Among the many lawsuits that have flooded in as part of the subprime and credit crisis litigation wave has been a profusion of lawsuits against the mortgage-backed securities issuers and their securities offering underwriters. These lawsuits, typically filed under the ’33 Act and alleging misrepresentations in the offering documents, claim that investors who purchased securities in the offering have been harmed due to the deterioration in the performance of the underlying mortgages.
As discussed below, questions about the damages claimed in these lawsuits could present serious hurdles as the cases go forward.
A recent example of the class action securities litigation filed on behalf on investors in these mortgage-backed securities investments may be found in the January 26, 2009 press release (here) in which the plaintiffs’ lawyers described the lawsuit they filed in the Eastern District of New York against Deutsche Alt-A, Inc., and certain other defendants in connection with the offering of mortgage-backed pass-through securities by 32 mortgage loan trusts.
As described in the press release, the complaint (here) alleges that the offering documents failed to disclose that:
sellers of the underlying mortgages to Deutsche Alt-A were issuing many of the mortgage loans to borrowers who: (i) did not meet the prudent or maximum debt-to-income ratio purportedly required by the lender; (ii) did not provide adequate documentation to support the income and assets required to issue the loans pursuant to the lenders’ own guidelines; (iii) were steered to stated income/asset and low documentation mortgage loans by lenders, lenders’ correspondents or lenders’ agents, such as mortgage brokers, because the borrowers could not qualify for mortgage loans that required full documentation; and (iv) did not have the income or assets required by the lenders’ own guidelines necessary to afford the required mortgage loan payments, which resulted in loans that borrowers could not afford to pay.
The complaint alleges as the underlying mortgages have deteriorated, "the Certificates are no longer marketable at prices anywhere near the price paid by plaintiff and the Class and the holders of the Certificates are exposed to much more risk with respect to both the timing and absolute cash flow to be received than the Registration Statement/Prospectus Supplements represented."
This case is only one of several recent lawsuits in which the same or similar allegations have been raised. Plaintiffs’ lawyers have raised similar allegations against, for example, mortgage-backed pass through certificates sponsored by JP Morgan Acceptance Corporation (refer here); mortgage backed securities sponsored by GS Mortgage Securities Corp. (refer here); mortgage pass-through certificates sponsored by Washington Mutual (refer here); and mortgage-pass through certificates sponsored by Residential Asset Securitzation Trust (refer here). By my count, there have been more than a dozen of these types of lawsuits filed in connection with the current subprime and credit crisis-related litigation wave.
Like many of these cases, the Deutsche Alt-A case was originally filed in state court, and removed by defendants to federal court. (The removal petition, which accompanies the complaint, can be found here.) The federal court subsequently denied the plaintiffs' motion to have the case remanded to state court, in this case on the relatively narrow and specific ground that that one of the entities that originated the underlying mortgages, American Home Mortgage Corporation, is in bankruptcy in the federal court in Delaware, and the securities case is related to the bankruptcy proceeding. A copy of the January 8, 2009 opinion denying the remand motion can be found here.
Special thanks to Adam Savett of the Securities Litigation Watch blog (here) for providing a copy of the removal petition and complaint in the Deutsche Alt-A case.
In each of these cases, the harm claimed is similar to that alleged in the Deutsche Alt-A case; that is, that as a result of problems associated with the underlying mortgages, the securities are "no longer marketable at prices near the price paid" and the holders are exposed to much more risk with respect to the timing and absolute cash flow."
These allegations raise some interesting and perhaps novel questions, as discussed in a January 2009 article from the Milbank Tweed law firm entitled "Subprime Litigation Against Issuers and Underwriters of Mortgage-Backed Securities—Where are the Actual Losses?" (here).
As the memo notes, these lawsuits embody "the relatively untested assumption" that the current paper value of these securities is "the appropriate reference point" for determining whether the investors have "suffered a loss that is ripe for litigation (and the extent of any such loss)."
The authors note that these securities are not listed on any public exchanges, but rather all trades are privately negotiated. The securities themselves are essentially contracts that entitle the owner to certain portions of principal and interest from the pools of mortgages that serve as collateral for the securities. The securities also have various forms of credit enhancement, such as overcollateralization, subordination and excess spreads, so that defaults on the underlying mortgages will not necessarily trigger a default on the payment obligations on the securities themselves.
As a result, an investor could continue to receive payments under the securities as scheduled, even if GAAP accounting might require the carrying value of the securities to be reduced.
These circumstances lead the authors to ask
Is the fear that certain tranches of the [mortgage backed securites] might not be paid in full a sufficient basis for brining a claim under the ’33 Act? Is such a claim a ripe case or controversy for the courts? And is the fact that some "paper measure of price" for the [mortgage backed securities] tranche has declined since the time of purchase enough to overcome these hurdles?
In considering these questions, the authors note that the typical offering documents for these kinds of securities expressly warn that a secondary market for the securities may not exist and that investors may not be able to sell the securities at the price they hope to obtain. For most investors in these types of securities, this consideration is generally of less concern, because the investors "expect to make money by holding the bond through maturity and receiving the income stream they bargained for, not by trading on a secondary market."
