Category Archives: Class Action

On “Merger Tax” Cases, Mark Twain, Abe Vigoda, and Other Premature Death Reports

Mark Twain is famously reported as saying “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”  Well, in that respect, he may have been like Yogi Berra (RIP), whose autobiography was titled “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said.”  A little research yielded Mark Twain’s original note, which was less pithy: “the report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Mark Twain on His Reported Death

“The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Yogi Berra Autobiography

Mark Twain was not alone.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge overheard someone talking about a coroner’s inquest into his suicide (by hanging), and responded: “it is a most extraordinary thing that he should have hanged himself, be the subject of an inquest, and yet that he should at this moment be speaking to you.”  Many other folks have been the subject of premature death reports, including, many of us remember vividly, Paul McCartney.  This seems to be common among musicians — it also happened to Madonna, Lou Reed, Bob Seger, John Mellencamp, Lena Horne, Fats Domino, Alice Cooper, Neil Young (three times), and Gordon Lightfoot (who was at the dentist when he heard of his death).  Others in this club include Pope John Paul II (three times), Queen Elizabeth II, Ernest Hemingway (who reportedly read his obituaries every morning with a glass of champagne), P.T. Barnum (at his request, so he could see what people would say about him), Alfred Nobel (who is said to have read in his obit that he was a “merchant of death” and then decided to fund the Nobel Prize), Joe DiMaggio, Bob Hope (twice),  James Earl Jones (mistakenly identified when James Earl Ray died), Sean Connery, Steve Jobs, George Soros, Russell Crowe, Ken Kesey (who faked his own suicide to avoid criminal charges), and William “The Refrigerator” Perry (who was watching a Chicago Bears game when he saw a ticker message glide by announcing his death).  And don’t forget Abe Vigoda, whose death was reported on at least two occasions, and who, as of today, is 94 years old and has a website devoted to reporting that he remains alive: http://www.abevigoda.com/.

What do Mark Twain and all of these people have to do with securities law?  The reports of their deaths were, indeed, premature, as may be the reported death of one of the most enduring securities litigation scams – the “merger tax” litigation.

If you read this blog, you may have seen several discussions of “merger tax” litigation, that cynical sham in which virtually every merger or acquisition is met by a legal challenge regardless of whether there is any reasonable basis for doing so.  The legal challenge is not calculated to protect shareholders or increase shareholder value – in fact, it most likely victimizes them and diminishes that value.  Instead, it is calculated to delay the completion of the proposed transaction sufficiently to convince the parties to pay the plaintiffs’ lawyers to go away by settling the case for attorneys’ fees and otherwise meaningless non-monetary relief, supposedly for the benefit of shareholders, but actually worthless or even a net cost to them.

This long-standing charade is high on the list of lawyer chicanery that leads the public to view lawyers as among the least honest and most unethical professionals around.  In 2013, lawyers were ranked as having high honesty and ethical standards by only 20% of those polled, falling above only TV reporters, advertising practitioners, State officeholders, car salespeople, Members of Congress, and lobbyists, and below 15 other professions (including nursing home operators, who beat lawyers handily).  See http://www.gallup.com/poll/166298/honesty-ethics-rating-clergy-slides-new-low.aspx.

The practice of paying the “merger tax” to get rid of worthless legal challenges is the product of greed by unscrupulous plaintiffs’ lawyers, cynical deal-making by defense lawyers and their corporate clients, and “go along, get along” judges, who ultimately have to approve these sham transactions in their role of supposedly protecting the interests of the absent real parties in interest, the shareholders.  Unfortunately, most judges in this situation act like potted plants. For reasons that are hard to determine, they accept the sham and, worse, place their judicial imprimatur on the transaction.

In recent months, however, we have reported on repeated judicial decisions to say “No Mas.” We reported on Judge Melvin Schweitzer’s decision to reject a merger tax settlement in Gordon v. Verizon Communications in our Commentary on Abusive State Law Actions Following M&A Deals, which was followed by a post discussing a welcome judicial discussion of the impropriety of “merger tax” cases in City Trading Fund v. Nye: NY Court Flexes Muscles in Rejecting Bogus “Merger Tax” Settlement.  And the securities law world has taken note of several recent Delaware Chancery Court cases that excoriate the practice.  See Delaware Judge Tells Plaintiff Lawyers: The M&A ‘Deal Tax’ Game Is Over; Game Over?: Del. Chancery Court Rejects Disclosure-Only Settlement in H-P/Aruba Networks Merger Objection Lawsuit; and Transcript of Del. Chancery Court Hearing in Aruba Networks Stockholder Litigation.

