In a detailed October 27, 2009 opinion (here), Western District of Washington Judge Marsha J. Pechman substantially denied the defendants’ motions to dismiss the plaintiffs’ amended complaint in the Washington Mutual subprime securities class action lawsuit. Judge Pechman’s ruling is noteworthy in and of itself, but perhaps even more because Judge Pechman had previously granted the defendants motions’ to dismiss all of the plaintiffs’ ’34 Act claims and all but one of defendants’ ’33 Act claims.
As discussed here, in granting the prior motions to dismiss, Judge Pechman had been sharply critical of the clarity and organization of the plaintiffs’ initial consolidated amended complaint, which she characterized as "verbose and disorganized." and as embodying "puzzle pleading."
By contrast, in her October 27 ruling, Judge Pechman stated that the second amended complaint (hereafter, the "complaint") presents "cogent and concise allegations against Defendants." She also stated that the Plaintiffs have "largely succeeded in remedying the deficiencies of their initial complaint."
As described in the October 27 opinion, the complaint alleges that the defendants "(1) deliberately and secretly decreased the efficacy of WaMu’s risk management policies; (2) corrupted WaMu’s appraisal process; (3) abandoned appropriate underwriting standards; and (4) misrepresented both WaMus’ financial results and internal controls."
The complaint’s ’34 Act claims assert claims for securities fraud against the seven officer defendants, although the complaint also alleges Section 20 control person liability against the outside director defendants as well as the officer defendants.
With respect to the plaintiffs’ ’33 Act claims, the complaint alleges different specific allegedly misleading statement as to each of the individual officer defendants. The defendants moved to dismiss these allegations on the grounds that the complaint does not sufficiently allege that the statements are false and misleading and failed to allege "particularized facts giving rise to a strong inference of scienter."
In reviewing the adequacy of the plaintiffs’ allegations, Judge Pechman reviewed each of the alleged misstatements with respect to each of the individual officer defendants, grouping the allegedly false statements in four categories "(1) risk management; (2) appraisals; (3) underwriting; and (4) internal controls."
Other than with respect to two statement of WaMu’s former CEO, Kerry Killinger, which Judge Pechman found to "lack sufficient clarity to state a claim," Judge Pechman found that the plaintiffs’ ’34 Act claims were sufficiently pleaded, and therefore (other than with respect to two of the CEO’s statements), the motion to dismiss the ’34 Act claims was denied. Judge Pechman also denied the motion to dismiss the Section 20 control person liability claims against the individual officer defendants and the outside director defendants.
In denying the motion to dismiss, Judge Pechman referred repeatedly to the allegations drawn from internal memoranda and on testimony from confidential witnesses. With respect to the plaintiffs’ scienter allegations, Judge Pechman found with respect to each of the statements (other than the two statements of the CEO that were dismissed) that the "defendants have not raised a competing inference of innocence that outweighs the strong inference of scienter."
In her prior ruling in the case, Judge Pechman had granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss the ’33 Act claims, finding that the plaintiffs at that time did not have standing to assert ’33 Act claims in connection with WaMu’s August 2006, September 2006 and December 2007 securities offerings. The most recent amended complaint purports to add several additional plaintiffs, in an effort to establish standing to assert ’33 Act claims as to the August 2006, September 2006 and December 2007 offerings.
Judge Pechman found none of the new plaintiffs had standing to assert claims as to the August 2006 offering of 5.50% Notes. Judge Pechman also found that the plaintiffs’ lacked standing to assert Section 12(a)(2) claims as to both 2006 offerings. She otherwise found that the plaintiffs had standing to assert ’33 Act claims as to the other offerings. She also found that the complaint’s allegations met the ’33 Act’s substantive pleading requirements.
In short, virtually all of the plaintiffs’ most recent amended complaint survived the renewed dismissal motions. This is a fairly dramatic turnaround from the outcome of the initial motions, in which the initial dismissal motions were substantially granted, other than with respect to the ’33 Act claims in connection with the August 2007 offering. The turnaround is all the more noteworthy given how critical Judge Pechman was of the plaintiffs’ initial complaint. It is a very long way from Judge Pechman’s assessment that the prior complaint was "verbose and disjointed" to her assessment that the most recent complaint is "cogent and concise."
But the difference in outcomes is not attributable solely to the improved organization of the amended complaint. It is also clear that the added allegations, particularly those drawing on confidential witness testimony, were instrumental in bringing about the different outcome.
