As the various subprime-related securities lawsuits have reached the motion to dismiss stage, some of the rulings have gone for the defendants and other have gone for plaintiff. Regions Financial Corporation experienced one of each kind of ruling in two separate cases involving allegations about the goodwill the company carried on its balance sheet as a result of its November 2006 acquisition of AmSouth.
As discussed below, the motion to dismiss was denied in the Alabama state court derivative suit, but the motion to dismiss was granted in the securities class action lawsuit pending in the Southern District of New York.
Regions Shareholders’ Derivative Lawsuit (Alabama)
Plaintiffs filed their shareholders’ derivative complaint in May 2009 in Alabama (Jefferson County) Circuit Court against Regions, as nominal defendant, and certain current and former members of Regions’ board of directors. The complaint asserts claims against the company defendants for breach of fiduciary duty, corporate waste, and abuse of control. (The complaint asserts separate claims against the company’s offering underwriters and auditing firm for aiding and abetting and breach of professional duties).
The complaint’s allegations pertain to the company’s November 2006 $10 billion purchase of AmSouth and the alleged falsification of the company’s public statements and disclosure documents both during and following the transaction. The complaint principally focuses on the company’s disclosures between the time of the merger and the company’s January 2009 write down of over $6 billion of goodwill. Throughout that period, and despite the deteriorating real estate market, the merger allegedly was touted as a success, notwithstanding Regions’ acquisition of AmSouth’s exposure to the Florida real estate market.
According to the complaint in June 2008 the SEC questioned the company’s determination in its 2007 10-K that its goodwill balance was not impaired. Analysts also began to question this issue as well, but it was not until January 2009 that the company, as the Alabama court later put it "wrote down its goodwill and admitted that the value of its loan portfolio was billions less that [sic] what had been reported." The plaintiff alleges that the defendants knew of the true financial situation and misrepresented or concealed those facts.
The company defendants moved to dismiss on the grounds that the plaintiff had failed to make a pre-suit demand that the company itself bring the claims. The plaintiff countered that demand was excused.
The May 6 Ruling
In a May 6, 2010 order (here), Circuit Court Judge Robert S. Vance, Jr., applying Delaware substantive law and Alabama procedural requirements largely denied the defendants’ motions to dismiss, finding that the plaintiffs "have met their burden, at least at to the extent needed to establish demand futility at this point."
Judge Vance noted the widespread deterioration of the Florida real estate market, and also reviewed the duties of the board, particularly its audit committee, to consider critical financial issues such as goodwill impairment. Judge Vance noted that:
Given these duties along with the well-known and heavily publicized deterioration of the real estate market (especially in Florida) and the corresponding collapse in the credit market, and the letter received from the S.E.C. in June 2008, the members of the audit committee can fairly be said to confront a substantial likelihood of liability as a result of Regions’ failure to advise its shareholders prior to January 2009 that its financial situation was threatened.
Judge Vance also denied (in reliance on the Citigroup derivative lawsuit case) defendants’ motions to dismiss the plaintiffs claims for waste "to the extent that corporate waste allegations pertain to compensation issues specifically authorized by the directors."
However, Judge Vance found that the plaintiffs had failed to show enough to maintain claims based on an alleged failure to oversee Regions’ subsidiary, Morgan Keegan, holding that the plaintiffs "fail to show in what particular ways the Regions’ board has consciously failed to oversee the operations of its subsidiary."
Southern District of New York Securities Class Action Lawsuit
As reflected in greater detail here, the plaintiffs first filed a securities class action lawsuit in the Southern District of New York against Regions on April 1, 2009. The plaintiffs represented investors that had purchased securities in the company’s $345 million April 2008 trust preferred securities offering. The defendants included the company, certain of its directors and officers, its offering underwriters, and its auditor.
The plaintiffs alleged that the April 2008 offering documents were false and misleading because they incorporated by reference financial statements that overstated goodwill and underestimated loan loss reserves. Among the financial statements incorporated into the offering documents was the company’s 2007 Form 10-K.
The complaint alleged that the company "did not write down any of the massive goodwill" it recorded in its 2007 10-K "despite growing evidence indicating that serious problems existed at the time of the acquisition." The complaint also alleges that Regions "only marginally increased its loan loss reserves" despite "the high risk of loss inherent in its mortgage loan portfolio."
The defendants moved to dismiss on the grounds that the plaintiffs had failed to allege any actionable misstatements or omissions.
The May 10 Ruling.
In his May 10, 2010 opinion (here), Southern District of New York Judge Lewis Kaplan granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss.
With respect to the plaintiff’s allegations regarding goodwill, Judge Kaplan concluded that "in the absence of particularized allegations that management believed that the goodwill figure was materially overstated, the amended complaint is insufficient as a matter of law."
In reaching this conclusion, Judge Kaplan noted that the goodwill was intended to reflect the excess of the acquisition price over the fair value of AmSouth’s assets at the time of the acquisition. He noted that the value of AmSouth’s loan portfolio "was not a matter of objective fact," as its loan assets were not traded on an efficient market, adding "nor has plaintiff pointed to any other objective standard of value." Given the lack of "any objective or readily determinable value," the question of the falsity of the goodwill presented in the offering documents is not a question of whether or not the value was wrong in some empirical sense, but whether or not the offering documents actually reflected management’s "honest opinion." Because the complaint did not allege that the goodwill did not reflect management’s opinion, the complaint’s allegations regarding goodwill were insufficient as a matter of law.
