As the number of failed banks has mounted in the last couple of years, the question that has arisen is whether the FDIC will pursue claims against the directors and officers of the failed institutions. While we are still waiting to see what the FDIC will do, private litigants have been moving forward. In particular, in many cases the investors have pursued securities lawsuits against the directors and officers of the failed banks.
Unfortunately for some of these plaintiffs, however, a number of these cases have resulted in dismissals. By way of example, dismissal motions were granted in the BankUnited case, and Downey Financial case. However, a recent decision in the securities lawsuit surrounding the collapse of Corus Bankshares went the other way, in an opinion that is largely favorable to plaintiffs.
Until the bank was closed on September 11, 2009, Corus Bankshares operated as the holding company for Corus Bank, a depositary institution that concentrated its lending activities in commercial construction loans, particularly condominium construction and conversion loans. Investors sued Corus and two of its former officers alleging that Corus misrepresented its lending practices, capital position and loan loss reserves. As the court later stated "the complaint alleges that Corus misrepresented the nature and extent of its financial troubles and its ability to survive the downturn affecting the economy at the time." The defendants moved to dismiss.
In an order dated April 6, 2010 (here), Northern District of Illinois Judge Elaine Bucklo denied the motions to dismiss as to Corus and its former CEO, but granted the motion as to its former CFO.
In their dismissal motions, the defendants had argued that the plaintiff’s allegations represented nothing more than "fraud by hindsight," particularly with respect to plaintiff’s allegations about the inadequacy of the loan loss reserves. Judge Bucklo rejected these arguments, finding that "plaintiff here has alleged specific, concrete reasons for his contention that Corus should have known that its reserves were inadequate and needed to be increased, and that Corus’s statements about the adequacy of its reserves were misleading." Judge Bucklo also found that plaintiff’s allegations about other aspects of Corus’s financial condition were also sufficient.
Judge Bucklo also concluded that the plaintiff’s scienter allegations were sufficient, at least as to Corus and its former CEO. She said that "an inference of scienter is supported, first of all, by Corus’s awareness of the discrepancy between its public statements about its finances and the corporation’s true financial condition." The inference, she said, was "buttressed by many other allegations," including the company’s undisclosed use of special purpose entities.
The defendant had argued that the plaintiff’s scienter theory was undercut by the "frankness" of some of the company’s disclosures. Judge Bucklo said that
The argument is not without force, but it does not carry the day. Plaintiff does not contend that Corus sought to pull the wool over the public’s eyes by claiming that it would pass through the recession entirely unscathed. Instead, according to plaintiff, Corus’s fraud consisted largely in concealing the full extent of its financial difficulties. Thus, the fact that Corus disclosed certain of its difficulties during the class period does not necessarily negate any inference of scienter, for Corus’s statements may still have been intended to conceal the fact that its condition was substantially worse than it statements suggested.
Judge Bucklo also concluded that the scienter allegations were sufficient as to the company’s former CEO, largely in reliance on plaintiff’s allegations that the CEO was "deeply involved in every major aspect of the lending process." She concluded that plaintiff’s scienter allegations against the CFO were not sufficient, particularly where there were no allegations that the CFO was deeply involved in the lending process.
HomeBanc Corporation Securities Suit Dismissed: In a ruling that came out completely opposite from Corus case, on April 13, 2010, Northern District of Georgia Judge Timothy C. Batten, Sr. entered an order (here) granting with prejudice the defendants’ motions to dismiss the securities lawsuit pending against two former officers of HomeBanc Corporation.
HomeBanc was an Atlanta-based real estate investment trust in the business of investing in and originating residential mortgage loans. The plaintiffs alleged that prior to the company’s August 9, 2007 bankruptcy the defendants portrayed"overly rosy picture" of the company’s finances, and misrepresented the company’s underwriting practices, loan loss reserve model, and other aspects of the company’s lending and mortgage investment operations. The plaintiffs alleged that the company "loosened its underwriting standards and policies in response to slowing loan originations and shifted from its stated focus on conservative risk management to attempting to profit by selling poor quality loans." The defendants moved to dismiss.
In his April 13 order, Judge Batten agreed with the Defendants’ position that "the bulk of the statements upon which Plaintiff relies fail to satisfy the …standards for materiality." Among other things he found that the complaint "makes conclusory allegations of falsity without establishing contrary true facts." He also said that the complaint is "rife with forward-looking statements made by HomeBanc that were accompanies by meaningful risk disclosures."
Judge Batten also concluded that the plaintiff "has failed to allege sufficient facts to demonstrate a cogent and compelling inference of scienter," noting that "the complaint cites differences of opinion, conjecture and innuendo in an attempt to make the Defendants’ behavior look suspicious, but it conspicuously omits any facts that would require one to rule out an innocent explanation for the alleged behavior." Judge Batten also held that the plaintiff had not sufficiently pled loss causation.
These are two completely different cases involving two completely different sets of parties and two completely different sets of allegations. But it is very hard to read them back to back and not come away with a strong impression of how different the two judges’ approaches were and how the difference of those approaches seemed to lead directly to the outcome. To be sure, the difference of the approach may be nothing more than a reflection of the relative merits of the two cases. On the other hand, it is hard to shake the impression that there were two different outcomes simply because there were two different judges involved.
Some might argue that I am being naïve to believe that merits outcomes ought not to turn simply of the luck of the judicial draw. And yet others might say that judicial draw has nothing to do with the difference in outcome of these two rulings, but rather the outcomes reflect the cases. And I suppose it could be said that the system requires only uniform principles not uniform outcomes. But all of that said, it really does seem sometimes that the most significant factor in determining the outcome of a case is the identity (and predisposition) of the judge.
At the risk of starting something, I do think it is interesting to note that Judge Bucklo, who denied the motion to dismiss in the Corus case, is a Clinton appointee, and Judge Batten, who granted the motion to dismiss, is a Bush (W) appointee. Not that that has anything to do with the outcomes, of course.
I have in any event added these rulings to my running tally of subprime and credit crisis related case resolutions, which can be accessed here.
Special thanks to the several readers who sent me copies of the Corus decision and to the loyal reader who sent me the HomeBanc decision.
PLUS Webinar: On April 22, 2010, at 2:00 P.M. EDT, I will be participating in a webinar sponsored by the Professional Liability Underwriting Society (PLUS) entitled "D&O Insurance and the Outcome and Timing of Securities Class Action Resolution: What New Data Shows." The purpose of the webinar is to discuss recent research completed by Stanford Law School Professor Michael Klausner on the impact of D&O insurance on securities class action resolutions. Professor Klausner’s research also addresses the timing of case resolution and factors affecting the eventual outcomes.
Joining me on the discussion panel, in addition to Professor Klausner, will be Steve Anderson of Beecher Carlson and Todd Greeley of C N A. The session will be moderated by Paul Lavelle of LVL Claims Services.
Information and Registration for this free webinar can be found here.