed Notice, the Proof of Claim, and the Summary Notice, and scheduled a Fairness Hearing for July 18, 2007, 2006.*fn7 The Preliminary Order directed counsel to send the Notice and Proof of Claim via first class mail, no later than March 20, 2007, to all identifiable potential Class Members and further directed counsel to publish the Publication Notice in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and on the PR Newswire within two weeks after mailing of the Notice. The Preliminary Order required any Class Member who wished to be excluded from the Settlement to mail notice of the request for exclusion by May 4, 2007. The Preliminary Order further required any objection to the Settlement to be filed with the Court and served on the parties no later than May 4, 2007. The Order also stated that the deadline for submission of claims was August 31, 2007.*fn8
On April 3, 2007, pursuant to the Preliminary Order, counsel, through the Court-approved claims administrator, Analytics, Inc. ("Analytics"), began the process of identifying potential Class Members and mailing claim packets to identifiable class members. Each claim packet contained the Notice and the Proof of Claim. As of June 27, 2007, Analytics mailed 1,818,781 claim packets to potential Class Members. On April 16, 2007, Analytics published the Summary Notice in the national editions of The Wall Street Journal and USA Today, and on the PR Newswire. Analytics also posted downloadable copies of the Notice and Proof of Claim on Analytics' website and on a website created for purposes of the Settlement(http://www.merrilllynchsettlement.com) (last visited August 22, 2007).
The Notice provided a background of the Actions, described the circumstances leading up to the Settlement, supplied the details of the Settlement, gave notice of the Fairness Hearing, and provided instructions for Class Members regarding submissions of claims, exclusion from the Settlement, objection to the terms of Settlement and/or the application for attorneys' fees and reimbursement of expenses, and attendance at the Fairness Hearing. The Notice also stated that Lead Counsel would apply for attorneys' fees not to exceed 30% of the Settlement Fund, and reimbursement of attorneys' costs and expenses incurred in connection with the litigation of the Actions not to exceed $1,750,000.
The Notice included the proposed Plan of Allocation. The Notice explains that, under the Plan of Allocation, the Net Settlement Fund will be distributed to those Class Members who submit timely, valid Proof of Claim forms that demonstrate net losses on transactions of the stocks at issue in the Actions during the relevant class periods. Under the Plan of Allocation, a percentage, ranging from 0.6% to 20.4%, of the Net Settlement Fund was allocated to each Action. The allocation of the Net Settlement Fund among the Actions was based on the recommendations of Judge Layn Phillips, a retired United States District Judge, whom Lead Counsel retained to assist in formulating the Plan of Allocation. Pursuant to a stipulation among Lead Counsel, counsel in each of the Actions submitted to Judge Phillips an opening and reply brief in which counsel asserted the relative strengths of plaintiffs' positions in each Action and argued in support of as large a percentage of the allocation as possible. In addition, counsel appeared before Judge Phillips for oral argument. After hearing oral argument, Judge Phillips issued a final recommendation regarding the allocation of the settlement proceeds among the Actions. The allocation was based on an assessment of the relative likelihood, in each Action, that plaintiffs would be able to prove liability and the amount of damages that could have been recovered for the relevant class periods in each Action. Lead Counsel stipulated to be bound by Judge Phillips' final allocation recommendations, subject to this Court's final approval.
The Notice sets forth in detail the percentage of the Net Settlement Fund that will be allocated to each Action and the Recognized Loss amount that Class Members in each Action will be entitled to claim. The Recognized Loss for each Class Member is based on when the Class Member purchased the shares at issue; when the shares were sold; the amount of loss incurred; and the number of shares, if any, held by the Class Member at the end of the relevant class period.
Reaction of Class to the Notice of Proposed Settlement
The response of the classes to the proposed settlement has been extremely positive. After mailing over 1.8 million claim packets to potential Class Members, as of June 27, 2007, Analytics received only 299 requests for exclusion. As of July 25, 2007, the date of the Fairness Hearing, only twelve individual investors and one institutional investor had filed objections to either the settlement or the request for an award of attorneys' fees and reimbursement of expenses.*fn9 As discussed below, those objections are either overruled as meritless or have been rendered moot.
On July 25, 2007, the Court held the Fairness Hearing. Lead Counsel spoke in favor of the settlement and in support of the application for an award of attorneys' fees of 24%, and reimbursement of litigation expenses. Counsel for defendants appeared but did not argue in favor of the settlement or the application for attorneys' fees. Counsel for the sole institutional objector, the New York State Teachers' Retirement System, appeared and stated an objection to the Settlement. No other objectors attended the hearing.
(i) Certification of the Settlement Class
The Stipulation contemplates certification of the settlement class. "Before certification is proper for any purpose--settlement, litigation, or otherwise--a court must ensure that the requirements of Rule 23(a) and (b) have been met." Denny v. Deutsche Bank, A.G., 443 F.3d 253, 270 (2d Cir. 2006). Rule 23(a) imposes four threshold requirements on putative class actions: numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation. Id. at 267. In addition, Rule 23(b)(3) imposes the following two requirements: "Common questions must 'predominate over any questions affecting only individual members'; and class resolution must be 'superior to other available methods for the fair and efficient adjudication of the controversy.'" Id. (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(3)). The Court considers each requirement in turn.
Rule 23(a)(1) requires that the putative class be "so numerous that joinder of all class members is impracticable."
Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a)(1). While no minimum number of plaintiffs is required for a suit to be maintained as a class action, "[g]enerally, courts will find a class sufficiently numerous when it comprises 40 or more members." DeMarco v. Nat'l Collector's Mint, Inc., 229 F.R.D. 73, 80 (S.D.N.Y. 2005) (citation and internal quotations omitted). Here, Analytics identified more than 1.8 million potential Class Members. At the Fairness Hearing, Lead Counsel informed the Court that, as of the week ending July 20, 2007, more than 80,000 claims had been filed. The settlement classes in these Actions clearly are so large that individual actions by all potential plaintiffs would not be possible. The numerosity requirement therefore is satisfied.
Under Rule 23(a)(2), class certification is appropriate where "there are questions of law or fact common to the class." Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a)(2). The commonality requirement of Rule 23(a)(2) is satisfied if "all class members are in a substantially identical factual situation and the questions of law raised by the plaintiff[s] are applicable to each class member." In re Playmobil Antitrust Litig., 35 F. Supp. 2d 231, 240 (E.D.N.Y. 1998). The rule does not require that every question of law or fact be common to each class member. Id. "The commonality requirement has been applied permissively in the context of securities fraud litigation." In re Veeco Instruments, Inc., Sec. Litig., 235 F.R.D. 220, 238 (S.D.N.Y. 2006). Here, the Actions raise questions of law and fact that are common to each class member. Plaintiffs are suing under the same federal securities laws, alleging the same misrepresentations and/or omissions of material statements in the Merrill Lynch research reports, and alleging that the misrepresentations artificially inflated the prices of the stocks at issue, thereby resulting in the plaintiffs' financial losses. Thus, "the success of each plaintiff's claim turns on establishing the existence, nature and significance of the same alleged misrepresentations and omissions." Id. The commonality requirement is satisfied.
Rule 23(a)(3) is satisfied if "the claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class." Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a)(3). The "typicality" requirement is met where "the claims of the named plaintiffs arise from the same practice or course of conduct that gives rise to the claims of the proposed class members." Schwab v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., 449 F. Supp. 2d 992, 1104 (E.D.N.Y. 2006) (internal quotations and citation omitted). Here, there is no indication that the claims of the lead ...