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.

FHFA Wins on “Actual Knowledge”

Judge Cote issued an Opinion and Order in Federal Housing Finance Agency v. HSBC North America Holdings Inc., et al. (11-cv-06189 July 25, 2014). The opinion and order granted the FHFA’s motion for partial summary judgment concerning whether Fannie and Freddie knew of the falsity of various representations contained in offering documents for residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) issued by the remaining defendants in the case.

I found there to be three notable aspects of this lengthy opinion. First, it provides a detailed exposition of the process by which Fannie and Freddie purchased mortgages from the defendants (who included most of the major Wall Street firms, although many of them have settled out of the case by now). it goes into great length about how loans were underwritten and how originators and aggregators reviewed them as they were evaluated  as potential collateral for RMBS issuances.

Second, it goes into great detail about the discovery battle in a high, high-stakes dispute with very well funded parties. While not of primary interest to readers of this blog, it is amazing to see just how much of a slog discovery can be in a complex matter like this.

Finally, it demonstrates the importance of litigating with common sense in mind. Judge Cote was clearly put off by the inconsistent arguments of the defendants. She writes, with clear frustration,

It bears emphasis that at this late stage — long after the close of fact discovery and as the parties prepare their Pretrial Orders for three of these four cases — Defendants continue to argue both that their representations were true and that underwriting defects, inflated appraisals and borrower fraud were so endemic as to render their representations obviously false to the GSEs. Using the example just given, Goldman Sachs argues both that Fannie Mae knew that the percentage of loans with an LTV ratio below 80% was not 67%, but also that the true figure was, in fact, 67%. (65)

GSE Shareholders Taking Discovery

Judge Sweeney of the Court of Federal Claims issued an Opinion and Order regarding jurisdictional discovery as well as a related Protective Order in the GSE Takings Case brought by Fairholme against the United States.  I had previously discussed the possibility of a protective order here.

By way of background, and as explained in the Opinion and Order,

Defendant [the U.S.] has filed a motion to dismiss, contending that the court lacks jurisdiction to hear this case, that plaintiffs’ claims are not ripe, and that plaintiffs [Fairholme et al.] have failed to state a claim for a regulatory taking. Plaintiffs respond that defendant’s motion relies upon factual assertions that go well beyond, and in many respects, conflict with, their complaint. The court thus entered an order on February 26, 2014, allowing the parties to engage in jurisdictional discovery. (1-2)

Judge Sweeney discussed the likely scope of jurisdictional discovery in a hearing on June 4th. She suggested that the big issue would be the extent to which she was going to defer to the federal government as to its request the discovery be limited in order to allow the government discretion in its operational and policy roles in the housing finance system. The judge indicated that she might be open to a limited protective order that allowed the plaintiffs to examine documents under certain restrictions so that they are not made public.The judge also made clear that she was not going to authorize a fishing expedition.

The Opinion and Order is pretty consistent with what she had suggested in June, but I would characterize it as a tactical win for the plaintiffs. Judge Sweeney signaled that she was not going to be overly deferential to the federal government.  This was clear throughout the Opinion and Order, regarding the scope of the Court’s jurisdiction over matters involving the FHFA, regarding the scope of the deliberative process privilege and regarding the overall scope of jurisdictional discovery that the Court will allow.  The plaintiffs should very happy with this result.

Discovery War in GSE Litigation

The United States filed a motion for a protective order in the Fairholme Funds case in the Court of Federal Claims (the Fairholme Takings case). You may not be familiar with protective orders. By way of background, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(c) states that “The court may, for good cause, issue an order to protect a party or person from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense . . ..”

The federal government can request a protective order, like any other party.  But there may be some unique policies at issue when the federal government makes such a request.  For instance, the federal government may assert a variety of privileges to limit discovery.  These may include the deliberative process qualified privilege.  This privilege is asserted to protect communications about the government’s decisions.  Another example would be the qualified government privilege for official information.  This privilege would be asserted to maintain the confidentiality of official government records.  These are just two examples – there are a whole other range of privileges that the government might assert.  A court’s protective order analysis involving the federal government thus might take into account a variety of legitimate objectives that would not apply in a dispute between two private parties.

