Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.
Showing posts with label municipal. Show all posts
Showing posts with label municipal. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Court rejects qui tam suit against big banks because whistleblower relied on publicly available data

"Big Ballin' Money Shot" by Louish Pixel CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
A whistleblower alleged that a who's who of big banks is improperly manipulating the municipal bond market to profit at the expense of Massachusetts taxpayers.  But the Massachusetts high court today rejected the whistleblower's lawsuit because he relied on public data.

This case is of interest because it arises under, and narrows, a state false claims act.  With the federal government doling out billions of dollars in pandemic relief to corporate America, I've predicted, and it doesn't take a crystal ball, that we're going to see a rise in corruption and a corresponding rise in enforcement actions.  One key enforcement mechanism is a false claims act.  In anticipation of good work to be had for lawyers in the false claims vein in coming years, I added the subject this spring to coverage in my 1L Torts II class.

False claims cases, or "qui tam actions," allow any person, a member of the general public called "a relator," to bring a lawsuit on behalf of the government, that is, the public, to recover money lost to fraud or misfeasance.  Derived conceptually from Roman law and carried on in Anglo-American common law for centuries, "qui tam" is short for a Latin phrase meaning one who sues on behalf of the king and for oneself.  Relators are incentivized by being entitled to a cut of any recovery.  Qui tam is authorized in the United States by federal law (§§ 3729-3722, and at DOJ) and the laws of many states (at Mass. AG), varying in their particulars, and also can be a part of sectoral enforcement mechanisms, especially in healthcare and finance.

In the instant case, relator "B.J." Johan Rosenberg, an investment analyst and capital adviser with experience in municipal securities, alleged that banks are pricing municipal bonds and manipulating the market in ways that profitably breach their obligations to their public clients.  Defendants in the Massachusetts case include Chase, Citi, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley.

The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) dug into the particulars, which make my eyes glaze over and remind me why I have a financial adviser.  Suffice to say that Rosenberg understands this stuff well.  In 2019, Bloomberg described him as the "mystery man behind $3.6 billion in muni lawsuits," referring to qui tam actions in California, Illinois, and Massachusetts.  In 2015, Bloomberg reported, Rosenberg patented "MuniPriceTracker," a software designed to "ferret out Wall Street chicanery."

Rosenberg's analytical software is key in the instant case, and there the problem arises.  The false claims act in Massachusetts law (§§ 5A to 5O), as in federal law, bars claims based on publicly available information, whether from government reports or "news media."  The theory is that a qui tam statute should incentivize whistle-blowing by persons privy to information that the government and public are not, rather than potentially rewarding someone who rushes to the courthouse with old information.  As the SJC put it: "Where the essential features of an individual's purported chicanery already have been illuminated, ... affording a private party an incentive to bring suit is unwarranted, as it would add nothing to the Commonwealth's knowledge[.]"

The tricky bit in the instant case is that Rosenberg ran his software analysis on publicly available data.  That sourcing disallowed his action.  The court reasoned: "[I]t suffices that other members of the public, albeit with sufficient expertise and after having conducted some analysis, could have identified the true state of affairs by conducting the same data-crunching exercise as did the relator, using the data publicly available on the [Electronic Municipal Market Access] website."

Well, maybe.  To me, the phrase, "with sufficient expertise" is working overtime in that reasoning.  Rosenberg's method is sophisticated enough to be patent-worthy.  I don't think the average taxpayer spends weekends crunching market numbers, however publicly available they are.  And there's no evidence that anyone's doing it at the AG's office, either.  I worry that this narrowing of false claims to exclude "sweat of the brow" extrapolation from public records ill equips society to respond to sophisticated corporate malfeasance that can be revealed only by equally sophisticated detective work.

But I've already confessed my ignorance of finance.  You can read the 36-page opinion and decide for yourself.  Or choose among the views of the amici: the CFA Institute and Taxpayers Against Fraud Education Fund supported Rosenberg, and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and New England Legal Foundation supported the banks.

The case is Rosenberg v. JPMorgan Chase & Co., No. SJC-12973 (Mass. May 11, 2020).  Justice Dalila Wendlandt wrote the opinion, affirming the lower court, for a unanimous SJC of six justices.  She was an accomplished patent attorney before going on the bench.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Area man signposts 'sovereign immunity site'

Attorney Dan Greenberg, friend of the blog and a federal policy adviser in Washington, D.C., contributes this photo from his home neighborhood of Alexandria, Va.

The sign reads:


City of Alexandria
Sovereign Immunity Site
 Did you know ...
     The City of Alexandria claims "sovereign immunity" from liability for damage its trash collection truck did to this fence.

     That's right.  On May 22, 2019 a city truck hit and broke this fence.  It's on video!  But none of that matters.  They're immune from liability.
What is sovereign immunity?
     Simply put, the term sovereign immunity is derived from British common law doctrine based on the idea that the King could do no wrong.
     So be careful around City of Alexandria vehicles.  They can do no wrong.

The underlying dispute was reported by Fox 5 D.C. in October.  A trash truck caused $5,000 in damage to Denis Goris's 30-year-old iron fence.



Sovereign immunity turns up often in a society in which government is pervasive in our lives and surroundings, and that's bound to cause frustration.  The sign-bearer is right that the essence of immunity is inequitable, as between the plaintiff who suffers an injury and the defendant sovereign who caused it.  The Federal Tort Claims Act waives federal sovereign immunity in a narrow class of cases, and states can be less generous with their tort claims acts.  The broader aim that keeps immunity going in a democracy is the protection of public assets, which belong to all of us.

It looks like Alexandria does use city staff for trash collection.  Contractors throw a wrinkle into the mix (federal, state).  I am not a Virginia lawyer; what I know of the state's tort claims act, it treats counties and cities much more generously than state-level actors.  The localities enjoy near absolute sovereign immunity for governmental functions, and, almost 50 years ago, the Virginia Supreme Court held that municipal trash collection is a governmental function entitled to immunity.  Alexandria does have an administrative claim process, and there's some room to argue.

The city told Fox 5: "Under federal and state laws and court rulings, the City is generally not liable for damages caused in the course of providing core government services. While the City conducts extensive planning and training to avoid damaging property, some damage does occur given the vast scope of City operations. Exemption from these claims saves a significant amount of money every year for taxpayers as a whole."

In a story last year, NBC 4 Washington reported: "Alexandria Won't Pay $4,600 in Damages to SUV Caused by City Trash Truck."  The city is as consistent with its tort claims as it is with its driving record.

[SUPPLEMENT: "Why is this still a thing?," Planet Money asks about state sovereign immunity in the context of excellent coverage of the copyright case pending in the U.S. Supreme Court, Allen v. Cooper.]

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Social-science saucebox opines on bike-bridge closures

A reporter stopped me on a run last week to obtain my critical policy analysis of the bridge-replacement situation on the East Bay Bike Path.  Suffice to say, my testimony was breathless.


Watch at NBC 10 Providence.