Monday, June 25, 2012

Accused F'closure Sale Bid-Riggers Dodge Bullet As Rocky Mountain Supremes Uphold 'Joint Bidding' Defense In Civil Suit Brought By Foreclosed Owner

In Aspen, Colorado, the Aspen Daily News reports:

  • The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of bidders at a 2007 foreclosure auction for an Aspen condo who were accused by the former owner of collusion and bid rigging.

  • The case of Amos v. Aspen Alps 123, LLC, stems from the foreclosure sale conducted in February 2007 for a condo in the slopeside Aspen Alps complex that was owned by Betty Amos and the estate of her late husband Thomas Righetti. Amos had used the condo as collateral for a $1.6 million loan that had fallen into default, and Equitable Bank of Florida, which made the loan, initiated foreclosure proceedings.

  • The bank submitted a credit bid of $1.6 million, and three other bidders participated in the auction on the Pitkin County Courthouse steps. They were Debra Mayer of Aspen, Mike Seguin of Aspen and Thomas Griffin, who was there on behalf of James Flaum, of the Vail area. The initial bidding was competitive, and Seguin submitted what was ultimately the final bid of $1.86 million.

  • However, according to legal documents on file in the case, after Seguin entered the $1.86 million bid, Griffin suggested thatinstead of bidding the property up further and further,” the three parties stop bidding and form an LLC which would allow them to split the purchase three ways. All agreed, and they formed Aspen Alps 123, LLC, which was granted title to the condo by the Pitkin County Public Trustee in August 2007.

  • At issue in the case was whether the agreement, made by three people who had never met before the auction, was merelyjoint bidding,” which is permissible, or rose to the level ofbid rigging,” which violates state and federal antitrust laws.

  • The difference, according to relevant case law, is that joint bidding occurs when two or more people pool their resources to buy a property that they could not have afforded individually. Bid rigging is when parties collude to stifle competition.

  • In a 6-1 vote, the justices found that “we cannot say based on the limited evidence in the record that the purpose of the individuals joining to purchase the property was to eliminate, reduce, or interfere with competition.” Chief Justice Michael Bender, however, wrote a dissenting opinion and found that bid rigging did occur.

  • Amos also contended that the sale should be voided because the bank failed to properly notice the foreclosure sale to the estate, which included Righetti’s daughter, Brandy Righetti. Judges at the district and appellate court level never supported this argument, because Amos herself — who is a representative of the estate — was properly noticed. One of the seven Supreme Court justices wrote a dissenting opinion in favor of Amos’ arguments on the notice issue, but no other justices concurred.
  • In backing the bidders, the court relied on testimony they offered during the initial trial, when Mayer and Flaum said that the bidding had exceeded the funds they had at their disposal. Mayer stopped bidding at $1.75 million, and Griffin was authorized by Flaum to spend no more than $1.8 million, according to the testimony. It was Mayer’s testimony that after Seguin had entered the $1.86 million bid, Griffin suggested the parties “stop bidding the property up further and further” and the three agree to a joint-purchase arrangement.

  • The Supreme Court, in its 20-page majority opinion, noted that the joint purchase arrangement did not shut any other bidders out of the process, because no one else was participating in the auction.
  • Chief Justice Bender, in his dissenting opinion, cited the bidders’ own admitted intentions to stop the bidding process and keep the price from rising further. Justices in the majority are basing their exoneration of the bidders on the “self-serving testimony” that neither Mayer nor Flaum could afford to match Seguin’s final bid, he wrote.

