Opinion

Alison Frankel

Why Judge Pauley kept $8.5bn BofA MBS case in federal court

Alison Frankel
Oct 20, 2011 18:59 UTC

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.”

Did Gibbs pre-empt rival investor group in BofA’s MBS deal?

Alison Frankel
Oct 3, 2011 22:23 UTC

The most dramatic moment at the Sept. 21 hearing on Bank of America’s proposed $8.5 billion settlement with Countrywide mortgage-backed securities investors came near the end, when Gibbs & Bruns partner Robert Madden stood up to address Manhattan federal judge William Pauley’s concerns about how the settlement came to be. Tall and clear-spoken, Madden captured the judge’s attention as he explained that his clients, a group of 22 large institutional investors, hadn’t entered a sweetheart deal with BofA, but had banded together to force the bank to pony up billions to investors for claims BofA thought it would never have to deal with.

“The problem was that these repurchase claims were lying fallow,” Madden said, according to the transcript of the hearing. “No one was doing anything. None of (the investors now objecting to the deal) were doing anything. And, I’m sorry to say, the trustee wasn’t doing anything. Limitations were running on those claims, and nothing was happening.”

Or was it?

I’ve learned that in the summer of 2010, as Gibbs & Bruns began to push Countrywide MBS trustee Bank of New York Mellon to act on its assertions that mortgages underlying the Countrywide securities were deficient, another group of Countrywide MBS investors was finalizing its own notice of default to serve on BNY Mellon. Members of the RMBS Clearinghouse, run by former Patton Boggs partner Talcott Franklin, had undertaken an extensive analysis of the underlying Countrywide mortgages, and, according to two sources familiar with the Clearinghouse’s activities, were on the verge of sending BNY Mellon a notice that would trigger put-back litigation.

Bank of New York: We have no fiduciary duty to MBS investors

Alison Frankel
Sep 30, 2011 22:26 UTC

When New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman sued Bank of New York Mellon in August, the AG asserted that the Countrywide mortgage-backed securitization trustee had breached its duty to MBS investors. “As trustee, BNYM owed and owes a fiduciary duty of undivided loyalty,” said the AG’s suit, which was filed as a counterclaim in BNY Mellon’s case seeking approval of the proposed $8.5 billion Bank of America settlement with MBS investors. “[BNYM] breached that duty to [investors'] detriment and disadvantage, by failing to notify them of issues regarding the quality of loans underlying their securities.”

But according to BNY Mellon, it had no such duty.

The bank’s lawyers at Mayer Brown and Dechert filed a 14-page brief this week outlining its interpretation of the responsibilities of an MBS securitization trustee. The filing came at the direction of Manhattan federal Judge William Pauley, who’s deciding whether the BofA MBS settlement should be heard in state court, where BNY Mellon filed it, or in federal court, where key objectors to the proposed settlement want it to proceed. Pauley was concerned with the “securities exception” to the Class Action Fairness Act, which could end up guiding his decision on the forum question. For BNY Mellon, however, any discussion of its trustee responsibilities is fraught with danger. It’s already facing the New York AG’s claims, and several other state attorneys general have threatened similar actions. MBS investors, meanwhile, are pushing BNY Mellon (and other securitization trustees) to bring put-back claims, with the implied threat that investors will take action against trustees unless they do.

BNY Mellon’s brief pushes back against that pressure, asserting that the trustee’s responsibilities don’t extend much beyond the ministerial duties spelled out in the pooling and servicing agreements governing MBS trusts. New York law, the filing said, imposes only two addition burdens: the trustee must avoid conflicts of interest and must perform its ministerial functions “with due care.” According to BNY Mellon, there’s an important distinction between ordinary trustees and indenture trustees. Indenture trustees, it said, do not have “a traditional duty of due care.” Its duties — beyond those two basic responsibilities implied in New York law — are strictly defined by the pooling and servicing trust contracts.

Grais fights to keep $8.5 billion BofA case in fed. court

Alison Frankel
Sep 15, 2011 20:57 UTC

On Wednesday night, Grais & Ellsworth filed a 29-page brief laying out its arguments for why Bank of America’s proposed $8.5 billion settlement with Countrywide mortgage-backed securities investors belongs in federal court, not in New York state court, where Bank of New York Mellon, as Countrywide MBS trustee, filed it. I’ll talk about Grais’s assertions in a moment, but first I want to explain why the jurisdictional question is so crucial to the ultimate fate of BofA’s proposed deal. Two transcripts tell that tale.

BNY Mellon, you’ll recall, used a highly unusual device when it asked for court approval of the proposed $8.5 billion settlement in late June. The bank filed the case as an Article 77 proceeding in New York state supreme court, taking advantage of a state law that permits trustees to seek a judge’s endorsement of their decisions. Using Article 77 was a deliberate tactic by BNY Mellon, BofA, and the 22 institutional investors who support the settlement. The lawyers who put together the deal considered and rejected other possible vehicles for court approval, but decided that Article 77 was the fastest, cleanest way to resolve claims involving 530 separate trusts. The provision, which is usually invoked in garden-variety trust cases, gives broad discretion to trustees, who are generally assumed to be acting in the best interests of trust beneficiaries.

The Article 77 strategy looked brilliant at the first hearing on the settlement before New York state supreme court judge Barbara Kapnick. According to a transcript of the August 5 hearing, Judge Kapnick shot down objectors to the deal who, in her view, wanted to proceed with discovery as if the case were a class action. “It’s important to remember that this petition was brought as an Article 77 petition,” the judge said. “It’s not a class action. There aren’t provisions in there to opt out that you are talking about. That’s not what this is. If you started it, maybe that’s what you would have done, but they started it and that’s what they did. I have to work, at least now, within the confines of the proceeding that is before me.”

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