A federal court has ruled in the only FDIC failed bank lawsuit pending in Florida that directors cannot be liable for ordinary negligence under Florida law. On August 8, 2012, Middle District of Florida Judge Gregory Presnell granted the motion of the director defendants to dismiss the FDIC’s claim against them for ordinary negligence. A copy of Judge Presnell’s order can be found here.
As discussed here, in March 2012, the FDIC filed an action in the Middle District of Florida in the agency’s capacity as receiver of the failed Florida Community Bank of Immokalee, Florida, against the failed bank’s former CEO and six of the failed bank’s former directors. A copy of the FDIC’s complaint can be found here.
The bank failed on January 29, 2010. In its complaint, the FDIC alleges that the bank’s collapse was caused by “grossly negligent loan underwriting and loan administration, resulting in excessive and dangerous concentrations” of commercial real estate loans and of acquisition and development loans. The FDIC seeks to recover on losses of in excess of $62 million dollars in connection with six specific loans. The FDIC asserts state law claims of negligence against the former directors and against the former CEO, as well as claims of gross negligence under FIRREA against all of the individual defendants.
The director defendants (except for one director who has filed for personal bankruptcy and with respect to whom the FDIC’s action as been stayed) moved to dismiss, arguing that Florida law allows recovery for bank directors only for gross negligence and therefore the claim against them for ordinary negligence should be dismissed; and also arguing that the FDIC’s allegations in the claim against them for gross negligence failed to rise to the level of gross negligence.
In his August 8 order, Judge Presnell granted the director defendants motion to dismiss the FDIC’s claim for ordinary negligence. He found first that Florida Statutes Section 607.830(1) imposes an ordinary standard of care on directors. However, the liability of directors is governed by Section 607.831, which provides that directors can be held liable only of one of five conditions were met. Judge Presnelll found that the only section that “conceivably “could apply is the provision requiring in order to impose liability on directors a showing that the directors’ failure constituted “conscious disregard for the best interests of the corporation or willful negligence.”
Judge Presnell found that the statute “conditions directorial liability on something beyond ordinary neglilgence,” and so the count in the FDIC complaint asserting a claim for ordinary negligence “must therefore be dismissed.”
Judge Presnell denied the directors’ motion to have the FDIC’s claim against them for gross negligence dismissed, finding that the FDIC’s allegations “are sufficient at this stage of the proceedings to state a claim for gross negligence.”
Even though Florida has had the second highest number of bank failures of any of the states during the current bank failure wave (trailing only Georgia), the FDIC has so far only filed this one failed bank lawsuit in Florida. There undoubtedly are other lawsuits involving other failed Florida banks yet to come. To the extent the FDIC does filed further actions in Florida and to the extent those other action involve former directors of the failed banks, the directors defendant will argue in reliance on this case that they cannot be held liable under Florida law for ordinary negligence.
Judge Presnell’s decision pertains only to the director defendants, and the statutes on which he relied in reaching this decision relate only to the liabilities of directors. Accordingly his decision doesn’t reach the question whether officers (as opposed to directors) may also argue that they can only be held liable for gross negligence., or whether officers otherwise have other protections from liability for ordinary negligence.
Special thanks to a loyal reader for sending me a copy of Judge Presnell’s decision.