Avoidance and Recovery
|The South Bay Law Firm Law Blog highlights developing trends in bankruptcy law and practice. Our aim is to provide general commentary on this evolving practice specialty.|
Avoidance and Recovery
Legislation and Rules
Avoidance and Recovery
Trends and Legislation
Avoidance and Recovery
Claims, Avoidance and Recovery
Venue and Compensation
Claims and Administrative Expenses
ConfirmationÂ and Discharge
Claims, Avoidance, and Recovery
Claims and Priorities
Avoidance and Recovery
Avoidance and Recovery
Claims And Litigation
Avoidance and Recovery
In a Case of First Impression at the Circuit Level, Ninth Circuit Holds an Insider Who Waives his Right to Indemnification from the Debtor is not a âCreditorâ for Purposes of Preferential Transfers Under Sec. 547 of the Bankruptcy Code
Avoidance and Recovery
How can an ostensible lending transaction be recharacterized later on as an equity investment?
When a client decides to extend debt funding to a struggling venture that finds itself in bankruptcy, this loan can later be ârecharacterizedâ as equity, leaving your client to wait at the back of the line behind âtrueâ lenders and lienholders.
On Tuesday (7/28), colleagues Victor Sahn and Jeff PomeranceÂ of SulmeyerKupetz Professional Corporation joined me and about 30 of our friends for a webinar discussion on debt-equity recharacterization and the related (but distinct) concept of claimÂ subordination in bankruptcy.
View it here.
Update: Â A 3-judge panel of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals has very recently issued a decision on this issue (available here), upholding prior authorityÂ and deciding a request for recharacterization in favor of the creditor. Â Along the way, the Tenth Circuit acknowledged a split in the Circuits over the basis for Bankruptcy Courts’ authority to recharacterize claims. Â Will we see a trip to the Supreme Court?
Avoidance and Recovery
Claims Objection And Subordination
Avoidance and Recovery
Jurisdiction and Procedure
From theÂ Abstract:Â
“This article empirically examines and quantifies the effect of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (âBAPCPAâ) on three distinct aspects of the Chapter 11 process: a) the duration of traditional Chapter 11 cases; b) the use of prepackaged and prenegotiated bankruptcies; and c) debtor refiling rates. The sample studied consists of companies with more than $100 million in assets that both filed for and exited Chapter 11 between 1997 and 2014. BAPCPA is found to be associated with shorter Chapter 11 case duration, and an increased use of prepackaged and prenegotiated bankruptcies. Additionally, BAPCPA is found to be associated with an increase in the proportion of firms that soon refile for bankruptcy. It seems that the 2005 amendments force the debtor to emerge hastily from its Chapter 11 proceedings, ignoring operational and structural problems and, therefore, not achieving true rehabilitation.”
Avoidance and Recovery
Avoidance and Recovery
Avoidance and Recovery
Leases and Executory Contracts
Intellectual Property and Social Media
Avoidance and Recovery
Sales and Distressed Investing
Avoidance and Recovery
Avoidance and Recovery
Avoidance and Recovery
Avoidance and Recovery
Â Related Articles
Avoidance Actions and Recoveries
Legislation and Reform
Reorganization and Exit Strategy
Legislation and Reform
Leases and Executory Contracts
We plan to be back on January 9, 2015.Â Meanwhile, have a joyous holiday season and a happy New Year.
Avoidance and Recovery
Current Developments and Legislation
Avoidance and Recovery
Legislation and Rules
Avoidance and Recovery
Avoidance and Recovery
Executory Contracts and Leases
Proofs of Claim
Avoidance and Recovery
Avoidance and Recovery
Executory Contracts, IP, and Licensing
Avoidance and Recovery Actions
Subordination and Recharacterization
Conversion and Dismissal
Second Circuit Holds That a Sale by a Chapter 15 Debtor in a Foreign Main Proceeding of a Claim Against an Obligor Located in the U.S. Must Be Reviewed by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court Under Section 363 of the Bankruptcy Code
âWhatâs in a name?â Shakespeare once asked, rhetorically.Â According to Shakespeareâs character Juliet â and according to the US Bankruptcy Court for the District of Columbia â not a great deal.
In a decisionÂ issued in early August, US Bankruptcy Judge Martin Teel, Jr. held that the so-called âgeneral partnerâ of a District of Columbia limited liability partnership (LLP)Â could not, despite her title, initiate an involuntary bankruptcy proceeding against the debtor LLP.
Bankruptcy Code section 303(b)(3) provides that one or more of a partnershipâs general partners are eligible to commence an involuntary petition against the entity.Â Acting under this section, the designated âgeneral partnerâ of Washington DCâs Beltway Law Group, LLP commenced an involuntary Chapter 7 case against her own firm.Â Judge Teel subsequently found in reviewing the petition that â notwithstanding her title of âgeneral partnerâ â the principal of a District of Columbia LLP could not commence an involuntary petition against the entity.
Judge Teel observed that the term âgeneral partner,â for purposes of section 303(b)(3), refers to a partner who has at least some personal liability for the partnershipâs debts. Â Under District of Columbia partnership law, however, partners in an LLP are not liable for the LLPâs debts as a result of their partnership status. Â Instead, such partners are at risk only to the extent of the capital subscribed. Â An LLP is therefore more akin to a âcorporationâ as that term is used in section 101(9)(A).
Judge Teel allowed that if an LLP had previously been a partnership within the contemplation of section 303(b) such that its partners were liable for the former partnershipâs debts, the LLPâs status as a partnership for purposes of those debts would remain in place.Â But this was not Beltway Law Groupâs case.Â Consequently, the petitioner â despite her title â was not a âgeneral partnerâ for purposes of commencing an involuntary petition against the LLP.
The limited liability partnership is a common entity form in many jurisdictions.Â It is also an entity form which did not exist at the time the Code was drafted.Â Understanding how the form is treated for purposes of involuntary filings provides useful guidance in the event of financial distress and/or a dispute amongst the holders of interests in an LLP.
Though based in local law (here, the District of Columbia), Beltway Law Groupâs discussion provides a helpful, straightforward analytical framework for determining whether an LLP may ever be classified as a âpartnershipâ for purposes of an involuntary bankruptcy filing.Â Of particular help is Judge Teelâs clarification of the difference between a âcorporationâ and a âpartnershipâ as those terms are employed by the Code.
Beltway Law Group provides localized â but nevertheless useful â guidance for practitioners who may be evaluating the possibility of an involuntary âpartnershipâ bankruptcy filing.
Avoidance and Recovery
Bankruptcy. Extraterritoriality. District court holds that section 550(a) of the Bankruptcy Code does not apply extraterritorially to allow for recovery of subsequent transfers received abroad by a foreign transferee from a foreign transferor.
Secured Claims and Credit
Avoidance and Recoveries
Avoidance and Recovery
Avoidance and Recovery
Avoidance and Recovery
Property of the Estate
One of the fundamental functions of any bankruptcy proceeding is the establishment of an amount and priority for each creditorâs claim against the debtor. A short, 5-page decisionÂ issued late last month by the Nebraska Bankruptcy Court in two related Chapter 11 cases (Biovance and Julien) serves as a reminder that although creditors are not permitted a âdouble recoveryâ on their claims, they are nevertheless permitted to assert the full value of their claims until those claims are paid in full.
Claims, Creditors, and the Bankruptcy Estate
Avoidance and Recovery
Avoidance and Recovery
Avoidance and Other Recovery Sources
Leases and Executory Contracts
Litigation and Avoidance Actions
In the confirmation of a Chapter 11 plan â as in life â it is often the little things that count.
Late last month, a HoustonÂ Bankruptcy Court provided helpful guidance on a very seldom-discussed, and often-overlooked, confirmation issue:Â Whether the reorganized debtorâs management make-up and structure is consistent with âpublic policy.â Â A copy of that decision is available here.
Barring an outright sale of assets, the confirmation of a plan of reorganization is typically the centerpiece of any Chapter 11 case. Â Chapter 11âs confirmation provisions â set forth in section 1129 â impose a broad variety of requirements on the debtor, all of which must be met or legitimately excused under recognized exceptions.Â Though many of these requirements have been extensively litigated and discussed by Bankruptcy Courts, several â including those pertaining to the governance and ownership structure of the reorganized debtor â have not enjoyed nearly as much review or discussion. Â Before the Bankruptcy Court inÂ In re Digerati Technologies, Inc. was the issue of whether the debtorâs proposed management structure was appropriate in light of the Codeâs requirement that post-confirmation management be appointed on terms âconsistent . . . with public policyâ under Â§ 1129(a)(5)(A)(ii).
Digerati Technologies filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition in May 2013. Â The plan submitted by DigeratiÂ proposed that the CEO and CFO of the company, who were also stockholders and creditors of Digerati, continue as the officers and directors of the reorganized debtor entity, positions which they had occupied within the two years prior to Digeratiâs Chapter 11. Â DigeratiÂ was a publicly-traded holding company for an operational subsidiary. Â Thus, the plan’s proposedÂ ongoing “officer and director” capacity also left Digerati’s CEO and CFO effectively in control of Digerati’s subsidiary.
Two Digerati stockholders objected to the plan on the grounds that Digerati’s pre-petition self-dealing established that continuation of Digerati’s pre-petition management was “not in the best interest ofÂ the estate, the creditors, the equity security holders and fail[ed] to satisfy public policy.” Â On the basis of the evidence adducedÂ at the confirmation hearing, the Bankruptcy Court deniedÂ confirmation of Digeratiâs plan for its inability to satisfy the requirements of sectionÂ 1129(a)(5)(A)(ii). Â In the process, the Court formulated a nine-point checklist of essential factors relevant to determiningÂ whether appointment of an individual to serve as anÂ officer of a reorganized debtor is consistent with public policy:
(1) Does the proposed plan, if confirmed, keep the debtor in existence as an ongoing company, or is the debtor extinguished?
(2) Is the debtor a publicly- or privately-held company?
(3) Does continued service of the individual(s) proposed for officers and directors perpetuate incompetence, lack of direction, inexperience, or affiliations with groups inimical to the best interests of the debtor?
(4) Does the continued service of the proposed individual(s) provide adequate representation of all creditors and equity security owners?
(5) Does the retention of the proposed individual(s) violate state law in any respect?
(6) Is eachÂ proposed individual a “disinterested person”?
(7) Is each proposedÂ individual capable and competent to serve in the proposed capacity assigned to him or her?
(8) Are the salaries and benefits that the proposed individual(s) will receive reasonable based upon the size of the debtor’s operations, the complexity of these operations, and the revenues to be generated?
(9) Are there any new independent outside directors being appointed under the proposed plan?
Digerati Technologies‘ review of applicable case law further highlightsÂ the following:
– Such little case law as exists on sectionÂ 1129(a)(5)(A)(ii)Â suggests that a consistent focus is on whether management and the board of directors is âdisinterested.â Â Here, Digerati’s management was not.
– At least one decision reviewed by the Bankruptcy CourtÂ suggests that, where present management will continue, managementâs track record is relevant:Â Though Bankruptcy Courts are often reluctant to “second-guess” a debtor’s management, they will not reward or perpetuate incompetence and gross mismanagement where it clearly exists.
– Still another decision reviewed by the Bankruptcy Court focused on managementâs level of compensation, relative to its experience and the demands of managing the debtor.
– Finally, the Bankruptcy Courtâs helpful list of summarized factors, digested from all of the decisions, offers practitioners a useful âroad mapâ to consider in drafting a Chapter 11 plan.
The Digerati decision serves as a reminder that all of Chapter 11’s requirements, no matter how seemingly arcane, must be met prior to a planâs confirmation.Â In hotly-contested matters, these requirements can often be a source of contention and â on occasion â tactical advantage. Â In addition to this important reminder,Â Digerati offers both debtorsâ and creditorsâ counsel a helpful checklist for assessing their relative positions on the question of the debtor’s proposed corporate governance.
Bankruptcy and Insolvency News and Analysis – Week of June 16 – 20, 2014:
SecuredÂ Lending and Claims:
Executory Contracts and Intellectual Property:
Jurisdiction andÂ Bellingham Analysis:
And Still More:
Some of the week’s top bankruptcy and restructuring headlines:
And Still More:
An old and well-known proverb warns:Â âIt is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.âÂ Over against this timeless advice, however, a very recent Second Circuit offers more specific guidance for creditors of a bankrupt debtor:
âThe squeaky wheel gets the grease.â
In Adelphia Recovery Trust v. Goldman, Sachs & Co., et al., a creditorsâ trust established to recover transfers under Adelphia Communicationsâ confirmed Chapter 11 plan of reorganization sought unsuccessfully to recover âmargin callâ payments made to Goldman, Sachs & Co.Â The Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the lower courts in determining that the commingled funds used to make the payments had been taken from a âconcentration accountâ scheduled as property of one of Adelphia Communicationsâ subsidiaries; consequently the funds were not Adelphia Communicationsâ to recover, and the trust could not belatedly be re-characterized them as such.Â A copy of the decision is available here.
In 2002, Adelphia Communications Corporation and related subsidiaries entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy following the disclosure of fraudulently concealed, off-balance sheet debt on Adelphia Communicationsâ books.Â The companies were ultimately liquidated and their secured creditors paid in full.Â In addition, all of the unsecured debt of Adelphia Communicationsâ subsidiaries was paid in full, with interest, and Adelphia Communicationsâ general creditors were paid in part.Â Under Adelphia Communicationsâ Chapter 11 Plan (confirmed in early 2007 â about 2Âœ years after the company entered bankruptcy), those same unsecured creditors were to receive the proceeds of the Adelphia Recovery Trust.Â The Trust was charged with recovery of, among other things, fraudulent transfers made by Adelphia Communications prior to the commencement of the Adelphia cases.
It was not until 2009 that the Trust identified as funds belonging to Adelphia Communications certain commingled funds held in a âconcentration accountâ of one of Adelphia Communicationsâ subsidiaries.Â Those funds, it was alleged, were used to cover âmargin callsâ made by Goldman Sachs & Co. in connection with margin loans previously made to Adelphia Communicationsâ founders and primary stockholders and collateralized by Adelphia Communications stock.Â Goldman Sachs had issued the margin calls as the value of Adelphia Commutations stock declined amidst revelations of Adelphia Communicationsâ off-balance sheet debt.
Goldman Sachs sought, and obtained, summary judgment in the District Court on the basis that the funds in question had been paid by Adelphia Communicationsâ subsidiary â and not by Adelphia Communications.Â The Recovery Trust appealed, arguing that the funds in question were, in fact, owned by Adelphia Communications.Â The Second Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and affirmed the District Court’s ruling.
The Second Circuit explained that the commencement of a bankruptcy case triggers a number of requirements for a debtor.Â Among these is the mandatory requirement that the debtor must submit a schedule of all its interests in any property, wherever situated.Â Ultimately, the debtor must propose a plan which distributes this property within a defined priority scheme, and in the manner most advantageous for the greatest number of creditors.
The plan must also designate classes of claims and classes of interests and specify how the debtor will attend to these classes. Â Once the relevant parties, including the creditors, approve the debtor’s plan, the court confirms the plan and binds all parties. Â It is therefore crucial that all claims and interests must be settled before the plan is finalized and within the time frame allotted by the Bankruptcy Code.
The Second Circuit found that the commingled funds sought by the Adelphia Recovery Trust were claimed by one of Adelphia Communications’ subsidiaries during the bankruptcy proceeding. Â Those claims were asserted without objection from Adelphia Communications’ creditors. Â The Trust’s subsequent claim to those assets in a subsequent proceeding was therefore inconsistent with creditors’ earlier stance. Â Under the doctrine of judicial estoppel, parties (and their successors) cannot be allowed to change their positions at their convenience. Â Consistent with this doctrine, disturbing claims and distributions at such an advanced stage of the proceedings to address the creditors’ changed position would undermine the administration of Adelphia Communicationsâ and its subsidiariesâ related cases. Â It would also threaten the integrity and stability of the bankruptcy process by encouraging parties to alter their positions at their whim, as and whenever convenient.
Adelphia Recovery Trust highlights three important realities of bankruptcy practice:
–Â First, the filing of a debtorâs bankruptcy schedules is more than a merely a perfunctory act. Â It is a preliminary statement, made to the best of the debtorâs belief and under penalty of perjury, of the debtorâs assets (including all of its ownership interests in any property, anywhere) and its liabilities.Â Ultimately, creditors and other interested parties â and the court itself â rely upon those schedules in determining the debtorâs compliance with the reorganization requirements of Bankruptcy Code section 1129.
– Second, related debtors are commonly related in much more than name or ownership.Â In addition to inter-company transfers and claims between debtors, it is common for such enterprises to separate functional asset ownership from legal asset ownership.Â This distinction may be an important one for various groups of creditors seeking additional sources of recovery.
–Â Third (and finally), creditors â and the professionals who represent them â should thoroughly investigate any and all âcontrol,â commingling, and other aspects of the relationships between related debtors which may give rise to indirect ownership of assets.Â Where doubt or conflicting claims exist as to specific assets, it is important for parties with competing claims to reserve their rights early and clearly â thereby making themselves the âsqueaky wheelâ in the event of any future âgrease.â
It often happens that, upon commencement of a bankruptcy case, property which is part of the debtorâs bankruptcy estate is not held or controlled by the trustee (or debtor-in-possession).Â To recover that property, Bankruptcy Code section 542 permits the trustee to seek its turnover from the party holding it.
Until very recently, Ninth Circuit law left unanswered the question of whether a party who at one point may have held estate property could remain liable for its turnover even after that property had been transferred elsewhere.Â Shapiro v. Henson answers that question in the affirmative.
In a case of first impression, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals expanded the trusteeâs ability to seek turnover of estate property. Â In its analysis, theÂ Court took cues from Section 542’s language which suggests that possession of property may not necessarily be mandatory for turnover. Â To support its interpretation of S. 542(a), the Court also reviewed turnover practices before the Bankruptcy Code was promulgated. Â Among these, the Court noted that âplenary proceedingsâ did not require the present possession of property. Â The pre-Code possibility of a turnover of property of the bankruptcy estate without possession strengthened the Court’s similar reading of the present statute.
The Ninth Circuit Court also examined Section 550(a), which empowers trustees to recover from initial and intermediate transferees.Â Under the Ninth Circuitâs analysis, this section would be redundant if “present possession” was always a requirement for such recovery. Â Further, if possession or property was a must for seeking the property’s turnover, merely transferring the property in question would be an easy way to avoid the trusteeâs reach. Â Finally, the Court considered (but rejected) the analysis behind Eighth Circuit rulings, which designate possession as a pre-requisite to turnover recovery.
In a nutshell Shapiro v. Henson‘s result means:
Shapiro v. Henson protects bankruptcy trustees from having to âchaseâ estate property through multiple transferees.Â But it does so at the cost of an added level of risk imposed on those initial holders of estate property who may not have notice of the debtorâs bankruptcy â or may be unable to prevent transfer of the property.
This summer was a very busy one for the Ninth Circuit’s bankruptcy appellate docket:
In Quin v. County of Kauai Department of Transportation, the Ninth Circuit reviewed the effect of a debtor’s failure to list a pending lawsuit in its schedules. Â The rule in such cases is that claims not listed are lost: Â âConceal your claims; get rid of your creditors on the cheap, and start over with a bundle of rights. Â This is a palpable fraud that the court will not tolerate, even passively.â Â As an application of the doctrine of “judicial estoppel” (the doctrine that litigants shouldn’t be able to switch positions when doing so would be prejudicial to another litigant), the rule is designed to ensure the integrity of the judicial process.
But what happens when the failure to list claims is accidental (i.e., due to simple “inadvertence” or “mistake”)? Â “Consider, for example, a litigant who is not represented by counsel or who speaks English as a second language and fails to include a claim on her bankruptcy schedule because she does not understand that she was required to do so.”
Other circuits have addressed this question with yet another simple rule: Â If the debtor knew of the existence of a claim, but didn’t list it, an intent to fraudulently conceal the claim is automatically inferred.
But a three-judge panel in Quin declined to follow this rule. Â Emphasizing the “discretionary” nature of judicial estoppel, the Ninth Circuit panel instead noted that while the circumstances indicating “inadvertence” or “mistake” have never, in fact, been delineated in this Circuit, “[a] key factor is that Plaintiff reopened her bankruptcy proceedings and filed amended bankruptcy schedules that properly listed this claim as an asset.”
A number of other decisions focused on non-dischargeability:
Willms v. Sanderson. Â A bankruptcy court erred by (i) sua sponte extending the time in which to file a non-dischargeability complaint after the deadline had already passed; and (ii) doing so without either a showing or a finding of cause. Â On appeal, the District Court affirmed the bankruptcy court. Â But the Ninth Circuit panel remanded with instructions to dismiss.
In re Perle. Â The Ninth Circuit panel affirmed the Bankruptcy Appellate Panelâs ruling that an arbitration debt was nondischargeable in bankruptcy under 11 U.S.C. Â§Â§ 523(a)(3) and 523(a)(6). The panel held that the creditorâs challenge to the dischargeability of the debt was not filed within 60 days of the first date set for the creditors meeting but nonetheless was timely because the chapter 7 debtor did not adequately identify the debt on his Schedule E, and the creditor did not have notice or actual knowledge of the bankruptcy. The panel held that the creditorâs lawyerâs knowledge could not be imputed to the creditor on an agency theory when the lawyer learned of the bankruptcy during his representation of another client and after the completion of his representation of the creditor in relation to the debt.
Carpenters Pension Trust Fund v. Moxley. Distinguishing Stern v. Marshall, 131 S. Ct. 2594 (2011), a Ninth Circuit panel held that the bankruptcy court had jurisdiction to adjudicate the dischargeability of the pension fundâs claim against the contractor because a dischargeability determination is central to federal bankruptcy proceedings and therefore constitutes a public rights dispute that a bankruptcy court may decide. Â The contractor was subject to withdrawal liability under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act because he continued doing work covered by the collective bargaining agreement after it expired. Â The panel held that this debt was dischargeable because it did not qualify as a debt created via defalcation by a fiduciary under 11 U.S.C. Â§ 523(a)(4). Â The panel concluded that the contractor was not a fiduciary of the fund pursuant to ERISA because he had nothing to do with the fundâs administration or investment policy and did not exercise control respecting disposition of its assets. Â The panel held that the fundâs assets did not include the unpaid withdrawal liability. Â It reasoned that the withdrawal liability was a statutory obligation, and was different from unpaid contributions arising from contractual obligations under the collective bargaining agreement. Â The panel held that the contractorâs failure to challenge the withdrawal liability amount in arbitration did not act as a waiver of his right to discharge the debt.
Finally, a decision released today regarding post-confirmation jurisdiction over tax disputes:
In re Wilshire Courtyard. Â The Ninth Circuit panel held that the bankruptcy court had jurisdiction to reopen a bankruptcy proceeding to consider the tax consequences of the reorganization, pursuant to a chapter 11 plan, of the debtor, a general partnership that owned two commercial buildings in Los Angeles, into a limited liability company with a 1% ownership interest in the property. Â As part of the bankruptcy, over $200 million of partnership debt was forgiven, and the individual partners reported cancellation of debt income on their tax returns. Â The California Franchise Tax Board sought to assess $13 million in unpaid income taxes on the partners, characterizing the transaction as a disguised sale and the reported cancellation of debt income as capital gains. Â The reorganized LLC asked the bankruptcy court to reopen the case. Â The panel agreed with the BAP that the bankruptcy court had neither âarising underâ nor âarising inâ subject matter jurisdiction over the dispute. Â But it disagreed with the BAPâs holding that the bankruptcy court lacked post-confirmation ârelated toâ jurisdiction. Â The panel reaffirmed that a âclose nexusâ exists between a post-confirmation matter and a closed bankruptcy proceeding sufficient to support jurisdiction when that matter affects the âinterpretation, implementation, consummation, execution, or administration of the confirmed plan.â Â The panel concluded that the ultimate merits question of the sale/non-sale attributes of the transaction depended in part on interpretation of the confirmed plan and confirmation order. Â In addition, the parties disputed the distinctly federal question of whether 11 U.S.C. Â§ 346 (preempting state tax law) applies to non-debtor general partners of a debtor partnership that was dissolved as part of the reorganization. Â The panel also concluded that post-confirmation jurisdiction was consistent with the equitable objectives of the Bankruptcy Code. Â Holding that the character of the core transaction of the debtorâs bankruptcy was an issue that the bankruptcy court had jurisdiction to decide, the panel remanded the case to the BAP to determine in the first instance whether the bankruptcy courtâs answer to this question gave due consideration to the âeconomic realitiesâ of the transaction as structured under the plan and confirmation order.
“The humorist Douglas Adams was fond of saying, ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.’ But the law more often follows Benjamin Franklinâs stern admonition: ‘You may delay, but time will not.’ To paraphrase Ămile Zola, deadlines are often the terrible anvil on which a legal result is forged.”
With these words, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last week declined to retroactively extendÂ Federal Rule of Bankruptcy Procedure 4007(c)’sÂ deadline to file a non-dischargeability complaint. Â That deadline permits creditors only 60 days following an individual debtor’s initial meeting of creditors (otherwise known as the debtor’s “section 341(a) meeting”) to file a complaint to have certain types of debt determined non-dischargeable, unless a request for extension of the deadline is filed within the same, initial 60-day period.
The case before the 3-judge panel involved a creditor who had, in fact, previously obtained an extension to file a non-dischargeability complaint – but who, due to internal word-processing difficulties with conversion to the “Portable Document Format” (*.pdf) format now required for electronic filings with federal bankruptcy courts, missed the extended deadline by less than an hour.
