Opinion

Alison Frankel

Argentina’s public comments put U.S. lawyers in awkward spot

Alison Frankel
Jun 19, 2014 20:42 UTC

At a hearing Wednesday afternoon in Manhattan, Argentina’s lawyer, Carmine Boccuzzi of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, informed U.S. District Judge Thomas Griesa that Argentine officials “will be in New York next week” in order to begin negotiations with the hedge funds whose bond litigation has forced the country to the brink of a sovereign debt crisis.

The very next morning, at a press briefing, Argentine Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich appeared to contradict Cleary’s representations to Griesa: “There is no delegation prepared for a possible trip to the United States,” he said, according to a Reuters report from Buenos Aires.

Capitanich is the third Argentine official this week whose public comments seem to be at odds with positions the country’s lawyers have espoused in U.S. courts. Earlier this month, Cleary partner Boccuzzi assured Judge Griesa that Argentina was not making contingency plans to restructure its debt in the event that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Griesa’s orders requiring the country to pay hedge fund holdouts about $1.5 billion at the same time that it makes coupon payments to exchange bondholders that participated in previous restructurings. Argentina also said in a brief to the Supreme Court that it would comply with U.S. court orders.

Yet hours after the Supreme Court declined on Monday to hear Argentina’s appeal, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner delivered a speech vowing not to “submit to extortion” by the hedge funds. The following day, Economy Minister Axel Kicillof announced that Argentina is developing a process to pay exchange bondholders without paying the holdouts.

Argentina’s lawyers have been careful to couch what they’ve said in court. At Wednesday’s hearing, for example, Boccuzzi said he “had been informed” and that “Argentine authorities have told me” that officials planned to come to New York to negotiate. Boccuzzi also tried to persuade Judge Griesa that Argentine politicians are making political speeches, not legal representations. “Obviously, there is some strong language because (they are) dealing with quite a large problem and situation and trying to deal with it in a way that takes into account all the aspects here,” he said.

Now Argentina wants to negotiate with hedge funds. Is it too late?

Alison Frankel
Jun 18, 2014 23:26 UTC

If Argentina truly wants to resolve its debt crisis without defaulting on tens of billions of dollars in restructured bonds, its politicians had better stop giving speeches.

At a hearing Wednesday afternoon in Manhattan federal court, Argentina’s lawyers informed U.S. District Judge Thomas Griesa that Argentine officials “want to engage in dialogue” with holdout hedge funds that are owed $1.5 billion under Griesa orders upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday. But the judge, who has been presiding for more than a decade over litigation between Argentina and hedge funds that refused to exchange defaulted bonds, seemed more interested in a fiery speech on Monday night by Argentine president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, in which she said the country would not submit to “extortion” by the hedge funds; and by a second speech Tuesday by the Argentine economy minister, who disclosed plans to restructure bonds to avoid “attachments.”

Argentina counsel Carmine Boccuzzi of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton tried to portray the speeches as political posturing, but Griesa said they suggested that Argentina was on the brink of violating U.S. court orders. He asked lawyers for NML and Aurelius Capital to draft a proposed order stating that if Argentina attempted to restructure its debt as the economy minister proposed Tuesday, it would be in violation of his previous orders. NML and Aurelius had wanted Griesa to authorize discovery on Argentina’s restructuring plan, which the judge didn’t agree to do. Nevertheless, Griesa’s comments at the hearing put Argentina on notice that Griesa plainly doesn’t trust the country’s leaders.

The weird proviso in Apple’s e-books settlement

Alison Frankel
Jun 17, 2014 19:55 UTC

There’s a very unusual sentence near the beginning of the letter that class action lawyer Steve Berman of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro sent Monday to U.S. District Judge Denise Cote of Manhattan. Cote is presiding over the consolidated antitrust litigation in which the Justice Department, 33 U.S. states and territories and a class of book purchasers have accused Apple of conspiring with publishers to fix e-book prices. A year ago, after a bench trial of the Justice Department’s case, Cote found Apple liable for violating federal antitrust law. Since then, the company has been pursuing an appeal of the liability decision at the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals while continuing to battle with the states and private plaintiffs in Cote’s courtroom.

