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Georgia Supreme Court Weighs in on Director Liability

The Supreme Court of Georgia issued its latest opinion on March 13, 2019 in the continuing litigation over whether former directors and officers of the now defunct Buckhead Community Bank can be held liable for financial losses from commercial real estate loans.

The Georgia Supreme Court had previously advised a Georgia federal court, where the case was filed by the FDIC, that the directors and officers of the bank could be held liable if they were negligent in the process by which they carried out their duties. Following that opinion, rendered in 2014, the case returned to federal court, and a trial was ultimately held in 2016. In that trial, the jury concluded that some of the directors and officers were negligent in approving some loans and awarded the FDIC $4,986,993 in damages.

The trial judge in the case found that the defendants were “jointly and severally liable” for the award, meaning that the entire verdict could be collected from any one of the defendants. The defendants appealed contending that joint and several liability had been abolished by the General Assembly in 2005. The defendants also argued that the trial court should have given the jury the opportunity to apportion the damages among each of the defendants according to their respective degrees of fault. In considering the appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit again sought direction from the Supreme Court of Georgia on this new issue of law.

On Wednesday, in a 39-page opinion, the Georgia Supreme Court responded, providing answers to some, but not all, of the questions raised by the Eleventh Circuit. The Georgia Supreme Court held that joint and several liability can still be imposed in Georgia on defendants “who act in concert insofar as a claim of concerted action involves the narrow and traditional common-law doctrine of concerted action based on a legal theory of mutual agency and thus imputed fault.” The Supreme Court indicated that this was a very narrow exception to the usual rule that damages must apportioned among defendants.

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Why Your Board Should Stop Approving Individual Loans

In this the new era of banking, our clients are continually looking for ways to enhance efficiency and effectiveness at all levels of their organizations. This line of thinking has led to the revolution of the bank branch and the adoption of many new technologies aimed at serving customers and automating or otherwise increasing process efficiency. Perhaps most importantly, however, banks have begun to focus on optimizing their governance structures and practices, particularly at the board level.

(A print version of this post if you’d like to print or share with others is available here.)

As we discuss this topic with our clients, the conversation quickly turns to the role and function of the bank’s director loan or credit committee, which we refer to herein as the “Loan Committee.” We continue to believe that Loan Committees should move away from the practice of making underwriting decisions on individual credits absent a specific legal requirement, and here we set forth the position that this change should be made in order to enhance Board effectiveness, not just to avoid potential liability.

Ensuring Board Effectiveness

Whenever we advise clients with regard to governance, our fundamental approach is to determine whether a given course of action helps or hinders the Board’s ability to carry out its core functions. Defining the core functions of a Board can be a difficult task. Fortunately, the staff of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System recently outlined its view of the core functions of a bank Board. We agree with the Federal Reserve’s outline of these functions as set forth in its proposed guidance regarding Board Effectiveness applicable to large banks, which was based on a study of the practices of high-performing boards. Based on our experiences, many of the concepts expressed in that proposed guidance constitute board best practices for banks of any asset size. The proposed guidance indicates that a board should:

  • set clear, aligned, and consistent direction;
  • actively manage information flow and board discussions;
  • hold senior management accountable;
  • support the independence and stature of independent risk management and internal audit; and
  • maintain a capable board composition and governance structure.

We believe that an evaluation of the board’s oversight role relative to the credit function is a necessary part of the proper, ongoing evaluation of a bank’s governance structure. As it conducts this self-analysis, a board should evaluate whether the practice of underwriting and making credit decisions on a credit-by-credit basis supports its pursuit of the first four functions. We believe that it likely does not.

Considering Individual Credit Decisions May Hinder the Committee’s Ability to Set Overall Direction for the Credit Function.

We have observed time and time again Loan Committee discussions diving “into the weeds” and, in our experience, once they are there they tend to stay there. In most Loan Committee meetings, the presenting officer directs the committee’s attention to an individual credit package and discusses the merits and challenges related to the proposal. Committee members then typically ask detailed questions about the particular financial metrics, borrower, or the intended project, assuming that any discussion occurs at all prior to taking a vote.

