A federal judge’s decision to disallow the most damaging claims in a civil suit against banks who manipulated the London Interbank Offered Rate greatly lessens the defendants’ financial liability but is unlikely to impact the market, experts said.
Federal judge Naomi Reice Buchwald of U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on Friday dismissed claims that the banks violated U.S. antitrust laws and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations [Rico] law.
Lawsuits brought by a host of plaintiffs, including cities, trading firms, and private individuals, allege personal damages stemmed from the banks’ deliberate manipulation of the daily rates that were used in swaps and securities transactions. More and more complaints were filed throughout 2012 all over the country, leading to a consolidation in one court and a hold on other claims pending this outcome.
While Buchwald allowed certain commodities manipulation claims to go forward and declined to examine claims related to violations of state law, she ruled that LIBOR was not an antitrust violation under the 1890 Sherman Act.
“Although these allegations might suggest that defendants fixed prices and thereby harmed plaintiffs, they do not suggest that the harm plaintiffs suffered resulted from any anticompetitive aspect of defendants’ conduct,” she wrote.
Instead, she reasoned, LIBOR was a cooperative process in wherein participating financial institutions agreed to submit their interest rate estimates to the British Banker’s Association to be averaged and used as a benchmark.
“Thus, even if we were to credit plaintiffs’ allegations that defendants subverted this cooperative process by conspiring to submit artificial estimates instead of estimates made in good faith, it would not follow that plaintiffs have suffered antitrust injury,” Buchwald ruled.
She also dismissed RICO claims, which could have resulted in triple damages in the event of a ruling for the plaintiffs, on the grounds that banks violated securities fraud laws. Under an amendment to RICO, plaintiffs have no standing in a RICO case if the predicate actions could have been prosecuted as securities fraud.
Nanci Nishimura, an attorney representing Riverside, Calif. in its case against the banks, said her client is among those queued up behind the initial wave, the lead plaintiff of which is the City of Baltimore.
Nishimura said that although the judge’s ruling makes the potential payoff for plaintiffs less lucrative should it stand, there is a probability of an appeal and the ruling likely will not discourage more plaintiffs from joining class action suits against the banks.
“The court’s ruling currently impacts the pleading and certain causes of action, but will be worked out on appeal,” Nishimura said. “In fact, this should be viewed as a wake-up call to victims of LIBOR manipulation. Those who reasonably believe they were injured by admitted manipulation and clear wrongdoing owe it to themselves, their clients, constituents, investors and/or taxpayers to vindicate their rights and seek justice.”
Peter Shapiro, managing director at Swap Financial Group, said the ruling will probably be appealed but added that for now banks have avoided the “strongest and scariest” risks from the litigation. He said that market impact is likely to be minimal because a light has already been turned on the manipulative practices and a ruling in the banks’ favor will not restore past potentially illegal practices.
“The manipulation of LIBOR that was going on has by all indications completely stopped,” he said.