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.
 





 
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    Archive for April, 2010

    Will Municipal Debt Adjustment Be Limited in California? Inching Toward an Answer.

    Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

    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.

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    Relatively little-known California State 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 fact aimed squarely at protecting public employee unions who – unnerved by the 2008 Chapter 9 filing commenced by the City of Vallejo, California – have backed the legislation since its introduction into the California legislature nearly 18 months ago.  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.”

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    The reason?  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.  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 reduced revenues, many local governments are now in precisely the sort of “survival mode” suggested by this article . . . and the unions know it.  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?  Does it hamstring local govrenment officials from responding effectively to a local fiscal crisis?  Because municipal bankruptcies have always been used very sparingly, and only 2 such proceedings (including Vallejo’s) have filed statewide since 2008, is committee approval truly necessary?  Or is it merely a means by which public employee unions can improve their bargaining position outside of bankruptcy?  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.  The bill will now go to the Senate Appropriations Committee for review.

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    “Comity Is Not Just A One-Way Street”

    Monday, April 19th, 2010

    International readers of this blog – and those in the US who practice internationally – are more than likely aware of the doctrine of “comity” embraced by US commercial law.  In a nutshell, “comity” is shorthand for the idea that US courts typically afford respect and recogntion (i.e., enforcement) within the US to the judgment or decision of a non-US court – so long as that decision comports with those notions of “fundamental fairness” that are common to American jurisprudence.

    In the bankruptcy context, “comity” forms the backbone for significant portions of the US Bankruptcy Code’s Chapter 15.  Chapter 15 – enacted in 2005 – provides a mechanisim by which the administrators of non-US bankruptcy proceedings can obtain recogntion of those proceedings, and further protection and assistance for them, inside the US.

    But in at least some US bankruptcy courts, “comity” for non-US insolvencies only goes so far.  Last month, US Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Argesti, of Pennsylvania’s Western District, offered his understanding of where “comity” stops – and where US bankruptcy proceedings begin.

    Judge Argesti currently presides over Chapter 15 proceedings commenced in furtherance of two companies – Canada’s Railpower Technologies Corp. (“Railpower Canada”) and its wholly-owned US subsidiary, Railpower US.  The two Railpower entities commenced proceedings under the Canadian Companies Creditors’ Arrangement Act (“CCAA”) in Quebec in February 2009.  Soon afterward, their court-appointed monitors, Ernst & Young, Inc., sought recogntition of the Canadian Railpower cases in the US.

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    Railpower US’ assets and employees – and 90% of its creditors – were located in the US.  The company was managed from offices in Erie, PA.  Nevertheless, it carried on its books an inter-company obligation of $66.9 million, owed to its Canadian parent.  From the outset, Railpower US’ American creditors asserted this “intercompany debt” was, in fact, a contribution to equity which should be subordinate to their trade claims.  Judge Argesti’s predecessor, now-retired Judge Warren Bentz, therefore conditioned recognition of Railpower US’ case upon his ability to review and approve any proposed distribution of Railpower US’ assets.  After the company’s assets were sold, Judge Bentz further required segregation of the sale proceeds pending his authorization as to their distribution.  Finally, after the Canadian monitors obtained a “Claims Process Order” for the resolution of claims in the CCAA proceedings and sought that order’s enforcement in the US, Judge Bentz further “carved out” jurisdiction for himself to adjudicate the inter-company claim if the trade creditors received anything less than a 100% distribution under the CCAA plan.

    Railpower US’ assets were sold – along with the assets of its Canadian parent – to R.J. Corman Group, LLC.  Railpower US was left with US$2 million in sale proceeds against US$9.3 million in claims (other than the inter-company debt).  The Canadian monitor indicated its intention to file a “Notice of Disallowance” of the inter-company debt in the Canadian proceedings, but apparently never did.  Meanwhile, approximately CN$700,000 was somehow “upstreamed” from Railpower US to Railpower Canada.  Finally, despite the monitor’s assurances to the contrary, Railpower Canada’s largest shareholder – and an alleged secured creditor – sought relief in Quebec to throw both Railpower entities into liquidation proceedings under Canada’s Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act.

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    Enough was enough for Railpower US’ American creditors.  In August 2009, they filed an involuntary Chapter 7 proceeding against Railpower US, seeking to regain control over the case – and Railpower US’ assets – under the auspices of an American panel trustee.

