Opinion

Alison Frankel

BofA shareholders: Wachtell ‘excluded’ as Merrill losses mounted

Alison Frankel
Jul 4, 2012 00:09 UTC

Oh, the ironies of megabillion-dollar securities class action litigation!

Last Friday, shareholders filed their response to summary judgment motions by Bank of America and its executives in a class action claiming BofA failed to tell shareholders about Merrill Lynch’s escalating losses and sky-high executive bonuses before BofA bought Merrill in 2008. As you would expect, the shareholders and their lawyers at Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann, Kaplan Fox & Kilsheimer and Kessler Topaz Meltzer & Check spend considerable time rebutting defense arguments that, as a matter of law, shareholders weren’t injured by BofA’s alleged disclosure lapses. Those arguments, the plaintiffs’ lawyers said, have already been rejected in U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel‘s class certification decision in February.

But deep in the 115-page filing is a more intriguing discussion of the role BofA’s lawyers at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz played in the bank’s disclosure decisions. You may recall that former CEO Kenneth Lewis said he is entitled to summary judgment in the case because he relied on his CFO’s assurances that he’d consulted BofA lawyers on disclosure, and they’d said shareholders didn’t need to be told of interim Merrill loss projections that dwarfed initial reports. Lewis’s lawyers at Debevoise & Plimpton implied that the former CEO was under the impression that his CFO, Joe Price, had spoken both to the bank’s then-GC, Timothy Mayopoulos, and to BofA’s deal counsel at Wachtell.

The shareholders’ opposition brief demolishes that implication. “The record … establishes that BoA excluded Wachtell from the disclosure analysis at the critical time in the weeks before the [shareholder] vote,” the brief said. “Wachtell’s senior partners have uniformly testified that they were not informed of Merrill’s key December 3 loss estimate prior to the vote, and that Wachtell was not consulted at all on the issue of disclosure after November 20. Indeed, Wachtell did not learn of the magnitude of Merrill’s losses until December 12, when BoA contacted Wachtell one week after the vote to terminate the transaction because of Merrill’s losses.”

The shareholders cite what appears to be a dispute between Price and Lewis about what exactly the CFO told the CEO. According to the brief, Lewis testified at a deposition that Price told him he had consulted Wachtell senior partner Edward Herlihy once BofA learned that Merrill’s loss projections for the final quarter of 2008 had ballooned to $14 billion. Lewis said Price informed him that Herlihy didn’t think disclosure was necessary. The former CEO also said he was relieved to hear of Herlihy’s involvement and advice, according to the shareholders’ brief. Price, however, testified that he never spoke with Herlihy or any other Wachtell partner in the crucial time frame of early December 2008, and that he never told Lewis he did. (The shareholders’ filing noted that Wachtell partners deposed in the case have uniformly denied that they were consulted on the escalating loss estimates until after the vote.)

What’s the irony? Wachtell is Bank of America’s longtime deal counsel. Herlihy was Lewis’s trusted adviser as the BofA CEO turned the bank into a behemoth in the 1990s. BofA was, and is, so reliant on Wachtell that the firm was the bank’s counsel of record in this securities class action for a long time after U.S. Senior District Judge Jed Rakoff began questioning Wachtell’s disclosure advice in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s case against BofA. Yet when Lewis began pointing fingers, he attempted to shift the blame for disclosure failures to his old lawyers, via Price.

Caught in the middle: Wachtell and the BofA/Merrill merger mess

Alison Frankel
Jun 6, 2012 15:28 UTC

Former Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis has a simple argument for why he’s not liable to shareholders who claim they were defrauded into supporting BofA’s 2008 acquisition of Merrill Lynch: It’s the lawyers’ fault. In a summary judgment brief filed Sunday night in the shareholder class action, Lewis’s counsel at Debevoise & Plimpton asserted that as Merrill Lynch’s fourth-quarter projected losses ballooned from the $5 billion BofA had estimated in November to more than $10 billion by Dec. 3, Lewis asked BofA’s then-CFO, Joe Price, whether those losses had to be disclosed to shareholders. He was informed that the CFO had “consulted with legal counsel” and had concluded that interim projections didn’t need to be made public.

