Hope for GSE Shareholders

Judge Lamberth issued an opinion in Fairholme Funds, Inc. v. FHFA (Civ. No.13-1439) (Sept. 28, 2018) that gives some hope to the private shareholders of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These shareholders have been on the losing end of nearly every case brought against the government relating to its handling of the conservatorships of the two companies.  Readers of this blog know that I have long been a skeptic of the shareholders’ claims because of the broad powers granted the government by the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, passed during the height of the financial crisis, as well as the highly regulated environment in which the two companies operate. This highly regulated environment means that GSE profits are driven by regulatory decisions much more than those of other financial institutions. As such, Fannie and Freddie live and die by the sword of government intervention in the mortgage market.

Judge Lamberth had dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims in their entirety, but was reversed in part on appeal. In this case, he revisits the issues arising from the reversal of his earlier dismissal. Once again, Judge Lamberth dismisses a number of the plaintiffs’ claims, but he finds that that their claim that the government breached the duty of good faith survives.

The opinion gives a road map that shareholders can follow to success. The judge identifies allegations that, if true, would be a sufficient factual basis for a holding that the government breached the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. It is plausible that the preponderance of proof may support these allegations. Some evidence has already come to light that indicates that at least some government actors had good reason to believe that Fannie and Freddie were on the cusp of sustained profitability when the government implemented the net worth sweep. The net worth sweep had redirected the net profits of the two companies to the U.S. Treasury.

Judge Lamberth highlights some of aspects of the plaintiffs’ argument that he found compelling at the motion to dismiss phase of this litigation. First, he notes that absence of “any increased funding commitment” is atypical when senior shareholders receive “enhanced disbursement rights,” as was the case when the government implemented the net worth sweep. (21) He also states that the plaintiffs would not have expected that the GSEs would have extinguished “the possibility of dividends arbitrarily or unreasonably.” (22)

While this opinion is good news for the plaintiffs, it is still unclear what their endgame would be if they were to get a final judgment that the net worth sweep was invalid. Depending on the outcome of regulatory and legislative debates about the future of the two companies, the win may be a pyrrhic one. Time will tell. In the interim, expect more discovery battles, motions for summary judgment and even a trial in this case. So, while this opinion gives shareholders some hope of ultimate success, and perhaps some leverage in political and regulatory debates, I do not see it as a game changer in itself.

In terms of the bigger picture, there are a lot of changes on the horizon regarding the future of the housing finance system. The midterm elections; Hensarling and Corker’s departure from Congress; and the Trump Administration’s priorities are all bigger drivers of the housing finance reform train, at least for now.

GSE Shareholders Floored, Again

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit issued an opinion in Saxton v. FHFA (No. 17-1727, Aug. 23, 2018). The Eighth Circuit joins the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and D.C. Circuits in rejecting the arguments of Fannie and Freddie shareholders that the Federal Housing Finance Agency exceeded its authority as conservator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and acted arbitrarily and capriciously. The Court provides the following overview:

     The financial crisis of 2008 prompted Congress to take several actions to fend off economic disaster. One of those measures propped up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Fannie and Freddie, which were founded by Congress back in 1938 and 1970, buy home mortgages from lenders, thereby freeing lenders to make more loans. See generally 12 U.S.C. § 4501. Although established by Congress, Fannie and Freddie operate like private companies: they have shareholders, boards of directors, and executives appointed by those boards. But Fannie and Freddie also have something most private businesses do not: the backing of the United States Treasury. 

     In 2008, with the mortgage meltdown at full tilt, Congress enacted the Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA or the Act). HERA created the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), and gave it the power to appoint itself either conservator or receiver of Fannie or Freddie should either company become critically undercapitalized. 12 U.S.C. § 4617(a)(2), (4). The Act includes a provision limiting judicial review: “Except as  provided in this section or at the request of the Director, no court may take any action to restrain or affect the exercise of powers or functions of the [FHFA] as a conservator or a receiver.” Id. § 4617(f). 

     Shortly after the Act’s passage, FHFA determined that both Fannie and Freddie were critically undercapitalized and appointed itself conservator. FHFA then entered an agreement with the U.S. Department of the Treasury whereby Treasury would acquire specially-created preferred stock and, in exchange, would make hundreds of billions of dollars in capital available to Fannie and Freddie. The idea was that Fannie and Freddie would exit conservatorship when they reimbursed the Treasury.

