Last Thursday, in Morrison v. National Australia Bank (slip op.), the Supreme Court held 8-0 (Sotomayor, J. not participating) that “foreign-cubed” class actions (where the plaintiff, the defendant, and the sale of the security are all located outside the US) did not have sufficient ties to the United States to justify invoking US securities laws. The bulk of Justice Scalia’s majority opinion focused on the question of when one could presume that a law would apply outside the US. (The “presumption of extraterritoriality.”) As a statement of how the US will treat cases that may have international application, this is an important opinion. But, for most class-action practitioners, I think it will prove more just a footnote.
The thing is, Morrison seems to be a comparatively easy case. True “foreign-cubed” class actions—with no discernable connection to the US—are comparatively rare in US courts. In its opinion, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit noted that “[t]his is the first so-called ‘foreign-cubed’ securities class action to reach this Circuit,” and the Second Circuit is no stranger to securities class actions. Even Morrison wasn’t a pure foreign-cubed case at first; it started as a hybrid involving both domestic and foreign-based classes. (The domestic plaintiff’s claims were dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6).) For most plaintiffs’ lawyers, filing a proposed class action involving a foreign plaintiff, a foreign defendant, and foreign conduct would be a long shot from the beginning: assuming the case were tried on the facts, there’s no strong hook to convince an American factfinder to care about the result. Or, as Justice Scalia put it:
Nothing suggests that this national public interest pertains to transactions conducted on foreign exchanges and markets.
So, is there any strategic advice defense lawyers can glean from this case? The case does provide some additional rhetorical cover for defendants. As we know, many class-action plaintiffs’ lawyers advertise themselves as private attorneys-general, whom the courts can rely on when the publicly-appointed cops are too busy or too ignorant to stop corporate wrongdoing. In this case, the Solicitor General (arguing on behalf of the petitioner) made that argument, claiming that unless its securities laws were given extraterritorial application, the US would become like the Barbary Coast, a home base for fearsome pirates. Justice Scalia dismissed this geographic metaphor with one of his own:
While there is no reason to believe that the United States has become the Barbary Coast for those perpetrating frauds on the foreign securities markets, some fear it has become the Shangri-La of class-action litigation for lawyers representing those allegedly cheated in foreign securities markets.
The geographic metaphor gets a little tortured, so to put it in classic movie terms: when a plaintiff invokes the cinematic image of the lone sheriff on a lawless frontier, it’s still worth asking whether he’ll be played by Gary Cooper or Orson Welles.