This turn of events could be significant in connection with the many other pending subprime and credit crisis related securities class action lawsuits, particularly those in which initial motions to dismiss have been granted with leave to amend. If nothing else, Judge Pechman’s October 27 opinion shows that plaintiffs can successfully amend their complaints in order to remedy initial pleading deficiencies. This possibility underscores the fact that initial dismissals without prejudice are indeed provisional, and no one should assume that a case in which initial motions have been granted is done – the plaintiffs in those cases, like the plaintiffs in the WaMu case, may yet succeed in overcoming the initial pleading hurdles.
A couple of aspects of the way in which the WaMu plaintiffs overcame the initial pleading hurdles are instructive for other plaintiffs in subprime and credit crisis-related securities lawsuits. Clearly, Judge Pechman preferred the more organized presentation of the amended complaint to the "puzzle pleading" presented in the prior complaint. Clarity and brevity are indeed virtues, in pleading cases as in all other endeavors, which is a consideration other plaintiffs might well want to heed.
Another clear implication from Judge Pechman’s October 27 order is the value of allegations based on the testimony of well-placed confidential witnesses. This lesson was also apparent from the recent ruling on the renewed motion to dismiss in the Dynex Capital case (about which refer here). While not every plaintiff will be similarly able to present allegations based on the testimony of well-place confidential witnesses, that clearly is one way to overcome the steep pleading hurdles that plaintiffs face at the outset of these cases. And, as I noted in connection with the Dynex Capital ruling, even the rigorous requirements for pleading scienter under the Tellabs case can be overcome with the right kind and quantum of confidential witness testimony.
But perhaps the greatest significance of the ruling on the renewed motions to dismiss is that the motions were denied in a high profile case like the WaMu suit. As I have noted elsewhere on this blog, the defendants generally have seemed to be doing better on the motions to dismiss in the subprime and credit crisis cases. However, the WaMu ruling adds a significant counterweight to the plaintiffs’ side of the ledger, along with the dismissal denials in the Countrywide (refer here) and New Century Financial subprime suit (refer here). The WaMu ruling may be even more significant, given that the dismissal motion had previously been substantially granted.
One final note about the October 27 order in the WaMu case is that the motion was denied as to all defendants, including the offering underwriters and WaMu’s auditors, Deloitte. The fact that the gatekeepers have been kept in the case is significant if for no other reason that its suggestion that gatekeepers generally will continue to be a part of the subprime and credit crisis-related litigation, which could have important implications for how these cases are resolved, as well as what the aggregate costs of these cases might eventually be.
In any event, I have added the October 27 ruling in the WaMu case to my running tally of the dismissal motion rulings in the subprime cases, which can be accessed here.
Special thanks to a loyal reader for providing me with a copy of the October 27 opinion. I get my best material from readers and I am always grateful when readers take the time to send things along to me.
Andrew Longstreth’s October 28, 2009 article on AmLaw Daily about the WaMu decision can be found here.
Another Belated Securities Suit Filing: In several prior posts (most recently here), I have noted the recurring phenomenon during 2009 of new securities class action lawsuit filings in which the proposed class period cutoff is well in the past, in some cases nearly two years before the filing.
The securities class action lawsuit filed on October 28, 2009 against Pitney Bowes and certain of its offices pushes this belated filing phenomenon to its furthest edge of its theoretical possibilities. As reflected in the plaintiffs’ counsel’s October 28 press release (here) , the proposed class period in the case runs from July 30, 2007 to October 29, 2007. In other words, the plaintiffs filed their complaint on what appears to be the last day before the two-year statute of limitations would have expired. A copy of the complaint in the case can be found here.
The Pitney Bowes case is merely the latest (and arguably most extreme) example of this phenomenon. I have long speculated that this rash of seemingly belatedly filed lawsuits may be attributable to a backlog of case filings that built up over prior periods in which plaintiffs lawyers were concentrating on filing subprime and credit crisis related lawsuits as well as lawsuits related to the Madoff scandal. Now that the new filings in those other areas are dying down, the plaintiffs’ lawyers may be getting around to working off the backlog.
The Pitney Bowes case, as is the case with many of these other seemingly belated cases that have been filed during the latter half of 2009, was filed against a company outside the financial sector. This feature of the phenomenon seems to suggest that as the plaintiffs’ counsel work off what seems to be a backlog of cases, the mix of companies sued will shift back toward the more usual spread of kinds of companies, and away from the concentration in the financial sector that characterized filings during the period from mid-2007 through the first part of 2009.
The one thing about these belated filings is that it does create a challenge in trying to determine when a company is "out of the woods" with respect to any adverse developments the company might have had.