Since the sole remaining Friday in December is also Christmas Day, the seven banks the FDIC closed last Friday night may represent the last bank failures of 2009. Of course, there is no legal requirement that Friday is the only day of the week on which the FDIC can close a bank. The FDIC could close additional banks on any of the few remaining business days left this year. But given the holiday season, the 140 year-to-date number of bank failures seems likely to be where we will end the year.


The 140 bank closures were both widely dispersed and narrowly concentrated. The FDIC took control of banks in 32 different states, but the closures were particularly clustered in four states: Georgia (with 25 closures), Illinois (21), California (17), and Florida (14). These four states alone account for 77 of the bank failures this year, more than half of the year to date total. Indeed, no other state had double digit numbers of bank failures. The next closest states were Minnesota (6), Texas (5) and Arizona (5).


Though the bank closures have been geographically dispersed, certain regions have been spared. For example, there were no 2009 bank failures in the New England states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut or Rhode Island, and only one each in New York and Pennsylvania. And though Georgia and Florida have seen high numbers of bank failures, much of the rest of the South has been relatively untouched – there were no 2009 bank failures in West Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana, and only one each in Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma.


Among the banks that failed in 2009 were some of the country’s largest, including Colonial Bank (with assets of $25 billion), Guaranty Bank ($13 billion), and BankUnited ($12.8 billion). However, these banks all are smaller than two of the larger banks that failed in 2008, Washington Mutual ($307 billion) and IndyMac ($32 billion).


But though there the list of failed banks includes these larger banks, the list of bank closures really has been predominated by smaller banks. Of the 140 banks that failed in 2009, 112 (80%) involved institutions with less than $1 billion in assets. Indeed, 97 of the 140, or about 69%, had assets of under $500 million. 21 of the 2009 failed banks, or 15%, has assets of under $100 million.


Lest anyone might optimistically hope that with the end of 2009 we have put these sad tidings in the past, the 2009 bank closure timeline seems to suggest to the contrary. Of the 140 banks that closed in 2009, 95 (or about 68%) closed in the second half of the year, compared to 45 in the first half of the year. Though the highest monthly total was in July (when 24 banks were closed, nearly as many as the 25 banks that failed in all of 2008), there were significant numbers of closures in October (20) and December (16).


The FDIC’s latest Quarterly Banking Profile stated that as of September 30, 2009, it graded 552 banks as "problem" institutions (about which refer here), which suggests there could be many bank closures yet to come – which helps explain why FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair last week proposed to increase the agency’s budget and staff, in order for the agency to be able to deal with the anticipated increasing numbers of banking failures in 2010.


I have previously commented the high numbers of bank failures in Georgia, which has been referred to as the "bank failure capital of the world." In that regard, it is noteworthy that there were as many 2009 bank failures in Georgia (25) as there were in the entire country in 2008. In the two year period, Georgia has a total of 30 failed banks, as detailed here.


Who Might Sue When Banks Fail: In prior posts (for example, here), I have noted developments in claims being asserted against directors and officers of failed financial institutions by disappointed investors and by banking regulators. But in addition to these two groups that potentially might assert claims against the directors and officers of failed banks, another group of potential claimants also has recently emerged – the employees of the failed banks.


For example, as reflected in their December 17, 2009 press release, plaintiffs’ attorneys filed a class action lawsuit in the Western District of Washington against Venture Financial Group, the parent of Venture Bank, which regulators closed on September 11, 2009. The lawsuit is filed on behalf of the participants in the bank’s retirement plans. The defendants include the holding company’s directors and officers, some of whom also served on the bank’s board, as well as the individual members of the plans’ administrative committees.


The complaint, which can be found here, alleges that the bank engaged in "a number of large, high-risk and inappropriate investment practices." These practices, "combined with its hazardous lending practices produced more than $200 million losses" and "exposed the retirement plans," which included investments in the holding company’s stock, and which allegedly sustained more than $12 million in losses. The complaint seeks to recover damages on behalf of the plan participants under ERISA.


On December 16, 2009, the same plaintiffs’ firm also announced (here) that it is investigating the possibility of a similar ERISA class action behalf of participants in the benefits plans of Sterling Financial Corporation, which, though it is not among the banks that the FDIC has closed,  was also recently hit with a securities class action lawsuit.


This new lawsuit and the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ investigation announcement underscore that in the wake of a bank failure there are a variety of constituencies might consider initiating claims against the failed institution’s directors and officers. This is all just one more reason I think that one of the key litigation trends we will see in 2010 is an upsurge in litigation against the directors and officers of failed banks.


The Receiver’s Right to Stay Failed Bank Litigation and Require Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies: Though other constituencies may seek to assert claims, the FDIC has rights to seek a stay of the other claimants’ lawsuits under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act of 1989 ("FIRREA), as reflected in a December 10, 2009 order in the Northern District of Texas lawsuit involving Millennium State Bank. Millennium failed on July 2, 2009 (refer here). Investors who had purchased Millennium stock filed a state court action against the bank, its directors, its auditors and its offering underwriter. The investors claimed they had been provided incomplete and inaccurate information about the bank. The investors alleged violations of Texas securities law and common law, and they sought to rescind their investment traction and/or damages.


The FDIC moved to intervene in the state court suit and then removed the case to the Northern District of Texas. The FDIC then filed a motion under FIRREA, arguing that the investors’ case should be stayed and that the plaintiffs’ and intervenors’ claims must be "exhausted under the administrative claim procedure of FIRREA."


The court granted the motion, holding that the FDIC was entitled to the stay, saying that "the law is well established that a stay is mandatory for any claim subject to FIRREA, if the receiver requests one." The court rejected the investors’ argument that the FDIC was not entitled to a stay because they had not named the bank as a party. The court found that "the mandatory stay applies to all claims against the bank and any related third parties" and found further that under FIRREA the "stay is required as to all parties."


The court quoted case authority from the prior era of failed banks to the effect that refusing to grant a stay "would largely defeat FIRREA’s purpose of allowing the agency to evaluate claims in a streamlined administrative procedure."


The court granted the stay until the earlier of the date on which the FDIC as receiver disallows the claims or until the 180-day administrative review period has expired.


In other words, though there may be many constituencies that may seek to pursue claims in the wake of a bank’s failure, the FDIC has rights under FIRREA to sort out which claims will go forward. It seems likely one consideration that might affect whether the FDIC will allow a claimant’s case to go forward would be whether the FDIC intends to pursue its own claims as receiver against the defendants (and, it should probably be added, to try to maximize its own recovery from D&O insurance proceeds). As I previously noted (here), the FDIC has already established that it is going to be aggressive in asserting its priority rights to assert claims against the directors and officers of failed financial institutions.


So if, as I expect, there will be an upsurge in failed bank litigation in 2010, the FDIC is going to call the shots.