Lewis’s brief implies (but does not directly state) that Price had spoken not only to Bank of America’s general counsel at the time, Timothy Mayopoulos, but also to BofA’s outside lawyers at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz. For Lewis, it doesn’t much matter who Price talked to — or even whether Price really received the legal advice he allegedly passed along to Lewis. What’s significant, according to the former CEO’s brief, is simply that Lewis had a good-faith reason to believe disclosure wasn’t warranted. Lewis didn’t even assert a formal advice-of-counsel defense but said his “understanding of what BAC’s CFO was told by counsel” is enough to rebut shareholder claims that he intended to mislead them.

But for Wachtell, professional integrity is at stake in the guidance it gave its longtime client in the run-up to the shareholder vote on the Merrill merger. Wachtell, after all, is one of the premier M&A law firms in the country. Its reputation would be sullied if it had offered the bank advice so misguided that BofA ended up the subject not only of regulatory inquiries by at least four state and federal agencies but also of a gargantuan shareholder suit.

New SJ motion in BofA/Merrill case: The boon of discovery

Alison Frankel
Jun 5, 2012 05:35 UTC

There’s a good reason the exchange of information in civil litigation is called discovery. If you want an example of the kind of powerful facts shareholders can obtain once they’re finally allowed to take depositions from securities class-action defendants – and remember, they only get there after surviving defense motions to dismiss – look no further than the motion for summary judgment that plaintiffs’ lawyers filed Sunday against Bank of America in the securities class action over the Merrill Lynch merger. There’s nothing like a former CEO’s admission that insiders withheld dire predictions from shareholders to boost the class’s case.

Shareholder lawyers always knew they’d have more information than usual in the securities litigation against BofA, which allegedly failed to warn investors about Merrill Lynch’s precarious finances before shareholders approved the Merrill merger in the fall of 2008. When plaintiffs’ lawyers first filed lead counsel motions in the spring of 2009, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the New York Attorney General, the North Carolina AG and even Congress were all already poking at the Merrill merger. They were focused on whether BofA adequately disclosed the billions of dollars it had agreed to set aside for bonuses to Merrill executives, in addition to the bank’s communications with shareholders about Merrill’s mounting losses in the last quarter of 2008.

Just weeks after Denny Chin (then a federal district judge in Manhattan, now on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals) appointed lead counsel – Bernstein Litowitz Berger & GrossmannKaplan Fox & Kilsheimer; and Kessler Topaz Meltzer & Check – the SEC announced a settlement with BofA for disclosure violations. And when U.S. Senior District Judge Jed Rakoff rejected the SEC’s initial settlement and demanded more information about BofA’s disclosure decisions, plaintiffs’ lawyers in the class action pounced. In October 2009, they asked Chin to order the defendants to give them whatever BofA, Merrill and bank officials were turning over to regulators and congressional investigators. In November 2009, Chin granted the motion. Whatever documents the defendants were producing to anyone else, he said, they also had to turn over to shareholders.

Marc Becker’s sad tale: Casualty of BofA attack on Quinn Emanuel

Alison Frankel
Dec 7, 2011 23:48 UTC

Late Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones of Manhattan federal court denied Bank of America’s motion to disqualify Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan from representing AIG in its $10 billion mortgage-backed securities case against BofA, Merrill, and other bank subsidiaries. BofA’s lawyers at Munger, Tolles & Olson had argued that a former Munger partner, Marc Becker, acquired confidential information about Merrill’s MBS litigation strategy before departing to join Quinn Emanuel in 2008, then proceeded to work on AIG’s case against BofA and Merrill. The judge faulted Quinn’s screening process for failing to identify Becker’s potential conflict. But she said Becker had performed only non-substantive editorial work on AIG’s complaint and remand motion, didn’t share any confidences, and took steps to segregate himself from the AIG case as soon as he was reminded of his previous work for Merrill Lynch and its former mortgage unit. “There is no meaningful showing here that the trial process will be tainted,” Jones wrote. “The court finds that it would be unduly prejudicial to disqualify Quinn.”

But what about Marc Becker?

In October, after learning that Munger Tolles had raised the issue of his previous work for Merrill Lynch and First Franklin Financial, Becker resigned from Quinn Emanuel’s London office. In a Nov. 3 declaration, Becker said that he hadn’t remembered working for First Franklin when he spent a total of 5.8 hours reviewing the two AIG documents. “Had I remembered it, I never would have had anything to do with the [BofA] action,” he wrote. “None of what I did during those 5.8 hours on the [BofA] action was in any way focused on, or specific to, First Franklin or Merrill Lynch. I did not use or disclose any confidential information of First Franklin or Merrill Lynch. In fact, I did not at that time, and do not now, recall any confidential information of First Franklin or Merrill Lynch.” Becker asserted that Munger’s account of his work for Merrill — which cast him as a lead partner in Merrill and First Franklin’s MBS defense strategizing — didn’t jibe with his refreshed recollection of a “far more limited” role.

