About the $2.43 Billion BofA/ Merrill Lynch Merger Securities Suit Settlement

About the $2.43 Billion BofA/ Merrill Lynch Merger Securities Suit Settlement

In what is by far the largest settlement of a credit crisis-related securities class action lawsuit, Bank of America has agreed to pay $2.43 billion to settle the suit filed against the company and certain of its directors and officers in connection with the bank's financial crisis-driven acquisition of Merrill Lynch. The settlement is subject to court approval. Bank of America's September 28, 2012 press release announcing the settlement can be found here.

The settlement is not only the eighth largest securities class action lawsuit settlement ever (refer here for the Stanford Law School Class Action Clearinghouse's list of the top ten largest securities suit settlements), but according a September 28, 2012 press release from the Ohio Attorney General (whose office represented several Ohio pension funds that were among the lead plaintiffs in the case) it is the fourth largest settlement funded by a single defendant for violations of the federal securities laws, and it is largest securities class settlement ever resolving a Section 14(a) case (alleging misrepresentations in connection with the a proxy solicitation). According to the Ohio AG, the settlement is also the largest securities class action settlement where there were no criminal charges against company executives.

The three largest single-defendant securities class action settlements are Tyco's $2.975 billion settlement in 2007; Cendant's 1998 settlement ($2.83 billion); and Citigroup's $2.65 billion contribution to the WorldCom case settlement. The total amount paid in settlement in each of these cases was larger than these amounts due to the contribution s of other defendants.

As discussed here, the BofA Merrill Lynch merger case had survived two rounds of dismissal motions, and according to press reports was scheduled to go to trial on October 22, 2012. In her On the Case blog (here), Alison Frankel has an interesting account of how the settlement came about and the various factors (including the looming trail date) that "forced" BofA to settle the case. Susan Beck has an interesting September 28, 20912 article on the Am Law Litigation Daily(here) in which she questions BofA's decision to rely on the Wachtel Lipton firm (which had advised the bank in connection with the Merrill Lynch acquisition) for its defense in the securities suit. 

The case arises out of BofA's agreement, reached in mid-September 2008, at the height of the global financial crisis, to acquire Merrill Lynch. In October and November 2008, while shareholder approval of the transaction was pending, Merrill suffered losses of over $15 billion and also took a $2 billion goodwill impairment charge. The Complaint alleges that BofA's senior officials were aware of these losses as they occurred. The Complaint alleges that the losses were so significant that BofA management discussed terminating the transaction, prior to the December 5, 2008 shareholder vote on the merger, in which BofA shareholders approved the merger.

On December 17, 2008, BofA Chairman and CEO Kenneth Lewis called Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to advise him that BofA was "strongly considering" invoking the "material adverse change" clause in the merger agreement, in order to terminate the deal prior to its scheduled January 1, 2009 close date.  At Paulson's invitation, Lewis flew to Washington for a face-to-face meeting, at which Paulson and Federal Reserve Board Chair Ben Bernanke urged Lewis not to invoke the MAC clause.

In subsequent conversations, Lewis again advised the government officials that BofA intended to invoke the MAC clause. According to the plaintiffs' allegations, BofA's board voted on December 21, 2008 to invoke the MAC clause, but on the following day, the Board voted to approve the merger, apparently in part based on Lewis's statement that he had received verbal assurances from Paulson that BofA would received a capital infusion and a guarantee against losses from risky assets if the merger concluded.

On January 16, 2010, BofA disclosed the fourth quarter losses of both BofA and Merrill and also revealed the federal funding package, which included $20 billion in capital and protection against further losses on $118 billion in assets. In following days, news reports revealed that in the days prior to the deal's close, Merrill employees had been paid massive bonuses. 

In the two trading days following the January 16 disclosure, BofA's market capitalization dropped over $20 billion, and shareholder litigation ensued. The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants misstated and concealed matters related to the Merrill bonuses, the losses that accrued in the Fourth Quarter of 2008 after the merger was announced, and the pressure to consummate the deal from government officials. After the securities and derivative lawsuits were consolidated, the defendants moved to dismiss.

