Opinion

Alison Frankel

Chief judge: Rakoff assignment to Citi case was ‘totally random’

Alison Frankel
Nov 30, 2011 16:30 UTC

If there’s one federal jurist the Securities and Exchange Commission absolutely, positively did not want to see at the top of the docket in its $285 million settlement with Citigroup, it was Senior Judge Jed Rakoff of Manhattan federal court. Rakoff has been a festering sore for the agency since 2009, when he rejected a proposed $33 million settlement with Bank of America over failing to disclose bonus payments to Merrill Lynch executives in merger-related documents. In a March 2011 opinion in the Vitesse Semiconductor case, Rakoff took the agency to task for agreeing to settlements in which defendants neither admit nor deny wrongdoing. Then in July he claimed jurisdiction over the SEC’s case against former Goldman Sachs director Rajit Gupta, accusing the agency of forum shopping in filing an administrative action against Gupta. You can only imagine the teeth-gnashing at the SEC when Rakoff was assigned the Citi case. After the SEC tried to argue that Rakoff doesn’t have the power to consider the public interest in his evaluation of the proposed settlement, Monday’s rejection of the settlement was practically a foregone conclusion.

So you may be wondering — as I was — how it is that Rakoff ended up with the Citi case. The answer, according to his chambers and Chief Judge Loretta Preska of the Southern District, is that the assignment was purely random. Yes, there are 41 federal district judges in the district, so the odds of any of them overseeing multiple, unrelated cases filed by the same plaintiff are long. But according to Preska and Rakoff’s chambers, that’s what happened here.

The SEC filed the Citigroup case in federal court in Manhattan, rather than Washington, D.C. (where it filed a $75 million settlement with Citi in 2010) because the new Citi case includes SEC charges against Brian Stoker, a Citi Global Markets employee who allegedly structured and marketed the CDO that’s at the bottom of the case. Unlike the two Citi employees in the 2010 case, Stoker refused to settle with the agency. So in anticipation of litigation with him, the agency filed the entire Citi case in New York.

Once it was filed, it went into what’s known in the Southern Distrrict as “the wheel.” Preska said there are actually different wheels for each category of civil suit, but each active judge is equally represented on each wheel. (They’re also not actual wheels, but electronic simulations.) Rakoff is a senior judge, which means he can pick and choose which civil wheels he’s on. But like many of the judges who recently took senior status in the Southern District, he’s still on all of the civil wheels. He’s no more likely than any other judge in the district, in other words, to be assigned any particular case.

“It’s wholly random,” Preska told me. “There is no under-the-table nothing.” Rakoff’s chambers confirmed that both the BofA and Citi cases were assigned to the judge by random.

Rakoff to SEC: Oh yes, it is my job to consider public interest

Alison Frankel
Nov 29, 2011 00:34 UTC

In 2010, when the Securities and Exchange Commission brought a case against Citigroup for misleading investors about the bank’s exposure to subprime mortgages, the SEC filed the proposed $75 million settlement in Washington, D.C., federal court. Judge Ellen Huvelle gave the agency some gruff about the deal, in which two individual Citi defendants also settled SEC claims through an administrative action, but she eventually accepted the settlement without demanding any big changes.

The SEC and Citi must be looking back with regret at those halcyon days. For reasons the agency has not explained, when it filed a proposed $285 million settlement with Citi last month, it opted for the federal court not in D.C. but in Manhattan. There, the case — which involves claims that Citi defrauded investors in a mortgage-backed CDO — was randomly assigned to U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, who has recently been engaged in a highly-publicized campaign of insisting on corporate accountability in SEC settlements. The SEC proceeded to undermine its credibility in Rakoff’s court by arguing, as my colleague Erin Geiger Smith reported, that it’s not the judge’s role to consider the public interest in SEC settlements.

In a 15-page, eminently quotable exercise in rhetoric issued Monday, Rakoff pushed the agency into the grave it dug for itself, rejecting not only the proposed settlement but also the SEC’s assertion that he must heed its assessment of the public interest. “A court, while giving substantial deference to the views of an administrative body vested with authority over a particular area, must still exercise a modicum of independent judgment in determining whether the requested deployment of its injunctive powers will serve, or disserve, the public interest,” Rakoff wrote. “Anything less would not only violate the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers but would undermine the independence that is the indispensible attribute of the federal judiciary.”

