If a plaintiff's class action or derivative lawyer tells the representative shareholder material nonpublic information about the status of the litigation, on the basis of which the shareholder then trades in the issuer's stock, there's doubtless some sort of state law violation. As Peter Ladig reports, the Delaware Chancery Court's newly issued guidelines for practicing before it make clear that "litigants who engage in this type of behavior should expect to be subject to "intensive scrutiny" and face a host of possible penalties." (See also Francis Pileggi's summary of the case.)
Ladig further reports that a recent Delaware case imposed sanctions in just such a case:
... in Steinhardt v. Howard-Anderson, ... the court ordered the plaintiffs it had found to have traded while in possession of confidential, nonpublic information to (i) self-report to the Securities Exchange Commission; (ii) disclose their improper trading in any future application to serve as lead plaintiff; and (iii) disgorge any profits made from the trades. The court then dismissed the trading plaintiffs from the case with prejudice and barred them from receiving any recovery from the litigation.
Query, however, whether the trading representative shareholder violated the federal insider trading prohibition. The Supreme Court has consistently made clear that insider trading liability is premised on breach of a duty to disclose rising out of a fiduciary relationship.
Outside the traditional categories of Rule 10b-5 defendants—insiders, constructive insiders, and their tippees—things become quite complicated. As the Second Circuit observed in United States v. Chestman:
[F]iduciary duties are circumscribed with some clarity in the context of shareholder relations but lack definition in other contexts. Tethered to the field of shareholder relations, fiduciary obligations arise within a narrow, principled sphere. The existence of fiduciary duties in other common law settings, however, is anything but clear. Our Rule 10b-5 precedents . . ., moreover, provide little guidance with respect to the question of fiduciary breach, because they involved egregious fiduciary breaches arising solely in the context of employer/employee associations.
In Chestman, the question was whether the relationship between spouses was fiduciary in nature. In answering that question, the court laid out a general framework for dealing with nontraditional relationships. First, unilaterally entrusting someone with confidential information does not by itself create a fiduciary relationship. This is true even if the disclosure is accompanied by an admonition such as “don’t tell.” Second, familial relationships are not fiduciary in nature without some additional element.
Turning to factors that could justify finding a fiduciary relationship on these facts, the court first identified a list of “inherently fiduciary” associations. "Counted among these hornbook fiduciary relations are those existing between attorney and client, executor and heir, guardian and ward, principal and agent, trustee and trust beneficiary, and senior corporate official and shareholder."
Once one moves beyond this class of “hornbook” fiduciary relationships, the requisite relationship exists solely where one party acts on the other’s behalf and “great trust and confidence” exists between the parties:
A fiduciary relationship involves discretionary authority and dependency: One person depends on another—the fiduciary—to serve his interests. In relying on a fiduciary to act for his benefit, the beneficiary of the relation may entrust the fiduciary with custody over property of one sort or another. Because the fiduciary obtains access to this property to serve the ends of the fiduciary relationship, he becomes duty-bound not to appropriate the property for his own use.
Because the spousal relationship at issue in Chestman did not involve either discretionary authority or dependency of this sort, it was not fiduciary in character.
According to Ladig, the Delaware Chancery Court characterized the relationship between the representative shareholder and the class s/he represents as a fiduciary one:
"Trading by plaintiff-fiduciaries on the basis of information obtained through discovery undermines the integrity of the representative litigation process. Consequently, it is unacceptable for a plaintiff-fiduciary to trade on the basis of nonpublic information obtained through litigation."
In theory, I suppose the representative plaintiff has discretionary authority over the litigation. Also, in theory, I suppose that the other shareholders depend the representative shareholder to serve their interests. In theory, it's therefore hard to quibble with Vice Chancellor Lasker's statement that:
When a stockholder of a Delaware corporation files suit as a representative plaintiff for a class of similarly situated stockholders, the plaintiff voluntarily assumes the role of fiduciary for the class. See Emerald P'rs v. Berlin, 564 A.2d 670, 673 (Del. Ch.1989); Youngman v. Tahmoush, 457 A.2d 376, 379 (Del. Ch.1983). As a fiduciary, the representative plaintiff “owes to those whose cause he advocates a duty of the finest loyalty.” Barbieri v. Swing–N–Slide Corp., 1996 WL 255907, at *5 (Del. Ch. May 7, 1996) (internal quotation marks omitted). [2012 WL 29340 at *8]
In practice, however, the real party in interest in shareholder litigation is the class counsel. It is the class counsell who really runs the show and upon whomn the class members really depend. In practice, the representative shareholder is simply the name on the lawsuit's title. See Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Bolger
2 F.3d 1304, 1309 n.8 (3d Cir 1993):
See Ralph K. Winter, Paying Lawyers, Empowering Prosecutors, and Protecting Managers: Raising the Cost of Capital in America, 42 Duke L.J. 945, 948 (1993) (in derivative actions, “plaintiffs are generally figureheads”); Jonathan R. Macey & Geoffrey P. Miller, The Plaintiffs' Attorney's Role in Class Action and Derivative Litigation: Economic Analysis and Recommendations for Reform, 58 U.Chi.L.Rev. 1, 3 (1991) (plaintiffs' class and derivative action attorneys “subject to only minimal monitoring by their ostensible ‘clients' who are either dispersed and disorganized (in the case of class litigation) or under the control of hostile forces (in the case of derivative litigation).”); Geoffrey P. Miller, Some Agency Problems in Settlement, 16 J.Legal Stud. 189, 190 (1987) (“the interests of plaintiff and attorney are never perfectly aligned”); John C. Coffee Jr., Understanding The Plaintiff's Attorney: The Implications of Economic Theory for Private Enforcement of Law Through Class and Derivative Actions, 86 Col.L.Rev. 669, 677-78 (1986) (in derivative and class actions client “generally has only a nominal stake in the outcome of litigation” and cannot closely monitor and control plaintiff's attorney's conduct); Daniel R. Fischel & Michael Bradley, The Role of Liability Rules and the Derivative Suit in Corporate Law: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis, 71 Corn.L.Rev. 261, 271 & n. 26 (1986) (“real party in interest is the attorney”); Deborah L. Rhode, Class Conflicts in Class Actions, 34 Stan.L.Rev. 1183, 1203 (1982) (“as a practical matter, once a class is certified, named plaintiffs generally are neither highly motivated nor well situated to monitor the congruence between counsel's conduct and class preferences”) ....
Which suggests that the representative shareholder's discretionary authority may not rise to the level Chestman requires or that the other shareholders' dependency on the representative plaintiff rises to that level either.
I'm not saying that representative plainitffs ought to be allowed to trade on the basis of nonpublic information about the lawsuit. I'm just saying we don't need to make a federal case out of it. Before we do so there ought to be a meaningful showing under the Chestman standard, rather than just a label casually slapped on the relationship without a realistic examination of the relationship as it exists in the real world.
 947 F.2d 551, 567 (2d Cir. 1991) (citations omitted), cert. denied 503 U.S. 1004 (1992).
 Repeated disclosures of business secrets, however, could substitute for a factual finding of dependence and influence and, accordingly, sustain a finding that a fiduciary relationship existed in the case at bar. Chestman, 947 F.2d at 569.