Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

November 25, 2013

Doing Justice with the $13B JPMorgan Settlement

By David Reiss

I have posted a couple of items on this massive settlement (here and here).  This should be my last one. Perhaps I am ungrateful, but the Statement of Facts agreed upon by the Department of Justice and JPMorgan Chase left me with an empty feeling. Recovering $13 billion for homeowners, investors and the government is certainly a key aspect of the justice done in this case. But the law can and should have an expressive function — it should make a statement about the difference between right and wrong behavior. Unfortunately, the Statement of Facts almost completely fails as an expressive document.

It only makes it clear at one point that JPMorgan, Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual did something very wrong:

employees of JPMorgan, Bear Stearns, and WaMu received information that, in certain instances, loans that did not comply with underwriting guidelines were included in the RMBS sold and marketed to investors; however, JPMorgan, Bear Stearns, and WaMu did not disclose this to securitization investors. (1)

The Statement of Facts provided a couple of facts that made clear what JPMorgan did wrong (see page 2), but I could not even parse the sections of Bear Stearns and WaMu to tell you what they did wrong. This is about as strong as it gets:

in 2008, internal WaMu reviews indicated specific instances of weaknesses in WaMu’s loan origination and underwriting practices, including, at times, non-compliance with underwriting standards; the reviews also revealed instances of borrower fraud and misrepresentations by others involved in the loan origination process with respect to the information provided for loan qualification purposes. (10)

You can’t tell from such language whether WaMu was acting intentionally, recklessly or negligently.  You can’t really tell whether this behavior was endemic, frequent, occasional or rare. You can’t tell whether it was the fault of some low-level employees or of upper management. Just about the only thing you can tell from the WaMu section (and the Bear Stearns section, for that matter) is that it was not JPMorgan’s fault:

The actions and omissions described above with respect to WaMu occurred prior to OTS’s closure of WaMu and JPMorgan’s acquisition of the identified WaMu assets and liabilities. (11)

No doubt, JPMorgan tried to control the PR and legal liability to third parties that this Statement of Facts could engender. But Justice could have held the line on the expressive aspect of the settlement just as it did with the monetary aspect. In the long run, that could turn out to be just as important.

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