In a subprime-related lawsuit that highlights the advantages ERISA claimants may have over litigants seeking relief under the securities laws, a federal court has refused to dismiss the complaint filed under ERISA on behalf of benefits plan participants of NovaStar Financial.


In an opinion dated February 11, 2009 (here), Judge Nanette K. Laughrey of the Western District of Missouri denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the action filed against the alleged fiduciaries of the NovaStar Financial 401(k) plan on behalf of plan participants. During the relevant time period, plan participants had the option to invest in a unitized stock fund that held NovaStar common stock.


The plaintiff’s complaint alleges that the defendants knew or should have known that investment in the company’s stock was imprudent, because of the company’s "serious mismanagement and improper business practices" The complaint alleges that the company was relying on subprime mortgage origination and servicing for revenue, while failing to maintain underwriting standards and appropriate risk management techniques. The complaint alleges that the company’s practices ultimately eliminated the company’s ability to elect to be taxed as a real estate investment trust, and that the company’s practices collectively caused the company’s financial statements to be misleading.


The plaintiff also alleges that the defendants knew about the company’s problems but did not disclose them to plan participants. The plaintiff also alleges that the defendants issued misleading statements to the plan participants, as a result of which the participants could not make informed decisions about their investments. Following revelations about NovaStar’s subprime-related difficulties, the company’s share price declined (approximately 99 percent from the beginning of the class period).


The complaint essentially alleges that the defendants breached their fiduciary duties in allowing plan participants to invest in company stock; by failing to monitor; and by issuing misleading communications.


The bulk of Judge Laughrey’s February 11 opinion relates to defendants’ arguments that the court should dismiss the complaint based on plaintiffs’ lack of standing. Suffice it to say here that the court concluded that the plaintiff alleged sufficient injury to support both statutory and constitutional standing, and the defendants’ motion to dismiss for lack of standing was denied.


Judge Laughrey also denied defendants’ motion to dismiss based on their argument that the defendants were not plan fiduciaries and in any event were entitled to a statutory presumption that they had acted with prudence. The court found plaintiffs’ allegations on which she contended that the defendants were fiduciaries to be sufficient. The court also found plaintiff’s allegation sufficient, at least at the pleading stage, to overcome the presumption of prudence, observing that the plaintiff has "pleaded facts indicating a precipitous decline in Novastar stock and that Defendants knew, or should have know, of NovaStar’s impending collapse."


Defendants further argued that the court should dismiss plaintiff’s allegations about the adequacy of communications to plan participants, contending that the allegations of insufficiency were inadequate and in any event that ERISA does not regulate the communications of which the plaintiff complaints. The defendants expressly cited the prior dismissal of the securities action concerning NovaStar stock (about which, more below).


In rejecting this argument, Judge Laughrey noted that the plaintiff had alleged "affirmative material misrepresentations to plan participants – as well as to the general public — regarding the soundness of the NovaStar investment." The court specifically noted that "the heightened pleading requirements of securities laws do not apply to [the plaintiff’s] ERISA action," commenting further that the plaintiff "need not identify the author or specific content of each misrepresentation in order to survive a motion to dismiss."


Judge Laughrey’s recognition that ERISA class actions are not subject to the pleading requirements and other procedural hurdles to which class action securities claimants are subject highlights the advantages, at least in the initial stages, that an ERISA claimant may have over a securities plaintiff in seeking to recover alleged investment losses.


The advantages available even on more or less the same set of facts is underscored by the fact that the securities class action filed on behalf of NovaStar’s shareholders was, as Judge Laughrey noted, previously dismissed, with prejudice. (Refer here for a detailed discussion of the prior securities lawsuit dismissal.). The contrast in outcomes is even more noteworthy given how curt the prior court was in dismissing the securities action (among other things, in granting the dismissal motion in the securities case, the court noted that companies "are not expected to be clairvoyant" and that "bad decisions do not constitute fraud.")


By my count (refer here), there have been at least 22 ERISA class action lawsuits filed in connection with the current wave of subprime and credit-crisis related litigation. Whether or not these cases, or any one of them, ultimately will be successful remains to be seen. But if Judge Laughrey’s opinion is any indication, these cases may at least survive a motion to dismiss – or, rather, they may have a better chance of surviving the initial dismiss motion than their parallel securities lawsuit.