Here, the United States is seeking to limit discovery requests that “seek documents that relate in their entirety to the future termination of the conservatorships, with no end date” and “documents that relate (in part) to the future profitability of the Enterprises, again with no end date.” (2) The government argues that

Disclosure of these documents is contrary to the strictures of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (HERA), which bars a court from taking “any action to restrain or affect the exercise of powers or functions” of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) as conservator. 12 U.S.C. § 4617(f). The declaration of FHFA Director Melvin Watt explains that disclosure would “have extraordinarily deleterious  consequences on the Conservator’s conduct of the ongoing and future operations of the conservatorships.”  Decisions about when and how to terminate the conservatorships and the future profitability of the Enterprises are at the heart of FHFA’s responsibilities as conservator, and Court-mandated disclosure of information bearing on such matters would jeopardize the stewardship of the Enterprises. (2, footnotes and some citations omitted)

While some of the government’s language in the motion seems hyperbolic, the court should certainly focus on the deliberative process privilege that the government asserts. Defining its scope will have implications far beyond this case, no matter that this case is incredibly important itself.

As to this case itself, it is interesting to see how even procedural disputes in the GSE lawsuits implicate the current operations of the GSEs as well as their post-conservatorship future. There is no question that the plaintiffs are very aware of their effect on the broader debates about the housing finance system as they press their individual claims in court. It is not yet clear to me how much the Court will weigh those considerations in its decision regarding the reach of the deliberative process privilege.

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.

 

Reiss on Fannie/Freddie Suits

Bloomberg BNA quoted me in No Basis for Discovery by GSE Investors, Treasury Department, FHFA Memos Say. It reads

[Reproduced with permission from BNA’s Banking Report, 102 BBR 417, 3/11/14. Copyright  2014 by The Bureau
of National Affairs, Inc. (800-372-1033) http://www.bna.com]

The Treasury Department and the Federal Housing Finance Agency March 4 said a federal judge should deny a motion for discovery in lawsuits by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac investors, citing an agreed-upon schedule and saying the motion would do nothing to address legal questions at the core of the case (Fairholme Funds v. Federal Housing Finance Agency, D.D.C., No. 13-cv-01053, 3/4/14).

In its memo filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Treasury said Fairholme’s Feb. 12 motion for discovery (31 DER EE-6, 2/14/14) would be “improper” under a November scheduling order, and urged the court to dismiss the Fairholme suit and related cases.

“These cases should proceed on the agreed briefing schedule, which already provided ample time to the plaintiffs to file their substantive briefs, and the Court, upon review of a completed set of briefing with respect to the defendants’ dispositive motions, should dismiss these cases,” Treasury said March 4.

In its March 4 filing, the FHFA memo said “no discovery is necessary to assess the purely legal arguments” before the court, adding the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (HERA) bars second-guessing of the FHFA’s actions as conservator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Litigation Ongoing

The suit is one of several in at least two district courts and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims that challenge Treasury and FHFA action in August 2012 that restructured contracts governing preferred stock issued by the two government-sponsored enterprises.

Fairholme and other investors say the August 2012 amendment amounted to an expropriation of their assets and have variously sought damages and compensation in response.

The government has sought to dismiss the Fairholme case and others, but in its Feb. 12 motion, Fairholme said the government’s motion to dismiss was too expansive and raised questions that require access to government documents, e-mails and other materials.

Arrowood Indemnity Co., the plaintiff in a related case in the district court and a separate case in the Claims Court, Feb. 20 sought to link its own bid for discovery to Fairholme’s (36 DER EE-8, 2/24/14).

