BP's other victims are its shareholders: Frankel

NEW YORK Fri Nov 16, 2012 12:04pm EST

Oil is burned off the surface of the water near the source of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana June 19, 2010. Propellers from the airplane are visible in the photo. REUTERS/Lee Celano

Oil is burned off the surface of the water near the source of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana June 19, 2010. Propellers from the airplane are visible in the photo.

Credit: Reuters/Lee Celano

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - As part of BP's historic $4.5 billion deal Thursday to resolve criminal and civil charges related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the British oil company agreed to pay a $525 million penalty to the Securities and Exchange Commission for defrauding its own investors.

The settlement, which is the third-largest in SEC history, is based on the agency's claims that BP violated U.S. securities laws when company executives filed false reports with the SEC and made false public statements about how much oil was flowing out of BP's well and into the Gulf of Mexico. The SEC announced that the money would be used to compensate investors for their losses by way of a Fair Fund.

I'm glad the SEC plans to get some money back to the BP investors who lost billions after the Deepwater Horizon spill because, at least for the vast majority of holders of BP common stock, that's their only hope of recovery from BP's (alleged) violation of federal securities laws. The oil spill took place in April 2010 and shareholder class actions followed quickly thereafter. But by the time the BP securities litigation was consolidated before U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison of Houston in August 2010, you know what had happened: The U.S. Supreme Court issued Morrison v. National Australia Bank, which held that investors have no cause of action under U.S. securities laws for losses on foreign-traded shares.

In effect, the BP securities class action, at least for holders of BP common shares, was over before it started. Around 30 percent of BP shares are traded on U.S. exchanges as American Depository Receipts. ADR holders, whose claims remain alive after Morrison, are still litigating their class action against BP in Houston. They've survived BP's motion to dismiss and have been granted access to the evidence emerging in the consolidated personal injury litigation against BP in federal court in New Orleans.

According to co-lead counsel Steven Toll of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, the ADR holders are fighting with BP's lawyers at Sullivan & Cromwell over whether investors can add some more potentially actionable alleged misstatements to their latest complaint, which already goes way beyond the SEC's assertions about oil flow rate misrepresentations. (BP counsel Richard Pepperman of S&C declined to comment.)

But despite the best efforts of class counsel from Cohen Milstein, Berman DeValerio and Yetter & Coleman, holders of BP common shares have no viable federal claims against BP. The lead plaintiffs in the class action, state pension funds of New York and Ohio, lost almost $200 million in their investment in BP common shares, yet they won't recover any of it in the federal case.

Some of the common stockholders still have alternative routes to BP's wallet. They can't bring classwide claims based on state fraud laws, but several individual state pension funds with sizable losses have sued on their own, asserting state securities and fraud claims. BP has removed those cases to Ellison's federal courtroom in Houston, where they've just begun to be litigated. And according to class Toll of Cohen Milstein and Glen DeValerio of Berman DeValerio, a German law firm is soliciting BP shareholders for a potential case in the Netherlands, which permits a form of group litigation by shareholders. It's way too early to predict whether anything will come of that effort.

DeValerio and Toll were more resigned than angry when I spoke with them Thursday about BP's settlement with the SEC and what might have been in the shareholder class action. "It's encouraging from the point of view that the SEC's case developed the way we expected it to. This supports everything that we've said," DeValerio told me. Toll said that BP's admissions can only help in the ADR holders' ongoing class action. "I guess it makes me annoyed in general that Morrison is the law," Toll said. "It's just terrible for investors."

And just think: If it hadn't been for the drafters of Dodd-Frank, the SEC wouldn't have a case against BP either. Morrison knocked out enforcement actions against foreign companies, but Congress restored the extraterritorial reach of the SEC and the Justice Department for securities violations when it passed Dodd-Frank reforms in July 2010, a month after the Morrison ruling. Dodd-Frank also included a provision requiring the SEC to present a report on Morrison's impact to Congress. You may recall that when the SEC issued that report in April, the commissioners declined to make recommendations about passing a law to roll back the Supreme Court's ruling.

DeValerio and Toll said no one should expect the BP example to change minds in Congress -- and they're probably right. But it should.

(Alison Frankel writes the On the Case blog for Thomson Reuters News & Insight. The views expressed are her own.)

(Reporting by Alison Frankel; Editing by Ted Botha)

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