In the lists of those supposedly responsible for the current financial mess, the rating agencies are among those usually featured prominently. Numerous investors have in fact sued the rating agencies claiming the ratings misled them into making their investment (about which refer, for example, here). Whether these investor actions will succeed remains to be seen, but in a recent ruling, at least one court has held that much of the subprime-related securities lawsuit brought against Moody’s by its own shareholders can go forward.
In 2007, Moody’s shareholders sued the company and several of its directors and officers in a series of lawsuits that ultimately were consolidated in the Southern District of New York. (For the background of the case, refer here.)
The consolidated amended complaint alleged that the defendants had falsely claimed that the company was an independent and impartial body, while in fact the company’s arrangements for rating asset-backed securities and other structured investments put it in a conflict of interest and compromised its independence. The amended complaint also alleged that the company falsely claimed to have verified the quality of the underwriting practices at the loan originators whose mortgages were consolidated into the securities being rated.
The amended complaint further alleged that the company misrepresented that the rating scale used for the structured investments was equivalent, and reflected the same risk of default, as the company’s rating scale for traditional financial instruments. Finally, the amended complaint alleged that the defendants had falsely represented that the company derived its revenue from legitimate business practices.
The defendants moved to dismiss the amended complaint, arguing that the plaintiffs’ initial complaint had been filed after the statute of limitations had expired; that the amended complaint failed to adequately allege misrepresentations and materiality; and also that the amended complaint failed adequately to allege loss causation and scienter.
The Court’s February 18, 2009 Order
In a February 18, 2009 order (here), Judge Shirley Wohl Kram denied the motion in part and granted the motion in part, with leave to amend. The practical consequence of the court’s order is that a significant portion of the plaintiffs’ case will now be going forward.
The court first reached the defendants’ argument that the plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the statute of limitations. The defendants had argued that the plaintiffs were put on "inquiry notice" about the supposed fraud due to "storm warnings" as early as 2003. However, the court found that the statements on which the defendants sought to rely "refer to the credit rating industry in general terms and make no specific reference to Moody’s" and there is in any event "no mention of fraud." The court also found that Moody’s management’s "words of comfort preclude a finding of inquiry notice."
The court next determined that the amended complaint adequately alleged material misrepresentations in connection with Moody’s assertions of independence and also with respect to its statements about its assessment of the quality of loan originator underwriting as part of its ratings process.
However, the court found that the plaintiffs had not adequately alleged material misrepresentations in connection with the company’s statements about the equivalence of its structure finance rating system to its corporate finance rating system, and about the company’s statements concerning the sources of its revenue.
Even though the court found that the amended complaint’s "poor organization…dilutes Plaintiffs’ allegation of loss causation," the court found that the complaint alleges "sufficient corrective disclosure" to survive a motion to dismiss on the loss causation issue. The court also held that because the defendants failed to establish that Moody’s share price had declined as part of an industry-wide downturn, the defendants had failed to establish a "direct intervening cause" for the share price decline.
Finally, the court held that the amended complaint adequately pled scienter on the part of the company’s CEO as well as the company itself, finding that the CEO’s statements in a confidential slideshow were "revealing" of the CEO’s knowledge that the company "was not truly independent." With respect to the company itself, the court found that the plaintiffs had "alleged specific statements indicating that various top officials knew that Moody’s independence, ratings and methodology had been compromise," and that "consequently" the allegations of the amended complaint "sufficiently plead" the company’s scienter.
The court did however find that the amended complaint had not adequately pled scienter as to the other two individual defendants, the company’s COO and the Managing Director of the Asset Finance Group.
Regarding the claims and defendants with respect to which the motion to dismiss was granted, the court allowed plaintiffs leave to amend, directing them to file their amended complaint by March 18, 2009.
The court’s opinion in the Moody’s case is significant in and of itself, as yet another subprime-related securities lawsuit that has survived the motion to dismiss, if only in part. Though the nature of the allegations against Moody’s may be somewhat distinct from those raised in many of the other subprime and credit crisis-related securities lawsuit, and though the dismissal motion was in fact granted in part, the outcome of the dismissal motion ruling nevertheless underscores that some of the many pending subprime and credit crisis-related securities lawsuits will be going forward.
The ruling, even if based on factual circumstances that arguably are specific to Moody’s, may be of particular significance to the separate securities lawsuits brought by the shareholders of McGraw-Hill (corporate parent of S&P) and by the shareholders of Fimalac (corporate parent of Fitch’s).
The more interesting question is what significance any of the court’s order in the Moody’s case may have for the many lawsuits brought against the rating agencies not by the agencies’ own shareholders but rather by investors who claim to have made their investments in reliance on the integrity and quality of the agencies’ ratings. These other investor lawsuits raise categorically different factual and legal issues that the suits brought by the agencies’ own shareholders.
Nevertheless, even given the differences between the two sets of claimants and the two categories of cases against the rating agencies, the ruling in the Moody’s case may at least provide some context for the investor lawsuits, particularly with respect to the court’s holdings that the shareholder plaintiffs adequately alleged that Moody’s had made material misrepresentations about its independence and processes, and had sufficiently alleged scienter as to the company’s CEO and the company itself. These particular holdings could be relevant in the separate investor lawsuits, at least on those issues.
I have in any event added the court’s February 18 ruling in the Moody’s case to my table of subprime and credit crisis-related securities lawsuit settlements, dismissals and dismissal motion denials, which can be accessed here.
A February 23, 2009 Reuters article regarding the court’s ruling in the Moody’s case can be found here.