Plaintiffs Failed to Sufficiently Allege Knowledge or Recklessness by Company Concerning AML Compliance Problems, Despite Admissions Made by Company When Responding to Major Government Enforcement Actions
On February 25, 2020, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of shareholders’ securities-fraud class action against the Western Union Company (“Western Union”) and several of its current and former executive officers based on the company’s alleged anti-money laundering (“AML”) compliance failings.
The suit was filed in February 2017 following the announcement of a deferred prosecution agreement (“DPA”) between Western Union and the U.S. Department of Justice. The DPA was based upon Western Union’s alleged willful failure to maintain an effective AML program and aiding and abetting of wire fraud between 2004 and 2012. The DPA, about which we have previously blogged, charged Western Union with filing Suspicious Activity Reports (“SARs”) regarding activity by its customers but failing to file SARs regarding the actions of its own agents who were likely complicit. The DPA and related civil enforcement actions from the Federal Trade Commission and FinCEN required Western Union to pay a combined penalty of $586 million.
As we also have blogged, shareholder derivative suits based on alleged AML failures are proliferating, for both U.S.-based and foreign-based financial institutions – as well as their executives. Primary examples include Danske Bank and some of its former executives, as well as Westpac, Australia’s second-largest retail bank, which currently face such lawsuits in the U.S. Such lawsuits now represent predictable collateral consequences flowing from AML-related scandals. Here, Western Union obtained dismissal because the plaintiffs failed to allege sufficient facts regarding the key issue of mental state – that is, facts that would support a strong inference of actual knowledge or reckless disregard that the public statements regarding Western Union’s actual state of AML compliance were false. The detailed Tenth Circuit opinion illuminates the practical contours of the scienter standard regarding AML compliance, or alleged lack thereof. Ultimately, plaintiffs’ arguments based upon a “fraud by hindsight” theory will fail.