Though we are in the midst of the dog days of summer (at least in the northern hemisphere), the federal courts, at least, have been busy. In the last several days alone, several courts have issued dismissal motion rulings in lawsuits arising out of the subprime meltdown and the credit crisis.
As noted below, several of these decisions involve failed or troubled banks, and therefore may be of particular interest in relation to the many banks have failed in recent months or that are continuing to struggle now. Though investor plaintiffs in other cases involving failed or troubled banks have sometimes struggled to survive the initial pleading stages, in the cases discussed below, the plaintiffs managed to survive the dismissal motions, at least in part.
PFF Bancorp: In an August 9, 2010 opinion (here), Central District of California Judge Andrew Guilford denied the defendants’ motions to dismiss in the securities class action lawsuit against two former directors and officers of PFF Bancorp, the corporate parent for PFF Bank & Trust, which failed on November 21, 2008.
As reflected here, in January 2009, shareholders of the holding company filed a securities lawsuit alleging that the company’s President and CEO and its CFO contending that they concealed the Bank’s unsafe lending practices and made misleading statements about the bank’s loan loss reserves and capital levels.
In his August 9 order, Judge Guilford found that while the plaintiffs’ allegations that defendants made misleading statements about the banks’ "cautious" and "conservative" lending practices were insufficient to state a claim, the plaintiffs’ allegations that defendants had falsely characterized the bank’s loan loss reserves as "adequate" were sufficient to state a claim.
Judge Guilford also found that plaintiffs had adequately alleged scienter, finding that plaintiffs’ allegations "permit the inference that Defendants knew PFF’s loan practices were risky and that PFF had inadequate loan loss reserves, yet told investors that the loan loss reserves were adequate."
Interestingly, Judge Guilford found plaintiffs’ scienter allegations to be adequate despite the defendants’ contention that they had actually purchased PFF shares at the supposedly inflated prices. Judge Guilford declined, at the motion to dismiss state, to take judicial notice of the SEC forms on which defendants sought to rely in order to establish their share purchases.
Popular, Inc. (Securities Claim): In an August 2, 2010 order (here), District of Puerto Rico Judge Gustavo Gelpí granted in part and denied in part the defendants motion to dismiss the securities class action lawsuit that had been filed against Popular, Inc., certain of its directors and officers, its auditor and its offering underwriters.
The plaintiffs’ complaint focused on the company’s accounting for a deferred tax asset. In the three years preceding the beginning of the class period (which went from January 24, 2009 to February 2009), the company had recorded tax loss carry forwards that totaled over $1 billion, largely as a result of the company’s U.S. subprime and other lending operations. The benefit of these deferred tax assets could only be realized if the company experienced sufficient U.S.-based gains within 20 years.
To offset the possibility the company might not fully realize the value of the deferred tax assets, accounting rules required reporting companies to take a valuation allowance, but the company recorded no material valuation allowance of this asset until late 2008. The company ultimately recorded an allowance for the full value of the asset. Following the announcement of this action, the company’s share price fell substantially.
The plaintiffs allege that the increasing, multiyear U.S.-based operating losses prevented it from anticipating sufficient taxable income to realize the full value of the deferred tax asset prior to the expiration of the 20-year period, yet failed to take a valuation reserve because doing so would have lowered the bank’s risk-based capital ratio below regulatory requirements. The financial picture the company’s treatment of the asset portrayed allowed the company to raise over $300 million in a May 2008 offering.
The Court found that the plaintiffs allegations adequately alleged material misrepresentations, given that "Popular’s three-year cumulative loss position, combined with the Company’s significant downsizing of its U.S. mainland operations and the worsening market conditions, constituted strong evidence that at the beginning of the class period it was more likely than not that the Company would not be able to realize the benefit of its [deferred tax asset] in full."
The Court also concluded that the complaint adequately alleged scienter, concluding that the defendants’ decision "not to take an earlier valuation allowance was ‘highly unreasonable’ and an ‘extreme departure from the standards of ordinary care’ to the extend that the danger was either know to the defendants or so obvious that they must have been aware of it."
The Court also concluded that the ’33 Act allegations against the officer defendants were also sufficient. However, because the Court found that the amended complaint in which the plaintiffs added as defendants the outside directors, the company’s auditor and its offering underwriters had been filed more than a year after there were sufficient "storm warnings" to put the plaintiffs on inquiry notice, the ’33 Act claims against those defendants were untimely and were therefore dismissed.
Popular, Inc. (Derivative Suit): In an August 11, 2010 opinion (here), applying Puerto Rico law, in the shareholders’ derivative lawsuit filed against Popular, Inc, as nominal defendant, certain of its directors and officers, and its outside auditor, Judge Jay Garcia-Gregory denied in part and granted in part the defendants’ motions to dismiss. The allegations in the derivative suit largely mirror those alleged in the securities class action lawsuit.
The officer and director defendants had moved to dismiss on the ground that the plaintiff had not presented a demand to the company’s board to pursue the lawsuit. The plaintiff argued that demand was futile, and the Court agreed. The Court found that the plaintiffs’ allegations and of the requirements of SFAS 109 "provide ‘reason to doubt’ the legality of declining to record a valuation allowance until 2009" and therefore "demand is excused" because the presumption that the board took a valid business judgment had been rebutted by the alleged lack of "legal fidelity."