Berman’s letter on Monday informed the judge that Apple has agreed to a binding settlement with the consumer class and the states. But there’s a catch, he wrote: “Any payment to be made by Apple under the settlement agreement will be contingent on the outcome of that appeal.”

What? The whole point of settlements is to eliminate uncertainty for both sides. Yet according to Berman’s letter, this deal hinges on the uncertain outcome of Apple’s appeal to the 2nd Circuit. That didn’t make any sense to me. Almost all of the leverage in this case right now belongs to the class and the state AGs. Apple’s liability under federal antitrust law has already been established in the Justice trial, and Cote ruled earlier this month that her liability opinion also puts Apple on the hook under the laws of the 24 states that are seeking penalties. The only issue to be decided at the second e-books trial, which was scheduled to begin on Aug. 25, was how much Apple would have to pay — and the consumers and state AGs had experts who said Apple owed them as much as $840 million, even before the trebling available under federal antitrust law.

If Argentina restructures bonds to evade hedge funds, sanctions loom

Alison Frankel
Jun 16, 2014 21:29 UTC

Argentina is just about out of legal options in its blood feud with NML Capital, Aurelius Capital and other holdout bondholders.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused outright to hear Argentina’s appeal of a ruling from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that prohibits the foreign country from making payments to bondholders who exchanged defaulted debt without also paying holdout hedge funds that have won about $1.5 billion in judgments against Argentina. Argentina had been hoping the justices would at least ask for briefing from the U.S. Solicitor General, which would have bought it some time. But time is up for Argentina: The country’s next payment to exchange debtholders is due on June 30, and if it fails to pay the hedge funds at the same time or tries to restructure its bonds to evade U.S. courts, Argentina risks monetary sanctions and being held in contempt of court.

Such a ruling would further blacken Argentina’s reputation in global debt markets — but it wouldn’t have much actual effect on whether the hedge funds are able to collect what they’re owed. According to Michael Mukasey of Debevoise & Plimpton, a former U.S. attorney general and former chief U.S. district judge in Manhattan, Argentine assets in the United States would probably still be protected by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act even if Argentina were found in contempt and hit with sanctions. “What can (U.S. courts) do about it?” Mukasey said. “Not a whole lot.”

Can market competitors police false ads better than class actions?

Alison Frankel
Jun 13, 2014 21:32 UTC

Companies should not mislead consumers about their products. Some do anyway. Those companies should be held accountable for their deception, not only because they lied but also to deter other companies from lying.

No one can seriously dispute any of these points, but what is the most effective way to stop businesses from deceiving consumers? We have state and federal regulatory agencies, of course, but regulators would be the first people to tell you that they can’t police every advertisement, label and package put out by businesses selling products to American buyers. That’s why state consumer protection laws give customers the rights to bring their own cases — except that, as a practical matter, individual consumers don’t really drive litigation against corporations that supposedly deceived them. Class action lawyers do, because they can represent buyers whose individual claims wouldn’t otherwise be worth pursuing.

Consumer class actions over deceptively advertised low-cost items are a remarkably inefficient vehicle for assuring the integrity of the consumer marketplace. Here, again, there’s really no legitimate argument to the contrary. I don’t mean to impugn the intentions of class action lawyers. Most (though not all) of them are prosecuting legitimate cases on behalf of consumers they truly believe to have been deceived by false corporate advertising. They force defendants to change misleading labels, ads or packaging and to agree not to use the deceptive material again. They also sometimes deliver money unclaimed by class members to charities, usually ones involved in righting the alleged wrongs in the case.

Bain, Goldman settlements in collusion case undercut shareholder releases

Alison Frankel
Jun 12, 2014 21:25 UTC

As inevitably as thunder follows lightning, shareholder class actions follow deal announcements. Debate has been raging for years now about whether shareholders derive any real benefits from the resolution of these cases, with judges increasingly skeptical about awarding big fees to plaintiffs lawyers who win only enhanced disclosures in deal documents. For defendants, the upside of settlements is more obvious: They obtain global releases of shareholder claims related to the transactions.

Or do they? On Wednesday, Goldman Sachs and Bain Capital agreed to pay a combined $121 million ($54 million from Bain, $67 million from Goldman) to resolve antitrust class action claims that they and several other private equity defendants cheated shareholders in eight companies acquired in private equity LBOs by colluding to depress acquisition prices. According to Patrick Coughlin of Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, who is one of the lead lawyers in the antitrust case, the beneficiaries of the Bain and Goldman settlements will include shareholders who previously released claims against the private equity funds in shareholder M&A class action settlements.

