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Securities and Exchange Commission v. Bank of America Corp.

February 22, 2010

SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION, PLAINTIFF,
v.
BANK OF AMERICA CORPORATION DEFENDANT.
SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION, PLAINTIFF,
v.
BANK OF AMERICA CORPORATION DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Jed S. Rakoff, U.S.D.J.

OPINION AND ORDER

The question before the Court is whether to grant the motion of plaintiff Securities and Exchange Commission ("S.E.C."), filed on February 4, 2010, seeking approval of a Proposed Consent Judgment that would resolve the two above-captioned cases. Given the somewhat tortured background of these cases and the difficulties the motion presents, the Court is tempted to quote the great American philosopher Yogi Berra: "I wish I had an answer to that because I'm getting tired of answering that question."*fn1 However, after full consideration, the Court reluctantly grants the motion, on the terms specified below.

The Court begins where any court should: with the facts. In disapproving as neither fair, reasonable, adequate nor in the public interest the prior proposed settlement of the first of these two cases, 09 Civ. 6829 (the "Undisclosed Bonuses" case), the Court bewailed the absence of established facts supporting the proposal and expressed the hope that "the truth may still emerge." S.E.C. v. Bank of America Corp., 653 F. Supp. 2d 507, 512 (S.D.N.Y. 2009). Since then, the parties have conducted extensive discovery, assisted by the helpful decision of defendant Bank of America Corp. (the "Bank") to waive attorney-client privilege, resulting in the S.E.C.'s presentation to this Court of a 35-page Statement of Facts and a 13-page Supplemental Statement of Facts, the accuracy of which is not contested here by the Bank.*fn2 In addition, in response to questions from the Court in an Order dated February 11, 2010, the parties have provided, and the Court has reviewed, hundreds of pages of deposition testimony and other evidentiary materials bearing on the case.

As a result of that review, it is clear to the Court that: (1) the Proxy Statement that the Bank sent to its shareholders on November 3, 2008 soliciting their approval of the merger with Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc. ("Merrill") failed adequately to disclose the Bank's agreement to let Merrill pay its executives and certain other employees $5.8 billion in bonuses at a time when Merrill was suffering huge losses; and (2) the Bank failed adequately to disclose to its shareholders either prior to the shareholder approval of the merger on December 5, 2008 or prior to the merger's effective date of January 1, 2009 the Bank's ever-increasing knowledge that Merrill was suffering historically great losses during the fourth quarter of 2008 (ultimately amounting to a net loss of $15.3 billion, the largest quarterly loss in the firm's history) and that Merrill had nonetheless accelerated the payment to certain executives and other employees of more than $3.6 billion in bonuses.

Despite the Bank's somewhat coy refusal to concede the materiality of these nondisclosures, it seems obvious that a prudent Bank shareholder, if informed of the aforementioned facts, would have thought twice about approving the merger or might have sought its renegotiation. What is far from obvious, however, is why these nondisclosures occurred. The S.E.C. and the Bank have consistently taken the position that it was, at worst, the product of negligence on the part of the Bank, its relevant executives, and its lawyers (inside and outside), who made the decisions (such as they were) to non-disclose on a piecemeal basis in which inadequate data coupled with rather narrow parsing of the disclosure issues combined to obscure the combined impact of the information being withheld. In particular, it appears that the relevant decision-makers took the position that neither the bonuses nor the mounting fourth quarter losses had to be disclosed because the bonuses were consistent with prior years' bonuses and the losses were uncertain and, in any case, roughly consistent with prior quarters. See, e.g., Statement of Facts at 15, 29; Supplemental Statement of Facts at 5-8. Despite ever-growing indications that the latter assumption was erroneous, see, e.g., Supplemental Statement of Facts at 8, the relevant decision-makers stuck to their previous determinations so far as disclosure of the losses was concerned and appear never to have considered at all the impact that the accelerated payment of over $3.6 billion in bonuses might have on a company that was verging on financial ruin.

A parallel investigation by the Attorney General of the State of New York (conducted, perhaps ironically, by a former high-ranking official of the S.E.C.) reached a more sinister interpretation of what happened. Just one day before the S.E.C. presented its proposed settlement of these cases, the Attorney General brought a civil action against the Bank, its former chief executive officer Kenneth D. Lewis, and its former chief financial officer Joseph L. Price, accusing them of masterminding a massive fraud and manipulation. Compl. ¶ 1, New York v. Bank of America, et. al., filed in New York State Supreme Court on February 4, 2010. According to the first numbered paragraph of the Complaint, not only had "Bank of America's management misled its shareholders," but in so doing they were "motivated by self-interest, greed, hubris, and a palpable sense that the normal rules of fair play did not apply to them." Indeed, "Bank of America's management thought of itself as too big to play by the rules and, just as disturbingly, too big to tell the truth." Id.