The brief, 14-page decision (available here) upheld prior rulings in the same matter by both the Bankruptcy Court and the District Court. Â It raised, but did not answer, the question of what happens when a missed deadline is due to external problems (e.g., technical difficulties with the Bankruptcy Court’s filing system), rather than problems with counsel’s IT configuration or office procedures. Â But it also declined to recognize an “equitable exception” to the rule in the absence of a Supreme Court directive to the contrary:
We acknowledge that the U.S. Supreme Court has not expressly addressed whether FRBP 4007(c)âs filing deadline admits of any equitable exceptions and that lower courts are divided on the issue. See Kontrick v. Ryan, 540 U.S. 443, 457 & nn.11â12 (2004) (declining to decide question and noting circuit split). Â We need not, and do not, reach the question of whether external forces that prevented any filingsâsuch as emergency situations, the loss of the courtâs own electronic filing capacity, or the courtâs affirmative misleading of a partyâwould warrant such an exception. Â See, e.g., In re Kennerley, 995 F.2d at 147â48; see also Ticknor v. Choice Hotels Intern., Inc., 275 F.3d 1164, 1165 (9th Cir. 2002). . . . Â In short, absent unique and exceptional circumstances not present here, we do not inquire into the reason a party failed to file on time in assessing whether she is entitled to an equitable exception from FRBP 4007(c)âs filing deadline; under the plain language of the rules and our controlling precedent, there is no such exception.
A very recent decision out of California’s Central District Bankruptcy Court highlights the boundaries of “commercial reason” and “diligence” where distressed asset sales are concerned.
In re 1617 Westcliff, LLC (Case No. 8:12-bk-19326-MW) involved the court-approved sale of the debtor’s real property under a purchase agreement in which the debtor and the purchaser agreed to use their “commercially reasonable and diligent efforts” to obtain the approval of the debtor’s mortgage lender for the assumption of the mortgage debt by the buyer. Â If the approval was not obtainable, the buyer had the right to terminate the transaction. Â The buyer also had the right to terminate the deal if the assumption required payment of more than a 1% assumption fee.
As is sometimes the case where due diligence remains while a deal is approved, things didn’t quite work out as planned. Â Unfortunately, the bank proved less cooperative than the parties had anticipated. Â More importantly, however, the buyer notified the debtor-seller 4 days prior to closing that it would not proceed with the transaction as structured, but might be willing to proceed if the transaction was framed as a tax deferred exchange.
The debtor was, understandably, somewhat less than receptive to restructuring the deal at the 11th hour. Â It insisted that the buyer proceed with the transaction as originally agreed and as approved by the court. Â In response, the buyer effectively walked away. Â The parties then made competing demands on the escrow company regarding the buyer’s $200,000 deposit, and filed cross-motions with Bankruptcy Judge Mark Wallace to enforce them.
In a brief, 11-page decision, Judge Wallace found that the buyer’s renunciation of the deal 4 days before closing was a material breach of the buyer’s obligation to use “commercially reasonable and diligent efforts” to obtain assumption consent:
The Purchase Agreement required [the buyer] to keep working in good faith for an assumption until the close of business on May 10, 2013, not to throw up its hands and to propose â at the eleventh hour â a wholesale restructuring of the purchase transaction in a manner completely foreign to the Purchase Agreement. Â On [the date of the proposal] there were still four days left to reach agreement with the Bank, but [the buyer] chose (five months into the deal) to abandon the assumption. Â It was not commercially reasonable nor was it diligent for [the buyer] to cease negotiations with the Bank relating to the assumption of the loan under these circumstances.
The 1617 Westcliff decision (the unpublished slip copy is available here) serves as a reminder to buyer’s counsel of the unique nature of distressed asset purchases. Â The Bankruptcy Court which originally approved the purchase remains available and prepared to resolve any issues which may arise prior to closing, often at a fraction of what it would cost to get a Superior Court involved in connection with an unraveled private sale. Â And conditions and contingencies to the sale must be carefully drafted and observed. Â This applies even to common asset-purchase “boilerplate” such as “commercial reasonableness” and “diligence.”
In a decision released Monday, Central District of California Bankruptcy Judge Robert Kwan clarified some uncertainty over the standard necessary to impose of the automatic stay immediately after the commencement of a Chapter 15 case, but before recognition is granted to a foreign representative under US law.
An earlier decision issued in the same district, In re Pro-Fit Holdings Ltd., 391 B.R. 850 (Bankr. C.D. Cal. 2008), imposed the automatic stay on an interim basis under Bankruptcy Code section 1519(a) without requiring that the requesting party meet the standards of a preliminary injunction, as the language of section 1519(a) seems to require.
Of the 10 or so published decisions citing Pro-Fit , none follows or even mentions this reasoning, though one unpublished decision does. Â See In re SIVEC SRL., 2011 WL 2445754 (Bankr. E.D. Ok., June 15, 2011).
Recently, the appointed foreign representative and liquidator of Worldwide Education Services, Inc. relied on Pro-Fit to request a stay of impending trials in California’s Central District Court, ostensibly as a means of preserving whatever assets the company – which has been in a “wind-down” mode for nearly three years – might have left. Â In reviewing the liquidator’s request, Judge Kwan declined to follow Pro-Fit – and, in fact, specifically held that Pro-Fit was wrongly decided.
ThoughÂ Pro-Fit held that a motion for provisional relief requesting a temporary application of the automatic stay under Section 1519(a) does not need to meet the requirements for injunctive relief, either procedural or substantive, Judge Kwan held that, in fact, the statute does require a motion for provisional relief to meet those standards.
Further, he found that the liquidator had filed to satisfy the injunction standards, and thus provisional application of the automatic stay was inappropriate in this case.
The decision, though not controversial, nevertheless helps to harmonize the law within the Circuit – and nationwide – on the question of what a foreign representative must show in order to obtain provisional relief. Â A copy of the unpublished slip opinion is here.
In a 23-page memorandum decision issued yesterday, New York Bankruptcy Judge Stewart Bernstein ruled that the debtor and a third party were parties to a master agreement that allowed the debtor to issue purchase orders that the counter-party was required to fill. Â Judge Bernstein held that the debtor could assume the master agreement but could reject individual purchase orders. Â The purchase orders were divisible from the master agreement.
The decision (available here) provides a thorough analysis of when – and under what circumstances – an executory agreement may be “divisible” into separate, individual agreements . . . which can then be selectively assumed or rejected by a debtor or trustee.
Early last month the Supreme Court held that non-dischargeability for defalcation in breach of a fiduciary duty (see 11 U.S.C. 523(a)(4)) requires a showing of subjective intent (i.e., “scienter“) to misuse funds.
BULLOCK v. BANKCHAMPAIGN, N. A. resolves a split in the Circuit courts over whether scienter was required to establish non-dischargeability under this section. Â Compare In re Sherman, 658 F. 3d 1009, 1017 (CA9 2011) (âdefalcationâ includes âeven innocent acts of failure to fully account for money received in trustâ (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted)), with In re Uwimana, 274 F. 3d 806, 811 (CA42001) (defalcation occurs when ânegligence or even an innocent mistake . . . results in misappropriationâ), with 670 F. 3d, at 1166 (âdefalcation requires . . . conduct [that] can be characterized as objectively recklessâ), and with In re Baylis, 313 F. 3d 9, 20 (CA1 2002) (âdefalcation requires something close to a showing of extreme recklessnessâ).
The Supremes found that to establish 523(a)(4) non-dischargeability, scienter is required. Â As seems to be frequently the case with this Court, the Ninth Circuit was not on the prevailing end of the circuit split.
A copy of the slip opinion is here.
A recently-issued Ninth Circuit decision creates potentially new avenues of recovery for creditors of an insolvent debtor.
Fitness Holdings International, Inc. (FHI), a home fitness corporation, had received significant funding between 2003 and 2006 from two entities: Hancock Park, its sole shareholder, and Pacific Western Bank. Â FHIâs unsecured obligations to Hancock Park, totaling $24 million, were subordinated to $12 million in secured financing by Pacific Western Bank in the form of a $5 million term loan and a $7 million line of credit (all guaranteed by Hancock Park).
In 2007, after numerous amendments, FHI re-financed its remaining obligations to Pacific Western Bank and to Hancock Park with a new $17 million term loan and an $8 million line of credit. Â The payoff of Pacific Western Bankâs prior secured loan had the effect of releasing Hancock Park from its guarantee. Â FHIâs efforts to restructure were ultimately not successful, however, and in 2008, the company sought protection under Chapter 11.
A Committee of Unsecured Creditors in FHI’s case sued Hancock Park, seeking to recover the earlier pay-off of Hancock Parkâs debt and alleging that the debt ought, in fact, to be re-characterized as âequityâ (and that the ârepaymentâ of the âdebtâ ought therefore to be avoided as a constructively fraudulent transfer, since FHI allegedly received âless than equivalent valueâ in exchange for the payments).
The Committee’s complaint was dismissed; however, FHIâs case was subsequently converted from one under Chapter 11 to one under Chapter 7, and the trustee appealed the dismissal to the US District Court. Â The District Court affirmed the dismissal, finding that under longstanding precedent of the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel, Hancock Parkâs advances to Fitness Holdings were loans and, as a matter of law, it was barred from re-characterizing such loans as equity investments.
The trustee appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which vacated the District Courtâs decision and remanded for further findings. Â In doing so, the Ninth Circuit held that in an action to avoid a transfer as constructively fraudulent under Â§ 548(a)(1)(B), if any party claims that the transfer constituted the repayment of a debt (and thus was a transfer for âreasonably equivalent valueâ), the court must determine whether the purported âdebtâ constituted a right to payment under state law. Â If it did not, the court may re-characterize the debtorâs obligation to the transferee under state law principles.
The decision is worth noting because:
âą Prior case law in the Ninth Circuit held that re-characterization of âdebtâ as âequityâ was impermissible (see In re Pacific Express, 69 B.R. 112 (B.A.P. 9th Cir. 1986)). Â This decision overrules that earlier precedent.
âą The Ninth Circuit joined the Fifth Circuit (In re Lothian Oil, 650 F.3d 539, 542â43 (5th Cir. 2011)) in holding that state law â and state law alone â controls in determining when, and whether, alleged âdebtâ ought to be re-characterized as âequity.â
âą The 3-judge panel’s ruling suggests that it is “substance” – and not “form” – which ultimately determines whether an obligation is an equity investment (rather than debt) under applicable state law. Â The crucial question is “whether that obligation gives the holder of the obligation a ‘right to payment’ under state law.”
A copy of the decision is attached.
Cravath’s always-well-done quarterly update of significant bankruptcy decisions, prepared by New York partner Richard Levin,Â has been recently completed.Â The most recent editionÂ is available here.
Canadian gold mining concern Crystallex International Corp. filed for protection under Canada’s Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act (CCAA) on Dec. 23, 2011.Â The company operates an open pit mine in Uruguay and three gold mines in Venezuela.Â
Among its Venezuelan projects is the 9,600-acre Las Cristinas mine. Â Court papers said the site’s untapped gold deposits are among the largest in the world, containing an estimated 20 million ounces of gold.Â Crystallex filed for Chapter 15 bankruptcy protection in Delaware on the same date to protect its US assets while seeking a Canadian restructuring.Â Delaware Bankruptcy Judge Peter Walsh granted recognition on January 20.
Crystallexâs financial troubles allegedly stem from the Venezuelan governmentâs threatened revocation of Crystallex’s operating agreement for the Las Cristinas project as a result of the companyâs failure to obtain an environmental permit. Â Crystallex blames this failure on the Venezuelan governmentâs own continued failure to grant the permit.
The company continues to operate, but appears to be staking its restructuring hopes primarily on arbitration claims for $3.8 billion in alleged losses suffered in connection with the Las Cristinas agreement. Â Crystallex said it has invested more than C$500 million in the uncompleted Las Cristinas project.Â The company believes an arbitration award will provide sufficient funds to pay all its creditors in full while leaving value for the company’s shareholders.
Those creditors include secured lenders China Railway Resources Group (owed C$2.5 million) and Venezolano Bank about (owed $1 million).Â They also include $104.14 million in 9.34% senior unsecured notes the company issued on Dec. 23, 2004.Â Crystallexâs CCAA filing and its concurrent Chapter 15 petition were filed on the same date its notes matured.
Recently, the company sought to alleviate its immediate liquidity concerns by means of an auctioned DIP facility.Â Specifically, Crystallex sought a debtor-in-possession loan of C$35 million, convertible into an âexit facility.â
Crystallex reported to the US Bankruptcy Court that it was in receipt of multiple expressions of interest in such a facility.Â Meanwhile, pending the completion of due diligence and approval by the Canadian Court, Cyrstallex sought recognition of a much smaller C$3.125 million âbridge facilityâ from Tenor Special Situations Fund, L.P., which the Canadian Court approved January 20.
The bridge facility expires April 16, and required US Bankruptcy Court approval by February 20.Â Judge Walsh provided that approval at a hearing held yesterday.
Crystallexâs Chapter 15 proceeding is pending as Case No. 11-bk-14074.
For those practitioners practicing locally here in SoCal – or for those who need to appear pro hac in one of the many Chapter 11’s pending in the nation’s largest bankruptcy district – the Central District has very recently collaborated with the local bankruptcy bar to produce a detailed list of individual judicial preferences.
In a District with nearly 30 sitting bankruptcy judges scattered overÂ five divisions, a “score-card” like this one is essential reading.Â A copy of the survey is available here.
Other Posts of Interest:
JonesDay’s comprehensive and always-readable summary of notable bankruptcies, decisions, legislation, and economic events was released just overÂ a week ago.Â A copy is available here.
As 2012 gets off to an uncertain start, some more recent headlines are accessible immediately below.
Thanks to an active lobby in Congress, commercial landlords have historically enjoyed a number of lease protections under the Bankruptcy Code.Â Even so, those same landlords nevertheless face limits on the damages they can assert whenever a tenant elects to reject a commercial lease.
Section 502(b)(6) limits landlordsâ lease rejection claims pursuant to a statutory formula, calculated as âthe [non-accelerated] rent reserved by [the] lease . . . for the greater of one year, or 15 percent, not to exceed three years, of the remaining term of such lease . . . .â
This complicated and somewhat ambiguous language leaves some question as to whether or not the phrase ârent reserved for . . . 15 percent . . . of the remaining term of such leaseâ is a reference to time or to money:Â That is, does the specified 15 percent refer to the ârent reserved?âÂ Or to the âremaining term?â
Many courts apply the formula with respect to the ârent reserved.âÂ Â See. e.g., In re USinternetworking, Inc., 291 B.R. 378, 380 (Bankr.D.Md.2003) (citing In re Today’s Woman of Florida, Inc., 195 B.R. 506 (Bankr.M.D.Fl.1996); In re Gantos, 176 B.R. 793 (Bankr.W.D.Mich.1995); In re Financial News Network, Inc., 149 B.R. 348 (Bankr.S.D.N.Y.1993); In re Communicall Cent., Inc., 106 B.R. 540 (Bankr.N.D.Ill.1989); In re McLean Enter., Inc., 105 B.R. 928 (Bank.W.D.Mo.1989)).Â These courts calculate the amount of rent due over the remaining term of the lease and multiply that amount times 15%.
Other courts calculate lease rejection damages based on 15% of the âremaining termâ of the lease.Â See, e.g., In re IronâOak Supply Corp., 169 B.R. 414, 419 n. 8 (Bankr.E.D.Cal.1994); In re Allegheny Intern., Inc., 145 B.R. 823 (W.D.Pa.1992); In re PPI Enterprises, Inc., 324 F.3d 197, 207 (3rd Cir.2003).
For more mathematically-minded readers, the differently-applied formulas appear as follows:
Earlier this month, a Colorado bankruptcy judge, addressing the issue for the first time in that state, sided with those courts who read the statutory 15% in terms of time:
âIn practice, by reading the 15% limitation consistently with the remainder of Â§ 502(b)(6)(A) as a reference to a period of time, any lease with a remaining term of 80 months or less is subject to a cap of one year of rent [i.e.,15% of 80 months equals 12 months] and any lease with a remaining term of 240 months or more will be subject to a cap of three years rent [i.e., 15% of 240 months equals 36 months].Â Those in between are capped at the rent due for 15% of the remaining lease term.â
In re Shane Co., 2012 WL 12700 (Bkrtcy. D.Colo., January 4, 2012).
The decision also addresses a related question:Â To what ârentâ should the formula apply â the contractual rent applicable for the term?Â Or the unpaid rent remaining after the landlord has mitigated its damages?Â Under the statute, ârents reservedâ refers to contractual rents, and not to those remaining unpaid after the landlord has found a new tenant or otherwise mitigated.
Colorado Bankruptcy Judge Tallmanâs decision, which cites a number of earlier cases on both sides of the formula, is available here.
Can a senior secured lender require, through an inter-creditor agreement, that a junior lender relinquish the juniorâs rights under the Bankruptcy Code vis ĂĄ vis a common debtor?
Though the practice is a common one, the answer to this question is not clear-cut.Â Bankruptcy Courts addressing this issue have come down on both sides, some holding âyea,â and others ânay.âÂ Late last year, the Massachusetts Bankruptcy Court sided with the ânaysâ in In re SW Boston Hotel Venture, LLC,Â 460 B.R. 38 (Bankr. D. Mass. 2011).
The decision (available here) acknowledges and cites case law on either side of the issue.Â It further highlights the reality that lenders employing the protective practice of an inter-creditor agreement as a âhedgeâ against the debtorâs potential future bankruptcy may not be as well-protected as they might otherwise believe.
In light of this uncertainty, do lenders have other means of protection?Â One suggested (but, as yet, untested) method is to take the senior lenderâs bankruptcy-related protections out of the agreement, and provide instead that in the event of the debtorâs filing, the juniorâs claim will be automatically assigned to the senior creditor, re-vesting in the junior creditor once the seniorâs claim has been paid in full.
Last year, the Supreme Court issued one of its more significant bankruptcy decisions in recent years with Stern v. Marshall (a very brief note concerning the Stern decision as reported on this blog is available here).Â Stern, which addressed the limits of bankruptcy courtsâ âcoreâ jurisdiction, has been the focus of a considerable amount of academic and professional interest â primarily because of its possible fundamental effect on the administration of bankruptcy cases.
Three weeks ago, the Seventh Circuit capped off 2011 with a decision â the first at an appellate level â discussing and applying Stern.
The procedural history of In re Ortiz is straightforward.Â Wisconsin medical provider Aurora Health Care, Inc. had filed proofs of claim in 3,200 individual debtorsâ bankruptcy cases in the Eastern District of Wisconsin between 2003 and 2008.Â Two groups of these debtors took issue with these filings, claiming Aurora violated a Wisconsin statute that allows individuals to sue if their health care records are disclosed without permission.Â One group of debtors filed a class action adversary proceeding against Aurora in the Bankruptcy Court for Wisconsin’s Eastern District, while the other filed a similar class action complaint against Aurora in Wisconsin Superior Court.
For all their differences, it appears neither the debtor-plaintiffs nor Aurora wanted to have these matters heard by the US Bankruptcy Court.Â Aurora removed the Superior Court Action to the Bankruptcy Court, then immediately sought to have the US District Court for Wisconsin’s Eastern District withdraw the reference of these actions to the Bankruptcy Court and hear both matters itself.Â Both groups of debtor-plaintiffs, on the other hand, sought to have their claims heard by the Wisconsin Superior Court by asking the Bankruptcy Court to abstain from hearing them, and remand them to the state tribunal.
Both parties’ procedural jockeying for a forum other than the US Bankruptcy Court ultimately proved unfruitful:Â The District Court denied Aurora’s request to hear the matters, and the Bankruptcy Court declined to remand them back to Wisconsin Superior Court or otherwise abstain from hearing them.Â The District Court’s and the Bankruptcy Court’s reasoning was essentially the same – since the original “disclosure” of health records took place in the context of proofs of claim filed in individual debtors’ bankruptcy proceeding, both courts believed the matters were therefore “core” proceedings which Bankruptcy Courts were entitled to hear and determine on a final basis.
Ultimately, the Bankruptcy Court granted summary judgment and dismissed the class actions because both groups of debtors had failed to establish actual damages as required under the Wisconsin statute.Â Both the plaintiffs and Aurora requested, and were granted, a direct appeal to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
But if Ortiz’ procedural history is straightforward, the Seventh Circuit’s disposition of the appeal was not.Â After the case was argued on appeal in February 2011, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Stern v. Marshall.Â In that decision, the high court called into question the viability of Congress’ statutory scheme in which bankruptcy courts were empowered to finally adjudicate “core” proceedings – i.e., those proceedings “arising in a bankruptcy case or under title 11” of the US Code.Â The Stern court held that a dispute – even if “core” – was nevertheless improper for final adjudication by a bankruptcy court if the dispute was not integral to the claims allowance process, and constituted a private, common-law action as recognized by the courts at Westminster in 1789.Â Such matters were – and are – the province of Article III (i.e., US District Court) judges, and it was not up to Congress to “chip away” at federal courts’ authority by delegating such matters to other, non-Article III (i.e., Bankruptcy) courts.
In order to resolve the Aurora class actions in a manner consistent with Stern, the Seventh Circuit requested supplemental briefing, and then undertook a lengthy analysis of that decision.Â To isolate and identify the type of dispute that the Stern court found “off-limits” for final decisions by bankruptcy courts, it distinguished the Aurora class action disputes from those cases which:
–Â Â Â Â Â Â Â InvolvedÂ “public rights” or a government litigant;
–Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Flowed from a federal statutory scheme or a particularized area of law which Congress had determined best addressed through administrative proceedings; or
–Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Were âintegral to the restructuring of the debtor-creditor relationshipâ or otherwise part of the process of allowance and disallowance of claims.
Instead, the Aurora disputes had nothing to do with the original claims filed by Aurora in the debtorsâ cases, was between private litigants, and was not a federal statutory claim or an administrative matter.Â Consequently, the Bankruptcy Court had no jurisdiction to determine it on a final basis.Â Consequently, the Seventh Circuit had no jurisdiction to hear the appeal.
Ortiz, like Stern, has received a considerable amount of attention within the bankruptcy community.Â Â Among some of the communityâs immediate reactions to Ortiz:
–Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Despite the fact that the class actions arose out of Auroraâs filing proofs of claim in bankruptcy cases, the bankruptcy court could not decide those class actions.Â More importantly, the Seventh Circuit suggested that a bankruptcy judge may not even have âauthority to resolve disputes claiming that the way one party acted in the course of the courtâs proceedings violated another partyâs rights.âÂ In other words, it seems possible to argue, under Ortiz (and Stern), that though US District Courts have authority to police their own dockets, Bankruptcy Courts do not.
–Â Â Â Â Â Â Â The Seventh Circuitâs decision appears circular in some respects.Â Specifically, the Seventh Circuit declined to hear the appeals from the bankruptcy court as proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law (rather than as a final judgment), because such recommendations from a bankruptcy court are available only in ânon-coreâ proceedings â and since the Aurora class actions were âcore,â an appellate review of such proposed findings and conclusions simply wasnât available.Â But if a âcoreâ matter is outside a bankruptcy courtâs jurisdiction, is it really âcoreâ?Â In other words, wouldnât it have been easier for the Seventh Circuit to have simply sent the matter back to the bankruptcy court as a recommended resolution, not yet ripe for an appeal?
As the results of Stern begin to percolate their way through the bankruptcy system and other circuits weigh in on the Supreme Courtâs 2011 guidance, it appears the administration of bankruptcy cases faces some significant adjustment.
Outside of bankruptcy, a creditor whose loan is secured by collateral typically has the right to payment in full when that collateral is sold – or, if the collateral is sold at an auction, to “credit bid” the face amount of the debt against the auction price of the collateral.
Inside bankruptcy, however, the right to “credit bid” is not always guaranteed.
In July, this blog predicted Supreme Court review of a Seventh Circuit case addressing the question of whether a bankruptcy court may confirm a plan of reorganization that proposes to sell substantially all of the debtorâs assets without permitting secured creditors to bid with credit.Â The courts of appeals are divided two to one over the question, with the Third and Fifth Circuits holding that creditors are not entitled to credit bid and the Seventh Circuit holding to the contrary (for a review of the more recent, Seventh Circuit decision, click here).
The question is one of great significance for commercial restructuring practice, with several bankruptcy law scholars suggesting the answer “holds billions of dollars in the balance.”
Apparently, the Supreme Court agrees.Â Last week, the justices granted review of the Seventh Circuit decision.Â For the petitioners’ brief, respondent’s opposition, and amicus briefs, click here.
Nearly 16 months ago, this blog covered the story of Qimonda AG – a German chip manufacturer whose cross-border liquidation created waves on both sides of the Atlantic.Â As noted in that prior post, Qimonda’s insolvency proceeding illustrates what can happen when one countryâs rules governing the treatment of an insolvent firmâs intellectual property assets collide with those of another.
But what can happen is not always what does happen.
As a liquidating entity, Qimonda’s primary assets were its portfolio of patents, licensed to other firms under a series of cross-licensing agreements.Â Though not completely settled law in Germany, patent cross-licenses are widely viewed by German practitioners as executory agreements.Â Such agreements are automatically unenforceable unless the insolvency administrator (the functional equivalent of a trustee under US bankruptcy law) affirmatively elects to perform the contracts.Â In practice, to avoid any implied election of performance, an insolvency administrator will usually send a letter of non-performance to the counter-party.Â Consistent with this practice, Qimonda’s administrator had issued non-performance letters to a number of licensees in connection with his proposed disposition with Qimonda’s patents, which were the company’s most valuable remaining asset following a decision to liquidate.Â The business strategy was to maximize the value of Qimonda’s patents by canceling, then re-negotiating, the company’s patent licenses with Qimonda’s original licensees.
