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On November 18, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York denied an investment company’s request to use “sampling-related expert discovery” in its action against a trustee of five residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS), concluding that the proposal was not proportional to the needs of the case. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the investment company filed suit against the trustee alleging the trustee “failed to fulfil certain contractual duties triggered by the discovery of breaches of ‘representations and warranties’” when the underlying mortgages allegedly were found not to be of the promised quality. The investment company also alleged that the trustee failed to exercise its rights to require the companies that sold the mortgages in question “to cure, substitute, or repurchase the breaching loans.” After being denied class certification by the court in February, the investment company preemptively moved for an order from the court allowing it to use sampling-related expert discovery—a process which “engage[s] experts to select samples of mortgage loans from each of the five trusts and to perform analyses on those samples of loans to extrapolate information about the quality of all of the loans in the trusts.”
The court denied the request, calling the proposed sampling a “blind corner.” The court noted that the “breach rate evidence” that would be discovered by the sampling “only provides substantial probative value for [the investment company’s] claims if [the investment company] can demonstrate that [the trustee] was under an obligation to conduct an investigation of the loans in each of the trusts,” which the investment company has failed to do. Because “the probative value of that discovery hinges upon a factual theory that [the investment company] has yet to demonstrate is viable,” the court could not justify allowing the parties to expend hundreds of thousands of dollars on the proposed sampling.
On November 15, the SEC announced it issued its fiscal year 2019 whistleblower program annual report to Congress, which states that since the program’s inception, the SEC has ordered over $2 billion in total monetary sanctions in enforcement actions that resulted from information brought by meritorious whistleblowers. As for FY 2019, the SEC received over 5,200 whistleblower tips, with over 300 tips relating to cryptocurrencies, and awarded approximately $60 million in whistleblower awards to eight individuals. Since the program’s inception, the SEC has awarded approximately $387 million to 67 whistleblowers. The report acknowledges that FY 2019 was an “unusual year” due to the lapse in appropriations, referring to the government shutdown from the end of December 2018 through most of January 2019, and includes a summary of the six actions leading to the eight awards of FY 2019. The report notes that the agency anticipates final rules to be adopted in FY 2020 related to the July 2018 proposed amendments to the whistleblower program (covered by InfoBytes here). The proposed amendments, among other things, address the Supreme Court ruling in Digital Realty Trust, Inc. v. Somers (covered in a Buckley Special Alert) and authorize the SEC to adjust an award’s percentage as appropriate to advance the goals of rewarding and incentivizing whistleblowers.
On the same day, the SEC announced a collective award of over $260,000 to three whistleblowers who submitted a joint tip “alerting the agency to a well-concealed fraud targeting retail investors,” which led to a successful enforcement action. The order does not provide any additional details regarding the whistleblower or the company involved in the enforcement action. With this new action, the SEC has now awarded approximately $387 million to 70 whistleblowers.
On November 8, the CFTC announced a $14 million settlement with a national bank to resolve allegations that the bank violated swap dealer business conduct standards in its foreign exchange trading business. Among other things, the bank allegedly failed to properly price a $4 billion foreign exchange forward contract with a counterparty when it selected a rate it “believed would be in the range of the true weighted average and thus acceptable to the counterparty,” instead of calculating a “weighted average rate based on actual spot trades.” According to the CFTC, at the time the bank did not have a system in place to accurately track trades used to fill the counterparty’s order and ensure compliance with policies and procedures regarding communicating with counterparties in a fair and balanced manner. (The bank has since cured these deficiencies.) The bank, which has neither admitted nor denied the findings, agreed to pay a $10 million civil money penalty and $4.47 million in restitution (previously paid to the counterparty) under the terms of the settlement order.
On November 4, the FHFA issued a Request for Input (RFI) on Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s (the GSEs) pooling practices as they relate to the formation of the “To-Be-Announced”-eligible Uniform Mortgage-Backed Securities (UMBS). The RFI follows the June launch of the UMBS—a common security through which GSE mortgage-backed securities will be issued (previously covered by InfoBytes here)—and seeks input to assist FHFA in determining whether further action or alignment is required to ensure reasonably consistent security cash flows and continued fungibility of the GSEs’ UMBS so they “remain a source of stable, affordable liquidity for the U.S. housing finance system.” In addition, FHFA requests input on whether having more aligned pooling practices could facilitate the issuance of UMBS by market participants beyond the GSEs, and seeks comments on other policies and practices that might affect UMBS compatibility. Comments are due December 19.
On November 4, the SEC announced the filing of an amended complaint in an action against an online auction portal and its CEO (collectively, “defendants”), along with the CEO’s wife as a relief defendant. The original complaint, filed in May, alleged that defendants operated a $23 million fraudulent securities offering and misappropriated investor proceeds. The amended complaint adds, among other things, a new count for “Impeding: Rule 21F-17 of the Exchange Act,” alleging that the defendants took actions to impede individuals from communicating with the SEC and other agencies regarding misconduct at the company by conditioning the return of investor money on signing agreements with confidentiality clauses purportedly prohibiting the reporting of potential securities law violations to law enforcement agencies. The SEC seeks preliminary and permanent injunctions, disgorgement plus prejudgment interest, and penalties.
