Top 5 RMBS Cases to Watch: No. 3

All this week, we will be looking at Isaac Gradman’s Top 5 RMBS Cases to watch this Summer (author bio at bottom). 

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My Top 5 RMBS Cases to Watch series began earlier this week with a look at a long-running lawsuit by bond insurer Syncora against EMC and a novel investor lawsuit against Bank of New York Mellon, as Trustee, both of which are being heard in federal court in New York.  Today, I will tackle a state court case that doesn’t deal directly with RMBS, but which was engendered by, and could have a major influence over, the allocation of mortgage derivative losses.  As our Top 5 Countdown continues with Case No. 3, let’s examine how the impact of a Judge’s forthcoming decision after weeks of “quasi-trial” will reverberate throughout other ongoing lawsuits, including several cases over which the same Judge will be presiding.

No. 3 – ABN AMRO Bank v. Dinallo (Article 78 proceeding)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about some last-minute shenanigans that took place in ABN AMRO Bank v. Dinallo and were worthy of a prime time television courtroom drama.  Namely, with only a few days to go before the parties were to present what has variously been called a “quasi-trial” or a “glorified oral argument” on BofA and Societe Generale’s challenge to MBIA’s restructuring, the parties held an impromptu call with the Judge to argue over the scope of the proceeding and whether there should be a “trial” at all.  On the call, Judge Barbara Kapnick reiterated that there would be some kind of trial, that she would hear from live witnesses on any questions of fact she deemed relevant, and then ultimately hung up on the parties when they overstayed their welcome.

Since that time, Judge Kapnick has indeed conducted what amounted to a “glorified oral argument” on the Article 78 challenge (a special vehicle under New York law for

 

challenging agency decisions

), but declined to hear from any live witnesses, and instead opted for no less than seven rounds of oral argument from the various parties.  This has resulted in a proceeding with very little of the drama or entertainment value that preceded it.

In fact, the banks challenging the restructuring wrapped up their final arguments last Thursday, clearing the way for Judge Kapnick to make a ruling in this widely-followed precursor to BofA’s plenary action against MBIA (over which Judge Kapnick will also preside) and MBIA’s put-back case against BofA (before Judge Eileen Bransten). As Judge Kapnick begins her deliberations on the merits of the Article 78 challenge, she can’t help but be cognizant of the following external factors:

  1. That her decision will likely be appealed;
  2. That she’ll have a chance in BofA’s plenary action to address head-on whether MBIA violated debtor-creditor law or withheld material information when seeking approval of its restructuring from regulators, and
  3. That she has another major case pending in her court that has also been brought via a special vehicle under New York law (Bank of New York Mellon’s Article 77 action to obtain approval for the trustee’s settlement), in which the standard of review (arbitrary and capricious) is virtually identical to that of the instant case.

These external conditions will certainly factor into the Judge’s decision, even if not cited directly.

For example, Judge Kapnick has stated on the record that she expects her decision to be appealed, which gives us some clues as to how she might be leaning based on how the “quasi-trial” played out.  As Alison Frankel has pointed out on her blog, the fact that Judge Kapnick declined to hear testimony from live witnesses such as Jack Buchmiller and Eric Dinallo, the two New York Insurance Department (NYID) officials whose names came up repeatedly during these proceedings, supports the impression that she’s not inclined to rule in the banks’ favor.  Should Kapnick have had serious doubts about the steps they took in approving MBIA’s transaction, I would have expected her to want to hear from those gentlemen herself, to see them subjected to thorough cross-examination (either by the banks’ counsel or by Her Honor herself), and have them explain to the Court what they did and why.  This would lay the groundwork for Kapnick to make a finding against the Department based on a credibility determination, something about which appellate courts are generally highly deferential.

Suffice it to say, if Judge Kapnick was going to stick her neck out and make the extraordinary ruling that the NYID acted arbitrarily and capriciously in approving MBIA’s restructuring, I would expect to have seen her take pains to create a record in support, which would bolster her ruling on appeal.  Instead, the outcome of the “trial” suggests that Kapnick did not feel there were disputed issues of fact, or that anything raised in the banks’ presentation constituted reversible error by the NYID on its face, which leads me to believe she’ll rule in favor of the NYID.

Ms. Frankel has noted that this factor could also point the other way, in that Kapnick may face reversal for not allowing live testimony and giving the banks a full and fair hearing, but I think that the limited nature of the Article 78 proceeding will work in Kapnick’s favor in this case.  Rather than holding a de novo review of the merits of the NYID’s decision, Kapnick’s role was to provide a highly deferential review of an agency decision, informed largely by the administrative record.  Unless she intends to rule against the NYID without even reaching the “arbitrary and capricious standard” (unlikely, as my reading of the case law would not support such a finding in this case), the absence of live testimony signals a rubber stamp of the transformation.