  • The existence of a conspiracy to rig an auction is neither dependent on the success of the conspiracy nor on any showing that the agreement injured the seller by negatively impacting the final sale price,” Bender wrote. “In the present matter, the parties explicitly agreed to stop bidding to prevent the auction price from rising. This is the definition of anti-competitive behavior.”(1)
For the court ruling, see Amos v. Aspen Alps 123, LLC, 2012 CO 46, No. 10SC187 (June 18, 2012).
For earlier, related posts, see:

(1) Beware of dissenting opinions! Notwithstanding Colorado Supreme Court's overwhelming 6-1 vote upholding the 'joint bidding' defense in this case, the persuasiveness of Chief Justice Bender's logic in his dissenting opinion could be relied on by the Colorado state legislature to pass a statute specifically declaring the existence of a bid-rigging racket if the facts in future cases are similar to those in this case. See, for example, Foreclosing Lender's Failure To Serve Junior Lienholder Now OK In Indiana; New Law Reverses State High Court Ruling, Now Permits Lawsuit 'Do-Overs', reporting that Indiana Supreme Court Justice Frank Sullivan, Jr.'s lone dissent in the case (a 4-1 ruling), Citizens State Bank of New Castle v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc. 949 N.E.2d 1195 (2011), formed the basis of a subsequently-passed statute that reversed the effect of the court ruling for future cases.

Further, there is nothing stopping judges in other states/jurisdictions from 'leaning' on Chief Justice Bender's logic in reaching a contrary conclusion to that of the majority in this case. See, for example, Highlights From Recent Oregon Court Ruling Booting MERS, in which a U.S. District Judge in Oregon gave significant consideration to the observations of a Minnesota Supreme Court Justice's dissenting opinion in Jackson v. Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc., 770 N.W.2d 487 (Minn. 2009) when reaching his decision. According to Chief Justice Bender:

  • ¶42 The majority reasons that the bidders’ agreement did not constitute unlawful bid rigging, but was instead lawful “pooling” of the bidders’ resources to create a joint bid similar to the arrangement that the Wyoming Federal District Court found to be lawful in Love v. Basque Cartel, 873 F.Supp. 563 (D. Wyo. 1995). Maj. op. at ¶ 33. Specifically, the Love court warned that “[b]id rigging should not be confused with joint bidding, which allows bidders to pool their resources to place bids on property which they would otherwise be unable to afford.” 873 F.Supp. at 578. I disagree with the majority’s reliance on Love because that case is easily distinguished from the present matter.

    ¶43 In Love, the court based its ruling that the joint bidding agreement constituted lawful bid pooling on three reasons.

    First, the Love court was persuaded by the fact that the parties to the joint bidding agreement were never in competition because each was only interested in owning a distinct parcel of the larger ranch that their joint bid succeeded in winning. Id. at 577-78.

    Second, the Love court reasoned that it was significant that the was no evidence that others that were present at the auction were prevented from matching or exceeding the joint bidders’ final bid. Id. at 578.

    the Love court held that the agreement constituted lawful joint bidding because the evidence showed that in the absence of the joint bidding agreement, the reserve would not have been met for several of the parcels and therefore the auction would have failed. Id. at 579.

    Each of these rationales is inapplicable to the auction in this case.

    First, there was
    only one parcel, the condo, and all three bidders were bidding competitively against one another to obtain the property in its entirety.

    Second, unlike in Love, where there
    were other bidders that may have competed against the joint bidders, here, all of the bidders present at the auction colluded to stop bidding. Their collusive behavior, which occurred while the auction was underway, destroyed any incentive among the bidders to match or to exceed the final bid.

    Finally, the reserve (or minimum bid amount) was
    met well before the parties conspired to stop bidding up the price of the auction. Thus, the success of the auction, in surpassing the reserve, was not contingent upon the parties’ ability to submit a combined bid. Although I am mindful of Love’s warning that ““[b]id rigging should not be confused with joint bidding,” id. at 577, Love should not control this case. I acknowledge that, under certain circumstances, a combined bid may actually serve to foster competition by allowing joint bids to reach ever higher. In this case, however, the combined bid served to cut off all competition and, in the words of one of the bidders, “stop the bidding process.”

    Indeed, in direct contradiction to the facts in Love, the uncontroverted evidence here shows that the bidders did not come together to make the final, winning bid.