On the basis of these developments, we reported that “this sordid practice may be on the wane because judges finally are doing their jobs.”  Alas, as with Mark Twain and his comrades in faux-death mentioned above, our reports of the possible impending death of “merger tax” litigation may have been premature.

Witness the settlement proposed just last week in McGill v. Hake, a case brought in the Southern District of Indiana by plaintiffs’ law firms Faruqi & Faruqi and Robbins Orroyo, with local firm Riley Williams & Pyatt.  Complicit in this legal atrocity are the defense lawyers — from Sullivan & Cromwell, Jones Day, and Taft, Stettinius & Hollister — as well as their client, Harris Corporation and its directors, but at least they have the excuse that they view themselves as acting in the short term interest of their clients or shareholders.

The complaint in McGill, filed February 12, 2015, was purportedly brought for the benefit of all shareholders of Exelis Inc., and alleged that the acquisition of 100 percent of the shares of Exelis by Harris Corp. was a breach of fiduciary duty because the value offered to Exelis shareholders ($23.75 per share) was “insufficient, as it fails to account for the Company’s significant future earning potential and falls below the premium other defense contractors have recently sold for.”  The complaint sought to enjoin the transaction or, if the transaction were completed, damages suffered by the shareholders as a result of the alleged breaches of fiduciary duty.  The claims were allegedly “based on information and belief, including the investigation of counsel and review of publicly-available information.”  The complaint can be reviewed here: Complaint in McGill v. Hake.

Fast forward to last week.  Plaintiff’s counsel filed a motion for court approval of a settlement of the claims.  The terms of the settlement: the plaintiff’s lawyers get a payment of $410,000; the shareholders get nothing of value.  Instead, the plaintiff’s lawyers negotiated for the defendants “to make certain supplemental disclosures” in a Form 8-K which purportedly “provided Exelis’ shareholders with material information concerning the fairness of the Merger and the Merger Consideration.”  Notice that there was no adjustment to the value received by the Exelis shareholders, despite the original contention that the $23.75 value per share was “insufficient.” Instead, more information was provided that supposedly allowed the shareholders to confirm that the value offered was indeed adequate.  In short, although the case was supposedly brought to remedy the “insufficient” value given to Exelis shareholders, the only pecuniary benefit provided in the settlement goes to the plaintiff’s lawyers.  The motion for approval of the settlement can be reviewed here: Plaintiff’s Motion for Approval of Merger Tax Settlement in McGill v. Hake.

This is a quintessential “merger tax” “disclosure only” settlement.  Supposedly convinced that the alleged unfair value was not in fact unfair, the lawyers walk away from the case pocketing the only money transferred.  How were they convinced that the value was sufficient?  By reviewing materials provided to them that confirmed the fairness of the valuation, and performing so-called “confirmatory discovery” after the deal was done to “confirm” the fairness of the deal.  So-called “confirmatory discovery” of a settlement deal is a transparently fictitious way to generate time and effort by the plaintiff’s lawyers that they then present to the court as a justification for the dollar fee payment the parties previously agreed would be paid to the lawyers.  Trust me on this – I’ve negotiated many such settlements.  Settlements that fail to go forward after “confirmatory discovery” are a non-existent species.

So, here we are in October 2015, following a series of cases touted as the death-knell for the “merger tax” “disclosure only” settlement, looking at precisely such a settlement proposal.  District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt, relatively new to the bench, will conduct a hearing on February 16, 2016 to consider whether to approve the proposed settlement.  See Scheduling Order in McGill v. Hake.

Judge Tanya Walton Pratt

Judge Tanya Walton Pratt

We can only hope that Judge Pratt follows the lead of her brethren on New York and Delaware and continues the process by which the lawyers’ cottage industry of “merger tax” litigation can be eliminated by judges simply doing their jobs.

