Opinion

Alison Frankel

MBS investors bring in Paul Clement to appeal N.Y. timeliness opinion

Alison Frankel
Jan 23, 2014 20:34 UTC

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.

The appellate opinion in Ace Securities v. DB Structured Products, as you probably recall, shut the door on N.Y. state-court mortgage-repurchase suits filed more than six years after the MBS sponsor closed on its agreement to acquire the underlying loans for securitization. That ruling, as Clement and HSBC co-counsel Kasowitz Benson Torres & Friedman explained in the reconsideration brief filed Tuesday, has the potential to wipe out hundreds of cases already brought by MBS trustees and certificate holders, implicating “hundreds of billions of dollars in losses,” according to the brief. Clement and Kasowitz argue that the Appellate Division’s skimpy three-page opinion on the timeliness of put-back suits “fails to grapple with…conflicting precedents in a meaningful way,” so HSBC should either have a chance to reargue before the intermediate appeals court or to take its case to New York’s Court of Appeals. (Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan‘s name isn’t on the new filing, but I’ve been told the firm is involved in the appeal on behalf of the certificate holder that originally directed HSBC to sue over supposedly deficient underlying loans in the Deutsche Bank MBS offering.)

The brief also points out that courts around the country have reached conflicting conclusions about when, under New York law, the six-year statute of limitations begins to run on MBS mortgage repurchase claims. Even federal judges in Manhattan, ruling in the wake of the Appellate Division’s opinion last month, have split on the question (as I’ve reported). That muddle must be resolved, according to the new brief. “Analogous lawsuits ostensibly governed by the same New York laws now will be permitted to proceed in some courts but not others,” it says. “What is more, DB and other RMBS sponsors will be able to evade all liability for their actions under this court’s decision, even though other RMBS investors have already collected massive settlements in cases that include failure-to-repurchase claims nearly identical to those raised here. That untenable situation readily warrants the reconsideration of this court or, in the alternative, the immediate attention of the Court of Appeals.”

By my read, the brief makes a good case that the state’s highest court should take up HSBC’s appeal, but it doesn’t add much to arguments that MBS trustees have already made for why the clock shouldn’t begin to tick on their claims until the mortgage originator has refused a repurchase demand. The brief cites New York precedent we’ve already seen in the timeliness debate, such as Bulova Watch v. Celotex, Hahn Automotive v. American Warehouse and John J. Kassner v. City of New York.

Clement and Kasowitz do put a twist on trustees’ previous citations of Kassner. In that 1979 case, the Court of Appeals found that when a final payment is subject to contractual conditions, the obligation to pay – and a claim for failure to meet that obligation – accrues only after the conditions have been met. In the Ace opinion, the Appellate Division said that trustees cannot bring put-back suits under MBS contracts until mortgage originators have had 60 or 90 days to review their repurchase demands. Kassner precedent would seem to compel the Appellate Division to start the clock on MBS contract claims only when that condition is met, the brief argues. The court’s contrary holding that the statute of limitations begins before anyone discovers deficiencies in the underlying mortgage loans is irreconcilable with Kassner, according to the brief.

Hot new filing claims internal docs show rating agencies lied on MBS

Alison Frankel
Jul 3, 2012 04:40 UTC

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.

The near-spotless litigation record of the rating agencies means we’ve seen very little internal evidence, in the form of emails between rating execs, emails between the agencies and underwriters and deposition testimony from credit rating agency insiders. The only hard evidence on the agency’s role in the economy’s collapse came from a Senate report.

Until Monday.

In a series of filings in federal court in Manhattan, Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank and its lawyers at Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd disclosed thousands of pages of internal communications and deposition transcripts to back their claims that S&P and Moody’s are liable for fraud and negligent misrepresentation in connection with their rating of a structured investment vehicle underwritten by Morgan Stanley. Based on a declaration by plaintiffs that accompanied the documents, a huge percentage of the newly disclosed material has never previously been seen by the public – and a good many of the documents deal not just with the Morgan Stanley SIV but more broadly with the rating process inside S&P and Moody’s at a time when the two leading agencies were swamped with mortgage-backed securities to rate.

