Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

September 13, 2013

Round One to California in Suit Against S&P

By David Reiss

California Superior Court Judge Karnow issued a Memorandum Order Overruling Defendants’ Demurrers in California v. The McGraw-Hill Cos. et al., CGC-13-528491 (Aug. 14, 2013 San Francisco County).   California Attorney General Harris alleged “that S&P intentionally inflated its ratings for the investments and that these knowingly false ratings were material to the investment decisions of [California Public Employees’ Retirement System (PERS) and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (STRS)], in violation of the False Claims Act and other statutes.” (2)

S&P demurred to the False Claims Act causes of action [asked for the causes of action to be dismissed], because, among other reasons,

(l) the complaint does not plead that any ‘claims’ were ever “presented” to the state;

(2) if claims were presented, they did not involve ‘state funds’ . . .. (4)

S&P asserts, among other things, that because it “was not the seller, it did not “present” any claims for payment.” (4) The Court stated, however, that the False Claims Act “imposes liability on any person who ’causes’ a false or fraudulent claim to be presented or ’causes to be made or used a false . . . statement material to a false or fraudulent claim.’ C. 12651(a)(1)-(a}(2).” (4, citation omitted) The Court inferred “from the complaint that S&P ’caused’ PERS and STRS to purchase the securities. This is good enough for present purposes.” (4, citation omitted)

I am a longstanding critic of the rating agencies, but I have to say that I am struck by how broadly courts have interpreted statutes relied upon by the federal government and the states as they pursue alleged wrongdoing by financial institutions involved in financial crisis. In the courts’ defense, they typically rely on the plain language of the statutes, but, boy, do they interpret them broadly.

In this case, giving a rating can “cause” someone to purchase a security — is there any limit on what is a sufficient “cause” to trigger the statute? In DoJ’s case against Bank of America, a financial institution may be liable under FIRREA for a fraud it perpetrates even if the only entity affected by the fraud is — Bank of America! Similar broad interpretations of NY’s Martin Act make it relatively easy for NY government to bring a securities fraud case against a financial institution because our normal intuitions about intent are not relevant under that act.

Pursuing alleged wrongdoers: good.

Pursuing alleged wrongdoers with broad, ambiguous and powerful tools:  worrisome.

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