Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

October 3, 2013

Rating Agency 1st Amendment Defense Weakened, Again

By David Reiss

Federal District Judge O’Toole (D. Mass.) issued an Opinion and Order in Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston v. Ally Financial Inc. et al., No. 11-10952 (Sept. 30, 2013)  relating to the potential liability of S&P and Moody’s (the Rating Agency Defendants) for their ratings. The case “arises from the purchase of private label mortgage-backed securities” (PLMBS) by the plaintiff, FHLB Boston. (1)  FHLB Boston alleges that the rating agency defendants knew that their ratings “were inaccurate and based on flawed models, and that their conduct gives rise to” a claim for fraud as well as other causes of action. (1) The Rating Agency Defendants sought to have the claims dismissed for failure to state a claim. The Court rejected this as to the fraud claim:

The Rating Agency Defendants’ argument that their ratings are non-actionable opinions is unconvincing. As discussed in Abu Dhabi I, “[a]n opinion may still be actionable if the speaker does not genuinely and reasonably believe it or if it is without basis in fact.” 651 F. Supp. 2d at 176 (internal citations omitted). Here the Bank has pled with sufficient particularity that the Rating Agency Defendants issued ratings that they did not genuinely or reasonably believe. For example, the Amended Complaint alleges that the Rating Agency Defendants diluted their own standards and carried out their ratings procedures in an intentionally lax manner as to PLMBS while maintaining higher standards in other contexts. The Bank has also sufficiently pled scienter, alleging that the Rating Agency Defendants competed for business by artificially inflating ratings, as they were only paid if they provided high ratings. (4)

Rating agencies were able to avoid liability for decades, claiming that their ratings were like min-editorials that were protected by the First Amendment. A number of recent cases reject that defense in a variety of contexts (See here, here and here for instance). It is unclear what will happen when these cases are appealed, but for now it appears that a number of courts have identified situations where an opinion can be more than an opinion — it can amount to actionable fraud.

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