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On May 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of an investor action against Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities (RMBS) trustees, concluding the investors failed to show that the trustees breached any duties owed under the governing documents. According to the opinion, investors filed suit against the owner trustee for fifteen RMBS trusts, which became “worthless in the wake of widespread loan defaults,” claiming breach of contract and the implied covenant of good faith. The investors argued the trustee (i) abdicated its responsibilities relating to the loan files; (ii) failed to provide written notice of default; and (iii) failed to intervene when other parties exercised their duties carelessly. The trial court dismissed all claims against the trustee.
On appeal, the appellate court concluded the trial court correctly dismissed the claims. Specifically, the appellate court noted that under the trusts’ governing documents, the trustee was acting as an “owner trustee,” which was “primarily ministerial, involving limited duties such as executing documents on behalf of the trusts and accepting service of legal process.” The trustee did not have an overarching duty to protect the trusts, as it agreed “to perform only the modest functions” under the governing agreements and therefore, was shielded from that general liability. The appellate court concluded that the investors failed to show the trustee breached any actual duties owed under the governing agreements, rejecting the investors’ three specific claims for breach of contract. Moreover, the court emphasized that the governing agreement “forecloses the implied duty [the investors] propose,” noting that the trustee negotiated for limited liability and received a fee in exchange for modest functions, making it “difficult to imagine” the trustee would willingly agree to “sweeping supervisory responsibility.”
On April 25, the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division held that a trustee for two residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) trusts is entitled to file an amended complaint concerning “express breach of contract claims.” The issue arose from whether the sponsor breached its agreements with the trustee when it allegedly failed to disclose breaches of representations and warranties discovered during a due diligence review of the RMBS trusts after the transactions closed. According to the opinion, the sponsor claimed that no fraud or misrepresentations had occurred with respect to the loans, but it was later discovered that this was not true. However, the sponsor still moved to dismiss, arguing it was not bound under the mortgage purchase agreements to disclose any breach of the representations and warranties. The trial court dismissed the claims and blocked the trustee from filing an amended complaint after it determined the sponsor was not obligated to relay the loans’ issues after they were discovered.
On review, the appeals court found that the relevant contractual language, requiring the sponsor, upon discovery of any breach to give written notice of the breach to itself, was ambiguous, but opined that “[a]llowing the clause to remain as written would render this provision meaningless”—an important fact since “courts should avoid interpretations that would render contractual language mere surplusage.” The trustee claimed that because the sponsor is included on the list of parties required to provide notice, there must be another unnamed party, other than the sponsor, available to receive notice, whereas the sponsor argued that its inclusion on the list of parties required to give notice was “due to ‘alleged drafting imperfections’” since it is the party that is entitled to receive such notices. Because both parties presented “reasonable competing interpretations,” the appeals court noted, additional proceedings are necessary.
On April 12, the DOJ announced that a multinational corporation will pay $1.5 billion in a settlement resolving claims brought under the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 (FIRREA) that a financial services subsidiary of the corporation misrepresented the quality of loans it originated in connection with the marketing and sale of residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS). According to the DOJ, between 2005 and 2007, the majority of the mortgage loans sold by the subsidiary for inclusion in RMBS did not comply with the quality representations made about the loans. Specifically, the loan analysts allegedly approved mortgage loans that did not meet criteria outlined in the company’s underwriting guidelines, as they would receive additional compensation based on the number of loans they approved. The DOJ asserts that there were inadequate resources and authority for the subsidiary’s quality control department, resulting in deficiencies in risk management and fraud controls. Additionally, if an investment bank were to reject a loan due to defects in the loan file, the DOJ alleges the subsidiary would attempt to find a new purchaser, without disclosing the previous rejection or identifying the alleged defects. The corporation does not admit to any liability or wrongdoing, but agreed to pay a $1.5 billion civil money penalty to resolve the matter.
On February 15, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York denied class certification in an action brought by an investment company against a bank acting as trustee for five residential mortgage-backed securities trusts in which the company invested. The investment company filed a class action suit against the trustee asserting claims for breach of contract, breach of the duty of trust, and violations of the Trust Indenture Act. Among other things, the allegations concern whether 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.”
In dismissing class certification, the court found that questions of law or fact common to all class members did not dominate individual issues. The court held that there was no proof that the liability claims of potential class members who held certificates in one trust would be relevant to the claims of other potential class members in one of the other trusts, and that the individualized questions “involve relatively complex legal and factual inquiries—requiring considerable resources in comparison to those questions which are capable of class-wide resolution.”
