In a ruling that may have potential significance for the many claims that have been filed against the rating agencies in the subprime litigation wave, on February 17, 2010, Southern District of New York Judge Lewis Kaplan dismissed all but one of the claims that had been filed against the individual defendants in the Lehman Brothers Mortgage-Backed Securities Litigation. A copy of Judge Kaplan’s February 17 order can be found here.
Plaintiffs had purchased the mortgage back securities that Lehman Brothers issued in August 2005 and August 2006. The plaintiffs allege that the originators of the loans that backed the securities failed to comply with the general loan underwriting guidelines described in the offering documents. The plaintiffs allege that the offering documents had failed to disclose that the rating agencies, which were paid for providing their ratings, had conflicts of interest and had been involved in helping to structure the securities. The plaintiffs also allege that the offering documents failed to disclose that the credit enhancements supporting the loans were insufficient to support the investment ratings the rating agencies gave the securities.
The individual defendants in the case are the officers and directors of the Structured Asset Securities Corporation, which issued the registration statements and acted as depositor in the securitization process. The individual defendants moved to dismiss.
As noted in prior posts, Judge Kaplan has previously dismissed plaintiffs’ claims against the rating agencies themselves (refer here), rejecting plaintiffs’ arguments that the rating agencies were "underwriters" under the ’33 Act. Judge Kaplan also previously dismissed the separate ERISA class action claims (refer here, scroll down). In his February 17 decision, Judge Kaplan separately ruled on the individual defendants’ motion to dismiss.
The February 17 Decision
Judge Kaplan held that the plaintiffs’ allegations that the offering documents failed to disclose the rating agencies’ conflict of interest were insufficient to state a claim, for two reasons.
First, Judge Kaplan held that the Securities Act does not require disclosures of "that which is publicly known," and "the risk that the rating agencies operated under a conflict of interest because they were paid by the issuers had been known publicly for years."
Judge Kaplan then went on to hold that "the rating agencies’ role in structuring the certificates is not material as a matter of law." His conclusion is based on the following analysis:
If the fee arrangement undermined an investor’s confidence in the rating agencies’ independence, a disclosure that a rating agency was involved in structuring the Certificates prior to rating them would have added nothing important to the "total mix" of information. If, on the other hand, an investor trusted the ratings agencies to give an honest opinion notwithstanding the fact that they were paid by the issuer, the fact that they were involved in structuring the Certificates, assuming that they were, likewise would have been unimportant. In consequence, these claims are insufficient.
With respect to the plaintiffs’ allegations that the offering documents contained misrepresentations about the amount and form of credit enhancement, Judge Kaplan held that the statement about the credit enhancement was a "statement of opinion," which could be actionable only if the complaint alleged that the rating agencies did not actually hold that opinion.
Judge Kaplan found that "at best" the complaint’s allegations "support an inference that some employees believed the rating agencies could have used methods that better would have informed their opinions," which he held to be insufficient to state a claim.
But Judge Kaplan did hold that the complaint’s allegations that the loan originators "systematically failed to follow the underwriting guidelines" were "sufficient at this stage to support a reasonable inference that the offering documents’ description of the underwriting guidelines was materially misleading."
Accordingly, Judge Kaplan granted the individual defendants’ motion to dismiss all of the claims against them except plaintiffs’ Section 11 claims about the loan originators’ supposed departures from underwriting standards.
Even though Judge Kaplan’s February 17 opinion was issued in connection with claims asserted against the individual defendants and not in connection with claims asserted against the rating agencies themselves, the opinion nevertheless potentially could be of great significance in other subprime mortgage-related cases in which claims have been raised against the rating agencies.
In particular, Judge Kaplan’s holding that the offering documents’ omissions about the rating agencies’ alleged conflicts of interest and role in structuring the securities were not legally actionable may be of particular significance.
In many of the other cases in which claims have been asserted against the rating agencies, the claimants have, like the plaintiffs in the Lehman case, alleged that the rating agencies had undisclosed conflicts of interest and were involved in structuring the investments at issue. The rating agencies will undoubtedly find Judge Kaplan’s holding that the alleged omission of this information is not legally actionable to be helpful.
Judge Kaplan did not reach the question whether or not the rating agencies’ ratings are protected by the First Amendment, which is another defense on which the rating agencies will attempt to rely. But if the alleged omissions about the rating agencies are not actionable in the first place, there may never be a need to reach the First Amendment issues.
Judge Kaplan conclusion that the disclosures concerning the securities’ credit enhancements represented opinion rather than statements of fact is also instructive, even without getting into the First Amendment issues. As his February 17 decision states, statements of opinion are actionable only if the allegations show that the opinions were not actually as disclosed. Again, Judge Kaplan’s rulings are instructive and potentially significant as they suggest ways in which the claims against the rating agencies may be considered without even getting into the First Amendment issues.
Finally, Judge Kaplan’s holding that the rating agencies’ alleged conflicts of interest and involvement in the securitization transaction are immaterial does raise interesting questions about claimants’ ability to overcome the rating agencies’ First Amendment defenses. The plaintiffs have argued that the rating agencies were not entitled to rely on the First Amendment defense in the context of these kinds of structured investments because of the conflicts of interest and involvement in the transaction. Perhaps Judge Kaplan’s rulings are unrelated to these issues, but it does seem incongruous that considerations that are immaterial would be sufficient to overcome a constitutional defense.
Of course, it is entirely possible that other courts may not be persuaded by Judge Kaplan’s analysis. It is not intuitively obvious that, because it was public knowledge that rating agencies had conflicts, the rating agencies’ involvement in the transactions is legally immaterial. Indeed, the jump between the public knowledge of the conflict of interest and the immateriality of the rating agencies’ involvement in the transactions is frankly unsatisfying. Other courts might well be unwilling to make that analytic jump.
I have in any event added Judge Kaplan’s February 17 opinion to my table of subprime-related lawsuit motion to dismiss rulings, which can be accessed here. Because a portion of the claims against the individual defendants survived the dismissal motion, I have listed the ruling in the table of dismissal motion denials.
Special thanks to a loyal reader for sending a copy of Judge Kaplan's February 17 opinion.