In response, the licensees asserted rights with respect to Qimonda’s US patents under Bankruptcy Code section 365(n), which – contrary to German law – specifically protects the rights of patent licensees in the event of a licensor’s bankruptcy.Â Qimonda’s recognition under Chapter 15 of the Bankruptcy Code had made Section 365 “applicable” to the company’s ancillary proceedings in the US.
Qimonda’s administrator sought the Bankruptcy Court’s elimination or restriction of Section 365’s applicability to the company’s US patents, in light of his proposed disposition of the patents under conflicting German insolvency law.Â The Bankruptcy Court restricted 365(n)’s applicability, but the District Court remanded on appeal for a determination of whether doing so was “manifestly contrary to the public policy of the United States” and whether the licensees would be “sufficiently protected” if Section 365(n) did not apply.
After four days of evidentiary hearings and one day of argument, the Bankruptcy Court concluded that:
– Chapter 15 of the US Bankruptcy Code, which is rooted in considerations of comity and deference to the decisions of foreign tribunals, is nevertheless limited by the “sufficient protect[ion] of creditors’ interests.”Â Moreover, any relief requested by a foreign representative seeking recognition and relief in the US under this statute is further limited when granting such relief “would be manifestly contrary to the public policy of the United States.”
– The protections afforded patent licensees by Section 365(n) have their origins in Congressional reaction to the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Lubrizol Enterprises, Inc. v. Richmond Metal Finishers, Inc., 756 F.2d 1043 (4th Cir. 1985), a decision involving the debtor’s rejection of a fully paid-up license to a non-bankrupt licensee for use of the debtor’s metal coating technology.Â Most disturbingly for Congress, the Lubrizol court found that rejection under Section 365(a) effectively prohibited the licensee’s continued receipt of specific performance under the agreement, even if that remedy would otherwise be available under aÂ breach of this type of contract.Â Congress’ answer to the Lubrizol decision was to pass the “Intellectual Property Licenses Act of 1987,” which included the licensee protections of Section 365(n).Â According to the Congressional history behind the statute, adoption of the legislation was intended to “immediately remove [the threat of license rejection] and its attendant threat to American [t]echnology and will further clarify that Congress never intended for Section 365 to be so applied.”
– Though the nature of patent cross-licensing made it difficult – if not impossible – for the parties to establish whether the cancellation of licenses for specific patents would put at risk the licensees’ investment in manufacturing or sales facilities in the US for products covered by US patents, the administrator’s threat of infringement litigation following cancellation of Qimonda’s patent licenses was as damaging to licensees as an actual finding of infringement of specific patents.Â This risk, balanced against the loss in value to Qimonda’s patent portfolio, warranted the application of Section 365(n) to the administrators disposition of the company’s US patents.
– Application of the German insolvency law as an exercise of comity would “severely impinge . . . a U.S. statutory . . . right such that deferring to German law would defeat ‘the most fundamental policies and purposes’ of such right.'”Â For the Bankruptcy Court, the question of whether or not Section 365(n) was intended to protect a “fundamental” US policy was an extremely close one.Â But “[a]lthough [technological] innovation [in the US] would obviously not come to a grinding halt if licenses to U.S. patents could e cancelled in a foreign insolvency proceeding, . . . the resulting uncertainty would nevertheless slow the pace of innovation, to the detriment of the U.S. economy.”Â As a result, the failure to apply Section 365(n) to Qimonda’s US patent portfolio “would ‘severely impinge’ an important statutory protection accorded licensees of U.S. patents and thereby undermine a fundamental U.S. public policy promoting technological innovation” – and as such, deferring to German law would be “manifestly contrary to U.S. public policy.”
The Bankruptcy Court’s most recent decision is available here.
Last week, the Judicial Conference Advisory Committees on Appellate, Bankruptcy, Civil, Criminal, and Evidence Rules proposed amendments to their respective rules and made them available for public comment.
Though it frequently makes forÂ less-than-scintillating reading, the proposed amendments are always worth a look-through.Â This is especially the case in an environment such as Bankruptcy Court, where procedure can drive courtroom tactics.
Proposed revisions to the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure (FRBP) and Official Bankruptcy Forms include:
âą FRBP 1007 â relieves individual debtors of the obligation to file Official Form 23 if the provider of a personal financial management course notifies the court that the debtor has completed the course.
âą FRBP 3007 â allows the use of a negative-notice procedure for claim objections and clarifies the manner for serving them.
âą FRBP 5009 â reflects the amendment to FRBP 1007 by providing that the Clerk of Court is not required to send notice to a debtor if a course provider has already provided notice that the debtor completed a personal financial management course.
âą FRBP 9006 â makes various changes to draw attention to the fact that the rule prescribes default deadlines for serving motions and written responses; and applies deadlines to any written response to a motion.
âą FRBPs 9013 and 9014 â conform to the amendments to FRBP 9006.
âą Official Form 6C â reflects the Supreme Courtâs decision in Schwab v. Reilly by permitting the debtor to state the value of the claimed exemption as the âfull fair market value of the exempted property.â
âą Official Form 7 â makes the definition of âinsiderâ consistent with the definition in the Bankruptcy Code.
âą Official Forms 22A and 22C â align the allowable deduction for telecommunication expenses with the IRS list of Other Necessary Expenses; also amends Form 22C to conform to the Supreme Courtâs decision in Hamilton v. Lanning, by directing an above-median-income chapter 13 debtor to list any changes in the reported income and expenses that have already occurred or are virtually certain to occur during the 12 months following the filing of the petition.
Â The draft amendments, along with the Committee’s comments, are available here.
One of the time-honored attractions of US bankruptcy practice is the set of tools provided for the purchase and sale of distressed firms, assets and real estate.Â In recent years, the so-called “363 sale” has been a favorite mechanism for such transactions – its popularity owing primarily to the speed with which they can be accomplished, as well as to the comparatively limited liability which follows the assets through such sales.
But “363 sales” have their limits:Â In such a sale,Â a secured creditor is permitted to “credit bid” against the assets securing its lien – often permitting that creditor to obtain a “blocking” position with respect to sale of the assets.
Until very recently, many practitioners believed these “credit bid” protections also applied whenever assets were being sold through a Chapter 11 plan.Â In 2009 and again in 2010, however, the Fifth and Third Circuit Courts of Appeal held, respectively, that a sale through a Chapter 11 Plan didn’t require credit bidding and could be approved over the objection of a secured lender, so long as the lienholder received the “indubitable equivalent” of its interest in the assets (for more on the meaning of “indubitable equivalence,” see this recent post).
Lenders, understandably concerned about the implications of this rule for their bargaining positions vis a vis their collateral in bankruptcy, were relieved when, about 10 days ago,Â the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals respectfully disagreed – and held that “credit bidding” protections still apply whenever a sale is proposed through a Chapter 11 Plan.
The Circuit’s decision in In re River Road Hotel Partners (available here) sets up a split in the circuits – and the possibility of Supreme Court review.Â In the meanwhile, lenders may rest a little easier, at least in the Seventh Circuit.
Or can they?
It has been observed that the Seventh Circuit’s River Road Hotel Partners decision and the Third Circuit’s earlier decision both involved competitive auctions – i.e., bidding – in which the only “bid” not permitted was the lender’s credit bid.Â The Fifth Circuit’s earlier decision, however, involved a sale following a judicial valuation of the collateral at issue.
Is it possible to accomplish a sale without credit bidding – even in the Seventh Circuit – so long as the sale does not involve an auction, and is instead preceded by a judicial valuation?
Ray’s piece focuses on the supportability of assumptions underlying valuations.Â As he notes:
The piece is here.
On Thursday, the US Supreme Court released its second decision in the long-runing battle between the estate of Vickie Lynn Marshall (aka Anna Nicole Smith) and her erstwhile son-in-law, Pierce Marshall.
The 63-page slip opinion, available here, illustrates how the result of a high-profile celebrity bankruptcy can ultimately turn on arcane, esoteric matters of jurisdiction – and how such esoterica can be potentially ground-shifting for the US Bankruptcy Court system which has been in effect since its first constitutional challenge in 1984.
A small portion of the already considerable commentary evolving in conventional media and in the blogosphere appears below.
A prior post on this blog featured an article highlighting some of the basic principles from Shari’a law which apply to insolvent individuals and businesses.
Another,Â more recent article explores the intriguing question of what happens when an investment structured according to Shari’a law needs to be restructured in a non-Shari’a forum – such as a United States Bankruptcy Court.Â The University of Pennsylvania’s Michael J.T. McMillen uses the recent Chapter 11 filing of In re East Cameron Partners, LP as a case study to highlight some of the issues.
According to McMillen:
The article is availableÂ here.
Personal liability for corporate debt has been all the rage in the Ninth Circuit.Â Within the last year, at least two appellate decisions (discussed here and here) have clarified the doctrine of alter ego liability â the idea that a corporate entity and its principals ought to be treated as one and the same, and therefore equally liable for corporate obligations.
It is easy to see why interest in alter ego liability has become so fashionable: When a business slips into insolvency and cannot pay its creditors in full, those creditors naturally go looking for other pockets from which to satisfy their claims.
If creditors can show that the businessâ officers effectively ran the business for personal economic purposes rather than as a separate and distinct corporate entity, the doctrine of alter ego permits creditors to hold the officers responsible for the businessâ obligations.Â This is especially the case where it appears the officers used the business to perpetrate a fraud or some other inequity on creditors.Â One California court noted that â[t]he general purpose of the doctrine of alter ego is to look through the fiction of the corporation and to hold the individuals doing business in the name of the corporation liable for its debts in those cases where it should be so held in order to avoid fraud or injustice.â
Earlier this year, Judge Clarkson of Californiaâs Central District followed this fashion trend by offering his view on a non-dischargeability claim based on alter ego liability.
The facts of In re Munson are relatively straightforward.Â Robert and Kimberly Munson were the owners â and corporate officers â of Munson Plumbing, Inc. (âMPIâ), a plumbing subcontractor on several public works projects in the Los Angeles metropolitan area.Â As is typically required of public works contractors, MPIâs work was backed by surety bonds issued by SureTec Insurance Company (âSureTecâ).Â As part of the consideration for the issuance of the surety bonds, the Munsons and MPI signed a General Agreement of Indemnity (âSureTec Indemnity Agreementâ), in which the Munsons agreed to jointly and severally indemnify SureTec and to deposit collateral with SureTec upon its demand. Â The SureTec Indemnity Agreement contained language that all project funds received by MPI would be held in trust for the benefit of SureTec.
Eventually, MPI encountered financial difficulties and could not pay its own subcontractors â thereby requiring SureTec to make payments under the bonds and finish MPIâs work.
Concurrent with MPIâs demise, the Munsons commenced individual Chapter 7 proceedings.Â SureTec, which had been left with over $436,000 in losses related to various MPI projects, asserted claims against the Munsons individually.Â It also sought to have at least a portion of those losses deemed non-dischargeable in the Munsonsâ Chapter 7 case.Â Specifically, it claimed:
– The SureTec Indemnity Agreement created an express trust which placed fiduciary duties upon the Munsons.
– Further, because the Munsons had allegedly defrauded SureTec by diverting at least $95,000 in progress payments on the projects to non-bonded expenses, including their own personal expenses, applicable fiduciary duties upon the Munsons arose by California statutes (including Business & Professions Code Â§7108 and Penal Code Â§Â§Â§ 484b, 484c and 506.)
– The Munsons were alter egos of MPI, and therefore were liable for MPIâs obligations under the surety bonds.
– The Munsonsâ obligations were non-dischargeable because they arose as a result of the Munsonsâ breach of their fiduciary duties.
The Debtors sought dismissal of SureTecâs lawsuit.Â In a brief, 9-page decision, Judge Clarkson found that:
– Â The SureTec Indemnity Agreement did not impose fiduciary duties upon the Munsons.Â âIf a trust was created, it imposed the fiduciary duty obligations on the corporation, the receiver and disburser of the project funds. The [Munsons,] [in] signing the [SureTec Indemnity Agreement] were creating only a creditor-debtor relationship (and a contingent one at that) between SureTec and the [Munsons]. They were âindemnifyingâ SureTec, as SureTec accurately indicatesÂ . . . .â
– Any alleged trust relationship created on a constructive, resulting, or implied basis (i.e., arising legally as a result of the Munsonsâ allegedly bad acts) is not the sort of trust relationship which gives rise to a non-dischargeable debt.Â âThe core requirements [for asserting non-dischargeability based on breach of a fiduciary duty] are that the [fiduciary] relationship exhibit characteristics of the traditional trust relationship, and that the fiduciary duties be created before the act of wrongdoing and not as a result of the act of wrongdoing.â
– SureTecâs allegations of alter ego liability were likewise insufficient to tag the Munsons with the sort of fiduciary obligations that would give rise to a non-dischargeable claim.Â âIf a finding of alter ego were to be considered as imposing fiduciary duties, any such imposition would be ex maleficio, i.e., trusts that arose by operation of law upon a wrongful act.â
Judge Clarkson also found that SureTecâs separate non-dischargeability claim for fraud had not been pleaded with the requisite particularity, and dismissed it with leave to amend.
The Munson decision is important in several respects:
– It emphasizes the relatively narrow scope of non-dischargeability claims based on breaches of fiduciary duty in the Ninth Circuit.
– It also emphasizes the similarly narrow scope of liability derived from alter ego status.
– It highlights the importance of the alter ego doctrine as a strategic tool for both creditors and trustees in bankruptcy litigation â as well as litigantsâ varying success in using it.Â As detailed in other posts, alter ego liability has been employed (i) unsuccessfully as a âblocking deviceâ in an attempt to capture recoveries for the corporationâs bankruptcy estate; and (ii) successfully to preserve recoveries from self-settled trusts to which the debtors attempted to convey assets out of the reach of creditors.Â Here, alter ego was employed (again, without success) to âbootstrapâ a creditorâs claim into ânon-dischargeableâ status.
Chapter 11 practice â like so many other professional service specialties â is regrettably jargon-laden.Â Businesses that need to get their financial affairs in order âenter restructuring.âÂ Those that must re-negotiate their debt obligations attempt to âde-leverage.âÂ And those facing resistance in doing so seek the aid of Bankruptcy Courts in âcramming downâ their plans over creditor opposition.
Likewise, the Bankruptcy Code â and, consequently, Bankruptcy Courts â employ what can seem an entirely separate vocabulary for describing the means by which a successful âcram-downâ is achieved.Â One such means involves providing the secured creditor with something which equals the value of its secured claim: If the secured creditor holds a security interest in the debtorâs apple, for example, the debtor may simply give the creditor the apple â or may even attempt to replace the creditorâs interest in the apple with a similarÂ interest in the debtorâs orange (provided, of course, that the orange is worth as much as the original apple).
The concept of replacing something of value belonging to a secured creditor with something else of equivalent value is known in âbankruptcy-eseâ as providing the creditor with the âindubitable equivalentâ of its claim â and it is a concept employed perhaps most frequently in cases involving real estate assets (though âindubitable equivalenceâ is not limited to interests in real estate).Â For this reason, plans employing this concept in the real estate context are sometimes referred to as âdirt for debtâ plans.
A recent bankruptcy decision out of Georgiaâs Northern District issued earlier this year illustrates the challenges of âdirt for debtâ reorganizations based on the concept of âindubitable equivalence.â
Green Hobson Riddle, Jr., a Georgia businessman, farmer, and real estate investor, sought protection in Chapter 11 after economic difficulties left him embroiled in litigation and unable to service his obligations.
Mr. Riddleâs proposed plan of reorganization, initially opposed by a number of his creditors, went through five iterations until only one objecting creditor â Northside Bank â remained.Â Northside Bank held a first-priority secured claim worth approximately $907,000 secured by approximately 36 acres of real property generally referred to as the âHighway 411/Dodd Blvd Property,â and a second-priority claim secured by a condominium unit generally referred to as the âHeritage Square Property.âÂ It also held a judgment lien recorded against Mr. Riddle in Floyd County, Georgia.
A key feature of Mr. Riddleâs plan involved freeing up the Heritage Square Property in order refinance one of his companies, thereby generating additional payments for his creditors.Â To do this, Mr. Riddle proposed to give Northside Bank his Highway 411/Dodd Blvd Property as the âindubitable equivalent,â and in satisfaction, of all of Northsideâs claims.
Northside Bank objected to this treatment, respectfully disagreeing with Mr. Riddleâs idea of âindubitable equivalence.âÂ Bankruptcy Judge Paul Bonapfel took evidence on the issue and â in a brief, 9-page decision â found that Mr. Riddle had the better end of the argument.
Judge Bonapfelâs decision highlights several key features of âindubitable equivalentâ plans:
–Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â The importance of valuation.Â The real challenge of an âindubitable equivalenceâ plan is not its vocabulary.Â It is valuing the property which will be given to the creditor so as to demonstrate that value is âtoo evident to be doubted.âÂ As anyone familiar with valuation work is aware, this is far more easily said than done.Â Valuation becomes especially important where the debtor is proposing to give the creditor something less than all of the collateral securing the creditorâs claim, as Mr. Riddle did in his case.Â In such circumstances, the valuation must be very conservative â a consideration Judge Bonapfel and other courts recognized.
–Â Â Â Â Â Â Â The importance of evidentiary standards.Â Closely related to the idea of being âtoo evident to be doubtedâ is the question of what evidentiary standards apply to the valuation.Â Some courts have held that because the propertyâs value must be âtoo evident to be doubted,â the evidence of value must be âclear and convincingâ (the civil equivalent of âbeyond a reasonable doubtâ).Â More recent cases, however, weigh the âpreponderance of evidenceâ (i.e., does the evidence indicate something more than a 50% probability that the property is worth what itâs claimed to be?).Â As one court (confusingly) put it: âThe level of proof to show âindubitablyâ is not raised merely by the use of the word âindubitable.ââÂ Rather than require more or better evidence, many courts seem to focus instead on the conservative nature of the valuation and its assumptions.
–Â Â Â Â Â Â Â The importance of a legitimate reorganization purpose.Â Again, where a creditor is receiving something less than the entirety of its collateral as the âindubitable equivalentâ of its claim, it is up to the debtor to show that such treatment is for the good of all the creditors â and not merely to disadvantage the creditor in question.Â Judge Bonapfel put this issue front and center when he noted, in Mr. Riddleâs case:
In re Riddle, 444 B.R. 681, 686 (Bankr. N.D. Ga. 2011).
Many insolvency practitioners are familiar with the “high-asset” individual debtor – often a business owner or owner of rental property or otherÂ significant business and personal assets – whose financial problems are too large for standard “individual debtor” treatment.
Such debtors are a prominent feature of commercial insolvency practice in California and other western states.Â These individuals typically have obligations matching the size of their assets:Â Â Their restructuring needs are too large for treatment through an “individual”Â Chapter 13 reorganization, and must instead be handled through the “business” reorganization provisions of a Chapter 11.
When Congress amended the Bankruptcy Code in 2005, it recognized the need of some individuals to use the reorganization provisions of Chapter 11.Â It provided certain amendments to Chapter 11 which parallel the “individual” reorganzation provisions of Chapter 13.
But certain “individual” reorganization concepts do not translate clearly into Chapter 11’s “business” provisions.Â Among the most troublesome of these is the question of whether an individual debtor can reorganize by paying objecting unsecured creditors less than 100% while continuing to retain existing property or assets for him- or herself.
In Chapter 13, the answer to this question is “yes.”Â But in Chapter 11 – at least until 2005 – theÂ answer has historically been “no.”Â This is because Chapter 11,Â oriented as it is toward business reorganization, prohibits a reorganizing debtor from retaining any property while anÂ objecting class of unsecured creditors is paid something less than the entirety of its claims.Â Known as the “absolute priority rule,” this prohibition has been a mainstay of Chapter 11 business practice for decades.
In 2005, Congress amended Chapter 11’s “absolute priority rule” provisions to provide that despite the “absolute priority” rule, individual Chapter 11 debtors could nevertheless retain certain types of property, even when objecting unsecured creditors are paid less than 100%.Â Â For instance,Â an individualÂ debtor may retain certain wages and earnings earned after the commencement of the debtor’s case.Â But can the individual debtor retain other types of property (for example, a rental property or closely held stock in a business), while paying objecting creditors less than 100%?
Congress’ “absolute priority rule” amendments for individual debtors are ambiguous – as is the language of a section which expands the definition of “property” included within the individual Chapter 11 debtor’s estate (paralleling similar treatment of individual Chapter 13 debtors).Â As a result, Bankruptcy Courts are split on the question of whether or not the “absolute priority rule” applies to individual Chapter 11 debtors.
Until very recently, the Central District of California – one of the nation’s largest, and a frequent filing destination for individual Chapter 11 cases – had been silent on the issue.Â This month, however, Judge Theodor Albert of Santa Ana joined a growing number of courts which conclude that Congress’ 2005 “absolute priority rule” amendments apply only to individual wages and earnings, and that individuals cannot retain other types of property where objecting creditors are paid less than 100%.
In a careful, 13-page decision issued for publication, Judge Albert collected and examined cases on both sides of this question and concluded:
Judge Albert’s decision joins several other very recent ones going the same direction, including In re Walsh, 2011 WL 867046 (Bkrtcy.D.Mass., Judge Hillman); In re Stephens, 2011 WL 719485 (Bkrtcy.S.D.Tex., Judge Paul); and In re Draiman, 2011 WL 1486128 (Bkrtcy.N.D.Ill., Judge Squires).
When a retailerÂ becomes insolvent, suppliers or vendors who have recently provided goods on credit typicallyÂ have the ability toÂ assert “reclamation” rights for the return of those goods.Â Retailers may respond to theseÂ rights by seeking the protection the federal bankruptcy laws – and, in particular, the automatic stay.
When a retailer files for bankruptcy while holding goods which are subject to creditors’ “reclamation” rights, what should “reclamation” creditors do?
The Bankruptcy Code itself provides some protection for “reclamation” creditors by providing such creditors additional time in which to assert their claims, and by affording administrative priority for a certain portionÂ for such claims even when they are not formally asserted.
But is merely asserting a reclamation claim under the Bankruptcy Code sufficient to protect a supplier once a retailer is in bankruptcy?Â A recent appellate decision from Virginia’s Eastern District serves as a reminder that merely speaking up about a reclamation claim isn’t enough.
When Circuit City sought bankruptcy protection in 2009, Paramount Home Entertainment was stuck with the tab for more than $11 million in goods.Â Though it didn’t object to blanket liens on Circuit City’s merchandise which came with the retailer’s debtor-in-possession financing, and stood by quietly while Circuit City laterÂ liquidated its merchandise througÂ a going-out-of-business sale, Paramount did file a timely reclamation demand as required by the Bankruptcy Code.Â It also complied with what it understood to be the Bankruptcy Court’s orders regarding administrative procedures for processing its reclamation claims in Circuit City’s case.Â It was therefore unpleasantly surprised when Circuit City objected to Paramount’s reclamation claim – and when the Bankruptcy Court sustained that objection – on the grounds that Paramount hadn’t done enough to establish or preserve its reclamation rights.
Paramount appealed the Bankruptcy Court’s ruling, claiming that it complied with what it understood to have been the Bankruptcy Court’s administrative procedures for processing reclamation claims.Â Â Paramount argued that to have done more (i.e., to have sought relief from the automatic stay to take back its goods or commenced litigation to preserve its rights to the proceeds of such goods) would have disrupted Circuit City’s bankruptcy case.
In affirming the Bankruptcy Court, US District Judge James Spencer held that the Bankruptcy Code, while protecting a creditor’s reclamation rights, doesn’t impose them on the debtor.Â Instead, a reclaiming creditor must take further steps consistent with the Bankruptcy Code and state law to preserve the remedies which reclamation claims afford.Â Merely asserting a reclamation claim under the Bankruptcy Code – or under a Bankruptcy Court’s administrative procedure – isn’t enough:
Let the seller beware.
Most insolvency practitioners are familiar with the fighting which often ensues when creditors jockey for position over a troubled firm’s capital structure.Â From Kansas, a recentÂ decision issued in February highlights the standards which apply to claims that a senior creditor’s claim ought to be “subordinated” to those of more junior creditors or equity-holders.
QuVIS, Inc. (“QuVIS”),Â a provider of digital motion imaging technology solutions in a number of industries, found itself the target of an involuntary Chapter 7 filing in 2oo9.Â The company converted its case to one under Chapter 11 and thereafter sought to reorganize its affairs.
QuVIS â debt was structured in an unusual way.Â When presented with some growth opportunities in the early 2000’s, the company issued secured notes under a credit agreement that capped its lending at $30,000,000.Â âInvestorsâ acquired these notes for cash and received a security interest, evidenced by a UCC-1 recorded in 2002.Â One of QuVIS’ “investors” was Seacoast Capital Partners II, L.P. (“Seacoast”), a Small Business Investment Company (âSBICâ) licensed by the United States Small Business Administration.Â Between 2005 and 2007, Seacoast lent approximately $4.25 million through a series of three separate promissory notes issued by QuVIS.Â In 2006, and consistent with the purposes of the Small Business Investment Act of 1958, under which licensed SBICs are expected to provide management support to the small business ventures in which they invest, Seacoast’s Managing Director, Eben S. Moulton (âMoultonâ), was designated as an outside director to QuVIS’ board.
