Do People Who Are Told the Truth Sue?

I love this story. A couple of weeks ago I blogged about BrightScope’s launch, and pointed out my view that more information generally means less litigation. I learned thereafter that some think that is a counter-intuitive thought; presumably, people who believe that think that if you cover up problems and don’t let people know what’s going on, they may not find out and thus may not sue you. The oldest saying in the book, of course, is that the cover up is worse than the crime. Rather, people who are legitimately wronged will sue no matter what, as they should; but people on the margins are more likely to sue if they feel they were not told the truth, than they would be if they feel they were given a fair shake, even if it worked out badly for them. More technically as well, many breach of fiduciary duty claims are based on allegations of non-disclosure - that the sponsors did not disclose problems with the company stock, or backdating, or cdos. etc., that would have changed the participants’ investment strategies had they known. Obviously, something that is disclosed, rather than kept under wraps, cannot be the basis for a breach of fiduciary duty claim based on the failure to disclose.

This thesis, which I maintain is hardly counter-intuitive, but just plan common sense, is borne out beautifully by this story about a long time Merrill Lynch broker who has lost millions of dollars in company stock held in an ESOP. He points out that had he been told the truth and given the opportunity, he would have divested and diversified along the way, but did not, and that he was regularly told things by management that were not true. Now, in the close of the article, he points out that what he needs now are “the services of a sharp labor and ERISA attorney." Had he been told the truth and given the opportunity to move his retirement savings out of company stock in light of information given to him at that time, he may be worse off today than he was before the Wall Street meltdown, but he is likely well enough off still that he isn’t looking for a lawyer to file suit for him.