In a lengthy August 27, 2010 opinion (about which refer here), Southern District of New York  Judge Kevin Castel denied in part and granted in part the defendants' motions to dismiss. First, he denied the defendants' dismissal motions with regard to the plaintiffs' allegations concerning the disclosures of the Merrill bonuses. Next, he concluded that while the plaintiffs had also alleged that there were materially misleading misrepresentations or omissions about Merrill Lynch's deteriorating 4Q08 financial condition and about the promised government financial inducements, the plaintiffs had not adequately alleged scienter as to these topics, and so he denied the defendants' motion to dismiss as to these allegations.

Thereafter, the plaintiffs filed an amended complaint.The defendants renewed their motions to dismiss. . 

In a July 29, 2011ruling (about which refer here), Judge Castel denied the defendant's  renewed dismissal motion as to the allegations surrounding Merrill's declining 4Q08 financial condition, but granted the dismissal motion as to the allegations about the government bailout. He held that the plaintiffs' amended complaint adequately alleged scienter as to the Merrill's financial condition in the fourth quarter of 2008, but did not adequately allege a duty to update prior disclosures as to the financial support the government officials offered in order to facilitate the deal.

According to BofA's September 28 press release about the settlement, the settlement is to be funded "by a combination of Bank of America's existing litigation funding reserves and incremental litigation expense to be recorded in the third quarter of 2012." The company estimates that its total third quarter litigation expense (including the incremental cost of the settlement) will be $1.6 billion. The company's press release does not indicate that any portion of the settlement will be funded by insurance.

The settlement resolves not only the claims against the company but also those against the individual defendants as well. The individuals apparently will be making no personal contribution toward the settlement. According to Alison Frankel's blog post, the plaintiffs attorneys intend to seek attorneys' fees of $150 million

In addition to the monetary amount, BofA also agreed as part of the settlement to certain corporate governance reforms. Among other things, the bank agreed to institute or to continue certain corporate governance enhancements through January 1, 2015, "including those relating to majority voting in director elections, annual disclosure of noncompliance with stock ownership guidelines, policies for a board committee regarding future acquisitions, the independence of the board's compensation committee and its compensation consultants, and conducting an annual 'say-on-pay' vote by shareholders."

As I noted at the outset, this settlement eclipses by far any other settlement of a subprime meltdown or credit crisis-related securities class action lawsuit, far exceeding what had until now had been the largest of the financial crisis lawsuits, the $627 Wells Fargo/Wachoia Bondholders securities suit settlement (about which refer here).

Indeed, the $2.43 billion BofA settlement amounts to nearly half of the aggregate amount of all of the other credit crisis securities suit settlements. The 54 prior credit crisis related settlements together totaled about $5.5 billion. With the addition of the latest settlement, the total of all of the credit crisis securities suit settlements is now about $7.93 billion.

It is striking what a significant portion of the $7.93 billion total that BofA has had to fund due to its credit crisis era acquisitions of Merrill Lynch and Countrywide. As noted on the top ten list below, there have been a number of credit crisis securities class action lawsuit settlements involving these two companies. The total amount that BofA has had to pay in settling these cases (including the latest settlement) is just under $4 billion, representing slightly over half of all amounts that have been paid in settlement of credit crisis cases.

The ten largest credit crisis securities suits settlements are as follows:

 

Case

Amount

Links

BofA/Merrill Lynch Merger

$2.43 billion

This Post

Wells Fargo/Wachovia Bondholders Action

$627 million

Here

Countrywide

$624 million

Here

Citigroup

$590 million

Here

Lehman Brothers (including offering underwriters' settlement)

$507 million

Here

Merrill Lynch

$475 million

Here

Merrill Lynch Mortgage-Backed Securities

$315 million

Here

Bear Stearns

$275 million

Here

Charles Schwab

$235 million

Here

Washington Mutual

$208.5 million

Here

 

Though the BofA/Merrill Lynch merger securities suit was one of the highest  profile of the securities lawsuits from the financial crisis, there are other high profile cases yet to be resolved, including the one involving AIG and the Citigroup bondholders suit. The resolution of the cases filed as part of the credit crisis-related litigation wave still has much further to go.

I have updated my running tally of the subprime and credit crisis case resolutions to reflect this latest settlement. The tally can be accessed here.

Two Subprime-Related Securities Suits Dismissed: In addition to the BofA settlement, there were other developments last week in connection with high profile subprime and credit crisis-related securities suits. In separate decisions, the subprime related securities suits involving Freddie Mac and UBS were dismissed.