In 2007, it came to Seacoast’s attention that, despite its belief to the contrary, a UCC-1 had never been filed on Seacoast’s behalf regarding its loans to QuVIS.Â Nor had the earlier (and now lapsed) UCC-1 filed regarding QuVIS’ other “investors” ever been modified to reflect Seacoast’s participation in the company’s loan structure.Â Seacoast immediately filed a UCC-1 on its own behalf in order to protect its position.Â Some time after QuVIS found itself in Chapter 11 in 2009, the Committee of Unsecured Creditors (and other, less alertÂ “investors”) sought to subordinate Seacoast’s position.
The Committee’s argument was based exclusively onÂ 11 U.S.C. Â§ 510(c), which provides, in pertinent part:
“Equitable” subordination is based on the idea of “inequitable” conduct –Â such asÂ fraud, illegality, or breach of fiduciary duties.Â Where an “insider” or a fiduciary of the debtor is the target of a subordination claim, however, the party seeking subordination need only show some unfair conduct, and a degree of culpability, on the part of the insider.
Seacoast sought summary judgment denying the subordination claim.Â In granting Seacoast’s request, Judge Nugent of the Kansas Bankruptcy Court distinguishedÂ Seacoast’sÂ Managing DirectorÂ from Seacoast, finding that though Moulton was indeed an “insider,” Seacoast was not.Â Â Therefore, Seacoast’s claim was not subject to subordination for any “unfair conduct” which might be attributable to Moulton.Â To that end, Judge Nugent also appeared to go to some lengths to demostrate that Mr. Moulton’s conduct was not in any way “unfair” or detrimental to the interests of other creditors.
Subordination claims are highly fact-specific.Â With this in mind, the facts of the QuVIS decisionÂ afford instructive reading for lenders whose lending arrangements may entitle them to designate one of the debtor’s directors.
From Florida’s Northern District comes a cautionary tale of what can go wrong whenÂ distressed real estate requires restructuring.Â A copy of the decision is available here.
Davis Heritage GP Holdings, LLC (âDebtorâ) was a family-owned LLC formed in 2002 to âhold, develop, and sell condominium development properties in Mississippi and Louisiana.âÂ Its sole assets were membership interests in a series of single-member “middle-tier” LLC’s, which themselves held no assets except for interests in a series of single-member “lower-tier” LLC’s – each formed to hold separate parcels of real property.
In December 2010, the Debtor sought protection under Chapter 11, ostensibly to deal with the adverse effects of a judgment entered against it.Â None of the “middle-tier” or “lower-tier” LLC’s had sought bankruptcy protection.Â Despite their separate,Â three-tier structure, the Debtor’s management adminstered them as if they were a single business enterprise.Â Until very shortly before the Debtor’s Chapter 11 filing, the expenses and income of the enterprise were processed through the Debtor’s bank account.Â In fact, none of the “lower tier” LLCs held bank accounts in their names until after meeting with the Debtor’s bankruptcy counsel.Â From at least January 2007 through August 2010, the Debtor’s bank accounts contained several millions of dollars, at one time exceeding $22 million.Â The Debtor’s principals have used the Debtor’s accounts freely, to receive and disburse money to and from whomever the principals chose at any given time.Â Despite this fact, the Debtor only disclosed one bank account in its Schedule B and did not disclose, but rather affirmatively denied, making any transfers to insiders within one year pre-petition.
Finally, the Debtor never disclosed the properties owned by the “lower tier” LLCs (or their income and expenses) in its Schedules or any other papers filed with the Court. Nevertheless, the Debtor’s Plan is based entirely upon the liquidation of some of those very properties.
The Debtor’s difficulties arose out of the purchase of land and subsequent construction ofÂ the 21-story “Beau View” luxury condominium tower in Biloxi, Mississippi.Â In exchange for the land, the Debtor had executed two junior-priority promissory notes to the seller, and obtained a senior-priority acquisition loan from Wells Fargo.Â The Debtor then financed construction with a separate loan – also from Wells Fargo – and completed the tower.
Though it made considerable progress selling condominium units and repaying Wells Fargo’s construction loan, the Debtor made only sporadic payments on its purchase notes to the seller.Â Eventually, the seller obtained a judgment on the note in Mississippi, then domesticated that note in Florida and sought to foreclose on all of the debtor’s membership interests in the “middle tier” LLC’s.
To avoid foreclosure on its “middle tier” LLC interests, the Debtor made a $200,000 payment in exchange for 60 days’ forbearance – then, promptly, sought Chapter 11 protection.Â At the time of filing, the Wells FargoÂ construction loan and acquisition loansÂ were current.Â The Debtor had permitted twoÂ mortgage loan actions filed against two of the “lower tier” LLC’s by Sun Trust Bank to go to default judgment.
Very shortly after filing, the seller of the Biloxi property sought relief from stay to continue its foreclosure on the “middle tier” LLC interests – or, in the alternative, dismissal of the Debtor’s Chapter 11 case.Â The Debtor countered with an emergency motion for the sale of certain assets – and, a day prior to the hearing on the stay relief motion, a Chapter 11 Plan.
In reviewing the evidence and determining that dismissal of the Debtor’s case was appropriate, the court observed:
The court then went on to explain why the essence of the Debtor’s Chapter 11 plan – essentially, an effort to pay Wells Fargo and Sun Trust at the expense of the seller of the Biloxi property – was a “sort of reverse marshalling” inappropriate for Chapter 11 under the facts of this case:
The court’s discussion of what constitutes “bad faith” in filing a Chapter 11 case is instructive, as is its analysis of how “bankruptcy remote” entities can be treated in the absence of related Chapter 11 filings.
One of the most effective vehicles for the rescue and revitalization of troubled business and real estate to emerge in recent years of Chapter 11 practice has been the “363 sale.”
Named for the Bankruptcy Code section where it is found, the “363 sale” essentially provides for the sale to a proposed purchaser, free and clear of any liens, claims, and other interests, of distressed assets and land.
The section has been used widely in bankruptcy courts in several jurisdictions to authorize property sales for “fair market value” . . . even when that value is below the “face value” of the liens encumbering the property.
In the Ninth Circuit, however, such sales are not permitted – unless (pursuant to Section 363(f)(5)) the lien holder “could be compelled, in a legal or equitable proceeding, to accept a money satisfaction of such interest.”
A recent decision issued early this year by the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Panel and available here)Â provides a glimpse of how California bankruptcy court areÂ employing this statutory exception to approve “363 sales.”
East Airport Development (EAD) was a residential development project inÂ San Luis Obispo which, due to the downturn of the housing market, never came completely to fruition.
Originally financed with a $9.7 million construction and development loan in 2006, EAD’s obligation was refinanced at $10.6 million in mid-2009.Â By February 2010, the project found itself in Chapter 11 in order to stave off foreclosure.
A mereÂ two weeks after its Chapter 11 filing, EAD’s management requested court authorization to sell 2 of the 26 lots in the project free and clear of the bank’s lien, then to use the excess proceeds of the sale as cash collateral.
In support of this request, EAD claimed the parties had previously negotiatedÂ a pre-petition release price agreement.Â EAD argued the release price agreement was a âbinding agreement that may be enforced by non-bankruptcy law, which would compel [the bank] to accept a money satisfaction,â and also that the bank had consented to the sale of the lots.Â A spreadsheet setting forth the release prices was appended to the motion.Â The motion stated EAD’s intention to use the proceeds of sale to pay the bank the release prices and use any surplus funds to pay other costs of the case (including, inter alia, completion of a sewer system).
The bank objected strenuously to the sale.Â It argued there was no such agreement – and EAD’s attachment of spreadsheets and e-mails from bank personnel referencing such release prices ought to be excluded on various evidentiary grounds.
The bankruptcy court approved the sale and cash collateral use over these objections.Â The bank appealed.
On review, the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellant Panel found, first,Â that the bankruptcy court was within the purview of its discretion to find that, in fact, a release price agreement did exist – and second, that such agreement was fully enforceable in California:
The Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel‘s East Airport decision provides an example of how bankruptcy courts in the Ninth Circuit are creatively finding ways aroundÂ legal hurdles to getting “363 sales” approved in a very difficult California real estate market.Â It likewise demonstrates the level of care which lenders’ counsel must exercise in negotiating the work-out of troubled real estate projects.
Title II of the Dodd-Frank Act provides âthe necessary authority to liquidate failing financial companies that pose a systemic risk to the financial stability of the United States in a manner that mitigates such risk and minimizes moral hazard.â
Under this authority, the government would have had the requisite authority to structure a resolution of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. – which, as readers are aware, was one of the marquis bankruptcy filings of the 2008 – 2009 financial crisis.
Readers are also aware that Dodd-Frank is an significant piece of legislation, designed to implement extensive reforms to the banking industry.Â But would it have done any better job of resolving Lehman’s difficulties than did Lehman’s Chapter 11?
Predictably, the FDIC is convinced that a government rescue would have beenÂ more beneficialÂ – and in “The Orderly Liquidation of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. under the Dodd-Frank Act” (forthcoming in Vol. 5 of the FDIC Quarterly), FDIC staff explain why this is so.
The 19-page paper boils down to the following comparison between Chapter 11 and a hypothetical resolution under Dodd-Frank:
By contrast, under Dodd-Frank:
Convinced?Â You decide.
When a municipality faces municipal distress, who ultimately picks up the tab?Â More importantly, who should pick up the tab?
Thatâs the issue taken up by Clayton P. Gillette, NYUâs Max E. Greenberg Professor of Contract Law, in a recent paper titled âPOLITICAL WILL AND FISCAL FEDERALISM IN MUNICIPAL BANKRUPTCY.âÂ Though the academic prose doesnât read quite like the Economist, Professor Gilletteâs discussion is a timely and important one for observers of US municipalities and their current financial troubles.
In essence, Professor Gillette argues that Chapter 9 of the Bankruptcy Code (municipal bankruptcy) is often perceived as a âdumping groundâ for governmental entities who could raise taxes, but simply donât have the political gumption to do so.Â Historically, municipal debtors have attempted to utilize Chapter 9 as a means of shifting the burden of imprudent debt onto creditors.Â But Gillette argues that in an age of government bailout and centralized governmental assistance for failing municipalities, Chapter 9 also effectively acts as a âbargaining chipâ for municipal debtors dealing with federal and state agencies who would prefer to address municipal financial distress outside of bankruptcy â albeit at a moderate cost to local officials.
In support of this argument, Gillette explains that the structure of Chapter 9 offers municipalities a shot at having it both ways:Â They can run up a tab, then determine whom (other than themselves or their taxpayers â i.e., private creditors or states and federal agencies) theyâd prefer to pick it up.
Whatâs the answer to this perceived recipe for irresponsibility?Â For Professor Gillette, it involves giving bankruptcy courts the power to impose affordable tax increases:
Whatever readers may think of the constitutionality of his idea, Professor Gilletteâs article is an intriguing contribution to evolving thought on municipal distress.
It is axiomatic in American business bankruptcy practice that though they may disagree strenuously on the particulars, all parties to a Chapter 11 case are interested in the same basic goal: maximization of the debtor’s asset values.
Or are they?
NYU Professor Sarah Woo has recently published an empirically-based analysis of this assumed common goal, and the results of that analysis are striking.Â As sheÂ describes her own research (presented in an article titled “Regulatory Bankruptcy: How Bank Regulation Causes Firesales“):
Ms. Woo’s working hypothesis is that changes in the banking sector over the past decade, including increased consolidation and increased leverage,Â eventuallyÂ pushed banks to pursue higher portfolio returns.Â As a result, many banksÂ over-concentrated their portfolios in commercial real estate – a strategy which worked well during frothier times, but which proved disatrous in the aftermath of 2008’s economic collapse.
In the aftermath of the banking crisis, over-concentration by banks drew significant regulatory scrutiny – and, ultimately, significant new regulation designed to pressure banks to reduce their concentration risk.Â According toÂ Professor Woo:
Professor Woo’s work is important, not only for the specific question of how and why banks behave the way they do in bankruptcy, but also as an example of how industry dynamics can mold and shape the bankruptcy process – and further, how empirical data can be marshalled for the benefit of informed legislative change and judicial decision-making.
A South Carolina bankruptcy court decision issued earlier this month highlights and illustrates the perils facing individual sole proprietors who struggle to reorganize their financial affairs through the Chapter 11 process.
The debtors – a husband and wife who owned a business and several pieces of rental property – filed a Chapter 11 in November 2009, but the case was dismissed approximately 10 months later.Â In February this year, while their appeal of that dismissal was pending, they filed a second Chapter 11.
When an individual debtor seeks bankruptcy protection for a second time within 12 months, Section 362(c)(3) (added in connection with the 2005 BAPCPA amendments) terminates the automatic stay by default unless, within 30 days, the debtor can demonstrate that their secondÂ attemptÂ is in “good faith.”
Put another way, an individual debtor’s second attempt at bankruptcy protection is presumptively in “bad faith” – and the automatic stay will self-terminate – unless the debtor can demonstrate otherwise.
Demonstrating otherwiseÂ is what the debtors attempted to do in In re Washington.
So what does it take for an individual to establish “clear and convincing” evidence of “good faith” in these circumstances?
Apparently, a good deal of personal organization – and evidence of consistent, clearly documented efforts to reorganize, with clearly documented results to show for it.
In Washington, the debtors produced evidence regarding their business income and rental receipts which the Court characterized as “inconsistent and confusing.”Â The Court took issue with the debtors’ estimates of present income, found holes in their testimony regarding decreased expenses, and found the debtors’ revenue projections to be “unjustifiably rosy.”
The Court found that the same result applied under section 362(c)(3)(i)(III)(bb). That subsection imposes a presumption that a debtor’s second case was not filed in good faith if the court finds reason to conclude that the current case will not be concluded âwith a confirmed plan that will be fully performed.â
But if Washington provides a cautionary tale for individual debtors who are struggling through the bankruptcy process, it also emphasizes the touchstone for every successful reorganization, no matter how small:Â A viable business strategy.
Last month, the Delaware Bankruptcy Court offered an interesting look at the preemptive effect of federal aircraft registration statutes on state law recordation requirements under the UCC.
Eclipse Aircraft Corporation (âAircraftâ), an aircraft manufacturer, filed a 2008 Chapter 11 proceeding in Delaware with about 26 aircraft orders unfinished, and in various stages of production.Â Aircraftâs efforts to sell its business assets through a âSection 363â sale ultimately proved unfruitful, and the case was converted to a Chapter 7.Â The appointed Chapter 7 trustee immediately sought authorization for another âSection 363â sale, this time to Eclipse Aerospace Inc. (âAerospaceâ).
Aircraftâs customers holding pending but unfilled orders (the WIP Customersâ) didnât oppose the trusteeâs sale per se, but did seek a determination that they held property interests in their respective, partially completed planes and parts which were superior to any interests and rights held by Aircraftâs bankruptcy estate, and that these rights entitled them to various equitable remedies such as replevin and specific performance, as well as the imposition of equitable liens and constructive trusts on the unfinished planes and parts.
Aerospace moved for summary judgment on theory that the WIP Customers’ imposition of a constructive trust required a showing of fraudulent conduct â and that Aircraft had never acted improperly.
Aerospace argued further that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) registration statute preempted the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) (on which a number of the WIP Customersâ claims were based), thereby preventing them from asserting interests in partially completed planes based on their UCC filings.
In a brief decision, Bankruptcy Judge Mary Walrath reasoned that Aerospaceâs âpreemptionâ argument involved the impact of two decisions â Philko Aviation, Inc. v. Shacket, 462 U.S. 406 (1983) and Stanziale v. Pratt & Whitney (In re Tower Air, Inc.), 319 B.R. 88 (Bankr.D.Del.2004) â on the federal âregistrationâ requirements applicable to any âaircraft.â
According to Judge Walrath, Philko stands for the broad proposition that âevery aircraft transfer must be evidenced by an instrument, and every such instrument must be recorded [thereby preempting state law recordation statutes], before the rights of innocent third parties can be affected.âÂ See 462 U.S. at 409-10.Â Therefore, it would not be enough for the WIP Customers to argue, as they did, that the mere failure to register a plane with the FAA (and to record that registration) meant it wasnât an âaircraft.â
But what Philko might have taken away from the WIP Customers, Tower Air returned: Tower Air, according to Judge Walrath, held that Philko and its following decisions applied only to complete aircraft â and not to aircraft components or parts. Â See 319 B.R. at 95 (finding that Philko and its progeny âinvolved the conveyance of aircraft in their entirety, and neither involved or made any reference whatsoever to engines or components separate and apart from the aircraft.â).
Consequently, an unfinished plane isnât really a plane â at least not for purposes of federal preemption.
Judge Walrath made comparatively short work of Aerospaceâs other theories.Â She noted that, despite Aerospaceâs arguments to the contrary, applicable state law did not require fraudulent or wrongful conduct for the imposition of a constructive trust, but rather the mere âbreach of any legal or equitable dutyâ or the âcommission of a wrong.âÂ Aerospaceâs further argument that the WIP Customers were unsecured creditors as a result of Aircraftâs insolvency wasnât properly raised in its initial request for summary judgment â and therefore wouldnât serve as the basis for such a judgment.
Chapter 15 of the US Bankruptcy Code, enacted in 2005, was Congress’ effort to make cross-border insolvency proceedings just a little more predictable.Â
Specifically,Â the statute’s policy objective was toÂ “recognize” the efforts of foreign insolvency administrators and trustees to administer their debtors’ US-based assets – therebyÂ helping to “standardize” the way assets and claims are treated in non-US insolvency proceedings.
Chapter 15 reflects a strong Congressional preference for what has been described as a “universalist” (rather than a “territorial”) approach to cross-border insolvency administration.Â But have US Bankruptcy Courts actually followed through on this “universalist” policy?
That is the question behind an empirical study on Chapter 15 recently published by Jeremy Leong, an advocate and solicitor with Singapore’s Wong Partnership.Â According to Mr. Leong, the study (entitledÂ IS CHAPTER 15 UNIVERSALIST OR TERRITORIALIST? EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE FROM UNITED STATES BANKRUPTCY COURT CASES, and forthcoming in the Wisconsin International Law Journal) and its results indicate that, despite its ostensibly “universalist” objectives:
Based on this data, Mr. Leong goes on to conclude that “when deciding Chapter 15 cases, United States courts seldom grant entrustment [of assets for foreign distributions] without [protective] qualifications when United States creditors may be adversely affected.”Â Consequently,Â “Chapter 15 is not as universalist as its proponents claim it to be and exposes the inability of Chapter 15 to resolve conflicting priority rules between the United States and foreign proceedings.”
Mr. Leong’s study is commendable as one of the earliest pieces of empirical work on how Chapter 15 is actually applied.Â But it raises some questions along the way.Â For example:
– Is a 45.5% “entrustment” rate really accurate?Â Mr. Leong’s claim that “courts entrusted United States assets to foreign proceedings for distribution in only 45.5% of cases where foreign proceedings were recognized” does not really compare apples to apples.Â That is, it measures the “entrustment” of assets across all recognized foreign proceedings – and not the smaller subset of proceedings where entrustment was actually requested.
According to Mr. Leong’s study results, “of the 88 cases where recognition was granted, the [US bankruptcy] court made orders for [e]ntrustment in only 40 cases.Â Of the remaining 48 cases where [e]ntrustment was not granted, [e]ntrustment had been requested by foreign representatives in 25 of these cases.”Â In other words, “entrustment” of assets was requested in 65 of the cases in Mr. Leong’s sample – and in those cases, it was granted in 40, providing a 61.5% success rate for the “entrustment” of assets, rather than the study’s advertised 45.5% success rate.
– Is a 45.5% “entrustment” rate really all that bad?Â Success rates – like many other statistics – are significant only by virtue of their relative comparison to other success rates.Â Assuming for the moment thatÂ the 45.5% “entrustment” rate observed whereÂ US courts apply Chapter 15 was indeed accurate, how does that rate compareÂ against similar requests in the insolvency courts of other sophisticated business jurisdictions applying their ownÂ recognition statutes?Â Â
Without such benchmarks or relative rankings, the conclusion that US courts are not “universal” seems premature.
– Is “asset entrustment” really the true measure of “universalism?”Â Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, Mr. Leong’s focus on the “entrustment” of assets – i.e., the turnover of US-based assets for distribution in a foreign insolvency case – seems to neglect the other reasons for which a US bankruptcy court’s recognition of cross-border insolvency might be sought.Â Such reasons include the “automatic stay” of US-initiated litigation against the debtor, access to US courts for the purpose of gaining personal jurisdiction over US-based defendants and the recovery of assets, and access to the “asset sale” provisions of the US Bankruptcy Code which automatically apply along with recognition under Chapter 15.
Given the breadth of strategic reasons for seeking recognition of a foreign insolvency in the United States (many of which are unrelated, at least directly,Â to the ultimate distribution of assets), the study’s focus on “entrustment” as a measure of “universalism” may be over-narrow.
These questions aside, however, Mr. Leong’s studyÂ asks thought-provoking and empirically-grounded questions about the true nature of “universalism” as applied in US bankruptcy courts.Â It is an important initial step in framing the proper assessment of cross-border insolvencies in coming years.
Asset sales through bankruptcy are all the rage – they’re presumably [relatively] quick.Â And just as importantly, they’re perceived as clean – that is, they permit assets to be sold “free and clear” of an “interest” in the property.
The term “interest” has been construed broadly, and has been interpreted to extend to successor liability claims – including often prohibitively expensive environmental liabilities.Â Indeed, one recent post on this blog (here) notes the potentially broad reach of bankruptcy court orders authorizing asset sales – and suggests the relief available in some circumstances may even be broader than the Chapter 11 discharge.
But not all courts agree with this conclusionÂ . . . at least not entirely.
Late last month, the Southern District of New York (the same jurisdiction which authorized the “Section 363” sale of General Motors free and clear of environmental liabilities) reached a different result in the case of In re Grumman Olson Industries, Inc.
Grumman Olson, an auto-body manufacturer whose primary customers were Ford and General Motors,Â commenced Chapter 11 proceedings nearly nine years ago and completed a “363 sale” of its assets to Morgan Olson, LLC about 6 months after filing.Â The sale order contained provisions which purported to release both Morgan OlsonÂ and the sold assets themselves from any successor liability claims which might arise.
Ms. Frederico, a FedEx employee, sustained serious injuries on October 15, 2008 when the FedEx truck she was driving hit a telephone pole.Â In a New Jersey lawsuit filed after the accident, the Fredericos claimed that the FedEx truck involved in the accident was manufactured, designed and/or sold by Grumman in 1994, and was defective for several reasons.Â The Fredericos claimed that Morgan Olson continued Grummanâs product line, and was, therefore, liable to the Fredericos as a successor to Grumman under New Jersey law.Â In response, Morgan Olson requested that Bankruptcy Judge Stuart Bernstein re-open the [now closed] Grumman Olson case, then filed an adversary proceeding to determine that the Federico’s claim was barred by the prior sale order.
Both sides sought Judge Bernstein’s summary judgment regarding the Morgan Olson suit.Â In a 21-page decision, Judge Bernstein ruledÂ (followingÂ a brief discussion addressing his continuing jurisdiction to interpret the prior sale order)Â that Â Morgan Olson was, indeed, a successor for purposes of the Fredericos’ suit.Â This was because the Fredericos’ claimed injuries arose not from the assets sold through bankruptcy, orÂ from personal claims against Grumman Olson that arose prior to Grumman’s Chapter 11, but from Morgan Olson’s post-confirmation conduct:
A good portion of Judge Bernstein’s decision is devoted to a discussion of what constitutes a “claim” for bankruptcy purposes – and the circumstances under which an anticipated “future tort claim” (i.e., claim based on a defective product manufactured by the debtor which hasn’t yet caused an injury, but which will at some point in the future) may be addressed through a “Section 363” sale.
In permitting the Fredericos to proceed with their New Jersey law suit against Morgan Olson, Judge Bernstein’s analysis focused on three areas:
– the Fredericos’ lack of any meaningful “contact” with Grumman prior to the commencement of Grumman’s case orÂ confirmation of Grumman’s Chapter 11 plan;
– the absence of any notice by the Fredericos of the Grumman/Morgan sale; and (though less important than the lack of contact and lack of notice)
– the absence of any provision for such anticipated “future claims” in Grumman’s Chapter 11 plan.
In the end, he observed that “every case. . . addressing this issue has concluded for reasons of practicality or due process, or both, that a person injured after the sale (or confirmation) by a defective product manufactured and sold prior to the bankruptcy does not hold a ‘claim’ in the bankruptcy case and is not affected by either the Â§ 363(f) sale order or the discharge under 11 U.S.C. Â§ 1141(d).”
Judge Bernstein’s Grumman Olson decision serves as an important reminder that “section 363 sales” – though undoubtedly a very powerful tool for disposing of distressed assets quickly and cleanly – do not provide “bullet-proof” protection for any type of liability which might be associated with the debtor’s assets, or with its general product line.
During recent years, the global economy has seen significant growth in transactions which purport to be governed by classic Islamic – or Shari’a – law.Â Primarily, the legal and business community’s focus has been on Shari’a finance.Â But what happens under Shari’a law when a transaction or venture turns sour?
That is the question posed recently by Abed Awad and Robert E. Michael of Pace Univeristy in White Plains.Â In IFLAS AND CHAPTER 11: CLASSICAL ISLAMIC LAW AND MODERN BANKRUPTCY, AwadÂ and Michael (both adjunct professors at Pace, and both practicingÂ attorneys in the New Jersey-New York metropolitan area) explore this issue in some much-needed detail.
