On December 29, 2011, in what appears to have been the final year-end step as the FDIC ramped up its failed bank litigation activity during 2011, the FDIC filed a civil lawsuit in the Western District of North Carolina in is capacity as receiver of The Bank of Ashville, of Ashville, North Carolina, against seven former directors and officers of the bank. Though this lawsuit is only the latest in a series of failed bank actions the agency has filed, there are some interesting aspects to the case, as discussed below.
The Bank of Ashville was closed on January 21, 2011, and the FDIC was appointed receiver (about which refer here). The FDIC's complaint in the recently filed action alleges that during the period June 26, 2007 through December 24, 2009, the defendants, "enticed by the 'bubble' in the real estate sector of the Bank's lending markets," caused the bank to pursue a growth strategy concentrated in "higher risk, speculative commercial real estate loans." This focus resulted in rapid growth during the period.
The complaint alleges that that the defendants' all but one of who lacked previous banking experience were "ill-equipped to manage the risks associated with the nature and extent of the Bank's growth," and that they increased the Bank's risks by "implementing policies and procedures void of the most basic lending controls and neglecting to adequately supervise inexperienced and under qualified lending personnel." The complaint further alleges that the defendants' "failures to establish and to adhere to sound policies and procedures resulted in the approval of poorly underwritten and structured real estate dependent loans." The complaint also alleges that the defendants ignored regulatory and audit warnings.
As the problems in the real estate market began to emerge in 2008 and 2009, the defendants allegedly "took actions that masked the Bank's mounting problems," including approving additional loans or advances to borrowers on nonperforming loans.
The complaint asserts claims against the defendants for negligence, gross negligence and breaches of fiduciary duty, and seeks to recover $6.8 million in losses that the bank suffered on thirty commercial real estate and business loans.
At one level, there is nothing particularly striking about the allegations in the complaint. The amount of the alleged losses in the grand scheme of things is relatively modest, at least by comparison to those alleged in connection with other failed banks. There are no particularly egregious facts alleged, such as self-dealing or even person enrichment. There are no provocative aspects of the complaint, like the inclusion of the failed bank's D&O carrier as a co-defendant (as was the case here), or the inclusion of the bank's outside lawyer as a defendant (as was the case here).
On the other hand, it could be that the lower level temperature of the case it itself noteworthy. It is possible that the FDIC's willingness to initiate a lawsuit even in these circumstances suggests a certain level of aggressiveness on the FDIC's part. This suggestion is further reinforced by the fact that the FDIC has brought this action relatively quickly after the bank's failure, at least by comparison to other situations where the FDIC has pursued litigation. In most of its other lawsuits so far, the FDIC has only filed its lawsuit after the lapse of two years or more from the date of the failed bank's closure. The modest amount of the damages sought together with the relatively accelerated filing date makes me wonder whether or not there is a context for the lawsuit filing.
The litigation activity of the FDIC as receiver is essentially a salvage operation. The FDIC is trying to reduce, or at least offset, the failed banks' losses. The salvage operation often consists of an effort to capture the proceeds of the failed bank's D&O policy. (Indeed, even the FDIC's lawsuit against three former officers of Washington Mutual, the largest bank failure in U.S. history, turned out to be largely about the D&O insurance, as discussed here.) More than one of the FDIC's lawsuits has looked like negotiation with the D&O carriers pursued by other means (consider this prior case involving the First National Bank of Nevada, here).
All of which makes me wonder whether this latest lawsuit, particularly given its timing and the quantum of damages sought, might be directed at the failed bank's D&O carrier. I do not mean to suggest that I am questioning the merits of the FDIC's lawsuit, as I have no basis one way or the other to assess the merits. I am simply saying that the motivations for the lawsuit's filing could have a lot to do with the failed bank's D&O insurance - as in, the FDIC felt it needed to make a little noise to get the D&O carrier's attention.
In any event, this latest filing represents the FDIC's 16th lawsuit of 2011, brining the total number of failed bank lawsuits the FDIC has filed during the current bank failure wave to 18, involving 17 different institutions. Based on the number of lawsuit authorized (as disclosed on the FDIC's website) there clearly will be many more lawsuits to come during the New Year.
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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