A lawsuit filed late last week against First Marblehead Corporation underscores that the current lawsuit onslaught so often referred to as the “subprime” litigation wave is, and really has been for awhile, about so much more than just subprime. Although we are probably stuck with the “subprime” label as a shorthand way to describe these developments, the label encompasses a credit crisis that goes far beyond subprime lending.
First Marblehead is a Massachusetts-based company in the business of underwriting, packaging and securitizing student loans. Operating out of First Marblehead’s offices is a nonprofit organization called The Education Resources Institute (“TERI”) that provides guarantees of student loans that First Marblehead originates. On April 10, 2008, plaintiffs’ lawyers filed a securities class action lawsuit in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts against First Marblehead and certain of its directors and officers. A copy of the plaintiffs’ counsel’s April 10 press release can be found here. A copy of the complaint can be found here.
The complaint alleges that during the class period of August 10, 2006 to April 7, 2008, the defendants made material misrepresentations “concerning the performance and quality of First Marblehead’s securitizations, its ability to perform additional securitizations, TERI’s ability to adequately guarantee [First Marblehead’s] student loans, and the Company’s financial results and its ongoing operations.” The complaint alleges that the company “misrepresented the level of default rates in its portfolio,” and “disregarded that TERI was underreserved and unable to adequately insure” the company’s loans. According to the complaint, TERI filed for bankruptcy protection on April 7, 2008, and the company’s stock plunged.
The First Marblehead lawsuit has nothing directly to do with subprime lending itself. Indeed, the occurrence of credit-related litigation essentially unrelated to subprime lending is really nothing new – First Marblehead is not even the student loan company to be sued in a securities class action lawsuit as part of the current litigation wave, given the lawsuit filed in January 2008 against SLM Corporation (“Sallie Mae”), about which refer here.
The student lending cases, like the auction rate securities litigation, are about the secondary and tertiary consequences in the credit marketplace following on the consequences first triggered by the subprime lending meltdown. But the spread of litigation to other types of credit and other kinds of companies underscores the dark possibilities for a crisis that began in the residential real estate lending sector to spread across the entire economy and activate a much broader array of litigation.
It is probably worth noting that the turmoil that has hit the student lending sector is not limited just to the student loan organizations themselves; companies that invested in student loan-backed securities are also experiencing financial and accounting difficulties as a result of their investment in these securities. For example, in a situation that encompasses both the student loan problems and the breakdown of the auction rate securities marketplace, Winnebago, in its March 20, 2008 fiscal second quarter earnings release (here), disclosed that it owned $54.2 million of auction rate securities collateralized by student loans. As a result of the auction rate securities market failure, the company deemed these securities as not currently liquid, and reclassified them on the company’s balance sheet as long-term investments. In its April 9, 2008 10-Q (here), the company recorded a temporary impairment charge to these securities of $3.4 million.
The fact that the student loan turmoil would affect a company as unrelated to the sector as Winnebago demonstrates how far afield the effects of the current crisis have and may yet spread. The essential point here is that as long as observers continue to describe and think about the current developments as merely subprime-related, they will not only fail to appreciate the extent of what has already happened, but also likely underestimate the possibilities of what may lie ahead.
Another Auction Rate Securities Lawsuit: And speaking of auction rate securities, on April 11, 2008, plaintiffs’ lawyers filed yet another lawsuit on behalf of auction rate securities investors against the companies that sold them the investments. As reflected in the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ press release (here), the latest lawsuit involves Oppenheimer Holdings. The Oppenheimer lawsuit is the twelfth of these auction rate securities lawsuits to be filed.
Run the Numbers: Like everyone else, I too am trapped by the now-established convention of referring to the current credit-related lawsuit onslaught as the “subprime” litigation wave, and as a reflection of that convention, I have added the First Marblehead and Oppenheimer lawsuits to my running tally of the “subprime”-related litigation, which can be accessed here. With the addition of these two new lawsuits, the current tally now stands at 70, of which 30 have been filed in 2008. As noted, 12 of these lawsuits involve class action auction rate securities litigation.