While it may sometimes be healthy to quiz officers on their understanding of a credit package, focusing on this level of detail may deprive the Loan Committee of the ability to focus on setting direction for the bank’s overall loan portfolio. In fact, in many of the discussions of individual credits, detailed questions about the individual loan package may in fact distract from the strategic and policy questions that really should be asked at the board level, such as “What is the market able to absorb with regard to projects of this type?” and “What is our overall exposure to this segment of our market?”

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Counterpoint: Why Sane People Serve as Bank Directors

Bank directors have played a crucial role in the turnaround of the banking industry, an accomplishment that deserves recognition in light of the fact that it has been done under tremendous regulatory burden and tepid economic growth.  Given that, why do we continue to question why the country’s most respected business people would be willing to serve as bank directors?  Respected attorney and industry commentator Thomas Vartanian recently asked in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, “Why would anyone sane be a bank director?”  Well, sane people are serving as bank directors every day, and in doing so they are benefiting the economy without exposing themselves to undue risk.

(A print version of this post if you’d like to print or share with others is available here.)

The regulatory environment for bank directors is clearly improving. The Federal Reserve’s recent proposal to reassess the way in which it interacts with boards is appropriate if overdue, and the other banking agencies should follow the path that the Federal Reserve has set forth.  We also witnessed the FDIC acting very aggressively in pursuing lawsuits against directors of failed banks in the wake of the financial crisis.  However, suggesting that the FDIC relax its standards for pursuing cases against bank directors is not only unrealistic, it misses the greater point for the industry in that it needs to continue to refine its governance practices in order to provide for better decision-making by bank directors and to enhance protections from liability for individual directors.

In order to fully understand the point of this position, it is important to clear up a couple of commonly-held misconceptions.  First, when the FDIC sues a bank director after a bank failure, it does so for the benefit of the Deposit Insurance Fund, which is essentially an insurance cooperative for the banking industry.  As a result, the FDIC should be viewed as a purely economic actor, no different from any other plaintiff’s firm in the business of suing corporate directors.  Lawsuits by FDIC should not be given any higher profile or greater credibility than any number of other suits against corporate directors that inevitability occur during market downturns.  There should be no additional stigma, and certainly no additional fear, with regard to a claim by the FDIC on the basis that it is “the government.”

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Changes in Georgia’s Law on Director Duties

On July 1, 2017, significant amendments to the director and officer liability provisions of Georgia’s Financial Institution Code and Business Corporation Code will take effect.  These amendments, adopted as House Bill 192 during the 2017 General Assembly session and signed into law by Governor Deal in May, enhance the protections available to directors and officers of Georgia banks when they are sued for violating their duty of care to the bank.  The amendments also apply to directors and officers of Georgia corporations, including bank holding companies.

First and foremost, House Bill 192 creates a statutory presumption, codified at O.C.G.A. § 7-1-490(c) for banks and at O.C.G.A. §§ 14-2-830(c) and 14-2-842(c) for corporations, that a director or officer’s decision-making process was done in good faith and that the director or officer exercised due care.  This presumption may be rebutted, however, by evidence that the process employed was grossly negligent, thus effectively creating a gross negligence standard of liability in civil lawsuits against directors and officers.  This is a response to the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in FDIC v. Loudermilk, in which the Court recognized the existence of a strong business judgment rule in Georgia but also held that it did not supplant Georgia’s statutory standards of care requiring ordinary diligence.  The Court interpreted the statutes as permitting ordinary negligence claims against directors and officers when they are premised on negligence in the decision-making process.  (As you may recall, Loudermilk also held emphatically that claims challenging only the wisdom of a corporate decision, as opposed to the decision-making process, cannot be brought absent a showing of fraud, bad faith or an abuse of discretion.  This part of the Loudermilk decision is unaffected by the new amendments.)  Many Georgia banks and businesses expressed concern that allowing ordinary negligence suits would open the door to dubious and harassing litigation.  The Court’s opinion noted these concerns but held that they were for the General Assembly to address.

