On February 3, the DOJ announced a settlement agreement with a large credit rating agency and its parent company for $1.375 billion – a record amount according to the DOJ – in connection with the agency’s alleged “scheme to defraud investors in structured financial products known as Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities (RMBS) and Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs).” In 2013, the DOJ, along with 19 states plus the District of Columbia, brought the lawsuit against the agency for misrepresenting the securities’ true credit risks through inflated ratings, which led investors to suffer substantial losses right before the financial crisis. While the agency is neither admitting to nor denying the allegations, it has agreed to (i) “retract an allegation that the United States’ lawsuit was filed in retaliation for the defendant’s decision with regard to the credit of the United States;” (ii) abide by the consumer protection statutes set forth by the settling states and DC; and (iii) answer requests from any of the states and DC regarding information on potential violations of the consumer protection laws.
On February 2, the FDIC announced a settlement for more than $62 million with a New York-based financial institution to resolve “federal and state securities law claims based on misrepresentations in the offering documents for 14 RMBS [residential mortgage-backed securities] purchased by three failed banks.” The FDIC, as the receiver of the three failed banks, filed four lawsuits from February 2012 to January 2014 against the financial institution and other defendants for their alleged involvement in the sale of the RMBS to the three failed banks. These lawsuits are four of the 19 RMBS-related lawsuits that the FDIC has filed, as of December 31, 2015, on behalf of eight failed institutions.
On December 23, the NCUA announced its latest suit against a major bank. Filed in the SDNY, the 122-page complaint alleges that the bank violated state and federal laws by failing to fulfill its duties as trustee to 27 RMBS trusts. The NCUA is suing the bank in its capacity as liquidating agent for five failed federal credit unions who purchased the RMBS. This latest suit comes less than a week when the NCUA filed a similar suit against another large global bank.
On November 10, the NCUA announced the filing of a complaint against a large national bank for its alleged failure to fulfill its duties as a trustee for 121 residential mortgage-backed securities trusts. The NCUA claimed that the bank failed to comply with state and federal laws – Trust Indenture Act of 1939, and the Streit Act – establishing the trustee’s duties to trust beneficiaries. Specifically, NCUA accused the bank of not notifying corporate credit unions of defects in their mortgage loans, which prevented the repurchase, substitution, or cure of defective mortgage loans. NCUA further alleged that the bank’s lack of action contributed to the failure of the credit unions.
On September 24, the SEC issued a final rule adopting significant revisions to regulations governing the disclosure, reporting, registration and the offering process for asset-backed securities (“ABS”). The revised rules aim to increase investor protection in the ABS market by making it easier for investors to review and analyze the credit risk of ABS, and limit reliance on the ratings provided by credit agencies. The rule mandates that issuers provide standardized asset-level disclosures for ABS backed by residential mortgages, commercial mortgages, auto loans, auto leases, and debt securities at the time of the offering and on an ongoing basis. The rule also modifies asset-level disclosures for RMBS and securities backed by auto loans and leases in order to reduce potential privacy risks to obligors. The rule requires ABS issuers using a shelf registration statement to file a preliminary prospectus at least three business days before the first sale of securities in the offering. Further, the regulations revise the eligibility requirements for ABS shelf offerings and require additional changes to the procedures and forms related to shelf offerings. Specifically, the rules adopt four transaction requirements for ABS shelf eligibility (certification by the CEO, asset review provision, dispute resolution provision, and disclosure of investors’ requests to communicate) and remove the prior investment-grade rating requirement in order to reduce undue reliance on credit ratings. The rule will become effective on November 24, 2014.
On August 22, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) announced that it settled litigation with a major investment bank, other related companies, and several individuals over alleged violations of federal and state securities laws in connection with private-label mortgage-backed securities purchased by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac between 2005 and 2007. In 2011, FHFA, as conservator for the two GSEs brought suit in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York seeking relief for damages that allegedly resulted from a failure to adequately disclose risks related to the subject MBS offerings. Under the terms of the settlement, the bank is required to pay $3.15 billion to repurchase securities that were the subject of the claims in FHFA’s lawsuit. The difference between that amount and the securities’ current value is approximately $1.2 billion. According to FHFA, that difference is sufficient to effectively make the two GSEs whole on their investments. With this settlement, FHFA has resolved sixteen of the eighteen RMBS suits it filed in 2011. For details on those settlements, please see FHFA’s update on private-label securities suits. For specifics relating to how the August 22 settlement will impact each of the GSEs, please see the purchase and settlement agreements with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
On August 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reissued its original opinion affirming a district court’s holding that FIRREA’s NCUA extender statute circumvents the three-year repose period found in Section 13 of the Securities Act. Nat’l Credit Union Admin. Board v. Nomura Home Equity Loan Inc., Nos. 12-3295, 12-3298, 2014 WL 4069137 (10th Cir. Aug. 19, 2014). Extender statutes define the time period for government regulators to bring actions on behalf of failed financial organizations. The NCUA sued a number of RMBS issuers for violations of federal securities laws on behalf of two credit unions that the NCUA had placed into conservatorship. The defendant RMBS issuers countered that the suit was untimely under the applicable three-year statute of limitations in the Securities Act. The court originally held in 2013 that the NCUA’s claim was timely pursuant to the relevant extender statute, but its opinion had been vacated and remanded for further consideration in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in a similar case under a federal environmental statute. The court distinguished its case by first determining that the relevant statute was “fundamentally different” from the one in the Supreme Court’s case because the extender statute “plainly establishes a universal time frame for all actions brought by [the] NCUA.” The court rejected the argument that placed a distinction between statutes of limitations and statutes of repose by noting that extender statutes “displace all preexisting limits on the time to bring suit, whatever they are called.” The court then found that the extender statute’s surrounding language, statutory context, and statutory purpose supported its original decision that the NCUA’s suit was timely. Accordingly, the court reinstated its original opinion.
