Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

June 2, 2014

More on GSE Litigation

By David Reiss

Inside Mortgage Finance did a longer story on the GSE litigation that profiled my take on it, Expert: GSE Shareholder Suits at ‘Early Stage’ of a Long Process; Litigation No Barrier to Dissolution, Says Group.

Look for the various lawsuits filed by private owners of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stock against the federal government to take a “very long time to be decided,” as the courts may take up to a year to resolve just the introductory motions, according to a legal expert. Beyond that, the litigation over shares in the two government-sponsored enterprises could stretch out to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Brooklyn Law School Professor David Reiss, speaking during a Bloomberg Industries webinar last week, noted that lawsuits stemming from the savings and loan debacle of 20 years ago give a sense of the possible timeframe, but litigation brought by disenfranchised Fannie and Freddie investors against the government offers an entirely different and deeper set of legal complexities.

“These are factually and legally complex cases and don’t trust anyone who thinks this is a slam dunk for any one of the parties,” said Reiss. He added that neither the government nor shareholders of the two government-sponsored enterprises can cut a deal and settle for anything short of total victory.

“I think we have plaintiffs that are going to go all the way on this because they have a lot at stake and they have a lot of resources to pursue their claims. You have a government that doesn’t have an incentive to settle like a normal private party does. They’re not worried about litigation costs or time, so I foresee this going on for a very, very long time,” said Reiss.

More than a dozen lawsuits filed against the government – led by hedge funds Perry Capital and Fairholme Capital Management – are pending in federal district court in Washington, DC, and in the Court of Federal Claims. The shareholder plaintiffs allege that the Treasury’s 2012 change in the dividend structure of its preferred stock leaves no funds to pay dividends to junior shareholders.

The government in its pending motion to dismiss gives some clear indication as to the tactics it will take to derail the various shareholder suits, Reiss explained. The government’s brief states that not a single plaintiff is entitled to recover anything – either on their individual or derivative claims – in light of the extensive powers that the Housing and Economic Recovery Act vests in the Federal Housing Finance Agency in its capacity as conservator to the GSEs.

“Until we have some motions to dismiss decided, we’re not really going to know how wide a scope these cases will have,” he said. “Only when we having a ruling on a summary judgment motion, will we have a sense of the real issues in contention. I will say that we are at an absolutely early stage.”

With the “entire range of private, administrative and constitutional principles” due to be called into question through the litigation, Reiss said there’s a great deal of uncertainty how the courts will decide the issue, including whether the Supreme Court will hear the inevitable appeal by plaintiffs or the defendant.

Although the pending shareholder litigation and investors’ claims of a government taking “must be taken seriously,” there’s no barrier – either from a legal or safety and soundness standpoint – preventing Fannie and Freddie from being dissolved, the Heritage Foundation argued in an issue brief.

“Protecting property rights, however, does not mean that taxpayers and consumers must continue to be put at risk by these government-sponsored housing giants,” said Heritage. “The ongoing lawsuits need not impede and should not distract Congress from the critical task of dissolving these economically dangerous institutions.”

Each of the GSE charters explicitly grants Congress the power to dissolve the corporations free of any conditions. After dissolution, Heritage notes that creditors would be paid off, with any remaining assets divided among shareholders, taking into account the priorities of different classes of shares.

“Because the United States is a defendant in the lawsuits, the litigation can proceed independently of the GSEs’ dissolution,” said Heritage. “If shareholders prevail on their takings claim, or any other monetary claim, they would still be able to receive full restitution for any legitimate claims.”

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