As amended, O.C.G.A. § 7-1-490(c) and its corporate code counterparts will foreclose the possibility of ordinary negligence claims by requiring a plaintiff (which can be a shareholder, the bank or corporation itself, or a receiver or conservator) to show evidence of gross negligence, which the statutes define as a “gross deviation of the standard of care of a director or officer in a like position under similar circumstances.”   It is important to note that the actual standard of care that directors and officers must exercise is essentially unchanged.  As we have written in the past, it is important for a bank board in today’s legal and business environment to develop careful processes for all decisions that are entrusted to the board, and to follow those processes.  A director should attend board meetings with reasonable regularity and should always act on an informed basis, which necessarily entails understanding the bank’s business, financial condition and overall affairs as well as facts relevant to the specific decision at issue.  The new amendments should not be read as relaxing these requirements.  The only thing that has changed is the standard of review that courts will follow when evaluating a process-related duty of care claim.  By requiring plaintiffs to show gross negligence in order to defeat the statutory presumption, the amended statute should discourage the filing of dubious lawsuits, and also provide defendants with a strong basis for moving to dismiss such suits when they are filed.  Many states, including Delaware, recognize a gross negligence floor for personal liability either by statute or under the common law.  The amendments bring Georgia law more closely in line with these states.

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Analysis of FDIC v. Loudermilk Decision

The FDIC’s lawsuit against former directors and officers of the failed Buckhead Community Bank, one of the most closely watched Georgia corporate governance cases in years, went to trial in October, 2016.  The jury returned a verdict of nearly $5 million against the defendants for their role in the approval of four large commercial development loans that later defaulted.  FDIC v. Loudermilk, No. 1:12-cv-04156-TWT (N.D. Ga. Oct. 26, 2016).  It was less than a complete victory for the FDIC, which had sought over $21 million in damages based on ten bad loans, but the verdict nonetheless represents a significant recovery against directors and officers of a Georgia bank.  The case is all the more significant because it was the first known jury trial to evaluate a negligence claim under the business judgment rule as defined by the Georgia Supreme Court earlier on in the proceedings.

Editor’s Note:  This piece is an excerpt from the author’s 2016 Georgia Corporation and Business Organization Case Law Developments, which addresses decisions handed down in 2016 by Georgia state and federal courts addressing questions of Georgia corporate and business organization law.  The year saw a large number of decisions involving limited liability companies, continuing a trend from recent years.  The Georgia Supreme Court addressed some interesting and novel questions of corporate law, including whether an out-of-state LLC (or corporation) can avail itself of the removal right that permits Georgia-based companies to shift certain tort litigation from the county in which it is brought to the county where it maintains its principal office, and whether a nonprofit corporation has standing to pursue a write of quo warranto against public officials.

Buckhead Community Bank was closed by the Georgia Department of Banking and Finance in December, 2009, during the heart of the financial crisis.  The FDIC was named as receiver for the Bank.  In 2012, the FDIC filed suit against the Bank’s former directors and officers, alleging that they pursued an aggressive growth strategy aimed at building a “billion dollar bank,” causing the Bank’s loan portfolio to become heavily concentrated in commercial real estate acquisition and development loans.  The FDIC’s allegations were highly similar to allegations it made in dozens of other cases involving similarly situated banks that failed during the Great Recession.  In all, the FDIC filed over 100 civil actions between 2010 and 2015 in its capacity as its receiver for failed banks throughout the country, 25 of which were filed in Georgia against directors and officers of Georgia banks.  The vast majority of these cases have settled.  In fact, Loudermilk was only the second of these cases to proceed all the way to trial, and the first in Georgia.

As the case progressed to trial, it eventually focused on ten specific loans that were approved directly by the defendants acting as members of the Bank’s loan committee.  As to each of these loans, the FDIC alleged that approving the loans violated the Bank’s own loan policy, banking regulations, prudent underwriting standards and sound banking practices.  For instance, it was alleged that some loans exceeded the Bank’s loan-to-value guidelines but were approved anyway.  Other loans were approved without certain documentation that the FDIC alleged was necessary, such as current financial statements of borrowers and guarantors.  Other loans were allegedly approved before the loan application paperwork was final.  There was no claim that any of the loans were “insider” loans that provided a direct or indirect personal benefit to any of the defendants.

