The dust settled recently on another chapter of the Target Corp. data breach litigation. Although the five shareholder derivative lawsuits filed against Target’s officers and directors have been dismissed, they underscore the critical oversight function played by corporate directors when it comes to keeping an organization’s cyber defenses up to par. While the ink isn’t quite dry on the court papers, it’s time to start reflecting on the lessons of the skirmish.
In the midst of the 2013 holiday shopping season, news leaked that hackers had installed malware on Target’s credit card payment system and lifted the credit card information of more than 70 million shoppers. That’s almost 30 percent of the adult population in the U.S.
Predictably, litigation was filed, regulatory and congressional investigations commenced, and heads rolled. Banks, shareholders, and customers all filed lawsuits against the company. Target’s CEO was shown the door.
And Target’s directors and officers were caught in the crossfire. In a series of derivative lawsuits, shareholders claimed that the retailer’s board and C-suite violated their fiduciary duties by not providing proper oversight for the company’s information security program, not making prompt and accurate public disclosures about the breach, and ignoring red flags that Target’s IT systems were vulnerable to attack.
The four derivative cases filed in federal court were consolidated (one derivative lawsuit remained in state court) and Target’s board formed a Special Litigation Committee (SLC) to investigate the shareholders’ accusations. The SLC was vested with “complete power and authority” to investigate and make all decisions concerning the derivative lawsuits, including what action, if any, would be “in Target’s best interests.” Target did not appoint sitting independent directors but retained two independent experts with no ties to the company—a retired judge and a law professor. The SLC conducted a 21-month investigation with the help of independent counsel, interviewing 68 witnesses, reviewing several hundred thousand documents, and retaining the assistance of independent forensics and governance experts.
On March 30, 2016, the SLC issued a 91-page report, concluding that it would not be in Target’s best interest to pursue claims against the officers and directors and that it would seek the dismissal of all derivative suits.
Minnesota law, where Target is headquartered, provides broad deference to an SLC. Neither judges nor plaintiffs’ are permitted to second-guess the SLC members’ conclusions so long as the committee’s members are independent and the SLC’s investigative process is ‘adequate, appropriate and pursued in good faith.” By these standards, U.S. District Judge Paul A. Magnuson recently dismissed the derivative cases with the “non-objection” of the shareholders, subject to their lawyers’ right to petition the court for legal fees.
Target isn’t the only data-breach-related derivative case filed by shareholders against corporate officers and directors. Wyndham Worldwide Corp.’s leadership faced derivative claims relating to three separate data breaches at the company’s resort properties. After protracted litigation, the derivative claims were dismissed in October 2014, in large measure because Wyndham board’s was fully engaged on data security issues and was already at work bolstering the company’s cybersecurity defenses when the derivative suit was filed. A data-breach-related derivative action was also filed against the directors and officers of Home Depot, which remains pending.
Despite the differences between the Target and Wyndham derivative suits, both cases contain important lessons for corporate executives and sitting board members.
- Treat data security as more than “just an IT issue.” Boards must be engaged on data security issues and have the ability to ask the right questions and assess the answers. Board members don’t know what they can’t see. Developing expertise in data security isn’t the objective; rather, it’s for directors to exercise their oversight function. Board members can get cybersecurity training and engage outside technical and legal advisors to assist them in protecting their organizations from data breaches.
- Evaluate board information flow on cybersecurity issues. How are board members kept up-to-date on data security issues? Are regular briefings held with the chief information officer (CIO) to discuss cybersecurity safeguards, internal controls, and budgets? Boards might also consider appointing special committees and special legal counsel charged with data security oversight.
- Prepare for cyberattacks in advance. Boards should ask tough questions about their organization’s state of preparedness to respond to all aspects of a cyber-attack, from reputational risk to regulatory implications. Get your house in order now, and not during or after an attack. Not surprisingly, multiple studies—including the Ponemon Institute’s 2016 Cost of Data Breach Study—suggest that there is a correlation between an organization’s up-front spending on cybersecurity preparation and the ultimate downstream costs of responding to a breach.
- Decide whether and when to investigate data breaches. Before hackers strike, boards must decide whether and when to proactively investigate the breach, wait to see if lawsuits are filed, or wait to see if regulators take notice. Regardless, boards should be prepared to make this difficult decision, which will establish the tone of the company’s relationship with customers, shareholders, law enforcement, regulators, and the press.
- Develop a flexible cyber-risk management framework. Cyber-risk oversight isn’t a one-time endeavor, nor is there a one-size-fits-all solution. The threat environment is constantly changing and depends, in part, on a company’s sector, profile, and type of information collected and stored. While cyber-criminals swiped credit card data in the Target and Wyndham cases, the threat environment has escalated to holding organizations hostage for ransomware payments and stealing industrial secrets.
Cybercrime is scary and unpredictable. It poses risks to a company’s brand, reputation, and bottom line. Board members are on the hot seat, vested with the opportunity and responsibility to oversee cybersecurity and protect the company they serve.
Craig A. Newman is a litigation partner in Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP and chair of the firm’s Privacy and Data Security practice. He represents public and private companies, professional service firms, nonprofits institutions and their boards in litigation, governance and data security matters. Mr. Newman, a former journalist, has served as general counsel of both a media and technology consortium and private equity firm.