Straight Arrow

October 27, 2105

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New Developments in Gordon v. Verizon Communications Class Action

There seem to be a good number of people trying to figure out what is going on in the securities class action suit in the New York State Supreme Court Gordon v. Verizon Communications, Inc., Index No. 653084/2013.  That is the case in which Judge Melvin Schweitzer famously rejected a proposed “merger tax” settlement in an opinion that received some attention.  It was a matter of some interest that a member of the New York State Bar, Gerald Walpin, filed successful papers in the case objecting to the settlement on policy grounds when the defense lawyers from the Wachtell Lipton firm stood mute in the effort to pay off the plaintiff’s counsel to allow the merger to proceed.  See Commentary on Abusive State Law Actions Following M&A Deals.

Some time ago I provided an update on developments in that case (Update on Status of Proposed Settlement in Gordon v. Verizon Communications, Inc.),  in which I noted that the plaintiff filed a notice of appeal, and that attorney Walpin sought to intervene in the case to pursue a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the defense lawyers in the case were conflicted by having agreed to the settlement.

Here is another update.  I provide this because it seems like a lot of class members are floundering around with no understanding of what is happening.

On August 3, 2015, Judge Anil Singh rejected several motions in the case, including the motion by Mr. Walpin to intervene and seeking summary judgment on behalf of the defendants, and a motion by by the plaintiff to introduce a new expert report addressing the proposed settlement and for reconsideration of Judge Schweitzer’s December 19, 2014 order denying the motion to approve that proposed settlement.  A copy of that decision is available here: Decision on motions in Gordon v. Verizon Communications.  On September 14, 2015, the plaintiff filed a Notice of Appeal of that order.  See Notice of Appeal in Gordon v. Verizon Communications.

That is pretty much all that the case docket sheet reveals.  By all outward appearances, the case is otherwise in stasis.

Since Judge Schweitzer’s decision, the “disclosure only” settlements of merger challenges — referred to by Judge Schweitzer as “merger tax” settlements — have come under attack and disrepute in a number of court decisions.  Most recently, several decisions in the Delaware Chancery Court have rejected such proposed settlements.  See Delaware Judge Tells Plaintiff Lawyers: The M&A ‘Deal Tax’ Game Is Over; Game Over?: Del. Chancery Court Rejects Disclosure-Only Settlement in H-P/Aruba Networks Merger Objection Lawsuit; and Transcript of Del. Chancery Court Hearing in Aruba Networks Stockholder Litigation, in which Vice Chancellor Laster addressed a proposed disclosure-only settlement in the H-P/Aruba merger challenge.

It seems that this sordid practice may be on the wane because judges finally are doing their jobs.  But in the meantime, the supposed beneficiaries of these cases — the shareholders — are kept totally in the dark about these developments.  Plaintiff’s counsel should be keeping these putative clients informed but, at least in this case, are obviously failing to do so, presumably because they see no vigorish in it.  What a “profession”!

Straight Arrow

October 16, 2015

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New, Thorough Academic Analysis of In re Flannery Shows Many Flaws in the Far-Reaching SEC Majority Opinion

One of the most important actions by the SEC over the past year was the far-reaching majority opinion of three commissioners in In the Matter of Flannery and Hopkins, SEC Release No. 3981, 2014 WL 7145625 (Dec. 15, 2014). That opinion can be read here: In re Flannery Majority Opinion.

Soon after Flannery was decided, we discussed the extraordinary nature of this opinion in an administrative enforcement action, in which the majority sought to create new, precedential legal standards for the critical antifraud provisions of the Securities Act of 1933 (section 17(a)) and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (section 10(b)).  In many respects, the standards they espoused departed significantly from judicial precedent, including Supreme Court and Courts of Appeals decisions.  The majority specifically invoked the doctrine of deference under Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resource Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984), as a means of pressing for the courts to defer to these expressed views instead of continuing to develop the parameters of these statutes through judicial standards of statutory analysis.  See SEC Majority Argues for Negating Janus Decision with Broad Interpretation of Rule 10b-5.