Regardless of the outcome, though this is not technically a case about RMBS, this decision is certainly one to watch for, as a win for BofA could force MBIA to unwind its company-saving restructuring (or at least into a favorable settlement of its put-back claims), while a win for the Department of Insurance would clear the way for MBIA to inflict major mortgage put-back pain on its bank counterparties as it continues to push forward with its put-back lawsuits.  Recall that the reason MBIA was forced to restructure is that mounting losses from its mortgage-related insurance products threatened to overwhelm the monoline’s healthier municipal bond business.

Yet, even with the restructuring, MBIA has apparently been able to satisfy all of its mortgage-related insurance policy claims.  As I have discussed in the past, I view the banks’ challenge to MBIA’s restructuring to have been brought as a litigation counterweight in the first place, to provide the banks (and particularly BofA) with a bargaining chip with which to drive down the settlement cost of MBIA’s auspicious mortgage repurchase claims.  The fact that all but a handful of the 16 or so of the banks originally challenging the restructuring have now settled with MBIA, save the one bank with the most potential exposure to MBIA’s claims, only bolsters this view.

For those interested in reading through the nitty-gritty details of this Article 78 “trial,” MBIA has conveniently posted transcripts from each day of proceedings on its website.  Though most of the parties’ presentations dealt with arcane issues of financial modeling and accounting rules, one argument in particular caught my attention and illustrated the overlap between this case and other RMBS litigation.

In arguing that the NYID’s decision to approve MBIA’s restructuring was “arbitrary and capricious,” the banks raised an allegation that either MBIA or the Department of Insurance should have hired BlackRock to conduct a solvency analysis on the bond insurer, as BlackRock “is the best modeling firm in the world.”  (June 1 Transcript at 1509:24)  MBIA attorney Mark Kasowitz responded, in turn, that the NYID had no responsibility to hire a third party to conduct a solvency analysis when the third party’s process lacked transparency, stating:

Your Honor, the idea that this court should null the transformation because Superintendent Dinallo did not outsource his regulatory obligations to a third-party firm that wouldn’t let him see what their proprietary models are, frankly, absurd. (June 4 Transcript at 1779:2-6)

But what really caught my eye was that the banks raised the fact that BlackRock had asserted put-back claims against Countrywide and BofA as evidence that BlackRock was impartial and non-conflicted.  In response, Kasowitz proceeded to identify several conflicts of interest that existed between BlackRock and Bank of America as further support of MBIA’s decision not to hire the firm.  These arguments are very likely to be raised in the separate Article 77 proceeding in which Judge Kapnick is being asked to approve Bank of New York’s $8.5 billion settlement with, among others, BlackRock.  This may make Judge Kapnick more open to conflict-of-interest-based challenges to the supposedly adversarial process through which the trustee and institutional investors reached their settlement over Countrywide put-back claims.

In the Article 77 case (which just might make our Countdown later this week), BlackRock is part of an investor group that claims to represent the interests of the majority of bondholders.  However, as I’ve detailed in the past, there are many reasons to believe that BlackRock, PIMCO and the other funds supporting this sweetheart settlement have little interest in obtaining fair value for their claims.  Kasowitz touched on some of those reasons during his sur-reply presentation in the Article 78 proceeding:

BlackRock during the relevant time period here was owned almost 50 percent by B of A, who is a policyholder and a petitioner in this case and a plaintiff in the DCL matter and the like. We pointed out that, you know, that’s a pretty egregious conflict to hire as a consultant the people  who are, in effect, your counterparty and potentially your adversary.  It sounds like a conflict to me, your Honor.  We point out something else.  That wasn’t just our view about things.  We cited during our last presentation the report that was issued by the General Accountability Office of the federal government, which said in situations involving Bank of America or Merrill Lynch, BlackRock is off the list.  They have an inherent conflict.  They’re off the list.  (June 4 Transcript at 1782:20-1783:4)

While the argument over the failure to hire BlackRock evoked interesting parallels to ongoing RMBS litigation, it is ultimately a sideshow in the Article 78 proceeding.  It does, however, highlight how much subjectivity and how many judgment calls were involved in the NYID’s decision to approve MBIA’s restructuring.  It’s just these types of subjective calls that Kapnick is unlikely to second guess.  Though the banks make much of the fact that MBIA had insufficient earned surplus to issue the dividend it did as part of the transaction (and indeed, this is likely the banks’ best argument), I just don’t see Judge Kapnick feeling confident enough that this transformation ran afoul of the complex accounting and insurance law standards at play to find that the Insurance Commissioner’s decision was wholly irrational.

At the end of the “trial,” Kapnick suggested that it would take her several weeks, if not months, to go through all the evidence presented by the parties during their 3 years of litigation, meaning we should expect a decision on the propriety of MBIA’s restructuring sometime before the end of the summer.  Though this certainly will not be the last we hear of the challenges to MBIA’s restructuring, this initial ruling should have a major influence on the risk analyses of, and the course of negotiations between, two of the biggest players in RMBS litigation.

Click here to continue to Case No. 2 in our Top 5 Countdown, and find out why time is of the essence in one big bank’s efforts to put the mortgage crisis behind it.

[Correction: an earlier version of this article featured an typo in the name of the Article 78 case (hat tip reader Alex Ryer) – IMG]

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