Bain and Goldman, along with their fellow antitrust defendants — Blackstone, TCG, KKR, TPG and Silverlake — had argued in a motion in January that shareholder releases in the original M&A cases should preclude certification of a class of onetime shareholders injured by their supposed conspiracy to depress LBO prices. It was a pretty creative argument, based on a ruling in the collusion case that shareholders who sold stock in the various LBO deals could not introduce evidence from those transactions against defendants they released from liability in M&A settlements. That patchwork of evidence, the defendants contended, meant that the collusion case did not meet commonality and typicality standards for class actions.

Judge says Cleary Argentina memo is privileged, he won’t ‘make use of it’

Alison Frankel
Jun 10, 2014 21:11 UTC

The hedge fund NML Capital is going to have to execute some fancy footwork to maintain its argument that Argentina is plotting to evade a ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that prohibits the foreign sovereign from making payments to holders of its restructured debt before paying off hedge funds that refused to exchange defaulted bonds.

As I told you last week, NML presented U.S. District Judge Thomas Griesa with what it considered smoking-gun evidence: published accounts of a May 2 memo from Argentina’s lawyers recommending that the country’s “best option” if the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear Argentina’s appeal of the 2nd Circuit decision would be to default “and then immediately restructure all of the external bonds so that the payment mechanism and the other related elements are outside of the reach of American courts.”

But in a June 3 letter to lawyers for NML and for Argentina, Judge Griesa said that the memo, written by Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton for Argentina’s Minister of Economy and Public Finance, “is clearly privileged,” based on his assumption that Cleary didn’t intend the document to become public. (It was leaked in the Argentine press, then was reported by the Financial Times’s FT Alphaville blog, which links to an English translation of the entire five-page memo, entitled “Possible Outcomes of the Petition for Certiorari and Issues Regarding the Settlement of the Debt.”) The judge said he would “not make use of” the privileged document.

SCOTUS repose opinion is good news for securities defendants

Alison Frankel
Jun 9, 2014 21:37 UTC

As of April, the Federal Housing Finance Agency has recovered about $15 billion from 15 big banks that supposedly misrepresented the quality of the mortgage-backed securities they peddled to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. FHFA is expecting more to come: The conservator still has cases under way against Goldman Sachs, HSBC, Nomura and Royal Bank of Scotland. The National Credit Union Administration, meanwhile, has netted more than $330 million in settlements with banks that duped since-failed credit unions into buying deficient MBS. NCUA is also still litigating against several other defendants, some of which it sued only last September. When you add in MBS suits by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation on behalf of failed banks, there are about four dozen ongoing cases, involving some $200 billion in rotten mortgage-backed securities, brought by congressionally created stewards.

Just about all of those cases are alive only because of so-called “extender statutes” in which Congress lengthened the time frame for the agencies to bring claims under the Securities Act of 1933. (The Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 addressed claims by NCUA and FDIC; the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, which created FHFA, gave it extra time for Fannie and Freddie claims.) As you know if you’re a faithful reader, bank defendants have tried to argue that the nearly identical extender provisions in FIRREA and HERA only addressed the Securities Act’s one-year statute of limitations, not the law’s three-year statute of repose. Unfortunately for them, both the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in an FHFA case against UBS, and the 10th Circuit, in an NCUA case against Nomura, concluded that when Congress enacted the FIRREA and HERA extender provisions, it intended to lift both time bars, the statutes of limitations and repose.

On Monday, in a case called CTS Corporation v. Waldburger, the U.S. Supreme Court gave the banks that have stuck it out in litigation against FHFA, NCUA and FDIC a glimmer of hope. The Waldburger case presented the question of whether an extender statute in the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 pre-empts the statute of repose under North Carolina tort law. Seven justices, in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, ruled that it does not. More broadly, though, the court drew a clear line between the statutes of limitation and repose — which is what bank defendants in MBS litigation have long argued for. It’s going to be very interesting to see now what the justices do about Nomura’s pending petition for certiorari in the NCUA case in which 10th Circuit rejected its statute of repose defense. The petition was first scheduled to be considered back in March but the justices haven’t yet issued an order, presumably because they’ve been waiting to rule in Waldburger.

