As discussed in a prior post (here), at an April 1, 2009 hearing, Southern District of New York Judge Jed Rakoff had raised concerns that a proposed lead plaintiff’s law firm may have a "blatant, shocking conflict of interest," as a result of free portfolio monitoring services the firm performed for its client, the Iron Workers Local No. 25 Pension Fund. On April 25, 2009, Judge Rakoff entered an order (here) naming the Public Employees’ Retirement System of Mississippi (MissPERS) as lead plaintiff, stating that he would explain his reasons in a forthcoming opinion.


On May 26, 2009, Judge Rakoff entered his opinion (here) explaining his lead plaintiff selection in the case, which involves consolidated lawsuits relating to Merrill Lynch mortgage pass-through certificates. The opinion contains some interesting comments and observations about the two competing plaintiffs and their relations to their counsel


In his opinion, Judge Rakoff explained that because of "problematic relationships" between plaintiffs and their counsel, he was faced with a choice between "two less-than-perfect plaintiffs." He was particularly concerned with the relationship between the Iron Workers Fund and its counsel, because of testimony at the April 1 hearing showing that the Fund had a contractual arrangement with counsel whereby the law firm provided "free monitoring" of the Fund’s portfolio, in exchange for which if the firm recommended that the Fund pursue securities litigation, the firm would be retained on a contingency fee basis.


Judge Rakoff said that this arrangement goes "far beyond any traditional contingency arrangement" and creates a "clear incentive" for the firm to "discover fraud" and to recommend litigation, a practice that "fosters the very tendencies toward lawyer-driven litigation that the PSLRA was designed to curtail."


As the April 1 hearing, Judge Rakoff had questioned whether this arrangement was ethical. Following the hearing, the concerned law firm filed an affidavit from distinguished scholar Geoffrey Hazard, who opined that the arrangement did not create an improper conflict of interest. Among other things, Professor Hazard based his opinion on the conviction (speaking with respect to securities litigation) that plaintiffs’ lawyers had every incentive to proceed only if the claim is reasonably viable. He also noted that in contemporary practice, most plaintiffs are sophisticated and have access to sophisticated advisors.


Judge Rakoff noted that while he has "the very greatest respect" for Professor Hazard, he was not persuaded. First, the Professor’s statements about plaintiffs’ counsel’s incentives to pursue only viable claims are contrary to the concerns of Congress in enacting the PSLRA "regarding abusive lawyer-driven litigation."


And with respect to the supposed sophistication of plaintiffs and their access to sophisticated advisors, Judge Rakoff noted that the Iron Worker’s Fund’s administrator "was not particularly sophisticated in evaluating securities actions" and "only had a rough idea what this lawsuit was all about," and the "sophisticated advisors" on whom the Fund was relying were "the very lawyers who would be bringing suit."


Judge Rakoff concluded that he "need not determine whether there here exists a conflict of interest that violates ethical rules," since it is clear that the Iron Workers Fund is "in no position to adequately monitor the conduct of this complex litigation."


Which is not to say that MissPERS, the lead plaintiff he selected, is "without blemish," since it too relies on portfolio monitors and has very regularly served as a lead plaintiff. However, Judge Rakoff found that MissPERS relies on twelve different monitors, rather than a single monitor, and it employs a group of lawyers to evaluate litigation recommendations and "plainly had a sophisticated knowledge of such matters."


As for the objection that MissPERS was a "professional plaintiff" of the kind the PSLRA disfavors, Judge Rakoff noted that when the alternative plaintiff had little expertise, "the accumulated experience of MissPERS in pursuing multiple securities fraud actions seems a benefit more than a detriment."


In a final footnote, Judge Rakoff raised, but did not address, concerns about Pay-to-Play arrangements that could affect relations between plaintiffs’ firms and elected officials, but he declined to address the issue, which he said was not "presently before the Court in this case."


It is probably worth noting that the strong language Judge Rakoff used at the April 1 hearing has drawn considerable attention in other forums. For example, in a May 5, 2009 hearing before Central District of California Judge Andrew Guilford to determine the lead plaintiff in a case pending there, Judge Guilford noted (here) that because the same law firm was involved in the case before him as in the case before Judge Rakoff, he was "concerned" by Judge Rakoff’s observations at the April 1 hearing, and he noted further that his lead plaintiff "determination will benefit" from the analysis Judge Rakoff was to provide in his then-forthcoming opinion. Clearly, Judge Rakoff’s various statements and rulings could have significance outside the confines of the specific case in which they were delivered. Special thanks to a loyal reader for a copy of the May 5 opinon


On the other hand, it is relevant to note that in another recent lead plaintiff decision by a judge in same courthouse as Judge Rakoff did not consider the monitoring services this particular law firm provided to the lead plaintiff to even be a relevant consideration. In a  May 22, 2009 opinion (here), Southern District of New York Judge Barbara S. Jones rejected arguments that the law firm had a conflict of interest due to the portfolio monitoring servicves it provided to the proposed lead plaintiff. Judge Jones said that "the Court has been shown no reason why this monitoring system causes any issues or impediments to teh firm’s representation," noting that the firm "has substantial experience in representing shareholders in securiteis class actions" and that she "believes the firm will serve the class adequately." Special thanks to a loyal reader for a copy of the May 22 opinion.


Andrew Longstreath’s May 27, 2009 article about Judge Rakoff’s opinion can be found here.


More Problem Banks: In prior posts (most recently here), I noted concerns regarding the increasing number of failed banks, and conjectured that banking closures were likely to continue to accumulate for the foreseeable future, citing the FDIC’s estimates of the number of "problem banks."


In its latest Quarterly Banking Profile, released on May 26, 2009 for the first quarter of 2009 (here), the FDIC increased the number of banks on its "Problem List" from 252 at year end 2008 to 305 as of March 31, 2009, and increased the total assets at problem institutions from $159 billion to $220 billion. (The FDIC does not identify the banks it has designated as "problems" by name.)


To put this increase in context, the number of banks on the Problem List as of the end of the third quarter of 2008 was only 171, and at the end of the second quarter of 2008, the count was only 117. In other words, the number of banks on the Problem List not only increased 21% from year end 2008 to the end of the first quarter 2009, but it has increased 160% in just nine months between the middle of 2008 and the end of the first quarter.


As I have said before, all signs are that the current banking woes are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.