     But Fannie and Freddie remain under FHFA’s conservatorship today. Since the conservatorship began, FHFA and Treasury have amended their agreement several times. In the most recent amendment, FHFA agreed that, each quarter, Fannie and Freddie would pay to Treasury their entire net worth, minus a small buffer. This so-called “net worth sweep” is the basis of this litigation. 

     Three owners of Fannie and Freddie common stock sued FHFA and Treasury, claiming they had exceeded their powers under HERA and acted arbitrarily and capriciously by agreeing to the net worth sweep. The shareholders sought only an injunction setting aside the net worth sweep; they dismissed a claim seeking money damages. Relying on the D.C. Circuit’s opinion in Perry Capital LLC v. Mnuchin, 864 F.3d 591 (D.C. Cir. 2017), the district court dismissed the suit.

What amazes me as a longtime watcher of the GSE litigation is how supposedly dispassionate investors lose their heads when it comes to the GSE lawsuits. They cannot seem to fathom that judges will come to a different conclusion regarding HERA’s limitation on judicial review.

While I do not rule out that the Supreme Court could find otherwise, particularly if Judge Kavanaugh is confirmed, it seems like this unbroken string of losses should provide some sort of wake up call for GSE shareholders. But somehow, I doubt that it will.

Holding Servicers Accountable

image by Rizkyharis

I submitted my comment to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau regarding the 2013 RESPA Servicing Rule Assessment. It reads, substantively, as follows:

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a Request for Information Regarding 2013 Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act Servicing Rule Assessment. The Bureau

is conducting an assessment of the Mortgage Servicing Rules Under the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (Regulation X), as amended prior to January 10, 2014, in accordance with section 1022(d) of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. The Bureau is requesting public comment on its plans for assessing this rule as well as certain recommendations and information that may be useful in conducting the planned assessment. (82 F.R. 21952)

Before the RESPA Servicing Rule was adopted in 2013, homeowners had had to deal with unresponsive servicers who acted in ways that can only be described as arbitrary and capricious or worse.  Numerous judges have used terms such as “Kafka-esque” to describe homeowner’s dealings with servicers.  See, e.g., Sundquist v. Bank of Am., N.A., 566 B.R. 563 (Bankr. E.D. Cal. Mar. 23, 2017).  Others have found that servicers failed to act in “good faith,” even when courts were closely monitoring their actions.  See, e,g., United States Bank v. Sawyer, 95 A.3d 608  (Me. 2014). And yet others have found that servicers made multiple misrepresentations to homeowners.  See, e.g., Federal Natl. Mtge. Assn. v. Singer, 48 Misc. 3d 1211(A), 20 N.Y.S.3d 291 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. July 15, 2015).  The good news is that in those three cases, judges punished the servicers and lenders for their patterns of abuse of the homeowners. Indeed, the Sundquist judge fined Bank of America a whopping $45 million to send it a message about its horrible treatment of borrowers.

But a fairy tale ending for a handful of borrowers who are lucky enough to have a good lawyer with the resources to fully litigate one of these crazy cases is not a solution for the thousands upon thousands of borrowers who had to give up because they did not have the resources, patience, or mental fortitude to take on big lenders and servicers who were happy to drag these matters on for years and years through court proceeding after court proceeding.

The RESPA Servicing Rule goes a long way to help all of those other homeowners who find themselves caught up in trials imposed by their servicers that it would take a Franz Kafka to adequately describe.  The Rule has addressed intentional and unintentional abuses in the use of force-placed insurance and other servicer actions.

The RESPA Servicing Rule Assessment should evaluate whether the Rule is sufficiently evaluating servicers’ compliance with the Rule and implementing remediation plans for those which fail to comply with the vast majority of loans in their portfolios.  Servicers should not be evaluated just on substantive outcomes but also on their processes.  Are avoidable foreclosures avoided?  Are homeowners treated with basic good faith when it comes to interactions with servicers relating to defaults, loss mitigation and transfers of servicing rights?  The Assessment should evaluate whether the Rule adequately measures such things.  One measure the Bureau could look at would be court cases involving servicers and homeowners.  While perhaps difficult to do, the Bureau should attempt to measure the Rule’s impact on court filings alleging servicer abuses.

The occasional win in court won’t save the vast majority of homeowners from abusive lending practices.  The RESPA Servicing Rule, properly applied and evaluated, could.