Fairholme has already prevailed on its discovery motion in the Claims Court. In a Feb. 26 order, Judge Margaret M. Sweeney granted Fairholme’s motion for a continuance to pursue discovery in that case.

March Reply Scheduled

In the district court, Fairholme is scheduled to respond to the government’s March 4 memos by mid-March.

“We are reviewing the opposition briefs filed by the defendants just yesterday, and we will respond to them in our reply brief, due on March 14,” a spokesman for Fairholme told Bloomberg BNA March 5.

High Stakes Seen

Professor David Reiss of Brooklyn Law School in New York March 5 said discovery usually occurs after motions to dismiss have been decided.

In this case, he said, “the stakes are so high and the quality of lawyering so high that there is litigation over the scheduling order itself.”

“This is a hard-fought battle and the issues are incredibly complex,” Reiss told Bloomberg BNA. “Each side characterizes their arguments as relatively straightforward, but I think the judge will have a hard time parsing out the issues, because there are different statutory regimes, policy issues and the like that must be rationalized with each other. I think this is just the beginning of a long slog,” he said.

S&P’s Fightin’ Words

S&P filed a memorandum in support of its motion to compel discovery in the FIRREA case that the United States brought against S&P last year. S&P comes out fighting in this memorandum, arguing that the “lawsuit is retaliation for S&P’s decision to downgrade the credit rating of the United states in August 2011.” (1)

S&P argues that the “most obvious explanation” for the United States’ “decision to pursue a FIRREA action against S&P alone” among the major rating agencies “is apparent:”   “S&P alone among the major rating agencies downgraded the securities issued by the United States.” (17) This is not obvious to me, particularly given the various explanations for this disparate treatment that have appeared in outlets like the WSJ over the last couple of years. But it may be true nonetheless.

In any case, I do not find the “chronology of events relating to the downgrade and the commencement of this lawsuit” to provide “powerful evidence linking the two.” (17) The chronology ends with the following entries:

  • S&P’s downgrade of the United States occurred on Friday, August 5, 2011. That Sunday, August 7, Harold McGraw III, the Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President of McGraw Hill (of which S&P was a unit), received a telephone message from a high-ranking official of the New York Federal Reserve Bank; when the call was returned, the official conveyed the personal displeasure of the Secretary of the Treasury with S&P’s rating action.
  • This was followed on Monday by a call to Mr. McGraw from the Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, in which Secretary Geithner stated that S&P had made a “huge error” for which it was “accountable.” He said that S&P had done “an enormous disservice to yourselves and your country,” that S&P’s conduct would be “looked at very carefully,” and that such behavior could not occur without a response.
  • The McClatchy Newspapers subsequently reported in a piece authored by Kevin G. Hall and Greg Gordon that while the United States’ original investigation included S&P and Moody’s, “[i]nvestigator interest in Moody’s apparently dropped off around the summer of 2011, about the same time S&P issued the historic downgrade of the United States’ creditworthiness because of mounting debt and deficits.” A source familiar with the investigations was quoted as stating: “After the U.S. downgrade, Moody’s is no longer part of this.”
  • In the year preceding S&P’s downgrade of the United States, two states, Mississippi and Connecticut, had initiated proceedings alleging deceptive practices based specifically on an alleged lack of independence. Each of those states named both Moody’s and S&P as defendants. After the downgrade, additional state lawsuits were commenced, with allegations nearly identical to those of the Connecticut and Mississippi complaints. Drafted after coordination and consultation with the U.S. Department of Justice, none of those lawsuits named Moody’s. (19, footnotes omitted)

This is surely no smoking gun and lots of dots remain to be connected.  How did DoJ get involved? Are the state Attorneys General in on the conspiracy? Why would DoJ stop an investigation of Moody’s to punish S&P? Sounds a bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face?

That being said, S&P might be right about the motivation for this suit and their allegations may be enough to win this motion to compel discovery. But whoever wins this round, this should be a fight worth watching.