United States v. BNP Paribas SA

Decision Date06 August 2012
Docket NumberCivil Action No. H–11–3718.
Citation884 F.Supp.2d 589
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff, v. BNP PARIBAS SA; BNP Paribas North America; BNP Paribas Houston Agency; and Jovenal Miranda Cruz, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Texas

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Donald J. Williamson, Samuel J. Buffone, Jr., Linda Margaret McMahon, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for Plaintiff.

Christopher R. Lane, David D. Dibari, Steven T. Cottreau, Clifford Chance U.S. LLP, Washington, DC, Mary–Olga Lovett, Pamela Ferguson Sperber, Greenberg Traurig LLP, Philip Harlan Hilder, Paul L. Creech, Hilder & Associates P.C., Houston, TX, for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

SIM LAKE, District Judge.

Plaintiff, the United States of America, brings this action against defendants, BNP Paribas SA, BNP Paribas North America, BNP Paribas Houston Agency (collectively BNPP defendants), and Jovenal Miranda Cruz, under the False Claims Act (“FCA”), 31 U.S.C. § 3729, et seq., and for unjust enrichment and payment by mistake. Pending before the court are the Motion to Dismiss the Complaint by Defendants BNP Paribas, BNP Paribas North America, Inc., and BNP Paribas Houston Agency (Docket Entry No. 22), and Defendant Jovenal Miranda Cruz's Motion to Adopt in Part Motion to Dismiss Complaint by BNPP (Docket Entry No. 25). For the reasons set forth below, the motion to dismiss filed by defendant Cruz will be denied, and the motion to dismiss filed by the BNPP defendants will be granted in part and denied in part, and the United States will be ordered to file an amended complaint within thirty (30) days.

I. Background

From 1998 through 2005, a number of individuals and companies schemed and conspired to exploit the Supplier Credit Guarantee Program (“SCGP”) pursuant to which the Commodity Credit Corporation (“CCC”), a federally chartered corporation within the United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”), issues guarantees to United States commodity exporters. The SCGP allows United States commodity exporters to access financing before payments are due from foreign importers. Under this program exporters assign to a financial institution both the importer's promissory note and the exporter's right to payment, and the CCC guarantees payment to a financial institution. Eligibility requirements barred exporters from participating in the SCGP if they were directly or indirectly owned or controlled by the foreign importer, or by a person or entity that owned or controlled the importer.

The scheme at issue involved exporters and importers that were owned and/or controlled by Fernando Pablo Villarreal Cantu (Villarreal), a citizen of Mexico. Villarreal's ownership and/or control of both the exporters and the importers meant that the exporters were not eligible to receive SCGP guarantees from the CCC. As part of the scheme, the criminal co-conspirators bribed defendant Jovenal Miranda Cruz (Cruz) who at the relevant time served as a Vice–President and Manager of Trade Finance for BNPP in Houston. Largely through Cruz, BNPP entered into a series of Master Purchase and Sale Agreements (“MPSAs”) with several United States Exporters (Exporters) pursuant to which BNPP agreed to provide financing to the Exporters in exchange for receipt of payment obligations from a series of corresponding Mexican Importers (“Importers”) and SCGP guarantees for those payment obligations. The MPSAs detailed the income BNPP would earn for each transaction. Using false documents the Exporters, acting with the assistance and knowledge of Villarreal, the Importers, and Cruz, applied for and received SCGP guarantees. Upon receipt of a CCC guarantee, the Exporters assigned the guarantee and the Importers' payment obligation to BNPP. In exchange, BNPP provided the Exporters a line of credit up to the amount of the guarantee minus the amount BNPP charged for the service.

Beginning in April of 2005 the Mexican Importers failed to make over $78 million in payments due to BNPP. BNPP promptly filed claims on the CCC guarantees to recover its losses. BNPP filed its last claim on September 15, 2005. The CCC and the USDA referred the defaults to the United States Attorney's Office in Houston (“USAO”). A subsequent investigation resulted in the indictment of several individuals, including Cruz. The indictments charged Cruz and his co-conspirators with various acts, including “knowingly mak[ing] a false statement for the purpose of influencing the action of BNP Paribas ... in connection with advance or draw requests for funds on lines of credit.” 1 On January 12, 2012, Cruz pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bank fraud and other charges.

