Bank Settlements and the Arc of Justice

Ron Cogswell

MLK Memorial in DC

Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” A recent report by SNL Financial (available here, but requires a lot of sign-up info) offers us a chance to evaluate that claim in the context of the financial crisis.

SNL reports that the six largest bank holding companies have paid over $132 billion to settle credit crisis and mortgage-related lawsuits brought by governments, investors and other financial institutions.

In the context of the litigation over the Fannie and Freddie conservatorships, I had considered whether it is efficient to respond to financial crises by allowing the government to do what it needs to do during the crisis and then “use litigation to make an accounting to all of the stakeholders once the situation has stabilized.” (121)

Given that the biggest bank settlements are now in the rear view window, we can now say that the accounting for the financial crisis comes in at around $132 billion give or take. Does that number do justice for the wrongs of the boom times?  I don’t think I have my own answer to that question yet, but it is certainly worth considering.

On the one hand, we should acknowledge that it is a humongous number, a number so big that that no one would have considered it a likely one at the beginning of the financial crisis. This crisis made nine and ten digit settlement numbers a routine event.

On the other hand, wrongdoing (along with good old-fashioned boom mentality) during the financial crisis almost sent the global economy into a depression.  It also wreaked havoc on so many individuals, directly and indirectly.

I look forward to seeing metrics that can make sense of this (ratio of settlement amounts to annual profits of Wall Street firms; ratio to bonus pools; ratio to home equity lost), but I will say that I am struck by the lack of individual accountability that has come out of all of this litigation.

Individuals who made six, seven and eight figure paychecks from this wrongdoing were able to move on relatively unscathed.  We should think about how to avoid that result the next time around. Otherwise the arc of justice will bend in the wrong direction.


A Welling of Judicial Discontent

Reuters ran a story that provides the next chapter to my post, Federal Judge Declares War on Wells Fargo.  The Reuters story is Massachusetts Judge Challenges Wells Fargo, Sparks Legal Fight (behind a paywall) and it reads in part:

A legal battle is heating up over an unusual challenge by a Massachusetts federal judge to banking giant Wells Fargo to waive what the judge called a technical defense in a mortgage lawsuit and to argue its case at trial.

Calling the judge’s order “unauthorized and unprecedented,” Wells Fargo has asked a federal appeals court to overturn it before it sparks “copycat” demands across the country.

It seems to me that Wells Fargo is right to be concerned about “copycat” demands across the country.  My sense from reading many of the upstream and downstream cases that I blog about is that many judges have internalized the populist critique of financial institutions that has crystallized during the financial crisis. This came about, no doubt, in large part because of the relentless headlines about actionable and non-actionable misconduct by these institutions.

That being said, judges must apply the law impartially, so the First Circuit’s review of this case, Henning v. Wachovia Mortgage, F.S.B., n/k/a Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., No. 11-11428 (Sept. 17, 2013), will be of particular interest. The transcript of yesterday’s District Court hearing on a motion to stay the Henning case during the pendency of the appeal can be found here. Judge Young makes clear that he is not budging on the requirement that Wells Fargo produce a corporate resolution, although that order is stayed until the First Circuit decides the appeal.

Federal Judge Declares War on Wells Fargo

Never saw this before:

And so, Wells Fargo wins on a technicality.  The Court never addresses the merits of this case and expresses no opinion thereon. Still, it is appropriate to point out that, were Henning to prove his case on the merits, the conduct of Wells Fargo would be shown to be nothing short of outrageous.  On the other hand, perhaps if Wells Fargo addressed the merits, its conduct would be vindicated by fair-minded American jurors.  A quick visit to Wells Fargo’s website confirms that it vigorously promotes itself as consumer friendly, Loans and Programs, page within Home Lending,, (last visited September 17, 2013); a far cry from the hard-nosed win-at-any-cost stance it has adopted here.

The technical (and now obsolete) preemption defense upon which Wells Fargo relies is an affirmative defense which can be waived.  See, e.g., Tompkins v. United Healthcare of New England, 203 F.3d 90, 97 (1st Cir. 2000).  The disconnect between Wells Fargo’s publicly advertised face and its actual litigation conduct here could not be more extreme.  These facts lead this Court to inquire whether Wells Fargo wishes to address Henning’s claims on the merits.  After all, it may be that Wells Fargo has done nothing wrong.

ACCORDINGLY, it is ORDERED that Wells Fargo, within 30 days of the date of this order, shall submit a corporate resolution bearing the signature of its president and a majority of its board of directors that it stands behind the conduct of its skilled attorneys and wishes to avail itself of the technical preemption defense to defeat Henning’s claim.

Should it do so, judgment will enter for Wells Fargo. If no such resolution is filed, the Court will deem the preemption defense waived and both Wells Fargo and Henning will have the opportunity to address the merits (i.e., what really happened) at a trial before an American jury. (36-37)

So ends District Judge Young’s (D. Mass.) opinion in Henning v. Wachovia Mortgage, F.S.B., n/k/a Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., No. 11-11428 (Sept. 17, 2013). Henning brought suit against his lender, which sought to have it dismissed, arguing in large part that the state law claims are preempted by the federal Home Owners’ Loan Act.

Judge Young does not make clear the basis for his authority to require such a resolution from Wells Fargo. I am guessing that we will see a motion for reconsideration pretty soon.

[HT April Charney]