Since that time, some commentators have addressed aspects of the Flannery decision.  See, for example, ‘‘We Intend to Resolve the Ambiguities’’: The SEC Issues Some Surprising Guidance on Fraud Liability in the Wake of JanusThe decision is currently being briefed on appeal in the First Circuit under the caption Flannery v. SEC, No. 15-1080 (1st Cir.).  You can read the appellant’s brief here: Flannery Opening Appeal Brief in Flannery v. SEC, and the SEC’s opposition brief here: SEC Opposition Brief in Flannery v. SEC.  An amicus brief filed on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce can be read here: Chamber of Commerce Amicus Brief in Flannery v. SEC.

For an opinion this far-reaching, and attempting to make such extraordinary changes in the interpretation and application of two key statutes, there has been sparse commentary and analysis overall.  Perhaps this is because the majority opinion was so expansive in what it addressed (often unnecessarily, purely in order to lay down the SEC’s marker) that it was difficult to analyze comprehensively.  Fortunately, this is about to change.  The first sophisticated and in-depth analysis of key aspects of the Flannery opinion is in the final stages, written by Andrew Vollmer, a highly- experienced former SEC Deputy General Counsel, former private securities enforcement lawyer, and current Professor of Law at the University of Virginia Law School and Director of its Law & Business Program.  Professor Vollmer released a current version of an article (still being revised) on SSRN.  It is worth reading in its entirety, and is available here: SEC Revanchism and the Expansion of Primary Liability Under Section 17(a) and Rule 10(b)(5).

Professor Vollmer had the wisdom to realize that the best in enemy of the good, and limited the scope of his article to analysis of the majority opinion’s effort to expand primary liability under section 17(a) and section 10(b) and its claimed entitlement to Chevron deference.  Other provocative aspects of the opinion are left for hoped-for future analysis (by Professor Vollmer or others).  But the important issues of the majority’s attempt to alter the trajectory of judicial legal developments governing section 17(a) and section 10(b) liability, and the majority’s assertion that its views on these issues are worthy of Chevron deference by the courts, are examined with a depth and sophistication lacking in any other publication to date known to us, and well beyond the level of analysis given to these issues by the Commission majority itself.

For those who want a flavor of Professor Vollmer’s views without delving into the entire 60-page comment, I will quote at some length portions of his useful executive summary:

An exceedingly important question for those facing the possibility of fraud charges in an enforcement case brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission is the scope of primary liability under the two main anti-fraud provisions, Section 17(a) of the Securities Act and Rule 10b-5 of the Securities Exchange Act.  That subject has received close attention from the Supreme Court and lower courts, and recently the SEC weighed in with a survey of each of the subparts of Section 17(a) and Rule 10b-5 in a decision in an administrative adjudication of enforcement charges.

In the Flannery decision, a bare majority of Commissioners staked out broad positions on primary liability under Rule 10b-5(a) and (c) and Section 17(a)(1), (2), and (3) . . . .  The Commission not only advanced expansive legal conclusions, but it also insisted that the courts accept the agency’s legal interpretations as controlling.

The SEC’s decision in Flannery raises thought-provoking issues about the role of administrative agencies in the development, enforcement, and adjudication of federal law. The purpose of this article is to discuss two of those issues.

The first concerns the consistency of Flannery with the Supreme Court and lower court decisions defining the scope of primary liability under Rule 10b-5 and Section 17(a).  This article explains that much about Flannery is not consistent with, and is antagonistic to, a series of prominent Supreme Court decisions that imposed meaningful boundaries around aspects of primary liability under Rule 10b-5.  Those decisions are Central Bank of Denver, NA v. First Interstate Bank of Denver, NA, Stoneridge Investment Partners, LLC v. Scientific-Atlanta, Inc., and Janus Capital Group, Inc. v. First Derivative Traders.

The Commission in Flannery sought to confine and distinguish those precedents, but Part II.A below questions the SEC’s reading of the cases and explores the reasoning and analysis in Stoneridge and Janus to determine whether the opinions were, as the Commission said, limited solely to the reliance element in private cases or to subpart (b) of Rule 10b-5.  That review reveals that the effort of the Supreme Court in the cases was to draw a crisper line between primary liability and aiding and abetting and to define a primary violator as the separate and independent person with final control and authority over the content and use of a communication to the investing public.  The Court’s rationales ran to both Rule10b-5 and Section 17(a).

