Among the many firms and entitles struggling with the effect of the global economic downturn are a host of municipalities, many of whom face diminished tax revenues, unfunded pension and health care liabilities and aging infrastructure. A number of these municipalities also labor under a burden of debt undertaken when times were flush. Financial woes have already forced credit rating downgrades on some issuers’ bonds and others are flirting with default. Among other things, these kinds of problems can lead to securities litigation, and recent developments in one securities suit involving a municipality raise the question whether there could be more suits to come.
Municipalities traditionally have various levels of exemptions from securities registration and reporting requirements, although these exemptions have evolved over time (about which refer here). But municipalities have always been subject to the antifraud provisions of the securities laws. Over the years the SEC has pursued a number of high profile enforcement actions in connection with municipal bond offerings. A lengthy list of the SEC’s enforcement actions against municipalities between 2003 and 2008 can be found here, including actions against issuers, public officials, and offering underwriters. Earlier cases can be found here and here.
Perhaps the most high-profile SEC enforcement action in recent months involving a municipality is the securities fraud complaint filed against five former San Diego city officials. As described in the SEC’s April 7, 2008 press release (here), the SEC alleged that the five officials, who allegedly played key roles in connection with inadequate municipal securities disclosures in 2002 and 2003, had "failed to disclose to the investing public buying the city’s municipal bonds that there were funding problems with its pension and health care obligations and these liabilities had placed the city in serious financial jeopardy."
As reflected in the SEC’s San Diego complaint (here), the five officials were the former City Manager, the former City Treasurer, the former City Auditor and Controller, the former Deputy City Manager, and the former Assistant Auditor and Controller. The complaint sought to enjoin the officials from further violations and to require the officials to pay a civil penalty.
The SEC’s actions clearly are designed to enforce the securities laws and to vindicate the principles they represent. However, the SEC’s actions in and of themselves will do little directly for the investors who were harmed by the alleged misrepresentations.
To be sure, investors are not precluded from initiating their own action to seek damages to redress their injuries. In at least one recent action involving the city of Alameda, California and related municipal entities, investors have filed a civil action seeking to recover damages for alleged violations of the securities laws.
As reflected in its Amended Complaint in the Alameda case (here), the plaintiff alleges that earlier in this decade with the City of Alameda issued certain municipal revenue anticipation notes, it knew the funding mechanism was never going to achieve the results needed, because the funding mechanism "was not economically feasible" for multiple reasons, "all of which were known to the City." The project was "not risky, but rather a surefire loser." The complaint is not filed as a class action, but a separate counterclaim brought by the Nuveen fund family raising substantially the same allegations against the City has also been filed in the same district.
The plaintiff in the Alameda case alleges violations of both the federal and California securities laws. The municipal defendants filed a motion to dismiss the California state securities law claims, based on statutory sovereign immunity.
In an August 11, 2009 order (here), Judge Susan Illston held that the statutory immunity provisions were not intended to provide local governments with immunity from securities fraud, and that the state securities law claims against the municipal entities may proceed.
As noted in a September 24, 2009 Daily Journal article entitled "The Newest Securities Litigators?" (here, subscription required), by Richard Gallagher of the Orrick, Harrington & Sutcliffe law firm, Judge Illston’s ruling is "a matter of first impression" under California law. As Gallagher further observes, Judge Illston’s ruling in the Alameda case is only one of several recent developments, including current SEC initiatives to provide greater regulatory oversight, that could further subject municipalities to litigation alleging securities law violations.
These developments, Gallagher comments, could not come at a worse time for municipalities, since many cities and counties around the country are dealing with record budget deficits and other financial difficulties. These public entities are in many instances struggling to meet debt obligations and are contending with problems arising from credit downgrades and even defaults.
These financial woes are producing significant bondholder losses, which could in turn lead to investor lawsuits like those filed against Alameda. Indeed, rulings such as that entered by Judge Illston, in which she held that municipal entities lacked statutory immunity from state securities laws claims, might embolden disappointed investors to pursue these kinds of claims.
The problem is that the financially troubled public entities can ill afford expensive, high-stakes securities litigation. Even if, as Gallagher notes, the municipalities would have substantial defenses for these kinds of claims, the defense costs alone could be staggering for financially strapped municipalities.
Readers of this blog may well wonder whether there are insurance products that could protect municipalities from these kinds of risks. Certainly, Public Official Liability Insurance includes liability protection not only for individual public officials but also for the public entities themselves. But many of these policies include an express exclusion precluding coverage for claims arising out of any debt financing. There may well be public entities that have procured insurance designed to provide protection for these kinds of claims, but the typical municipality has not, even if it otherwise purchases public official liability insurance.
The poor financial condition of defaulting public entities and the absence of insurance among other concerns do raise the question of what the investor plaintiffs’ litigation objectives may be – the beleaguered taxpayers of the troubled municipality hardly qualify as an attractive target, whatever wrongs the investors may allege.
Perhaps the motivation of investor plaintiffs in these kinds of cases may be understood from the lineup of the defendants in the Alameda case. The defendants named in that case include not only the various municipal entities, but also the offering underwriters that sponsored the city’s note offering, authored the offering documents, and sold the notes to the public.
The plaintiff’s complaint in the Alameda case alleges that the offering underwriter knew, "as the City did, that the project was not economically feasible," or in the alternative, that the underwriter "failed utterly in its duty to undertake due diligence to unearth the City’s misrepresentations and omissions of material fact." The plaintiff purchased $8.5 million of the city’s notes from the offering underwriter, which the plaintiff further alleged has been "an Advisor in which the Plaintiff reposed trust and confidence."
Thus, while Judge Illston’s ruling that municipalities lack statutory immunity from state securities law claims may be significant, the municipal defendants in the Alameda case may or may not even be the central targets.
Other aggrieved municipal bond investors may also seek to pursue similar claims against the outside professionals that advised the issuer municipalities. These gatekeeper kinds of claims could face substantial hurdles of their own, including with respect to the federal securities claims the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in the Stoneridge case that there is no private right of action for scheme liability or aiding and abetting under the federal securities laws.
These hurdles and the disincentives to pursuing financial trouble municipalities could discourage some prospective litigants from pursuing these kinds of claims. Nevertheless, the prospect of further municipal bond defaults and developments such as Judge Illston’s ruling in the Alameda case could encourage some claimants to proceed.
There may, in fact, be specific reasons why municipalities may be particularly vulnerable to securities suits, notwithstanding all of the contrary considerations noted above. That is, as Gallagher notes in his article, "municipal issuers may lack procedures for achieving consistent disclosure goals, leaving them vulnerable to securities suits." The provision of "incomplete financial information regarding the issuer’s financial affairs" could "present some serious litigation risks."
As Gallagher concludes, municipalities could find themselves for the first time in coming years defending themselves from securities fraud claims, particularly with respect to state law-based allegations.
Very special thanks to Richard Gallagher for providing a copy of his article and a copy of Judge Illston’s opinion.