Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

April 10, 2014

Reiss on Dimming of FIRREA

By David Reiss

Inside MBS & ABS quoted me in Judge Recommends Dismissal of DOJ’s Fraud Case Against BofA, But It May Not End FIRREA Claims (behind paywall). It reads,

A North Carolina federal magistrate has recommended that a Justice Department fraud case against Bank of America be dismissed, but he also said a separate Securities and Exchange Commission lawsuit against the bank based on a different federal law should proceed.

The DOJ last August filed suit against BofA under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act, accusing the bank of defrauding investors in the sale of $855 million of nonagency MBS. Last week, U.S. Magistrate David Cayer of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina found that the government failed to prove the bank made “material” false statements to the former Federal Housing Finance Board.

The DOJ claimed that BofA “willfully” misled investors, including the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco and Wachovia Corp. – now owned by Wells Fargo – about the risks in the 2008 offering by failing to fully disclose the risk of 1,191 jumbo adjustable-rate mortgages backing the deal.

FIRREA allows the government to seek civil penalties equal to losses suffered by federally insured financial institutions, with a maximum of $1.1 million per violation. The 1989 law was a little used relic of the savings and loan aftermath until government lawyers began recently to invoke it widely in addition to other charges.

The law gives agency lawyers the ability to tap grand jury material and to subpoena documents. FIRREA also has a 10-year statute of limitations, longer than the typical five years for fraud cases, allowing government lawyers more time to pursue cases related to the 2007-2008 financial crisis.

The magistrate rejected the government’s claim that BofA’s statements were in violation of FIRREA because the FHLBank of San Francisco was within the jurisdiction of the FHFB. Cayer found that policing such statements did not fall within the agency’s purview and there was no indication that either the FHFB or the FHLBank ever complained about the MBS.

The magistrate recommended the DOJ’s case be dismissed without prejudice, although District Judge Max Cogburn will have the final word. Cayer allowed a parallel complaint filed by the SEC to move forward.

David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, noted that U.S. district judges often give deference to reports from magistrate judges. But even if Cogburn opts to dismiss the DOJ’s case, it’s less an indictment against the use of FIRREA and more an indication that the government filed its case incorrectly, he said.

“Is it a harbinger that all other judges are going to change their minds about the broad reading of FIRREA? I don’t see that at all,” Reiss told Inside MBS & ABS. “I see judges in New York and in other jurisdictions continuing to allow the government to broadly interpret FIRREA based on its plain language. They are reading the text of the statute and saying the government can act.”

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