The key paragraph in Manhattan federal judge William Pauley III‘s 21-page ruling Wednesday in Bank of America’s proposed $8.5 billion settlement with Countrywide mortgage-backed-securities investors is the last one.
“The settlement agreement at issue here implicates core federal interests in the integrity of nationally chartered banks and the vitality of the national securities markets,” Pauley wrote. “A controversy touching on these paramount federal interests should proceed in federal court.”
That sentiment infuses the judge’s analysis of where BofA’s proposed deal should be evaluated: Before Justice Barbara Kapnick in Manhattan state Supreme Court, where Countrywide MBS trustee Bank of New York Mellon filed the case as a special proceeding under an obscure state law; or before Pauley in federal court, where there’s no analogous procedure for binding thousands of investors in 530 trustees to a settlement only 22 of them had a hand in negotiating. Pauley’s decision to keep the case in federal court throws the settlement off the carefully-designed track the bank, the trustee, and the investor group that supports the deal hoped to keep it on.
The judge opted for a broad interpretation of the federal Class Action Fairness Act, a 2005 law intended to keep big cases involving lots of claimants out of state court. Grais & Ellsworth, which represents a group of Countrywide MBS investors who don’t like the proposed BofA settlement, removed the case to federal court under CAFA’s provisions for mass cases. (I’ve written here and here about Grais & Ellsworth’s rationale for the removal and BNY Mellon’s arguments against removal.) The test for a mass action involves three questions: Does the case involve monetary relief; does it involve 100 or more plaintiffs; and do their claims involve common questions of law or fact? In siding with Grais & Ellsworth on each of those questions, Pauley considered the implications of the proposed settlement, not the technicalities of Article 77, the New York law under which the case was filed.
“BNYM’s argument exalts form over substance,” he wrote with regard to arguments by BNY Mellon’s Mayer Brown lawyer Matthew Ingber that the Article 77 proceeding didn’t involve a claim for monetary relief, since all the trustee sought was a ruling that BNY Mellon had acted reasonably in reaching the settlement. Pauley was similarly scornful of the trustee’s assertion that the Article 77 proceeding involved only one plaintiff, BNY Mellon. “BNY Mellon’s argument is untenable,” he wrote. “BNYM is trustee for 530 separate and unique trusts and seeks approval for its decision to settle the claims of each individual trust.”