Opinion

Alison Frankel

BofA MBS settlement shocker: Grais removes case to federal court

Alison Frankel
Aug 26, 2011 23:04 UTC

There is never a dull moment in Bank of America’s attempt to resolve its Countrywide mortgage-backed securities liability. In a stunning move Friday, the law firm leading the fight against BofA’s proposed $8.5 billion settlement with Countrywide MBS noteholders removed the case from New York state supreme court to federal court. “The purpose of removal is to make sure that this proceeding is adjudicated in the proper forum,” Grais & Ellsworth wrote in a letter to lawyers for Bank of New York Mellon (the Countrywide MBS trustee) and for the big institutional investors who crafted the proposed settlement. “We believe in good faith that this proceeding is subject to federal jurisdiction as a mass action under the Class Action Fairness Act.” (Here’s the Grais & Ellsworth letter with the removal petition attached.)

The removal to federal court plunges the proposed settlement, at least temporarily, into more uncertainty than ever. Judge Barbara Kapnick, who is presiding over the unusual state court proceeding to evaluate the proposed deal, had imposed an August 30 deadline for Countrywide MBS investors to intervene in the case. She had also established a preliminary schedule for the discovery Grais & Ellsworth and other objectors’ counsel have demanded from BNY Mellon, BofA, and the institutional investors and their Gibbs & Bruns counsel. The removal to federal court means that Judge Kapnick isn’t in charge of the case, so it’s not clear whether lawyers are required to abide by her schedule.

The Grais & Ellsworth filing was a surprise tactic. The firm has been in the state court litigation since early July, filing its initial petition to intervene only days after Bank of New York Mellon, as Countrywide trustee, filed a suit asking for court approval of the settlement of investors’ claims. David Grais even appeared before Judge Kapnick at an August 5 hearing on objectors’ requests for expedited discovery. Grais & Ellsworth apparently waited to remove the case to federal court until Judge Kapnick granted the firm’s motion to intervene in the state court case on Monday. (Grais, who was not in the office Friday, didn’t respond to my e-mail; his partner Owen Cyrulnik, who signed the letter to opposing counsel, didn’t respond to an e-mail and phone message.)

You can bet that BNY Mellon and the institutional investors will move quickly to try to get the case back to Judge Kapnick, whose first substantive ruling, albeit on a minor procedural matter, went their way. Lawyers from Mayer Brown and Dechert (for BNY Mellon) and Gibbs & Bruns (for the investors backing the settlement) will be filing remand motions next week, possibly as soon as Monday or Tuesday. Whoever hears the remand fight — Grais & Ellsworth’s petition said the case is related to a Countrywide MBS investor suit before Manhattan federal judge William Pauley -- will have to deal with all kinds of novel questions. Among them: Grais & Ellsworth’s own previous precedent on put-back claims in federal court.

Grais’s argument for sending the $8.5 billion proposed settlement to federal court comes under the Class Action Fairness Act, the 2005 law that requires big-money class actions to be litigated under the oversight of a federal judge. CAFA also mandates that mass actions, in which at least 100 plaintiffs have filed parallel suits seeking money damages against the same defendant, be transferred to federal court. Grais & Ellsworth is asserting that because the proposed Countrywide MBS settlement will resolve the claims of investors in 530 trusts, it’s a mass action under CAFA.

Why Delaware and NY want a stake in BofA MBS deal

Alison Frankel
Aug 10, 2011 22:07 UTC

As expected, the Delaware attorney general’s office moved Tuesday night to intervene in Bank of America’s proposed $8.5 billion settlement with Countrywide mortgage-backed noteholders. The Delaware petition to intervene and supporting brief are notable for their moderate tone, in contrast to last week’s fiery objection and counterclaims by the New York attorney general. Tuesday’s filings, signed by Delaware deputy AG Jeremy Eicher, said that Delaware is concerned about BofA’s indemnification of the MBS trustee, Bank of New York Mellon — the same conflict-of-interest allegation raised by just about every intervenor who so far has surfaced in the case. Delaware, which noted that two of the Countrywide MBS trusts are Delaware vehicles, argued that it needs more information about the proposed settlement in order to protect investors.