    The Canadian monitor requested abstention under Section 305 of the Bankruptcy Code.  Significantly re-drafted in the wake of Chapter 15’s enactment, that section permits a US bankruptcy court to dismiss a bankruptcy case, or to suspend bankruptcy proceedings, if doing so (1) would better serve the interests of the creditors and the debtor; or (2) would best serve the purposes of a recognized Chapter 15 case.

    Judge Argesti’s 14-page decision, in which he denied the monitors’ motion and permitted the Chapter 7 case to proceed, is one of apparent first impression on this section where it regards a Chapter 15 case.

    Where the “better interests of the creditors and the debtor” are concerned, Judge Argesti’s discussion essentially boils down to the proposition that because creditors representing 85% – by number and by dollar amount – of Railpower US’ case sought Chapter 7, those creditors have spoken for themselves as to what constitutes their “best interests” (“The Court starts with a presumption that these creditors have made a studied decision that their interests are best served by pursuing the involuntary Chapter 7 case rather than simply acquiescing in what happens in the Canadian [p]roceeding.”).

    The more interesting aspect of the decision concerns Judge Argesti’s discussion of whether or not the requested dismissal “best serve[d] the purposes” of Railpower’s Chapter 15 cases.  For guidance on this issue, Judge Argesti turned to Chapter 15’s statement of policy, set forth in Section 1501 (“Purpose and Scope of Application”) – which states Chapter 15’s purpose of furthering principles of comity and protecting the interests of all creditors.  Then, proceeding point by point through each of the 5 enunciated principles behind the statute, he arrived at the conclusion that the purposes of Chapter 15 were not “best served” by dismissing the involuntary Chapter 7 case.  As a result, Railpower US’ Chapter 7 case would be permitted to proceed.

    Judge Argesti’s analysis appears to focus primarily on (i) the Canadian monitors’ apparent delay in seeking disallowance of the inter-company debt in Canada; (ii) the “upstreaming” of CN$700,000 to Railpower Canada; and (iii) the monitors’ apparent failure, as of the commencement of the involuntary Chapter 7, to “unwind” these transfers or to recover them from Railpower Canada for the benefit of Railpower US’ creditors.  It also rests on the fact that Railpower US was – for all purposes – a US debtor, with its assets and creditors located primarily in the US.

    In this context, and in response to the monitors’ protestations that comity entitled them to judicial deference regarding the Chapter 15 proceedings, Judge Argesti noted that:

    comity is not just a one-way street.  Just as this Court will defer to a [non-US] court if the circumstances require it, so too should a foreign court defer to this Court when appropriate.  In this case it was clear from the start that [this Court] expressed reservations about the distribution of Railpower US assets in the Canadian [p]roceeding . . . .  The Monitor has [not] explained how this [reservation] is to be [addressed] unless the Canadian Court shows comity to this Court.

    Judge Argesti’s decision may be limited to its comparatively unique facts.  However, it should also serve as a cautionary tale for representatives seeking to rely on principles of comity when administering business assets in the US.  In addition to his more limited construction of “comity,” Judge Argesti also noted that recognition of Railpower US’ Chapter 15 case was itself subject to second-guessing where subsequently developed evidence suggested that the company’s “Center of Main Interests” was not in Canada, but in the US.

    For anyone weighing strategy attendant to the American recognition of a non-US insolvency proceeding, this decision is important reading.

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    Rock & Republic . . . and Venue

    Monday, April 12th, 2010

    Many readers of this blog will be well aware that “venue shopping” – usually to a known, “debtor-friendly” jurisdiction such as Delaware or the Southern District of New York – is a common feature of Chapter 11 practice.  For those who may not be, the primary idea is that the debtor’s management, looking to increase the likelihood of a successful reorganization, often identifies a “debtor-friendly” jurisdiction and seeks to fit within the venue provisions for commencing a reorganization case there.

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    But though the federal venue provisions (at least as interpreted by these courts) generally make it easy to obtain access to file a Chapter 11 case, not every such case filed in New York or Delaware stays there without a fight from one or more creditors who disagree with the debtor’s choice of forum.

    Last week, another example of creditors disagreeing with the debtor’s choice of forum – in the strongest possible terms – presented itself in the recently-filed Chapter 11 bankruptcies of Rock & Republic Enterprises, Inc.  and Triple R, Inc.

