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Winstar Corp. v. U.S.

Decided: August 30, 1995.


Appealed from: U.S. Court of Federal Claims. Chief Judge Smith.

Before Archer, Chief Judge,*fn* and Rich, Nies, Newman, Mayer, Michel, Plager, Lourie, Clevenger, Rader, and Schall, Circuit Judges.*fn** Opinion for the court filed by Chief Judge Archer, in which Circuit Judges Rich, Newman, Mayer, Michel, Plager, Clevenger, Rader, and Schall join. Dissenting opinions filed by Circuit Judges Nies, and Lourie.


ARCHER, Chief Judge.

The United States appeals the decisions*fn1 of the United States Court of Federal Claims*fn2 granting plaintiffs Winstar Corporation and United Federal Savings Bank, No. 90-8C, plaintiffs Statesman Savings Holding Corporation, the Statesman Group Incorporated and American Life and Casualty Company, No. 90-773C, and plaintiff Glendale Federal Bank, No. 90-772C, summary judgment on the liability portion of their breach of contract claims against the United States. The cases were consolidated for purposes of this interlocutory appeal. We affirm.


In its Winstar decisions, the Court of Federal Claims found that an implied-in-fact contract existed between the government and Winstar and that the government breached this contract when Congress enacted the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 (FIRREA), Pub. L. No. 101-73, 103 Stat. 183 (codified in relevant part at 12 U.S.C. § 1464). Similarly, in the Statesman decision the Court of Federal Claims found that plaintiffs Statesman Savings Holding Corporation, the Statesman Group Incorporated and the American Life and Casualty Insurance Company (together "Statesman") and plaintiff Glendale Federal Bank ("Glendale") had express contracts with the government and citing its Winstar decision, found that these contracts were breached by the enactment of FIRREA.

The Court of Federal Claims certified its decisions in these three related cases for interlocutory appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) after determining that the decisions involved controlling questions of law as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion and that an immediate appeal may materially advance the termination of these and other related cases. We granted the appeal. 979 F.2d 216 (Fed. Cir. 1992). After an initial split panel decision of this Court reversed the Court of Federal Claims, 994 F.2d 797 (Fed. Cir. 1993), we vacated the panel opinion and agreed with the plaintiffs' suggestion to consider these cases in banc.


A. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, 40 percent of the nation's $20 billion in home mortgages went into default, 1700 of the approximately 12,000 thrift institutions failed, and depositors in these thrifts lost $200 million. H.R. Rep. No. 54(I), 101st Cong., 1st Sess. 292 (1989), reprinted in 1989 U.S.C.C.A.N. 86, 88-89 (House Report). Congress took several measures in response. First, Congress created the Federal Home Loan Bank Board (Bank Board) to channel funds to thrifts in order to prevent foreclosures and to allow thrifts to make loans on residences. House Report at 292, 1989 U.S.C.C.A.N. at 88; see Federal Home Loan Bank Act, Pub. L. No. 72-304, 47 Stat. 725 (1932) (codified as amended at 12 U.S.C. §§ 1421-1449 (1988)). Next, Congress added the Home Owners' Loan Act, which authorized the Bank Board to charter and regulate federal savings and loan associations. Pub. L. No. 73-43, 48 Stat. 128 (1933) (codified as amended at 12 U.S.C. §§ 1461-1468 (1988)). Then, to further restore public confidence in thrift institutions, Congress in the National Housing Act of 1934 provided federal deposit insurance for depositors. Pub. L. No. 73-479, 48 Stat. 1246 (1934) (codified as amended at 12 U.S.C. §§ 1701-1750g (1988)). This act also established the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC), an agency under the Bank Board's authority that regulated all federally insured thrifts.

