The full consequences of the dramatic recent events in the financial markets may take years to emerge, but one direct effect has already appeared – the collapse of several large financial institutions has turned preferred shareholders into securities class action plaintiffs.
Historically, securities class action lawsuits have been pursued on behalf of common shareholders, and to a lesser extent, the holders of public debt securities. Preferred shareholders only infrequently became involved in this type of litigation, for several interrelated reasons.
In the United States, the issuance of preferred shares largely has been limited to REITs, financial institutions and utilities (as noted here). Investment in these types of securities generally is limited to institutional investors. Moreover, the offering of these kinds of securities is even further limited as a practical matter to companies regarded as likely to fulfill their preferred dividend commitments (although less financial stable companies can still attempt a preferred stock offering by including a higher dividend rate).
Companies issuing these securities, therefore, are typically financially stable companies in industries with historically lower securities class action frequency levels. Moreover, institutional investors, who typically buy preferred securities, were, at least until the last several years, less likely to become involved in this kind of litigation. (To be sure, these generalities are not invariable, and there are certainly prior examples of securities litigation involving preferred shareholders.)
The remarkable recent failure of several of the most prominent financial institutions apparently has changed all that, and within the space of a few short weeks, there has been a sudden influx of securities class action lawsuits filed on behalf of failed financial institutions’ preferred shareholders.
Here are the four specific cases to which I am referring:
1. Fannie Mae Preferred Stock, Series T: The first of these recent lawsuits was filed on September 17, 2008 in the Southern District of New York on behalf of purchasers of Federal National Mortgage Association’s ("Fannie Mae") May 13, 2008 offering of 8.25% Non-Cumulative Preferred Stock, Series T. The complaint names as defendants the five offering underwriters and four directors and officers of Fannie Mae. Background regarding this case can be found here.
2. Freddie Mac Preferred Stock, Series Z: On September 23, 2008, plaintiffs’ counsel filed a securities class action lawsuit in the Southern District of New York on behalf of purchasers of Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation’s ("Freddie Mac") November 29, 2007 offering of 8.375% Non-Cumulative Perpetual Preferred Stock, Series Z. The complaint names as defendants only the three offering underwriters. For background, refer here.
3. Lehman Brothers Preferred Series J Stock: On September 24, 2008, plaintiffs’ counsel initiated a securities class action lawsuit in the Southern District of New York on behalf of purchasers of Lehman Brothers’ February 5, 2008 offering of Preferred Series J Stock. The complaint names as defendants certain Lehman Brothers directors and officers and the offering underwriters. For background, refer here.
4. Fannie Mae Preferred Stock, Series S: On October 8, 2008, plaintiffs’ counsel filed a securities class action lawsuit in the Southern District of New York on behalf of investors who between December 14, 2007 and September 5, 2008 purchased Fannie Mae’s 8.25% Fixed-to-Floating Rae Non-Cumulative Preferred Stock, Series S. The complaint names as defendants several former Fannie Mae directors and officers as well as the offering underwriters. For background, refer here.
These four lawsuits have several things in common, in addition to the fact that each plaintiff represents a class of preferred shareholders. All of these lawsuits involved companies that failed shortly before the lawsuits were filed. They were all filed in the Southern District. All of the lawsuits assert claims under the ’33 Act (the fourth of the lawsuits also asserts claims under the ’34 Act).
Another common thread of these lawsuits is that they all involve companies that already had been hit with one or more securities lawsuits filed on behalf of common shareholders. The existence of a separate plaintiff class at least potentially represents an opportunity for a different plaintiffs’ firm that may be shut out of the earlier class lawsuit to participate in the litigation assault on the affiliated persons left standing following the companies’ collapse. The existence of the separate class potentially represents a bite at the apple for these plaintiffs’ firms.
In earlier posts (here and here), I suggested that the volcano of events in the financial markets that began in September 2008 potentially could represent an "inflection point" in the ongoing subprime and credit crisis-related litigation wave. I suggested that as a result of these events a new group of defendants potentially could be drawn into the litigation wave. The four cases described above further suggest that a whole new group of litigants also could become involved as plaintiffs, starting with the emergence of preferred shareholders and other investor classes as class action litigants. The sheer magnitude of the losses sweeping through the marketplace undoubtedly will draw out these new classes of claimants, as these aggrieved parties seek to shift their losses "upstream" (a process I discussed here).
In the interests of accuracy, I should acknowledge that preferred shareholders class actions are not unknown. Indeed, just a few months ago, in June 2008, investors in Fremont General Corporation’s 9% Trust Originated Preferred Securities filed a securities class action lawsuit in the Central District of California (about which refer here). One might argue that this earlier case merely represents the advance guard for the squadron of lawsuits that came later.
While there may have been prior preferred shareholder lawsuits, the filing of four preferred shareholder class actions lawsuits in quick succession as a direct result of the collapse of several larger financial institutions represents a separately identifiable and categorically distinct phenomenon. It also undeniably represents a direct consequence of the unprecedented turmoil in the financial markets that began in September 2008.
The massive investment losses triggered by these September (and following) events are distributed across a wide variety of types and classes of investors, representing individuals and institutions, as well as holders of many types of debt and equity in many different forms and classes. Some of these aggrieved persons will seek to recover their losses in court. Further company failures (a distinct possibility) will only amplify these trends. All of which reinforces the view that one of the consequences of the enormous events of the past several weeks is a litigation wave "inflection point."
Run the Numbers: With the addition of the most recently filed lawsuits, my running tally of subprime and credit-crisis related securities class action lawsuits (which can be accessed here) now stands at 122, of which 82 have been filed in 2008.
In addition, I have added to my list of subprime and credit crisis-related derivative lawsuits (which can be accessed here), the shareholders’ derivative lawsuit filed on October 7, 2008 against Perini Corp., as nominal defendant, and several of its directors and officers. A copy of the Perini derivative complaint can be found here. (Hat tip to Courthouse News for the Perini derivative complaint.) I previously wrote here about the securities class action lawsuit that was filed earlier against Perini.
With the addition of the Perini complaint, my current tally of subprime and credit crisis-related derivate lawsuits now stands at 25.
One thing that has happened as the credit crisis has grown, spread and become a more generalized financial crisis. That is, it has become increasingly more difficult to proceed with definitional certainty about exactly what I am "counting." As the economic downturn affects more and more companies in an ever broader variety of ways, and as the general conditions become increasingly remote from the subprime-related causes, the related lawsuits are becoming less and less categorically distinct. At some point, the distinctions may no longer exist, and the counting exercise will have to be redesigned or even cease all together.
Who could have anticipated where all of this would lead when the subprime litigation wave first started to emerge back in February 2007?
Are State Court ’33 Act Cases Removeable to Federal Court?: In prior posts (most recently here), I have discussed the fact that plaintiffs’ attorneys’ have been filing subprime related ’33 Act cases in state court, in reliance on the ’33 Act’s concurrent jurisdiction provisions.
Lyle Roberts notes on his 10b-5 Daily blog (here), that on September 24, 2008, the Southern District of New York refused to remand the Harborview Mortgage case (which I previously discussed here) back to state court. Roberts does note that this holding is contrary to the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Luther v Countrywide earlier this year. I discuss the Luther case here.
With this split in the decisions there is now fertile ground for further jurisdictional wrangling. Even less clear is the reason why plaintiffs are so intent on pursuing a federal securities lawsuit in state court in the first place.