The real story, though, is that both the New York and Delaware AGs believe BofA and BNY Mellon can’t resolve their liability to MBS investors without including regulators in the deal. After all, the proposed $8.5 billion settlement encroaches on turf already claimed by New York AG Eric Schneiderman and Delaware AG Joseph Biden III; in June, the New York Times broke the news that the New York and Delaware AG offices were investigating the banks involved in the mortgage-backed securitization process — including sponsors and underwriters such as Countrywide and BofA and trustees such as BNY Mellon.

The Delaware and New York securitization probes, which are running parallel to the 50-state AG investigation of banks’ mortgage foreclosure practices, gave Schneiderman and Biden a platform to argue that MBS investors, as well as homeowners, are affected by slipshod mortgage underwriting practices and widespread foreclosures. In the wider foreclosure-resolution negotiations between mortgage lenders and state AGs, New York and Delaware have taken a lead in calling for banks to also address MBS liability.

On a very dark day, BofA’s dim ray of hope

Alison Frankel
Aug 9, 2011 14:14 UTC

Monday was (another) dreadful day for Bank of America. The bank’s shares closed at a two-year low, thanks in part to AIG’s double whammy: a $10 billion fraud suit against BofA and the insurer’s simultaneous motion to intervene in opposition to BofA’s proposed $8.5 billion settlement with Countrywide mortgage-backed securities noteholders. Bank of America and Countrywide’s securitization trustee, Bank of New York Mellon, thought the $8.5 billion deal would put their MBS woes behind them. Instead the proposed settlement seems to have made the two banks into bigger targets than they were before reaching an agreement with 22 big MBS investors.

There’s plenty of reason for BofA to worry about the AIG fraud suit. First off, the New York state court complaint was filed by Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, a familiar opponent for Bank of America. Quinn is counsel to the bond insurer MBIA in its MBS litigation against Countrywide, in which New York state supreme court judge Eileen Bransten has consistently sided with MBIA and Quinn Emanuel. (Among other crucial rulings, Judge Bransten rejected Bank of America’s preliminary argument that it’s not liable for Countrywide’s missteps.) Quinn also represents Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which forced Bank of America into a $2.8 billion settlement of MBS claims in January, and Allstate, which filed a $700 million MBS case against Countrywide in December. Different Quinn Emanuel lawyers are involved in the various BofA and Countrywide cases, but the firm isn’t starting from scratch.

The AIG fraud complaint is also a canny document. The suit lumps together allegations against Countrywide, Merrill Lynch, and BofA, painting all of them with the same tarry brush even though Countrywide and Merrill Lynch committed a good chunk of the alleged wrongdoing before they became part of BofA. Quinn includes public record information about their manifestly-deficient underwriting practices, but has brought the case as a fraud suit — not a contract case accusing BofA, Countrywide, and Merrill of breaching the representations and warranties on the mortgage loans underlying the securitizations AIG invested in. That way, AIG doesn’t have to show that it controls 25 percent of the voting rights, the threshold for standing in a securitization contract case. But under the causes of action the complaint asserts — state-law claims and federal claims under the Securities Act of 1933 — Quinn Emanuel doesn’t have to show that BofA, Countrywide, and Merrill acted with fraudulent intent.

NY AG’s BofA filing will ripple far beyond $8.5 bn MBS deal

Alison Frankel
Aug 5, 2011 21:18 UTC

Before Thursday night, opposition to Bank of America’s proposed $8.5 billion settlement with Countrywide mortgage-backed securities investors consisted of a handful of investor groups represented by a handful of law firms. Even if you counted the six Federal Home Loan Banks that have moved to intervene but haven’t yet gone on record opposing the deal, intervenors represented less than 7 percent of all Countrywide MBS noteholders. The 22 gargantuan institutional investors that negotiated the settlement were a much more potent force.

