The plaintiffs’ class action bar is exceedingly innovative and in constant pursuit of “the next big then” insofar as potential liability is concerned for acts and omissions of Corporate America. Environmental, Social, and Governance – known as “ESG” – each of the verticals within ESG are surely are topics on the mind of leading plaintiffs’ class action litigators. As ESG-related issues evolve and become increasingly more important to corporate stakeholders, class action litigation against companies is inevitable and has already begun to take shape. This blog post reviews the current landscape of litigation risks, and underscores how good corporate compliance programs and corporate citizenship are prerequisites to minimizing risk.
The Class Action Context:
In 2022, the plaintiffs’ class action bar filed, litigated, and settled class actions at a breathtaking pace. The aggregate totals of the top ten class action settlements – in areas as diverse as mass torts, consumer fraud, antitrust, civil rights, securities fraud, privacy, and employment-related claims – reached the highest historical totals in the history of American jurisprudence. Class actions and government enforcement litigation spiked to over $63 billion in settlement totals. As analyzed in our Duane Morris Class Action Review https://blogs.duanemorris.com/classactiondefense/2023/01/04/it-is-here-the-duane-morris-class-action-review-2023/, the totals included $50.32 billion for products liability and mass tort, $8.5 billion for consumer fraud, $3.7 billion for antitrust, $3.25 billion for securities fraud, and $1.3 billion for civil rights.
As “success begets success’ in this litigation space, the plaintiffs’ bar is loaded for bear in 2023, and focused on areas of opportunity for litigation targets. ESG-related areas are a prime area of risk.
The ESG Context
Corporate ESG programs is in a state of constant evolution. Early iterations were heavily focused on corporate social responsibility (or “CSR”), with companies sponsoring initiatives that were intended to benefit their communities. They entailed things like employee volunteering, youth training, and charitable contributions as well as internal programs like recycling and employee affinity groups. These efforts were not particularly controversial.
In recent years, ESG programs have become more extensive and more deeply integrated with companies’ core business strategies, including strategies for avoiding risks, such as those presented by employment discrimination claims, the impacts of climate change, supply chain accountability, and cybersecurity and privacy. Companies and studies have increasingly framed ESG programs as contributing to shareholder value.
As ESG programs become larger and more integrated into a company’s business, so do the risks of attracting attention from regulators and private litigants.
And The Lawsuits Begin From All Quarters:
While class action litigation can emanate from many sources, four areas in particular are of importance in the ESG space.
Shareholders: Lawsuits by shareholders regarding ESG matters are accelerating. Examples include claims that their stock holdings have lost value as a result of false disclosures about issues like sexual harassment allegations involving key executives, cybersecurity incidents, or environmental disasters. Even absent a stock drop, some shareholders have brought successful derivative suits focused on ESG issues. Of recent note, employees of corporations incorporated in Delaware who serve in officer roles may be sued for breach of the duty of oversight in the particular area over which they have responsibility, including oversight over workplace harassment policies. In its ruling https://blogs.duanemorris.com/classactiondefense/2023/01/30/delaware-says-corporate-officers-are-now-subject-to-a-duty-of-oversight-in-the-workplace-harassment-context/ in In Re McDonald’s Corp. Stockholder Derivative Litigation, No. 2021-CV-324 (Del. Ch. Jan. 25, 2023), the Delaware Court of Chancery determined that like directors, officers are subject to oversight claims. The ruling expands the scope of the rule established in the case of In Re Caremark International Inc. Derivative Litigation, 698 A.2d 959 (Del. Ch. 1996), which recognized the duty of oversight for directors. The decision will likely result in a flurry of litigation activity by the plaintiffs’ bar, as new cases will be filed alleging that officers in corporations who were responsible for overseeing human resource functions can be held liable for failing to properly oversee investigations of workplace misconduct such as sexual harassment.
Vendors and Business Partners: As companies face increasing demands to address ESG issues in their operations and throughout their supply chains, ESG requirements in commercial contracts are increasing in prevalence. Requirements imposed on vendors, suppliers, and partners – to ensure their operations do not introduce ESG risks (e.g., by using forced or child labor or employing unsustainable environmental practices) are becoming regular staples in a commercial context. In addition, as more companies report greenhouse gas emissions – and may soon be required by the SEC to report on them – they increasingly require companies in their supply chain to provide information about their own emissions. Furthermore, if the SEC’s proposed cybersecurity disclosure rules are enacted, companies also may require increased reporting regarding cybersecurity from vendors and others. These actions – and disclosures – provide fodder for “greenwashing” claims, where consumers claim that company statements about environmental or social aspects of their products are false and misleading. The theories in these class actions are expanding by encompassing allegations involving product statements as well as a company’s general statements about its commitment to sustainability.
State Consumer Protection and Employment Laws: The patchwork quilt of state laws create myriad causes of action for alleged false advertising and other misleading marketing statements. The plaintiffs’ bar also has invoked statutes like the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act to bring claims against companies for alleged failures to stop alleged human rights violations in their supply chains. These claims typically allege that the existence of company policies and programs aimed at helping end human rights violations are themselves a basis for liability. In making human capital management disclosures a part of ESG efforts (including whether to disclose numeric metrics or targets based on race or gender), companies may find themselves in a difficult place with respect to potential liability stemming from stated commitments to diversity and inclusion. On the one hand, companies that fail to achieve numeric targets they articulate (e.g., a certain percent or increase in diversity among management) may subject themselves to claims of having overpromised when discussing their future plans. Conversely, employers that achieve such targets may face “reverse discrimination” claims alleging that they abandoned race-based or gender-neutral employment practices to hit numbers set forth in their public statements.
Government Enforcement Litigation: Federal, state and local government regulators have taken multiple actions against companies based on their alleged contributions to climate change or alleged illegal activities. For instance, in 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice investigated auto companies for possible antitrust violations for agreeing with California to adopt emissions standards more restrictive than those established by federal law. While the investigation did not reveal wrongdoing, it underscores the creativity that proponents and opponents of ESG efforts can employ.
Implications For Corporate America:
The creation, content, and implementation of ESG programs carries increasing litigation risks for corporations but it is unlikely that ESG progams will diminish is size or scale in the coming years given increased focus by Fortune 100s and 500s and increased regulation at the federal and state levels.
Sound planning, comprehensive legal compliance, and systematic auditing of ESG programs should be a key focus and process of all entities beginning or continuing their ESG journey. As more and more companies adopt some level of corporative ESG strategy planning, compliance and auditing are some of the key imperatives in this new world of exposure to diminish and limit one’s exposure.
Duane Morris has an active Class Action Team to help organizations respond to the ever increasing need to be proactive to these types of risks. For more information or if you have any questions about this post, please contact Gerald (Jerry) L. Maatman, Jennifer Riley or the attorney in the firm whom you are regularly in contact with. We also have ESG and Sustainability Team to help organizations and individuals plan, respond to, and execute on your Sustainability and ESG planning and initiatives. For more information or if you have any questions about this post, please contact Brad A. Molotsky, David Amerikaner, Sheila Rafferty-Wiggins, Alice Shanahan, Jeff Hamera, Nanette Heide, Joel Ephross, Jolie-Anne Ansley, Robert Montejo, Seth Cooley, or the attorney in the firm with whom you are regularly in contact.