As bank failures went on the rise after the crisis of 2008, so did lawsuits from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. The target of many of these lawsuits has been both the management of banks, but also independent directors, which can be a scary thought for anyone serving on a bank board today. So what can we learn from this moving forward? Based on the responses Bank Director received from lawyers across the country, the “best practices” today can still be summarized by the same timeless instructions: make sure your board is engaged, get a good directors and officers (D&O) insurance policy, and document, document, document!
What is the most important lesson that bank boards should learn from the surge in FDIC lawsuits, and how should this be institutionalized in the form of a best practice?
Some things never change, and it’s never too late to re-learn old lessons. Directors must remain independent, informed and involved in their institution’s affairs. It’s not enough to simply attend board meetings. Directors need to read materials provided by management, ask questions and actively participate in board discussions. And they should make sure their participation is accurately reflected in the minutes. Special care should be taken when considering transactions with insiders and affiliates, and directors should always require detailed presentations from management regarding steps to address regulatory criticisms raised in examinations or otherwise. In addition, professional advice and expertise should be sought when addressing complex issues or other out of the ordinary course matters, and fully documented when appropriate.
—William Stern, Goodwin Procter
Given that the FDIC has authorized lawsuits in a significant number of failed bank cases, directors are appropriately concerned about liability. I continue to believe that ensuring fulfillment of the two underpinnings of the business judgment rule—the duty of loyalty and the duty of care—remain a director’s best defense against such actions. The bank can help institutionalize that as a best practice by providing full board packages in a timely manner, strongly encouraging attendance at meetings, and making internal and external experts and counsel available to board members.
—Gregory Lyons, Debevoise & Plimpton
There has been a surge in FDIC lawsuits because there has been a surge in bank failures and FDIC losses due to the financial market meltdown and the great recession. Perhaps the most important lessons for bank boards are that 1) capital is KING and 2) process is KING. Moreover, a board has to be diligent and honest in terms of assessing management performance and replacing management as needed. Finally, and as discussed above, a board’s fiduciary obligations require that adequate systems be in place to monitor compliance with laws, regulations and policies and that boards be informed and engaged and take action as necessary when red flags indicate issues or problems in certain areas. A cardinal sin in banking, which mirrors this fiduciary obligation, is to have regulatory violations repeated, i.e., uncorrected. Uncorrected violations are probably the single most cause of civil money penalties against banks and their boards.
—John Gorman, Luse Gorman
From a legal standpoint, a best practice is threefold. First, maintain capital levels substantially higher than the minimum levels necessary to qualify as well-capitalized, even if it causes the bank’s return on equity (ROE) to suffer. Second, make sure that the bank’s charter and by-laws provide the maximum legal indemnification protection permitted under the applicable law, including providing for advancement of funds during litigation to defend the directors. And third, be sure to maintain an adequate directors and officers liability policy with no regulatory exclusion, so the insurance company has an obligation to defend FDIC claims. The only good protection from a storm surge such as this is a good wall of defenses and a plan of retreat!
—Doug McClintock, Alston + Bird
Excessive concentration of credit risk is a recurring theme in FDIC lawsuits. Boards need to monitor on an ongoing basis significant credit risk concentrations, whether it be in type of loan, type of borrower, geographical concentration, etc. Management reports to the board should address these and other concentration risks inherent in the institution’s loan portfolio.
—Victor Cangelosi, Kilpatrick Townsend
Directors should pay attention to their D&O insurance. All policies are not equal and the insurance markets are constantly evolving. Banks and their boards should consider involving experts in the negotiation of the policy terms and cost. Independent directors may want special counsel to be involved. Beyond paying attention to D&O insurance, directors need to pay more attention—pure and simple. The recent case brought by the FDIC against directors of Chicago-based defunct Broadway Bank criticizes the directors for not digging into lending policies or the details of lending relationships and deferring entirely to management. Documenting involvement is almost as important as the involvement itself.
—Mark Nuccio, Ropes & Gray