On August 21, the DOJ announced that a large financial institution agreed to resolve federal and state mortgage-related claims through what the DOJ characterized as the largest ever civil settlement with a single entity. The agreement actually resolves numerous federal and state investigations related to various alleged practices conducted by the institution and certain former and current subsidiaries that it acquired during the financial crisis. Such allegations relate to the packaging, marketing, sale, arrangement, structuring, and issuance of RMBS and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), as well as the underwriting and origination of mortgage loans. In total, the institution agreed to pay $9.65 billion in penalties and fines and provide $7 billion in relief to borrowers. Of the more than $9 billion in civil payments, $5 billion resolves several DOJ investigations related to RMBS and CDOs under FIRREA, as well as the allegedly fraudulent origination of loans sold to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or insured by the FHA. The origination investigations centered on alleged violations of the False Claims Act in the selling of, or seeking of government insurance for, loans alleged to be defective. Other penalty payments resolve RMBS-related claims by the SEC, the FDIC, and several states. In total, the state participants will receive nearly $1 billion, with California and New York obtaining the largest amounts at $300 million each. An independent monitor will be appointed to oversee the borrower relief provisions, which will require the institution to: (i) offer principal reduction loan modifications; (ii) make loans to “credit worthy borrowers struggling to obtain a loan”; (iii) make donations to certain communities harmed during the financial crisis; and (iv) provide financing for affordable rental housing. The institution also agreed to provide funding to defray any tax liability that will be incurred by borrowers who receive certain types of relief if Congress fails to extend the tax relief coverage of the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007.
SDNY Judge Approves RMBS Consent Judgment But Questions Second Circuit’s Standard For Reviewing Agency Consent Judgments
On August 5, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York Judge Jed Rakoff approved a consent judgment between the SEC and a financial institution to resolve allegations that the institution violated securities laws in connection with certain mortgage-backed securities. SEC v. Citigroup Global Markets Inc., No. 11-7387, 2014 WL 3827497 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 5, 2014). Earlier this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated and remanded the district court’s earlier decision to reject the proposed settlement, holding that the proper standard for reviewing a proposed enforcement agency consent judgment is whether the proposed consent decree is fair and reasonable, and in the event the agreement includes injunctive relief, whether “the public interest would not be disserved.” On remand, Judge Rakoff approved the consent judgment stating that based on the underlying record, “the Court cannot say that the proposed Consent Judgment is procedurally improper or in any material respect fails to comport with the very modest standard imposed by the Court of Appeals.” Judge Rakoff noted his concern, however, that “as a result of the Court of Appeals decision, the settlements reached by governmental regulatory bodies and enforced by the judiciary’s contempt powers will in practice be subject to no meaningful oversight whatsoever.”
On August 6, the Structured Finance Industry Group released the first edition of a “comprehensive set of proposed industry standards” to promote growth in the private label RMBS market. The SFIG explains that the project “seeks to reduce substantive differences within current market practices through an open discussion among a broad cross-section of market participants,” and, where possible establish best practices related to: (i) representations and warranties, repurchase governance, and other enforcement mechanisms; (ii) due diligence, disclosure, and data issues; and (iii) roles and responsibilities of transaction parties and their communications with investors. The paper is the first in an iterative process, and touches on only a few of the items identified in a sprawling master agenda. With regard to representations and warranties, the paper discusses fraud, regulatory compliance, and objective independent review triggers. For due diligence, data and disclosure, the paper considers underwriting guidelines disclosure and due diligence extract to investors. Finally, the paper addresses the role of transaction parties and bondholder communication.