On February 19, the New York State Court of Appeals issued two rulings in cases brought by a trustee against a seller and sponsor of three residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) trusts.
The first action involved a lawsuit filed by the trustee more than six years after the execution of the relevant Pooling and Servicing Agreement (PSA). The seller/sponsor moved to dismiss the complaint asserting that it was time-barred because the trustee failed to comply with the sole remedy provision within the six-year statute of limitations. The trustee alleged that its claim was timely because it should relate back to a similar action a certificate holder had timely filed against the seller/sponsor. The lower court granted the motion to dismiss the action with prejudice and the appellate division affirmed. On review by the state’s highest court, the Court affirmed, noting that a complaint only can relate back to a prior action where a valid pre-existing action has been filed. In this instance, the Court found that the certificate holder’s action was not valid because, as lower courts concluded, the PSA’s no action clause prevented the certificate holder from bringing an action against the seller/sponsor on behalf of itself or the trustee. Thus, there was no valid claim for which the trustee’s claim could relate back.
The second case involved a different action brought by the same trustee against the same seller/sponsor related to a different RMBS trust. In that case, the lower court dismissed the action without prejudice, concluding the action was timely-filed, but the trustee failed to comply with the sole remedy provision of the PSA and other controlling agreements. Specifically, the lower court concluded the trustee failed to provide notice of the suspected breach, allowing the loan originator 90 days to cure or repurchase the allegedly non-compliant loans. The appellate division affirmed the dismissal without prejudice, allowing the trustee to refile. The seller/sponsor appealed, arguing the case should be dismissed with prejudice because the trustee did not comply with its obligations under the sole remedy provision within the six-year limitations period. The Court of Appeals disagreed, determining the sole remedy provision is “a procedural condition precedent that does not impact the running of the six-year statute of limitations,” and therefore, does not foreclose refiling of the action. Thus, the action was properly dismissed without prejudice as CPLR 205(a) states that if a timely-filed action that has been terminated for any reason other than those specified in the statute, a second action based on the same transactions or occurrences can be commenced within six months of dismissal of the first action.
On February 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court dismissing, as untimely, a trustee’s breach of contract and indemnity claims related to losses resulting from alleged defects in mortgage loans. At issue are three pools of residential home mortgages that at the time of sale had an aggregate principal balance exceeding $3.4 billion. These loans were sold by a mortgage company to Lehman Brothers Holding Inc. and Lehman Brothers Bank FSB in 2006 and subsequently securitized into three trusts. In addition to the representations and warranties made and the remedies provided in the Mortgage Loan Purchase Agreements (MLPAs) and Trust Agreements, the mortgage company, Lehman, and the depositor entered into a separate Indemnification Agreement for each trust, which contained its own representations and warranties indemnification provision. Investors, including Freddie Mac, purchased certificates in the trusts.
According to the court, Freddie Mac conducted a forensic review of the trusts six years after the sale, which allegedly revealed that an “overwhelming percentage” of the loans in the trusts breached the mortgage company’s representations and warranties (R&W). Shortly after discovery, the trustee submitted breach notices to the mortgage company, which did not cure or repurchase the loans.
The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), as conservator for Freddie Mac, filed a complaint against the mortgage company asserting breach of contract and indemnification claims. After the FHFA dropped out of the litigation, the trustee filed an amended complaint that included two breach of contract counts and two indemnification counts—one seeking indemnification based on the MLPAs and Trust Agreements and another seeking indemnification based on the Indemnification Agreements.
The mortgage company moved for summary judgment on the first three claims and moved to dismiss the fourth claim. The district court granted the motion. It found that the breach of contract claims were time-barred because the FHFA filed the summons with notice more than six years after the limitations period at issue, which begins to run on the effective date of the R&Ws. The court also found the trustee’s indemnification claim based on the MLPAs and Trust Agreements to be time-barred because it was “merely a reformulation of its breach-of-contract claims.” The district court dismissed the other indemnification claim based on the Indemnification Agreements as time-barred because it involved a new set of operative facts and thus could not relate back to the original complaint filed by the FHFA.
