Dahlgren v. First Nat. Bank of Holdrege

Decision Date11 July 2008
Docket NumberNo. 07-1951.,07-1951.
Citation533 F.3d 681
PartiesDave DAHLGREN, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. FIRST NATIONAL BANK OF HOLDREGE, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

William Frederick Hargens, argued, Robert J. Bothe, James J. Niemeier, on the brief, Omaha, NE, for appellant.

Rodney M. Confer, argued, Jeanelle R. Lust, on the brief, Lincoln, NE, for appellee.

Before LOKEN, Chief Judge, WOLLMAN and SHEPHERD, Circuit Judges.

LOKEN, Chief Judge.

When Damrow Cattle Company ("DCC") was placed in involuntary receivership and a Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceeding, fourteen cattle investors and corn producers1 who were fattening cattle and storing grain at the DCC feedlot lost over $1.7 million plus nearly $200,000 in bankruptcy litigation expenses. They sued the First National Bank of Holdrege ("the Bank"), DCC's primary lender from 1983 until 2000, for treble damages and attorneys' fees under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act ("RICO") and for fraud and negligent misrepresentation under state law, claiming that the Bank misled them into continuing to do business with DCC by concealing its increasing financial weakness to protect the Bank's substantial interest as DCC's creditor. A jury found the Bank liable on all claims, and the district court denied without opinion the Bank's post-verdict motion for judgment as a matter of law. The Bank appeals. We reverse the denial of judgment as a matter of law on the RICO claims. Reviewing the facts in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, we affirm in part and reverse in part the jury verdict on the various fraud claims. See Fowler v. SmithKline Beecham Clinical Labs., Inc., 225 F.3d 1013, 1014 (8th Cir.2000) (standard of review).

I. Factual Background

Dennis Damrow ("Damrow") and his brother and father began operating DCC as a commercial feedlot near Holdrege, Nebraska, in 1983. The Damrows formed a financing company, DFF, Inc., that offered investors the option of borrowing the cost of purchasing and feeding cattle at DCC. Damrow was the general manager of DCC and managed the day-to-day operations of DFF. The Bank provided loans and banking services to both companies. In 1990, Damrow invested in and began managing a second feedlot, Carter Feeders, near Orleans, Nebraska. The Bank provided banking services for Carter Feeders and its financing entity, CFF, Inc.

Investors placed feeder cattle at the feedlot, where DCC fattened the cattle before selling them to meat packers. DCC billed investors monthly for feed and other costs. Investors who farmed in the area also stored grain at the feedlot, either to feed their own cattle or to sell to DCC. An investor financing the purchase and fattening of cattle through DFF signed a promissory note to DFF. DFF signed a promissory note and assigned the investor's note to the Bank in exchange for a loan to purchase the cattle. When DCC sold cattle to a meat packer, the packer sent the purchase price to the Bank, which deposited the funds into DCC's account. DCC recovered its feedlot expenses, reimbursed DFF for its advances, and paid the investor his down-payment and any profit from the sale. DFF repaid the Bank's loan. Investors commonly used their share of the sale proceeds to finance a new lot of cattle at DCC.

DCC experienced steady growth, expanding its operating capacity from 1,200 cattle in 1983 to 17,500 cattle when it was placed in receivership in 2001. Damrow testified that after 1996, DCC owned thirty to fifty percent of the cattle being fed at any given time. Dr. Rodney Jones, an agricultural economics professor, testified as plaintiffs' expert that the owner of cattle incurs greater risk in cattle feeding than the feedlot operator, so the percentage of cattle owned by the feedlot significantly affects its risk of loss.

From 1994 through 1998, Dr. Jones and others testified that the Bank repeatedly honored checks when the DCC and DFF accounts were substantially overdrawn, sometimes in excess of $1 million, and DCC had no unborrowed amount on its working capital line of credit. DCC often waited months after selling a lot of cattle before using the proceeds to pay the corresponding DFF note, thereby using money borrowed by DFF to effectively increase DCC's borrowings. The Bank contributed to this credit-shifting process by refusing on multiple occasions to process DCC checks to pay off DFF notes when DCC's account was overdrawn. Dr. Jones testified that these large overdrafts suggested a borrower with cash flow problems that could lead to business failure. However, substantial overdrafts ceased after the DCC and DFF lines of credit were increased in mid-to-late 1997 when the Bank's correspondent regional bank, First National Bank of Omaha ("FNBO"), investigated Damrow and agreed to participate in these lines of credit. By May 1999, FNBO's participation in the DCC operating line of credit and the DFF investor line of credit had increased to a total of $7 million.