Specifically, their article:
In light of continuing global financial turmoil and further political turmoil in the Middle East, the article – which first appeared in last fall’s issue (Vol. 44) ofÂ SMU’s International Lawyer – is worth reading.Â
Jones Day’s Charles Oellerman and Mark Douglas have just issued The Year in Bankruptcy: 2010.Â Â It is a (relatively) concise, thorough (81 pages), and useful compendium of bankruptcy statistics, trend analyses, case law highlights, and legislative updates for the year.
What to expect for 2011?Â According to the authors:
Ever since the first corporate reorganizations in the US, business owners have been looking for ways to retain ownership of their restructured companies while reducing debt.Â And ever since owners have been trying to retain ownership, courts have been resisting them.
Today, it is commonly understood that the equity holders of a reorganizing business cannot retain their ownership unless other, senior creditors are paid in full.Â This principle, known as the “absolute priority rule,” has been developed and refined through various decisions which date back to the 1860’s – before the concept of “corporate reorganization” was formally recognized as such.
Despite the pedigree of the “absolute priority rule,” equity owners nevertheless have continued undaunted in creative efforts to retain some piece of the (reorganized) pie even though creditors senior to them receive less than full payment.Â And courts, though stopping short of prohibitingÂ it outright, nevertheless keep raising the bar for such ownership.
Yesterday, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals raised the bar another notch with its decision in In re DBSD Incorporated.
The basic economic scenario in DBSD is a relatively common one for business reorganizations: DBSD was an over-leveraged “development stage” start-up company with reorganizable technology and spectrum licensing assets, but no operations – and therefore, no revenue.Â It was essentially wholly owned by ICO Global, which sought to de-leverage DBSD through Chapter 11 – but whoÂ also sought to retain an equity interest in DBSD.
To accomplish these goals, ICO Global negotiated a Chapter 11 Plan which (i) paid its first lien-holders in full; (ii) paid its second lien-holders in stock in the reorganized entity worth an estimated 51% – 73% of their original debt; and (iii) paid general unsecured creditors in stock worth an estimatedÂ 4%Â – 46%.Â The Plan further provided that ICO Global would receive equity (i.e., shares and warrants) in the newly organized entity.
One of the larger unsecured creditors objected, claiming that DBSD’s Plan violated the “absolute priority rule.”Â Both the Bankruptcy Court and the District Court found that that the holders of the second lien debt, who were senior toÂ the unsecured creditorsÂ and whom the bankruptcy court found to be undersecured, were entitled to the full residual value of the debtor and were therefore free to “gift” some of that value to the existing shareholder if they chose to.
The Second Circuit disagreed.Â In a lengthy decision (available here), the Court of Appeals held, essentially, that merely calling a Plan distribution a “gift” doesn’t make it one.Â As a result, the Plan’s distribution of stock and warrants to ICO Global under the Plan was impermissible.
Â Nevertheless, the Second Circuit didn’t slam the door altogether on the “gifting” of stock from senior creditors to equity.Â Equity holders looking to de-leverage with the assistance of senior creditors may still consider the following approaches:
– A separate agreement for distributions outside the Plan.Â Though the DBSD decision notes that the “absolute priority rule” preceded the present Bankruptcy Code, and further devotes some discussion to the general policy reasons behindÂ it, the Second Circuit stopped short of precluding such gifts altogether:
This analysis suggests it may be possible to negotiate outside a Chapter 11 planÂ for the same economic result as that originally proposed (but rejected) in DBSD.
–Â A “consensual” foreclosure by a senior secured creditor.Â Along the way to its conclusion, the Second Circuit distinguished DBSD from another “gifting” caseÂ – In re SPM Manufacturing Corp., 984 F.2d 1305 (1st Cir. 1993).
In SPM, a secured creditor and the general unsecured creditors agreed to seek liquidation of the debtor and to share the proceeds from the liquidation. 984 F.2d at 1307-08.Â The bankruptcy court granted relief from the automatic stay and converted the case from Chapter 11 to a Chapter 7 liquidation.Â Id. at 1309.Â The bankruptcy court refused, however, to allow the unsecured creditors to receive their share under the agreement with the secured creditor, ordering instead that the unsecured creditors’ share go to a priority creditor in between those two classes.Â Id. at 1310.Â The district court affirmed, but the First Circuit reversed, holding that nothing in the Code barred the secured creditors from sharing their proceeds in a Chapter 7 liquidation with unsecured creditors, even at the expense of a creditor who would otherwise take priority over those unsecured creditors.
The Second Circuit held that DBSD‘s result should be different from SPM‘s because (i) SPM involved a Chapter 7 (where the “absolute priority rule” doesn’t apply); and (ii) the creditor had obtained relief from stay to proceed directly against its collateral – and therefore, the collateral was no longer part of the bankruptcy estate.
This distinction suggests that, under appropriate circumstances, a stipulated modification of the automatic stay and “consensual foreclosure” by a friendly secured creditor might likewise facilitate the transfer of property to equity holders outside the strictures of a Chapter 11 Plan.
DBSD offers interesting reading – both for its coverage of reorganization history, and for its implicit suggestions about the future of “creative reorganizations.”
The 2008 financial crisis sparked a vigorous debate over how the financial problems of troubled financial institutions ought to resolved.Â Ultimately, Congress’ answer to this (and a host of other regulatory matters involving financial institutions) was the Dodd-Frank Act.
But is Dodd-Frank the best answer to resolving theÂ distress of financial insitutions?Â In a paper forthcoming in the Seattle Law Review, Seton Hall Professor Stephen J. Lubben discusses The Risks of Fractured Resolution â Financial Institutions and Bankruptcy.Â According to Professor Lubben:
Under Dodd-Frank, â[a]ll large bank holding companies, which now include former investment banks such as Goldman Sachs, and many other important institutions, with more than 85% of their activities in ‘finance,’ will be subject to a new resolution regime controlled by the FDIC and initiated by the Treasury Secretary and the Federal Reserve.Â But by developing a new system for addressing financial distress, instead of integrating the new system into the existing structure of the Bankruptcy Code, the financial reform act simply recreates the prior problem in a new place.Â The future Lehmans and AIGs will be covered by the new procedure, but other firms that have 84% of their activities in finance will not.Â In short, the disconnect between bankruptcy and banking has moved to a different group of firms.Â And we may have done nothing but protect ourselves against an exact repeat of the financial crisis.
Â Â Â Â Â Â . . . .
I use this paper to argue that there are significant gaps in the federal system for resolving financial distress in a financial firm, even after passage of the Dodd-Frank bill. Â These gaps represent potential sources of systemic risk â that is, risk to the financial system as a whole.Â Â They must be fixed.Â But I should make clear at the outset that I do not argue that these gaps must be filled with the Bankruptcy Code.Â Rather, the point is that the various systems for resolving financial distress among financial firms â including the FDIC bank resolution process, the new resolution authority, state insurance resolution proceedings, and the SIPC process for broker-dealers, as well as chapter 11 of the Code â must be integrated so that the result of financial distress is clear and predictable.Â Integrating all under the Bankruptcy Code is an option, but not the only way to achieve such clarity.”
Lubben’s work provides an insightful perspective on Dodd-Frank’s effectiveness, at least as it regards the resolution of financial institution insolvency.
Readers of this blog will know that a number of jurisdictions around the world have remodeled their insolvency schemes based on concepts developed originally in the US under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code.Â Relatively recent examples of this trend include the Peopleâs Republic of China as well as Mexico.
But not all jurisdictions have rushed to follow the US.Â For one, Hong Kong â one of the worldâs leading financial centers â has struck out on a different path.
With origins steeped in colonial history and a long-standing tradition of UK law, Hong Kong still follows the legal contours of most commonwealth jurisdictions, including those applicable to the resolution of insolvencies.Â In Hong Kong, a “winding-up” is the traditional means of achieving a moratorium on creditor activity; however, “winding up” has been limited to liquidation.
Corporate reorganization (or âcorporate rescue,â as itâs sometimes called) relies on the implementation of a “scheme of arrangement.”Â Â In Hong Kong, however, schemes are deemed of little practical value where their comparative complexity and expense buy no moratorium from creditors.
Previously, corporate reorganization in Hong Kong relied upon an ad hoc solution â utilization of the âwinding upâ procedure to implement what was known colloquially a âprovisional liquidation.âÂ The essence of the âprovisional liquidationâ concept is that a voluntary winding up is commenced â and the debtor can avail itself of a moratorium against creditor action â while a court administrator is appointed to oversee the debtor until the company and its creditors can reach acceptable reorganization terms (at which time, the winding up is dismissed and the debtor reorganized consensually).Â Though initially accepted, such solutions were ultimately sharply limited by the Hong Kong courts.
In 2009, Hong Kongâs Financial Services and Treasury Bureau (FSTB) published a consultation paper reviewing corporate rescue procedure with the aim of reforming key reorganization issues.Â The FSTB paper â and the different concepts it proposes for Hong Kong reorganization vis ĂĄ vis âUSâ-style Chapter 11âs â are the subject of recent analysis by Dr John K.S. Ho, Assistant Professor, School of Law, City University of Hong Kong and Dr Raymond S.Y. Chan, Associate Professor, School of Business, Hong Kong Baptist University.
Specifically, Drâs Ho and Chan ask âIs Debtor-in-Possession Viable in Hong Kong?âÂ In providing an answer, they discuss reform efforts in Hong Kong, noting that a âprovisional supervisionâ has been and remains the preferred approach to Chapter 11 rather than a US-style âDebtor-in-Possessionâ (DIP) approach, where management remains in control of its own destiny.
So why doesnât a US-oriented corporate rescue scheme work in Hong Kong?Â According to Ho and Chan, â[i]n order to understand the corporate rescue law of a jurisdiction, one must also recognize the economic nature and historical development of that society.âÂ Some of the differences in economic development which shape differences in US and Hong Kong insolvency laws include:
Varying Appetites for Risk.Â âIn the US, it is widely believed that there is a different attitude towards risk and risk-takers . . . .Â Debt forgiveness, both personal and business debt, ultimately was seen as critical to a vibrant American economy.Â These historical and economic factors explain in large part why the US business bankruptcy system is more forgiving towards the debtor than other jurisdictions are.Â However, the same analogy may not apply to the concept of corporate rescue in Hong Kong because the stakeholders which reform proposal in Hong Kong is most concerned with are different from Chapter 11 in the US.â
Different Stakeholders.Â How are Hong Kong stakeholders different?Â And why should corporate rescue look different in Hong Kong than in the US?
[I]n Hong Kong, the objectives for . . . corporate rescue are radically different . . . .Â [E]mployees should generally be no worse off than in the case of insolvent liquidation and . . . consideration should be given to allow greater involvement of creditors in the rescue process in exchange for their being bound by the moratorium once the process commences and the rescue plan is agreed . . . .Â [P]revious attempt[s] to introduce a corporate rescue law failed in Hong Kong because of the disappointing treatment of workersâ wages, complete exclusion of shareholders from the provisional supervision process, and the difficulty in classification of creditors.Â Therefore, if a law is to be successfully promulgated this time, greater consideration would need to be given to these stakeholders.
Though they explain how the proposed treatment of Hong Kong stakeholders in a corporate reorganization might differ from those in a US Chapter 11, Ho and Chan donât really explain the why of those differences.Â What they do offer is an explanation for the absence of any interference with secured creditorsâ rights, noting that this âis understandable given the fact that many major secured creditors [in Hong Kong] are financial institutions such as major banks and their influence both politically and economically cannot be ignored given that the growth of Hong Kong as a financial services hub has been supported largely by the banking sector.â
These differences are âin line with the legal creditor rights ratings of the two jurisdictions as reported in a financial economics study in which a creditor rights index is developed for 129 countries and jurisdictions. This index ranges from 0 to 4 (with higher scores representing better creditor rights) and measures four powers of secured lenders in bankruptcy.Â Hong Kong (and also the UK) has a perfect score of 4, but the US has a score of 1.â
Different Corporate Ownership and Control Structures.Â A more interesting difference arises from the authorsâ argument that, unlike in the US, share ownership and corporate control in Hong Kong are closely related:
According to research conducted at the turn of the millennium, . . . separation of ownership and control, [has] largely become the phenomenon in the US.Â This trend was accompanied by a shift in bankruptcy law towards a more flexible, manager-oriented regime, assuming that managers of corporations that have filed Chapter 11 will subsequently make business decisions in the best interests of the corporations as a whole. On the bankruptcy side these developments culminated in 1978 with the enactment of the Bankruptcy Code and its DIP norm.Â However, in Hong Kong, [this] type of [dispersed corporate ownership] is not as prevalent. According to research on ownership structures and control in East Asian corporations, about three-quarters of the largest 20 companies in Hong Kong are under family control, while fewer than 60 per cent of the smallest 50 companies are in the same category. As for corporate assets held by the largest 15 families as a percentage of GDP, Hong Kong displays one of the largest concentrations of control, at 76 per cent. For comparison, the wealth of the 15 richest American families stands at about 3 per cent of GDP.
Because of this reality, the Ho and Chan argue that the DIP concept so common in US reorganizations simply isnât practical in Hong Kong:
Given such context, a corporate rescue process based on the DIP concept of the US will not be practical for Hong Kong because wide dispersion of share-ownership and manager-displacing corporate reorganization simply do not exist in reality.Â This is consistent with the governmentâs proposal in rejecting the DIP given concerns that if the existing management was allowed to remain in control, a company could easily avoid or delay its obligations to creditors as the managers of a family business either are family members or are nominated by the family.Â They are expected to place the familyâs interests in the corporation as the first priority even at the expense of creditorsâ interests.
Though these differences may be true in the case of publicly held and traded US corporations, they are not so clear in the case of closely-held US companies – which many readers will acknowledge comprise the bulk of US business.
Why No Post-Petition Financing?Â As for post-petition financing â a mainstay of US reorganizations â Ho and Chan point out that though the US has developed a vibrant distressed debt market, âthe debt market is not as developed and is materially underused in Hong Kong.Â The major reason for illiquidity and lack of use is best expressed as Hong Kongâs cultural background.Â Hong Kong lacks no resources for deal structuring but has no tradition of traded debt, and corporate governance practice has historically been insufficient to support issue of debts by large companies.â
Economic Efficiency.Â Finally, the authors cite well-recognized and frequently noted flaws in the Chapter 11 process: Its perceived inefficiency arising from its âone-size-fits-allâ approach, as well as the arguably high rates of recidivism amongst those debtors who do successfully confirm a Chapter 11 Plan.
Whatever oneâs take on Ho and Chanâs assessment of US-style reorganizations, their work affords an interesting glimpse into alternative methods of corporate rescue currently under consideration in one of the worldâs most sophisticated financial jurisdictions.
Nortonâs recently-published 2010 Annual Survey of Bankruptcy Law offers an intriguing article focusing on an often-overlooked difference between âSection 363 salesâ and Chapter 11 Plans â and suggesting that, for certain liabilities, Section 363 may actually afford broader relief than a Chapter 11 discharge.
InÂ Classic Chapter 11 Reorganizations Versus Section 363 Sales And The Effects On Environmental Cleanup Obligations: The Choice After Apex Oil Co.Â And General Motors, authors Joel Gross and Christopher Anderson contend:
â[U]nless the law [surrounding Section 363 sales] changes, any debtor seeking to provide maximum protection to its surviving business from broad cleanup liabilities for divested properties would be best advised to utilize a Section 363 sale. Â The protection from successor liability that can be achieved through such a sale will very likely exceed the more narrow discharge from monetary claims that can be obtained if the property is transferred under a plan of reorganization.â
In support of their argument, Gross and Anderson compare the results of two recent decisions â In re Apex Oil and the 2009 In re General Motors Corp. decision.
In Apex Oil, the 7th Circuit held that, despite its prior discharge in Chapter 11, the reorganized debtor remained liable for environmental liabilities incurred years earlier on the grounds that such liabilities were not âclaimsâ subject to discharge under Chapter 11âs provisions.Â A prior post regarding Apex is available here.
In General Motors â by contrast â the the US Government supported, and the Bankruptcy Court accepted, the transfer of GMâs business assets to a newly-formed entity (âNew GMâ) under a sale âfree and clear of all . . . interests,â including successor liability claims.Â In reaching this decision, the Bankruptcy Court relied on the reasoning set forth in In re Trans World Airlines, Inc., 322 F.3d 283 (3d Cir.2003) – i.e., that Section 363 provides a basis for selling assets free and clear of successor liability claims.
Not every circuit permits an extension of Section 363âs âfree and clearâ language to successor liability claims.Â See Michael H. Reed, Successor Liability and Bankruptcy Sales RevisitedâA New Paradigm, 61 Bus. Law. 179, 208â211 (2005) (surveying the lower courts’ application of TWA).Â Though at least one District Court and the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel have followed the TWA decision, the Ninth Circuit has not explicitly ruled.
Consequently, â[i]n light of the split in circuit authority, it remains to be seen whether the view that successor liability claims can ultimately be cut off via a Section 363 sale will prevail. Â For the time being, however, the majority of appellate courts (including the Second and Third Circuits where so many major Chapter 11 cases are fled) have held that they can, and there seems to be a similar trend in the lower courts.â
That said, the use of Section 363 to avoid environmental liabilities isnât without its problems: âOne potentially important limitation, which appears not to have been addressed by any court to date, is Section 363(e)’s requirement that all sales approved under Section 363 provide adequate protection for the interest of any entity in the property sold.â
Other issues present themselves as well.Â For example:
– Is it possible to provide for liens against the sale proceeds for successor interests?Â Gross and Anderson donât think so â as they see it, doing so would provide otherwise-unsecured creditors with preferential treatment.
– How much are contingent successor claims truly worth?Â Even if it were possible to provide âadequate protectionâ for successor claims, doing so raises the question of what such claims are truly worth.
– Finally, the ability to shield assets from successor liability claims frequently implicates the Courtâs equitable power under Section 105, and the extent of its scope.
Problematic or not, these considerations likely wonât stop debtors from taking a shot at a sale: â[G]iven the certainty following Apex Oil that at least some injunctive claims will survive a traditional chapter 11 reorganization, it can be expected that debtors with significant environmental exposure will prefer to follow the roadmap laid out in GM.â
The Insolvency Law Committee for the California State Bar’s Business Law Section has produced a very helpful analysis of recent changes to the Federal Bankruptcy Rules – which (as most readers are aware)Â became effective as of December 1, 2010.
A copy is available here.
South Bay Law Firm will be back postingÂ in 2011.Â In the meantime, have a safe and prosperous New Year!
The distribution scheme embodied in federal bankruptcy law serves several important functions.Â In Chapter 7, the detailed statutory distribution scheme imposes order on the chaos that might otherwise attend the liquidation of business assets.Â In Chapter 11, the fixed order of priority claims and the âabsolute priority ruleâ â along with the requirement that similarly situated classes receive identical treatment â provide predictability within the confirmation process and a framework for out-of-court negotiations.
But not all resolutions of business insolvency afford this level of predictability.Â In particular, state and federal receiverships afford the prospect of considerably greater flexibility and discretion on the part of the appointed receiver and the appointing court.
The scope of a receiverâs discretion was illustrated early this month by the 7th Circuit Court of Appealsâ approval of a federal receiverâs proposed pro rata distribution of the assets of six insolvent hedge funds.
SEC v. Wealth Management LLC, â F.3d â 2010 WL 4862623 (7th Cir., Dec. 1, 2010) involved an SEC enforcement action against Appleton, Wisconsin-based investment firm Wealth Management LLC and its principals, alleging, among other things, misrepresentation and fraud.Â At the SECâs request, the Wisconsin District Court appointed a receiver for Wealth Management and its six unregistered pooled investment funds.
The receiverâs plan, approved by the District Court, was relatively straightforward:Â All investors would be treated as equity holders, and would receive pro rata distributions of the over $102 million invested in the funds.Â Two investors who had sought redemption of their investments pre-petition disagreed and appealed the receiverâs plan.Â The essence of their argument was that Wisconsin law (and Delaware law, which governed several of the funds), required that investors who sought to redeem their investments be treated not as equity holders, but as creditors of the failed funds.Â As a result, their redemption claims were of a higher priority than investors who had not sought to withdraw their funds.Â The investors also relied on 28 USC Â§ 959(b), which provides that receivers and trustees must âmanage and operateâ property under their control in conformity with state law.
The 7th Circuit rejected this argument, finding instead that federal receivers and trustees need not follow the requirements of state law when distributing assets under their control. Holding that âequality is equity,â the court found that to give unpaid redemption requests the same priority as any other equity interest âpromotes fairness by preventing a redeeming investor from jumping to the head of the line . . . while similarly situated non-redeeming investors receive substantially less.â
The Wealth Management decision highlights the flexibility and ambiguity of the receivership system â itself a critical distinction from the well-defined priorities of federal bankruptcy law.Â Though the 7th Circuitâs reasoning â rooted in âsimilarly situated claimsâ â is consistent with the policy objectives of the Bankruptcy Code, the result is diametrically opposed to the scheme of priorities on which Wealth Managementâs investors undoubtedly relied.
Wealth Management â like many receivership cases â is a caseÂ based onÂ federal securities fraud.Â But federal and state receiverships are applicable in a variety of contexts – includingÂ business dissolutions, directorship disputes, marital dissolutions, and judgment enforcement.Â Where a proposed distribution to creditors can be fairly characterized as âequitableâ under the circumstances of the case and where it represents a fair exercise of the receiver’s fiduciary duty on behalf of the receivership estate, the flexibility of a receivership may justify its typically high cost.
One of the historical attractions of the Bankruptcy Code as a vehicle for restructuring is the ability to sell the debtorâs assets quickly, cleanly, and with finality pursuant to a sale under Section 363.
So-called âsection 363 salesâ have been the subject of much recent interest and debate, as evidenced by the discussion surrounding 2009âs âsection 363 salesâ of both Chrysler LLC and General Motors Corporation (see, for example, blog posts here and here).Â In California, the effectiveness of such sales has been limited where the assets are worth less than the aggregate liens against them, and a lienholder objects to the sale.
Earlier this month, âSection 363 salesâ received yet another potential challenge in California, this time from the Federal Trade Commission, which sought to undo Laboratory Corporation of America (âLabCorpâ)âs acquisition of Westcliff Medical Laboratories, Inc. (âWestcliffâ).Â According to the agencyâs December 1 complaint to enjoin furtherance of the merger, filed in Washington DC and transferred to Californiaâs Central District (redacted copy available here), the merger will substantially lessen competition among providers of capitated clinical laboratory testing services to physician groups in southern California.
LabCorp and Westcliff are clinical laboratory testing companies serving physician groups here in Southern California.Â In May 2010, Westcliff agreed to sell substantially all of its business assets to LabCorp for $57.5 million.Â As part of the sale, Westcliff agreed to file a voluntary petition for relief under Chapter 11 of the US Bankruptcy Code.Â The transaction was therefore subject to the approval of the US Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California.Â In June, after a hearing at which no other bidder emerged to top the LabCorp offer, the court approved the sale, the parties closed the deal, and life went on â until the FTC stepped in.
Though after-the-fact challenges to mergers are not unknown, they have been â at least until recently â comparatively rare.Â Even rarer is the challenge to an acquisition completed with approval by the US Bankruptcy Court.Â The FTC claims Westcliff wasnât a âfailing firm,â whose assets otherwise would have exited the market absent the merger (and would therefore be exempt from anti-trust enforcement).Â Instead, the FTC alleges Westcliff was generating operating profits at the time of its sale and that there were other potential buyers available to purchase the company.Â According to the FTC, the reason these buyers didnât show up was because none would have matched LabCorpâs $60 million âstalking horseâ bid.
Counsel for LabCorp attempted to preempt the FTCâs action by filing an adversary complaint in Bankruptcy Court, seeking declaratory relief as well as an injunction against the FTC, arguing that the agencyâs enforcement action constituted a âcollateral attackâ on the Bankruptcy CourtâsÂ prior sale order.Â The FTC responded with its own motion to dismiss and an argument that its enforcement action was limited merely to prospective violations of antitrust laws, and did not seek to disturb the bankruptcy sale.Â Bankruptcy Judge Theodor Albert abstained, and transferred the matter to the US District Court where the FTCâs action remains pending.
Though the Bankruptcy Courtâs order authorizing the Westcliff acquisition remains undisturbed, the FTCâs action raises some important and often-overlooked questions about â363 salesâ:Â Does counsel advising on the sale or purchase of a distressed business need to conduct or provide due diligence on the potential anti-trust effect of the transaction, despite the transactionâs failure to meet the Hart-Scott-Rodino reporting threshold?Â Is it necessary (or good practice) for bankruptcy counsel to obtain factual findings commensurate with the sale which would insulate the transaction from subsequent attack?
In any event, 363 sales in now carry another important caveat emptor.
Last month, this blog featured a preliminary post onÂ Ahcom Ltd. v. Smeding (9th Cir. Oct. 21, 2010, Docket No. 09-16020), a decision restating and reemphasizing the Ninth Circuit’s position that a creditor of a corporation in bankruptcy has standing to assert a claim against the corporation’s sole shareholders on an alter ego theory.
More recently, the Insolvency Law CommitteeÂ of the California State Bar’sÂ Business Law Section released an insightful and helpful e-bulletin discussingÂ the Ahcom decision’s impact on commercial bankruptcy practice in California.
