Rating agencies are not susceptible to ’33 Act liability as "underwriters," even if they helped structure the mortgage backed securities at issue, according to February 1, 2010 ruling (here) by Southern District of New York Judge Lewis Kaplan in which he dismissed Moody’s and McGraw-Hill (S&P’s parent) from the Lehman Brothers Mortgage-Backed Securities Litigation.
Plaintiffs had purchased the mortgage back securities that Lehman Brothers had issued in two offerings in August 2005 and August 2006. The plaintiffs allege that the originators of the loans that backed the securities failed to comply with the general loan underwriting guidelines described in the offering documents. The plaintiffs allege that the rating agencies determined the composition of the loans in the mortgage pool that the instruments securitized. The plaintiffs also allege that the credit enhancements supporting the loans were insufficient to support the investment ratings the rating agencies gave the securities.
The plaintiffs premised their securities liability claims against the rating agencies based on their argument that the rating agencies were "underwriters" within the meaning of Section 11 of the ’33 Act. The plaintiffs based their theory that the rating agencies were "underwriters" within the meaning of Section 11 on the argument that the "underwriter" liability extends to those "who engaged in steps necessary for the distribution."
Judge Kaplan found this argument "unpersuasive," noting that
The Rating Agencies’ alleged activities may well have had a good deal to do with the composition and characteristics of the pools of mortgage loans and the credit enhancements of the Certificates that ultimately were sold. But there is nothing in the complaint to suggest that they participated in the relevant "undertaking" – that of purchasing the securities here at issue, the Certificates – "from the issuer with a view to their resale." The Section 11 claim is insufficient in law.
Judge Kaplan also rejected plaintiffs’ arguments that the rating agencies had "seller" liability under Section 12(a)(2) or control person liability under Section 15.
The rating agencies dismissal from this subprime-related securities class action lawsuit is not as significant as it would have been if it had based on the rating agencies’ claims that their ratings opinions are proteced by the First Amendment. Though Judge Scheindlin rejected that argument on narrow grounds in the Cheyne Financial case (refer here), the First Amendment defense undoubtedly will play a crucial role in many of the subprime-related securities cases that have been filed against the rating agencies, and the litigants in the many cases that have been filed against the rating agencies will have to await a later date to get a clearer sense of how those arguments will fare in these cases.
But though Judge Kaplan did not reach the first amendment issue, his ruling nevertheless is significant. As the subprime litigation wave unfolded, there were a number of complaints filed against the rating agencies asserting ’33 Act claims against them in which the plaintiffs in those cases had argued that the rating agencies were susceptible to "underwriter" liability under Section 11. Judge Kaplan’s rejection of that theory undoubtedly will be influential in those other cases where the plaintiffs have attempted to assert Section 11 "underwriter" liability against the rating agencies.
I have in any event added Judge Kaplan’s ruling to my list of subprime and credit crisis-related lawsuit resolutions, which can be accessed here.
SEC Issues Climate Change Interpretive Guidance: The SEC decided recently to issue interpretive guidance on climate change disclosure. The SEC has now issued the interpretive guidance, which can be found here. I think this is a significant development, and not just because the SEC has now formally put climate change disclosure on the list of things to do for reporting companies.
It is clearly a topic worthy of much longer treatment than I am able to give it while I am in New York attending the PLUS D&O Symposium, but the danger is that the disclosure requirement establishes the predicate for a plaintiff to later claim that a public company failed to meet its climate change-related disclosure obligations. In my view, the SEC’s issuance of the interpretive guidance brings us that much closer to the day when we may start to see D&O claims arising out of misrepresentations or omissions concerning climate change related disclosures.
The End of the World: In response to my recent statement that I was tired and could use a nap, one of my much younger colleagues replied "O.K, first we take zee nap, ZEN WE DEESTROY ZEE WORLD!" She undoubtedly saw from the puzzled look on my face that I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about, so she immediately sat down and showed me this YouTube video, which she described as "the original viral Internet video." Readers should be forewarned that the video uses vulgar language and contains humor that some may find crude or offensive. It is also seriously funny. Viewer discretion is, however, strongly advised.