Want inside look at SEC dealmaking? Read IG’s Khuzami report

Alison Frankel
Nov 21, 2011 22:48 UTC

On June 28, 2010, the Enforcement Director of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Robert Khuzami, spoke on the phone with Mark Pomerantz, a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. Pomerantz and Khuzami had worked together as assistant U.S. attorneys in Manhattan in the 1990s; according to Pomerantz, he was partly responsible for Khuzami’s promotion to chief of the office’s securities unit. But this wasn’t a social call. Pomerantz represented Citigroup, which had agreed to settle SEC allegations that it drastically underreported its subprime mortgage exposure. The deal was held up, however, by the agency’s insistence that Citi CFO Gary Crittenden face fraud claims for allegedly misleading investors.

Pomerantz told Khuzami, as he had many times before, that Citi would suffer collateral damage if Crittenden were accused of fraud. According to Khuzami, he just told Pomerantz to “talk to Crittenden.” But soon after the June 28 call, another Citi lawyer, Lawrence Pedowitz of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, told SEC Associate Enforcement Director Scott Friestad that Khuzami had agreed to back a non-fraud settlement with Crittenden.

In July 2010 the SEC announced its deal with Citi. As part of the settlement, Crittenden and another individual defendant, former Citi investor relations chief Arthur Tildesley, settled administrative actions that didn’t involve fraud allegations. Six months later, an anonymous (but obviously insider) source tipped U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley that Khuzami had forced the agency to drop fraud claims against the execs as a favor to his friends in the defense bar. The SEC’s inspector general, H. David Kotz, undertook an investigation of the complaint.

How the ‘ghost riders’ theory won Rambus trial

Alison Frankel
Nov 18, 2011 17:00 UTC

At the beginning of his closing argument way back on Sept. 20, Micron counsel William Price of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan told jurors that his client and its co-defendant, Hynix, had fixed prices on some computer memory chips. They did it 11 years ago, he said, when the tech bubble burst and memory chip prices were plummeting. “That activity was wrong, and there were victims,” Price said, according to this transcript. “But Rambus wasn’t a victim …. And, so, what Rambus has done here is they’ve taken something that we have told you from the beginning was true and said they were victims when they weren’t.”

Price told jurors about an instruction New York City used to give its bus drivers:  if there’s a crash, lock the doors. “The reason wasn’t to keep people from leaving,” Price said. “The reason was to keep people from jumping on and saying they had hurt themselves, [that] they had hurt their back. Those people were called ‘ghost riders.’” Rambus, Price said, was a ghost rider. It claimed to be a victim of Hynix and Micron’s wrongdoing but wasn’t even on the bus. Rambus and its lawyers at Munger, Tolles & Olson asserted that Micron and Hynix conspired to wreck the market for its proprietary computer memory chip; Price and Hynix’s lead counsel, Kenneth Nissly of O’Melveny & Myers, had to show jurors that their clients’ admitted price-fixing involved the market for an alternative memory chip; the failure of Rambus’s chip, they argued, was due entirely to problems with the product.

“The challenge was to say, ‘Yes, there was price-fixing, but not this price-fixing,’” Price told me.

Following Google, Microsoft tries to unring a bell

Alison Frankel
Nov 17, 2011 20:03 UTC

The big guns are rolling out on both sides of Microsoft’s patent infringement suit against Barnes & Noble at the U.S. International Trade Commission. Microsoft has no fewer than four firms (Sidley Austin; Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe; Woodcock Washburn; and Adduci, Mastriani and Schaumberg) working on the six-month-old case, in which it accuses Barnes & Noble’s Nook e-readers of infringing Microsoft patents. Barnes & Noble this week supplemented its team of Cravath, Swaine & Moore and Kenyon & Kenyon with Paul Brinkman‘s group from Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan. The Quinn addition is notable because Barnes & Noble’s devices use Google’s Android operating system; Quinn, which is one of Google’s go-to IP firms, previously defended the Android system in Apple’s ITC case against HTC.

When it comes to Android, Microsoft and Google don’t exactly think the same way, as you’ll see below. But there is one issue on which they have a peculiar alignment of interests: they’re both trying to put the kibosh on supposedly confidential information that’s jumped from litigation into the public domain.

Google, as you’ll no doubt recall, has been fighting for months to undo the damage an email written by one of its Android engineers has apparently caused to Google’s defense of Oracle’s Java infringement claims. (The engineer, Tim Lindholm, said all alternatives to Java “suck” and Google should license the software code.) Google has been arguing, without any success, that Oracle improperly introduced the damning email into the record and all traces of it should be purged — even though, by now, Lindholm’s email is plastered all over the Internet.