Part II.B then compares the reasoning and analysis in the Supreme Court cases plus a selection of court of appeals decisions with the Commission’s approach in Flannery.  One point of comparison is that the Commission used a loose and unprincipled policy of interpreting the laws flexibly to achieve their remedial purpose.  The Supreme Court long ago discredited and refused to apply that policy, but Flannery wielded it repeatedly to reach outcomes that grossly exceed the boundaries the Court appeared to be setting in Stoneridge and Janus.

For example, the Commission would extend primary liability to a person who orchestrated a sham transaction designed to give the false appearance of business operations even if a material misstatement by another person creates the nexus between the scheme and the securities market.  According to the Commission, Section 17(a)(1) goes further and covers a person who entered into a legitimate, non-deceptive transaction with a reporting company but who knew that the public company planned to misstate the revenue. These constructions disregarded the lesson of Stoneridge.  A person entering into a transaction with a public company, even a deceptive transaction, that resulted in the public company’s disclosure of false financial statements did not have primary liability when the public company was independent and had final say about its disclosures.  The Commission would extend primary liability to a person who drafted, approved, or did not change a disclosure made by another, but Janus held that a person working on a public disclosure was not the primary actor when another independent person issued and had final say about the disclosure.

A reading of the Flannery decision leaves the definite impression that a majority of SEC Commissioners aimed to use the case as a vehicle to recover much of the territory lost in the enforcement area from the Supreme Court decisions and the lower federal courts that have been following the Supreme Court’s lead.  It was an effort to supersede the court judgments by re-interpreting and extending the prohibitions in Rule 10b-5 and Section 17(a).  If these concerns have merit, the actions of the SEC, an administrative agency within the Executive Branch, are unsettling.  They take the stare out of stare decisis, rattle the stability of legal rules, upset traditional expectations about the role of the courts in the development of the law, and head toward a society ruled by bureaucratic fiat rather than ordered by laws.

 The second issue discussed in this article is whether the courts must or should treat the SEC’s legal conclusions in an adjudication as controlling under Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, IncFlannery included an overt claim to Chevron deference.  Part III evaluates this bid for Chevron deference and concludes that the courts would have doctrinal and precedential grounds for refusing to accept the Flannery positions as controlling.  Part III.C goes through these reasons, starting with the text of the provision of the Administrative Procedure Act governing judicial review of agency actions and looking closely at the actual practice of the Supreme Court and courts of appeals when they review a legal conclusion in an agency adjudication.  Part III.E discusses particular features about Flannery that would justify a reviewing court in not giving controlling weight to the interpretations of Rule 10b-5 and Section 17(a).

The precedents identify good reasons for not granting Chevron deference to Flannery or similar agency adjudications in enforcement cases.  Giving controlling effect to the SEC’s decision in Flannery would allow the agency both to avoid the teachings of leading Supreme Court authorities and to trump the Supreme Court and other federal courts on significant matters of statutory interpretation.  It would empower the SEC to cut short and silence the normal process in the federal courts for testing and establishing the limits of liability provisions, and it would enable the SEC to tip the scales in enforcement cases by converting its litigating positions into non-reviewable legal interpretations.  The cumulative effect of an agency’s decision to roll back Supreme Court precedent and to consolidate for itself ultimate decision-making power over questions of law traditionally left to the courts would seriously alter a balance between agencies and courts long recognized in our system of government.

These two issues are not the only topics of interest in Flannery.  The Commission opinion raises many more.  Chief among them are the proper interpretations and coverage of each of the sub-parts of Section 17(a) and Rule 10b-5.  That was the main subject of Flannery, and it deserves careful study and analysis by courts, practitioners, and scholars.  The purpose of this article is not to propose conclusions on that important set of questions, although the discussion in Part II below will suggest some considerations and limitations that should bear on an appropriate construction of the statute and Rule.

Flannery touches on other points that are beyond the scope of this article. For example, the Commission majority suggested that the SEC does not need to prove either negligence or scienter for a violation of Section 17(a)(2) or (3).  Strict liability might exist, even though courts of appeals require the Commission to prove negligence.  Another example is the Commission’s position that Section 17(a)(3) prohibits pure omissions without a corresponding duty to disclose.  A third issue that deserves more attention is the Commission’s view that it could use a section of the Dodd-Frank Act to impose a monetary penalty in an administrative proceeding for conduct occurring before the enactment of the Dodd-Frank Act.  All in all, Flannery provides much fodder for rumination by the bench, bar, and academy.

