Pomerantz LLP

FIRREA: No, It’s Not a Disease, Unless You Are a Naughty Financial Institution

Pomerantz Monitor, November/December 2013 

As JPMorgan Chase struggled to put the finishing touches on its $13 billion settlement with the federal government over its misadventures in the mortgage-backed securities area, a major ingredient in the government’s success seems to have come from out of nowhere – or, more precisely, from the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act of 1989 ("FIRREA"). This provision, enacted in the wake of the savings and loan meltdown of the 80’s, has been pulled out of the mothballs to punish some of the misbehaving financial institutions that brought about the financial crisis of 2008. 

Section 951 of FIRREA authorizes the Justice Department to seek civil money penalties against persons who violate one or more of 14 enumerated criminal statutes (predicate offenses) that involve or “affect” financial institutions or government agencies. On April 24, 2013, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York issued the first judicial interpretation of the phrase "affecting a federally insured financial institution" as used in FIRREA. In United States v. The Bank of New York Mellon, the DOJ sued the bank and one of its employees under FIRREA. Defendants allegedly schemed to defraud the bank’s custodial clients by misrepresenting that the bank provided "best execution" when pricing foreign exchange trades. The DOJ contended that the defendants' fraudulent scheme "affected" a federally insured financial institution—namely the bank itself—as well as a number of other federally insured financial institutions. The bank, on the other hand, contended that a federally insured financial institution may be "affected" by a fraud only if it were the victim of or an innocent bystander, but not if it were the perpetrator. 

The court disagreed, concluding that a federally insured financial institution could be "affected" by a fraud committed by its own employees, even though it may actually have profited from that fraud in the short run. The court reasoned that the fraud exposed the bank to a new or increased risk of loss, as shown by the fact that BNY Mellon had been named as a defendant in numerous private lawsuits as a result of its alleged fraud, which required it to incur litigation costs, exposed it to billions of dollars in potential liability, and damaged its business by causing a loss of clients, forcing BNY Mellon to adopt a less-profitable business model, and harming its reputation. 

Every fraud committed by bank employees could lead to such consequences; and because mail and wire fraud are very broad statutes that apply to virtually all fraudulent schemes, FIRREA has wide scope and potentially devastating impact. 

Other features of FIRREA also cause bankers to lose sleep. Although the DOJ has to prove that certain criminal statutes have been violated, the burden of proof is not “beyond a reasonable doubt” but, rather, only a “preponderance of the evidence.” The statute of limitations is ten years, which is important given that the five-year limitations period applicable to securities fraud and other statutes is expiring on many cases involving the 2008 financial meltdown. 

Finally, and most spectacularly, the potential penalties under FIRREA are astronomical. The statute authorizes penalties of up to $1.1 million per violation; for continuing violations, the maximum increases up to $1.1 million per day or $5.5 million per violation, whichever is less. That’s not much; but FIRREA allows the court to increase the penalty up to the amount of the pecuniary gain that any person derives from the violation, or the amount of pecuniary loss suffered by any person as a result of the violation. 

The DOJ has invoked this special penalty rule to seek more than $5 billion in civil money penalties in a current litigation involving fraud allegedly committed by the credit ratings agency Standard & Poors. 

The U.S. Attorney in Manhattan has now filed civil fraud actions against Wells Fargo, BNY Mellon and Bank of America, among others, and in October a jury found Bank of America liable. Finally, potential FIRREA liability reportedly has played a major role in convincing JPMorgan Chase to pony up $13 billion to settle with the DOJ.