Subprime Litigation: The Grandaddy of Them All?: Although the crisis commonly referred to as the “subprime” meltdown is relatively recent, subprime loans have been around for a while. Indeed, problems with subprime loans are also nothing new. Even though the current wave of subprime-related litigation did not get started until February 2007, there were subprime-related lawsuits before that. These earlier lawsuits may provide some interesting perspective on the current round of litigation.
As described in an April 9, 2008 Wall Street Journal article entitled “Subprime Lender’s Failure Sparks Lawsuit against Wall Street Banks” (here), American Business Financial Services was in the subprime loan origination business. It funded its operations through the securitization of loans, but, in addition, it also raised operating cash by selling notes through direct sales to individual investors.
According to the allegations in subsequent litigation, ABFS underestimated the number of its loans that would be paid off early as a result of refinancing, reducing the company’s cash flow, and ultimately leading to the company’s bankruptcy. The noteholders, of which there may have been as many as 22,000, lost millions.
The Journal article describes the Pennsylvania state court lawsuit that the bankruptcy trustee has filed against the Wall Street banks that sponsored ABFS’s securitizations, as well as against the company’s former directors and officers. But this trustee lawsuit follows two earlier lawsuits, one brought by the company’s shareholders and one brought on behalf of the company’s noteholders.
The ABFS shareholder securities litigation, background about which can be found here, was initiated in January 2004, following the company’s disclosure that the Department of Justice was investigating the company’s loan transactions and securitization agreements. The plaintiff shareholders alleged that the company and certain of its directors and officers misrepresented the company’s financial condition by artificially altering the company’s loan default ratio, to understate the level of the company’s troubled loans. In a June 2, 2005 memorandum opinion and order (here), the court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, on the ground that the plaintiffs did not adequately allege that the statements at issue materially misleading, nor did the plaintiffs’ allegations create a “strong inference” that the defendants acted with scienter.
The noteholder litigation, by contrast is going forward, albeit in a narrowed state. The background regarding the ABFS noteholder litigation can be found here. The noteholders also claimed that the defendants misrepresented the company’s financial condition. In two orders (here and here), the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ allegations concerning the company’s loan delinquency rates, as well as the plaintiffs’ solicitation claims under Section 12. A much-narrowed case is going forward.
The course of these earlier lawsuits casts an interesting light on the current wave of lawsuits. The ABFS shareholder lawsuit dismissal is a reminder that even a lawsuit involving a bankrupt company that is the subject of a DoJ investigation, and in connection with which shareholders lost substantially all their investment, still has to survive the formidable pleading requirements to which securities lawsuits are subject. Even the noteholders, whose plight may be particularly sympathetic, have seen their petition for redress of grievances substantially narrowed.
The fate of these earlier lawsuits is a reminder that merely because lawsuits are filed, even lawsuits filed in the context of significant financial losses and regulatory investigations, does not mean that the lawsuits will succeed. It may be important to keep in mind as the current wave of lawsuits continues to accumulate that these lawsuits will face the same formidable pleading barriers as did the ABFS lawsuits, and some of these lawsuits, like the ABFS lawsuits, will not survive or will only survive on a greatly narrowed basis.
Tellabs in the Ninth Circuit: Readers interested in following the implementation of the Supreme Court’s Tellabs decision in the lower courts will want to review the April 10, 2008 decision (here) in the Skechers USA securities litigation, in which the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the lawsuit, in reliance on Tellabs.
However, the complications that may yet attend the implementation of the Tellabs decision in the lower courts is also suggested by the dissenting opinion in the Skechers appeal (here), in which the dissenting judge, applying the same Tellabs standard to the same facts, reached the opposite conclusion, finding that the district court’s dismissal ought to be reversed.
In the end however, while the Ninth Circuit’s majority and dissenting opinions in the Skechers case are interesting, they ultimately are of little value to the larger question of how Tellabs may be implemented in the lower courts, because the majority opinion is designated as “Not for Publication,” as a result of which it may not be cited. I have previously (here) decried the truly regrettable practice of courts designating opinions as not for publication or citation. Our entire system of jurisprudence relies on the usefulness of prior decisions to help resolve future cases, and it is fundamentally inconsistent with this arrangement for courts to try to remove decisions from this time-honored tradition and process.
Special thanks to a special friend of The D&O Diary for copies of the Ninth Circuit opinions.