Nevertheless, the lawsuits relating to these securities claim damages based on the decline in their valuation and the fears that payments may be at "risk" in the future. The memo reviews the well-publicized difficulties associated with valuing these securities, and notes the probable lack of valuation uniformity among holders of these securities, given the flexibility of the relevant accounting standards. As a result, the securities holders may face challenges in establishing with sufficient certainty that they have suffered an "economic loss," as the securities laws arguably require. These difficulties are particularly where, as is the case with many of these securities, the investors continue to receive all payments due to them.
The authors suggest that generally there is no basis in law for seeking damages where the damages cannot be quantified and may never come to pass. They suggest that defendants in these cases will attempt to argue based on these principles that investors "who continue to be paid the full amount of any principal and interest payments due to them may have little choice but to ‘wait and see’ whether feared, modeled, or projected losses…come to fruition (i.e., become ‘clear and definite’) before being able to state claims under the securities laws."
The authors add that this argument may be particularly compelling where "intervening events such as legislative or executive action….could drastically alter the future payment outlook for many mortgage-backed securities."
These lawsuits against the issuers of mortgage-backed securities represent a significant number of the subprime securities lawsuits. Plaintiffs’ lawyers seem inclined to file these lawsuits, undoubtedly in part due to the degree of investor concern about their investments. Whether and to what extent these cases ultimately will succeed remains to be seen. As the law firm memo demonstrates there may be a host of questions surrounding these lawsuits. At a minimum it will be interesting to see what the courts make of these cases, and in particular the alleged damages, as the lawsuits proceed.
A more academic overview of many of these issues may be found in the paper Harvard Law School professor Allen Ferrell and Babson Business School Professors Jennifer Bethel and Gang Hu entitled "Legal and Economic Issues in Litigation Arising from the 2007-2008 Credit Crisis" (here).
Largest FCPA Penalty Ever Against U.S. Company: Fast on the heels of Siemens recent agreement to pay $800 million to settle bribery allegations (about which refer here), Halliburton has now agreed to pay $559 million to settle charges that one of its former units bribed Nigerian officials during the construction of a gas plant.
According to Halliburton’s January 26, 2009 press release (here), Halliburton has agreed to pay $382 million to the U.S. Department of Justice in eight installments over the next two years. In addition, Halliburton agreed to pay the SEC $177 million in disgorgement. Both settlements are subject to final approval by the relevant authorities.
As reported on the WSJ.com Law Blog (here), the Halliburton penalty is by far the largest ever for a U.S. company, far surpassing the prior record of $44 million by Baker Hughes in 2007. More detail about the Halliburton agreement can be found on The FCPA Blog (here).
The Halliburton settlement is further evidence of a point I have made numerous times on this blog, that FCPA enforcement activity represents a growing area of concern. As I discussed most recently here, an important part of this exposure is the threat of civil litigation that frequently follows on after the enforcement proceeding. The sheer magnitude of the Siemens and Halliburton settlements suggest that potential FCPA liability could represent a significant exposure for corporations and their directors and offices.
Blast from the Past: Another Options Backdating Settlement: The options backdating cases are a vestige from another time and place, yet they remain, like so much cosmic dust, reminders of a distant catastrophe. In a recent development in one prominent case, the Delaware Chancery Court has approved a settlement that is noteworthy in at least a couple of respects.
As reflected in a January 2, 2009 opinion by Chancellor William Chandler in the Ryan v. Gifford case (here), the court has approved the settlement of the options backdating case involving Maxim Integrated Products, over shareholder objections. Under the settlement, which is detailed in the opinion, the defendants agreed to pay a total of $28,505,473 in cash. In addition, the defendants agreed to cancel, reprice or surrender claims with respect to certain options they continued to hold. The company also agreed to certain corporate governance reforms.
The settlement is noteworthy in a couple of respects. The first is simply that it involves the Ryan v. Gifford case, in which Chandler had written an influential and important February 2007 opinion denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss (as discussed here). Because of this opinion, the case is among the more prominent of the options backdating cases.
The other noteworthy aspect of the settlement is the individual defendants’ significant contribution toward settlement. Of the $28.5 million settlement amount, $21 million was paid by insurance. The balance of the cash was paid by the individual defendants. John Gifford, the company’s former CEO, agreed to make his own cash payment of $6 million to Maxim, even though, as the Court noted, he was "covered by insurance." The court’s statement in this respect seems to suggest that there were additional insurance funds available to fund this amount, but that as part of the settlement Gifford nevertheless agreed to pay this amount out of his own assets. Other individuals agreed to pay lesser amounts.
It is not entirely clear whether the insurance would in fact have covered the amounts of these individual payments. For example, in connection with the payments by the individuals other than Gifford, the court noted that the amounts paid "represent the entire amount that they were alleged to have benefitted from the exercise of backdated stock options." To the extent these amounts represent disgorgement or return of ill-gotten gains, the policy’s coverage would not apply. The court’s opinion is not as specific with respect to Gifford’s payment, but to the extent his contribution also represents his return of benefits from the exercise of backdated options, the insurance coverage similarly would not likely apply.
In any event, the size of the settlement, the prominence of the case and the significance of the individuals’ contributions make this a noteworthy settlement. I have added the settlement to my list of options backdating lawsuit settlements, dismissals and dismissal motion denials, which can be accessed here.