Prosecutors Dust off Savings & Loan Crisis Era Statute to Address Subprime Lending

Posted by Meghan Delaney Berroya and Gordon D. Todd

The Obama Administration’s subprime lending task force, as well as U.S. Attorney’s Offices, are turning to the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 (“FIRREA”) (12 U.S.C. § 1833a) as a complement to the False Claims Act to prosecute claims arising out of the 2007-2009 financial crisis. Congress enacted FIRREA in 1989 in response to the Savings and Loan crisis, but until recently the statute has been used only sparingly. In the past year prosecutors have begun adding FIRREA allegations to FCA cases during settlement. In addition, the twenty five billion dollar settlement resolving FCA claims against a number of banks in connection with the servicing of mortgages and processing of foreclosures included FIRREA allegations.

FIRREA’s ten year statute of limitations period and the possibility of imposing civil penalties of up to one million dollars per violation and five million dollars for continuing violations make it an attractive tool for prosecutors. FIRREA may be able to reach a wide range of fraud offenses, including mail and wire fraud, bribery and embezzlement, and requires only that the government establish the right to recovery by a preponderance of the evidence. Facing challenges in bringing criminal charges associated with the subprime mortgage crisis, prosecutors view FIRREA as a potentially useful tool.

The Defense bar is pushing back. For instance, this past November, the Southern District of New York filed a civil mortgage fraud lawsuit against Allied Home Mortgage seeking penalties under the False Claims Act and FIRREA. At the end of March, Allquest Home Mortgage Corporation (formerly known as Allied Home Mortgage Corporation) and Americus Mortgage Corporation moved to dismiss the FIRREA claims on the basis that: (1) one of the provisions of the statute plead by the government, 18 U.S.C. §1006, applies only to individuals; (2) the government failed to allege an intent to defraud, and ; (3) the statute does not prohibit false or fraudulent statements to the FHA prior to July 30, 2008. View the motions to dismiss here and here. As additional defendants are forced to respond to FIRREA actions, the scrutiny it receives by the defense bar will undoubtedly increase.

At least one aspect of FIRREA has already had had a tour through the federal courts. In United States v. Winstar Corporation, 518 U.S. 839 (1996), the Supreme Court held that the United States breached contracts with defendant financial institutions when, pursuant to FIRREA, the government stripped thrifts of the ability to book “regulatory goodwill” as an asset.

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