As recently as this past Monday, commentators were grumbling that the FDIC is moving too slowly in pursue claims against former directors and officers of failed banks. The FDIC has responded in dramatic fashion with a March 16, 2011 lawsuit filing in the Western District of Washington against three former Washington Mutual executives, as well as two of the executives’ wives.


According to news reports (here), the lawsuit seeks damages of as much as $900 million. The media stories also suggest that there is an agreement by WaMu’s outside directors to pay $125 million to settle claims by the FDIC is pending approval. A copy of the FDIC’s recent complaint against the WaMu executives and their wives can be found here.


WaMu’s September 2008 failure (about which refer here), represents by far the largest bank failure in U.S. history. The events surrounding its failure have already been the subject of extensive litigation, not the least of which is a pending securities class action lawsuit filed on behalf of WaMu’s shareholders, which, as noted here, survived a renewed motion to dismiss after the lead plaintiffs amended their complaint.


The FDIC filed its recent lawsuit in its capacity as WaMu’s receiver. The lawsuit names as defendants WaMu’s former CEO, Kerry Killinger, its former President and COO, Stephen Rotella, and its chief of home lending, David Schneider. In a rather unusual twist that shows just how aggressively the FDIC may be prepared to get in pursuing these claims, the complaint also names Killinger’s wife, Linda Killinger, and Rotella’s wife, Esther as explained below.


The complaint asserts claims against the three executives for Gross Negligence, Ordinary Negligence and Breach of Fiduciary Duty.


The complaint alleges that the three defendants caused the bank to take "extreme and historically unprecedented risks with WaMu’s held-for-investment loan portfolio." The three allegedly focused on short term gains, to the disregard of the bank’s long term safety and soundness. The executives, lead by Killinger, allegedly developed an executed a strategy to make billions of dollars of risky residential mortgages, increasing the risk profile of the bank’s held for investment mortgage portfolio.


The bank’s business strategy dictated a lending approach for which few lenders were turned away. The bank also layered multiple levels of risk with particularly risk loan products such as option ARM mortgages, the riskiness of which was further compounded by allowing stated income lending and other questionable lending practices.


The complaint alleges further that these executives continued to pursue their aggressive growth strategy even at a point when housing prices "were unsustainably high" and while relying upon an aging infrastructure that was inadequate to keep up with the enormous loan volume. The complaint alleges that the three executives knew the strategy was risky, knew the process weaknesses, and even knew there was a housing price bubble. Yet, the complaint alleges, the three executives marginalized the company’s risk management department.


As a result, when the bubble collapsed, the bank "was in an extremely vulnerable position" and, as a result of the three executives "gross mismanagement" the bank suffered losses of "billions of dollars."


The complaint also includes fraudulent conveyance claims against Killinger and his wife Linda, and against Rotella and his wife Esther.


The complaint alleges that in August 2008, Killinger and his wife transferred two residential properties to qualified personal residence trusts and appointed themselves as trustees. The complaint alleges that these transfers were made with the intent to hinder, delay or defraud Killinger’s future creditors.


The complaint contains similar allegations against Rotella and his wife with respect to an April 2008 residential real estate transfer and a September 2008 transfer from Rotella to his wife of $1 million.


In statements to the Wall Street Journal, here, Killinger and Rotella said the FDIC’s allegations are "baseless" and "lack credibility" and that the lawsuit is "unworthy of the government." I recommend that readers take a few minutes and read these two individuals’ statements. Whatever may be the merits of this and similar cases brought by the FDIC, it is very clear from these statements that there will be a personal price to pay for the individuals involved. The personal pain these men are feeling is palpable, and there will be more of this kind of pain for other former bank officials as more of these kinds of lawsuits are filed.


With the filing of this complaint, the FDIC has unmistakably demonstrated that it will pursue claims against former directors and officer of failed banks when it chooses to do so. Indeed, the claims against the two executives’ wives clearly show that the FDIC will proceed aggressively.


Given that WaMu represented the largest bank failure in U.S. history, it may come as no surprise that the FDIC is pursuing these kinds of claims. What has been surprising to some, and what occasioned the criticism I mentioned in my opening paragraph, is how deliberate the FDIC has been in choosing to pursue claims. WaMu failed nearly two and one half years ago. If the FDIC were to act with similar deliberation in pursing other claims, it could well be some time before we know for sure how extensive the FDIC’s litigation activity ultimately will be in pursing claims as part of the current bank failure.


It is, however, quite clear that the FDIC will be pursuing more of these types of claims. The FDIC recently updated the Professional Liability Lawsuits page on its website (here) to show that the FDIC’s board has approved lawsuits against 158 individual directors and officers of failed banks. Since the six lawsuits the FDIC has filed to date only amount to about 40 individual defendants in total, there are many more lawsuits to come, just based on the actions that have been approved so far.


One particularly interesting detail about the news surrounding the FDIC’s recent lawsuit is the report that WaMu’s outside directors have agreed to pay $125 million to settle claims. It is interesting that the outside directors agreed to pay this amount without the intervening step of a lawsuit against them. One question that immediately occurs to me is whether and to what extent this $125 million payment is to be funded by D&O insurance.


WaMu’s D&O insurance program was undoubtedly already under pressure due to the significant presence of other claims already pending against its former directors and officers. One possibility that occurs to me is that the bank may have carried a significant layer of Side A DIC protection, which may well have been triggered by the bank holding company’s bankruptcy. Because of the bankruptcy, all of the claims represent potential Side A losses, suggesting that the bank’s Excess Side A/DIC program could well have been called in to contribute. All these are details that those of us on the outside can only wonder about; however, comments from knowledgeable persons who are closer to the situation are always welcome.


Whatever may be the case, it is clear that D&O insurance may be playing a role of some kind in all of this. At least Stephen Rotella thinks so. In his statement to the Wall Street Journal to which I linked above, he speculated that the lawsuit itself "may be a way for the FDIC to collect a payout from insurers who provided officers and directors liability coverage for the time they worked at WaMu."


As noted, with this lawsuit, the total number of lawsuits the FDIC has filed as part of the current wave of failed bank litigation is now up to six. A list of the six lawsuits can be found here.


A March 17, 2011 Bloomberg article about the FDIC’s lawsuit can be found here. A March 17, 2011 Seattle Post-Intelligencer article about the suit can be found here.