According to California Superior Court Judge Richard Kramer Fitch Inc., Standard and Poor’s parent (MHP) McGraw-Hill Companies Inc., Fitch, Inc., and Moody’s Corp. (MCO), were merely exercising their First Amendment right to free speech when they gave their highest rating to three structured investment vehicles (SIVs) that collapsed when the mortgage market failed in 2008 and 2007. The ruling, in California Public Employees’ Retirement System v. Moody’s Corp. now leaves the plaintiffs with a steep burden of proof. The plaintiff, the largest pension fund in the US, is seeking more than $1 billion in securities fraud damages stemming from the inaccurate subprime ratings.
Per the securities complaint, CAlPERS is accusing the defendants of publishing ratings that were “unreasonably high” and “wildly inaccurate” and applying “seriously flawed” methods in an “incompetent” manner. The plaintiff contends that the high ratings that were given to the SIVs contributed to their collapse during the economic crisis.
BNA was able to get court transcripts that indicate that the ruling came on a motion under California’s anti- Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) statute, which offers a special procedure to strike a complaint involving the rights of free speech and petition. If a defendant persuades the court that the cause of action came from a protected activity, the plaintiff must prove that the claims deserve additional consideration. Now CalPERS must show a “probability of prevailing.”
Under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, there is no longer any protection from private litigation for ratings agency misstatements. Now, an investor only has to prove gross negligence to win the case. However, per Wayne State University Law School Peter Henning, in BNA Securities Daily, Dodd-Frank’s provision may not carry much weight if a ratings agency’s First Amendment rights are widely interpreted.
Shepherd Smith Edwards & Kantas LTD LLP Founder and Stockbroker fraud lawyer William Shepherd had this to say: “There have long been many restrictions on ‘speech,’ including life threats, trademarks, defamation, conspiracy, treason and threats of blackmail. But the age-old standard restriction is ‘you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater.’ The reason is that strangers might rely on the words and be injured by your ‘speech.’ How is this different than shouting ‘AAA- rated,’ knowing that strangers will rely on the words and be harmed by this ‘speech?’ The difference is that Wall Street can say anything it wants, while the rest of us have to just sit down and shut up.”
CalPERS has until March 18, 2011 to respond to the court.
Related Web Resources:
Ratings by Moody’s, Fitch, S&P Ruled to Be Protected Speech, BusinessWeek, December 11, 2010
Calpers Sues Rating Companies Over $1 Billion Loss, Bloomberg, July 15, 2010
California Public Employees’ Retirement System v. Moody’s Corp., Justia Dockets
Calif. Court Concludes Credit Ratings Entitled to First Amendment Protection, BNA Securities Law Daily, December 10, 2010
Credit Ratings Agencies, Stockbroker Fraud Blog
California Anti-SLAPP Project