Among the regulatory requirements promulgated and enforced by the agencies were capital requirements, which were minimum reserves of capital that a thrift had to maintain. Failure to comply with minimum regulatory capital requirements had severe repercussions for a thrift. The agencies had a variety of measures that could be taken against noncomplying thrifts. In the most serious cases, the government could seize the thrift and place it into receivership where it might later be sold or liquidated. This drastic remedy was rarely necessary, however, because of the relative health of the thrift industry until the thrift crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s high interest rates resulted in sharply higher costs of funds for thrifts. The thrifts' main assets were long-term, fixed-rate mortgages taken during times of lower interest rates. As a result, the revenues produced by these mortgages were exceeded by the rapidly rising costs of attracting short-term deposits. Thrifts that were locked into long-term low interest rate loans simply could not meet their deposit obligations. This interest rate mismatch was one of the principal causes of numerous thrift failures. Eighty-one thrifts failed in 1981, 252 in 1982, and 102 in 1983. House Report at 296, 1989 U.S.C.C.A.N. at 92.

With all of these bank failures and the likelihood of more occurring, the FSLIC faced deposit insurance liabilities that threatened to exhaust its insurance fund. See Olympic Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n v. Director, OTS, 732 F. Supp. 1183, 1185 (D.D.C. 1990). As an alternative to liquidating failing thrifts and expending the FSLIC's insurance funds, the Bank Board and FSLIC encouraged healthy thrifts to merge with the failing ones. In these supervisory mergers, the regulators provided direct assistance and other incentives necessary for the healthy thrifts to maintain their financial well-being after the mergers and in this way the regulators tried to avoid paying off the failing thrifts' deposits out of the FSLIC's insurance fund. Among the incentives offered by the FSLIC and the Bank Board was the use of the purchase method of accounting under which "supervisory goodwill" resulting from the merger would be treated as satisfying part of the merged thrift's regulatory capital requirements. See Bank Board Memorandum R-31b (1981). Another incentive was the use of "capital credits" that also could be counted toward the regulatory capital requirements.

The purchase method of accounting is a generally accepted accounting practice (GAAP) for mergers, which accounts for the surplus of the purchase price over the fair market value of the acquired organization as goodwill, an intangible asset. As explained by the Court of Federal Claims:

Under [the purchase method of accounting,] . . . the book value of the acquired thrift's assets and liabilities was adjusted to fair market value at the time of the acquisition. Any excess in the cost of the acquisition (which included liabilities assumed by the acquirer) over the fair market value of the acquired assets was separately recorded on the acquirer's books as "goodwill." . . . Goodwill was considered an intangible asset that could be amortized on a straightline basis over a number of years.

Winstar I, 21 Cl. Ct. at 113. In the context of a supervisory merger, the difference between the fair market value of the failing thrift's liabilities assumed by an acquirer and the fair market value of the failing thrift's assets was considered "supervisory goodwill." The Bank Board and the FSLIC allowed the merged thrifts to count this supervisory goodwill toward the minimum regulatory capital requirements and to amortize this goodwill over periods of up to 40 years. This permitted the healthy thrift to assume the deposit liabilities of the failing thrift and to maintain capital compliance without having to put up large amounts of its own money and without requiring large amounts of monetary assistance from the government.

The capital credits incentive used by the Bank Board and the FSLIC to encourage mergers with failing thrifts involved the FSLIC's contribution of cash to the merged thrifts. The regulators allowed a portion or all of this cash contribution to be treated as partial satisfaction of the merged thrift's regulatory capital requirements. In addition, this cash contribution in some instances would not be treated as an asset in determining supervisory goodwill generated by the merger.

Allowing acquirers of failing thrifts to treat supervisory goodwill and capital credits as regulatory capital stimulated many acquisitions that would otherwise not have taken place because of the difficulty of meeting the minimum capital requirements. Indeed this was the precise intention of the Bank Board and FSLIC -- supervisory mergers could not have occurred without the approval by the regulatory agencies of these accounting treatments. As former Bank Board Chairman Richard Pratt stated in testimony before Congress:

The Bank Board was caught between a rock and a hard place. While it did not have sufficient resources to close all insolvent institutions, at the same time, it had to consolidate the industry, move weaker institutions into stronger hands and do everything possible to minimize losses during the transition period. Goodwill was an indispensable tool in performing this task. The GAAP approach to purchase method accounting mergers provided a bridge which allowed the Bank Board to encourage the necessary consolidation of the industry, while at the same time husbanding the financial resources which were then available to it.

Savings and Loan Policies in the Late 1970s and 1980s: Hearings Before the House Comm. on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs, 101st Cong., 2d Sess., No. 176, at 227 (1990).

