Catching Up on Rulings in Key Subprime-Related Securities Cases

Catching Up on Rulings in Key Subprime-Related Securities Cases

Over the last few days, there have been a series of rulings in high-profile lawsuits arising out of the subprime meltdown and credit crisis. As discussed below, just in the past week there were dismissal motion rulings in cases involving Freddie Mac, Wachovia/Wells Fargo, and AIG. Though some or all of the claims in these cases were dismissed in whole or in part, the plaintiffs have managed to live at least for another day (if only just barely in the Freddie Mac case). At the same time,  in the AIG ERISA case, the case largely survived the dismissal motion.

Freddie Mac: On March 30, 2011, Southern District of New York Judge John Keenan granted without prejudice the defendants' motion to dismiss in the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. (Freddie Mac) subprime-related securities class action lawsuit. A copy of the March 30 order can be found here.

Freddie Mac is of course one of the government sponsored entities that was at the center of the residential mortgage crisis in 2008. On September 7, 2008, it was placed in the hands of a conservator. In August 2008, shortly before the company entered conservatorship, the company's public shareholders filed a securities class action lawsuit against the company and certain of its directors and officers, as discussed in greater detail here.

The plaintiffs alleged that in various public statements the defendants had made three types of misrepresentations or omissions: (1) about the company's exposure to "non-prime mortgage loans"; (2) about its capital adequacy; and (3) about the strength of its due diligence and quality control mechanisms. The defendants moved to dismiss.

In finding that the alleged misrepresentations about the company's exposure to subprime mortgages were insufficient, Judge Keenan found that "the Amended Complaint does not explain why Freddie Mac's disclosures in its November 2007 Financial Reports ... were insufficient to convey the truth that Freddie Mac was dealing in non-conforming mortgages to the public." He added that "Plaintiffs present no theory at all about why Freddie Mac's disclosures would not be understood by the reasonable investor and thus part of the 'total mix' of information that determined its share price."  

Judge Keenan also found that the alleged misrepresentations regarding the company's capital adequacy were also insufficient. He observed that "in a volatile economic, political and regulatory environment like the one that existed in the summer and early fall of 2008, with even Freddie Mac's primary regulator being replaced, Plaintiffs must show more to plausibly claim that Freddie Mac's statements were made without any basis in fact. " However, he concluded that "Plaintiff has not adequately pleaded sufficient facts giving rise to a strong inference that Freddie Mac's statements about its capital adequacy or its hope that it would continue to function were made with intent to defraud or without factual basis."

With respect to the alleged misrepresentations regarding the company's internal controls and processes, Judge Keenan found that "there are simply no facts in the Amended Complaint from which one could reasonably infer a causal link between Freddie Mac's statements about its underwriting standards and internal controls and any loss suffered by purchasers of its equity securities during the Class Period." He added that "considering that the price of Freddie Mac's stock was clearly linked to the 'marketwide phenomenon' of the housing price collapse, there is decreased probability that Plaintiffs' losses were caused by fraud."

Judge Keenan granted the motions to dismiss without prejudice and allowed the plaintiffs' 60 days in which to file a Second Amended Complaint.

An April 1, 2011 Bloomberg article about Judge Keenan's decision in the Freddie Mac case can be found here.

Wachovia/Wells Fargo: On March 31, 2011, Southern District of New York Judge Richard Sullivan issued his rulings on the motions to dismiss in the consolidated securities litigation that had been filed on behalf former equity shareholders and bondholders of Wachovia Corporation. In a lengthy and detailed opinion (here), Judge Sullivan granted the defendants' motions to dismiss the equity securities litigation, but he denied the motion to dismiss the bondholders' action, other than with respect to certain bond offerings in which the plaintiffs had not actually purchased any securities.

As Judge Sullivan wrote in summarizing the various plaintiffs' allegations, "all claims arise from the financial disintegration Wachovia experienced between its 2006 purchase of Golden West Financial Corporation and its 2008 merger with Wells Fargo & Company." In essence, the complaint is based on the difficulties Wachovia experienced as a result of the Golden West "Pick-A-Pay" mortgage portfolio. Further background regarding the equity securities litigation can be found here and background regarding the bondholders' litigation can be found here.

Judge Sullivan granted the defendants' motions to dismiss the equity securities plaintiffs' '34 Act claims, finding that the plaintiffs had not sufficiently alleged scienter. Judge Sullivan concluded that the "more compelling inference" is that "Defendants simply did not anticipate the full extent of the mortgage crisis and the resulting implications for the Pick-A-Pay loan portfolio. Although a colossal blunder with grave consequences for many, such a failure is simply not enough to support a claim for securities fraud." He added that "bad judgment and poor management are not fraud, even when they lead to the demise of a once venerable financial institution."

Judge Sullivan also granted the defendants' motion to dismiss the equity securities plaintiffs' '33 Act claims, finding that their "scattershot pleadings" failed to "afford proper notice, much less provide facially plausible factual allegations." He added that he could not conclude "that the relevant offering documents contained material omissions in violation of affirmative disclosure obligations."

