(Reuters) – In successive rulings in 2013, three well-regarded federal judges in Manhattan endorsed the Justice Department’s creative adaptation of an old law from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s to cases against banks involved in the financial crisis of the 2000s. That April, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan refused to dismiss the government’s civil suit against Bank of New York Mellon. Similar rulings followed in August from U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff in the so-called “Hustle” case against Bank of America and in September from U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in a Justice Department civil suit against Wells Fargo.
For a change, JPMorgan’s rollercoaster negotiations with state and federal regulators to resolve the bank’s liability for rotten mortgage-backed securities did not make news Wednesday. Has there ever been more public dealmaking between the Justice Department and a target? It feels as though the public has been made privy to every settlement proposal and rejection, as if we’re all watching a soap operatic reality show. Will there be a reunion episode if the bank and the Justice Department end up finalizing the reported $13 billion global settlement, with Eric Holder and Jamie Dimon shouting imprecations at each other?
To say that the hearing to evaluate Bank of America’s proposed $8.5 billion breach of contract settlement with investors in Countrywide mortgage-backed securities got off to a slow start would be something of an understatement. In a courtroom so crowded that New York State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Kapnick repeatedly admonished observers to clear a path to the door, the judge heard hours of pretrial motions, many on issues she regarded as already settled. In particular, objectors to the settlement – led by AIG, several Federal Home Loan Banks and other assorted pension and investment funds – told Kapnick that they should not be forced to proceed with opening statements until they’ve had a chance to take depositions based on privileged communications between Bank of New York Mellon, the Countrywide MBS trustee, and its lawyers at Mayer Brown. Kapnick ordered the documents produced late last month, and AIG counsel Daniel Reilly of Reilly Pozner said it wouldn’t be fair to begin a hearing to determine whether BNY Mellon made a reasonable decision to agree to the $8.5 billion settlement – which resolves potential claims by 530 trusts that Countrywide breached representations and warranties about underlying mortgage loans – until objectors have quizzed witnesses on the confidential material.
Brad Karp of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison and Max Berger of Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann share an elevator bank at 1285 6th Avenue in New York City. Bernstein Litowitz, a 50-lawyer plaintiffs’ firm, has space on the 36th and 38th floors. Paul Weiss’s 750 lawyers occupy much of the rest of the office building. Karp and Berger are also old frenemies: In 2004, they negotiated Citigroup’s $2.65 billion settlement of shareholder claims in the WorldCom accounting fraud case. Over the last several months, with Karp representing Bank of America and Berger one of the lead counsel for shareholders suing over the bank’s acquisition of Merrill Lynch in 2008, the two have spent a lot of time riding the elevator between Berger’s office on the 36th floor and Karp’s on the 30th, discussing a resolution of the class action.
Late last month, without any fanfare, a New York appeals court issued a terse, one-page ruling that upheld the dismissal of Walnut Place’s breach-of-contract suit against Countrywide, Bank of America and Countrywide’s mortgage-backed securitization trustee, Bank of New York Mellon. It was an abrupt end for what was once a promising attempt at vindication for an MBS investor. It was also a huge setback for Walnut, its lawyers at Grais & Ellsworth and all the other Countrywide MBS investors who were counting on litigation against BofA as an alternative to the bank’s proposed $8.5 billion global settlement of breach-of-contract, or put-back, claims.
Reporting on the implications of the bond insurer Syncora’s $375 million settlement with Bank of America has been a Rashomon experience: Everyone I talked to had something different to say about what drove Tuesday’s settlement and what it means for MBIA, which has been litigating its own mortgage-backed securities breach-of-contract claims in parallel with Syncora. So if you were expecting a clear-cut answer on whether the Syncora settlement is good or bad for MBIA, you’re going to be disappointed. Syncora and MBIA were both litigating put-back claims against Countrywide and BofA before New York State Supreme Court Justice Eileen Bransten, who has delivered important simultaneous rulings for the bond insurers. But the similarities between Syncora and MBIA end in Bransten’s courtroom. When it comes to negotiations with BofA, they’re in very different postures.
Remember the vicious fight between plaintiffs’ lawyers in competing New York and Delaware derivative suits against Bank of America’s board? In April, plaintiffs in the federal case in New York reached a proposed $20 million settlement with the defendants, which prompted their Delaware Chancery Court rivals to scream that the New York lawyers were settling on the cheap after an inadequate investigation. They attempted in both Delaware and New York to block the deal, arguing that the derivative suit should be worth as much as $500 million, but failed to enjoin the settlement. On Thursday, plaintiffs’ lawyers in the New York case filed a motion for preliminary approval of the $20 million deal.
The megabillion-dollar game of chicken between Bank of America and the bond insurer MBIA just got even more perilous. On Monday MBIA filed a notice that it is cross-appealing the ruling by Manhattan State Supreme Court Justice Eileen Bransten. MBIA wants reconsideration of Bransten’s finding that the bond insurer is not entitled to summary judgment on its claims that Countrywide breached representations and warranties on the mortgage-backed securities MBIA agreed to insure. You might think MBIA’s decision to appeal is a surprise, given the many routes to recovery Bransten gave MBIA on its insurance fraud claims against Countrywide. But as always in the incredibly complex litigation between Bank of America and MBIA, there are many layers to every move by either side.
None of the firms battling Countrywide and Bank of America on behalf of mortgage-backed securities investors has dedicated more resources to the fight than Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan. Quinn represents some of the biggest MBS claimants in suits against Countrywide, including AIG and the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The firm also represents MBIA in the bond insurer’s long-running New York State case against Countrywide. If anyone on the plaintiffs’ side has the goods on Countrywide and Bank of America, in other words, it’s Quinn Emanuel.