B. Winstar, Statesman and Glendale acquired insolvent, failing thrifts under this policy of encouraging thrift mergers. In each case, they received the government's approval and assistance. In each case, the government saved millions of dollars that it would have had to pay to the insured depositors if the failing thrifts had been liquidated instead of being acquired.

1. In September of 1981, Glendale Federal Bank was approached by First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Broward County (Broward) about a possible merger. Glendale was a federal savings and loan association based in California. It was a profitable thrift, which was in full regulatory compliance. Broward was a federal savings and loan association based in Florida that had incurred significant losses. Broward's liabilities exceeded its assets by approximately $734 million. Glendale submitted a merger proposal to the FSLIC. Glendale proposed to use the purchase method of accounting to record the supervisory goodwill resulting from this accounting as an intangible asset amortizable over periods up to 40 years. After lengthy negotiations over the terms and conditions, the FSLIC agreed to provide assistance to the merged entity and to recommend approval of the merger transaction to the Bank Board.

In its resolution approving the merger plan between Glendale and Broward, the Bank Board imposed the condition that Glendale provide an opinion letter satisfactory to the Board's supervisory agent from its independent accountants justifying the use of the purchase method of accounting, specifically describing any goodwill arising from the merger, and substantiating the reasonableness of the amounts attributable to goodwill and the resulting amortization periods and methods. The Bank Board resolution also gave the FSLIC authority to enter into a Supervisory Action Agreement (SAA) with Glendale. The SAA with Glendale was signed in November of 1981 and Glendale promptly consummated its merger with Broward. As required by the Bank Board resolution, Glendale later provided its accountants' justification and opinion letter satisfactory to the Bank Board, which stated that "$18,000,000 of the resultant goodwill . . . will be amortized on a straight line basis over 12 years" and that the "remaining goodwill of $716,666,000 will be amortized on a straight line basis over 40 years." By the government's estimates, the Glendale-Broward merger saved the government approximately three quarters of a billion dollars.

2. In 1987 Statesman approached the FSLIC about acquiring a subsidiary of an insolvent state-chartered FSLIC insured savings and loan in Florida, First Federated Savings Bank (First Federated). The FSLIC responded to the inquiry by indicating that Statesman would have to acquire all of First Federated if the government was to assist. Further, it would require that Statesman's acquisition of First Federated be combined with the acquisition of three other financially troubled thrifts in Iowa.*fn3 After a year of negotiating the FSLIC and Statesman agreed on the terms of a complex plan whereby Statesman would acquire the four thrifts.

Like the merger of Glendale, Statesman's merger plan called for the use of the purchase method of accounting. The Statesman plan called for an investment by Statesman and its co-investor American Life and Casualty Company of $21 million into Statesman's Savings Holding Company, which in turn would purchase $21 million of stock in a newly-formed federal stock savings bank named Statesman Bank for Savings. The Statesman Bank for Savings would then merge with the four failing thrifts.

As part of the transactions, the FSLIC and Statesman entered into an Assistance Agreement calling for the FSLIC to provide a $60 million cash contribution to the Statesman Bank for Savings. Under the Assistance Agreement and the Bank Board Resolution approving the merger, $26 million of this cash contribution (including $5 million represented by a debenture that Statesman was required to pay back) was to be permanently credited to Statesman's regulatory capital (i.e., as a capital credit) for purposes of meeting minimum regulatory capital requirements. Statesman's merger is the only one of the three at issue in this appeal that involves a capital credit.

The Bank Board resolution permitted use of the purchase method of accounting. Supervisory goodwill arising from the merger acquisitions in the amount of $25.8 million was recognized as a capital asset for purposes of meeting regulatory capital requirements and Statesman was allowed to amortize that goodwill over 25 years. The Bank Board granted authority to the FSLIC to enter into the Assistance Agreement with Statesman and required Statesman to provide an opinion letter from its independent accountants to justify its use of the purchase method of accounting and supervisory goodwill. Statesman provided the opinion letter to the agency's satisfaction. By the government's estimates, the cost of the Statesman merger to the government was $50 million less than the cost of liquidating the four thrifts.