In 1996 and 1997, two junior officers at the Bank warned senior management of irregularities in the financing of DFF — large initial advances in round figures to purchase cattle and feed, some totaling more than the cattle would bring when sold; note maturities longer than the four-to-five months needed to fatten cattle; and DFF notes remaining unpaid for months after the cattle were sold. After receiving the second officer's critical memorandum, DCC loan officer Ron Sterr wrote a letter asking Damrow to address the problem of DFF overdrafts and overdue notes. However, Sterr and Bank president Kenneth Slominski excused the failure to pay DFF notes when cattle were sold by suggesting that Damrow was just replacing the sold cattle with new feeder cattle for the same investors.2

In September 1997, the Bank entered into an agreement with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency to address the Bank's deteriorating condition. The agreement required the Bank to make management changes, appoint an oversight committee, abide by new lending limits and procedures, and reduce classified and non-performing assets. A new president was hired in late 1998, charged with the task of eliminating classified and non-performing assets so that the Bank could achieve compliance with the regulatory agreement. Cattle losses in 1997 and 1998 caused DCC's loan rating at the Bank to decline from a "1" in 1997, to a "4" in mid-1999, which placed its line-of-credit loan on the Bank's "watch" list.

In September 1999, after years of losses and increasing liabilities, the non-Damrow shareholders at Carter Feeders told the Bank they suspected Damrow of falsifying financial statements by overstating the cattle owned by Carter Feeders by over $1 million. Damrow ceased managing Carter Feeders in November 12, and Carter Feeders declared bankruptcy in December 1999. Upset with the Bank's handling of the Carter Feeders problem, Damrow asked FNBO if it would take over all of the various Damrow credits in December 1999.

In January 2000, Damrow admitted to the Bank that he had filed false financial statements for Carter Feeders, blaming the other Carter Feeders shareholders. The Bank's board of directors decided to end its banking relationship with Damrow on January 9, 2000. After persuading Damrow to sign a new deed of trust on the DCC feedlot, which was owned by Damrow or his personal farming entity, the Bank told Damrow to find a new lender. Damrow continued discussions with FNBO, which took over the DCC and DFF credits on April 14 after conducting its own due diligence investigation. Participating with FNBO was Adams Bank & Trust, where loan officer Sterr began working after leaving the Bank in late 1999. The Bank severed its last tie with the Damrow credits on July 18, 2000, when a final term note was paid from proceeds of Damrow's sale of the feedlot property, consistent with his refinancing agreement with FNBO.

In January 2001, FNBO heard that double counting of cattle was occurring at the DCC feedlot. FNBO investigated and quickly placed DCC into receivership, liquidating its cattle inventory. An involuntary Chapter 7 bankruptcy followed. FNBO and Adams Bank & Trust sued the Bank for failing to disclose financial information about the Damrow operations; both cases settled. After litigating with FNBO and the DCC trustee over ownership of corn and cattle at the feedlot when the receivership began, plaintiffs commenced this action to recover from the Bank their losses and litigation expenses in the DCC bankruptcy. Damrow pleaded guilty to felony charges that, between December 1993 and January 2001, he schemed to defraud the Bank, FNBO, and Adams Bank & Trust by materially misrepresenting the ownership of cattle on borrowing reports to the banks, by falsifying documents to deceive inspectors and bank representatives regarding the ownership of cattle at the DCC and Carter Feeders feedlots, and by pledging to the banks cattle that were owned by others. Sentenced to forty months in prison, Damrow was incarcerated at the time of trial and testified for the plaintiffs by deposition.

II. The RICO Claims

Enacted to strengthen criminal and civil remedies against organized crime, RICO provides a private right of action for any person "injured in his business or property by reason of a violation of" its substantive prohibitions. 18 U.S.C. § 1964(c). The prohibition at issue here is 18 U.S.C. § 1962(c), which provides:

It shall be unlawful for any person employed by or associated with any enterprise engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate or foreign commerce, to conduct or participate, directly or indirectly, in the conduct of such enterprise's affairs through a pattern of racketeering activity or collection of unlawful debt.

To prevail on their RICO claims, plaintiffs must prove that the Bank engaged in the conduct of an enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity. The...

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