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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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Counter-Cyclical Thoughts About D&O Insurance

It can be a challenge, when economic times are relatively good, to take time away from thinking about new opportunities to discuss topics like D&O insurance.  Even though I am biased, I’ll admit that, in those times, discussing the risks of potential liability and how to insure those risks can feel both a pretty unpleasant and a pretty remote thing to be discussing.  However, like all risk-related issues, it is precisely in those times when business is going well that a little bit of counter-cyclical thinking and attention can do the most good over the long haul.

As you approach your next D&O policy renewal – and particularly in the 30-60 days prior to the expiration of your current policy, there are a few things that you may want to consider.

Multi-year endorsements – what’s the catch? 

In good times, many insurers will offer packages styled as multi-year policies, usually touted as an option that allows for some premium savings and perhaps a reduced administrative burden.  However, as with all things, these advantages may come with a catch.

Many multi-year endorsements will reserve to the insurer the discretion to assess additional premium on an annual basis within the multi-year period if the risk profile of the bank changes in a material way.  So premium savings may not ultimately be realized, depending on the facts.

Beyond this, some multi-year endorsements will actually impose additional requirements on the insured to provide notice of events that could trigger the carrier’s repricing rights or other conditions.  Those obligations may be triggered when those events occur on an intra-period basis, which can set up a potential foot-fault for an organization that does not keep those requirements front of mind (which can be a practical challenge, as if those events are happening, it is likely that there are a number of issues competing for management and the board’s attention).

Companies looking at multi-year endorsements should make sure they understand fully the terms on which the multi-year option is being provided and should have counsel or an independent broker review the specific language of the proposed multi-year endorsement itself on their behalf.  In addition, while it may be tempting to use a multi-year endorsement to try to extend the renewal horizon and to try to reduce the administrative burden that comes with the renewal process, doing so may also reduce your ability to negotiate appropriate enhancements to your policy terms over the multi-year period.

Multi-year policies may be the right fit for your institution, but they should not be viewed as a one size fits all solution.  Before heading down that road, ask yourself how much is being saved and how real those savings actually are and, perhaps just as importantly, whether avoiding a broader discussion of your coverage strategy on at least an annual basis is a good thing or not.

What about the bank has changed? 

Times of economic expansion often bring with them opportunities to explore new lines of business.  In addition, substantial recent technological innovations in the financial services industries and increasing consumer demands for technological solutions have meant that not only are new market opportunities being explored but that they are being explored in new ways.  And if that isn’t enough, there is always the ever-changing regulatory and compliance landscape to contend with.

All of these trends – as well as your decisions of where and how your institution will choose to participate (or not to participate) in them – bring with them new and different risks.  To the extent that your bank has expanded its offerings, changed its footprint or portfolio mix, or otherwise changed its policies or ways of doing business, you should think about how those changes may impact your insurance needs.  It can be easy, particularly when you have a long relationship with an incumbent carrier, for the renewal process to become somewhat rote.

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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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A Rundown on Georgia’s FDIC Failed Bank Litigation

As we have reported before, Georgia has the unfortunate distinction of leading the nation in bank failures since the onset of the late-2000s financial crisis.  Georgia has also seen far more FDIC bank failure lawsuits than any other state:  15 of the 63 bank failure cases brought by the FDIC since 2010 involve Georgia banks and are currently pending in Georgia federal courts.  While some allegations vary from case to case, the general thrust of all of these lawsuits is that the former directors and/or officers of the banks were negligent or grossly negligent in pursuing aggressive growth strategies, with these strategies usually involving a high concentration of risky and speculative speculative real estate and acquisition, construction and development loans.  Here is a rundown of the most interesting and significant developments to date:

The most heavily litigated issue has been whether the business judgment rule insulates bank directors and officers from liability for ordinary negligence.  Beginning with Judge Steve C. Jones’ decision in FDIC v. Skow, concerning the failure of Integrity Bank, the district courts have consistently dismissed ordinary negligence claims, citing the business judgment rule.  As we previously reported in November, the Eleventh Circuit has agreed to hear an interlocutory appeal in the Skow case.  That appeal has now been fully briefed by the parties.  The FDIC’s briefs can be found here and here, while the Defendants/Appellees’ brief can be found here.  The parties’ briefs all focus on the interplay between the business judgment rule and Georgia’s statutory standard of care, with the FDIC arguing that the statute’s expression of an ordinary care standard precludes the application of any more lenient standard, and the Defendants/Appellees arguing that Judge Jones correctly followed the Georgia appellate courts’ interpretation of the business judgment rule.  Note:  This firm represents the Georgia Bankers Association and Community Bankers Association of Georgia, who have been granted leave to appear as amici curiae in support of the Defendants/Appellees.  The amicus brief can be found here.

