Emily Strauss, ‘Crisis Construction in Contract Boilerplate’

ABSTRACT
Why might judges interpret a boilerplate contractual clause to reach a result clearly at odds with its plain language? Though courts don’t acknowledge it, one reason might be economic crisis. Boilerplate provisions are pervasive, and enforcing some clauses as written might cause additional upheaval during a panic. Under such circumstances, particularly where other government interventions to shore up the market are exhausted, one can make a compelling argument that courts should interpret an agreement to help stabilize a situation threatening to spin out of control.

This Article argues that courts have in fact done this by engaging in ‘crisis construction’. Crisis construction refers to the act of interpreting contractual language in light of concurrent economic turmoil. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, trustees holding residential mortgage backed securities sued securities sponsors en masse on contracts warranting the quality of the mortgages sold to the trusts. These contracts almost universally contained provisions requiring sponsors to repurchase individual noncompliant loans on an individual basis. Nevertheless, court after court permitted trustees to prove their cases by sampling rather than forcing them to proceed on a loan by loan basis.

While the reasoning of these decisions is frequently dubious, they gave trustees the leverage to salvage millions – even billions – of dollars in settlements from the sponsors who had sold the shoddy loans, reassuring investors that sponsors would be forced to stand behind their contracts. However, as the crisis ebbed, courts retrenched, and more recent decisions adhere to the plain language requiring loan-by-loan repurchase. I argue that the rise and fall of decisions permitting sampling reflect a largely unexpressed judgment that in times of severe economic crisis, courts may produce decisions to help stabilize the economy. I further examine why these provisions appear to have persisted in MBS contracts.

Strauss, Emily, Crisis Construction in Contract Boilerplate (August 26, 2019). Law and Contemporary Problems, forthcoming.

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