Friday, February 17, 2023

Bank battles liability for client's pyramid scheme

The federal district court in Massachusetts has continued in recent months to resist Bank of America efforts to extricate itself from allegations of complicity in a pyramid scheme.

The liability theory working against Bank of America (BoA) in the Massachusetts litigation is a theory of ancillary, or secondary, liability.  I'm fond of ancillary liability theories, which put on the hook not just the actor that most directly injured a plaintiff, but the actor's compatriots.

by Zainabdawood77 via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

The myriad ways an injured plaintiff can add defendants to a civil claim improve the plaintiff's odds of recovery. So it behooves the plaintiff attorney to think creatively about ancillary liability. Correspondingly, it behooves the defense attorney to be on guard.

A plaintiff can be especially in need of better odds when a principally responsible defendant acted criminally, because criminal defendants tend to come up short on money to right wrongs. Ancillary liability theories in cases of financial crime are especially compelling, because perpetrators of fraud, before they're apprehended, tend to live large on their proceeds and then declare bankruptcy.

Think Bernie Madoff. His wild ride merited a thrilling fictionalization starring Richard Dreyfuss and still drives public interest with a new docuseries on Netflix. That his victims tended to be wealthy adds a sweet note of schadenfreude for American viewers, the vast majority of whom are trapped on the wrong side of the wealth gap.

That same schadenfreude thirsts for the diffusion of liability to more defendants. Plenty of corporations, namely banks and investment firms, and their directors and officers, leached wealth off schemes such as Madoff's, but bear no liability to victims. Ostensibly, these earners did nothing wrong. They merely engaged in lawful business.

Overlay that dynamic on financial opportunism that victimizes ordinary people, and the thirst for accountability becomes about more than schadenfreude. Financial disasters such as the savings-and-loan crisis of the 1980s and the housing crisis of 2008 infused the public with burning resentments that still smolder in the wreckage of the American dream.

In these crises, people were victimized by risks that enterprise externalized while providing no corresponding benefits. When the civil justice system fails to recognize a wrong in the infliction of such losses, we can expect the very insults to the social fabric that the system is supposed to prevent: more wrongdoing, diminished confidence in public institutions, and, ultimately, vigilantism by the afflicted.

Ancillary liability rides to the rescue. Two liability theories are especially useful in cases of financial fraud: "conspiracy" and "aiding and abetting." Those imprecise terms are useful to convey the essence of it, but the civil theories should not be confused with their criminal counterparts, which give rise to the terms.

More accurate descriptions in civil terminology are, respectively, "common design" and "substantial assistance or encouragement." When a principal defendant cannot be held to account, a plaintiff may demand compensation from a co-defendant that participated in a tortious common design with the principal, or from a co-defendant that knowingly substantially assisted or encouraged the principal in accomplishing a tortious objective.

The availability of conspiracy and aiding-and-abetting liability theories in common law business torts is not settled and not without controversy. The commercial defense bar naturally regards theories derived from personal injury law as ill suited to business torts, in which harms are only economic. Commercial actors are expected to safeguard their own interests to some extent in commercial transactions, more than a person exposed to risk of physical injury. Compensating economic loss is not regarded as socially imperative as the making whole of injured persons. The issue offers a window into a broader debate over whether business torts are torts at all, or, rather, a form of common law market regulation. We can leave that question on the shelves of academia for now.

In multi-district litigation pending in the U.S. District of Massachusetts, plaintiffs allege that Bank of America, among other defendants, substantially assisted or encouraged a pyramid scheme, or, more precisely, a "multi-level marketing" scheme (MLM), in the provision of commercial banking services. Bank of America (BoA) vigorously denies the allegations. In August 2022, the court refused to dismiss BoA, finding the allegation of ancillary liability sufficient to warrant discovery. The court has refused to undo its ruling upon motions for reconsideration since.

The principal defendant in the case is Telexfree, a transnational company with U.S. headquarters in Massachusetts. Having started up in 2012, the multibillion-dollar enterprise was an MLM that enlisted "promoters" to sell voice-over-internet-protocol telecommunication services. For a deeper dive into the rank turpitude of MLMs, check out comedian John Oliver's classic treatment in 2016. True to form, after only a year or two, Telexfree collapsed in bankruptcy under pressure from regulators in various countries, especially the Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States and authorities in Brazil. Private civil suits followed.

There is no question that banks such as BoA literally "substantially assisted or encouraged" Telexfree in its illicit enterprise. A company, even an MLM, needs banking services. The tricky part, though, for plaintiffs successfully to allege tortious aiding and abetting, is to show the ancillary defendant's knowledge of the principal defendant's tortious objective. BoA denies that it knew what Telexfree was up to.

Such denials usually fly. Banks at least purport to do business at arm's length. That impression accords with the experience of the average consumer; we don't imagine bankers poring over our checking accounts to second-guess our spending. And there's a sound argument in public policy that banks should not be held liable for the misdoings of their clients. Imposing weighty responsibility on banks, at best, would slow down commerce, and, at worst, could render capital inaccessible, paralyzing the marketplace. 

At the same time, banks with large commercial clients, in fact, routinely do business at much less than arm's length. Banks may well scrutinize clients, indeed may be fiduciarily obliged to scrutinize clients, if their business will place large amounts of capital at risk. Accordingly, the pleadings in Telexfree indicate that BoA worked closely enough with Telexfree executives to know what they were up to.  Indeed, plaintiffs allege that at least one BoA executive voiced concern that Telexfree's business model was not legal, and evidence suggests that BoA closed at least one account for that reason.

Upon the pleadings, then, the district court ruled that BoA had enough "red flags" to know what Telexfree was up to. BoA objected, and the court conceded, that red flags do not equate to the actual knowledge required for aiding-and-abetting liability. But red flags are evidence enough to allow plaintiffs to dig deeper in discovery, the court concluded.

The ruling has caused some angst in the commercial sector, for fear of the slippery slope of bank liability. I respect the worry, but I welcome the court's fresh take and willingness to rebalance the equities in financial fraud. Madoff was a compelling curiosity, and I don't have much sympathy for his high-roller investors. But more troublesome in America are recurring financial crises that seem only to exacerbate wealth disparity. And at the transactional level, MLMs and their like continue to run rampant, defying regulators and bilking not just high rollers, but ordinary people. 

The rabble is restless, as accountability runs thin. Regulators, whether wearing black robes or bearing pointy heads, had better start noticing.

The case is In re: Telexfree Securities Litigation, No. 4:14-md-02566 (D. Mass. received Oct. 22, 2014). HT @ attorneys Anthony D. Mirenda, Leah Rizkallah, and Nick Bergara of Foley Hoag LLP, writing for Mondaq.

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