NY appeals court gives big boost to BofA in MBS put-back suits

Alison Frankel
Jun 29, 2012 23:04 UTC

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal called Bank of America’s 2008 acquisition of the tottering mortgage giant Countrywide a $40 billion mistake. Sure, the bank only paid a total of $4.5 billion to pick up Countrywide, paying $2 billion for a minority stake in 2007 and an additional $2.5 billion for the rest of the company in 2008. BofA had its eye on Countrywide’s then-profitable mortgage servicing business, but since the acquisition Countrywide and its deficient mortgages have been pretty much nothing but trouble for Bank of America, which has seen its share price drop 68 percent and is still digesting what the Journal estimated to be at least $40 billion in “total real estate losses, settlements with government agencies and amounts pledged to investors who purchased poor-performing Countrywide mortgage-backed securities.” The Journal‘s Dan Fitzpatrick quoted a North Carolina banking professor who called BofA’s Countrywide acquisition “the worst deal in the history of American finance.”

Ouch. But thanks to a New York appeals court, BofA may have just put a fence around one big swath of Countrywide liability. On Thursday the Appellate Division, First Department, upheld Manhattan State Supreme Court Justice Barbara’s Kapnick‘s ruling that the mortgage-backed securities investor Walnut Place may not proceed with a breach of contract case against Countrywide. That ruling will severely limit the options for Walnut and the other investors who have objected to Bank of America’s proposed $8.5 billion global settlement with Countrywide MBS noteholders. It also puts the focus in the litigation over the global settlement on Bank of New York Mellon and its conduct as Countrywide’s MBS trustee, which Kapnick is also overseeing. My prediction: Unless Kapnick finds that BNY Mellon didn’t fulfill its duties as trustee in reaching that settlement, Countrywide MBS investors can’t sue outside of the deal.

And here’s why. MBS pooling and servicing contracts, you’ll recall, make it exceedingly difficult for noteholders to bring claims that underlying loans breached representations and warranties by mortgage issuers like Countrywide. Under standard PSA terms, investors can’t take any action unless they’ve amassed support from noteholders with 25 percent of the voting rights in a particular MBS trust. If they manage to get over that procedural hurdle, they must then demand an investigation of reps and warranties breaches from the MBS trustee and then wait months for the trustee to respond. Only if the MBS trustee fails to take action on their behalf can investors bring their own breach of contract or put-back suit.

$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.

Pauley’s BofA MBS ruling is boon to New York, Delaware AGs

Alison Frankel
Oct 25, 2011 21:31 UTC

In 1998, 400 investors in a trust that distributed revenue from a communications satellite got word that their securitization trustee had settled a $41 million suit against the satellite’s fuel supplier. The trustee, IBJ Schroeder, filed a New York State Article 77 proceeding to obtain a judge’s endorsement of the $8.5 million settlement. Some of the investors protested the deal, arguing that the trustee didn’t have the power to settle the case without consulting them. In 2000, a New York appeals court ruled that, in fact, IBJ Schroeder did have that power, under both New York law and the contract governing the satellite revenue trust. The lower court ultimately ruled in the Article 77 case that even if investors considered the settlement amount too low, Schroeder hadn’t acted unreasonably or imprudently in striking the deal.

If you’re wondering why I’m telling you about an 11-year old ruling involving a defunct communications satellite, it’s because the IBJ Schroeder opinion is sure to be invoked by Bank of New York Mellon, the trustee of those Countrywide mortgage-backed securities, as well as the 22 Countrywide MBS investors represented by Gibbs & Bruns as they appeal last week’s decision by U.S. District Judge William Pauley III of Manhattan federal court. In holding that the federal courts have jurisdiction over Bank of America’s proposed $8.5 billion settlement, Pauley took issue with BNY Mellon’s use of an Article 77 proceeding to get the deal approved. The judge wrote that Article 77 is usually employed to resolve garden-variety trust administration issues; BNY Mellon and Gibbs & Bruns will use the IBJ Schroeder ruling to argue at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that, contrary to Pauley’s assertion, there’s precedent for using Article 77 exactly as they did in the BofA MBS case.

But even as the Second Circuit decides whether to take up the issue of the rights and responsibilities of securitization trustees, state attorneys general are likely to pounce upon some of the language in Pauley’s 21-page ruling. I warned that there might be unintended consequences for indentured trustees when the judge asked for briefing on the BNY Mellon’s duties. After Pauley’s ruling, that warning is now a red alert. New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman and his faithful follower, Joseph Biden III of Delaware, have both announced that they’re investigating MBS securitization trustees. Schneiderman showed he’s serious by filing state-law fraud claims against BNY Mellon along with his petition to intervene in the BofA Article 77 proceeding. In his complaint against BNY, Schneiderman argued that once an investment goes south, as many of the MBS trusts have, the indentured trustee has a fiduciary duty to trust beneficiaries under New York common law.

  •