A hard copy of the Committee’s e-bulletin is available here.
About a month ago, the Ninth Circuit clarified and restated the ability of individual creditors to pursue claims against debtors based on anÂ alter ego theory, despite a bankruptcy trustee’s efforts to reach the same assets (discussion here).
Last week, the Ninth Circuit further expanded the reach of alter ego liability to “asset protection” trusts established by debtors.Â Along the way, and in dicta, it finessed earlier treatment of the same liability in the corporate context.
The facts in In re Schwarzkopf are somewhat involved, but essentially reduce themselves to the following:Â During the 1990’s, the debtors established two separate and allegedly irrevocable trusts – the “Apartment Trust” (to hold the debtors’ stockÂ inÂ aÂ corporation which owned and operated anÂ apartment building) and the “Grove Trust” (to hold four plots of land containing avocado groves).Â The Apartment Trust was established to remove the debtors’ stock from the reach of creditors while the debtors contested a judgment obtained against the corporation.Â The Grove Trust was subsequently established while the debtors were insolvent – and, likewise, was intended to move the debtors’ assets beyond the reach of their creditors.
During the life of both trusts, the debtors routinely sought and obtained use of the trust assets for their personal benefit and for the benefit of familyÂ members.Â The trustee administering the trusts apparently exercised no independent judgment regarding the debtors’ requests, commingled trust assets, and kept no books and records regarding either trust for several years after their establishment.
The debtors filed a Chapter 7 case in 2003, seeking to discharge approximately $5.4 million in debt.Â The appointed Chapter 7 trustee filed an adversary complaint seeking to recover approximately $4 million from the trusts.Â The bankruptcy court initially concluded both trusts were valid and that neither is the alter ego of the debtors, but subsequently reversed the alter ego determination as to the Grove Trust.
The District Court found that the trusts were not the debtors’ alter ego, reasoning thatÂ under SEC v. Hickey, 322 F.3d 1123 (9th Cir. 2003), legal ownership is a prerequisite for such liability in California.Â It also found the Apartment Trust was not valid, but remanded so the Bankruptcy Court could determine whether or not the Trustee’s complaint was time-barred in the first instance.
The Ninth Circuit quickly dispensed with the Apartment Trust, finding the statute of limitations for attacking the Apartment Trust did not begin to run until the trusteeÂ answered the avoidance complaint filed in the debtors’ Chapter 7 cases.
It then turned to the Grove Trust, finding that despite its continuing existence as a trust, it was the nevertheless the debtors’ alter ego.Â To reach this conclusion, it reasoned that despite its earlier decision in Hickey, which had concluded that actual ownership of stock was a prerequisite for alter ego liability in corporate cases, California law nevertheless suggested that equitable stock ownership was sufficient for alter ego liability after allÂ . . . and that, in any event, an equitable ownership interest is “traditionally sufficient to confer ownership rights” in the trust context.
Schwarzkopf‘s factsÂ certainly suggest the Ninth Circuit was reaching to assist the trustee’s efforts to recover significant assets for the benefit of creditors.Â However, its relaxed treatment of the “ownership threshold” for alter ego liability may prove useful for trustees or creditors in other contexts.
Back inÂ May, this blog featured a post on some preliminary research addressing the idea of “probability-based” fraudulent transfer analysis.Â PBGC lawyer (and Cadwalader alum) John GinsburgÂ has argued that rather than merely asking whether insolvency is âreasonably foreseeable,â courts ought to clarify âreasonable foreseeabilityâ in probabalistic terms.Â The basic idea underlying this argument is that it should be easier to attack (or to defend) a fraudulent transfer if it can be shown, for example, that the âprobabilityâ of insolvency at the time of an LBO was 50% â or 60%, or 75%.
Mr. Ginsberg argues further that courts ought to articulate what, for them, constitutes an acceptable margin of error (say, 40% risk of insolvency with a margin of error of +/- 15%).
Following comments offered here and elsewhere, Mr. Ginsberg – and colleaguesÂ Zachary Caldwell, Daniel Czerwonka, and Mary Burgess – have gone through a number of revisionsÂ and have aÂ final draft version of the articleÂ available for review prior to going to publication with ABI Law Review in March.
A discussion is hosted at http://www.bulletinboards.com/view.cfm?comcode=LBO_FT, where anyone can critique and debate the paper, upload a rebuttal from a word-processor, or upload a handwritten mark-up in PDF.Â In written comments to South Bay Law Firm, Mr. Ginsberg notes that the authors are particularlyÂ “interested in hearing from private equity fund managers, from the investment bankers who finance their deals, and from the lawyers, financial analysts and others who earn fees helping put those deals together.Â The paper has significant implications for them.”
Late last month, the 9th Circuit Bankrpuptcy Appellate Panel clarified earlier precedent and held that adequate protection determinations are entirely within a bankruptcy court’s discretion – and not, as suggested by a number of recent decisions, subject to a “bright line” test of the time when adequate protection was requested.
The facts in People’s Cpaital and Leasing Corp. v. Big3D, Inc (In re Big3D) weren’t in dispute:Â Big3D, which operated a commercial printing business and leased specialized equipment from People’s Capital (PCLC), encountered difficulties in making its equipment lease payments to PCLC.Â A series of lease amendments failed to rectifyÂ Big3D’s ongoing missed payments.Â PCLC sued Big3D for breach of contract in Fresno and obtained a prejudgment writ of possession regarding its equipment.Â Two days later, Big3D was in Chapter 11 protection in California’s Eastern District.Â Big3D’s bankruptcy schedulesÂ assigned PCLC’s equipment a value of $400,000 – about $50,000 more than the amount of Big3D’s debt to PCLC – and acknowledged that PCLC held a secured claim for this amount.
About 6 months passed.Â Â Then, in March 2009,Â PCLC sought relief from the automatic stay – or, alternatively, adequate protection – in Big3D’s bankruptcy case.Â PCLC claimed the value ofÂ its equipment had remained constant at $380,000 from the time of its lawsuit through the date of Big3D’s Chapter 11 case,Â and thereafter had declined $45,000 in the first 6 months of Big3D’s case “because of adverseÂ economic conditions”Â – but as of the time of PCLC’s request, wasÂ depreciating at an estimated rate of approximately $3,350 monthly.
Though the facts weren’t in dispute, PCLC’s entitlement to adequate protection was.Â Big3D and PCLC agreed that, moving forward, PCLC should receive adequate protection payments of $3,500 monthly.Â Â But the parties were at odds over PCLC’s entitlement to adequate protection for the first 6 months of Big3D’s case, in whichÂ PCLC sat by and did nothing to protect itsÂ rights.
PCLC cited Paccom Leasing Corp. v. Deico Elect’s., Inc. (In re Deico Elect’s., Inc.), 139 B.R. 945 (9th Cir. BAP 1992),Â for the proposition that adequate protection should be provided to a creditor as of the time fromÂ which the creditor could have obtained its state court remedies if bankruptcy had not intervened.Â According to PCLC, this was immediately prior to Big3D’s case, since PCLCÂ had already been awarded a writ of possession and was about to foreclose.Â Therefore, PCLC argued, its $3,500 month was perhaps a good start, but not enough – itÂ should also receive adequate protection payments for the entire first 6 months of Big3D’s case.
The Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of California disagreed, instead reading Deico as granting it “discretion to fix any initial lump sumÂ [of adequate protection], the amount payable periodically, the frequency of payments, and the beginning date [of adequate protection], all as dictated by the circumstances of the case and the sound exercise of that discretion.”Â Â The Bankruptcy Court focused on PCLC’s acknowledgment that depreciation of its equipment was related to economic conditions – and not to Big3D’s continued use during its Chapter 11 case.Â It also expressed concern over PCLC’s apparent delay in getting around to seeking adequate protection.Â In the end, the Bankruptcy Court declined to award PCLC any adequate protection for the first 6 months of Big3D’s case.Â PCLC appealed, claiming the Bankruptcy Court had abused its discretion.
An en banc Appellate Panel first determined that the Bankruptcy Court had not, in fact, abused its discretion.Â Specifically, the Panel reckoned that to exercise its remedies, PCLC would have had to take possession of the equipment and sell it for cash.Â It took issue with PCLC’s claim that a mere writ of possession was sufficient to entitle it to adequate protection all the way through Big3D’s case: “To be entitled to adequate protection, Deico requires that [the creditor] establish both a temporal point at which it would have ‘exercised’ its state law remedies outside of bankruptcy, and the amount the equipment declined in value after that time.”Â It also accorded weight to the Bankruptcy Court’s observation that PCLC hadn’t been prompt in seeking reliefÂ – but had waited for 6 months before seeking adequate protection.
The Panel further determined that, despite a gradual shift in the case law from an early focus on the petition date to a more recent emphasis on the date of the adequate protection request as the time from which adequate protection payments should apply, Deico provides bankruptcy courts with needed flexibility in determining adequate protection for specific creditors in specific cases:
As a result, Deico remains good law in the 9th Circuit.Â Courts continue to have wide discretion to fashion adequate protection remedies according to the particulars of the case before them.Â Debtors are without a “bright line” from which toÂ gauge the need to come up with adequate protection payments.Â And creditors are on notice: It is critical that any request for adequate protection be (i) supported by a thorough brief explaining when – but for the intervention of bankruptcy – state law remedies could have been exercised; (ii) backed by solid evidenceÂ detailing the loss of value in the creditor’s collateral; and (iii) on time.
The American Bar Association Section of Business Law provided comments last week to the Senate and House Judiciary Committees regarding proposed technical amendments to the Bankruptcy Code. The comments are designed to correct certain errors contained in the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (âBAPCPAâ).
Get a complete copy of the proposed amendments here.
Altered Egos – The Ninth Circuit Weighs in (Again) On Whether Individual Creditors Can Pursue Their Own “Alter Ego” Claims Against a Bankrupt Entity’s PrincipalsOctober 25th, 2010
Whenever a troubled business seeks bankruptcy protection, unsecured creditors are often left scrambling to find other sources of recoveries for their claims.
In addition to individual, contractually negotiatedÂ protections such as personal guarantees and letters of credit, alter ego claims against the debtor’s principals can provide such creditors with additional pockets from which to seek payment.Â To do so, however, such creditors must often address the objectionÂ that they are without standing to pursue such claims, becauseÂ alter ego claims are often “general” ones, by which all creditors were injured – and from which all creditors are entitled to benefit.Â As a result, goes the objection, only the trustee – and not individual creditors – may pursue alter ego claims against the debtor’s principals.
The idea that alter ego claims may be prosecuted only by the debtor’s bankruptcy trustee on behalf of all creditors has been endorsed by at least one Circuit Court of Appeals:Â The 11th Circuit has affirmed as much in Baille Lumber Company, LPÂ v. Thompson, 413 F.3d 1293 (11th Cir. 2005).
But this view is not universally held.Â In fact, the 9th Circuit has long held a contrary view, as has the 8th Circuit.Â See Williams v. California 1st Bank, 859 F.2d 664, 667 (9th Cir. 1988) (“[N]o trustee . . . has the power under . . . the [Bankruptcy] Code to assert general causes of action, such as [an] alter ego claim, on behalf of the bankrupt estate’s creditors.”).Â Â See alsoÂ In re Ozark Restaurant Equipment Co., Inc., 816 F.2d 1222, 1228 (8th Cir. 1987); Estate of Daily v. Title Guar. Escrow Services, Inc., 187 B.R. 837, 842-43 (D. Haw. 1995), aff’d. 81 F.3d 167 (9th Cir. 1996).
Despite the Ninth Circuit’s guidance, however, several lower courts in California have continued to permit bankruptcy trustees to “glom onto” alter ego claims.Â See, e.g., In re Advanced Packaging and Products Co., 2010 WL 234795 (C.D. Cal. 2010) (permitting a trustee in bankruptcy to settle an alter ego claim brought against the bankrupt corporation’s parent entity because the claim was “general” rather than “particularized”).
Last week – for what appears to be the third time in as many decades – theÂ Ninth Circuit revisited this issue in Ahcom, Ltd. v. Smeding.
Ahcom‘s facts are relatively straightforward:Â Ahcom, a UK-based corporation, contracted for almonds with California-based Nuttery Farms, Inc. (NFI).Â After NFI allegedly failed to deliver the almonds, Ahcom commenced arbitration in Europe, then sued in the US to collect on the arbitrator’s award – but not before NFI had filed for bankruptcy protection.Â Undeterred, Ahcom directly sued NFI’s non-debtor principals, Hendrik and Lettie Smeding, seeking to pierce NFI’s corporate veil.Â Â TheÂ SmedingsÂ removed the action to US District Court for the Northern District of California and successfully dismissed the action on the grounds that Ahcom’s alter ego claims were “general” in nature – and, therefore, property of NFI’s bankruptcy estate.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed, noting that in California, “there is no such thing as a substantive alter ego claim at all . . . .” (citing Hennessey’s Tavern, Inc. v. Am. Air Filter Co., 251 Cal.Rptr. 859, 863 (Ct. App. 1988)).Â The panel then went further to explain that California law on this issue has been misread by bankruptcy courts and by the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel for the Ninth Circuit.
As a result, “California law does not recognize an alter ego claim or case of action that will allow a corporation and its shareholders to be treated as alter egos for purposes of all the corporation’s debts.Â Just because NFI’s trustee could not bring such a claim against the Smedings under California law, there is no reason why Ahcom’s claims against the Smedings could not proceed.”
A circuit split worthy of resolution by the Supreme Court?Â Perhaps.Â An alternate means of recovery for unsecured creditors who can allege the right facts?Â Most definitely.
In a well-known quote, Depression-era author Thurmond Arnold once described the inside of a corporate reorganization as:
Most litigators understand the compelling power of story as a means to rationalize and persuade.Â In bankruptcy, a debtorâs âfirst day motionsâ are the initial means by which counsel has to weave the âwild orgyâ of corporate restructuring into a cohesive narrative that will serve the clientâs interests.
Because business insolvency and its resolution typically follow a well-understood process with a predictable set of possible outcomes, the âfirst dayâ narratives describing a debtorâs demise â and setting forth its âexit strategyâ â likewise often follow familiar patterns.Â These patterns have been adapted over the decades to suit the capital structure of distressed firms and the economic conditions they face.Â But in the end, they remain . . . familiar patterns.
Penn Law Professor David Skeel, Jr. has recently taken up an engaging, non-empirical analysis of these patterns as they have appeared in US bankruptcy law.Â In Competing Narratives in Corporate Bankruptcy: Debtor in Control vs. No Time To Spare (published most recently as Research Paper No. 10-20 under the auspices of Penn Lawâs Institute for Law and Economics and previously in the Winter 2009 issue of Michigan State Law Review) Skeel argues that such narratives have been utilized historically to justify and obtain judicial sanction for what, at the time, may be innovative, even controversial, reorganization techniques attempted within the strictures of a fixed bankruptcy legal structure.Â In bankruptcy, he suggests, the power of narrative grows out of the innovation employed to restructure a firm, and is then used to strengthen and further extend the innovation.
Skeel â who earlier authored Debtâs Dominion: A History Of Bankruptcy Law In America â traces this narrative and its variations from the early âequity receivershipsâ utilized to reorganize railroads through the early cases filed in the wake of the 1978 Bankruptcy Code, and to the more recent 2008-09 âheadlineâ cases of Lehman Brothers, Chrysler, and General Motors.Â Observing that reorganizations proposed over the last 30 years have been explained using one of two predominant narratives â âDebtor in Controlâ (used most commonly to justify the debtorâs further prosecution of an ongoing reorganization) or âNo Time to Spareâ (often used to justify the sale of the debtorâs business assets) â he then circles back to ask whether the âinnovationsâ proposed are justifiable under either narrative.
Skeelâs treatment of narrative â particularly, in questioning whether there was truly âno time to spareâ in the Lehman, Chrysler, and GM bankruptcies â is insightful.Â As he sees it:
Though his work covers narrative in the domestic bankruptcy context, the same complexity and requests for emergency, interim relief that require narrative explanation also arise in cross-border insolvencies.
As these âmaster narrativesâ become intertwined with multiple (and potentially conflicting) âlegal structures,â their continued evolution bears close watching.
Most readers of this blog are aware that, under the Bankruptcy Code, a Chapter 11 debtor (or the trustee appointed in the debtor’s case)Â is entitled to seek âavoidanceâ of a limited set of pre-bankruptcy âpreferenceâ payments, providedÂ it can establish the payments were made:
(1) to or for the benefit of a creditor;
(2) for or on account of an antecedent debt . . . ;
(3) . . . while the debtor was insolvent;
(4) . . . on or within 90 days before the date of the filing of the [bankruptcy] petition; . . . and
(5) that enables [the] creditor to receive more than [its anticipated pro rata distribution in Chapter 7].
Even if all these elements are met, however, the Bankruptcy Code provides creditors with an affirmative âordinary course of businessâ defense.
Though articulated slightly differently by different courts,Â 11 U.S.C. Â§547(c)(2) essentially provides that the âordinary course of business exceptionâ permits a creditor to retain transfers made by a debtor to a creditor during the ninety days before the petition date if: (1) such transfers were made for a debt incurred in the âordinary course of businessâ of the parties; and either (2) the transfers were made in the âordinary course of businessâ of the parties; or (3) the transfers were made in accordance with âordinary business terms.â
Once an “ordinary course” relationship is established between the debtor and the creditor who received allegedly preferential payments, the focus shifts to showing whether or not the payments at issue complied with “ordinary course” timing and terms.
To show this, the preference defendant must demonstrate thatÂ the relevant payments did not differ from past payments in âamountâ or âform,â were not the result of âunusual collection or payment activit[ies],â or did not come as a result of the âcreditor [taking] advantage of the debtorâs deteriorating financial condition.â
Importantly, the emphasis is on the payments themselves – rather than on what the debtor and creditor may have otherwise considered or discussed.Â This distinction is illustrated in a recent decision issued by Judge Christopher Sontchi in Burtch v. Detroit Forming, Inc. (In re Archway Cookies) (available here).
In Burtch v. Detroit Forming, the Trustee in a Chapter 7 case (converted from one under Chapter 11) commenced an adversary proceeding against Detroit Forming, Inc. (âDFIâ) seeking to avoid as preferential six (6) transfers totaling $180,648.17.Â DFI asserted the “ordinary course” defense, arguing it had a two-year suppplier relationship with the debtors and that it had received the payments in question under the same timing and terms as those extant throughout this relationship.
DFI’s defense is typical of that offered under the “ordinary course” defense:Â It established a specific range of days-to-payment from invoicing, then showed that the payments in question were timed substantially similar to the days-to-payment average and under similar terms (i.e., by check rather than by wire transfer or COD).
Notably, the Court was not troubled by a letter sent by DFIâs CFO/Controller notifying the Debtors that no product would be shipped unless the accounts were current.Â For purposes of establishing “ordinary course,” it was the subjective relationship that existed between the debtor and the preference defendant which mattered – rather than the debtor’s relations with all its creditors.
Burtch v. Detroit Forming is instructive on what it takes to mount a successful “ordinary course” defense, as is the Ninth Circuit’s earlier decision in Sigma Micro v. Healthcentral.com (In re Healthcentral.com) (availabe here) – a similar case where the defendant’s “ordinary course” analysis was deemed sufficient to withstand a motion for summary judgment, and where the Ninth Circuit placed little stock in the debtor’s evidence of pre-petition “old school” cash management practices whereby the debtor’s management determined each week which creditors would be paid, and how much.
In April, this blog highlighted research done by Seton Hall‘s Stephen Lubben and York University‘s Stephanie Ben-Ishai on similarities and differences between asset sales conducted under the US Bankruptcy Code and those proceeding under the Canadian Companies Creditorsâ Arrangement Act (“CCAA”).
Last week, the authors offered a revised version of their earlier work, available here.Â As noted by the authors’ abstract:
JSC BTA Bank (BTA), one of Khazakstanâs largest banks, sought restructuring under the guidance of the Kazakh government early this year.Â A prior post on BTAâs protective filing is available here.Â BTAâs recognition order granted BTA “all of the relief set forth in section 1520 of the Bankruptcy Code including, without limitation, the application of the protection afforded by the automatic stay under section 362(a) of the Bankruptcy Code to the Bank worldwide and to the Bank’s property that is within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.”
Among its obligations, BTA was in default on a $20 million advance from Banque International de Commerce â BRED Paris, succursale de Geneve, Switzerland (“BIC-BRED”) for the construction of an entertainment complex in Moscow.Â BIC-BRED commenced Swiss arbitration proceedings regarding this obligation.
After BTA commenced its Khazakh restructuring and obtained recognition in the US, it submitted a statement in the arbitration, requesting a stay of the arbitration and claiming the universal application of the automatic stay.Â BIC-BRED refused to acknowledge the reach of the stay in BTAâs ancillary case.Â Apparently, so did the arbitrator:Â An award in the Swiss proceedings was entered in July 2010 against BTA.
BTA sought a determination that the automatic stay did, in fact, apply – and that BIC-BRED ought to be sanctioned for its continued prosecution of the Swiss arbitration.
In a decision issued late last month, Presiding Judge James Peck summarized the basis for his restrictive reading of the automatic stay as follows:
Instead, he concluded that
This is not to say, however, that the automatic stay arising under the US Bankruptcy Code is limited to the territorial reach of the US.
After reviewing â and rejecting â the administratorâs interpretation of how the automatic stay ought to apply in ancillary cases âto the debtor and the property of the debtor that is within the territorial jurisdiction of the United Statesâ Judge Peck went on to offer two possible legitimate interpretations (the Court had previously reviewed â and rejected â the administratorâs alternative interpretation):
An alternative, and better âreading of section 1520(a)(1), and one that is consistent with the plain meaning of the words as written, is that the stay arising in a chapter 15 case upon recognition of a foreign main proceeding applies to the debtor within the United States for all purposes and may extend to the debtor as to proceedings in other jurisdictions for purposes of protecting property of the debtor that is within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. This more limited extraterritorial application of the automatic stay to the debtor entity fulfills the cross-border purposes of chapter 15 within the United States without broadly imposing a stay on all actions or proceedings against the debtor including those lacking any proper connection to the chapter 15 case.â
Under the latter reading, then, the automatic stay is applicable world-wide, but only where necessary to protect the US Bankruptcy Courtâs in rem jurisdiction over the foreign debtorâs domesticated property.
The BTA decision is noteworthy in a broader context as well:
– This decision is one of several recent cases in which Bankruptcy Courts have sought to negotiate otherwise difficult applications of the Codeâs other provisions within the context of Chapter 15 through an appeal to interpretation based on the statuteâs âinternational aspects.âÂ âInternationalâ in these cases really means âuniversalâ â Courts applying this statute have gone to some lengths to employ Chapter 15 as a vehicle for extending universal administration of the âmain case,â wherever that case is located.
– But âuniversalismâ only goes so far:Â In Judge Peckâs view, âThe bankruptcy court, at least in the setting of an ancillary chapter 15 case, should not stand in the way of a foreign arbitration process when the outcome will have no foreseeable impact on any property of the foreign debtor in the United States.âÂ Â But what if the outcome of such litigation did have foreseeable impact on such property?Â The answer, according to Judge Peck, is clear:Â The US Bankruptcy Courtâs in rem jurisdiction may not be trifled with, no matter where such efforts might occur.
– This decision nevertheless suggests an additional area of âsection shoppingâ â i.e., the strategic employment of plenary or ancillary procedures to take advantage of various protections or remedies arising under the laws of the jurisdictions involved.Â Similar considerations attend the availability and application of avoidance powers arising under Sections 1521 and 1523 and Section 544 (which affords recoveries to unsecured creditors that would be available under ânon-bankruptcy lawâ).Â See Tacon v.Petroquest Res. Inc. (In re Condor Ins. Ltd.), 601 F.3d 319, 329 (5th Cir. 2010) (foreign representative of foreign proceeding authorized to pursue non-US avoidance claims against US defendants through ancillary proceeding), and a related post here.
Last week’s postÂ discussed public-market data as the benchmark for solvency in assessing fraudulent transfers.Â This week’s post covers solvency the “old fashioned” way – in addressing preference litigation.
Ray Clark, who runs Valcor Consulting – an Irvine-based restructuring, valuation, and litigation consultancy – and who contributes regularly to this blog, recently offered an overview of the solvency analysis and valuation techniques that apply when a company faces claims for payments made within 90 days of a debtor’s bankruptcy:
Credit Default Swaps – those largely unregulated “side bets” overÂ the likelihood of specific companies defaulting on one or more ofÂ their credit obligations, which were all the rage during the beginning of the decadeÂ – have become, in light of the 2008 financial crisis, “the financial instrument that scholars, journalists, government officials and even some prominent financiers love to hate.”
The problematic impact of CDS’s on firms in financial distress – and theirÂ separate treatment under existing securities “safe harbors” in the US Bankruptcy Code – have likewise provoked further commentary and calls for reform from the insolvency community (some of which has been covered in various posts on this blog, and which is summarized here).
But despite the furorÂ over much-maligned CDS’s, not everyone is casting aspersions.
Last week, Seton Hall’s Michael Simkovic and Davis Polk’s Benjamin Kaminetzky released aÂ paper arguing that CDS pricing at the time of a credit event (such as a loan made in connection with an LBO) can – when combined with other market information about a company’s debt securities – provide important indicators of a company’s solvency at the time of that transaction.
