Photo by Laura Barisonzi.
Murielle Steven Walsh is a recognized and effective securities litigator, with a focus on class actions and corporate governance cases. She has a unique role at Pomerantz, as she leads some of the firm’s most high-profile cases while also serving as the administrative partner. The 1996 New York Law School graduate is a strong advocate for equal rights and a mentor to women in the early stages of their careers.
Lawdragon: How would you describe the mix of work you do within your practice?
Murielle Steven Walsh: The work I do is primarily focused on securities fraud class action litigation, but every so often I take on a class action involving other types of claims.
LD: How did you first become interested in class action litigation?
MSW: I first learned about the class action mechanism while taking a Corporations class in law school, and I was very interested in the idea that a single individual could file a case on behalf of a class of people against a powerful corporation to remedy misconduct.
LD: What particularly about this kind of law do you find professionally satisfying?
MSW: It’s rewarding to be in the position to litigate on behalf of aggrieved individuals who would not be able to do so without the availability of the class action procedure.
Class actions typically involve situations where the individual damages are too small to justify the expense of bringing an action on behalf of a single person. At the same time, in these cases there are many individuals who have been hurt by the same misconduct by a company, whether it be securities fraud or failure to pay overtime.
LD: Of all the work that you have done in your career, what would you say is the most interesting matter you’ve handled?
MSW: This is a tough one since I’ve been doing this work for over 20 years. One of my more interesting cases was on behalf of an issuer against the underwriter of its IPO, alleging that the underwriter breached its fiduciary duty to the company by underpricing its IPO. The underwriter was motivated to underprice the shares because it sold them to its most valuable trading clients, who then flipped the stock for incredible profits. At the time, bringing a fiduciary duty claim against an underwriter was a very novel idea. We succeeded in obtaining a ruling from the New York Court of Appeals that it is possible for an underwriter to have a fiduciary duty to its issuer client in the context of a firm-commitment underwriting. That decision helped shaped the law in the favor of market participants.
LD: Are there any trends you’re seeing in securities law these days?
MSW: One new trend taking on momentum is how the #MeToo movement is starting to play a role in securities actions. As a result of #MeToo, corporations have been forced to become more vigilant about their executives’ conduct, because investors are taking notice. Recently, cases have been filed alleging that a company failed to disclose sexual misconduct and harassment by its executives.
We currently represent plaintiff investors in a class action against the Wynn Resorts, alleging that the company failed to disclose that its founder and CEO, casino mogul Steven Wynn, had been engaging in a pattern of egregious sexual misconduct against the company’s female employees. We’re alleging, among other things, that the company misled investors to believe it was committed to enforcing legal and ethical conduct by its employees, when in fact its senior executives were covering up a pattern of abuse by Steven Wynn.
The actionability of a company’s statements about its Code of Conduct is a rather novel issue, although some courts recently have held that such statements can be actionable. My stance is that these issues are very material to shareholders, as evidenced by the steep stock price decline when Wynn’s bad conduct was revealed. The wrongdoing was particularly flagrant and egregious, and I feel that if any case should proceed on these issues, this is the one.
LD: What are some challenges you face in representing the investors in this instance?
MSW: It’s always challenging to bring a case on a novel issue of law. But it is so important that lawyers be pioneers and take on these challenging cases; otherwise the law would never evolve. And it needs to evolve, to better protect people as times, beliefs and norms change.
LD: Why did you pursue a career in law in the first place?
MSW: I’ve always wanted to be in the position to right a wrong, and going to law school seemed to be the straightest path to get there.
LD: In law school, was there a particular course, professor or experience that was particularly memorable for you?
MSW: There were a couple of courses that stand out: my Corporations course, where I learned about class actions. My professor was engaging and energetic. I also very much enjoyed Antitrust, Tax, Evidence, and Trial Advocacy.
LD: What advice do you have now for a current law student?
MSW: Think long and hard about whether to attend law school. It’s very expensive and demands a huge commitment of time. Law is a very rewarding but highly demanding career.
LD: Was there an early experience or mentor who really helped shape the course of your professional life?
MSW: A now retired senior partner at Pomerantz was a mentor to me in the early part of my career and supportive throughout. We worked together on a number of cases. I learned a lot from her and was able to turn to her for guidance. We remain friends today. We need more female attorneys to rise to senior roles in which they can mentor younger women the way my mentor did with me.
LD: Is there a matter or client in your career that stands out as particularly memorable?
MSW: We recently settled a case alleging claims of trespass and nuisance against Niantic, the company that created the Pokémon Go game. Pokémon is an augmented reality game in which players visit virtual PokéStops and catch virtual Pokémon to advance in the game. Niantic placed these game items on private properties, which resulted in trespass and all kinds of disturbances. So, we brought a class action alleging that Niantic’s actions caused trespass and nuisance. The case was a real trailblazer, because the body of law on trespass to date really has not addressed trespass by virtual objects. The court permitted us to proceed on the claims, and we secured a very favorable settlement for the class.
LD: How would you describe your style as a lawyer?
MSW: I try to be pragmatic and objectively evaluate the facts. I enjoy discovery and seeing what the documents show, building the evidence and making the case. Bad facts make bad law. That’s an old adage but exists for a reason.
LD: There are many high-quality firms out there. What do you try to “sell” about your firm to potential recruits? How is it unique?
MSW: The fact that we are willing to bring cases involving novel and untested legal theories. I think that really sets us apart from our competitors.
LD: Are you involved in any pro bono or public interest activities?
MSW: I have done political asylum work in the past, representing a native of Togo in his bid for political asylum in the U.S. after he fled his country due to political persecution. It was a lot of work and very stressful, but incredibly rewarding when his application was granted.
I’m currently a member and secretary of the board of trustees for a local non-profit, Court Appointed Special Advocates, Monmouth County, or CASA for short. CASA’s volunteers are trained to work on cases involving children who have been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. These kids are in varying stages of the court process, where the court is trying to decide what’s in their best long-term interest, whether they should stay in foster care, or whether there’s a chance for reunification with the parent that they’d been separated from.
Before CASA was founded, courts didn’t have sufficient information about the child’s specific situation to make this critical decision. CASA volunteers fill that void in the system. They gather the facts about the child’s extended family or what other supportive individuals they might have in their lives, and the relevant facts about the child’s circumstances, and make a recommendation to the judge.
In many situations CASA volunteers are the only consistent adult presence for the child during this traumatic time. CASA’s work is truly important, and I am honored to be a part of it.