In a development that may foreshadow further "gatekeeper" claims as part of the current credit crisis litigation wave, on April 1, 2009, the trustee for the New Century Financial Corp. liquidation initiated lawsuits in California and New York against KPMG and its international parent, seeking to recover $1 billion in damages for negligence and for aiding and abetting breaches of fiduciary duty.
The California complaint, filed in the Los Angeles County Superior Court (copy here) against KPMG LLP, alleges that the firm "did not act like a watchdog" but rather "acted like a cheerleader for management."
The complaint alleges that KPMG "performed grossly negligent audits and reviews" and "failed to detect material errors" with respect to New Century’s residual interest on loans it securitized and on its loan repurchase liability. The complaint also faulted KPMG for its approval of faulty loan loss reserves, alleging that an audit partner silenced the concerns of a more junior audit team member who questioned the reserve calculation.
The complaint also alleges that KPMG "aided and abetted New Century’s directors’ and officers’ breaches of their fiduciary duties." The complaint alleges that KPMG knew that management was improperly reserving for risks the company faced and that management had failed to implement an effective system of internal controls.
The aiding and abetting allegations includes the charge that KPMG aided and abetted company officials "in maintaining material weaknesses and significant deficiencies in New Century’s system of internal controls over financial reporting." The complaint alleges that KPMG is "jointly responsible with the directors and officers for damages resulting from these breaches."
The complaint seeks compensatory damages of $1 billion, as well as punitive damages.
The complaint filed in the Southern District of New York (copy here) substantially repeats many of the same allegations as the California complaint, but addresses the alleged liability of KPMG’s international parent. The complaint alleges that the parent represented that it would "ensure that member firms’ work would meet professional standards and regulatory requirements."
The complaint alleges that KPMG International did not fulfill these responsibilities, and as a result New Century was harmed. The complaint seeks unspecified compensatory as well as punitive damages from KPMG International.
The trustee’s filings in these complaints certainly suggest the possibility that auditors and other "gatekeepers" could be targeted in the wake of the subprime meltdown. Leading accounting indusrty commentator Francine McKenna (also the author of the indispensible "re:The Auditors" blog) is quoted in the April 1, 2009 Wall Street Journal as saying that the case "may embolden others to look more closely at the possibiltiy of bringing [accounting] firms to some level of culpability for the things that happened" that led to the credit crisis.
But in assessing that possibility it may be important to note the particular key circumstances that preceded the trustee’s claims against KPMG.Specifically, the new lawsuits follow more than a year after the February 29, 2008 581-page report of Michael Missal, the KPMG bankruptcy examiner, in which the examiner concluded that KPMG had "contributed" to certain of New Century’s "accounting and reporting deficiencies by enabling them to persist in, and in some instances, precipitating the Company’s departure from, applicable accounting standards." A detailed review of the examiner’s report, including a link to the report itself, can be found here.
The examiner’s exhaustive review, which among other things specifically suggested the possibility of negligence claims against KPMG, was effectively a road map for the April 1 lawsuits. While the lawsuits might well have been filed even without the examiner’s report, few other prospective claimants considering "gatekeeper" litigation will have such a detailed script from which to compose their complaint.
On the other hand, many of the complaints already filed in numerous lawsuits as part of the current subprime and credit crisis-related litigation wave have already targeted a variety of gatekeepers, including offering underwriters, credit rating agencies, and, in some cases, even the outside auditors.
Indeed, the securities lawsuit filed against New Century’s former directors and officers also specifically named KPMG as a defendant. In his December 3, 2008 order denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss the securities lawsuit, Central District of California Judge Dean Pregerson specifically denied KPMG’s separate motion to dismiss, finding that the complaint in that case adequately alleged that KPMG was aware of accounting and internal control deficiencies but nevertheless issued its audit opinion in connection with the company’s 2005 financial statements. A detailed discussion of Judge Pregerson’s decision, including a link to the opinion, can be found here.
The outcome of KPMG’s dismissal motion in the New Century securities lawsuit, as well as the trustee’s filing of the April 1 lawsuit, among other things suggests that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Stoneridge case may not deter prospective litigants from pursuing claims against auditors and other gatekeepers.
One of the more interesting aspects of the trustee’s complaint against KPMG is his claim seeking to hold the accounting firm "jointly responsible" with New Century’s former directors and officers for the officials’ breaches of their fiduciary duties. While the trustee’s claims at this point represent nothing more than allegations and it remains to be seen whether his claims on this theory will result in any recovery, the possibility that auditors may be alleged to be "jointly liable" for directors’ and officers’ fiduciary breaches raises a host of concerns and questions, not the least of which relate to co-defendant (or third-party defendant) proceedings, such as cross-claims for contribution.
All of which leads to a point I have been asserting for some time, which is that we are still only in the earliest stages of the credit crisis related litigation wave. Not only are the cases against the defendant companies continuing to pour in, but the likelihood of further gatekeeper litigation like that filed against KPMG suggests that the litigation will continue for many, many years to come.
The "re: The Auditors" blog has an interesting and detailed analysis of the KPMG complaints, here.
Hat tip to the Wall Street Journal (here) for copies of the KPMG complaints.
Honoring Those Who Serve: A recent MSNBC segment reported on what my good friends, David Bell of AWAC and John McCarrick of the Edwards and Angell law firm, have been doing to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country. As reflected in the video below, a group they helped to organize, Grateful Nation Montana, is taking steps to ensure that the children of U.S. soldiers killed in the battle will be able to pursue a college education.
Please watch this video. It is guaranteed to bring tears to your eyes, but it will also make you appreciate the efforts of a couple of industry leaders, who have done something substantial and worthy to help make a difference.