National Credit’s Citi, Deutsche deals are MBS breakthrough

Alison Frankel
Nov 16, 2011 18:50 UTC

On Monday the National Credit Union Agency announced a pair of breakthrough mortgage-backed securities settlements. Deutsche Bank agreed to pay the government’s credit-union regulator $145 million for its role in underwriting mortgage-backed notes purchased by five credit unions that subsequently failed. Citigroup threw another $20.5 million into NCUA’s settlement pot, which will offset the $5 to $9 billion in fees the agency is charging solvent credit unions to pay for losses associated with the five failed institutions.

As best I can tell, these are the first settlements of MBS securities claims (as opposed to put-back contract claims) since Wells Fargo’s landmark $125 million class action MBS settlement this summer. That means the NCUA deals are just the second and third MBS securities settlements that plaintiffs have scored. They’re also, as the Wall Street Journal noted, the first MBS securities recoveries by a government agency. (Again, I’m distinguishing between securities and put-back claims; Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac both reached put-back settlements with Bank of America in January.)

So, given the paucity of MBS securities settlements, what clues do the NCUA settlements offer for the future of the litigation?

2nd Circ. rebuffs SEC in Merrill auction-rate securities ruling

Alison Frankel
Nov 14, 2011 23:37 UTC

One of the most controversial aspects of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2011 ruling in Janus v. First Derivative Traders was that the Justices rejected the Securities and Exchange Commission’s interpretation of federal securities laws. The SEC said Janus Capital wasn’t liable for the allegedly misleading statements in a prospectus issued by a Janus mutual fund, even though the SEC argued that it was — and even though federal courts traditionally pay deference when they ask agencies to offer their expertise in interpreting the law.

The SEC took another blow Monday, when a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of an auction-rate securities class action against Merrill Lynch, despite an SEC brief arguing the case should proceed. The SEC agreed with a Merrill ARS investor who asserted that the boilerplate disclosure Merrill posted after a 2006 SEC consent decree shouldn’t shield it from claims it manipulated the market for ARS. The Second Circuit panel felt otherwise.

To be sure, Judge Robert Katzmann, writing for a panel that also included Judges Robert Sack and Amalya Kearse, said that the Merrill opinion should be read narrowly. “We see no need to fix the ‘exact molecular weight’ of the deference that we owe to the SEC’s position,” Katzmann wrote. “We readily acknowledge that at least some deference to the agency’s position is appropriate, given the SEC’s expertise and accountability. Here, however, we are unable to agree with the SEC’s application of the legal principles governing Merrill’s disclosures.”

What Motorola settlement says about shareholder M&A litigation

Alison Frankel
Nov 10, 2011 23:21 UTC

With very little fanfare, Motorola Mobility announced Monday that it has reached a memorandum of understanding to resolve shareholder litigation that might have stood in the way of a vote on Google’s proposed $12.5 billion all-cash acquisition of the company. The memo is, alas, not public, so we don’t know just what the settlement entails, or how much the plaintiffs’ lawyers who challenged the deal will get in fees. Motorola Mobility did file an 8-K amending its proxy materials, giving shareholders marginally more information about (among other things) how the Google deal came together and what kind of equity awards Motorola officers will receive. These relatively insignificant disclosure amendments are a typical ending for the rash of M&A shareholder suits that have broken out in the last few years; it’s a pretty good bet that, in this case, the additional disclosures aren’t going to sway very many Motorola Mobility shareholders when they vote on the Google deal on November 17.

So why am I highlighting an unremarkable settlement that basically amounts to a litigation footnote in a blockbuster $12.5 billion tech deal? Because the Motorola Mobility shareholder M&A litigation is a case study in the weird, private regulatory system that’s evolved as a check on deal activity. In rare instances, when plaintiffs’ lawyers uncover shady behavior by deal participants, shareholders wind up with sweetened offers. But much more often — as in the Motorola Mobility case — the primary beneficiaries of this M&A scrutiny are lawyers: both the plaintiffs’ lawyers who say they have a right to make sure insiders were looking out for shareholders and the defense lawyers representing those insiders.

Shareholder M&A litigation amounts to a “deal tax” companies pay in order to assure their equity holders that the board and its advisers fulfilled their duties. And that leads to a question that’s previously arisen in litigation over cigarettes and guns: do we want private lawyers to do what public regulators seemingly can’t or won’t?

E-discovery ruling in KPMG case: Brace for ‘profound’ impact?

