In a noteworthy subprime-related litigation development, on August 5, 2009, the parties to the Countrywide ERISA action filed a stipulation of settlement (here), together with a request for preliminary court approval. Under the stipulation, the case is to be settled by a payment of $55 million, to be funded entirely by Countrywide’s fiduciary liability insurers.


The plaintiffs first filed their complaint in September 2007. As reflected in the plaintiffs’ Corrected Second Amended Complaint (here), the case was brought on behalf of participants in the Countrywide benefits plan who made contributions to the plan between January 31, 2006 and July 1, 2008, and whose individual plan accounts were invested in Countrywide stock.


The plaintiffs’ complaint alleges that the plan fiduciaries "allowed the imprudent investment of the Plan’s assets in Countrywide’s equity," even though they knew or should have known that such investment was unduly risky," because of the company’s "serious mismanagement, highly improper and potentially unlawful business practices," particularly with respect to subprime loans. The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants breached their fiduciary duties to plan participants.


The Countrywide ERISA action joins the Merrill Lynch ERISA case as high profile subprime-related ERISA lawsuits that have resulted in significant settlements – as noted here, the Merrill Lynch ERISA action settled for $75 million. The Countrywide settlement may be particularly noteworthy given that the entire $55 million settlement amount is to be funded by the company’s fiduciary liability insurers. While the Countywide case may be particularly notorious, the ERISA action settlement size may represent an ominous sign for fiduciary liability insurers whose policyholders are involved in subprime-related ERISA litigation.


There have been a variety of estimates of the insurance industry’s overall prospective loss exposure due to the subprime meltdown and the credit crisis. Though the magnitude of many estimates is impressive, most of these estimates have largely been based on a series of conjectures about likely D&O and E&O losses. Potential fiduciary liability losses were not a prominent part of the calculation. But if the Countrywide ERISA action settlement is any indication, fiduciary liability insurance losses could prove to be a significant factor in the overall insurance industry exposure from the subprime and credit crisis events.


In any event, I have added the Countrywide ERISA action settlement to my roster of subprime and credit crisis-related lawsuit resolutions, which can be accessed here. The ERISA cases can be found in Section III of the roster.


State Street’s Subprime Litigation Contingency Reserve Too Small?: In a development that underscore both the massive scale of the subprime litigation exposure and the extent to which that exposure may largely be uninsured, on August 10, 2009 State Street Corporation filed its Form 10-Q (here), in which among other things the company reported that the approximately $625 million reserve it established in January 2008 (for the fourth quarter of 2007 reporting period) may not be sufficient in the event that regulators currently investigating the events were to bring an enforcement action. Details about the initial reserve can be found in a prior post, here.


State Street reports that as of June 30, 2009, $193 million of this initial reserve remains. But the filing goes on to note that on June 25, 2009, the SEC has served the company with a "Wells notice" and the SEC staff has recommended the initiation of enforcement proceedings. If the SEC or other regulators were to pursue enforcement actions, the report states, then, "depending upon the resolution of these governmental proceedings, the remainder of the reserve established in 2007 may not be sufficient to address ongoing litigation, as well as any such penalties or remedies."


The astonishing erosion of this massive reserve certainly highlights the expense involved in this type of litigation, and the company’s warning that the remaining reserve may not be sufficient, stresses the seeming boundlessness of the exposure. The fact that it is the company’s own reserve that is being eroded suggests that this exposure is largely or entirely uninsured, which shows that no matter how great the insurance industry’s exposure may be from the subprime and credit crisis-related litigation wave, the overall exposure, including uninsured liabilities and amounts, may be many multiples greater.