Though it requires 58 pages (plus 12 pages of appendices) to develop, Simkovic’s and Kaminetzky’s basicÂ premise is relatively simple:
Â The idea is more than an abstract concept: Simkovic and Kaminetzky cite two relatively recent decisions in which bankruptcy courts applied public-market analysis to determine the debtor’s solvency and the resulting avoidability of a fraudulent transfer, each using equity market valuations contemporaneous with the time of the transfers.Â Simkovic and Kaminetzky extend this approach, arguing thatÂ credit-market instruments and their derivatives – such as creditÂ yield spreads and CDS pricingÂ –Â provide a more reliable indication of solvency than the debtor’sÂ equity.
The idea of employing public market data is of limited use in cases where the debtor is closely held – or where public credit-market data is not readily available.Â But Simkovic’s and Kaminetzky’s research represents yet another recent and important effort by scholars to impose greater uniformity and predictability on the question of whether a debtor is – or has become – insolvent as a result of a pre-bankruptcy transfer for less-than-equivalent value (for another approach to the same general problem, see an earlier post here).
In light of the extensive,Â highly-leveraged financing that took place between 2004 and 2007 – and the correspondingly high anticipated default rates when that same debt matures over the next several years – Simkovic’s and Kaminetzky’s work also renews the focus on an important question, directly relevant to any inquiry into an alleged fraudulent transfer:Â Â
The advent of the information age has given rise to economies built not on steel, but on ideas.Â It is therefore no surprise that intellectual property assets have assumed an increasingly important component of firm balance sheets â and firm value â throughout advanced economies worldwide.
And yet, though the value of intellectual property is universally recognized and the rights attaching to it increasingly protected, âknowledge assetsâ are not always treated in the same manner whenever â and wherever â the firm enters restructuring or liquidation.Â The story of Qimonda AG is the story of what happens when one countryâs rules governing the treatment of an insolvent firmâs intellectual property collide with those of another.
Â As the following post suggests, that story is far from over.
Quimonda AGâs Insolvency.
Qimonda AG (Qimonda), a producer of Dynamic Random Access Memory (DRAM) chips, also holds a portfolio of approximately 12,000 patents.Â A little more than one-third of this intellectual property originated in the US (i.e., it consists of US patents or pending applications); the balance is of German or other international origin.
Over a 13-year period, Qimonda entered into a series of joint venture and cross-licensing agreements with a number of semiconductor manufacturers.Â Under those agreements, Qimonda and these manufacturers cross-licensed tens of thousands of patents.
During 2007 and 2008, prices for PC-based DRAM technology collapsed.Â Despite efforts to restructure, Qimonda entered German insolvency proceedings in January 2009.Â The Munich court overseeing the proceeding appointed Dr. Michael JaffĂ© as Qimondaâs insolvency administrator.
Subsequently, Dr. JaffĂ© sought and obtained recognition in the US for Qimondaâs German insolvency proceeding.Â Dr. JaffĂ© also obtained concurrent, discretionary relief making certain sections of the US Bankruptcy Code applicable to Qimondaâs Chapter 15 proceeding.Â These sections included Section 365, which governs executory contracts â including licensing agreements.
Both the German Insolvency Code and the US Bankruptcy Code address the administration of executory contracts.Â However, US insolvency practitioners will be aware the US Bankruptcy Code â specifically, section 365(n) â protects the intellectual property licensees of a bankrupt licensor.Â Under this subsection, the licensee â at its own option â may preserve its rights under an intellectual property license, despite the bankruptcy trusteeâs efforts to reject the license.
The German Insolvency Code provides no such protection.Â Instead, Section 103 of that statute simply provides that the court-appointed insolvency administrator may elect performance of contractual obligations or affirm that they remain unenforceable against the estate by electing non-performance.
Dr. JaffĂ©âs Proposed Treatment of Qimondaâs Cross-Licensing Agreements.
Sometime after obtaining recognition and discretionary relief in Virginia, Dr. JaffĂ©, acting pursuant to German law, provided notification to certain of Qimondaâs cross-licensing partners of his elected non-performance of Qimondaâs patent cross-licensing agreements.
Those partners, understandably, protested â and argued further that Section 365(n) (made applicable to Qimondaâs Chapter 15 proceeding at Dr. JaffĂ©âs own request) now prohibited Dr. JaffĂ© from electing non-performance.Â In response, Dr. Jaffe sought the US Bankruptcy Courtâs amendment of his previously-granted relief in order to clarify the basis for his non-performance of the cross-licensing agreements.Â Specifically, Dr. JaffĂ© sought a modification of the prior order to provide that Section 365 (and, therefore, Section 365(n)) would be applicable only in such instances where he sought rejection of agreements pursuant to the US statute.
The Cross-Licensing Partnersâ Appeal.
Following a hearing held 28 October 2009, US Bankruptcy Court Judge Robert Mayer issued a decision granting Dr. JaffĂ©âs further request, thereby clearing the way for him to elect non-performance of the cross-licensing agreements under German insolvency law.Â Qimondaâs partners promptly appealed to the US District Court for Virginiaâs Eastern District, arguing (i) that Section 365 â including Section 365(n) â applies automatically to foreign proceedings recognized under Chapter 15 (and, presumably, may therefore not be âmodifiedâ or otherwise trifled with by the Bankruptcy Court in the manner proposed by Dr. JaffĂ©); and, further (ii) that principles of comity applicable under US case law (and the provisions of Chapter 15) did not require the requested modification of the Bankruptcy Courtâs prior order.
In an appellate decision issued 2 July 2010, US District Judge Thomas Selby (Tim) Ellis III remanded the matter back to Judge Mayer for further clarification of two issues â one factual, one legal.Â Along the way, however, Judge Ellis offered several important observations regarding the construction of Sections 1521(a) (governing the provision of âany appropriate reliefâ to the representative of a recognized foreign proceeding) and 1509(c) (governing a recognized administratorâs requests for comity).
A significant portion of Judge Ellisâ 36-page decision is devoted to the conclusion that Section 365 of the US Bankruptcy Code does not apply automatically upon recognition of a foreign âmain proceeding.âÂ This seems unremarkable, given that a simple reading of Section 1520(a) makes only select provisions of the Bankruptcy Code applicable automatically in Chapter 15, and that Section 365 is not among them.Â As a result, Section 365 â available to a foreign representative only through specific request pursuant to Section 1521(a) â is susceptible to selective or otherwise limited application by the US Bankruptcy Court.Â Indeed, the Bankruptcy Court may determine it does not apply at all.
Far more interesting is Judge Ellisâ conclusion that Dr. Jaffeâs request had been granted without the requisite balancing test set forth in Section 1522.Â That section requires that, upon a request for modification of relief previously granted through Section 1519 or 1521, the Court may so modify only after ensuring that “the interests of the creditors and other interested entities, including the debtor, are sufficiently protected.” Â 11 U.S.C. Â§1522(a).Â Because the evidence relied upon by the Bankruptcy Court to balance creditorsâ interests was âanemic,â Judge Ellis remanded the matter for a more full-bodied factual inquiry.
Specifically, Judge Ellis directed focus on two primary issues:
Though leaving little doubt that Section 365âs applicability to a Chapter 15 proceeding was entirely within the Bankruptcy Courtâs sound discretion, Judge Ellis nevertheless observed that âthe Bankruptcy Code nonetheless âlimits the opportunity for a completely unencumbered new beginning to the honest but unfortunate debtor,â as âstatutory provisions governing nondischargeability reflect a congressional decision to exclude from the general policy of discharge certain categories of debts.ââ
Under Judge Ellisâs reading of Sections 1521 (and 1522), a Bankruptcy Court enjoys broad discretion â not only to provide âany appropriate reliefâ to a foreign representative, but to further amend, modify, or terminate the same relief â provided that the Court engage in the affirmative exercise of articulating why the interests of the debtors and the creditor are protected.
Judge Ellisâ treatment of judicial discretion did not end with Section 1521.Â On appeal, Qimondaâs cross-licensing partners also called into question the Bankruptcy Courtâs decision to grant comity to Dr. JaffĂ©âs application of German insolvency law to the cross-licensing agreements.
By contrast to the broad discretionary application of âappropriate reliefâ under Section 1521, Judge Ellis found that a US Bankruptcy Courtâs discretion regarding the comity to be afforded determinations rendered under foreign law and pursuant to Section 1509 is far more limited:
What sort of foreign relief would âcontravene fundamental US public policy?â
Judge Ellisâ review of decisions addressing the âpublic policyâ exception to Chapter 15âs comity mandate indicated that the focus of this exception is on (i) procedural inequity (e.g., a lack of âdue processâ as that term is commonly understood by US courts); and (ii) frustration of a US court’s ability to administer the Chapter 15 proceeding and/or severe impingement of a U.S. constitutional or statutory right, particularly if a party continues to enjoy the benefits of the Chapter 15 proceeding (e.g., frustration of the âautomatic stayâ made applicable upon recognition of Chapter 15).
However, Judge Ellis further found that â as with the âbalancing testâ required by Section 1522 â the Bankruptcy Court had not gone far enough in its analysis.
Congress enacted Section 365(n) in direct response to contrary case law and in order to protect the US-based licensees of intellectual property.Â Yet the entire section is subject to modification or amendment in Chapter 15 upon the Bankruptcy Courtâs discretion â or not applicable at all.
In light of these mixed judicial signals, is the protection of Section 365(n) therefore âfundamental?âÂ Or not?Â In granting Dr. JaffĂ©âs request, the Bankruptcy Court had not explicitly decided this question, so Judge Ellis direct that it do so upon remand.
What Does It Mean?
Judge Ellisâ Qimonda decision is significant for its analysis of Sections 1509 and 1522 â it appears to endorse, at least in general terms, the flexibility required of an internationally-oriented recognition statute and the latitude potentially available to recognized foreign representatives.
However, Judge Ellisâ Qimonda analysis is perhaps most significant for what it doesnât say.Â It leaves unanswered what general factors courts might apply to the âbalancing testâ of creditorsâ and debtorsâ interests mandated by Sections 1521 and 1522.Â And though it describes the outer bounds of âfundamental US public policyâ such that otherwise-mandatory comity ought not to apply to the determinations of non-US tribunals, it does little to address the import (if any) to be derived from Congressional amendments specifically intended to protect the rights (or the interests) of general or special US economic interests.
Continued global economic uncertainty and an impending 3d quarter slow-down in the US have translated into active global restructuring in recent months. Some of the 2d and 3d quarterâs more newsworthy cross-border filings include:
Compania Mexicana de Aviacion â Compania Mexicana de Aviacion, generally known as Mexicana, filed for insolvency in Mexico City and Chapter 15 bankruptcy protection in New York on August 2.
The airline reportedly made its move after failing to reach a new cost-cutting deal with its unions â it claims Mexicana’s labor costs “are well above the average for the industry at the global level, so a leveling is essential for achieving a restructuring with creditors and the company’s viability.” Mexicana claims it will have to slash 40 percent of pilot and flight attendant jobs, with those remaining with the carrier being asked to take 40 percent pay cuts.
At the time of filing, the company also reported three of Mexicana’s 64 aircraft already had been seized by the leasing companies that own them.
Fairfield Sentry Ltd., Fairfield Sigma Ltd. and Fairfield Lambda Ltd. â Three financial services companies, established in 1990 as “feeder funds” for the purpose of investing in Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC, received joint recognition in Manhattan on July 22 in connection with their respective British Virgin Islands insolvency proceedings.
As reported by the Daily Deal on July 27, all three entities sold shares to individuals who were neither residents nor citizens of the United States. Such investors also included pension and profit-sharing trusts, charities and other tax-exempt entities. Fairfield Sentry, the largest of the feeder funds, offered its shares in U.S. dollars, while Fairfield Sigma offered shares in Euros and Fairfield Lambda provided them in Swiss francs.
Fairfield Lambda was placed into liquidation by the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court in the High Court of Justice in British Virgin Islands in April 2009 upon application by Commerzbank AG, then known as Dresdner Bank AG. Fairfield Sentryâs and Fairfield Sigmaâs liquidations were approved by the same court in July following similar creditor requests.
Cozumel Caribe SA de CV â The Mexico City-based operator of the 348-room Hotel Park Royal Cozumel resort sought recognition for a previously-commenced concurso mercantil proceeding (filed in the Third District Court of the Mexican State of Quintana Roo) on July 20 in Manhattan.
Cozumel Caribe blamed its financial woes on declines in Mexican tourism, which has been beleaguered of late by a weak Mexican peso, the outbreak of H1N1 flu virus, and State Department advisories regarding increased crime in Mexico. Cozumel Caribeâs own cash woes were allegedly further compounded by lender CT Investment Management Co.âs alleged failure to withhold tax receipts and funds to cover daily operations.
Minster Insurance Co. Ltd. â The London insurer and its affiliate, Malvern Insurance Co. Ltd., sought recognition on July 19 in furtherance of its previously-approved solvent scheme of arrangement, made pursuant to Part 26 of the U.K. Companies Act 2006. A hearing to consider the recognition is scheduled for Aug. 27.
Controladora Comercial Mexicana SAB de CV â The operator of Costco Wholesale Corp. outlets in Mexico, and the countryâs third-largest retailer, sought recognition in New York on July 16 in furtherance of its prenegotiated concurso mercantil proceeding in Mexico City.
As reported by the Daily Deal, CCM will restructure a total of $3.3 billion through its prenegotiated bankruptcy filing, including approximately $2.2 billion worth of derivative obligations owed to J.P. Morgan Chase NA, Barclays Bank plc, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Banco Santander (Mexico) SA, Banco Nacional de Mexico SA and Citibank NA, and $99.4 million in unsecured debt owed to seven unspecified Mexican commercial banks. The restructuring is purportedly supported by 85% of its debt holders.
CCMâs prenegotiated plan follows an earlier, failed 2008 concurso bid, which subsequently drove the parties to the bargaining table.
ABC Learning Centres Ltd. â The Australian childcare center operator sought recognition of its voluntary winding up proceeding over the objection of RCS Capital Development LLC.Â ABC and RCS are involved in litigation over the development of child care centers in Arizona and Nevada.Â In addition to opposing recognition, RCS sought relief from the automatic stay to enter judgment upon a jury verdict rendered in its favor in Arizona, and to assert that judgment as an offset against claims made by ABC in Nevada.
At a hearing held August 9, Delaware Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Gross took both matters under advisement. As of the date of this writing, no decision has been rendered.
A New Type of Government Refund: Criminal Restitution Payments Recoverable as Preferential TransfersAugust 15th, 2010
From the 9th Circuit last week, aÂ decision providing creditors and their representatives with a potentially new source of preferential recoveries: pre-petition criminal restitution payments.
Jeffrey and Faye Silverman – electrical contractors – were indicted in 2005 for fraud and underpayment of workers’ compensation insurance premiums.Â In March of that year, they paid the California State Compensation Insurance Fund $101,531 in restitution as part of a plea agreement and their court-ordered sentence.Â Less than 60 days later, they sought relief under Chapter 7.
Their trustee sought recovery of the restitution payment from the State Fund under the theory that the payment was a preferential transfer under Section 547(b) of the Bankruptcy Code.
Both sides moved for summary judgment.Â For its part, the State Fund argued that Section 547(b) doesn’t apply to criminal restitution payments, citing Kelly v. Robinson, 479 U.S. 36 (1986) and Becker v. County of Santa Clara (In re Nelson), 91 B.R. 904 (N.D. Cal. 1988).Â Kelly held that criminal restitution payments are non-dischargeable under Section 523(a)(7).Â Â Nelson extended Kelly to hold that payments on such non-dischargeable obligations are not recoverable as preferences.
The Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California was not persuaded – nor was the District Court, which heard the matter on appeal following entry of summary judgment in the trustee’s favor.
The Ninth Circuit agreed.Â Finding that criminal restitution payments are, in fact, subject to the preference statute, the Ninth Circuit held that State Fund enjoyed no “judicial exception” to Section 547(b)’s reach.Â In the 3-judge panel’s view, an obligation’s non-dischargeability is separate and distinct from recovery of its pre-petition payment as a preference.Â Further, the restitution payments to State Fund were “to or for the benefit of” State Fund within the contemplation of Section 547(b)(1) –Â State Fund’s arguments to the contrary notwithstanding.
The decision is an important one for creditors’ representatives and committees seeking possible additional sources of recovery where the debtor has been attempting to resolve criminal problems pre-petition.
As the economy lurches forward into an uncertain back half of 2010, the DIP lending market remains in flux.Â In a short pieceÂ appearing in the Journal of Corporate Renewal last Wednesday, Imran Choudhury and Frank Merola – both of Jeffries & Co., Inc.Â – offer a concise overview of theÂ factors affecting credit availability and expense over the last two years.
After a sharp contraction in 2008, Choudry and Merola show how DIP funding has increased – both in terms of dealÂ size and in terms of new money . .Â .
and likewise, how spreads have eased during the same period . . . .
Their walk-away,Â in light ofÂ this data:
In a globalized business environment, it should be no surprise that some of the more interesting – and better – economic reporting on the US economy now comes from offshore.
Last month, China’s Xinhua news agency reported that California leads the nation in small-business bankruptcies.Â The report – based on data reported by Equifax – covers small business filings under all applicable chapters of the Bankruptcy Code (i.e., Chapters 7, 11, and 13).Â The Xinhua report (it broke the story a day before the Orange County Register) is here.
Equifax’s reporting shows that California remains the most impacted state, with the Los Angeles andÂ Riverside/San Bernardino MSA’s leading the nation in small business bankruptcy flings by a significant margin.Â Â
The chart below provides a closer look at this trend.
# of MSA # of Bankruptcies Bankruptcies % of Increase Q1 2009 Q1 2010 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale, CA 899 1035 15.13% Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 663 736 11.01% Sacramento-Arden- Arcade-Roseville, CA 462 522 12.99% Houston-Sugar Land- Baytown, TX 365 399 9.32% San Diego-Carlsbad- San Marcos, CA 345 387 12.17% Portland-Vancouver- Beaverton, OR-WA 276 386 39.86% Denver-Aurora, CO 304 382 25.66% Santa Ana-Anaheim- Irvine, CA 359 370 3.06% California -Rest of State 233 335 43.78% Phoenix-Mesa- Scottsdale, AZ 234 327 39.74% Dallas-Plano- Irving, TX 348 323 -7.18% Chicago-Naperville- Joliet, IL 395 314 -20.51% Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA 336 304 -9.52% Oregon -Rest of State 235 299 27.23% --------------- --- --- ----- New York-White Plains-Wayne, NY- NJ 335 272 -18.80% ------------------ --- --- ------
Inc. Magazine picked up the story last week, commenting that “no area has been insulated from the recession and the economy clearly isnât rebounding quickly enough.”
A couple of prior posts on this blog (here and here) have explored the economic and regulatory reasons behind 2008’s financial meltdown, while others (here and here) have explored proposed means of handling distressed financial institutions deeemed systemically important to the nation’s financial markets.
History and propositions are now overtaken byÂ reform.Â LastÂ Wednesday, the Financial Reform Act (aka the Dodd Frank Act) became law.
Over at Credit Slips, Seton Hall Law Professor Stephen Lubben has offered a very succinct,Â immediately accessibleÂ summary of the Act’s intersection with the US Bankruptcy Code – as well as some helpfulÂ links to other, useful material.
Very important reading for those who want the “bullet points” without wading through the nearly 2,300 pages of legislation.
A recent post over the July 4 holiday weekend offered a “30,000 foot view” of the 2008 world-wide financial meltdown and offered some broad observations about its causes – and remaining challenges to recovery.
From the Federal Bank of New York last week comes yet another broad overview – this one of the “shadow banking” system that has come to comprise a significant portion of the US’s (and the world’s) financial infrastructure – particularly that of the world financial markets.
In Shadow Banking, researchers Zoltan Pozsar, Tobias Adrian, Adam Ashcraft, and Hayley Boesky describe the financial components of thisÂ ad hocÂ banking system, its role in recent asset bubbles, its brittleness under stress, and the role of the Federal Reserve and other federal agencies in relieving that stress.
As described in the abstract:
Last weekendâs July 4 holiday afforded members of the US business and restructuring community an opportunity for reflection on recent economic history.Â Those who took the opportunity to do so would have benefitted from âThe Great Recession of 2008-2009: Causes, Consequences and Policy Responses,â a recent discussion paper authored by Sher Verick and Iyanatul Islam and prepared under the auspices of the Institute for the Study of Labor (an independent think-tank associated with the University of Bonn, Germany).
According to the authorsâ abstract:
“Starting in mid-2007, the global financial crisis quickly metamorphosed from the bursting of the housing bubble in the US to the worst recession the world has witnessed for over six decades.
Through an in-depth review of the crisis in terms of the causes, consequences and policy responses, [the] paper identifies four key messages. Firstly, contrary to widely-held perceptions during the boom years before the crisis, the paper underscores that the global economy was by no means as stable as suggested, while at the same time the majority of the worldâs poor had benefited insufficiently from stronger economic growth.
Secondly, there were complex and interlinked factors behind the emergence of the crisis in 2007, namely loose monetary policy, global imbalances, misperception of risk and lax financial regulation.
Thirdly, beyond the aggregate picture of economic collapse and rising unemployment, this paper stresses that the impact of the crisis is rather diverse, reflecting differences in initial conditions, transmission channels and vulnerabilities of economies, along with the role of government policy in mitigating the downturn.
Fourthly, while the recovery phase has commenced, a number of risks remain that could derail improvements in economies and hinder efforts to ensure that the recovery is accompanied by job creation. These risks pertain in particular to the challenges of dealing with public debt and continuing global imbalances.”
Verick and Islamâs work offers an excellent overview for anyone seeking to view economic events of the last two years through a âwide-angleâ lens.
What’s it worth to learn from prior mistakes or misdeeds?
ForÂ interested parties in most large Chapter 11 cases, apparently not much.
Bankruptcy âexaminersâ are private individuals appointed by the Office of the Unites States Trustee at the direction of a Bankruptcy Court to investigate and report on the causes of a companyâs failure.
Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code provides that examiners âshallâ be appointed if requested in any case involving, among other things, more than $5 million in certain types of unsecured debt.Â In creating this position, Congress apparently expected examiners to be ubiquitous in the reorganization of large, public companies.
Nevertheless, it simply ain’t so.Â Anyone with restructuring experience can attest to the truisim that examiners are a rarity in Chapter 11 cases.
Earlier this month, Temple University Professor Jonathan Lipson posted statistical analysis on the appointment of bankruptcy examiners – and why, despite the mandatory language addressing their appointment in the Bankruptcy Code – so few are, in fact, actually appointed.
InÂ “Understanding Failure: Examiners and the Bankruptcy Reorganization of Large Public Companies,”Â Lipson – whose work will appear in a forthcoming edition of the American Bankruptcy Institute Law Journal – observes that examiners are rarely sought in Chapter 11 cases, and even less frequently appointed.Â Lipson’s docket-level analysis of 576 of the largest chapter 11 reorganizations from 1991 to 2007 shows they were requested in only 15% of cases.Â Despite the seemingly mandatory language of the Bankruptcy Code, examiners were appointed in fewer than half of the cases where sought, or less than 7% of the sample.
So what does it take to get an examiner appointed?Â Lipson summarizes the article’s findings as follows:
Lipson’s work provides empirically grounded insight on this little-used feature of Chapter 11, and is well worth a read.
It is perhaps stating the obvious that Chapter 11 of the US Bankruptcy Code offers a well-known and very flexible means of extracting the most value from distressed assets.Â But in these economic times, it is worth remembering that Chapter 11 is by no means the only avenue for addressing insolvency â nor is it always the best . . . or most appropriate.
Bankruptcy (or âSection 363â) sales have been a time-honored and tested means of moving distressed assets quickly and cost-efficiently from buyer to seller.Â But the lack of credit necessary to fund the transition period required for such sales during the recent downturn, combined with a handful of recent appellate decisions which cast doubt on the validity of contested sales,Â serve as reminders that other transactional structures sometimes work just as well â or even better.
The folks at Turnaround Management Association (TMA) released a spate of articles last week which illustrate the point: Two of TMAâs pieces (one on ABCâs and Receiverships and one on alternative sale structures for distressed acquisitions) compare and contrast federal bankruptcy proceedings with other means of optimizing the transfer of distressed assets. A third focuses on âstrict foreclosuresâ (or âArticle 9 salesâ).
All three are well worth a read.
The Advisory Committee on Bankruptcy Rules of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has pulled back from its earlier position on the disclosure required of hedge fund and other distressed debt investors participating as ad hoc committees or other, loosely organized creditor groups in Chapter 11 cases.
An earlier version of proposed amendments to Federal Rule of Bankruptcy Procedure 2019 would have required such investors to disclose the dates and prices paid for their purchases of distressed securities.Â These changes were resisted by investor groups such as the Loan Syndications and Trading Association, and created some press coverage last year (an earlier post on the amendmentsÂ is available here).
That said, investors will still be required to reveal the âdisclosable economic interestâ they each hold in a company, including debt and derivatives. This includes the identity of specific investors and the date such investors acquired their interests.
Morever, Committee notes to the proposed rule indicate that the previously-contested disclosures of pricing and purchase dates may be compelled through discovery or by the Court acting under its own authority outside the proposed rule.
A copy of the proposed rule, along with a summary of comments received on earlier versions and the Committee’s advisory notes,Â is available here.
From the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, a recent decision regarding the curious (and well-aged) bankruptcy of Yuval Ran offers a thought-provoking consideration of what is required to obtain US recognition of a foreign individualâs bankruptcy case.
