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Bank of America's record $500 million accord over Countrywide wins approval

A Bank of America customer uses an ATM in Charlotte, North Carolina April 18, 2012. REUTERS/Chris Keane
A Bank of America customer uses an ATM in Charlotte, North Carolina April 18, 2012. REUTERS/Chris Keane

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) - A federal judge has granted final approval to Bank of America Corp's record $500 million settlement with investors who claimed they were misled by the bank's Countrywide unit into buying risky mortgage debt.

In a decision made public on Friday, U.S. District Judge Mariana Pfaelzer in Los Angeles called the accord fair, reasonable and adequate. She also awarded the investors' lawyers $85 million of fees plus $2.98 million for expenses.

Investors, including several public and union pension funds, had accused Countrywide of misleading them in offering documents between 2005 and 2007 about the quality of home loans underlying the securities they bought.

Many of those securities carried high credit ratings that tumbled to "junk" status as market conditions worsened.

Countrywide had been the largest U.S. mortgage lender before Bank of America bought it in July 2008.

The $500 million payout was the largest to resolve federal class-action litigation over mortgage-backed securities. It surpassed a $315 million accord with Bank of America's Merrill Lynch unit that won court approval in May 2012.

Bank of America had originally been sued over roughly $352 billion of securities, but Pfaelzer reduced that sum to about $15 billion by ruling that investors could sue only over securities they bought, not those with similar qualities.

Bank of America, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, is the second-largest U.S. bank.

OBJECTIONS OVERRULED

In approving the latest settlement, Pfaelzer overruled objections by two groups of class members.

One group included the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp, acting as receiver for 19 failed banks, and 16 institutional investors. They said the settlement unfairly favored some investors over others and that $500 million was not enough.

But Pfaelzer said there were "significant legal obstacles" to recovering more, noting that the bank might try to attribute investment losses to investor panic amid a "broader crisis in the housing and credit markets."

The other objectors included a bank and a fund company that claimed the accord released too many potential claims.

A lawyer for the FDIC and the institutional investors referred a request for comment to the FDIC. Greg Hernandez, an FDIC spokesman, declined immediate comment.

Talcott Franklin, a lawyer for the other group of objectors, also declined immediate comment.

The accord is separate from an $8.5 billion Bank of America settlement over Countrywide securities that is pending in a New York State court.

Bank of America is also awaiting a ruling on damages from U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff in Manhattan after a jury found it liable for fraud over Countrywide's sale of defective mortgages to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

In August, the federal government filed two lawsuits in Charlotte that accused Bank of America of understating the risks on about $850 million of mortgage securities.

Among the law firms to share in the $85 million of legal fees are Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd; Kessler Topaz Meltzer & Check; and Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, court papers show.

The cases are in the U.S. District Court, Central District of California. They are Maine State Retirement System v. Countrywide Financial Corp et al, No. 10-00302; Western Conference of Teamsters Pension Plan v. Countrywide Financial Corp et al, No. 12-05122; and Luther v. Countrywide Financial Corp et al, No. 12-05125.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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