Pauley’s BofA MBS ruling is boon to New York, Delaware AGs

By Alison Frankel
October 25, 2011

In 1998, 400 investors in a trust that distributed revenue from a communications satellite got word that their securitization trustee had settled a $41 million suit against the satellite’s fuel supplier. The trustee, IBJ Schroeder, filed a New York State Article 77 proceeding to obtain a judge’s endorsement of the $8.5 million settlement. Some of the investors protested the deal, arguing that the trustee didn’t have the power to settle the case without consulting them. In 2000, a New York appeals court ruled that, in fact, IBJ Schroeder did have that power, under both New York law and the contract governing the satellite revenue trust. The lower court ultimately ruled in the Article 77 case that even if investors considered the settlement amount too low, Schroeder hadn’t acted unreasonably or imprudently in striking the deal.

If you’re wondering why I’m telling you about an 11-year old ruling involving a defunct communications satellite, it’s because the IBJ Schroeder opinion is sure to be invoked by Bank of New York Mellon, the trustee of those Countrywide mortgage-backed securities, as well as the 22 Countrywide MBS investors represented by Gibbs & Bruns as they appeal last week’s decision by U.S. District Judge William Pauley III of Manhattan federal court. In holding that the federal courts have jurisdiction over Bank of America’s proposed $8.5 billion settlement, Pauley took issue with BNY Mellon’s use of an Article 77 proceeding to get the deal approved. The judge wrote that Article 77 is usually employed to resolve garden-variety trust administration issues; BNY Mellon and Gibbs & Bruns will use the IBJ Schroeder ruling to argue at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that, contrary to Pauley’s assertion, there’s precedent for using Article 77 exactly as they did in the BofA MBS case.

But even as the Second Circuit decides whether to take up the issue of the rights and responsibilities of securitization trustees, state attorneys general are likely to pounce upon some of the language in Pauley’s 21-page ruling. I warned that there might be unintended consequences for indentured trustees when the judge asked for briefing on the BNY Mellon’s duties. After Pauley’s ruling, that warning is now a red alert. New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman and his faithful follower, Joseph Biden III of Delaware, have both announced that they’re investigating MBS securitization trustees. Schneiderman showed he’s serious by filing state-law fraud claims against BNY Mellon along with his petition to intervene in the BofA Article 77 proceeding. In his complaint against BNY, Schneiderman argued that once an investment goes south, as many of the MBS trusts have, the indentured trustee has a fiduciary duty to trust beneficiaries under New York common law.

BNY Mellon’s lawyers, on the other hand, argued in a brief to Pauley that an indentured trustee does not have a fiduciary duty to beneficiaries. The investment contract, BNY Mellon said, governs the trustee’s responsibilities. Standard securitization contracts, known as pooling and servicing agreements, say the indentured trustee serves a ministerial function, mostly making revenue distributions to investors. BNY Mellon told the judge that its only responsibilities, aside from those specified in pooling and servicing agreements, are common law duties to avoid conflicts of interest and to exercise due care.

The judge, however, took a broader view of the source of the trustee’s responsibilities — and that’s good news for regulators who are trying to find routes to liability for securitization trustees. Pauley considered the question in the context of determining whether the proposed BofA settlement falls into an exception to federal court jurisdiction in the Class Action Fairness Act. But his reasoning, of course, can be cited in other contexts.

Pauley cited Judge Learned Hand — who sat on the same court a century ago — to conclude that indentured trustees can’t evade a duty of loyalty to beneficiaries just because their responsibilities are defined by a contract. BNY Mellon had asserted its only duty to act in good faith came from the Countrywide pooling and servicing agreements. Pauley said it comes instead from state common law. As New York and Delaware regulators consider causes of action against securitization trustees, they’re going to have stronger claims if they can argue that trustees breached their state-law duties to investors. Similarly, trustee defenses are weakened if they can’t argue that their responsibilities were strictly defined by pooling and servicing agreements.

The New York and Delaware AGs are in an awkward limbo right now in the BofA MBS litigation. When Grais & Ellsworth removed the case to federal court, their intervention petitions were pending before Judge Barbara Kapnick in New York State Supreme Court. (BNY Mellon and Gibbs & Bruns, you may recall, filed fiery briefs opposing the N.Y. AG’s intervention.) The AGs stayed out of the federal court case while Pauley decided whether to remand it. But now they’re likely to renew their intervention petitions before the federal court judge, who has already raised a lot of the same questions as the AGs about the fairness of a binding settlement that was reached without consulting most of the investors it will affect. (The New York AG’s Martin Act counterclaim against BNY Mellon, in case you’re wondering, can technically proceed in federal court as well.) As I’ve said before, it’s too soon to say for sure that the proposed settlement will stay with Pauley. But if it does, invigorated attorneys general are the last thing BofA, BNY Mellon, and the Gibbs & Bruns group need.

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