New Jersey Attorney General's Consumer Fraud Suit Allowed to Proceed Against Investment Ratings Company
A superior court in New Jersey denied a motion by the credit rating agency Standard & Poor's Financial Services ("S&P") to dismiss a lawsuit brought under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (CFA), N.J. Rev. Stat. § 56:8-1 et. seq. Hoffman, et al v. McGraw Hill Financial, Inc., et al, No. ESX-C-216-13, opinion (PDF file) (N.J. Super. Ct., Essex Co., Dec. 31, 2014). The New Jersey Attorney General is alleging financial and advertising fraud involving mortgage-backed securities, which were a major factor in the 2008 financial crisis. The case, which should be of interest to New Jersey small businesses and consumers alike, has traveled to federal court, to a multidistrict litigation (MDL) matter, and back to state court.
S&P publishes research and analysis of stocks and bonds, maintains indices like the S&P 500, and issues credit ratings for private companies and government entities. The New Jersey Attorney General alleges that, from at least 2001 to 2008, S&P based its ratings of various mortgage-backed securities on its own financial interests, and gave favorable ratings to companies that were paying clients, even if they did not merit such a rating. Numerous other states and the federal government have sued S&P over the same general allegations.
The New Jersey lawsuit (PDF file), originally filed on October 9, 2013, asserts three causes of action against S&P and its parent company: (1) Misrepresentations and knowing omissions of material fact under the CFA, N.J. Rev. Stat. § 56:8-2; (2) unconscionable commercial practices under the CFA, id.; and (3) misrepresentation and knowing omissions of material fact in violation of the Advertising Regulations, N.J. Admin. Code § 13:45A-9.2(a)(9).