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With Crash in Bear Stearns Shares, Firm’s Staffers Already Dialing Tort Lawyers

March 17, 2008
Related Topics: Miscellaneous Legal Issues, Benefit Design and Communication, Mergers and Acquisitions, Latest News
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With the value of Bear Stearns’ company stock down to nearly nothing, the firm’s employees—who collectively own about one-third of Bear’s outstanding stock—will likely pursue litigation to recoup a portion of their losses, according to class-action and employee benefits attorneys.

With JPMorgan Chase paying just $2 a share to acquire the firm for $237 million, or roughly 90 percent of its value last week, some attorneys say that they have already been contacted by Bear employees who have sustained substantial losses as a result of the slide.

“We’re starting to get calls from employees saying that the company did not adequately represent the exposure Bear had to subprime mortgages and CDOs (collateralized debt obligations),” said Jacob Zamansky, principal of securities arbitration firm Zamansky & Associates. That firm also filed one of the first claims against Bear Stearns on behalf of investors who lost money when two of Bear’s hedge funds collapsed last year.

“For these employees, this is a double whammy,” Zamansky said. “There is the loss of net worth, as well as the possibility that they could lose their jobs as well.”

Officers and directors at the firm have not been spared much pain from Bear’s spectacular collapse either. According to the company’s 2007 proxy statement, company directors and executive officers—a total of 17 people—owned 9.66 percent of Bear’s outstanding common stock as of the end of last January.

With JPMorgan looking to buy Bear for $237 million, this would peg the executive officers’ stake at roughly $23 million, as opposed to the roughly $1.6 billion the stake was worth at the beginning of 2007.

At least one firm, Pittsburgh-based Stember Feinstein Doyle & Payne, has said it is investigating “possible illegal conduct” at Bear, according to a statement from the employee benefits law firm.

Ellen Doyle, a partner, said that the firm has also been contacted by several employees at Bear Stearns. She said lawyers at the firm have been delving into whether Bear breached ERISA law by violating its fiduciary duties to employees who participate in the company’s employee stock ownership plan, profit-sharing plan and deferred-compensation plan.

Specifically, attorneys are examining whether managers of the company’s plans adequately “knew or should have known that Bear Stearns was concealing its large exposure to highly risky collateralized debt obligations, subprime mortgages and other poor-quality securities.” Those investments, she claims, may have rendered Bear Stearns common stock, along with certain funds the firm managers and offers to employees, “a risky investment.”

Jane Slater, a spokeswoman for Bear Stearns, could not immediately offer a comment on the investigation.

Suitor JPMorgan has reportedly said that an acquisition of Bear would generate roughly $6 billion in expenses, including costs to handle litigation. “It certainly appears as though they are anticipating a wave of litigation,” said John Rich, a principal at law firm Rich & Intelisano. “As they should, because there are a lot of people with both their current livelihood and their savings tied to this company.”

Filed by Mark Bruno of Financial Week, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.

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