Asking a federal appeals court to step into the fray of an ongoing case to reverse a decision by a trial judge is extraordinary. Petitions for a writ of mandamus, as such requests are known, assert that trial judges have committed such egregious errors that their appellate overseers must undo the damage immediately, before the case gets to a final judgment. Mandamus petitions are a desperation move, a last resort when you’ve got nothing to lose from alienating a trial judge who’s already ruled against you.
There are probably fewer than 100 lawyers in America who argue regularly before the U.S. Supreme Court and the highest state courts of appeal. And of those, a scant handful argue against corporate interests. That is particularly true when banks are involved: Lawyers who practice at big firms that regularly represent (or hope to represent) financial institutions avoid cases that endanger those relationships, even when one bank is suing another. But the renowned former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement left behind those concerns in 2011 when he left King & Spalding and joined Bancroft, a tiny appellate startup. Last year, Clement took up the Supreme Court case of small merchants suing American Express for antitrust violations. (He lost.) Now he’s turned up to oppose banks in one of the biggest-dollar appeals in the courts. On Tuesday, as first reported by the New York Commercial Litigation Insider, Clement appeared as counsel of record in HSBC’s motion, as a mortgage-backed securities trustee, for the New York Appellate Division, First Department to reconsider its Dec. 19 ruling on the timeliness of MBS breach-of-contract claims or else let the case proceed to the state’s highest court.
Has there ever been a more lopsided multibillion-dollar case than the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s fraud litigation against the banks that sold mortgage-backed securities to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? I don’t think U.S. District Judge Denise Cote of Manhattan, who is overseeing securities fraud suits against 11 banks that haven’t already settled with the conservator for Fannie and Freddie, has sided with the banks on any major issue, from the timeliness of FHFA’s suits to how deeply the defendants can probe Fannie and Freddie’s knowledge of MBS underwriting standards in the late stages of the housing bubble. But even in that context, Judge Cote’s summary judgment ruling Monday – gutting the banks’ defenses against FHFA’s state-law securities claims – is a doozy.
Is the statute of repose – the once obscure cousin of the statute of limitations that burst into prominence as a defense in litigation over mortgage-backed securities – coming to the U.S. Supreme Court?
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.
I have a bold assertion: Breach of contract suits by mortgage-backed securities trustees are no longer a rarity. In my daily feed of new filings, I’m seeing a fairly regular trickle of cases asserting trustee claims that mortgage originators didn’t live up to their representations and warranties about the loans they sold to MBS trusts. The roster of firms filing cases for trustees has expanded as well. Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman still seems to be the likeliest to appear on the signature page of MBS trustee complaints, but last week MoloLamken filed a put-back suit in New York State Supreme Court for the trustee of a Morgan Stanley MBS trust, and Holwell Shuster & Goldberg brought a put-back claim in the same court for the trustee of a Deutsche Bank-backed trust.
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.
If you’re reasonably literate about the financial crisis, you probably know that the credit rating agencies have slipped through the carnage like a cat walking away from a knocked-over vase. With their opinions on publicly offered mortgage-backed securities protected by the First Amendment, Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s have won dismissals of the vast majority of MBS investor claims against them in state and federal court, despite powerful evidence from congressional investigations that they worked with underwriters to confer investment-grade ratings on securities backed by dreck. With one possible exception, the only surviving cases against rating agencies involve claims by investors in private placements, who have successfully argued that private ratings aren’t protected free speech.
If the Securities and Exchange Commission were an ordinary investor, it would already be too late in trying to sue the banks that issued (allegedly) deficient mortgage-backed securities.
I follow mortgage-backed securities litigation closely enough to be disgusted at the greed that fueled the securitization of insufficiently underwritten mortgages issued to homeowners who had no hope of paying them off. Sure, MBS investors and the bond insurers that backed MBS trusts were sophisticated and, to some extent, forewarned about the timebombs lurking in those mortgage pools. But you can’t read the voluminous MBS filings by monolines and investors — including the federal agency that oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — without wishing that someone be held accountable for sending the housing market on a slide, and dragging down the rest of the economy with it.