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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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Sharing Directors Brings Added Experience to Your Board but Could Cause Problems

Many financial institutions, particularly community banks, have enhanced the experience level of their boards by adding a director who is a banker or serves on the board of another financial institution. In general, utilizing a director who has current experience with another financial institution is a great way to add valuable perspective to a variety of issues that the board may encounter. In addition, as private equity funds made substantial investments in financial institutions, they often bargained for guaranteed board seats. The individuals selected by private equity firms as board representatives often serve on a number of different bank boards. As market conditions have led to increased bank failures, however, a problem has resurfaced that may cause some financial institutions to take a closer look at nominating directors who also serve other financial institutions: cross-guarantee liability to the FDIC.

The concept of cross-guarantee liability was added to the Federal Deposit Insurance Act by the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 (FIRREA). The pertinent provision states that any insured depository institution shall be liable for any loss incurred by the FDIC in connection with:

  • the default (failure) of a “commonly controlled” insured depository institution; or
  • open bank assistance provided to a “commonly controlled” institution that is in danger of failure.

This means that if two banks are “commonly controlled” and one of them fails, the other bank can be held liable to the FDIC for the amount of its losses or estimated losses in connection with the failure. As many of us see each Friday, the amounts of these estimated losses are often quite high. In fact, the FDIC’s estimated losses for 2011 bank failures were approximately 20 percent of total failed bank assets for the year. Accordingly, the prospect of cross-guarantee liability can be a tremendous financial issue for the surviving bank.

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FDIC Weighs in on Director and Officer Removal of Bank Documents

Following the failure of over 400 financial institutions since the beginning of 2008, the FDIC has clarified its expectations with respect to collection and retention of bank documents by directors and officers of troubled or failing financial institutions for the purpose of explaining or defending their conduct. The FDIC’s Financial Institution Letter (FIL) released today sets forth the FDIC’s position that “[d]irectors and officers of troubled or failing financial institutions who remove originals or copies of financial institution records under such circumstances breach their fiduciary duty to the institution.” Presumably the FDIC would also object to a director or officer of a healthy bank copying and removing bank documents if the FDIC concludes that it is being done for improper purposes, although the FIL does not specifically address that issue.

Even though the guidance comes late in the game, we believe it is helpful for the FDIC to articulate its position on this matter to provide clarity to industry participants. We are disappointed, however, that the FDIC chose to issue this broad guidance through a financial institution letter (which cites no statutory authority or judicial decisions in support of its position) rather than through a formal rulemaking process whereby affected parties could offer comments.

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