I have been told that in a traffic jam ambulance drivers are taught to move to the first opening available in traffic and figure out where to go after that. Sometimes legal strategy takes that same philosophy. In a recent 2nd Circuit Case, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, LLP (“PwC”) asserted in pari delicto to avoid immediate liability in a MF Global, Inc. (“MF Global”) related lawsuit. What happens next, I assume has already been figured out by their very capable lawyers.
It is helpful to know what the legal doctrine of in pari delicto means, if you do not already know. The doctrine is “an affirmative defense which mandates that the courts will not intercede to resolve a dispute between two wrongdoers.” In essence, if two wrongdoers come to court, the court will not resolve who is at fault. More simply, if a party asserts they are not liable on a theory of in pari delicto, they are necessarily claiming to be a wrongdoer.
Following the collapse of MF Global a lot of people got sued. Among the people who were sued were the D&Os of MF Global and PwC on behalf of MF Global. PwC is alleged to have conducted audits of MF Global during the time in which MF Global is alleged to have “raided” (not my word) the commodities customers’ accounts in an attempt to keep MF Global afloat. Stated in a broad stroke, the plaintiffs assert that PwC should have caught the alleged violations of the various securities laws, but did not. The damages were asserted to be in the billions of dollars.
Here is where another legal concept comes into play – a derivative lawsuit:
In simple terms, a derivative lawsuit is where a third party brings a lawsuit on behalf of the primary party against a second party.
In this case, the aggrieved commodities customers filed a derivative lawsuit on behalf of MF Global against PwC claiming that PwC has violated securities laws when it raided the accounts. Among PwC’s responses (of which, I presume there were many), PwC asserted the affirmative defense of in pari delicto because the true party was MF Global (because it was a derivative lawsuit), and thus they were both wrongdoers.
Personally, I think it takes a lot of confidence on the part of PwC’s attorneys to assert the affirmative defense of in pari delicto in this, or any case. In doing so, the client is being advised to assert that is a wrongdoer.
The case itself has been up and down the system. However, it’s the recent ruling on May 22, 2015 which affirmed that PwC would not be liable to the commodities customers because PwC had prevailed on its affirmative defense of in pari delicto. (The 2nd Cir. affirmed that there could be no professional negligence claim because PwC never worked for the plaintiffs).
What to take away from this decision and fact pattern for a lender?
- Consider the true sources of recovery. If you are banking on a third party liability policy, then it might not be there.
- Sometimes accountants might not act properly, and if they do, the lender might not be able to recover from them.
As a legal matter, this dispute is likely not over any time soon. By essentially asserting wrongdoing, PwC has prevented liability from the derivative claimants, but has not addressed the potential for liability from other claimants. Nevertheless, the tactic worked and now PwC is on to the next fight, having avoided liability at the first. In effect, PwC has gone for the first opening in heavy traffic and will figure out where to go after that.
Bearing Fund, LP., et al. v. PriceWaterhouseCoopers, LLP (In re MF Global Holdings Ltd. Investment Litigation), case no. 14-1249-cv, In the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, opinion issued May 22, 2015.
The Order is here.