Alison Frankel
Nov 9, 2011 22:34 UTC

For all of its zeal in squelching what it considers unfounded class actions against U.S. businesses, the Chamber of Commerce rarely strays from appellate courts to venture into the weeds of a federal district court discovery dispute. But Monday, the Chamber filed an amicus brief in an uncertified wage-and-hour class action against the accounting firm KPMG, warning that if U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon of Manhattan federal court adopts the order of a magistrate judge, the ruling will set “a dangerous precedent” that will be of “profound significance to businesses in America.” Piling on in their own Nov. 8 amicus brief, the Washington Legal Foundation and the International Association of Defense Counsel assert that the magistrate’s ruling could fundamentally distort class-action litigation by potentially making it cheaper to settle a case than to comply with discovery orders.

So what is this supposedly devastating, albeit preliminary, ruling? On Oct. 11, U.S. Magistrate Judge James Cott issued an order resolving a dispute between KPMG and Outten & Golden, the law firm representing two proposed classes of entry-level auditors who claim the accounting firm owes them overtime wages. The fight involved the computer hard drives of potential class members: KPMG and class counsel agreed that the plaintiffs could use sampling software to limit the electronic information KPMG would have to preserve, but they couldn’t agree on the sampling criteria or the number of computer hard drives to include in the sample. KPMG’s lawyers at Sidley Austin moved for an order limiting the sample size to 100 randomly selected hard drives.

Instead, Cott ruled that KPMG has to preserve the hard drive of every potential class member. “Prudence favors retaining all relevant materials,” Cott wrote, pointing to the seminal e-discovery ruling, Zubulake v. UBS Warburg. The magistrate judge reasoned that because McMahon, the district judge, hasn’t yet ruled on class certification in the KPMG audit associate case, every entry-level auditor in the opt-in action is a potential “key player” under Zubulake, whether in the Manhattan class action or in another case that could be filed depending on how McMahon ultimately defines the class.

All the court’s a stage: BofA asks 2nd Cir. to hear venue appeal

Alison Frankel
Nov 8, 2011 19:38 UTC

Like a stage mom watching from the wings, Bank of America and its lawyers at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz have so far been observers — and not direct participants — in the fight to win court approval of the bank’s proposed $8.5 billion settlement with Countrywide mortgage-backed securities holders. BofA signed the settlement, of course, but the case was filed as an Article 77 proceeding in New York State Supreme Court by Bank of New York Mellon, as Countrywide’s MBS trustee. The 22 institutional investors that negotiated the proposed deal with BofA and BNY Mellon intervened in the proceeding in support of the settlement. And their lawyers from Gibbs & Bruns have worked alongside BNY Mellon’s counsel from Mayer Brown and Dechert to ward off opposition to the deal, without overt involvement from BofA and Wachtell. When the case was removed to federal court, it was Mayer Brown and Gibbs & Bruns that argued before U.S. District Judge William Pauley III of Manhattan that the proceeding should be remanded to state court; then, when Pauley decided to retain jurisdiction, it was BNY Mellon and the Gibbs clients who asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to review the district court judge’s decision.

Late Monday, BofA took the stage. In a pair of filings at the Second Circuit, the bank’s Wachtell lawyers petitioned for leave to submit an amicus brief and filed the proposed brief itself. We can all chuckle at the idea that BofA is a mere friend of the court in this case, given that the bank was relying so heavily on the proposed $8.5 billion deal to remove the black cloud of Countrywide MBS liability from its attempt to return to market stability. But the bank makes a strong argument for why it should be heard if the Second Circuit decides to take the appeal of Pauley’s ruling: it is, after all, BofA’s settlement.

The bank’s lawyers repeat in summary (though quite elegant) fashion the same arguments we’ve already seen from BNY Mellon and the Gibbs investors about Pauley’s alleged errors. BofA’s proposed amicus brief argued that the judge twisted the language of the Class Action Fairness Act in a way Congress never intended in order to hold onto the $8.5 billion case. The judge improperly construed a state court proceeding that sought what amounts to a declaratory judgment on the trustee’s conduct into a mass settlement for money damages, BofA argued. He considered the dissident Countrywide MBS investors (known as Walnut Place) a defendant under CAFA, even though Walnut Place doesn’t fit the traditional definition of a defendant. And, most significantly, the proposed BofA brief said, Pauley misapplied the Second Circuit’s own precedent on the securities exception to CAFA, interpreting the exception in a way that would essentially strip it of any meaning. For all of those reasons, the bank argued, the Second Circuit should accept the appeal.

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