A Delaware federal judge ruled Tuesday that Navient Corp., one of that nation’s largest servicers of student loans, must face claims that it had pumped up its stock price by hiding serious problems with its loan portfolio and other risks from investors.
The ruling, from U.S. District Judge Maryellen Noreika, trimmed some claims from the securities class action, but also found reason to believe that top executives at the Wilmington-based Sallie Mae spin-off knew the firm was under-reporting the number of delinquent accounts on its books.
The plaintiffs, led by mutual fund manager Lord Abbett Affiliated Fund, are seeking to recover more than $13 million they say the company lost as a result of Navient’s ”pervasive and systemic” practice of granting forbearance to struggling student-loan borrowers instead of marking the accounts delinquent or in default.
Attorneys for Navient have argued that the class of investors had based their allegations on the accounts of four “low-level collection personnel” with no access to senior management, including 11 executives who have been named as defendants in the case.
In 2017, the firm won an early victory, when former U.S. District Judge Gregory M. Sleet tossed the original complaint for “puzzle pleading” that at times made the allegations ”very difficult” to follow. That dismissal, however, was without prejudice, giving the plaintiffs one more chance to patch their pleading deficiencies.
On Tuesday, Noreika said she credited the accounts of three confidential witnesses, who claimed that Navient instituted an “incentive programs,” which encouraged its employees to place borrowers into forbearance. While their identities have been kept a secret, Noreika said the witnesses were adequately described in the complaint and that their accounts were supported by government complaints in other court cases.
Those actions, she said, supported claims that Navient had made false statements regarding its practices and the overall health of its student-loan portfolio.
“The [confidential witnesses] allege that—per the incentive programs, employee rating programs, scripts, and guidance from supervisors—the [confidential witnesses] and other collections agents in similar positions were not ‘careful’ about the use of forbearance, did not apply forbearance ‘based on a customer’s unique situation,’ and did not limit either the number of forbearance months granted consecutively or the total number of forbearance months granted over the life of the loan,’ but instead placed borrowers into forbearance indiscriminately and for the longest possible periods of time,” she said.
An attorney for Navient and the individual defendants was not immediately available to comment.
Noreika’s ruling did nix securities claims regarding public statements Navient had made about compliance with legal and regulatory requirements and its borrowing capacity under its credit facilities, finding that the revised complaint had failed to allege that Navient had knowingly concealed risk from its investors.
An attorney for Lord Abbett did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the ruling.
Lord Abbett is represented by Steven E. Fineman, Daniel P. Chiplock and Michael J. Miarmi of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein in New York; Richard M. Heimann and Bruce W. Leppla in San Francisco and Sharon M. Lee from the firm’s Seattle office. Patrick F. Morris, Karen L. Morris and R. Michael Lindsey of Morris & Morris in Wilmington are acting as local counsel in the case.
Navient and the individual defendants are represented by Peter A. Wald, a partner in Latham & Watkins’ San Francisco office, as well as Abid R. Qureshi and Christopher S. Turner in Washington, D.C., and Christopher R. Harris in New York. Kelly E. Farnan of Richards, Layton & Finger is acting as Delaware counsel.
The case is captioned Lord Abbett Affiliated Fund v. Navient.