On July 24, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) sent a letter to Attorney General Holder raising questions about the DOJ’s “inclination to enter into settlement agreements with respect to mortgage securities fraud” claims. The Chairman notes that large RMBS settlements to date have been predicated on violations of FIRREA, which allows the DOJ to initiate lawsuits seeking civil money penalties. The letter suggests the DOJ’s decision not to litigate or secure a criminal plea diverges from the agency’s strategy in other contexts. Chairman Issa asks the DOJ to produce, by August 14, all documents and communications since January 2011 referring or relating to two recent major RMBS settlements, as well as any policies in effect during that time governing the decision to conclude pre-suit negotiations.
On July 14, the DOJ, the FDIC, and state authorities in California, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York, announced a $7 billion settlement of federal and state RMBS civil claims against a large financial institution, which was obtained by the RMBS Working Group, a division of the Obama Administration’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force. Federal and state law enforcement authorities and financial regulators alleged that the institution misled investors in connection with the packaging, marketing, sale, and issuance of certain RMBS. They claimed, among other things, that the institution received information indicating that, for certain loan pools, significant percentages of the loans reviewed as part of the institution’s due diligence did not conform to the representations provided to investors about the pools of loans to be securitized, yet the institution allowed the loans to be securitized and sold without disclosing the alleged failures to investors. The agreement includes a $4 billion civil penalty, described by the DOJ as the largest ever obtained under FIRREA. In addition, the institution will pay a combined $500 million to settle existing and potential claims by the FDIC and the five states. The institution also agreed to provide an additional $2.5 billion in borrower relief through a variety of means, including financing affordable rental housing developments for low-income families in high-cost areas. Finally, the institution was required to acknowledge certain facts related to the alleged activities.
On June 26, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced (i) a new financing partnership between Treasury and HUD designed to support the FHA’s multifamily mortgage risk-sharing program; (ii) an extension of the Making Home Affordable (MHA) program for at least one year; and (iii) a new effort to help jumpstart the private label securities market. Under the Treasury-HUD partnership, the Federal Financing Bank (FFB) will finance FHA-insured mortgages that support the construction and preservation of rental housing. The extended MHA program is aimed at allowing the Administration to continue assisting borrowers facing foreclosure and with underwater homes. Finally, the Treasury Department will publish a Request for Comment and plans to host a series of meetings with investors and securitizers to explore ways to increase private lending.
On June 16, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a Tenth Circuit holding that RMBS claims filed by the NCUA were timely and instructed the circuit court to reconsider that holding in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in an environmental case. National Credit Union Admin. Bd. v. Nomura Home Equity Loan, Inc., No. 13-576, 2014 WL 2675836 (U.S. Jun. 16, 2014). On June 9, the Court delivered its opinion in CTS Corp. v. Waldburger, an environmental case that addressed the difference between statutes of limitations and statutes of repose, which are both used to limit the temporal extent or duration of tort liability. In Waldburger, the Supreme Court held that under the environmental statute at issue, Congress intended to preempt state statutes of limitations but not statutes of repose. In light of that decision, the Court asked the Tenth Circuit to reconsider its holding that the federal extender statute supplants all other limitations frameworks, including both the one-year statute of limitations and the three-year statute of repose, included in the limitations provision of the Securities Act of 1933 and the similar state laws at issue in the case.
On June 4, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit vacated and remanded a district court’s decision to reject a proposed settlement between the SEC and a financial institution in a securities fraud suit. SEC v. Citigroup Global Markets Inc., No. 11-5227, 2014 WL 2486793 (2d Cir, Jun. 6, 2014). In November 2011, the SEC and the financial institution entered into a consent judgment to resolve allegations that the institution violated securities laws in connection with certain mortgage-backed securities. Consistent with the SEC consent judgment convention at the time, the institution did not admit or deny any of the allegations as part of the agreement. Judge Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York rejected the agreement and held that because the parties agreed to settle without the institution having to admit or deny any of the underlying factual allegations, the settlement would deprive the public “of ever knowing the truth in a matter of obvious public importance,” and the court lacked evidence sufficient to determine whether the agreement was in the public interest. On appeal, the Second Circuit held that the proper standard for reviewing a proposed enforcement agency consent judgment is whether the proposed consent decree is fair and reasonable, and in the event the agreement includes injunctive relief, whether “the public interest would not be disserved.” The court held that in evaluating whether an SEC consent decree is “fair and reasonable” one must review (i) the basic legality of the decree; (ii) whether the terms are clear; (iii) whether the decree resolves the actual claims in the complaint; and (iv) whether the decree is “tainted by improper collusion or corruption.” The court also ruled that the district court abused its discretion by requiring that the agreement establish the “truth” of the allegations, explaining that trials are meant to determine truth, while consent decrees are about “pragmatism.” Finally, the court held that the district court abused its discretion to the extent that it withheld approval of the settlement because it believes the SEC failed to bring the proper charges, which is the exclusive right of the SEC to decide.