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FDIC Starts Posting Settlement Agreements

The FDIC has begun posting copies of its settlement agreements on its website.  It recently came under fire after the L.A. Times printed an article criticizing the FDIC for not being more transparent on the issue of whether its litigation efforts are bearing fruit.  The FDIC responded to that criticism by posting the settlement agreements on its website.  This website will likely be updated from time to time with new settlement agreements.

Not all of the settlement agreements posted on the FDIC’s site are from D&O cases.  At least a few of them are from claims against brokers, lawyers or accountants for the failed banks.  At this time, we don’t see any particular trends or patterns based on the settlement agreements on claims against former D&Os.

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FDIC Sues Former D&Os of Community Bank of West Georgia

The FDIC has filed its fifth professional liability lawsuit since early October. Its most recent lawsuit is against the former directors and officers of Community Bank of West Georgia (Villa Rica, Georgia), which went into receivership in June 2009. A copy of the FDIC’s complaint is attached here.

Community Bank of West Georgia (the “Bank” or “Community Bank”) opened in March 2003. The FDIC alleges that the Bank’s original business plan was to grow its assets for a planned sale within five years. Towards this end, the FDIC contends, the Bank focused on increasing its real estate lending, primarily in ADC and CRE loans and purchase of loan participations.

The FDIC’s claims for negligence and gross negligence are rooted in many of the same types of general allegations that have become part of the FDIC’s standard pleading mantra: (i) failure to comply with the Bank’s own policies and procedures, banking regulations, and prudent lending practices; (ii) failure to adequately monitor and supervise the Bank’s lending function; (iii) disregard of regulators’ warnings and failing to address obvious problems; (iv) deficient underwriting, risk management, and credit administration practices that left the Bank “fatally exposed to the inevitable cyclical decrease in real estate values.” In total, the FDIC seeks to recover losses in excess of $16.8 million from 20 specific loans and loan participations.

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FDIC Sues Former Directors of Benchmark Bank (Aurora, Illinois)

On October 2nd, the FDIC filed its 33rd lawsuit against former directors or officers of failed banking institutions since the beginning of the current economic recession.  This suit is against the former directors of Benchmark Bank (“Benchmark” or the “Bank”) of Aurora, Illinois, which was placed into FDIC receivership on December 4, 2009.  For a copy of the FDIC’s complaint, click here.

A central theme of the FDIC’s complaint is that the director defendants, all of whom served on the Director’s Loan Committee, embarked on a strategy of aggressive growth through the approval of high-risk acquisition, development and construction (“ADC”) and commercial real estate (“CRE”) loans.  The director defendants approved the high-risk loans, the FDIC alleges, “without analysis of their economic viability or a complete evaluation of the creditworthiness of borrowers and guarantors”.   Even after the real estate market declined, the FDIC contends, the director defendants exacerbated the Bank’s problems by making new loans and renewing existing troubled loans, rather than curtailing ADC/CRE lending and preserving capital to absorb losses from existing loans went bad.

The most unique of the FDIC’s case theory centers on the role of Benchmark’s former chairman, Richard Samuelson, who was not only a director, CEO, and long-time acting president of the Bank, but also the principal originator of the Bank’s ADC and CRE loans.  As CEO and acting president of the Bank, Mr. Samuelson was ultimately responsible for the underwriting and credit administration of loans.  Yet those functions were never segregated from the loan origination function, leaving the Bank with a significant internal control deficiency.  Moreover, since Mr. Samuelson originated most of the ADC and CRE loans, it created a dynamic in which credit analysts were very reluctant to report underwriting deficiencies on his loans.  To make matters worse, the FDIC contends, Mr. Samuelson earned generous incentive awards from his loan originations, providing him with additional motivation to ensure that loans were approved.  In view of these facts, the FDIC alleges, the director defendants knew or should have known that the ADC and CRE loans required a higher degree of scrutiny and monitoring.  The FDIC contends that the director defendants breached their duties with respect to 11 specific ADC and CRE loans, resulting in losses of over $13.3 million.