However, Judge Sullivan denied the defendants' motions to dismiss the bondholders' '33 Act claims (other than with respect to the offerings in which the plaintiffs had not purchased shares, with respect to which the motion was granted). In concluding that the bondholders' allegations were sufficient when the equity securities plaintiffs' allegations were not, Judge Sullivan found that the bondholder plaintiffs had adequately alleged misrepresentation in the relevant offering documents with respect to loan to value rations maintained in the mortgage portfolio and with respect to the alleged manipulation of the appraisal process to produce inflated appraisal values.

On the strength of these alleged misrepresentations in the offering documents, Judge Sullivan also denied defendant KPMG's motion to dismiss the bondholders' 33 Act claims.

Susan Beck's April 1, 2011 Am Law Litigation Daily detailed article about Judge Sullivan's ruling can be found here.

AIG ERISA Action: In a March 31, 2011 order (here) in the AIG subprime-related ERISA action, Southern District of New York Judge Laura Taylor Swain, denied the defendants' motion to dismiss, other than with respect to plan organized on behalf of Puerto Rico employees with respect to which the motion was granted on the ground that because none of the name plaintiffs participated in that plan, they lacked standing to pursue those claims.

The plaintiffs are participants or beneficiaries in I two AIG plans, the AIG Incentive Savings Plan and the American General Agents' & Managers' Thrift Plan between June 15, 2007 and the present. Each plan offered participants a menu of investment options, one of which was the AIG Stock Fund, which invested in AIG stock.

The plaintiffs alleged that the defendant plan fiduciaries breached the duty of prudence by continuing to offer the AIG Stock Fund as an investment option, even when they knew or should have known that AIG stock was no longer a suitable and appropriate investment. The plaintiffs further alleged that the defendants failed to disclose to fellow fiduciaries nonpublic information that was need to protect the interests of the Plans. The plaintiffs also alleged that the defendant fiduciaries failed to monitor the investments and failed to provide complete and accurate information regarding AIG's mismanagement and improper business practices.

Judge Swain rejected all of the grounds on which the defendants' sought to dismiss the allegations asserted on behalf of participants and beneficiaries of the AIG Incentive Saving Plan and the American Genera Agents' and Managers' Thrift Plan. Judge Swain held that Plaintiffs had sufficiently alleged that had there been an investigation triggered by  the "warning signs" regarding problems in AIG's Financial Products Unit, "it would have demonstrated that AIG stock had become an imprudent investment."

Judge Swain also found that the Plaintiffs "have adequately alleged that Defendants failed to disclose the true extent of the risk facing AIG as a result of its financial decisions and the decline of the residential housing market, and that Defendants affirmatively misrepresented the strength and extent of the processes AIG had in place to mitigate this risk."

Finally, she found that the plaintiffs "have sufficiently alleged that AIG and the director defendants were aware of the increasingly risky financial position maintained by AIG, material weaknesses in AIG's financial health and the potential impending erosion of the value of AIG's stock."

An April 1, 2011 Bloomberg article about Judge Swain's rulings can be found here.

I have in any event added these  rulings to my running tally of subprime-related lawsuit dismissal motion rulings, which can be found here.

Discussion

It has been quite a while since the subprime and credit crisis litigation wave first started in early 2007. Yet many of the cases are still working their way through the system. The cases discussed above involve some of the highest profile participants in many of the events surrounding the credit crisis. One thing that is striking, at least about the Freddie Mac and the Wachovia cases, is the extent to which the courts seemed influenced by the comprehensiveness of the credit crisis. It seems that in the context of a global economic crisis - particularly one that caught so many by surprise - the courts continue to be skeptical of fraud claims, absent concrete support for the allegations.

These rulings suggest that the barrier to overcome the initial judicial skepticism may be substantial. Indeed, the plaintiffs in the Wachovia case failed to overcome the court's concerns despite having assembled 50 confidential witnesses, and despite the fact that the aggregate market cap drop on which the equity shareholders was approximately $109 billion.

On the other hand, the hurdle the plaintiffs must overcome is not insurmountable. The Wachovia bondholders' Section 11 claims are going  forward. And even the plaintiffs in the Freddie Mac case will have at least another chance to replead to try to overcome the initial pleading hurdles.

Judge Swain's ruling in the AIG ERISA case seemed more receptive. But it is worth keeping in mind that ERISA plaintiffs do not face the same heightened pleading standards that securities lawsuit plaintiffs face under the PSLRA. Perhaps even more significantly, the ERISA plaintiffs do not have to plead scienter.

In any event, all three of these cases will be worth watching as they continue to work their way through the system.

Special thanks to the loyal readers who provided me with copies of these rulings.

Read other items of interest from the world of directors & officers liability, with occasional commentary, at the D&O Diary, a blog by Kevin LaCroix.

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