Becker remained at Quinn Emanuel for a month after Munger first alerted the firm of his potential conflict. During that time, according to his declaration, he met with Quinn’s outside counsel, Gregory Joseph, to discuss his work for Merrill, without any Quinn partners present. “Thus, even if I had recalled any confidential information regarding Merrill Lynch or First Franklin, which I did not, Quinn Emanuel would not have been exposed to it,” he wrote. “I understand that defendants have suggested that I was aware of and deliberately ignored the existence of a conflict of interest arising from my work on the First Franklin matter. That is totally untrue.”

$315 ml Merrill deal shines light on damages in MBS litigation

Alison Frankel
Dec 6, 2011 23:13 UTC

A filing late Monday confirmed what I reported last month: Merrill Lynch has agreed to a $315 million settlement of a securities class action stemming from 18 Merrill mortgage-backed note offerings. This agreement is the fourth MBS securities settlement, following this summer’s landmark $125 million Wells Fargo class action deal and a pair of settlements with Citigroup and Deutsche Bank, totaling $165.5 million, that National Credit Union Agency reached in November. The Merrill agreement, negotiated by lead class counsel at Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann, is by far the biggest score so far for MBS investors in a securities suit (as opposed to contract, or put-back, litigation).

There are dozens more MBS securities suits out there, as the Merrill settlement agreement acknowledges: the deal carves out claims by AIG, the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and other MBS investors that have already filed their own securities suits against Merrill Lynch. But one of the big mysteries of the MBS securities litigation has been how to value the cases, since there’s so little precedent in the way of settlements. The NCUA deals helped; the credit-union regulator repackaged and resold mortgage-backed securities belonging to five failed credit unions, so the agency actually knew how much the credit unions lost through their MBS investments. In its talks with Citi and Deutsche Bank (which the agency didn’t formally sue), NCUA was able to claim specific, fact-based damages.

The Merrill settlement documents provide significantly more insight for plaintiffs who don’t have the luxury of U.S. government backing to sell repackaged mortgage-backed securities. The documents don’t disclose the class’s specific damages claim; the case settled before investors filed their damages expert’s report. But the exhibits included along with the settlement brief indicate a methodology for calculating damages that other plaintiffs can use. MBS defendants, including Merrill Lynch, will undoubtedly continue to assert that MBS noteholders shouldn’t recover anything for their securities claims because they’re sophisticated investors who knew the riskiness of mortgage-backed notes. But as hundred-million-dollar settlements pile up, that’s a tougher argument to sell.

2nd Circ. rebuffs SEC in Merrill auction-rate securities ruling

Alison Frankel
Nov 14, 2011 23:37 UTC

One of the most controversial aspects of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2011 ruling in Janus v. First Derivative Traders was that the Justices rejected the Securities and Exchange Commission’s interpretation of federal securities laws. The SEC said Janus Capital wasn’t liable for the allegedly misleading statements in a prospectus issued by a Janus mutual fund, even though the SEC argued that it was — and even though federal courts traditionally pay deference when they ask agencies to offer their expertise in interpreting the law.

The SEC took another blow Monday, when a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of an auction-rate securities class action against Merrill Lynch, despite an SEC brief arguing the case should proceed. The SEC agreed with a Merrill ARS investor who asserted that the boilerplate disclosure Merrill posted after a 2006 SEC consent decree shouldn’t shield it from claims it manipulated the market for ARS. The Second Circuit panel felt otherwise.

To be sure, Judge Robert Katzmann, writing for a panel that also included Judges Robert Sack and Amalya Kearse, said that the Merrill opinion should be read narrowly. “We see no need to fix the ‘exact molecular weight’ of the deference that we owe to the SEC’s position,” Katzmann wrote. “We readily acknowledge that at least some deference to the agency’s position is appropriate, given the SEC’s expertise and accountability. Here, however, we are unable to agree with the SEC’s application of the legal principles governing Merrill’s disclosures.”

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