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Federal Courts in Georgia and Florida Dismiss Ordinary Negligence Claims

We have previously summarized an important district court ruling dismissing the FDIC’s ordinary negligence claims against former directors and officers of Integrity Bank of Alpharetta, Georgia.  The FDIC asked the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia to reconsider its decision in that case, but the court recently denied that request and reaffirmed its rationale that Georgia’s version of the Business Judgment Rule bars claims for ordinary negligence against corporate directors and officers.  A copy of the court’s recent order in the Integrity Bank case is available here.  Although the district court declined to reconsider its prior dismissal of the ordinary negligence claims, it acknowledged that there was “substantial ground for difference of opinion” on that issue, and it granted the FDIC’s request to certify an order of interlocutory appeal to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.  Everyone in the D&O defense community, and especially those here in Georgia, is anxiously awaiting to learn if the Eleventh Circuit will accept interlocutory appeal of the case.

In the meanwhile, district courts in two other cases have weighed in on whether the Business Judgment Rule bars claims for ordinary negligence.  The first of these also comes from the Northern District of Georgia, and specifically from the FDIC’s lawsuit against certain former directors and officers of Haven Trust Bank.  (We have previously summarized the Haven Trust complaint.)  Utilizing the same rationale set forth in the Integrity Bank rulings, the court here ruled that the FDIC’s claims for ordinary negligence are not viable by virtue of the Business Judgment Rule.  Furthermore, the court ruled, to the extent that the FDIC’s claims for breach of fiduciary duty are based on the same alleged acts of ordinary negligence, those claims are foreclosed by the Business Judgment Rule as well.  The ruling was not a complete victory for the D&O defendants, however, as the court declined to dismiss the FDIC’s claims for gross negligence under FIRREA.  Specifically, the court held that the FDIC had alleged, in a collective fashion, sufficient facts on which a jury might reasonably conclude that the defendants had been grossly negligent.  Despite that holding, the court took the unusual step, “in the interest of caution,” of ordering the FDIC to replead the gross negligence claim with specific allegations as to each defendant’s involvement or responsibility for the alleged wrongful acts.  A copy of the court’s ruling can be viewed here.

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FDIC Sues Former Directors and Officers of Community Bank of Arizona

On July 13, 2012, the FDIC filed its 31st professional liability lawsuit since the advent of the current economic downturn.  This suit was filed against seven former directors and officers of Community Bank of Arizona (“CBOA” or the “Bank”), all of whom served on the Bank’s Board Loan Committee.  CBOA had four branches in metropolitan Phoenix before it was closed and placed into receivership on August 14, 2009.  For a copy of the FDIC’s complaint, click here.

As it has in prior D&O lawsuits, the FDIC generally alleges here that the defendants: (i) took unreasonable risks with the Bank’s asset portfolio; (ii) violated the Bank’s own loan policies and procedures when approving the acquisition of loans; (iii) ignored warnings regarding risky real-estate and constructions loans, and (iv) knowingly permitted poor underwriting in contravention of the Bank’s policies and reasonable industry standards.

The FDIC’s sharpest criticisms of the defendants relate to CBOA’s acquisition of loan participations without conducting any of its own underwriting.  Most of these loans were acquired from CBOA’s larger “sister bank,” Community Bank of Nevada (“CBON”).  The CBON loans were principally made to real estate developers in Nevada, and seventy-five percent (75%) of the participations that CBOA purchased from CBON ultimately became problem loans.  According to the FDIC’s complaint, the defendants “rubber stamped” the purchase of the loan participations, all without having CBOA: (i) conduct independent financial analysis of the loans; (ii) obtain updated appraisals of the collateral; (iii) obtaining or analyzing financial statements of the guarantors; or (iv) conducting independent site inspections as required by the CBOA loan policy.

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