Asbestos plaintiffs lawyers: Garlock is the bad guy, not us

Alison Frankel
Jun 6, 2014 22:12 UTC

Last January, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge George Hodges of Charlotte, N.C., issued a doozy of a ruling in the Chapter 11 of the gasket maker Garlock Sealing Technologies. Lawyers for asbestos claimants wanted Garlock to set aside more than $1 billion in a trust for thousands of current and future victims of asbestos exposure. Garlock, which maintains that anyone exposed to its long-ago products was also exposed to more potent products manufactured by other companies, argued that its liability was no more than $125 million. Plaintiffs lawyers based their estimate on Garlock’s settlement history; Garlock contended that it was manipulated into overpaying in settlements with plaintiffs lawyers who withheld evidence that their clients were exposed to other manufacturers’ products.

To test Garlock’s allegations, Hodges ordered discovery on 15 closed product liability cases in which Garlock paid out significant settlements. He held a 17-day hearing that included testimony from 29 witnesses and hundreds of exhibits. In all 15 of the settled cases, Hodges said, Garlock was able to show that lawyers for asbestos plaintiffs withheld evidence that their clients were exposed to asbestos products from other companies. “The fact that each and every one of (the surveyed cases) contains such demonstrable misrepresentation is surprising and persuasive,” Hodges wrote. He concluded that the “startling pattern of misrepresentation” so inflated Garlock’s settlements that the company’s settlement history was not a reliable gauge of its future liability. Hodges sided with the company and pegged Garlock’s asbestos liability at $125 million.

Other asbestos defendants seized on the ruling to argue that plaintiffs lawyers were monkeying with evidence. Some, including Ford and Volkswagen, moved for access to records from the estimation hearing, arguing that they deserved to know whether plaintiffs who settled with Garlock later turned around and sued them. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, called Hodges’ opinion “a watershed” in exposing wrongdoing by asbestos lawyers, and suggested that Congress take note of it. The U.S. House of Representatives had already passed a bill to boost disclosure requirements for asbestos bankruptcy trusts before Hodges issued his Garlock opinion, but in May 2014, Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) introduced a Senate version of the bill.

How GM’s legal department failed the company and its customers

Alison Frankel
Jun 5, 2014 23:16 UTC

There’s a heartbreaking moment deep in the internal investigation report GM released Thursday, detailing the company’s botched response to a sometimes fatal defect in Cobalt ignition switches. A young lawyer named Nabeel Peracha, who had joined GM in April 2012, was at a meeting just a few months later with other GM lawyers. Their topic was the settlement of a West Virginia product liability case stemming from a crash in 2009 of a Chevrolet Cobalt that skidded on black ice, ran off the road and hit two trees. The front-seat passenger sustained head injuries when the Cobalt’s airbag failed to deploy.

The crash investigation showed that the car’s ignition switch was off at the time of the impact. That was potentially a big problem for GM, according to its outside defense lawyers at Eckert Seamans, because the victim’s expert had turned up a 2007 Indiana University study identifying a link between Cobalt ignition switch defects and air-bag deployment failures, as well as a GM service bulletin from 2006 that noted the Cobalt’s unexplained stalling problem. Moreover, the lawyers from Eckert Seamans warned, the plaintiff’s lawyer knew about other Cobalt crash cases in which ignition switches were in the off position and the air bags never deployed. If GM didn’t settle, the lawyers said, it risked seven-figure punitive damages.

The in-house lawyers at the weekly Roundtable meeting to discuss important settlements agreed that GM’s litigation posture was only going to get worse, so it made sense to settle. Peracha, the rookie lawyer, piped up: Considering the Eckert Seamans evaluation of Cobalt problems, why hadn’t GM issued a recall on the cars? According to the GM report, “The response from the other attorneys was that engineering did not know how to fix the problem, that the incident rate was low, and that ‘we told engineering and they’re looking into it.’” Almost two years later — after the Cobalt defect exploded into a huge corporate scandal — Peracha told GM investigator Anton Valukas of Jenner & Block that the other GM lawyers at the 2012 meeting, who’d been at the company longer than he had and had been hearing about these Cobalt ignition-switch cases since 2006, conveyed the impression that they had already done everything they could.

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