The Curious Case of Mr. Ran
Mr. Ran, an Israeli citizen, was at one point a director or shareholder in almost one hundred Israeli companies â some publicly-traded, and the largest of which was Israel Credit Lines Supplementary Financial Services Ltd. (âCredit Linesâ), a public company co-founded and run by Ran, who served as CEO.
After raising millions of dollars from investors and acquiring interests in numerous other companies, Credit Lines ultimately found itself in liquidation through an Israeli bankruptcy proceeding. Credit Linesâ bankruptcy receiver asserted claims against Ran for millions of dollars in damages.
In June 1997, an involuntary bankruptcy proceeding was commenced against Ran in the Israeli District Court of Tel Aviv-Jaffa â but not before Ran and his family had departed Israel for Houston, Texas. Since their departure, Ran and his wife purchased a home and went to work for a local furniture company. Ranâs wife and five children are US citizens, and Ran himself is a permanent resident seeking US citizenship. With the exception of some minimal collection work on Credit Linesâ behalf shortly after he arrived in the US, Ran did no further business in Israel.
In December 2006 â nearly a decade after Ran and his family emigrated, and more than eight years after being appointed receiver of Ranâs estate â Zuriel Lavie, the receiver appointed for Ranâs Israeli assets, sought recognition of the Israeli bankruptcy proceeding as a foreign main or non-main proceeding under Chapter 15 of the Bankruptcy Code in the Southern District of Texasâ Bankruptcy Court.
Levieâs petition was denied the following May. After two rounds of appeals to the District Court, the parties finally found themselves before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In affirming the District Court and the Bankruptcy Courtâs denials, the Fifth Circuit briefly reviewed the procedural requirements for recognition set forth in Section 1517 of the Bankruptcy Code, then turned its attention to the one item of substance â whether the debtorâs bankruptcy proceeding qualified either as a foreign âmainâ or ânon-mainâ proceeding as contemplated by Chapter 15.
âMain Proceedingâ â Where is COMI?
Under US law â as under the UNCITRAL Model Law upon which it is based â a foreign âmain proceedingâ qualifies as such if the jurisdiction where it is pending is the debtorâs âcenter of main interestsâ (COMI). In the case of an individual such as Ran, COMI is presumptively the debtorâs âplace of habitual residenceâ â a concept roughly equivalent to the debtorâs âdomicile,â or physical presence coupled with an intent to remain there. One acquires a âdomicile of originâ at birth, and that domicile continues until a new one (a âdomicile of choiceâ) is acquired.
A similar concept â that of âhabitual residenceâ â likewise applies under foreign law when the individual intends to stay in a specified location permanently. Factors pertinent to establishing an individualâs âhabitual residenceâ include: (1) the length of time spent in the location; (2) the occupational or familial ties to the area; and (3) the location of the individualâs regular activities, jobs, assets, investments, clubs, unions, and institutions of which he is a member.
Under these facts, Ranâs COMI was presumptively in the US â and not in Israel. However, the presumption of COMI may be rebutted. Levie sought to do so by introducing evidence at the District Court that: (1) Ranâs creditors are located in Israel; (2) Ranâs principal assets are being administered in bankruptcy pending in Israel; and (3) Ranâs bankruptcy proceedings initiated in Israel and would be governed by Israeli law.
Ran countered by pointing out that: (1) Ran along with his family left Israel nearly a decade prior to the filing of the Chapter 15 petition; (2) Ran has no intent to return to Israel; (3) Ran has established employment and a residence in Houston, Texas; (4) Ran is a permanent legal resident of the United States and his children are United States citizens; and (5) Ran maintains his finances exclusively in Texas.
In weighing this evidence, the Fifth Circuit relied on earlier analysis in In re SPhinX, Ltd., 351 B.R. 103 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. 2006), affâd, 371 B.R. 10 (S.D.N.Y. 2007) â and more specifically, on analysis in In re Loy, 380 B.R. 154. 162 (Bankr. E.D. Va. 2007) (the only case to address the concept of COMI with respect to an individual debtor) â in which the Bankruptcy Court noted that factors such as (1) the location of a debtorâs primary assets; (2) the location of the majority of the debtorâs creditors; and (3) the jurisdiction whose law would apply to most disputes, may be used to determine an individual debtorâs COMI when there exists a serious dispute. The Fifth Circuit found that, unlike the Loy decision, the initial presumption (and the ultimate preponderance of evidence) under these factors weighed in Ranâs favor.
Undeterred, Lavie argued that the Fifth Circuit ought not to confine its COMI inquiry to the âsnapshotâ of Ranâs domicile that existed at the time the Chapter 15 petition was filed. Instead, he argued that the Fifth Circuit ought to look back to Ranâs âoperational historyâ in Israel for a more comprehensive determination of COMI.
The Fifth Circuit panel was not persuaded. Instead, it looked to the statuteâs use of present tense (i.e., a âmain proceedingâ is a âforeign proceeding pending in the country where the debtor has the center of its main interestsâ) to determine the COMI inquiry as dispositive of what evidence was relevant, and what evidence was not.
The panel then went on to provide policy bases for the âsnapshotâ approach to COMI, explaining that locating COMI as of the date the petition is filed aids international harmonization and promotes predictability. Perhaps most significantly the panel noted âit is important that the debtorâs COMI be ascertainable by third parties . . . . The presumption is that creditors will look to the law of the jurisdiction in which they perceive the debtor to be operating to resolve any difficulties they have with that debtor, regardless of whether such resolution is informal, administrative or judicial.â
On the question of whether Ranâs proceeding was a foreign ânon-mainâ proceeding, the Fifth Circuit panel pondered its definition, i.e., âa foreign proceeding, other than a foreign main proceeding, pending in a country where the debtor has an establishment.â Lavie argued that Ranâs involuntary proceeding in Israel was, in itself, an âestablishment.â Section 1502(2), however, defines an âestablishmentâ as âany place of operations where the debtor carries out a nontransitory economic activity.â
Unlike COMI, the existence of an âestablishmentâ is a simple factual determination with no presumptions in anyoneâs favor.Â However, one court has noted that âthe bar is rather highâ to prove the debtor maintains an âestablishmentâ in a foreign jurisdiction.
In essence, the Fifth Circuit found that in order to have an âestablishment,â Ran must have had âa place from which economic activities are exercised on the market (i.e. externally), whether the said activities are commercial, industrial or professionalâ at the time that Lavie filed the petition for recognition.
For the same reasons that gave rise to the Fifth Circuitâs weight of the evidence in Ranâs favor regarding the âmain proceeding,â the Israeli proceeding was determined not to be a ânon-mainâ proceeding â and, therefore, not entitled to any recognition within the US.
In addition to being the first appellate decision addressing an individualâs COMI, the Ran case is noteworthy for the proposition that the mere existence of an individualâs insolvency proceeding, pending in another jurisdiction, is insufficient to qualify for recognition under US law. Instead, there must be a demonstration of ongoing activity â either through a showing of COMI, or through the âestablishmentâ of ongoing activity â to qualify.
Further, though it is specifically limited to its own facts, the Ran decision offers a glimpse into the Fifth Circuitâs general approach to COMI â in particular, its observance that the debtorâs COMI should be ascertainable by third parties. This observance may prove significant in the event that similar disputes over the much larger and more contentious Stanford proceedings (see prior posts about Stanford here) ever make their way to the Circuit Court.
Practitioners and business people who have toiled in and around US-based restructuring work are well-acquainted with one of the great strengths (and primary threats) of Chapter 11:Â The ability of a debtor to restructure its secured obligations over the objection of a lender through the use of the “cram-down” procedures of Section 1129(b).
For those who may be less familiar, the concept of “cram-down” is not as difficult than the colorful term might suggest.Â Essentially, a debtor may confirm a Chapter 11 plan and restructure its debts over the objection of secured creditors so long as the debtor’s plan offers those creditors the present value of their allowed secured claims, such that they receive an appropriate rate of interest which accurately maintains the present value of their concern.
Fighting over “cram-down,” therefore, really boils down to fighting over which interest rate ought to apply to the lender’s restructured loan.
In an era where real estate and other collateralized capital assets are under significant duress (and “risk-free” rates of interest are near all-time lows), the issue of “cram-down” is once again a matter of immediate relevance – and its resolution can often spell the difference between restructuring or foreclosure.
Because the notion of “cram-down” has been part of US insolvency jurisprudence for decades, US Courts have accumulated considerable collective sophistication in addressing the financially-oriented evidence and arguments that surround “cram-down fights.”
But sophistication does not mean consistency.
Last week, Ray Clark of Orange County-headquartered VALCOR Consulting, LLC released a succinct overview of some of the more notable case law surrounding “cram down” developed in the years since the US Supreme Court decided Till v. SCS Credit Corp., 541 U.S. 465, 124 S.Ct. 1951 (2004).
Tracing several key cases issued by Circuit Courts of Appeal since Till, Ray – who has previously appeared on this blog as a guest – offers a very concise, readable summation of what it takes to win (or defeat) a “cram down” effort in Chapter 11.
One of Ray’s strengths is his ability to make the often unfamiliar and complex financial underpinnings of restructuring work accessible to the average, intelligent business person.Â His summary is available here – and is well worth a read.
The esoteric world of credit default swaps and other derivative securities often appears far removed from the everyday practice of Chapter 11.Â But the impact of this little-known (and often less-understood) corner of the securities market upon the bankruptcy worldÂ has recently garnered considerable academic interest – andÂ is now attracting some legislators’ attention as well.
Several posts on this blog (beginning here) have summarized the intersection between credit default swaps and bankruptcy.Â Â Some academics haveÂ explored the potential indirect effect of these securities uponÂ out-of-court netogiations – focusing primariliy on theÂ potential problemsÂ of “holdout” creditorsÂ and theÂ “empty creditor hypothesis.”Â Others (here and here) have offered their preliminary thoughts on the continued usefulness of the Bankruptcy Code’s “securities safe harbors,” originally included to shield financial markets from the effects of large bankruptcy filings – but now perceived as distorting creditor priorities and possibly exacerbating the financial risk created by such events.
Some portions of thisÂ debate (such as the true impact of CDS’s on corporate insolvency) continue to play out in the realities of Chapter 11 economics.Â Â Other portions (such as the continued viability of the Bankruptcy Code’s “safe harbor” rules) are beginning to work themselves – albeit slowly – into legislative proposals.
Within the last 30 days, Florida’s Sen. Bill Nelson has offered a brief, 2-page amendment to the proposed financial reform legislation now working its way through the US Senate.Â In essence, the amendment would strip the “safe harbors” out of the Bankruptcy Code, ostensibly “leveling the playing field” for all creditors.
For its simplicity, the amendment – which has no co-sponsors – has provoked still further discussion amongst academics.Â Seton Hall’s Steve Lubben commends it as a good “first step” toward amending the Bankruptcy Code,Â but believes further compromise is necessary (his proposed compromises are outlined here).Â Harvard’s Mark Roe says, in an updated research paper, that the amendment deserves “central consideration” in connection with financial reform legislation.
Leveraged buy-outs (LBO’s) are a time-honored means of financing the acquisition of companies.Â They tend to occur in waves, finding greatest popularity when credit is easy and money is cheap.
Because of their dependence on favorable credit conditions, LBO’s are also rather risky.Â When credit markets tighten and asset values drop – as they did most recently during the “Great Recession” of 2008 – the risk is borne primarily by unsecured creditors of the acquisition target.Â
LBO’s, popular during the “roaring 80’s” and again during the “go-go” years of the George W. Bush Administration, are once again crashing and burning in significant numbers.Â Recent victims include household names like Chrysler, Hawaiian Telcom, Linens âN Things, Simmons, LyondellBasell, Capmark Financial Group Inc., and Tribune Co.Â Others, including Clear Channel Communications, Harrahâs Entertainment, and TXU, have defaulted on their LBO debt.Â Indeed,Â nearly half of non-financial American companies that defaulted on Moodyâs-rated debt instruments in 2009 were reportedly leveraged acquisitions of private-equity funds.
Companies with overburdened balance sheets are forced to “de-leverage” and restructure their debt, typically at the expense of these creditors.Â Because the essence of an LBO is the use of secured debt to finance an acquisition,Â the historical response toÂ “de-leveraging” has been for unsecured creditors to attempt to unwind the security interests encumbering the company’s assets.Â Â These efforts areÂ typicallyÂ undertaken through fraudulent transfer claims – which are reportedly on the rise in the wake of last year’s financial turmoil.
The original idea behind fraudulent transferÂ claims – which trace their roots back nearly half a millenium in Anglo-American commercial law – was that debtors shoudln’t be able to place valuable assets beyond the reach of their creditors.Â The idea is a simple one, but proving a debtor’s subjective intent is often far more difficult than it looks.
In light of this difficulty, courts have developed certain “objective tests” to determine whether a transaction is “construtively fraudulent.”Â Though a number of modern variations exist, their primary theme is that transfers made (or liabilities incurred) by a debtor in a financially precarious position may be “avoided” (i.e., unwound).
A debtor is generally considered to be in a financially precarious position ifÂ it receives less than âreasonably-equivalent valueâ in exchange for property or debt while the debtor (1) is insolvent at the time of the exchange; (2) is rendered insolvent by the exchange; (3) is left, following the exchange, with âunreasonably small capitalâ for the business in which it is engaged or is about to engage; or (4) intends to or believes it will incur, debts it would be unable to pay as they matured.
Where an LBO is found to have been a fraudulent transfer, the courtâs order that the transfer is avoided may include: (1) stripping the lender of its liens; (2) recovery of loan payments and fees; (3) subordination or disallowance of lenderâs claims in bankruptcy; and (4) recovery of fees paid to professionals in connection with a leveraged buyout.
As attractive as all this might sound for unsecured creditors, unwinding an LBOÂ as “constructively fraudulent”Â is unfortunately only slightly less difficult than establishing subjective fraudulent intent.Â As a result, such creditors have little recourse but to settle fraudulent transfer claims very cheaply.Â LBO participants, on the other hand, are incentivized to take on risky acquisitions at the creditors’ [potential] expense.
That, at least, is the argument put forth by John Ginsberg in his recently-uploaded draft article entitled “Remedying Lawâs Failures to Remedy Fraudulent Transfers in Leveraged Buyouts” (downloadable at SSRN).
Ginsberg, an in-house lawyer at an unnamed federal agency, focuses on the “unreasonably small capital” test (the test most commonly used in attacking an LBO) and argues that the standard forÂ meeting that test – whetherÂ insolvency isÂ “reasonably foreseeable” – requires far greater certainty in order for creditors to realize the protections intended for them by fraudulent transfer law.
In essence, Mr. Ginsberg argues that rather than asking whether insolvency is “reasonably foreseeable,” courts ought to clarify “reasonable foreseeability” in probabalistic terms.Â It should be easier to attack (or to defend) a fraudulent transfer if it can be shown, for example, that the “probability” of insolvency at the time of an LBO was 50% – or 60%, or 75%.Â Further, courts ought to articulate what, for them, constitutes an acceptable margin of error (say, 40% risk of insolvency with a margin of error of +/- 15%).
Finally, Mr. Ginsberg argues that a “probabalistic” approach eliminates the potential confusion arising when a subsequent “insolvency triggering event” is blamed for sinking a perhaps-somewhat-risky-but-otherwise-perfectly-viable LBO: If the probability of insolvency is established ahead of such a “triggerÂ event,” it is far easier to determine whether or not that event is, in fact, a significant factor in the company’s failure.
Mr. Ginsberg’s article (a working copy of which is available on SSRN) is an interesting read – not least because it offers a succinct and accessible snapshot of recent decisions addressing fraudulent transfers and LBOs.
Mr. Ginsberg’s proposed approach is also not the only one available to those seeking a more “objective” treatment of LBO financing.Â A number of authors have suggested that the “foreseeability of insolvency” may be best determined by reference to prevailing industry liquidity and solvency ratios.Â These are easily accessible through research databases, and provide some objective benchmarks as to what the participants in an LBO transaction might reasonably have anticipated at the time of the transfer.
That said, even these more “objective” approaches are not without their problems.
For example, if courts in a particular jurisdiction have enunciated a 50% or greater probability as the threshold for “reasonably foreseeable” insolvency, won’t the parties engaging in an LBO simply adjust their forward-looking assumptions to be certain that the “probability” is something less than 50%?Â And what level of probability rises to the level of “reasonably foreseeable” in the first place?Â Ginsberg’s article acknowledges this last uncertainty, and leaves the matter open for discussion.
Ratio-based tests also have their own problems.Â Which solvency ratios are most meaningful to a particular industry?Â And whichÂ ones is a court most likely to apply to a particular transaction?Â Though ratios are comparatively easy to compute, their application has been a subject for juducial hand-wringing and scholarly suggestions for the better part of 8 decades.
Something to think about.
A recent post by University of Illinois’ Professor Bob Lawless over at the always-stimulating “Credit Slips” blog focuses on an often-ignored, but important, corner of the Chapter 11 world: “Small Business” Chapter 11’s.Â Â Perhaps more accurately, the post focuses on Chapter 11’s that could be – but aren’t – formally designated as “Small Business” Chapter 11’s.
Prof. Lawless – whose research interests include empirical methodologies in legal studies – recently reviewed bankruptcy data from 2007, observing that of 2,299 chapter 11s filed in 2007 where the debtor (i) was not an individual; (ii) claimed predominately business debts; and (iii) scheduled total liabilities between $50,000 and $1,000,000, only 36.8% were designated “small business” bankruptcies.Â Anecdotally, Prof. Lawless refers to one of the cases he surveyed:Â a manufacturer that scheduled about $800,000 in debt and yet did not self-designate as a small-business debtor.
So why don’t more “small businesses” that commence Chapter 11 proceedings (many don’t, but this is a different issue) claim “small business” status?
The answers from practitioners – some of whom responded on the post, and others who voiced their views on a national list-serve also maintained by Prof. Lawless. – appear to coalesce around the following:
– Congress’ 2005 amendments impose additional filing requirements.Â Section 1116 requires the provision of “the most recent” balance sheet, profit-and-loss statement, and statement of cash flows, as well as the most recent Federal income tax return.Â One busy LA practitioner noted that he avoids the “Small Business” designation for this reason.
– The “small business” deadlines are too compressed.Â For example, the Code’s exclusivity provisions generally “caps” the time period in which a “Small Business” debtor may file a Chapter 11 Plan and Disclosure Statement at 300 days.Â This period can, of course,Â be extended within the original 300-day period if the debtor can demonstrate that plan confirmation within a “reasonable period” is “more likely than not.”Â But as a practical matter, the debtor has about 10 months to get a Chapter 11 Plan and Disclosure Statement filed.
– The combination of increased reporting and compressed deadlines puts any “small business” case on a hair-trigger under the expanded dismissal provisions of Section 1112.
– Some practitioners simply overlook the designation – which appears as a “check-the-box” on the face page of the petition’s official form.
– The concept of separate “small business” treatment emerges out of “local practices” implemented by bankruptcy judges for the purpose of streamlining their own dockets, butÂ which were neverÂ reallyÂ aÂ good idea from a practical perspective.
With the possible exception of attorney oversight, these all appear emininently practical reasons for staying away from “Small Business” Chapter 11’s.
But are they always?
It may be that âsmall businessâ cases are perceived as problematic because, in fact, they cut against the grain of the traditional law firm business model.Â For example:
– Additional filing requirements.Â There may be circumstances where the clientâs non-compliance with income tax filing requirements preclude any âsmall businessâ self-designation.Â But most businesses â even troubled ones â can generate a very rudimentary set of financial statements.Â Even for clients who generally operate without them, it should be possible to generate such statements (albeit very cursory ones) at the initial client interview or very shortly thereafter.Â It’s worth noting that in Californiaâs Central District, the additional âup-frontâ filing requirements are offset, at least to some degree, by the dramatically reduced monthly reporting requirements with the US Trusteeâs Office.Â In one âsmall businessâ Chapter 11 case handled last year by South Bay Law Firm, the extremely relaxed monthly operating reporting requirements were one â though certainly not the only â reason a âsmall businessâ filing was recommended for the client.
– Compressed deadlines.Â Part of South Bay Law Firm’s pre-petition planning involves a review of the clientâs âexit strategy.âÂ The fundamental question is: What is the clientâs perceived business objective for the contemplated Chapter 11?Â If there isnât one,Â the client has more fundamental issues to consider â and the conversation typically turns to a discussion of whether or not Chapter 11 makes business sense.Â If there is a business purpose for the contemplated Chapter 11, the business purpose and the “exit strategy”Â are typically reduced to an informal âPlan Term Sheetâ which will, itself, become the nucleus of a combined Chapter 11 Plan-Disclosure Statement.Â At South Bay Law Firm, ourÂ experience is that the combined document is generally a bit easier and less time-consuming to draft than 2 separate documents.Â And with the âend gameâ relatively well-defined at or near the outset of the case, getting to a successful exit just got a lot easier.Â ThisÂ is a factor critical to the speed that is so important to an economically successful Chapter 11.
– More reasons for dismissal.Â It is certainly true that Section 1112 imposes draconian consequences for failure to make required filings.Â But more often, the real challenge isnât Section 1112 â or the US Trusteeâs Office.Â Instead, itâs helping the âsmall businessâ Chapter 11 debtor focus on the administrative requirements of a Chapter 11 â and in Californiaâs Central District, there are many.Â To that end, the extra discipline required up-front for a âsmall businessâ Chapter 11 is, in fact, an important test of the debtorâs ability and willingness to get through the process with success.Â If the debtor canât even comply with a few additional filing requirements, it’s preferable to know right away that this debtor will have difficulty dealing with the myriad other contingencies that are certain to emerge in even a small Chapter 11 case.
– Itâs all an impractical (though perhaps well-intended) judicial idea.Â For the reasons described above, the additional filing requirements and compressed deadlines of a “Small Business” Chapter 11 may, in fact, btÂ very practical â at least in the larger scope of Chapter 11 economics.Â But even if the practicalities are questionable (practicality is, after all, in the eye of the practitioner),Â their result –Â docket efficiency and speed of administration â are both great sources of judicial pleasure.Â The judicial clerkship experience resident at South Bay Law Firm attests that there really is noÂ better way to make friends with everyone behind the bench than making their job easier â even if the job is just a tad bit harder on counsel’s end.Â We’ll gladly invest a little extra effort if it will mean the benefit of the doubt on a âjump ballâ in front of the person wearing the black robe.
All of this may be very interesting, but how does it implicate the law firm business model?
Only this way: In an industry predominated by an âhourly feeâ pricing model and on bringing as much business in the door as possible, the pressure on increased speed and discipline in a “small business” Chapter 11, requires more focus (and time) up-front, drives down administrative costs, demands an internal adherence to business process, and âweeds outâ many candidates unsuitable for Chapter 11 â âsmall businessâ or otherwise.Â This, in turn, has the effect of making âsmall businessâ Chapter 11âs generally quicker and cheaper â and therefore potentially less profitable, at least from an âhourly feesâ point of view.Â It also tends, at least initially,Â to restrict or limit overall client “volume.”
However, it also has the effect of creating a relatively well-defined âproductâ which is potentially salable to a larger segment of troubled small businesses.Â And a larger overall market segment means a larger absolute number of âsmall businessâ debtors who are possessed of the discipline and determination to reorganize their businesses successfully.
Two prior posts on this blog (here and here) have traced the progress of an obscure – but potentially important – piece of California legislation designed to regulate the ability of local California governments to seek relief through the municipal debt adjustment process of Chapter 9.
Relatively little-known California StateÂ Assembly Bill 155 would, if voted and signed into law, require local public entities to first seek approval from the California Debt and Investment Advisory Commission (which operates under the auspices of the State Treasurer’s Office) prior to seeking the federal debt adjustment relief presently available to them by local government decision.
Though ostensibly addressing the “debt” and “investments” of local governments, the bill is in factÂ aimed squarely at protecting public employee unions who – unnerved by the 2008 Chapter 9 filing commenced by the City of Vallejo, California – haveÂ backed the legislation since its introduction into the California legislature nearly 18 months ago.Â According to analysis produced last July by the State Senate’s Local Government Committee, “labor unions and others want to require state oversight of local governments’ bankruptcy petitions.”
The reason?Â Public employee pensions and other employee benefits.
The details of public employees’ hiring and retention arrangements are typically governed by collective bargaining agreements (or “Memoranda of Understanding” in the context of public labor relations), brokered by the employees’ unions and their public employers.Â As presicently noted in an article on municipal collective bargaining agreements authored 3 years ago, “Public sector unions have successfully obtained comparatively generous compensation and benefits packages even as the fortunes of American labor have continued to decline. In particular, municipal pensions may jeopardize the fiscal survival of many public sector employers.”
With perrenial state and local budget deficits, declining property values and a shrinking tax base, and significantly reducedÂ revenues, many local governments are now in precisely the sort of “survival mode” suggested by this article . . . and the unions know it.Â As a result, AB 155 has quietly made its way through the State Assembly and now appears poised to go to the State Senate floor.
Is “bankruptcy by committee” an appropriate balance between state interests and local government control?Â Does it hamstring local govrenment officials from responding effectively to a local fiscal crisis?Â BecauseÂ municipal bankruptciesÂ have always beenÂ used very sparingly, andÂ only 2 such proceedings (including Vallejo’s) have filed statewide since 2008, isÂ committee approval truly necessary?Â Or is it merely a means by which public employee unions can improve their bargaining position outside of bankruptcy?Â And what happens if a local government in financial crisis can’t get committee approval?
These questions appear, to date, unanswered.
But last week, AB 155 took a step forward, clearing the Senate’s Local Government Committee.Â The bill will now go to the Senate Appropriations Committee for review.