3. In 1983 a Minnesota-based thrift, Windom Federal Savings and Loan Association (Windom), was in danger of failing. The board of directors of Windom determined that its failure could not be avoided without assistance from the FSLIC. The FSLIC estimated that liquidating the federally insured thrift could cost $12 million dollars and it pursued an alternative to paying this money out of its insurance fund. It chose to solicit bids for the acquisition of Windom.

Winstar Corporation was a holding company formed by investors for the purpose of acquiring Windom. Winstar in turn formed a new wholly-owned, federal stock savings bank, United Federal Savings Bank, to merge with Windom. Winstar's plan contemplated financing the merger by cash contributions by both the investors and the FSLIC. The plan also called for use of the purchase method of accounting and recording supervisory goodwill as an intangible asset which initially was to amortized over a period of 40 years (later changed to 35 years). After negotiating the terms with Winstar Corporation and its investors, the FSLIC recommended to the Bank Board that it approve the merger plan. The Bank Board approved the merger again subject to Winstar providing an opinion letter from its independent accountants justifying the use of the purchase method of accounting and detailing the resulting supervisory goodwill. As a part of the transaction, FSLIC signed an Assistance Agreement with Winstar Corporation and the Bank Board issued a forbearance letter. The forbearance letter stated that intangible assets resulting from use of the purchase method of accounting "may be amortized . . . over a period not to exceed 35 years by the straight-line method." By the government's estimates, the Winstar-Windom merger saved the government $7 million over what liquidation of Windom would have cost.

C. In spite of these and similar actions taken by the Bank Board and the FSLIC, thrifts continued to fail and the public confidence in the thrift industry continued to erode during the late 1980s. In response to this crisis in the savings and loan industry, Congress in 1989 passed FIRREA. FIRREA substantially modified the overall thrift regulatory scheme. As pertinent here, it (1) abolished the FSLIC and transferred its functions to other agencies; (2) created a new thrift deposit insurance fund under the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC); (3) eliminated the Bank Board and replaced it with the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS), an office within the Department of Treasury, and made the OTS Director responsible for the regulation of all federally insured savings associations and the chartering of federal thrifts; and (4) established the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC), which was charged with closing certain thrifts. See 12 U.S.C. §§ 1437 note, 1441a, 1821.

Among the legislative reforms of FIRREA was the requirement that the OTS "prescribe and maintain uniformly applicable capital standards for savings associations." 12 U.S.C. § 1464(t)(1)(a). In addition, Congress expressly restricted the continued use of supervisory goodwill to satisfy regulatory capital requirements.

FIRREA required federally insured thrifts to satisfy three new minimum capital standards: "tangible" capital, "core" capital, and "risk-based" capital. 12 U.S.C. § 1464(t). Under FIRREA supervisory goodwill could not be included at all in satisfying minimum tangible capital. The amount of supervisory goodwill that could be included in satisfying "core" capital decreased each year after FIRREA's enactment and was entirely phased out on December 31, 1994. Finally, thrifts were required to maintain "risk-based" capital in an amount substantially comparable to that required by the Comptroller of the Currency for national banks. 12 U.S.C. § 1464(t)(2)(C). Although supervisory goodwill could be used for this purpose, FIRREA limited its amortization to a period of no more than 20 years. 12 U.S.C. § 1464(t)(9)(B).

FIRREA did not specifically cover capital credits or otherwise exclude FSLIC cash contributions from capital for purposes of determining compliance with any of the minimum capital requirements. The OTS, however, equated capital credits with "qualifying supervisory goodwill" within the meaning of the statute and promulgated a regulation that treated capital credits in the same manner as supervisory goodwill. 12 C.F.R. § 567.1(w).

As a result of FIRREA and the OTS regulation, many thrifts that were previously in full compliance with the regulations on capital requirements failed to satisfy the new capital standards and immediately became subject to seizure. Glendale initially remained in compliance with the three new capital standards of FIRREA even though it was required to exclude all the unamortized supervisory goodwill that resulted from its merger with Broward for purposes of calculating its tangible capital and was required to accelerate the amortization of supervisory goodwill in calculating its required core and risk-based capital requirements. However, Glendale had to implement costly new measures to compensate for the exclusion of much of its supervisory goodwill from regulatory capital. Later, in March 1992, Glendale fell out of compliance with the risk-based capital standard.