    The purveyors of high-end jeans sought Chapter 11 protection on April 1 in Manhattan.  Though the bulk of their management and facilities – and their creditors – are located in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, the companies opted for an East Coast venue, each citing a single office – and a showroom – as the basis for their request to reorganize in New York’s Southern District.

    The companies’ primary secured creditor, RKF, LLC, wasn’t pleased.  It immediately filed an “Emergency Motion to Transfer Venue” to the Central District of California, alleging:

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     – The companies’ status as California corporations;

    - The companies’ management offices, books and records, and address for service of process are in the Los Angeles area;

    - All but 2 of 10 of the companies’ leased premises are in the Los Angeles area;

    - 16 of the companies’ top 25 creditors are based in Los Angeles (only 2 are in New York); and

    - 9 of 14 litigation matters involving the companies are being heard in California.

    On Friday, RKF was joined by Zabin Industries, Inc.  Zabin is one of the companies’ self-described “larger unsecured creditors” and is also based in Southern California.

    No word yet on a date for the hearing on RKF’s “Emergency Motion” – as of this writing, presiding Judge Arthur Gonzales hadn’t set one.  Meanwhile, the Judge has set an accelerated hearing date on the companies’ request to reject an exclusive distribution agreement with Richard I Koral, Inc. (dba “Jessica’s”), the companies’ present off-price distributor.

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    Sales or Plans: A Comparative Account of the “New” Corporate Reorganization

    Monday, April 5th, 2010

    A great deal of scholarly ink has been spilled over last year’s well-publicized sales of Chrysler and GM, each authorized outside a Chapter 11 plan.  Some of that ink is available for review . . . here.

    General Motors Company
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    It’s worth noting that both Chrysler and GM have enjoyed a considerable presence in Canada.  Indeed, the Canadian government participated in the automakers’ Chapter 11 cases.  Yet their bankruptcy sales were not recognized under Canadian cross-border insolvency law, nor were Canadian insolvency proceedings ever initiated.

    Why not?

    Seton Hall’s Stephen Lubben and York University’s Stephanie Ben-Ishai collaborated last month to offer an answer to that question.  The essence of their article, “SALES OR PLANS: A COMPARATIVE ACCOUNT OF THE ‘NEW’ CORPORATE REORGANIZATION” comes down to two points of difference between the Canadian reorganization process and US Chapter 11 – speed and certainty – and is captured in the following excerpt:

    [B]oth the United States and Canada have well-established case law that supports the “pre-plan” sale of a debtor’s assets.  The key difference between the jurisdictions thus turns not on the basic procedures, but rather the broader context of those procedures . . . .   [I]n the United States it is generally possible to sell a debtor’s assets distinct from any obligations or liabilities associated with those assets.  Indeed, the only obligations that survive such a sale are those that the buyer willing[ly] accepts and those that must survive to comport with the U.S. Constitution’s requirements of due process.

    [I]n Canada the debtor has less ability to “cleanse” assets through the sale process.  Particularly with regard to employee claims, a pre-plan sale under the CCAA is not apt to be quite as “free and clear” as its American counterpart.

    The jurisdictions also differ on the point at which the reorganization procedures – and the sale process – can be invoked.  Canada, like most other jurisdictions, has an insolvency prerequisite for commencing [a reorganization] proceeding, whereas Chapter 11 does not.  And the Canadian sale process is tied to the oversight of cases by the [court-appointed] monitor: without the monitor’s consent, it is unlikely that a Canadian court would approve a pre-plan asset sale.  In the United States, on the other hand, there is no such position.  Accordingly, a [US] debtor can seek almost immediate approval of a sale upon filing.  Finally, there remains some doubt and conflicting case law in Canada about the use of the CCAA in circumstances that amount to liquidation, particularly following an asset sale.  In the US, it is quite clear that Chapter 11 can be used for liquidation.

    [T]hese latter factors are the more likely explanations for the failure to use the CCAA in [GM's and Chrysler's] cases . . . .  [I]t is the questions of speed and certainty that mark[] the biggest difference between the two jurisdictions . . . .  In the case of GM and Chrysler, where the governments valued speed above all else, these issues came to the fore.

    The article offers a very interesting perspective on the strategic use of specific insolvency features of different jurisdictions to effect cross-border bankruptcy sales, and is well worth the read.

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