In the latest ruling on a motion to dismiss in a subprime-related securities lawsuit, on December 22, 2008, Judge Legrome Davis of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted in part and denied in part defendants’ motion to dismiss the suit that plaintiffs’ filed in August 2007 against RAIT Financial Trust and certain of its officers and trustees. The opinion can be found here.
Judge Davis’s ruling largely denied defendants’ motions, other than with respect to the plaintiffs’ ’33 Act claims concerning the company’s July 2007 secondary offering, which were dismissed due to the plaintiffs’ lack of standing. Otherwise, Judge Davis ruled in plaintiffs favor. The plaintiffs’ remaining ’33 Act claims and all of the plaintiffs’ ’34 Act claims will now go forward.
RAIT is a real estate investment trust providing debt financing to home builders, mortgage lenders and other real estate companies. As more fully set forth here, plaintiffs’ complaint relates to the July 30, 2007 failure of American Home Mortgage to make a payment due under certain trust preferred securities, resulting in a net equity exposure to RAIT of at least $95 million. Shortly thereafter, the company disclosed that it had $373 million of similar exposures. The plaintiffs allege that the defendants failed to disclose its exposure to these types of investments and failed to reserve adequately for the risk of nonpayment or default.
The plaintiffs’ complaint asserts claims under both the ’33 Act and the ’34 Act. The defendants in the ’33 Act claims include the offering underwriters that facilitated RAIT’s January 2007 common stock offering and July 2007 preferred stock offering, as well as the company’s auditor, Grant Thornton. The defendants’ moved to dismiss.
The December 22 Opinion
First, the court dismissed the ’33 Act claims relating to the July 2007 preferred stock offering due to lack of standing, because none of the named plaintiffs purchased securities traceable to the offering.
However, the court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the ’33 Act claims raised in connection with the January 2007 offering. Judge Davis found that the plaintiffs had adequately alleged falsity and materiality, and rejected defendants’ contentions that the plaintiffs’ arguments represented nothing more than "fraud by hindsight." Judge Davis also rejected the defendants’ contentions that the alleged misrepresentations "bespoke caution" or were "mere puffery."
Judge Davis also found that his rulings that the plaintiffs had adequately pled falsity and materiality applied to the plaintiffs’ ’34 Act claims as well.The defendants nevertheless sought to have the ’34 Act claims dismissed, arguing that the plaintiffs had not adequately pled scienter.
Judge Davis found that "despite the demanding standard of recklessness imposed in pleading a strong inference of scienter," the plaintiffs nevertheless had adequately pled scienter. His ruling depended on the "core business operations" theory, with respect to which he stated:
Because the alleged misstatements involved RAIT’s core business operations and because the Officer Defendants had ample reason to know of the falsity of the statements, there is a strong inference of scienter in this case.
Judge Davis also found that though the core business operations allegations alone were sufficient, other allegations also supported the inference of scienter, including "the sheer size of the impairment eventually taken by RAIT," which he found adds to "the imputation" that defendants "must have had some awareness that problems were brewing." Judge Davis also found that "familial and business relationships involved" in a RAIT acquisition were "relevant in our consideration of scienter."
Other than the ’33 Act claims relating to the July 2007 offering (which was dismissed for lack of standing), the plaintiffs largely prevailed on the dismissal motions. Judge Davis’s ruling is significant not only because it seems to run counter to the early trend other courts arguably have established (albeit with some notable exceptions) of general skepticism toward subprime-related allegations. Judge Davis’s ruling is noteworthy in that regard for its rejection of the defendants’ "fraud by hindsight" arguments.
Judge Davis’s opinion is perhaps most noteworthy in its acceptance of the "core business operations" theory in concluding that the plaintiffs had adequately pled scienter. Though earlier courts had rejected this theory as inconsistent with the PSLRA’s pleading requirements, more recently courts, for example, in the Ninth Circuit (refer here) and the Seventh Circuit (refer here), have taken it up. As noted in a recent commentary by the Katten Muchin law firm entitled "Reform Act Under Attack?" (here), the core operations theory "has made a comeback in 2008," which the authors contend is inconsistent with the PSLRA’s meaning and intent.
Were other courts similarly willing to take up the core operations doctrine, it could substantially impact the many pending dismissal motions in various subprime-related securities lawsuits.
In any event, I have added the RAIT opinion to my table of subprime and credit crisis-related securities lawsuit settlements, dismissals, and dismissal denials, which can be accessed here.
Special thanks to a loyal reader for alerting me to the RAIT opinion.