After FIRREA, Statesman immediately fell below the three new capital standards established by the Act. As a result, the OTS appointed the RTC as receiver for Statesman in July of 1990. Winstar also fell into noncompliance as soon as the FIRREA capital requirements became effective. Winstar was placed in receivership by the OTS in May of 1990.

D. The plaintiffs filed suit in the Court of Federal Claims alleging that under FIRREA the preclusion or limited availability to them of supervisory goodwill (and capital credits in the case of Statesman) for satisfying regulatory capital constituted a breach of contract or, in the alternative, a taking of their contract rights without compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment. The plaintiffs claimed that the government was contractually obligated to recognize supervisory goodwill generated by the mergers (and capital credits) as an intangible capital asset for purposes of their compliance with minimum regulatory capital standards. The plaintiffs also claimed that they were entitled to amortize that supervisory goodwill for the agreed periods established at the time of their acquisitions of failing thrifts. Under their contract claims, plaintiffs asserted that FIRREA, and the regulations thereunder, as applied to them, breached those contract obligations. All of the plaintiffs filed summary judgment motions on the issue of liability.

The government defended on the grounds that there were no contractual rights as alleged and that in any event the alleged agreements were subject to statutory and regulatory changes. Relying principally on Bowen v. Public Agencies Opposed to Social Security Entrapment (POSSE), 477 U.S. 41, 91 L. Ed. 2d 35, 106 S. Ct. 2390 (1986), the government argued that the thrifts impermissibly sought to enjoin Congress' power to legislate and the agencies' power to regulate. The government further argued that the sovereign acts doctrine, as stated in Horowitz v. United States, 267 U.S. 458, 461, 69 L. Ed. 736, 45 S. Ct. 344 (1925), precluded recovery for any contractual rights breached by FIRREA.

The Court of Federal Claims granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs on the issue of liability under the contract claims and did not reach the constitutional takings claims. The court found that binding contracts were made between plaintiffs and the FSLIC in each of the three merger transactions. It held that these contracts were breached when the regulatory capital requirements of FIRREA, and the regulations, were applied to plaintiffs. The Court of Federal Claims distinguished POSSE on the grounds that the case did not involve bargained for contract rights but rather involved an entitlement program. The court also distinguished POSSE because the relief sought was an injunction to prevent the government from acting in its sovereign capacity, whereas plaintiffs only claimed damages for breach of their contracts. Finally, the Court of Federal Claims found that FIRREA, in specifically limiting the use of supervisory goodwill that had previously been contractually authorized, was not a sovereign act but rather was aimed directly at thrifts with contracts like those of the plaintiffs. Thus, the court concluded that the government could not rely on the sovereign acts doctrine to shield it from liability.


We review the Court of Federal Claims' grant of summary judgment under a de novo standard of review, with justifiable factual inferences being drawn in favor of the party opposing summary judgment. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 106 S. Ct. 2505 (1986). On appeal both parties ask for entry of judgment in their favor based on the uncontested facts of record.

A. The Court of Federal Claims found that all the thrifts had contracts with the government that contained terms allowing the use of supervisory goodwill (and in Statesman's case, capital credits) to satisfy a portion of their regulatory capital requirements and that this intangible asset could be amortized over extended periods of time. In the Glendale and Statesman cases, the court determined there were express contracts with these terms, and in Winstar's case, that there was an implied-in-fact contract with these terms. The government initially contends that no such contractual terms existed.

Contract construction is a question of law that we review de novo. Hughes Communications Galaxy, Inc. v. United States, 998 F.2d 953, 957 (Fed. Cir. 1993). A principal objective in deciding what contractual language means is to discern the parties' intent at the time the contract was signed. Arizona v. United States, 216 Ct. Cl. 221, 575 F.2d 855, 863 (Ct. Cl. 1978).

1. We agree with the Court of Federal Claims that the government had an express contractual obligation to permit Glendale to count the supervisory goodwill generated as a result of its merger with Broward as a capital asset for regulatory capital purposes. Similarly, as the trial court determined, under this agreement Glendale was entitled to amortize the major portion of ...

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