First, on September 24, 2012, Southern District of New York Judge John F. Keenan dismissed with prejudice the subprime-related securities class action lawsuit that had been filed against the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac) and certain of its directors and officers. A copy of Judge Keenan's order can be found here. As discussed here, Judge Keenan had previously granted the defendants' motion to dismiss the case, but without prejudice. The plaintiffs filed an amended complaint and the defendants renewed their dismissal motions.

In a sharply worded opinion, Judge Keenan granted the defendants' renewed motion to dismiss, saying, among other things, that "the bevy of truthful disclosures that Freddie Mac made throughout the Class Period, covering everything from detailed credit characteristics to extensive risk management also negates the inference of scienter. It defies logic to conclude that executives who are seeking to perpetrate fraudulent information upon the market would make such fulsome disclosure." A September 27, 2012 Bloomberg article about the Freddie Mac dismissal can be found here.

Second, in a September 28, 2012 order (here), Southern District of New York Judge Richard Sullivan granted the defendants' motion to dismiss in the subprime-related securities suit that had been filed against UBS and certain of its directors and officers. Among other things, Judge Sullivan said that "Although UBS made a series of bad bets with disastrous consequences for the company and its shareholders, those consequences alone are insufficient to establish scienter and support a claim for securities fraud."

In granting the motion as to the individual defendants, Judge Sullivan concluded that the plaintiffs had failed to allege sufficiently specific misrepresentations as to each individual defendant, saying (in reliance on the Supreme Court's opinion in the Janus Capital Group case) ""While it is true that Janus might not alter the well-established rule that a corporation can act only through its employees and agents, it is nonetheless also true that a theory of liability premised on treating corporate insiders as a group cannot survive a plain reading of the Janus decision."

I have added these two dismissals to my running tally of subprime and credit crisis-related securities suits dismissal motion rulings, which can be accessed here.

Say-on-Pay Lawsuit Dismissed on the Merits: Though in many instances litigation has followed in the wake of a negative say-on-pay vote, the say-on-pay lawsuits generally have not fared particularly well, as I noted in a recent post (here). In general, however, these cases have generally faltered due to procedural shortcomings, such as a failure to make a pre-suit demand on the board of directors, rather than on the actual merits of the case. However a recent decision in a say on pay lawsuit out of Eastern District of North Carolina granted the defendants motion dismiss based on the merits.

On May 3, 2011, fifty two percent of Dex One shareholders rejected the company's executive compensation plan. Afterwards, the board investigated shareholder concerns and ultimately decided not to amend its 2010 executive compensation plan. In September 2011, a Dex One shareholder initiated a derivative suit against Dex One, as nominal defendant, and against certain directors and executive officers of Dex One. The plaintiff alleged, among other things, that the defendants had misled the company's shareholders about the executive compensation plan in the 2011 proxy statements and had breached their fiduciary duties in failing to amend or alter the 2010 executive compensation plan. The defendants moved to dismiss.

In a September 26, 2012 order (here), Eastern District of North Carolina Judge James C. Dever III granted the defendants' motion to dismiss, concluding among other things that the 2011 proxy statement "did not contain false or misleading information." Judge Dever also rejected the plaintiff's claim that the defendants had breached their fiduciary duties by failing to alter or amend the executive compensation plan.

Judge Dever's ruling in the Dex One case is very fact specific, and so it may be of limited applicability in other say-on-pay cases. It is, however, consistent with the outcome of many other say-on-pay cases, most of which have resulted in dismissals. But though the plaintiffs have fared poorly in these cases, that does not necessarily mean that they will stop being filed. In pursuing these cases, the plaintiffs are not motivated so much by a desire to try to secure any type of monetary recovery so much as they are trying to use the litigation as another means to try to pressure the board on executive compensation issues. Given the near certainty that disputes regarding executive compensation will continue to arise, it seems likely that we will continue to see these kinds of say-on-pay lawsuits, even though plaintiffs generally have not been very successful in these cases.

Special thanks to Alan Parry of the Smith Anderson law firm for sending me a copy of Judge Dever's Order. The Smith Anderson represented the defendants in the Dex One say-on-pay lawsuit.

The Week Ahead: During the upcoming week, The D&O Diary will be traveling overseas on business so there may be some disruption in the publication schedule for the next few days. The publication schedule will return to "normal" after October 8.

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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