The conventional view is that plaintiffs may be faring poorly in many of the subprime-related cases. However, plaintiffs have in fact been doing relatively better in ’33 Act claims brought by purchasers of mortgage-backed securities. A recent ruling in the Wells Fargo Mortgage-Backed Certificates Litigation, in which a significant number of plaintiffs’ claims survived the defendants’ motions to dismiss, continues this trend of relatively favorable rulings in these cases. In addition, as also discussed below, the plaintiffs in the Lincoln National subprime related ERISA class action also recently survived dismissal motions.
Wells Fargo Mortage-Backed Certificates: In an April 22, 2010 order (here), Northern District of California Judge Susan Illston granted in part and denied in part the defendants motions to dismiss in the subprime-related Wells Fargo Mortgage-Backed Certificates securities class action lawsuit.
Purchasers of the mortgage pass-through certificates had filed their lawsuit in March 2009, alleging that the offering documents contained misrepresentations and omissions. The plaintiffs alleged that the documents misstated Wells Fargo’s underwriting processes and loan standards; falsely stated the appraisal value of the underlying mortgaged properties; and misstated the investment quality of the securities, which had been assigned the highest ratings regardless of the lower quality of the underlying mortgages.
In her April 22, 2010 order, Judge Illston granted the defendants motions to dismiss, for lack of standing, plaintiffs’ claims based relating to 37 out of the 54 referenced offerings in which the named plaintiffs had not purchased securities. She also granted the rating agency defendants’ motions to dismiss the plaintiffs’ claims against them, holding (in reliance on Judge Lewis Kaplan’s February 1, 2010 ruling in the Lehman Brothers case) that the rating agencies were not underwriters within the meaning of the ’33 Act.
As to the 17 offerings in which the plaintiffs had purchased securities, Judge Illston denied the remaining defendants’ motions to dismiss, holding that the plaintiffs, in reliance on confidential witness testimony, had adequately alleged misrepresentations in connection with the defendants’ underwriting practices, improper appraisal practices, and the process by which the securities obtained their investment ratings.
One particularly interesting part of Judge Illston’s opinion related to the defendants’ motions to dismiss the plaintiffs’ claims based on the statute of limitations. Plaintiffs first filed their complaint in March 2009. In order to avoid the statute, the plaintiff claims would "have to have accrued no earlier than March 27, 2008 to be timely." The defendants argued that due to widespread press coverage the plaintiffs were put on inquiry notice of problems involving mortgage-backed securities well before March 2008. Judge Illston found these arguments "unpersuasive" noting that the news articles on which the defendants relied "give rise to competing inferences."
Lincoln National ERISA Class Action: In an April 20, 2010 order (here), Eastern District of Pennsylvania Judge Anita Brody denied the defendants’ motions to dismiss the subprime related ERISA lawsuit that had been brought on behalf of two Lincoln National benefit plans.
During 2008 and 2009, Lincoln National had sustained heavy losses in its investment portfolio because of investments in mortgage-backed securities, structured investment products, and other derivative securities, including collateralized debt obligations. As the company sustained these investment losses, its share price declined substantially. The plaintiff alleged that because the defendants knew or should have known of the company’s exposure to investment losses, it was imprudent to continue to invest plan assets in the company’s stock. The plaintiff also alleged that the defendants’ failure to disclose the company’s exposure to investment losses prevented the plan participants from making informed investment decisions.
The defendants moved to dismiss, arguing first that because the plans were Employee Stock Ownership Plans, the plan fiduciaries are entitled to a presumption of prudence for the decision to invest in employer securities. The plaintiff argued that the presumption was inapplicable because the plan fiduciaries had discretion whether to offer the company stock as an investment options. The court found that the plaintiff had alleged sufficient facts to overcome the presumption, citing the alleged precipitous decline in the company’s stock, the defendants’ knowledge of the impending collapse and the defendants’ conflicted status.
In reaching this conclusion, Judge Brody noted that the complaint contains "specific allegations explaining why Defendants knew or should have known that the value of the LNC common stock would seriously deteriorate." She specifically referred to the complaint’s allegations that "Defendants knew or should have known of the Company’s exposure to losses in its investment portfolio due to declines in subprime and Alt-A residential mortgage-backed securities, the Company’s exposure to losses in its investment portfolio due to equity investments in troubled markets, and the Company’s exposure to decreasing capital levels."