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Fourth Circuit Upholds FDIC’s Ordinary Negligence Claims

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which governs North and South Carolina as well as Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland, has issued an important ruling in FDIC v. Rippy, a lawsuit  brought by the FDIC against former directors and officers of Cooperative Bank in Wilmington, North Carolina.  As it has done in dozens of cases throughout the country, the FDIC alleged that Cooperative’s former directors and officers were negligent, grossly negligent, and breached their fiduciary duties in approving various loans that caused the bank to suffer heavy losses.  The evidence showed the FDIC had consistently given favorable CAMELS ratings to the bank in the years before the loans at issue were made.  The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of all defendants, criticizing the FDIC’s prosecution of the suit as an exercise in hindsight.  The Fourth Circuit, however, vacated the ruling as it applied to the ordinary negligence claims against the officers.  In its opinion, the court held that the evidence submitted by the FDIC was sufficient to rebut North Carolina’s business judgment rule and thus allow the case to go to trial.  The Court found that the evidence indicated that the officers had not availed themselves of all material and reasonably available information in approving the loans.

The decision is specific to North Carolina-chartered banks and is based on the historical development of the business judgment rule in that state.  Nonetheless, there are certainly comparisons to be drawn to decisions from other states.  The emphasis on allegations of negligence in the decision-making process echoes last year’s decision in FDIC v. Loudermilk, in which the Georgia Supreme Court held that it was possible to bring an ordinary negligence claim against bank directors and officers who engage in a negligent process in making a decision.  While the Georgia Supreme Court in Loudermilk seemed to be of the view that it would permit claims to go forward against directors and officers who completely avoided their duties and acted as mere figureheads, the Rippy decision shows that in North Carolina, at least, the distinction between a viable case and one barred by the business judgment rule may be very fine indeed.  For instance, the FDIC’s evidence consisted largely of expert testimony that Cooperative’s officers failed to act in accordance with generally accepted banking practices by, among other things, approving loans over the telephone before they had examined all relevant documents, and by failing to address warnings and deficiencies in the bank’s (generally positive) examination reports.

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Georgia Supreme Court Confirms Business Judgment Rule

The Georgia Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in FDIC v. Loudermilk  on Friday, addressing whether the FDIC’s ordinary negligence claims against former directors and officers of failed banks are precluded by the business judgment rule.  There is a lot to digest in the Court’s 34-page opinion, but here are our initial thoughts.

The upshot for bank directors and officers in Georgia is that the business judgment rule is very much alive, and applies to banks to the same extent as other corporations.  That itself is big news—the Georgia Supreme Court had never addressed whether the business judgment rule exists in any context, and the FDIC had argued that if the rule existed at all, it did not apply to banks because the Banking Code imposes an ordinary negligence standard of care.  Much of the Court’s opinion is devoted to explaining how the business judgment rule developed as a common law principle and refuting the argument that the statute trumps the rule.

The Court explained, however, that the business judgment rule does not automatically rule out claims that sound in ordinary negligence.  It distinguished claims alleging negligence in the decision-making process from claims that do no more than question the wisdom of the decision itself.  A claim that a directors disregarded their duties by failing to attend meetings, for instance, could survive a motion to dismiss.  A claim that the decision itself was negligent, without any allegation relating to the process leading to the decision, will not survive.

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FDIC Targets Single Former Director in Lawsuit

The FDIC recently sued a former director of Carson River Community Bank (Carson City, NV), which failed and went into receivership on February 26, 2010. The defendant, James M. Jacobs, was one of five directors who served on the Bank’s Senior Loan Committee and who approved three ADC loans that ultimately went into default, resulting in more than $3.6 million of losses to the Bank.