    Rather, after several rounds of bidding, Seguin, in his individual capacity, bid $1.86
    million, and then, once that bid was submitted, Griffin (representing Flaum) approached Meyer and Seguin andproposed to the others that, instead of ‘bidding the property up further and further,’ they cease bidding against each other and buy the property jointly.” Maj. op. at ¶ 6.

    Unlike in Love, where, prior to the final round of
    bidding, the bidders pooled their bids to reach a price that they otherwise could not afford, here, Seguin could have afforded the final bid price independent of the financial contributions of the other bidders.

    Seguin won the auction with his individual bid, and it was not until after the close of the auction that the parties came together to form Aspen Alps. At the time that their anti-competitive agreement occurred, Seguin held the high bid independent of the others. Thus, the incentive for him to join in the agreement was to prevent the auction price from getting bid up “further and further.”

    Seguin was able to buy-off his
    competitors by agreeing toform an LLC and stop the bidding process.” In my view, their agreement represented a classic bid rigging scheme. It constituted an “’agreement between competitors pursuant to which contract offers are to be submitted to or withheld from a third party.’” Love, 873 F.Supp. at 576 (quoting United States v. Mobile Materials, Inc., 881 F.2d 866, 869 (10th Cir. 1989), cert. denied 493 U.S. 1043 (1990)).

    The majority reasons that this scheme did not constitute bid rigging because the non-winning bidders, Flaum (who was represented by Griffin at the auction) and Meyer, each provided self-serving testimony that they could not afford to match Seguin’s final, winning bid. Maj. op. at ¶¶ 34-35.

    In my view, this misapprehends
    federal bid rigging jurisprudence, which has long recognized that the existence of a conspiracy to rig an auction is neither dependent on the success of the conspiracy nor on any showing that the agreement injured the seller by negatively impacting the final sale price. See ABA Section of Antitrust Law, Model Jury Instructions in Criminal Antitrust Cases 61 (2009) (“Bid Rigging”).

    Rather, the relevant inquiry is whether the
    “aim and result” of the conspiracy was “the elimination of one form of competition.” Id. Thus, the sole issue in determining whether a joint bidding scheme constitutes unlawful bid rigging is whether it produces an anti-competitive result. In the present matter, the parties explicitly agreed to stop bidding to prevent the auction price from rising. This is the definition of anti-competitive behavior. Id. (“A conspiracy to rig bids may be an agreement among competitors about . . . who should be the successful bidder . . . or who should refrain from bidding . . . that affects, limits, or avoids competition among them.”).

    Finally, I do not agree with the majority’s implication that the fact that the bidders’ agreement was made during—rather than before—the auction supports the conclusion that this scheme did not constitute bid rigging. Although the majority acknowledges that “a prior agreement is not necessary to prove bid rigging,” maj. op. at ¶ 34, it nevertheless uses this fact to distinguish the present matter from Guthrie, in which the federal district court for the Eastern District of Washington denied a defendant’s motion for judgment of acquittal on bid rigging charges because the defendant had contacted other potential bidders and offered them money to refrain from participating in upcoming auctions. 814 F.Supp. at 943-44, 950.

    In my view, from
    a competitiveness standpoint, this case presents a more troublesome situation than existed in Guthrie. In Guthrie, because the alleged bid rigging occurred prior to the auctions, there was no guarantee that the defendant had bought off every potential bidder that might attend the auction. See id. at 943-44.

    In contrast, because the bidders’
    agreement in this case was not made until after the auction was already underway, the three bidders were assured that their agreement eliminated all competition.

    I would hold that the bidders’ agreement constituted unlawful bid rigging in violation of section 6-4-106 and proceed to address the remedy issue consistent with section 6-4-121, C.R.S. (2011), which, in my opinion, would void this unlawful transfer. Accordingly, I respectfully dissent from Part II.B of the majority’s opinion.

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