 

Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnthony22 at English Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued a ruling in Westchester v. HUD, No. 15-2294 (Sept. 25, 2015) the longstanding case regarding whether Westchester County has “adequately analyzed — in its applications for HUD funds — impediments to fair housing within the County’s jurisdictions.” (3) The Second Circuit affirmed the District Court’s judgment in favor of HUD, which means that HUD’s withholding of funds under the Community Planning and Development (CPD) Formula Grant Programs stands.

HUD withheld those funds because it found that the County had failed to “assess the impediments to fair housing choice caused by local zoning ordinances or to identify actions the County would take to overcome these impediments.” (6) HUD further found, as a result that the County would not “affirmatively further fair housing” as required by the Fair Housing Act. (6)

The case resolved a narrow, legalistic question:

May HUD require a jurisdiction that applies for CPD funding to analyze whether local zoning laws will impede the jurisdiction’s mandate to “affirmatively further fair housing”? Because HUD may impose such a requirement on jurisdictions that apply for CPD funds, and because the decision to withhold Westchester County’s CPD funds in this case was not arbitrary or capricious, we conclude that HUD’s action complied with federal law. (50)

While the case was decided on narrow grounds, the Court does notes that

The broader dispute between the County and HUD implicates many “big‐picture” questions. Beyond prohibiting direct discrimination based on race or other protected categories, what must a jurisdiction do to “affirmatively further fair housing”? What is the difference, if any, between furthering “fair” housing and furthering “affordable” housing? How much control may HUD exert over local policies, which, in its view, impede the creation of “fair” or “affordable” housing? And if conflicts of this sort between HUD and local governments are to be avoided, is the simplest solution to avoid applying for federal funds in the first place? (32)

These are all very good questions and it is unfortunate that this case does not help to answer any of them. The level of segregation in the United States by race has been a tragedy for many, many decades and we are no closer to figuring out how to deal with it after all these years.

Reiss in Bloomberg Industries Q&A on Frannie Litigation

Bloomberg Industries Litigation Analyst Emily Hamburger interviewed me about The Government as Defendant: Breaking Down Fannie-Freddie Lawsuits (link to audio of the call). The blurb for the interview is as follows:

As investors engage in jurisdictional discovery and the government pleads for dismissals in several federal cases over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stock, Professor David Reiss of Brooklyn Law School will provide his insights on the dynamics of the lawsuits and possible outcomes for Wall Street, the U.S. government and GSEs. Reiss is the author of a recent article, An Overview of the Fannie and Freddie Conservatorship Litigation.

Emily questioned me for the first half of the one hour call and some of the 200+ participants asked questions in the second half.

Emily’s questions included the following (paraphrased below)

  • You’re tracking several cases that deal with the government’s role in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and I’d like to go through about 3 of the major assertions made by investors – investors that own junior preferred and common stock in the GSEs – against the government and hear your thoughts:
    • The first is the accusation that the Treasury and FHFA’s Conduct in the execution of the Third Amendment was arbitrary and capricious. What do you think of this?
    •  Another claim made by the plaintiffs is that the government’s actions constitute a taking of property without just compensation, which would be seen as a violation of the 5th Amendment – do you think this is a stronger or weaker claim?
    • And finally – what about plaintiffs asserting breach of contract against the government? Plaintiffs have said that the Net Worth Sweep in the Third Amendment to the Preferred Stock Purchase Agreement nullified Fannie and Freddie’s ability to pay dividends, and that the two companies can’t unilaterally change terms of preferred stock, and that the FHFA is guilty of causing this breach.
  • Is the government correct when they say that the section 4617 of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act barred plaintiff’s right to sue over the conservator’s decisions?
  • Former Solicitor General Theodore Olson, an attorney for Perry Capital, has said that the government’s powers with respect to the interventions in Fannie and Freddie “expired” – is he correct?
  • Can you explain what exactly jurisdictional discovery is and why it’s important?
  • Do we know anything about what might happen if one judge rules for the plaintiffs and another judge rules for the government?
  • Is there an estimate that you can provide as to timing?
  • Are there any precedents that you know of from prior crises? Prior interventions by the government that private plaintiffs brought suit against?
  • How do you foresee Congress and policymakers changing outcomes?
  • What do we need to be looking out for now in the litigation?
  • How does this end?

You have to listen to the audiotape to hear my answers, but my bottom line is this — these are factually and legally complex cases and don’t trust anyone who thinks that this is a slam dunk for any of the parties.