On August 23, 2011, a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit in an opinion by Judge Barrington D. Parker affirmed the dismissal of the subprime-related securities lawsuit that had been brought against Regional Financial Corporation and certain of its directors and officers. A copy of the Second Circuit’s opinion can be found here.
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 associated with Regions Financial’s 2006 acquisition of AmSouth and underestimated loan loss reserves associated with the AmSouth’s declining mortgage lending porfolio. 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.
As discussed here, in a May 10, 2010 opinion, Southern District of New York Judge Lewis Kaplan granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss, holding that the statement about goodwill and the loan loss reserves represented opinions that were not actionable because the complaint failed to allege that defendants did not honestly hold those opinions at the time they were expressed. The plaintiffs appealed.
The Second Circuit’s Opinion
The Second Circuit affirmed Judge Kaplan’s dismissal of the trust preferred securities investors’ securities lawsuit. With respect to the allegations regarding the statement concerning goodwill, the Second Circuit observed that “as Judge Kaplan correctly recognized, plaintiffs’ allegations regarding goodwill do not involve misstatements or omissions of material fact, but rather a misstatement regarding Regions’ opinions.”
In concluding that the plaintiffs had not adequately alleged actionable misstatements regarding misstatements or omissions regarding goodwill, the court said that
Plaintiff relies mainly on allegations about adverse market conditions to support the contention that defendants should have reached different conclusions about the amount of and the need to test for goodwill. The complaint does not, however, plausibly allege that defendants did not believe that statements regarding goodwill at the time they made them.
The Second Circuit went on to conclude that the plaintiffs’ allegations regarding loan loss reserves “suffer from the same deficiencies as those regarding goodwill.” The court approvingly cited Judge Kaplan’s statement that “determining the adequacy of loan loss reserves is not a matter of objective fact”; rather, loan loss reserves “reflect management’s opinion or judgment about what, if any, portion of amounts due on the loans ultimately might not be collectible.” Because the plaintiff failed to allege that the defendants’ opinions were “both false and not honestly believed when they were made,” the loan loss reserve allegations also fail to state a claim.
The Second Circuit’s opinion in the Regions case is the latest in a series of decisions in which the appellate courts have affirmed the district court’s dismissals of subprime or credit crisis-related securities class action lawsuits. Earlier example include the NovaStar Financial case (about which refer here), the Centerline Holdings case (refer here), the Impac Mortgage Holdings case (refer here) and the HomeBanc case (refer here). At this point, it seems clear the appellate courts are reluctant to setting aside the dismissal motion rulings of the district courts in these cases.
What makes the Regions Financial trust preferred securities case noteworthy and even interesting is that the case was dismissed, and the dismissal was affirmed, while related complaints involving many of the same facts have actually survived dismissal motions. In particular and as noted here, in June 2011, Northern District of Alabama Judge Inge Prytz Johnson denied the motions to dismiss in the securities class action lawsuit filed on behalf of Regions Financial’s shareholders.
The Northern District of Alabama lawsuit also alleges that the company had failed to recognize the impairment of the goodwill associated with the AmSouth merger. As I discussed in my prior post about Judge Johnson’s ruling, she expressly recognized that Judge Kaplan had previously dismissed the Southern District of New York lawsuit filed on behalf of the trust preferred securities investors. However, she differentiated the allegations in the case in her court based on the plaintiffs’ allegations made based on the statements of confidential witnesses.
Judge Johnson concluded that the plaintiffs in the case before her have “pled many facts showing that the defendants had information that did not support defendants’ opinions.” Among other things, she cited the statements of the confidential witnesses “showing how defendants improperly handled and classified loans, defendants were aware of the collapsing commercial real estate in Florida yet continued to push for more growth there, and continued to ignore [internal] reports signaling a negative risk-adjusted bottom line.
Judge Johnson concluded that the plaintiffs has sufficiently alleged that the company’s loan loss reserves were false and misleading, citing the testimony of several confidential witnesses that “defendants mishandled loans in order to manipulate their financial reporting numbers.” Because the loan loss reserves impacted the company’s reported income (which was the measure by which the company tested its goodwill), Judge Johnson concluded that the plaintiffs had adequately alleged that the company’s goodwill was “overstated, false and misleading.”
On August 23, 2011, Judge Johnson denied the defendants’ motion for reconsideration, rejecting the defendants’ argument that the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Janus Capital case required a different result. Judge Johnson’s August 23 order can be found here.
In addition, and as noted here, the plaintiffs in the separate shareholders’ derivative lawsuit filed in Alabama Circuit Court against Regions Financial, as nominal defendant, and certain of its directors and officers, also survived a motion to dismiss. However, it should be noted that the Alabama court was determining only whether or not the requirement for pre-suit demand was excused based on the circumstances alleged.
Finally, and just to complete the picture, in March 2010, the motions to dismiss was also denied in the Regions Financial ERISA action, about which refer here.
While the differences in the outcome between the New York lawsuit and the other lawsuits can be accounted for based on differences in the claims asserted and the specific matters alleged, there is also a sense in reading through all of these opinions that the outcomes may also be understood based on the respective court’s starting points. As I noted in my prior posts discussing the prior dismissal motions denials, for the other judges, the context matters, but for Judge Kaplan (and now for the Second Circuit) the context is irrelevant. There is also a sense that the more geographically proximate the decisions maker to the locus of the corporate defendant and its woes, the less sympathetic the courts are to the defendants’ position.
In any event, I have adjusted my tally of the dismissal motion rulings in subprime-related securities suits to reflect the Second Circuit’s opinion. The tally can be accessed here.
Special thanks to Douglas Henkin of the Milbank law firm for providing me with a copy of the Second Circuit’s opinion. Milbank represented the Underwriter defendants before the Second Circuit.
Deutsche Bank Subprime-Related Securities Suit Survives Dismissal Motion Ruling: In an August 19, 2011 opinion, here, Southern District of New York Judge Deborah Batts largely denied the motion to dismiss in the subprime-related securities suit filed against Deutsche Bank and certain of its directors and officers.
As discussed here, several groups of investors, who had purchased Deutsche shares in a series of offerings during the period 2005 to 2007, filed lawsuits asserting claims that the offering materials contained material misrepresentations and omissions in the associated offering documents. The plaintiffs basically alleged that the bank had misrepresented its exposure to residential mortgage backed securities and collateralized debt obligations. The various cases were later consolidated before Judge Batts and the defendants moved to dismiss.
In her August 19 order, Judge Batts granted the motion to dismiss as to stock offering from October 2006. However, Batts left intact claims relating to five other offerings, or gave the plaintiffs a chance to replead their allegations.
I have also added the Deutsche Bank decision to my tally of subprime related dismissal motion rulings.