While even in an era of purple prose, such language may seem deepest violet, it is nonetheless the equivalent of alleging that the Bank and its top officers purposely defrauded their shareholders or, at the very least, acted in reckless disregard of the facts and the law --- a far more culpable state of mind than mere negligence.

As a result, the Court, in assessing the Proposed Consent Judgment, was obliged, in its view, to inquire into whether the evidence before the Attorney General was sufficiently different from that before the S.E.C. as to render unreasonable the latter's conclusions on which the proposed settlement was premised. Although the Bank objected "to any consideration being given to allegations made in other proceedings . . . or to any other extra-judicial materials," Letter from Bank counsel to the Court (Feb. 16, 2010), the Court regards this objection as frivolous. While it is not this Court's role in assessing the instant motion to determine which of the competing inferences drawn by the S.E.C. and the Attorney General is correct, it is indubitably this Court's obligation to determine whether the S.E.C. has ignored evidence of intentional fraud so compelling as to cast in doubt the reasonableness of the factual assumptions on which the proposed settlement rests. When, moreover, the seemingly contrary assertions are being made by another governmental agency that has conducted its own lengthy investigation, to fail to make a modest inquiry into the basis for those assertions would be a dereliction of this Court's duty.*fn3

The Court therefore requested, and received, certain testimony obtained by the Attorney General's office bearing on certain questions the Court had previously identified as significant to evaluating whether the Bank's nondisclosures were purposely fraudulent or not. For example, the Court requested from the Attorney General, as it had previously requested from the parties here, deposition testimony concerning the precipitous termination on December 10, 2008 of the Bank's then General Counsel, Timothy Mayopoulos. According to the parties here, this event was the result of a last-minute decision, urged upon management by several members of the Board of Directors, to keep Brian Moynihan, now CEO of the Bank, from leaving the Bank by offering him the General Counsel position. See Supplemental Statement of Facts at 11-13. But the event is described in the Attorney General's Complaint as motivated by the discovery by Mayopoulos's immediate superior, Price, that Mayopoulos now "knew too much" about the mounting Merrill losses that the Bank was trying to keep secret. Compl. ¶ 156.

Upon review of the underlying materials provided by the parties here and by the Attorney General, the Court concludes that none of the evidence directly contradicts the Bank's assertion that Mayopoulos' termination was unrelated to the nondisclosures or to his increasing knowledge of Merrill's losses. This is not to say that plausible contrary inferences might not be drawn. For example, as the Court noted at the hearing on February 8, 2010, the Bank's account does not necessarily explain why Mayopoulos, a hitherto valued employee, was asked to leave the premises immediately. Tr., 2/8/10, at 18. Still, the Court is fully satisfied that the view of Mayopoulos's firing advanced by the Bank is supported by substantial evidence.

It is important to emphasize, with respect not just to Mayopoulos's termination but with respect to all the events that the Attorney General interprets so very differently from the S.E.C., that the Court is not here making any determination as to which of the two competing versions of the events is the correct one (an issue not before the Court). Rather, the Court, after a careful review of voluminous materials, determines only that the S.E.C.'s conclusion that the Bank and its officers acted negligently, rather than intentionally, in causing the nondisclosures that are the predicates to the settlement here proffered, is a reasonable conclusion, supported by substantial evidence, that a reasonable regulator could draw. The Court will therefore proceed to evaluate the proposed settlement on the basis that the S.E.C. was acting reasonably in proposing a settlement premised on the assumption that the Bank's nondisclosures were the result of negligence.

The Court accordingly turns to the question of whether, even on that assumption, the settlement is fair, reasonable, adequate, and in the public interest. The proposed settlement has essentially two components: a package of prophylactic measures designed to prevent such nondisclosures in the future; and a penalty provision that is supposed also to serve the purpose of partially compensating victims.

The package of prophylactic measures includes, among other items, the following:

-- the Bank's engagement, in consultation with the SEC, of an independent auditor to assess over the next three years whether the Bank's accounting controls and procedures are ...


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