During the current bank failure wave more banks have failed in Georgia than in any other state. For that reason, the recent dismissal motion ruling in the first failed bank case the FDIC filed involving a failed Georgia bank takes on a heightened level of significance. Northern District of Georgia Judge Steve C. Jones’s February 27, 2012 ruling the FDIC’s lawsuit against eight former directors of the failed Integrity Bank (here) is not only the first to address the liability standard under Georgia law for directors of failed banks but also the ruling addresses important issues regarding the defenses that defendant directors may raise and rely upon against the FDIC.
Integrity Bank of Alpharetta, Georgia was one of the first in Georgia to fail when it was closed on August 28, 2008. As discussed here, on January 14, 2011, in what was the third FDIC lawsuit overall against former officials of a failed bank and the first in Georgia, the FDIC filed a lawsuit against eight former officials of Integrity Bank. The FDIC’s complaint can be found here.
By way of important context, it should be noted that two former Integrity officials have already drawn criminal charges involving activities at the bank, as discussed here. One of the two indicted Integrity officials, Douglas Ballard, is also named as a defendant in the FDIC’s civil lawsuit. As noted here, in July 2010, the two individuals entered criminal guilty pleas in the case.
The FDIC, which filed the lawsuit in its capacity as Integrity Bank’s receiver, seeks to recover “over $70 million in losses” that the FDIC alleges the bank suffered on 21 commercial and residential acquisition, development and construction loans between February 4, 2005 and May 2, 2007. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss. The FDIC filed a motion to strike certain of the defendants’ affirmative defenses.
The February 27, 2012 Ruling
In his February 27 ruling, Judge Jones denied n part and granted in part the defendants’ motions to dismiss. The defendants had first sought to dismiss the complaint in reliance on exculpatory provisions adopted in the bank’s articles of incorporation. Judge Jones concluded under Georgia law the exculpatory provisions would not be applicable to the action by the FDIC, and he therefore denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss to the extent reliant on the exculpatory provision.
The defendants also moved to dismiss the claims against them for ordinary negligence, arguing that the actions were protected under Georgia law by the business judgment rule and therefore they could not be held liable for claims of ordinary negligence. Judge Jones held, after reviewing case law interpreting the business judgment rule under Georgia law that “in light of this authority and the application of the business judgment rule, the Court finds that the Plaintiffs’ claims for ordinary negligence and breach of fiduciary duty based upon ordinary negligence fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”
However, Judge Jones also held that FDIC’s remaining claims for gross negligence and breach of fiduciary duty based up on gross negligence remain, “as they encompass conduct which would fall beyond the ambit of the protections of the business judgment rule.” Judge Jones also separately held that the complaint raised allegations from which if true “a jury might reasonably conclude that Defendants’ were ‘grossly negligent’ as defined by Georgia law.” Accordingly, Judge Jones denied defendants’ motion to dismiss the acclaims for gross negligence and breach of fiduciary duty based on gross negligence.
Finally, the FDIC had moved to strike certain of the defendants’ affirmative defenses, arguing that the defenses were not available against the FDIC in its capacity as receiver of the failed bank. Judge Jones agreed with the motion to the extent the affirmative defenses sought to rely on the FDIC’s actions in its corporate capacity (FDIC-C) prior to the its takeover of the bank. However, Judge Jones denied the FDIC’s motion to strike the affirmative defenses based on a failure to mitigate, estoppel and reliance “ to the extent those defenses are based upon post-receivership conduct by Plaintiff in its capacity as receiver.”
Judge Jones did find, however, that while the defendants’ could not rely on the FDIC-C’s conduct as the basis of an affirmative defense, “the murkier question is whether the defendants can rely on the FDIC-C’s conduct to rebut causation or offer an alternative theory of causation.” Judge Jones denied the FDIC’s motion to strike the causation defense, but indicated that he would call for further briefing on the question of whether or not the defendants can rely on the FDIC’s pre-receivership conduct to rebut causation or to support an alternative theory of causation.
Judge Jones’s rulings in the Integrity Bank case may be the first under Georgia law in the failed bank context saying that, in light of the business judgment rule, the standard of liability for former directors and officers of the failed bank is gross negligence. To that extent, his ruling is positive for the many directors and officers of failed banks facing liability claims from the FDIC.
However, Judge Jones also found that the relatively unexceptional allegations in the FDIC’s complaint were sufficient to state a claim for gross negligence. To that extent, Judge Jones’s ruling is less helpful to those many Georgia failed bank officials, because it seems less likely those individuals might be able to get out of an FDIC failed bank lawsuit on a motion to dismiss.
Judge Jones’s rulings on the FDIC’s motion to strike may be even more interesting, however. His rulings were not merely a matter of Georgia law, but rather were based on his interpretation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1994 decision in O'Melveny & Myers v. FDIC. His holding that affirmative defenses for failure to mitigate, estoppel and reliance could be raised against teh FDIC in its capacity as receiver (even if not available with respect to the agency's actions in its capacity as FDIC-C) could proved helpful to individual defendants in many FDIC failed bank lawsuits -- and not just those pending in Georgia.
By the same token, his unwillingness to conclude that the defendants cannot rely on the FDIC-C’s conduct to rebut causation or offer an alternative theory of causation at least potentially opens the door for other defendants to try to assert these defenses.
The ultimate significance of this decision, whether in the case itself or in other cases in Georgia or elsewhere, remains to be seen. Certainly, Judge Jones’s rulings will be looked to by other courts trying to sort out these issues. The suggestion on his standard of liability rulings is that cases in Georgia may be narrower but perhaps harder to dismiss outright at the motion to dismiss stage. On the other hand, his rulings on the defenses that may be raised against the FDIC may prove helpful for other defendants. In most instances, the FDIC has been able to argue that its conduct is not at issue in suits it brings in its capacity as receiver. Judge Jones’s ruling suggests that the FDIC’s conduct as receiver at least can at least potentially serve as the basis of an affirmative defense. His ruling on the causation question opens the door that the FDIC-C’s pre-closure conduct could also be brought into question as well.
With so many failed banks in Georgia, and with the likelihood of a proliferation of failed bank suits in that state, Judge Jones’s rulings could prove to be significant.
Many thanks to the several loyal readers who sent me copies of the Integrity Bank decision. Special thanks to Bob Ambler of the Womble Carlyle firm. Womble Carlyle represents one of the individual defendants in the Integrity Bank case.