Special Alert: Second Circuit Reverses SDNY Judgment; Rules Fraud Claim Based on Contractual Promise Cannot Support FIRREA Violation Without Proof of Fraudulent Intent at the Time of Contract Execution
On May 23, in an opinion delivered by Circuit Judge Richard Wesley, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court for the Southern District of New York’s (SDNY) July 30, 2014 judgment ordering a bank and its lender subsidiary to pay penalties in excess of $1.2 billion for alleged violations of section 951 of the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 (FIRREA), 12 U.S.C. § 1833a. U.S. v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., Nos. 15-469, 15-499 (2d Cir. May 23, 2016). In relevant part, FIRREA imposes civil penalties for violations of the federal mail and wire fraud statutes that affect a federally insured financial institution. The Government had alleged in the case that the lender subsidiary had defrauded Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (collectively, the GSEs), by originating mortgage loans through its High Speed Swim Lane (HSSL) loan origination process that it allegedly knew to be of poor quality, and subsequently selling those loans to the GSEs despite representations in the contracts between the GSEs and lender subsidiary that the loans were of investment quality. At trial, the Government presented evidence that high-level employees of the lender subsidiary “knew of the pre-existing contractual representations, knew that the loans originated through HSSL were not consistent with those representations, and nonetheless sold HSSL Loans to the GSEs pursuant to those contracts.” The defendants argued on appeal that, under common-law principles of fraud the Government’s trial evidence proved, at most, a series of intentional breaches of contract which did not suffice as a matter of law to establish fraud.
The Second Circuit agreed with defendants and reversed the judgment of the district court. The court held that:
a contractual promise can only support a claim for fraud upon proof of fraudulent intent not to perform the promise at the time of contract execution. Absent such proof, a subsequent breach of that promise—even where willful and intentional—cannot in itself transform the promise into a fraud.
Thus, the Second Circuit concluded that under common law principles, which were incorporated into the mail and wire fraud statutes, “the proper time for identifying fraudulent intent is contemporaneous with the making of the promise, not when a victim relies on the promise or is injured by it.” The Second Circuit further held that “where allegedly fraudulent misrepresentations are promises made in a contract, a party claiming fraud must prove fraudulent intent at the time of contract execution; evidence of a subsequent, willful breach cannot sustain the claim.”
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