On October 30, the SEC requested public input on asset-level disclosure requirements for residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS). The current requirements, which were adopted in 2014 in response to the financial crisis, require issuers to disclose a wide range of data on each mortgage loan in the underlying pool at the time of an offering and on an ongoing basis. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in September, the U.S. Treasury Department released a Housing Reform Plan, which, among other things, recommended that the SEC review the RMBS asset-level disclosure requirements to assess the number of required reporting fields and to clarify certain defined terms for SEC-registered private-label securitization offerings. In response to Treasury’s plan, Chairman Clayton requests that SEC staff assess the “RMBS asset-level disclosure requirements with an eye toward facilitating SEC-registered offerings,” and seeks public input on a variety of questions related to the topic, including (i) whether the circumstances in the RMBS market have changed since the financial crisis and the 2014 adoption of the requirements; (ii) whether one or more data points in the requirements should be revised and why; and (iii) whether any data points should be eliminated and if elimination would result in any adverse effects. The announcement does not contain a deadline for members of the public to submit their input.
District Court allows NCUA to substitute plaintiff, denies dismissal of breach of contract claim in RMBS action
On October 15, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York held that the NCUA may substitute a new plaintiff to represent the agency’s claims in a residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) action against an international bank serving as an RMBS trustee. In the same order, the court dismissed certain tort claims, but allowed claims for breach of contract to move forward against the trustee.
According to the opinion, NCUA brought the action on behalf of 97 trusts for which the international bank served as the trustee, even though NCUA only had direct interest in eight of the trusts. NCUA argued it had derivative standing to pursue the claims on behalf of the other 89 trusts “on the theory that it had a latent interest in the [the 89 trusts] after they wound down and as ‘an express third-party beneficiary under the [89 trusts] Indenture Agreements.’” The trustee moved to dismiss the action and after hearing oral arguments on the motion, the court stayed the case pending the outcome of NCUA’s appeal regarding derivative standing in similar action before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In August 2018, the 2nd Circuit held that NCUA lacked standing to bring the derivative claims because the trusts had granted the right, title, and interest to their assets, including the RMBS trusts, to the Indenture Trustee. (Previously covered by InfoBytes here.) Based on the appellate court decision in the similar action, NCUA moved to file a second amended complaint and substitute a newly appointed trustee as plaintiff for the claims made on behalf of the 89 trusts for which it did not have direct standing.
Despite the trustee’s objections, the district court granted NCUA’s request, concluding that NCUA’s claims were timely and allowing the NCUA’s “Extender Statute”—which gives the agency the ability to bring contract claims at “the longer of” “the 6-year period beginning on the date the claim accrues” or “the period applicable under State law”—to apply to the new substitute plaintiff. Additionally, the court denied the bank’s motion to dismiss NCUA’s breach of contract claim alleging the trustee had notice of the defects in the mortgage files held in the various trusts. The court concluded that NCUA sufficiently plead that the trustee “did indeed receive notice [of the defective mortgages] and should have thus acted,” under the Pooling and Servicing Agreements.
On October 11, the SEC announced it obtained a temporary restraining order through an emergency action filed against two offshore entities that allegedly raised more than $1.7 billion of investor funds. According to the complaint, the entities sold approximately 2.9 million digital tokens worldwide, including more than 1 billion tokens to 39 U.S. purchasers. The entities promised that the tokens would be delivered upon the launch of its own blockchain by the end of October 2019. The SEC alleges the entities violated Sections 5(a) and 5(c) of the Securities Act by failing to register its offers and sales of securities with the SEC. In addition to the emergency relief, the SEC is seeking a permanent injunction, disgorgement, and civil penalties against the offshore entities.
On October 3, the Washington Supreme Court reversed the dismissal of an action against two international banks, concluding that the Securities Act of Washington (the Act) does not require a plaintiff to prove reliance on misleading statements during the purchase of residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS). According to the opinion, a Seattle Federal Home Loan Bank (FHL Bank) purchased over $900 million in RMBS from two international banks in 2005 and 2007, and in 2009, brought separate actions against the banks for allegedly making untrue or misleading statements in connection with the RMBS in violation of the Act. Specifically, the FHL Bank argued that the banks (i) made false statements concerning the loan-to-value ratios of the mortgage loans pooled in the RMBS; (ii) misrepresented the quality of their underwriting standards; and (iii) made false statements about the occupancy status of the mortgaged properties in the pool. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of both banks, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, concluding that reasonable reliance on the misleading statements was required under the Act and that the FHL Bank did not rely on the statements from one bank and unreasonably relied on statements of the other. The FHL Bank appealed both decisions.
The Supreme Court consolidated the actions and disagreed with the appeals court conclusions in both. Specifically, the Court determined that the plain language under the Act is clear and “unambiguously does not require reliance.” The Court emphasized that the refusal to “read reliance into the statue” furthers the Act’s foal of protecting investors, ensuring “that those harmed when a seller misrepresents material facts can recover.”
In dissent, one state Justice argued that the Court’s opinion undermines nearly “50 years of case law and legislative acquiescence,” noting that federal courts “frequently resolve state securities fraud claims, and they too have consistently treated reliance as an element of our state-law claim.”
On September 30, the SEC announced a settlement with a blockchain technology company resolving allegations that the company conducted an unregistered initial coin offering (ICO). According to the order, the company raised several billion dollars from the general public after an ICO, in which it publicly offered and sold 900 million digital assets in exchange for virtual currency, to raise capital to develop software. The SEC alleges that the company violated Section 5(a) and 5(c) of the Securities Act because the digital assets it sold were securities under federal securities laws, and the company did not have the required registration statement filed or in effect, nor did it qualify for an exemption to the registration requirements. The order, which the company consented to without admitting nor denying the findings, imposes a $24 million civil money penalty.
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