On October 18, 2011, the United States filed this action against BNPP based on allegations that BNPP and Cruz knew the Exporters were not eligible for the SCGP guarantees, yet concealed that information from the CCC and the USDA. The United States also alleges that Cruz acted within the scope of his employment and for the benefit of his employer in acquiring and maintaining this business for BNPP. (Compl. ¶¶ 15, 41–44)

II. Standards of Review

Defendants move the court to dismiss the plaintiff's claims pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim for which relief may be granted and 9(b) for failure to plead fraud with particularity. “A dismissal for failure to plead fraud with particularity under Rule 9(b) is treated as a dismissal for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6).” United States ex rel. Thompson v. Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., 125 F.3d 899, 901 (5th Cir.1997).

A. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6)

A motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim for which relief may be granted tests the formal sufficiency of the pleadings and is “appropriate when a defendant attacks the complaint because it fails to state a legally cognizable claim.” Ramming v. United States, 281 F.3d 158, 161 (5th Cir.2001), cert. denied sub nom. Cloud v. United States, 536 U.S. 960, 122 S.Ct. 2665, 153 L.Ed.2d 839 (2002). The court must accept the factual allegations of the complaint as true, view them in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. Id.

When a federal court reviews the sufficiency of a complaint, before the reception of any evidence either by affidavit or admissions, its task is necessarily a limited one. The issue is not whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail but whether the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the claims.

Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 122 S.Ct. 992, 997, 152 L.Ed.2d 1 (2002). To avoid dismissal a plaintiff must allege “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1974, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007). Plausibility requires “more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009). A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Id. The plausibility standard is not akin to a “probability requirement,” but asks for more than a sheer possibility a defendant acted unlawfully. Id. “Dismissal is proper if the complaint lacks an allegation regarding a required element necessary to obtain relief.” Torch Liquidating Trust ex rel. Bridge Associates L.L.C. v. Stockstill, 561 F.3d 377, 384 (5th Cir.2009). When considering a motion to dismiss courts generally are limited to the complaint and its proper attachments. Dorsey v. Portfolio Equities, Inc., 540 F.3d 333, 338 (5th Cir.2008). However, courts may rely upon “documents incorporated into the complaint by reference, and matters of which a court may take judicial notice.” Id.

B. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b)

Rule 9(b) provides that [i]n alleging fraud or mistake, a party must state with particularity the circumstances constituting fraud or mistake.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 9(b). [A] complaint filed under the False Claims Act must meet the heightened pleading standard of Rule 9(b).” United States ex rel. Grubbs v. Kanneganti, 565 F.3d 180, 185 (5th Cir.2009). Pleading fraud with particularity in this circuit requires [a]t a minimum ... the particulars of time, place, and contents of the false representations, as well as the identity of the person making the misrepresentation and what he obtained thereby.” Benchmark Electronics, Inc. v. J.M. Huber Corp., 343 F.3d 719, 724 (5th Cir.2003). The Fifth Circuit has explained that

[i]n cases of fraud, Rule 9(b) has long played [a] screening function, standing as a gatekeeper to discovery, a tool to weed out meritless fraud claims sooner than later. We apply Rule 9(b) to fraud complaints with “bite” and “without apology,” but also aware that Rule 9(b) supplements but does not supplant Rule 8(a)'s notice pleading. Rule 9(b) does not “reflect a subscription to fact pleading” and requires only “simple, concise, and direct” allegations of the “circumstances constituting fraud,” which after Twombly must make relief plausible, not merely conceivable, when taken as true.

Grubbs, 565 F.3d at 185–86 (citing Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1955). “Malice, intent, knowledge, and other conditions of a person's mind may be alleged generally.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 9(b).

III. Analysis

The United States asserts both statutory claims for violation of the FCA, 31 U.S.C. § 3729, et seq., and common law claims for unjust enrichment and payment by mistake against each of the four defendants. These claims are all based on allegations that “from 1998 through 2006 (the ‘Relevant Time Period’), BNP and its former Vice President, Jerry M. Cruz, engaged in a scheme to defraud the United States in connection with commodity payment guarantees provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (‘USDA’)...

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