When the U.S. Chamber of Commerce rushes out a statement hailing a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, you can be sure that opinion is a defeat for plaintiffs’ lawyers. So it is with the court’s long-awaited ruling Wednesday in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum. All nine justices agreed with Shell’s counsel at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan that claims by a group of Nigerian nationals suing under the Alien Tort Statute for Shell’s alleged abetting of state-sponsored torture and murder in their country should be dismissed, though they split on precisely why. The majority, in an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, held that the presumption against extraterritoriality, most recently articulated by the court in Morrison v. National Australia Bank, applies to the Alien Tort Statute even though the ATS, unlike laws regulating conduct, is strictly a jurisdictional statute. Roberts’ opinion rejected (among other things) arguments that because the ATS was enacted to address piracy on the high seas, it extends to atrocities committed on foreign soil.
The last time I wrote about the Chevron environmental contamination litigation, after Chevron revealed a declaration from an Ecuadorean judge who swore that he acted as the middleman in setting up a $500,000 bribe from plaintiffs’ lawyers to the Ecuadorean judge who entered a $19 billion judgment against Chevron, I said it was profoundly disheartening that alleged misconduct by lawyers for the Ecuadoreans who claim to have been injured by drilling in the Amazon might prevent a final answer to the question of whether they’ve actually been harmed. But Chevron’s latest stunning revelations - a pair of declarations in which scientific consultants for the Ecuadorean plaintiffs disavow their work in the case in Ecuador – cast a deep, dark shadow over the plaintiffs’ claims.
In 2003, lawyers representing a class of five million merchants in antitrust class action litigation against Visa and MasterCard asked U.S. District Judge John Gleeson for $609 million in fees. They told the judge that they’d litigated all the way to jury selection in a case so vigorously defended that they’d had to oppose certiorari at the U.S. Supreme Court, and they’d achieved historic results: a $3 billion settlement fund for class members – at the time, the largest-ever recovery for Sherman Act violations – and injunctive relief that added billions more to the overall value of the deal. Their fee request represented 18 percent of the present-day cash value of the settlement fund and 9.7 times the lodestar value of their billings, but only about 2 percent of what they estimated to be the total value of the deal.
I told you this was coming: Late Thursday, the creditors committee of the bankrupt mortgage lender Residential Capital asked U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Martin Glenn of Manhattan to grant creditors permission to sue ResCap’s former parent, Ally Financial. The committee, represented by Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, argues that in its short, unhappy existence ResCap functioned first as a cash magnet to boost Ally’s failing auto-lending business and then as a shield against Ally’s liability for toxic mortgages. Ally’s opportunistic manipulation of its captive onetime subsidiary, the committee said, exposes the troubled bank to ResCap’s entire $20 billion liability to creditors.
Countrywide’s new lawyers in New York State Supreme Court litigation with MBIA have come out firing. In a pair of letters interpreting last week’s ruling by the Appellate Division, FirstDepartment, the bank’s counsel from Simpson Thacher & Bartlett are asserting an aggressive argument that the appellate opinion limits MBIA’s potential recovery to the repurchase of materially deficient underlying mortgage loans – a restriction that would prevent MBIA from collecting from the bank the full amount of insurance claims it has paid on underperforming Countrywide mortgage-backed securities. If Countrywide is correct – and that’s far from certain – bond insurers could have a much tougher route to recovery against MBS issuers than we’ve assumed in the wake of Assured Guaranty’s decisive win against Flagstar in February.
One of the notable losers in the U.S. housing crash was a set of special purpose entities organized in the UK island of Jersey and collectively known as Loreley. Loreley erroneously believed in the long-term health of the subprime mortgage market in the United States. So as banks stuffed toxic mortgage-backed securities into collateralized debt obligations and sold the CDOs to offload their subprime exposure, Loreley was a buyer. The funds invested hundreds of millions of dollars in mortgage-referenced CDOs in late 2006 and 2007.
A couple weeks back, Dena Aubin of the Reuters tax team had a very insightful story about the risks auditors face as more countries permit some form of mass shareholder litigation. With class actions or their like now permitted in more than 20 countries, Aubin said, auditors’ structural firewall – in which national operating units are legally isolated from each other and from the parent firm – isn’t as liability-proof as it once seemed. Aubin cited Ernst & Young’s recent $118 million settlement of a Canadian class action stemming from its audits of the collapsed Chinese forestry company Sino Forest as a possible preview of what’s in store for the Big 4 accounting shops, thanks to a surge in international litigation. Their potential exposure is so large, according to Aubin, that commercial insurers no longer offer affordable liability coverage to audit firms, which have shifted to a self-insured model.
Over the next few weeks, federal courts in more than a dozen states are going to begin to consider a very interesting question: Does coordination between and among state attorneys general and the U.S. Department of Justice constitute an improper attempt to override federal regulation?
There is little doubt that the judges on Delaware’s Chancery Court believe they are unrivalled in the business of overseeing corporate litigation. Their challenge in recent years has been to persuade plaintiffs’ lawyers – who, after all, decide where to file their cases – of Delaware’s primacy. Chancery’s waxing and waning share of the booming market in shareholder M&A and derivative suits is an issue that gets considerable attention at securities conferences, and Chancellor Leo Strine in particular has been so unabashed an advocate for his court that New York State Supreme Court Justice Shirley Kornreich recently complained to my Reuters colleague Tom Hals about Delaware’s proprietary attitude.
Amid the fusillade of securities suits against the banks that sponsored and underwrote mortgage-backed notes, there have been a couple of reasons to pay particular attention to the Franco-Belgian bank Dexia’s case against JPMorgan Chase and its predecessors Bear Stearns and WaMu Mortgage. For starters, it was a big case: $1.6 billion in MBS and supposed damages of about $800 million. Moreover, Dexia’s lawyers at Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann had piled allegations into an amended complaint so apparently damning that it was the basis of a splashy story in The New York Times. And finally, the case was shaping up as a bellwether for MBS claims by individual investors. The litigation was on the rocket docket of U.S. Senior District Judge Jed Rakoff of Manhattan, who denied the bank’s motion to dismiss last September and talked in a recent hearing about a July trial date on Dexia’s claims. Given the resounding victory Rakoff delivered in February to the bond insurer Assured Guaranty in Assured’s MBS case against Flagstar Bank, the Dexia case seemed like it could be a perfect storm for defendants: a strong plaintiffs’ firm trying a high-profile case before a judge with demonstrated skepticism for bank defenses.