As opening speaker on June 21, 2010 at the Stanford Law School Directors’ college, Southern District of New York Judge Jed Rakoff shared his views about Bank of America’s settlement of the SEC enforcement action, including some thoughts about why he approved the revised $150 million settlement of the case after he rejected the prior $33 proposed settlement. He also commented on what he hopes the significance of the sequence of events may be.
In August 2009, the SEC filed an enforcement action against Bank of America related to the events surrounding the company’s acquisition of Merrill Lynch. At the outset, the case related solely to omissions pertaining to the payment of bonuses at Merrill Lynch prior to the merger, although as later amended the action extended to omissions in the proxy materials relating to Merrill’s deteriorating financial condition after the merger was announced but prior to the shareholder vote.
In a harshly worded September 14, 2009 opinion (here), Judge Rakoff had rejected the parties initial $33 proposed settlement, finding that it did not meet the requisite standard for judicial approval, as it was "neither fair, nor reasonable, nor adequate." He challenged the very premise of the deal, which he said "proposes that shareholders who were the victims of the Bank’s alleged misconduct must now pay the penalty for the misconduct."
On February 4, 2010, the SEC announced a revised settlement of its amended enforcement action. Though the revised settlement substantially increased the cash value of the settlement, many observers at the time questioned whether the revised settlement addressed Rakoff’s numerous concerns with the initial pact. Yet Rakoff approved it, although "reluctantly."
In his speech at the Stanford Directors College, Judge Rakoff provided some explanation of the reasons he approved the revised deal. Among other things, he noted that the revised settlement included "specific prophylactic measures" regarding disclosures that had not been included in the initial proposal.
In addition, though the settlement funds would still ultimately come from Bank of America’s then-current shareholders, the funds under the revised settlement would go to Bank of America’s pre-merger shareholders, rather than to the SEC, as had been the arrangement under the initial settlement. Because about half of the post-merger shareholders had prior to the merger been Merrill Lynch shareholders, but only the pre-merger Bank of America shareholders would receive the settlement funds, the practical effect of the settlement was a "renegotiation" of the price of the merger deal.
Rakoff also mentioned that the day before the settlement was proposed, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo ("Hereinafter to be referred to as ‘The Candidate,’" Rakoff added) filed a state court action against Bank of America and two of its officers charging them with fraud (about which refer here). He said that "under the circumstances, he had no alternative but to examine" the material the AG had relied upon, as a result of which he concluded that the SEC’s "view of the facts was not unreasonable."
Rakoff added that he "really would have preferred that the case go to trial, as that would have provided an opportunity for a jury to determine what the facts were," but his role was not to determine his own preferences but rather to determine whether the proposed settlement was "fair, reasonable and adequate."
In commenting on what the significance of these events may be, Judge Rakoff noted that in the past SEC consent judgments have largely been free from "scrutiny" because of the generally "high regard" the judiciary has for the SEC and the "deference" the SEC is given as a result.
Judge Rakoff said he "harbors the hope" that the questions he raised about the Bank of America settlement may "encourage some of my colleagues in being more proactive in assessing other SEC consent judgments" as well as consent judgments in other cases. These kinds of efforts may or may not contribute to greater "efficiency" but they "will lead to greater justice."