Even though the SEC’s June 2008 inquiry letter came two months after the April 2008 securities offering, Judge Kaplan expressly addressed the letter’ implications He noted that the SEC did not question the validity of Regions’ goodwill balance, but rather asked only for Regions to disclose how it determined that the goodwill balance was not impaired. Regions had responded that the goodwill reflected the fact that a potential buyer would offer a control premium for the business franchise. The SEC had replied that it had no further comments. Judge Kaplan concluded that the exchange with the SEC did not support an inference that Regions was aware that its goodwill was impaired at the time its alleged misstatements.
Judge Kaplan reached a similar conclusion with respect to the alleged insufficiency of Regions’ loan loss reserves, noting that the loan loss reserves are not a matter of objective fact, but rather were statements of opinion. He noted that the complaint is "devoid of any allegation that the defendants did not truly hold those opinions at the time they were made public."
The difference in outcome of these two dismissal motion rulings is largely a reflection of the fact that the two courts were engaged in significantly different exercises. The Alabama court was determining only whether or not the requirement for pre-suit demand was excused based on the circumstances alleged.
Judge Kaplan was not only examining the legal sufficiency of the allegations, but he was also considering whether or not the complaint met the specific legal requirements for the specific claims alleged.
But the difference between these two opinions reflects more than the difference in the precise questions before the respective courts.
The two opinions also reflect strongly different starting points. Judge Vance in the Alabama case took it as a given that the residential real estate marketplace was rapidly deteriorating during the relevant time period, and that the deterioration was a relevant consideration. Judge Vance also considered the SEC’s letter relevant to whether or not the company’s financial statements were misleading due to the company’s delay in recognizing the impairment of the goodwill.
Judge Kaplan’s analysis seems to suggest that that these external considerations were irrelevant, and the only consideration was whether or not the offering documents accurately reflected management’s opinion about goodwill.
Judge Vance was, of course, concerned with a broader period of time and a broader range of communications than was Judge Kaplan. And unlike the plaintiffs in the securities fraud lawsuit before Judge Kaplan, the plaintiffs in the derivative lawsuit had expressly alleged knowing or reckless misrepresentation. Because the claims before Judge Kaplan were asserted under the ’33 Act, the plaintiffs in that case had not alleged knowing or reckless misrepresentation.
Accordingly, it might be asserted that the differences between the two opinions are simply a reflection of the differences in the facts alleged and the substantive difference in the claims asserted. That assertion might even be true. However, I find it very hard in reading these two opinions not to conclude that these opinions are best explained by the differences in the two Judge’s starting points. For Judge Vance, it was all about the external context. For Judge Kaplan, the context is irrelevant.
Just to round out the picture here, it is worth noting that in a March 9, 2010 order (here), Western District of Tennessee Judge Samuel H. Mays, Jr. denied the motion to dismiss in the Regions Financial subprime-related ERISA class action lawsuit. On the one hand you might say that this is yet another decision relating to the same set of circumstances, but it could also be argued that the ERISA plaintiffs have alleged a substantially broader array of misrepresentations. At a minimum, you can say that the dismissal motion rulings in the subprime-related cases involving Regions Financial Corp. are basically all over the map.
Once final note is that Judge Vance’s ruling may be significant due to the fact that it is a higher-profile subprime related derivative suit in which the complaint survived the initial motions to dismiss. This outcome stands in contrast to prior rulings in subprime-related derivative suits – for example, in the Citigroup derivative lawsuit (about which refer here) and AIG derivative lawsuit (refer here). Based on these rulings, a perception has been growing the plaintiffs are struggling in these cases.
Judge Vance’s holding that demand in this case is excused is a potentially significant holding, although its impact is likely to be limited both due to the somewhat case specific facts (including in particular the SEC’s June 2008 letter inquiry), and due to the fact that the ruling is the product of an Alabama state court applying Delaware law. These factors may restrict the impact of the case.
Nevertheless the May 6 order does represent an example where plaintiffs were able to overcome the challenging initial hurdles involved in shareholders’ derivative litigation.
I have in any event added the two Regions-related rulings to my running tally of subprime-related dismissal motions rulings, which can be accessed here.
Special thanks to several loyal readers for providing me with copies of the various Regions Financial rulings. .
E*Trade Subprime Securities Suit Dismissal Motion Ruling Denied: And speaking of subprime-related securities lawsuits in which the dismissal motions were denied, in another order dated May 10, 2010 (here), Southern District of New York Judge Robert Sweet denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss in the subprime related securities suit pending against E*Trade and certain of its directors and officers.
As reflected in greater detail here, the plaintiffs had first filed their securities actions against E*Trade in October 2007, alleging that the company had failed to disclose deterioration in its mortgage and home equity loan portfolio. The defendants moved to dismiss, arguing among other things that the company’s losses were the result of a "worldwide economic catastrophe" and the plaintiffs’ claims were nothing more than "fraud by hindsight."
In denying the defendants’ arguments, Judge Sweet rejected this "global meltdown" arguments saying that "because the issue in this action is what the Defendants knew and when they knew it, a securities violation has been adequately alleged."
Andrew Longstreth’s May 12, 2010 Am Law Litigation Daily article about the dismisal motion ruling in the E*Trade case can be found here. I have also added the E*Trade ruling to my running tally of subprime lawsuit dismissal motion rulings.
Reflection: Judge Vance is the eldest son of Robert Smith Vance, who served as a United States District Circuit Judge, first in the Fifth Circuit and later in the Eleventh Circuit. The elder Judge Vance is one of the few federal judges to be assassinated as a result of his judicial service. Judge Vance was killed by a mail bomb in 1989. Prosecutors later concluded that the bomb had been sent by a convicted criminal upset because the Eleventh Circuit had refused to expunge the conviction.
In memory of Judge Vance, the name of federal building and courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama as been changed to the Robert S. Vance Federal Building and United States Courthouse.