All litigants face the challenge of managing lawsuit expenses and exposures. The Reserve Primary Fund investor litigation defendants have crafted a novel approach to addressing these challenges – they apparently intend to finance their defense as well as any indemnity out of funds due to investors -- that is, the funds of the very people on whose behalf the claims are being asserted.
In September, the Reserve Primary Fund ("the fund") gained notoriety when the money market fund "broke the buck," as massive redemptions and the fund’s exposure to Lehman Brothers’ securities drove the fund’s per share net asset value below one dollar. Due to the magnitude of the redemption requests, the fund’s trustees voted to liquidate the fund and distribute the assets to investors.On December 8, 2008, the Wall Street Journal ran a front page article (here) detailing the events behind the fund's woes.
Meanwhile, investors initiated a number of securities lawsuits against the fund, its directors and officers, its investment advisor and related parties. (Refer here for background regarding the lawsuits.) The lawsuits allege, among other things, that the defendants’ selective or inaccurate disclosure regarding the fund’s troubled assets enabled certain institutional investors to avoid losses to the detriment of other investors. The lawsuits also alleged that the fund failed to disclose its vulnerability due to its alleged overexposure to Lehman. The lawsuits also allege that the Lehman Brothers investments were inappropriate for a money market fund, and that the fund deviated from its stated investment approach.
The Liquidation Plan
On December 3, 2008, the fund’s trustees issued a "Plan of Liquidation and Distribution of Assets" (here). Among other things, the Liquidation Plan provides a plan for distribution of fund assets through "interim payments." The interim payments are to include distribution amounts "up to the amount of a special reserve, which would include amounts that would be required to satisfy disputed claims."
As the Liquidation Plan explains, this special reserve will be used to finance "costs and expenses of the Fund, its officers and Trustees"; "pending and threatened claims against the Fund"; and claims, "including but not limited to claims of indemnification that could be made against plan assets." Were the fund to distribute its assets without the special reserve, investors could expect about 98.5 cents per share. However, the special reserve, the amount of which has yet to be determined, will reduce this per share distribution.
As a December 5, 2008 New York Times article entitled "Embattled, Fund Shifts Costs to Investors" (here), put it, investors might hope to get 98.5 cents on the dollar, but "if they continue to wage legal battles against the fund managers, the company will use investors’ own money to defend itself against allegations or mismanagement and deception." Moreover, the Liquidation Plan makes it clear that the special reserve is not just for litigation expense, but also to "satisfy disputed claims." The December 8 Journal article cited above states that the fund has told investors "the fund will use some if its assets to fight suits investors have filed, which could reduce the money available to return to them."
Insurance and Indemnification
Readers who like me wonder whether there isn’t D&O liability insurance available to pay these amounts will be interested to learn that there is insurance, just not very much. According to the Liquidation Plan, the fund has a directors’ and officers’ liability insurance policy with a $10 million aggregate limit of liability.
Not only does the fund only have a $10 million D&O policy, but it is a "joint" policy, insuring not just the fund and its directors, officers and trustees, but also its investment advisor, its corporate parent, and other affiliated parties and person, many of whom are co-defendants with the fund and its directors and officers in the mass of investor lawsuits that have been filed.
In other words, though the fund has D&O insurance, its limits are, well, limited, and are also subject to erosion or depletion due to competing interests of multiple parties in the policy proceeds. It should be emphasized that under most D&O policies, defense expense reduces the amount of insurance remaining under the policy, meaning that there could be little or no insurance available to satisfy investors’ claims if the various cases are actively litigated.
The rights of the fund’s individual officers, directors and trustees to indemnification are not eliminated merely because of the allegations raised in the lawsuits (indeed, the outbreak of litigation is precisely the circumstances that trigger the operation of indemnification rights). Angered investors who may want to contend that the individual’s supposed misconduct should forfeit their rights to indemnification can try to argue based on Section 17(h) of the Investment Company Act that the fund cannot indemnify the individuals for "willful malfeasance, bad faith, gross negligence, or reckless disregard."
The problem for any investor inclined to make that argument is that the only way to establish that the statutory indemnification prohibitions have been triggered is to litigate the issue – which, as the Times article notes, is "the very act that could reduce the return to investors." In order to establish that the disqualifying conduct occurred, investors would have to pursue their case all the way to verdict, and arguably through appeal as well, a process that would be as uncertain as it would be costly and protracted.
So basically the message seems to be, you want to litigate, investors? Fine, knock yourselves out. It’s your money. As the Times article puts it, the choice offered investors under the Liquidation Plan "struck some legal experts as brazen."
The fund’s insurance limits are also worthy of comment. The fund had assets of approximately $64 billion. In that light, some may find the fund’s $10 million D&O insurance limits, well, surprising, particularly given that the limits insure not just the fund and its directors, officers and trustees, but also the fund’s investment advisor and other affiliated parties and person. Reasonable minds might well question the fund’s limits selection.
These circumstances also highlight the risks associated with widely shared limits. The number and diversity of entities and person who will be depending on the limits, along with the apparent seriousness and extent of the litigation involved, raises the probability that the litigation expense will quickly erode if not altogether deplete the available limits. The risk of limits erosion associated with these kinds of shared limits further underscores the fact that reasonable minds might well question the fund’s insurance limits selection.
In any event, the circumstances, particularly the Liquidation Plan, present investors with some difficult decisions. It will be interesting to see their next move, and whether they try to challenge the Liquidation Plan.
Special thanks to Kelly Rehyer for the link to the Times article.
And Speaking of Threats to Litigating Investors: As I noted in a prior post (here), investors have sued the Bank of America, challenging the loan modifications to which the bank agreed in connection with mortgages issued by Countrywide. The litigation has apparently caught the attention of FDIC chairman Sheila Bair.
As reported in a December 4, 2008 Los Angeles Times article (here), Bair told a consumer group gathering that "there is an obligation to modify mortgages," and that "investors should take a hard look at what they are advocating." She also said that "the harder investors push, the more there’s going to be a backlash here." She suggested that Congress may step in and change the legal obligations of mortgage services toward investors.
Interestingly, Bair did not state that the investors’ opposition to the mortgage makeovers is illegitimate or unmeritorious, only that their assertion of their interests represents an obstruction to policy goals she advocates. It certainly can be inconvenient when concerned parties insist on asserting their rights, but the threat of a Congressional backlash could strike some as heavy-handed.
Call it a hunch, but Bair’s remarks seem likelier to embolden rather than to discourage investors, as her remarks suggest that she recognizes the potential significance of their claims. In any event, whether or not Congress has the power or political will to set aside the agreements on which the investors are relying, if Congress were to take such a step it would do little to restore investor confidence in mortgage marketplace mechanisms, which would seem to be an indispensible part to restoring stability to the mortgage lending industry.
And Speaking of the FDIC: In yet another Friday-night special, on December 5, 2008, First Georgia Community Bank of Jackson, Georgia became the twenty third U.S. bank failure this year, after state regulators closed the bank and the FDIC was named receiver. The closure is Georgia’s fourth bank failure this year.
The FDIC’s December 5, 2008 press release can be found here. The FDIC’s updated list of bank failures can be found here. My prior post about the significance of the accumulating bank failures can be found here, and my prior post about the prospects for a new wave of "dead bank" litigation can be found here.