That all changed when New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman -- in a move that stunned deal proponents — filed an explosive motion to intervene in the $8.5 billion settlement. Schneiderman didn’t just register his opposition to the proposed settlement, which he said had been reached “without ever giving beneficiaries or their representatives an opportunity to test [whether] the proposed settlement is reasonable.” He went far, far beyond mere opposition: Schneiderman accused the Countrywide MBS trustee, Bank of New York Mellon, of breaching its fiduciary duty and said that Bank of America may have aided and abetted the breach. And to show that he was serious about those assertions, Schneiderman actually filed counterclaims against BNY Mellon along with his intervention motion.

The countersuit — a truly revolutionary filing — alleges three causes of action against BNY Mellon, in what is thought to be the first time the AG has accused an MBS trustee of fraud. Schneiderman claimed the bank breached its duty to investors because the settlement includes indemnification for the trustee — a “direct financial benefit” for BNY Mellon, according to the AG’s filing. Schneiderman also asserted that BNYM let down Countrywide MBS investors long before proposing the $8.5 billion settlement, by failing to notify certificate holders that underlying Countrywide mortgages were in default. Finally, the New York AG accused Bank of New York Mellon of securities fraud under New York’s Martin Act.

Will there be fireworks at Friday’s BofA MBS settlement hearing?

Alison Frankel
Aug 4, 2011 22:42 UTC

The hearing scheduled to take place tomorrow before Manhattan state supreme court judge Barbara Kapnick could turn out to be a straight-forward affair. The judge could simply hear brief arguments on whether to expedite discovery on Bank of America’s proposed $8.5 billion settlement of Countrywide MBS noteholders’ breach-of-warranty claims, issue a ruling, and call it a day. Given that this will be the first time that the architects of the deal — Mayer Brown for Bank of New York Mellon, the MBS trustee; Gibbs & Bruns for a group of 22 major institutional investors ; and Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz for BofA — will be gathered in the same room with the small but feisty group of lawyers opposing the settlement, I’m hoping for some heated rhetoric, at the very least. Remember, this hearing is the first chance for these lawyers to register their positions with Judge Kapnick. It’s going to be very interesting to see what each of them make of that opportunity.

The nominal issue before the judge comes from a July 27 order to show cause, filed by Scott + Scott on behalf of a four public pension funds. The show-cause order argues that the schedule suggested by BNY Mellon (and approved by Judge Kapnick) doesn’t offer investors a chance to reach an informed decision about whether to oppose or endorse the proposed deal. Noteholders are supposed to file intervention notices by August 30. Scott + Scott says investors need to conduct expedited discovery before then.

“Document discovery is needed to evaluate the reliability of the expert opinions and the reasonableness of the settlement,” the filing says. “The [self-styled] public pension fund committee also believes that discovery bearing upon the interests and potential conflicts of the negotiating parties, the adequacy of the development of the facts, as well as the basis of the expert reports, is warranted.”

Gibbs & Bruns comes to NY to sell investors on $8.5bl BofA deal

Alison Frankel
Jul 16, 2011 03:05 UTC

Kathy Patrick wants to set the world straight.

The Gibbs & Bruns partner, who represented 22 major Countrywide mortgage-backed securities investors in the negotiations that led to the June 29 proposed $8.5 billion Bank of America deal, has come East from her home office in Houston to sell Countrywide MBS noteholders and anyone else who will listen on the settlement she and her partner Scott Humphries negotiated with BofA and Countrywide MBS trustee Bank of New York Mellon.

In the face of questions about the deal from six Federal Home Loan Banks, the New York State Attorney General, and a North Carolina Congressman, Patrick and Humphries spent Thursday in Washington and Friday in New York, meeting with MBS investors and “other interested parties” they declined to identify. The Gibbs lawyers’ message: The proposed BofA settlement represents a far better outcome for noteholders than continued litigation of loan-by-loan breach of contract claims against Countrywide. In that scenario, they insist, there would be no guaranteed outcome, no assurance investors can obtain a judgment against BofA as Countrywide’s successor, and none of the mortgage loan-servicing provisions that are a big part of the proposed deal. (The Gibbs & Bruns lawyers and some of their institutional investor clients argue that the servicing component of the deal, in which Bank of America has agreed to outsource loan servicing to specialists tasked with renegotiating troubled mortgages, could end up being as valuable as the cash part of the settlement.)