So why is the FDIC suing only Mr. Jacobs, and not the other members of the Senior Loan Committee for the allegedly imprudent loans? There are two probable reasons – one rooted in fact, and the other rooted in law. First, according to the FDIC’s complaint, the three subject loans were participated out to two Oklahoma banks owned by Mr. Jacobs’ family and for which Mr. Jacobs served as a director. The other directors on the Senior Loan Committee knew about Mr. Jacobs’ interest in the participating banks. What they did not know, however, was that Mr. Jacobs had secretly arranged for the Oklahoma participating banks to have preferential rights to repayment upon default. As a consequence of those preferential repayment rights, the Oklahoma banks were ultimately paid in full and Carson River Community Bank shouldered the bulk of the loss on the loans. This conduct, the FDIC alleges, constituted a breach of Mr. Jacobs’ fiduciary duty to Carson River Community Bank. Since the other directors on the Senior Loan Committee did not know about the preferential repayment rights, the FDIC was not in a position to assert similar fiduciary breach claims against them.

Second, the FDIC has not sued the other directors because Nevada has a very forgiving standard of liability for corporate directors. Under the Nevada corporate code, a director is not liable unless it is proven that: (a) the director’s act or failure to act constituted a breach of his fiduciary duties; and (b) the breach of those duties involved intentional misconduct, fraud or a knowing violation of law. Nev. Rev. Stat. § 78.137(7). Although it characterized the approval of the subject loans as imprudent, the FDIC must not have had sufficient facts to support an allegation that the other directors had committed “intentional misconduct, fraud, or a knowing violation of the law.”

This case is a true factual outlier, and it does not signal a trend that the FDIC will target single director defendants. We expect the FDIC will continue its now long-established practice of targeting all of the former directors and officers who played a substantial and active role in approving allegedly imprudent loans.

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FDIC Sues Former Fla. Bank Directors for Gross Negligence

For the first time since the advent of the Great Recession, the FDIC has filed an action against former bank directors based only on theories of gross negligence. The lawsuit was filed against the former directors of Orion Bank (“Orion” or the “Bank”) of Naples, FL, which failed and went into receivership in November 2009. A copy of the FDIC’s complaint is available here.

The FDIC’s central case theory focuses on the defendant directors’ completely lack of oversight over Orion’s President and CEO, Jerry Williams. According to the complaint, Mr. Williams became such a dominant decision-maker that the defendant directors generally approved any and all of his proposals with little, if any, scrutiny. Their alleged abdication of responsibility bled over into role as members of the Board Loan Committee, and they “blithely rubberstamped” any loan that Mr. Williams proposed without any meaningful review or deliberation. The FDIC contends that the director defendants continued to “rubberstamp” Mr. Williams’ proposed loans even after banking regulators had specifically criticized their lack of oversight and had warned them to be personally and directly involved in reviewing, analyzing and independently evaluating loans presented for approval.

Apart from its allegations that the defendant directors failed to properly oversee management, the FDIC also alleges that the defendants routinely disregarded proper loan underwriting standards, the Bank’s own loan policy, repeated warnings from regulators, and the rapidly declining real estate market. Worse yet, the defendant directors continued to approve ADC lending at an accelerated rate between 2005 and 2007 despite obvious signs that the real estate market was in steep decline. In total, the FDIC seeks to recover more than $53 million in connection with several bad loans approved by the defendants.

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The Bank Director’s Approach to M&A: Stay Out of Hot Water

In today’s environment, many bank directors are faced with difficult strategic decisions regarding the future of their organizations. We have been involved in many great board discussions of whether it is best for the bank to continue to grind away at its business plan in this slow growth environment or to look for a business combination opportunity that will accelerate growth. There is rarely a clear answer in these discussions, but some guidelines are helpful: All directors must respect the conclusion of the full board of directors and follow the appropriate process established by the board with respect to merger opportunities.

Over the years, we have seen a number of instances in which one or more bank directors conduct merger discussions with potential partners without bringing the opportunity to the full board of directors immediately. In many cases, these directors are acting in good faith and simply leveraging relationships they have with other bankers or bank directors. In other cases, these directors may feel the need to engage in these discussions because they disagree with the full board’s strategy of remaining independent. However, all directors should understand that it is in the bank’s best interest, and the director’s own personal best interest, not to take matters into their own hands without authorization by the board of directors.

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