Thanks to Professor Vollmer for picking up the gauntlet thrown down by three SEC commissioners in the Flannery opinion.  This is an important — a critical — battleground on which the scope of future liability for alleged securities fraud is now being fought.  Much of the commissioners’ expansive treatment of primary section 10(b) liability matters little to the SEC itself, because the SEC always has at its disposal allegations of aiding and abetting liability in its enforcement actions.  The crucial impact of the expanded scope of primary section 10(b) liability would be in private securities class actions.  The careful limits on securities class action strike suits against alleged secondary violators in the Supreme Court’s decisions in Central Bank, Stoneridge, and Janus would fall by the wayside under the majority’s expanded view of primary section 10(b) liability.  In no small respect, the three commissioners who penned the Flannery opinion are laying the foundation for the future wealth of the private securities plaintiffs’ bar more than they are creating meaningful enforcement precedent for the SEC itself.  Only the staunch, rigorous analysis of those like Professor Vollmer may stand in the way of that questionable redistribution of wealth.

Straight Arrow

July 9, 2015

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AIG Shareholder Claims Against the Government Are No Joke

I must admit that I haven’t been taking Hank Greenberg’s claim on behalf of AIG shareholders against the U.S. Government (Starr Int’l Co., Inc. v. United States, No. 11-00779C (Court of Federal Claims)) very seriously.  I noted it as an oddity – a shareholder claim against the Government in the Court of Claims does not come around very often.  But, although I had little doubt that the Government’s raid on AIG equity during the financial crisis was a “taking,” I figured there is no chance of a court ever holding the Government accountable.  I read with bemusement the reports of testimony from Hank Paulson, Tim Geithner, Ben Bernanke, and the like, but that seemed more like a minstrel show than a takings trial. And David Boise, while a fine lawyer, struck me as pursuing this more to cement his reputation as a creative lawyer (and get a healthy fee from Mr. Greenberg) than actually to win.

That was before I managed to attend the closing argument before Court of Claims Judge Thomas Wheeler last Wednesday.  I left the argument with the distinct sense that there is a serious claim here that, if politics doesn’t get in the way, could be successful.  I was impressed by the substance of the plaintiffs’ argument and the lack of much substance in the Government’s defense.

As I understand the claims, albeit without actually having read the complaint or the numerous pleadings before the court, they are pretty simple.  When the Nation was in the maelstrom of the financial crisis, money stopped flowing, and some folks believed it could bring down the entire banking system and economy.  The Government moved to try to assist financial firms that were struggling with the lack of liquidity in the markets.  It took steps to bring a number of firms back from the brink in the Fall and Winter of 2008, including Goldman Sachs, Citibank, Morgan Stanley, and AIG, among others, all of which faced a lock-up of liquidity after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008.  It did so based on a Depression-era statute that authorized the Government to provide liquidity to solvent firms that were facing extinction because of liquidity problems.  The provision relied upon was section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act, which authorized loans to these businesses based on four requirements: (1) the existence of “unusual and exigent circumstances”; (2) the borrower ’s ability to provide security for the loan; (3) the absence of private sources of liquidity; and (4) consideration in the form of an “interest rate” to be determined by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve “fixed with a view of accommodating commerce and business.”

The terms of the assistance given by the Government to other firms, however, differed substantially from the terms exacted from AIG.  The loans to firms like Goldman, Morgan Stanley, and Citibank were made at rates determined by the Fed Board in the range of 2 to 3 percent.  The terms demanded from AIG were far different: an interest rate of 14% plus the transfer of 79.9% of AIG’s equity to the Government.  In other words, AIG was the only firm whose shareholders were required to dilute their ownership in order to obtain relief from the Government.

The claims are straightforward: (1) the extortion of 80% ownership of AIG from the shareholders as part of the price of assistance was a governmental taking of private property required to be compensated under the Fifth Amendment; and (2) the inclusion of the transfer of 80% of the equity of AIG to the Government as a term of the section 13(3) loan was an “illegal exaction” of property from the shareholders by the Government because it was not authorized by any statute.