Patrick is particularly exercised that one objector to the proposed settlement has asserted that the deal “fails to address” securities claims pending against Countrywide. The settlement agreement specifically states that securities fraud claims are not part of the deal, and even if BNY Mellon, as trustee, wanted to give away investors’ right to sue for securities fraud, it has no power to do so. Patrick said she was so determined to preserve her own clients’ securities law claims that Gibbs & Bruns very nearly walked away from late-stage negotiations when Bank of America’s lawyers from Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz demanded a release. “We said not only no, but hell no,” Patrick said, adding that she was ready to leave $8.5 billion on the table.

BoNY releases expert reports backing $8.5bl BofA MBS deal

Alison Frankel
Jul 14, 2011 20:52 UTC

Faced with a barrage of investor criticism (see here, here, and here) of its proposed $8.5 billion mortgage-backed securities settlement with Bank of America, Bank of New York Mellon, the MBS trustee, has released the expert reports underlying the agreement. The reports—in particular the valuation report by Brian Lin, the managing director of RRMS Advisors—provide an extraordinary window into how this deal got done. They may not change anyone’s mind about the fairness of the settlement proposal, but they answer a lot of the questions that challengers of the deal have raised.

Let’s start with the numbers that were on the table when Gibbs & Bruns and its group of 22 major Countrywide MBS investors sat down across from Bank of America and its lawyers from Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. The outside range of the investor group’s demands was $52.6 billion, according to Lin’s report. At the low end, the investors asked for $27 billion. Bank of America, according to the Lin report, calculated that investors could claim no more than $4 billion.

Lin began his evaluation of the investors’ Countrywide MBS claims by reviewing the presentations that the Gibbs group and BofA made to one another. (His company, RRMS, is a mortgage-backed securities consultant that advises MBS investors, packagers, and issuers. BoNY and its Mayer Brown lawyers selected Lin’s firm to provide an expert opinion after beauty contest interviews with several candidates, which had to have MBS expertise but couldn’t have a significant relationship with Bank of America.) Interestingly, Lin’s report indicates that the valuation methodology employed by both the investors and BofA was almost the same, although the two sides obviously plugged different assumptions into the basic formula.

In BofA deal: Did Grais firm refuse to join settlement talks?

Alison Frankel
Jul 13, 2011 20:54 UTC

As Bank of America’s proposed $8.5 billion deal to resolve put-back claims by Countrywide mortgage-backed certificate holders comes under increased scrutiny, including a new inquiry by New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman and two newly-filed objections to the deal by major investor groups, some very intriguing news has emerged about Grais & Ellsworth, the prominent MBS investors’ firm that’s leading the charge against the BofA settlement.

Grais & Ellsworth filed new objections to the deal on behalf of two investor groups with large Countrywide MBS holdings Wednesday. But its first objection to the BofA settlement came on behalf of a coalition of MBS investors under the name Walnut Place, which had sued Bank of America in February. (Walnut Pace asserted put-back claims in two of the 530 trusts that offered Countrywide mortgage-backed certificates.) In a July 5 petition to intervene in the New York state supreme court proceeding to evaluate the proposed $8.5 billion BofA deal, Walnut Place raised some pretty serious questions about Bank of New York Mellon’s strong motivation, as trustee for the Countrywide MBS offerings, to go along with BofA’s proposal. Grais & Ellsworth also criticized the trustee for having “negotiated [the global deal] in secret, without the knowledge or consent of Walnut Place.”

That accusation of secret negotiations designed to cut out Walnut Place seems like powerful evidence of a potentially collusive deal—but according to Bank of New York Mellon, it’s just not true. In a  July 11 response to the Grais & Ellsworth filing, the trustee’s lawyers at Mayer Brown say Grais & Ellsworth was invited to join settlement discussions between Bank of America and the Gibbs & Bruns investor group that ultimately negotiated the proposed deal. But instead of opting to participate in the process, Grais & Ellsworth proceeded to file Walnut Place’s suit against BofA. Mayer Brown asserts.

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