In a setback for some of the world’s largest financial institutions, a U.S. appeals court on Monday reinstated the private antitrust lawsuits filed against 16 banks for allegedly rigging Libor interest rates.
The ruling from the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reverses a lower court decision from 2013, in which U.S. District Judge Naomi Buchwald dismissed the claims because she said the banks’ alleged conduct did not violate federal antitrust laws.
The lawsuits accuse 16 major banks—including J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp. and Citigroup Inc.—of collusion in manipulating the London interbank offered rate, or Libor, to the detriment of the banks’ consumers.
The plaintiffs, who owned various financial instruments that were affected by Libor, claim the returns on their investments were depressed by the banks’ collusion. The lawsuits were filed by several groups of plaintiffs, including the local governments of cities like Baltimore, San Diego and Houston.
Judge Buchwald had dismissed the antitrust claims, saying the plaintiffs failed to show they were injured by the alleged rate manipulation. She said that because setting Libor was a “cooperative endeavor,” there could be no anticompetitive harm to consumers.
But the appeals court Monday disagreed and kicked the case back to the lower court for further proceedings. A three-judge panel found that the plaintiffs did show an antitrust injury “by alleging that they paid artificially fixed higher prices.”
Judge Buchwald in 2013 had allowed other claims by the plaintiffs to proceed, including allegations that the banks breached commodities laws, but the antitrust claims were a central part of the litigation, as violations can require a defendant to pay triple damages.
The appellate judges noted that the plaintiffs will still have to prove at a later stage whether the allegedly corrupt Libor rate did have an influence on the prices of their financial investments.
If this litigation is ultimately successful, the potential total bill to banks could be in the billions, analysts have estimated.
A lawyer representing the banks declined to comment, while a lawyer for the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Libor, a widely used benchmark that helps set interest rates for everything from mortgages to corporate loans, is calculated daily for different currencies based on estimated borrowing rates submitted by banks on panels. The lawsuits are targeting banks on the panel that sets U.S. dollar rates under Libor.
These private lawsuits are separate from the sprawling criminal and civil probes around Libor rigging, which began in 2008 and have implicated traders around the world. Regulators have accused big banks of letting their traders and executives raise Libor rates up or down to benefit their trading positions.
About a dozen financial firms have settled charges of manipulating Libor, and many have pleaded guilty to criminal charges. The largest penalty imposed was the $2.5 billion paid by Deutsche Bank AG last year.
In total, U.K. and U.S. authorities have imposed sanctions of more than $6 billion in the Libor cases. A series of global investigations are still ongoing, but The Wall Street Journal reported in February that regulators in the U.S. and U.K. are preparing to bring a final round of civil charges against several banks in the probe.
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