In a May 11, 2011 opinion (here), a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of rating agency defendants in litigation filed under the Securities Act of 1933 and involving mortgage-related securities issues by Lehman Brothers and IndyMac and the Residential Asset Securitization Trust (RUST). The Second Circuit affirmed the District Court’s rulings that the credit rating agencies could not be held liable under Section 11 of the ’33 Act as “underwriters” – even if they helped structure the securities at issue.


The plaintiffs were purchasers of mortgage backed securities. The plaintiffs generally alleged that the originators of the loans that backed the securities failed to comply with the general loan underwriting guidelines described in the offering documents. The plaintiffs allege that the rating agencies determined the composition of the loans in the mortgage pool that the instruments securitized. The plaintiffs also allege that the credit enhancements supporting the loans were insufficient to support the investment ratings the rating agencies gave the securities.


The plaintiffs premised their securities liability claims against the rating agencies based on their argument that the rating agencies were "underwriters" within the meaning of Section 11 of the ’33 Act. The plaintiffs based their theory that the rating agencies were "underwriters" on the argument that the "underwriter" liability extends to those "who engaged in steps necessary for the distribution." Plaintiffs argued that because the rating agencies structured the certificates at issue to achieve the desired ratings, that had performed a necessary predicated for the securities’ distribution in the market, and therefore they should be liable as underwriters.


In separate rulings on February 1 and February 17, 2010, Southern District of New York Lewis Kaplan granted the rating agency defendants’ motions to dismiss in the Lehman Brothers Mortgage Backed Securities lawsuit, as discussed here and here. Judge Kaplan relied on his ruling s in the Lehman Brothers case to granting the rating agency defendants’ dismissal motions in the IndyMac and RUST cases.  The plaintiffs’ appealed. Because the separate cases raised similar issues, the appeals were consolidated before the Second Circuit.


The Second Circuit affirmed Judge Kaplan’s ruling that the rating agencies cannot be held liable as “underwriters” under the ’33 Act. The Second Circuit said that:


The plain language of the statute limits liability to persons who participate in the purchase, offer, or sale of securities for distribution. While such participants may be indirect as well as direct, the statute does not reach further to identify as underwriters persons who provide services that facilitate a securities offering but who do not themselves participate in the statutorily specified distribution-related activities.


The Second Circuit also affirmed the lower court rulings that the Rating Agencies were not subject to “control person” liability under Section 15. Finally, the appellate court concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying plaintiffs’ leave to amend their pleadings.


The Second Circuit’s ruling not only is fatal for the claims of the plaintiffs in these cases with respect to the rating agencies, but also in the many other cases where other plaintiffs had raised similar claims. To be sure, these claims had not been faring particularly well in the district courts, as most other district courts were following Judge Kaplan’s district court ruling in the Lehman Brothers case. But now with the Second Circuit’s opinion these claims seem to have received what may be their final blow.


It is worth noting, however, that investors have filed lawsuits relating to subprime investments against the rating agencies on other theories. For example, in one case, discussed here, CalPERS had sued the rating agencies in connection with the agencies’ ratings on certain investment vehicles, asserting claims of negligence and negligent interference with prospective economic advantage. In the Cheyne Financial case (discussed here), the plaintiff investors had asserted a variety of common law claims against the rating agencies, including common law fraud and misrepresentation. These claims based on other theories will not be affected by the Second Circuit’s ruling.


What remains to be seen is whether the subprime mortgage-backed securities investors will prevail against the rating agencies on any theory.


Nate Raymond’s May 11, 2011 Am Law Litigation Daily article about the Second Circuit’s decision can be found here.


Is It Really Time to Head Out?: I know things have been challenging for securities class action plaintiffs’ lawyers. A string of Supreme Court decisions has made it lot tougher for them to pursue their claims and the cumulative impact of various legislative reforms have made it more difficult for the plaintiffs’ claims to survive the preliminary motions. But has it gotten so bad that it is time to pull up stakes to try to pursue shareholder claims in another country? Apparently so, at least judging from the actions of Michael Spencer, a securities class action plaintiffs’ attorney for the Milberg firm in New York.


According to a May 10, 2011 article in The (Toronto) Globe and Mail entitled “Top U.S. Class Action Lawyer Coming to Canada” (here), Spencer, who was lead plaintiffs’ counsel in the Vivendi securities trial, has been completing all of the requirements for being admitted to the Ontario bar, with the goal of practicing law there. He apparently intends to set up his Canadian practice with the Toronto law firm of Kim Orr Barristers. P.C.


The article explains that Spencer’s move is due to the years of tightening down on securities class actions in the U.S. (particularly in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Morrison v. National Australia Bank). By contrast, court’s applying Ontario’s securities laws have recently certified a global class (in the Imax case, for example). The article quotes Spencer as saying “Simply put, Canada presents a great opportunity.”


I have recognized that the cumulative impact of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions had made life tougher for the plaintiffs’ bar. But I had not thought that things had reached a point that litigation prospects looked more promising outside the United States. The fact that we have reached the point that litigation prospects look brighter in Canada than in the United States represents a watershed development of some kind. I wonder how the Canadians feel about that…


I note for the record the Spencer has been a guest blogger on this site; his guest post can be found here.