Allegations that the defendant companies and their senior managers failed to disclose the hazards associated with the company’s risky investments. Allegations that management failed to account for losses on high risk investments in a timely or complete manner. Allegations that company management minimized the deteriorating values of high risk investments in piecemeal damage control statements to the marketplace.


Sound familiar?


You may be surprised to learn that these allegations do not come from a lawsuit filed as part of the recent wave of subprime and credit crisis litigation. Instead these allegations appear in a case filed against American Express and certain of its directors and offices in July 2002. Background regarding the case can be found here.


On September 26, 2008, Judge William H. Pauley of the Southern District of New York, considering the case on remand from the Second Circuit, granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss in an opinion (here) that may have considerable significance for the more recently filed subprime and credit crisis securities lawsuits.


The plaintiffs had alleged that in the late 90s, the company began investing in "high-risk, high yield debt securities such as below-investment grade bonds and collateralized debt obligations." The complaint alleges that in early 2001, the company recognized $123 million in losses during the preceding fiscal year in losses on the High Yield Debt Portfolio, and that during the first calendar quarter of 2001, the defendants became aware that the portfolio was "deteriorating rapidly." In April 2001, the company announced an additional $185 million in portfolio losses.


During the second calendar quarter of 2001, the second amended complaint alleges, the defendants became aware that "even the investment grade CDOs" were "damaged due to defaults in the underlying bonds." In July 2001, the company announced a $826 million pre-tax charge to recognize additional write-downs to the High Yield Debt Portfolio.


The plaintiffs sought to pursue claims on behalf of persons who had purchased the company’s shares between July 18, 1999 and July 17, 2001. Their second amended complaint alleged three categories of fraud: (1) false and misleading statements that the company had adopted risk management policies; (2) failure to properly account for investment losses; and (3) mischaracterizations of developments relating to the High Yield Portfolio.


Judge Pauley granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the second amended complain on the grounds that the plaintiffs had failed to establish a strong inference that the defendants had acted with scienter.


Judge Pauley found that the allegations that the defendants were motivated to commit fraud by the senior managers’ aggressive income targets and incentive compensation "were not entitled to any weight."


Judge Pauley also rejected plaintiffs’ contention that defendants were "reckless" in not knowing the risks of the high yield investments and that the public disclosures of the company about those investments misrepresented that risk. Those allegations, the court concluded, "do no more than state in conclusory fashion what Defendants should have known, they are not entitled to any weight."


The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ allegations based on confidential sources, holding that:

None of the confidential sources specifically states that any Individual Defendants had information or access to information indicating that Amex was not properly valuing the High Yield Debt, that is risk control policies were inadequate, that Amex was violating GAAP, or that contradicted the Company’s statements in 2001.

With respect to plaintiffs’ allegations that the defendants minimized the deteriorating asset valuations through piecemeal disclosures, Judge Pauley focused on the internal efforts the Company was making to evaluate its deteriorating assets and found that "the more compelling inference is that Defendants were not acting with intent to deceive, but rather attempting to quantify the extent of the problem before disclosing it to the market."


Judge Pauley also found that the allegations about defendants’ examination of the High Yield Debt Portfolio "suggest that the Defendants upheld their duty to monitor," which "precludes any inference of recklessness."


The SEC Actions blog has a detailed analysis of the opinion, here.


The allegations in the American Express case contain many parallels with many of the lawsuits in the current litigation wave. Indeed the nature of the investment assets involved, including in particularly the investment grade CDOs, and the causes of the valuation declines (including the deteriorating of the bonds underlying the CDOs) bear an uncanny resemblance to many of the allegations in the more recent subprime and credit crisis related litigation.


With the insertion of the words "subprime mortgages," the case arguably would be indistinguishable from many of the more recent cases. Many of the more recent cases allege, like the American Express lawsuit, that the defendant companies lacked internal controls, failed to account for declining investment valuations, and soft-pedaled the seriousness of the valuation declines through piecemeal write-downs.


Because of these similarities, the failure of the American Express lawsuit to survive a motion to dismiss is potentially significant with respect to the more recent lawsuits. Of course, every lawsuit has its own distinct allegations, and the differences in any given case could well be sufficient to produce a different outcome.


Nevertheless, Judge Pauley’s scienter analysis may be particularly important to many of the subprime and credit crisis-related securities lawsuits, in view of the fact that a very large percentage of the recent cases have been filed in the Southern District of New York, where the American Express case was also pending.


Special thanks to Neil McCarthy of LawyerLinks (here) for providing a copy of the American Express opinion.