Add Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley to the growing list of companies that have been sued in securities class action lawsuits by investors for allegedly deceptive representation in connection with the sale of auction rate securities. According to the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ March 25, 2008 press release (here), the plaintiffs’ have filed a securities class action lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York against Merrill Lynch and its asset management company on behalf of investors who purchased auction rate securities from Merrill Lynch between March 25, 2003 and February 13, 2008.  A copy of the complaint can be found here.

According to the press release, Merrill Lynch “offered and sold auction rate securities to the public as highly liquid cash-management vehicles and as suitable alternatives to money market mutual funds.” The complaint alleges that Merrill Lynch failed to disclose that  

(1) the auction rate securities were not cash alternatives, like money market funds, but were instead, complex, long-term financial instruments with 30 year maturity dates, or longer; (2) the auction rate securities were only liquid at the time of sale because Merrill Lynch and other broker-dealers were artificially supporting and manipulating the auction rate market to maintain the appearance of liquidity and stability; (3) Merrill Lynch and other broker-dealers routinely intervened in auctions for their own benefit, to set rates and prevent all-hold auctions and failed auctions; and (4) Merrill Lynch continued to market auction rate securities as liquid investments after it had determined that it and other broker dealers were likely to withdraw their support for the periodic auctions and that a “freeze” of the market for auction rate securities would result.

According to news reports (here), plaintiffs also filed a separate but substantially similar lawsuit against Morgan Stanley, raising more or less the same allegations on behalf of a class of investors who purchased auction rate securities from Morgan Stanley during the same class period as proposed in the Merrill Lynch lawsuit. I have not located the Morgan Stanley complaint itself, but will add a link when I get a copy.

UPDATE: A copy of the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ March 25, 2008 press release announcing the Morgan Stanley auction rate securities lawsuit can be found here and a copy of the complaint can be found here.

These two new lawsuits join a group of similar lawsuits, all filed by the same law firm on behalf of auction rate securities investors, against Deutsche Bank, Wachovia, TD Ameritrade and UBS. The law firm’s webpage describing these various lawsuits can be found here.

With the addition of these two new subprime-related securities class action lawsuits, my running tally of subprime related securities lawsuits, which can be accessed here, now stands at 59, of which 21 have been filed in 2008. Two of these 59 represent lawsuits brought on behalf of investors against mortgage-backed asset securitizers, six are class action lawsuits on behalf of auction rate securities investors, two are brought on behalf of mutual fund investors, and the remaining 49 of which are brought on behalf of public company shareholders.

Subprime Litigation Wave Hits Regions: Birmingham, Alabama-based Regions Financial Corporation has been hit with a couple of different subprime-related lawsuits as the subprime wave continues to spread beyond New York, California, and Florida, the states where the subprime litigation originally was concentrated.

First, according to a March 25, 2008 Birmingham News article (here), the Catholic Medical Mission Board, a Regions shareholder, has filed a shareholders’ derivative lawsuit against Regions, as nominal defendant, and certain Regions directors and officers, alleging that the defendants failed to disclose the extent of Regions’ lending exposure to residential homebuilders, which permitted company insiders to sell their shares in company stock at inflated prices. According to the news report, the complaint alleges that "Regions Financial’s stock was artificially inflated because the defendants directed the company to hide the true extent of its subprime exposure.’

The derivative complaint (which can be found here) asserts claims for breach of fiduciary duty, waste of corporate assets, unjust enrichment, and breach of Section 10(b) of the ’34 Act.

Second, Regions has also been hit with a lawsuit filed under ERISA on behalf of its participants in the Regions defined contribution plan. A copy of the complaint can be found here. The complaint alleges that the offered plan participants Regions stock and investment options in Regions Morgan Keegan funds “when it was imprudent to do so.” The complaint also alleges that the investment in Regions stock and the Regions Morgan Keegan funds was maintained “when it was no longer prudent to do so.”  The complaint alleges that the defendants knew or should have known that these investments were imprudent because of Regions and the funds heavy investment in or vulnerability to subprime mortgage investments, loans and securities. The complaint also alleges that the defendants failed to communicate the risks of investing in the plan and also failed to communicate conflicts of interest.

As noted on my running tally of subprime related litigation (which can be accessed here), with the addition of the Regions ERISA litigation, my running tally of subprime-related ERISA lawsuits now stands at 11.

I have not been keeping a running tally of subprime-related derivative litigation (basically because the primarily state court oriented litigation is hard to track), but there has been substantial subprime related derivative litigation, involving, among others, Bear Stearns, American International Group, and Countrywide.

Special thanks to alert reader Rob Lichenstein for the links to the two Regions lawsuits and the Birmingham News article.

About the Bear Stearns Deal: If as I do you find many of the articles discussing the updated Bear Stearns deal confusing, you will want to read a couple of interesting posts on the Conglomerate blog, that provide insight into a couple of points about the revised deal that have received significant press attention.

First, there has been a great deal of discussion in the press about the possibility that the improved buyout offer may have resulted in part from drafting errors in the initial deal documents. BYU law professor Gordon Smith deconstructs this issue in a detailed Conglomerate blog post here (here), with helpful citations and cross-references to other blogs. Smith’s analysis of the differences between the original and the revised deal documents raise some interesting questions about what J.P. Morgan seems to have sought by offering revised terms. Bottom line, in exchange for the improved merger price, J.P. Morgan has eliminated the provisions that would have kept the deal open for a full year, and also obtained a 39.5% ownership interest as a means to try to ensure that the deal is concluded.

Second, and with respect to that 39.5% ownership interest transfer, Smith has a separate post on Conglomerate (here), that explores the Delaware case law behind the 39.5% interest and the limitations on share transfers to lock in shareholder merger approvals. As Professor Smith’s post notes, there is no automatic cutoff under Delaware law whereby a company can sell up to 40% of itself without shareholder approval, and suggestions to that effect in the mainstream media are “what is known in the law biz as ‘wrong.’” Practitioners have evolved the 40% rule of thumb, but “none of this has been tested in court.”

More About the FCPA: Regular readers know that I have frequently commented (most recently here) on the growing importance of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement proceedings and follow on civil litigation. Two recent publications provide significant additional information on this topic.

First, a March 25, 2008 article entitled “Today, No Bribe is Too Small” (here), takes a look at the expanding reach of enforcement activities. As the title suggests, the article looks at some seemingly small corrupt transactions that have attracted regulatory attention. The article states that “it seems that no bribe is too small to earn the attention of the department.” The article also focuses on regulatory actions that have been taken by middlemen and third party contractors, and how those seemingly remote actors’ actions have come back to haunt the sponsoring company.

Second, in a much more detailed look at recent FCPA enforcement activity, Porter Wright attorney Tom Gorman has recently posted a running series on the issues involved in recent FCPA regulatory actions on his SEC Actions blog. The most recent post can be found here. Taken collectively, these posts present an excellent overview of the current state of FCPA regulatory actions.

Finally, readers who recall my recent post (here) about the civil litigation arising from potentially problematic activities involving Alcoa’s operations in Bahrain will be interested to note that the U.S. Department of Justice has initiated a criminal investigation of the activities, and in that connection has asked for the entry of stay in the civil proceedings,  as discussed in a March 21, 2008 Wall Street Journal article entitled “U.S. Opens Alcoa Bribery Probe” (here).