Piecemeal efforts to bring transparency to third-party litigation funding continued apace (albeit a snail’s pace) with legislation the governor of Illinois signed into law on May 27th.
The funding of lawsuits by investors with no stake beyond the potential to profit from any settlement has been a growing contributor to the phenomenon known as “social inflation”: Increased insurance payouts and higher loss ratios than can be explained by economic inflation alone. These increased costs necessarily end up being shared by all policyholders through increased premiums.
Litigation funding not only drives up costs – it introduces motives beyond achieving just results to the judicial process. This is why the practice was once widely prohibited in the United States. As these bans have been eroded in recent decades, litigation funding has grown, spread, and morphed into forms that can cost plaintiffs more in interest than they might otherwise gain in a settlement. In fact, it can encourage lengthier litigation to the detriment of all involved – except for the funders and the plaintiff attorneys.
Funding of lawsuits by international hedge funds and other third parties has become a $17 billion global industry, according to Swiss Re. Law firm Brown Rudnick sees the industry as even larger, at $39 billion globally, according to Bloomberg.
But it’s hard to actually know how big the industry is and how much harm it may be causing because, in most cases, plaintiffs’ attorneys are not required to disclose whether, to what extent, and under what terms third-party funders are involved in the cases they bring to court.
Inching toward transparency
In April, we reported on the partial, creeping progress toward bringing greater transparency to this practice in courtrooms and state legislatures. Last year, the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey amended its rules to require disclosures about third-party litigation funding in cases before the court. The Northern District of California imposed a similar rule in 2017 for class, mass, and collective actions throughout the district. Wisconsin passed a law requiring disclosure of third-party funding agreements in 2018. West Virginia followed suit in 2019.
At the federal level, the Litigation Funding Transparency Act was introduced and referred to the House Judiciary Committee in March 2021. The measure was referred to the Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet in October of last year.
The Illinois legislation, originally introduced in 2021, has some similarities to Wisconsin’s law – but the version signed last week contained “insufficient regulatory safeguards,” the American Property Casualty Insurance Association (APCIA) said. In its letter urging Gov. J.B. Pritzker to veto the measure, APCIA said a major concern is that it authorizes an interest rate to be paid by the plaintiff/borrowers in such cases “that shall be calculated as not more than 18 percent of the funded amount, assessed every six months for up to 42 months.”
The legislation does not clarify whether the 18 percent rate calculation is simple, compound, or cumulative interest over the 42-month period.
“This lack of clarity is problematic, as a cumulatively calculated interest rate could run as high as 126 percent!” APCIA said. “It is essential for the protection of consumers that this interest rate calculation be clarified.”
Further, APCIA explains, “The parties to these funding agreements are not required to disclose their existence, so that the courts and defendants are typically not aware of the presence or identity of the funders as real parties in interest to the litigation. The economic interests of the funders in these transactions are substantially enhanced by prolonged litigation and discouraging the amicable settlement of disputes, all to no ones’ best interests except those of the money lenders.”
Even the legal profession is concerned about the ethical implications of litigation funding. In 2020, the policymaking arm of the American Bar Association (ABA) approved a set of best practices for these arrangements. The resolution lists the issues lawyers should consider before entering into agreements with outside funders – but it doesn’t take a position on the use of such funding.
A standardized approach to disclosure would go a long way toward helping policymakers and decision makers determine an appropriate path forward.