In denying the motion to dismiss on this ground, Judge Brody commented that the plaintiff "faces a heavy burden going forward" as the "presumption of prudence is a difficult standard to overcome." She noted that the complaint "alleges sufficiently dire circumstances that might cause a prudent plan fiduciary to discontinue" the investment option in company stock.
Judge Brody also found that the plaintiff had adequately alleged claims that the documents distributed to plan participants contained materially misleading statements. However Judge Brody granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss on the plaintiff’s failure to disclose claim, holding that the plan documents "adequately informed plan participants about the risk inherent in investing solely in employer securities."
The court’s holding in the Wells Fargo case is largely consistent with other recent dismissal motion rulings in ’33 Act claims involving mortgage-backed securities. It now seems to be fairly well established that plaintiffs are not going to be allowed to assert claims in connection with offerings in which they did not purchase securities. However, dismissal motions apparently will be denied where the plaintiffs have alleged that offering document statements about mortgage originating practices were misleading, at least when the plaintiffs allege in reliance on confidential witness testimony that the mortgage originator systematically disregarded its underwriting guidelines.
The statute of limitations issue in the Wells Fargo case is interesting. Judge Illston’s holding that the plaintiffs had not been put on inquiry notice in March 2008 raises the interesting question of when prospective plaintiffs were put on inquiry notice. At some point during 2008, as the financial markets deteriorated and then nearly collapsed, mortgage-backed securities investors clearly were on inquiry notice about possible problems in the mortgage securitization industry. Perhaps another case will narrow down that 2008 inquiry notice date. At a minimum by September 2008 when Lehman Brother collapsed and AIG had to be bailed out, the cat was clearly out of the bag.
The practical reality that there is some date during 2008 when the plaintiffs undeniably were on inquiry notice provides at least one explanation why the number of new subprime-related securities class action lawsuit filings began to decline. Clearly, the plaintiffs’ lawyers have no interest in brining claims that will likely be found to be time barred. Of course, as time goes on, the dates on which the toxic offerings took place recedes further and further into the past, and so that is one reason why, notwithstanding the dramatic recent allegations in the SEC’s enforcement action against Goldman Sachs may unlikely to generate a wave of new subprime related securities suits.
There is one interesting side note in the SEC’s complaint against Goldman Sachs that is tangentially related here. The SEC alleges that as Paulson company representative and ACA, the portfolio selection manager, worked out which securities would be included in the Abacus CDO, the Paulson representative deleted eight mortgage backed securities that had been issued by Wells Fargo. The SEC’s complaint alleges in paragraph 34 that "Wells Fargo was generally perceived as one of the higher-quality subprime loan originators."
It is probably cold consolation to the investors in the Wells Fargo securities that Wells Fargo’s mortgages were then perceived as sufficiently durable that Paulson didn’t want securities backed by those mortgages in his "built to fail" CDO. The money those investors lost on their investment hurt them every bit as badly as the money that investors in other securities lost hurt them. It is probably some measure of how widespread the subprime meltdown was that even securities perceived as stronger still produced significant losses for their investors.
As for the Lincoln National decision, this is the latest in a series of subprime-related ERISA class action lawsuit dismissal motion rulings suggesting that ERISA claims may be more likely to survive dismissal motion rulings. The most extreme example of this is in connection with NovaStar Financial, where the securities class action lawsuit was dismissed (and indeed the dismissal was affirmed by the Eighth Circuit), yet the NovaStar ERISA lawsuit survived the dismissal motion. At one level this is hardly surprising since ERISA plaintiffs, unlike securities plaintiffs, do not have to allege scienter, among other things.
The Lincoln National case does represent an interesting example of a lawsuit against a company not for its involvement as a mortgage industry participant or a mortgage securitization producer, but rather as a mortgage backed security investor. When losses are sufficiently widespread, the lawsuits go in every direction. Though Lincoln National is among the defendants in this ERISA case, it could well be a claimant in other mortgage-backed securities lawsuits, owing to the losses in its investment portfolio.
I have in any event added these two decisions to my running tally of subprime-related lawsuit dismissal motion rulings, which can be accessed here.