The Court did, however, dismiss the plaintiff’s gross mismanagement claim as duplicative of the breach of fiduciary duty claim. The Court also found that the plaintiff had not adequately alleged corporate waste. Finally, the Court found that the plaintiff’s claim against the company’s auditor should also be dismissed, on the grounds that the plaintiff had not made a demand on the company’s board to pursue the claim and had not established demand futility.
Plaintiffs have had some difficult surviving initial dismissal motions in many of the securities class action lawsuits that have been filed against the directors and officers of banks that have failed during the current failed bank wave. For example, the securities class action lawsuit arising out the failure of Downey Financial Corp. (whose operating bank failed the same day as PFF Bank & Trust) was dismissed with prejudice.
Similarly, the motion to dismiss in the Fremont General case was also ultimately dismissed with prejudice. Similarly, the motion to dismiss was granted in the BankUnited securities case, albeit without prejudice.
More recently, however, the motion to dismiss was denied in the securities class action lawsuit arising out of the failure of Corus Bankshares. With the above decisions, it seems as if the plaintiffs in these cases have managed to overcome the initial pleading hurdle at least in several cases now.
To be sure, the reasoning the Popular case is based on circumstances that may be unique to that case. The allegations in the PFF Bancorp case, however, arguably are more typical. But while the PFF Bancorp case survived the dismissal motions, it remains to be seen whether the case will survive additional proceedings in the case, if defendants are able to establish that the purchased company shares at the allegedly inflated prices.
Ultimately, the fundamental question about the failed banks is whether the FDIC will lower the litigation boom on directors and officers of the failed banks. So far, the FDIC’s litigation activity has been limited to a single lawsuit it filed against officers of a subsidiary of IndyMac (about which refer here). Whether and to what extent the FDIC will pursue other claims will be revealed in the weeks and months ahead.
In any event, I have added these decisions to my running tally of subprime and credit crisis-related dismissal motion rulings, which can be accessed here.
Very special thanks to the loyal readers who provided me with copies of these decisions.
Another Banking Institution Dismissal Motion Ruling: Though the financial institution involved has neither failed nor is seriously troubled, it should be noted here at least briefly that in an August 10, 2010 order (here), Southern District of Ohio Judge Sandra Beckwith denied in part and granted in part the defendants’ motion to dismiss in the securities class action lawsuit that had been filed against Fifth Third Bancorp and certain of its directors by former shareholders of First Charter, which Fifth Third acquired in a deal announced in August 2007.
As discussed here, the former First Charter shareholders alleged that in connection with the merger, Fifth Third and certain of its directors and officers had materially misrepresented Fifth Third’s exposure to poorly performing residential real estate markets, and had not fully represented how seriously its mortgage portfolio was deteriorating.
Judge Beckwith’s detailed and painstaking August 10 opinion denied the motion to dismiss as to the claims of certain classes of First Charter shareholders, but granted the motion to dismiss as to all other claims and claimants.
Another Credit-Crisis Related Securities Suit Dismissal Motion Ruling: In an August 13, 2010 order (here), District of Maryland Judge Catherine Blake denied in part and granted in part defendants’ motions to dismiss the securities class action lawsuit that had been filed against Constellation Energy.
As discussed here, Constellation Energy was one of the many nonfinancial companies that suffered credit crisis related financial reverses in late 2008 and early 2009 and attracted securities litigation arising out the companies’ financial woes.
In September 2008, Constellation shareholders and subordinated debenture holders filed a securities class action lawsuit against the company, certain of its directors and officers and offering underwriters. Their complaint asserts claims under Section 11, 12(a)(2) and 15 of the ’33 Act and under Section 10(b) of the ’34 Act.
Essentially, the plaintiffs alleged that the defendants had misrepresented the additional collateral the company would have to post in connection with its merchant energy business in the event of a company credit downgrade. (As the company itself later disclosed, the collateral requirements for a one-notch credit downgrade were less than had been disclosed; the collateral requirements for a two or three notch downgrade were significantly greater than disclosed.)
The plaintiffs also alleged that the defendants had not sufficiently disclosed the company’s exposure to Lehman Brothers. The plaintiffs also alleged that the defendants’ misrepresented the company’s future earnings, business outlook, risk management and internal controls.
In fall 2008, after the company suffered a several notch ratings downgrade and after Lehman collapsed, the company’s share price fell and investors’ sued. The company ultimately sold a substantial portion of its assets.
In her August 13 order, Judge Blake found that the plaintiffs’ ’33 Act allegations regarding the company’s downgrade collateral obligations were sufficient to state a claim. Interestingly, Judge Blake reached her conclusion even though the company’s debenture prices dropped only slightly immediately after the disclosure of the company’s revised collateral obligation and in fact rose thereafter for several weeks. These facts "ultimately may counsel against materiality" but are "not dispositive at this stage of the litigation.
Judge Blake found that the plaintiffs’ remaining ’33 Act allegations were insufficient to state a claim.
As for plaintiffs ’34 Act allegations, Judge Blake found that the plaintiffs had not adequately alleged scienter in connection with the downgrade collateral obligations. She noted that "without additional factual allegations that the defendants were somehow aware that the downgrade collateral requirements were miscalculated …neither Constellation nor its officers can be presumed to have known of a faulty computer calculation."
Judge Blake also found that the plaintiffs’ remaining ’34 Act allegations were inadequate.
I have also added the Fifth Third and Constellation Energy rulings to my running tally of credit crisis lawsuit dismissal motion rulings, which again can be accessed here.
Special thanks to a loyal reader for providing a copy of the Constellation Energy decision.