On review, the 2nd Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision. As to the breach of contract claims, the 2nd Circuit relied on two New York Court of Appeals cases: Ace Securities Corp. v. DB Structured Products, which held that the six year statute of limitations begins to run on the effective date of R&Ws, and Deutsche Bank National Trust v. Flagstar Capitals Market Corporation which held that an express accrual clause in a contract cannot delay the start of a limitations period under New York law. With respect to the third cause of action for indemnification under the MLPAs and Trust Agreements, the 2nd Circuit stated that absent unmistakably clear language in an indemnification agreement that demonstrates that the parties intended this clause to cover first-party claims as opposed to third-party claims, an agreement between two parties to indemnify each other does not mean that one party’s failure to perform gives rise to an indemnification claim. In reviewing the claim at issue in count three, the court found that the claim sought payment to the trustee arising from the mortgage company’s alleged breach of R&Ws, which is a breach of contract claim. The trustee argued that the indemnification section provided an independent remedy, but the 2nd Circuit rejected that argument stating that a claim is not independent if its success directly depends on the breach of the R&Ws in the MLPAs outlined in the contract claims. Finally, with respect to the fourth clause of action for indemnification, the 2nd Circuit held that this claim filed in 2016, would only be timely if it related back to the facts of the earlier claims, but since it arose out of different contracts it therefore could not relate back.
On December 4, the Illinois Attorney General announced a $17.25 million settlement with a national bank resolving allegations of misconduct in the marketing and sale of residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS) dating back to before the 2008 mortgage crisis. According to the announcement, the bank’s $17.25 million settlement will be distributed to the Teachers Retirement System of the State of Illinois, the State Universities Retirement System of Illinois, and the Illinois State Board of Investment. Additional details on the settlement have not been made available by the state.
On November 30, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York agreed to stay proceedings covering an investment company’s challenge to a bank’s practice of billing the legal fees incurred in defending a residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) trusts lawsuit to the RMBS trusts. According to the opinion, in 2014, an investment company filed a lawsuit against the national bank alleging breach of contract and other common law duties in the bank’s role as trustee for multiple RMBS trusts. In 2017, the investment company filed a separate lawsuit in the same court, challenging the bank’s practice of billing the RMBS trusts for the legal fees incurred by defending the original lawsuit. The two lawsuits were consolidated and the bank moved to dismiss the second lawsuit or stay the proceedings during the pendency of the original lawsuit. Upon review, the court agreed to stay the proceedings, noting the “claims at issue in the fees complaint may well turn on determinations made in the underlying suit.” The investment company argued that while the trusts’ agreements contain fee indemnity clauses, the clauses are not applicable to the bank’s alleged “willful misfeasance, bad faith, or gross negligence.” The court noted that whether the bank acted grossly negligent in its duties as trustee for the RMBS trusts is a “central factual question” in the original lawsuit and therefore, staying the proceedings “could avoid a possible waste of both the parties’ and the court’s resources.”
Additionally, in the same order, the court denied NCUA’s request to intervene in the fees action, holding the agency did not establish it could meet the higher burden of demonstrating inadequate representation by the investment company, which shares the same interests as NCUA.
On November 8, the DOJ announced it filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York against an international bank and several of its U.S. affiliates for allegedly defrauding investors in connection with the sale of residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) from 2006 through 2007. Specifically, the DOJ alleges the bank violated the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act (FIRREA) based on mail fraud, wire fraud, bank fraud, and other misconduct by “knowingly and repeatedly” making false and fraudulent representations to investors about the quality of the loans backing 40 RMBS deals. The DOJ is seeking an unspecified amount of civil money penalties under five FIRREA claims.
In response to the filing, the international bank issued a statement indicating that it intends to “contest the complaint vigorously,” arguing, among other things, that the risks of RMBS investments were clearly disclosed to investors and that the bank suffered its own losses from investing in the RMBS referred to in the DOJ complaint.
On November 8, a federal jury for the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota awarded the ResCap Liquidating Trust, the post-bankruptcy successor-in-interest to Residential Funding Company, LLC (RFC), a $27.8 million verdict in an indemnity case against a correspondent lender. Shortly after RFC’s bankruptcy plan was confirmed in 2013, the ResCap Liquidating Trust filed indemnity and breach of contract lawsuits against more than 80 correspondent lenders, alleging that the loans RFC purchased from the lenders did not comply with applicable representations and warranties, thereby causing RFC to incur liabilities in the form of bankruptcy-allowed claims.
Before trial, the court excluded certain of the lender’s expert witnesses and concluded that under the relevant contracts, the ResCap Liquidating Trust had sole discretion to determine whether a loan was in breach. Thus, the issues for the jury largely were limited to determining the applicability of certain contracts to the loans and assessing damages for the alleged breaches.
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