The statutory argument seems particularly strong.  Section 13(3) lays out precisely what the Government can obtain in return for providing an emergency loan, and that is an interest rate “fixed with a view of accommodating commerce and business.”  There is no statutory authority to demand an ownership interest in return for providing relief, and, according to the oral argument, a provision for such was removed from an earlier draft of the statute precisely because Congress did not believe the Government should be in the business of acquiring ownership interests in private businesses in return for needed emergency financial relief.

The Government’s defenses, on the other hand, seem weak.  The main ones seem to be that (1) there can be no taking or illegal exaction claims because the AIG shareholders, through their Board of Directors, voluntarily agreed to accept the Government’s terms, and they were not entitled to better terms; (2) demanding the transfer of equity ownership was fair and appropriate because otherwise the AIG shareholders would have gained a huge windfall from the government intervention; (3) demanding the transfer of equity ownership was necessary because otherwise the Government would be endorsing moral hazard; and (4) the shareholders didn’t suffer any damage anyway because the end result of the transaction lifted the value of their shares, even taking into account the 80% dilution, compared to no transaction at all.

These arguments seem transparently insufficient: (1) deciding to accept the Government’s “take it or leave it” terms hardly seems “voluntary” and much more seems like coercion; (2) the shareholders never actually accepted any terms – the Board of Directors did, without a shareholder vote (which probably was required for such a transfer of control and overall dilution) at the Government’s insistence (because the vote almost certainly would have failed); (3) the AIG shareholders would not have gained any windfall other than what section 13(3) contemplates – the recovery of a solvent, privately-owned firm from a liquidity squeeze – and, in any event, the “windfall” was certainly no different than the benefits accruing to shareholders of the other assisted entities (Goldman Sachs, Citibank, Morgan Stanley, etc.); and (4) the “moral hazard” argument suffers from the same flaw because all of the assisted entities were essentially in the same boat, plus, section 13(3) does not provide discretion to ask for more consideration as a means of avoiding “moral hazard,” or the like.

As for the argument that the shareholders suffered no loss from the taking of 80% of their equity away from them, that seems hardly to pass the “ha ha” test.  It’s as if a mobster were to argue that a 20% per week vigorish on a “loan” is not excessive because the borrower is better off than having access to no funds at all, and the gangster simply wasn’t going to accept less interest.  To be sure, the shareholders may well have gotten an immediate gain when the deal was announced because the alternative was bankruptcy, but that is a specious comparison.  The appropriate comparison for purposes of determining whether the taking of equity caused a loss to shareholders is not to the denial of any emergency relief under section 13(3), but to the granting of relief on terms permissible under the statute.  It was plain at the time that avoiding an AIG bankruptcy was a paramount Government objective because the unraveling of AIG could have caused a financial disaster, and I understand there is ample evidence in the record to support that allowing AIG to go under was not viewed as an acceptable alternative.  But the Government insisted on the transfer to it of an 80% ownership interest to assure that the AIG shareholders “paid a price” for the relief.  In other words, the benefit that went to the shareholders flowed from providing a section 13(3) loan, it was not the result of the Government’s decision to demand, apparently unlawfully, that they transfer 80% ownership in addition to the interest charged, which was the only form of consideration permitted by the statute.  (In actuality, setting a rate of 14% interest was already a form of penalizing AIG, since it seems unlikely that this was “with a view of accommodating commerce and business” when the other firms were paying 2-3% interest.)

A review of AIG’s stock price movement after the bailing out of AIG became public shows that the 80% equity vigorish demanded by the Government was worth between $25 and $50 billion.  That is the property that was demanded by the Government, apparently unlawfully, and it surely represents a real and compensable loss, just as the difference between 20% annual interest on a lawful loan and 1,000% annual interest from the loan shark represents a loss to the borrower from the loan shark’s unlawful conduct (even if the borrower was able to save his life by using the loan to pay off another gangster).

Who knows what Judge Wheeler will do, or what will happen on appeal to the Federal Circuit.  The political consequences of finding that government officials at the highest levels acted unlawfully are daunting.  But to me, the claims asserted are not as easily dismissed as the Government suggests.  They warrant serious attention and evaluation, which appears to be exactly what Judge Wheeler is doing.

Straight Arrow

April 24, 2015

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