Posts Tagged ‘Bankruptcy Code”’
Sunday, August 21st, 2011
After a brief hiatus, we’re back – and just in time to discuss a recent decision of some import to trademark owners and licensors.
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For many years, insolvency practitioners have recognized the value of the Bankruptcy Code in permitting a reorganizing firm to assign contractual rights to a third party, even where the contract itself prohibits assignment.Â That power is limited, however, where “applicable [non-bankruptcy] law” prohibits the assignment without the non-bankrupt party’s consent.
In recent years, the “anti-assignment” provisions of federal copyright and patent law have limited the transfer of patent and copyright licenses through bankruptcy.Â Â Whether the transfer of trademark licenses is likewise limited has been an open question, at least amongst the Circuit Courts of Appeal.
In late July, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found in In re XMH Corp. that trademarks were not assignable.
XMH Corp. involved the former Hartmarx clothing company’s Chapter 11, along with the related filings of several subsidiaries.Â XMH ultimately sold its assets and assigned contracts to a group of third-party purchasers.Â Those assets included certain trademark licenses for jeans held by one of the XMH subsidiaries.Â The trademarks were owned by a Canadian firm.
The Canadian firm objected to the trademark assignment, and the bankruptcy court agreed.Â The District Court reversed, and the licensor appealed to the Seventh Circuit.
In a succinct, 15-page decision, Judge Posner found that where “applicable law” prohibits the assignment of a trademark, it cannot be assigned through a bankruptcy proceeding absent the trademark owner’s consent.
Judge Posner apparently reached this decision despite a lack of either party to articulate which “applicable law” actually prohibited the assignment:
Unfortunately the parties havenâ€™t told us whether the applicable trademark law is federal or state, or if the latter which stateâ€™s law is applicable (the contract does not contain a choice of law provision)â€”or for that matter which nationâ€™s, since [the licensor] is a Canadian firm. ([The licensee's] headquarters are in the State of Washington.)Â None of this matters, though, because as far as weâ€™ve been able to determine, the universal rule is that trademark licenses are not assignable in the absence of a clause expressly authorizing assignment. Miller v. Glenn Miller Productions, Inc., 454 F.3d 975, 988 (9th Cir. 2006) (per curiam); In re N.C.P. Marketing Group, Inc., 337 B.R. 230, 235-36 (D. Nev. 2005); 3 McCarthy on Trademarks Â§ 18:43, pp. 18-92 to 18-93 (4th ed. 2010).
But the Seventh Circuit then turned to the question of whether the contract actually contained a valid trademark licenseÂ - and found that though the agreement appeared to provide a relatively short-term license of the trademark, what remained at the time of the proposed assignment was merely a contract for services.
Despite its brevity, XMH Corp. is instructive in two respects:
- Trademarks cannot be assigned – at least not in the 7th Circuit.
- Contract drafters and negotiators must be careful to identify and preserve the trademark rights at issue.
Monday, June 7th, 2010
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 individualâ€™s 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. (â€śCredit Linesâ€ť), 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. Ranâ€™s 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 Ranâ€™s estate â€“ Zuriel Lavie, the receiver appointed for Ranâ€™s 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.
Levieâ€™s 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 Courtâ€™s 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 debtorâ€™s bankruptcy proceeding qualified either as a foreign â€śmainâ€ť or â€śnon-mainâ€ť proceeding as contemplated by Chapter 15.
â€śMain Proceedingâ€ť â€“ Where is COMI?
Under US law â€“ as under the UNCITRAL Model Law upon which it is based â€“ a foreign â€śmain proceedingâ€ť qualifies as such if the jurisdiction where it is pending is the debtorâ€™s â€ścenter of main interestsâ€ť (COMI). In the case of an individual such as Ran, COMI is presumptively the debtorâ€™s â€śplace of habitual residenceâ€ť â€“ a concept roughly equivalent to the debtorâ€™s â€śdomicile,â€ť or physical presence coupled with an intent to remain there. One acquires a â€śdomicile of originâ€ť at birth, and that domicile continues until a new one (a â€śdomicile of choiceâ€ť) is acquired.
A similar concept â€“ that of â€śhabitual residenceâ€ť â€“ likewise applies under foreign law when the individual intends to stay in a specified location permanently. Factors pertinent to establishing an individualâ€™s â€śhabitual residenceâ€ť 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 individualâ€™s regular activities, jobs, assets, investments, clubs, unions, and institutions of which he is a member.
Under these facts, Ranâ€™s 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) Ranâ€™s creditors are located in Israel; (2) Ranâ€™s principal assets are being administered in bankruptcy pending in Israel; and (3) Ranâ€™s 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), affâ€™d, 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 debtorâ€™s primary assets; (2) the location of the majority of the debtorâ€™s creditors; and (3) the jurisdiction whose law would apply to most disputes, may be used to determine an individual debtorâ€™s 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 Ranâ€™s favor.
Undeterred, Lavie argued that the Fifth Circuit ought not to confine its COMI inquiry to the â€śsnapshotâ€ť of Ranâ€™s domicile that existed at the time the Chapter 15 petition was filed. Instead, he argued that the Fifth Circuit ought to look back to Ranâ€™s â€śoperational historyâ€ť in Israel for a more comprehensive determination of COMI.
The Fifth Circuit panel was not persuaded. Instead, it looked to the statuteâ€™s use of present tense (i.e., a â€śmain proceedingâ€ť is a â€śforeign proceeding pending in the country where the debtor has the center of its main interestsâ€ť) 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 â€śsnapshotâ€ť 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 â€śit is important that the debtorâ€™s 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€ť
On the question of whether Ranâ€™s proceeding was a foreign â€śnon-mainâ€ť proceeding, the Fifth Circuit panel pondered its definition, i.e., â€śa foreign proceeding, other than a foreign main proceeding, pending in a country where the debtor has an establishment.â€ť Lavie argued that Ranâ€™s involuntary proceeding in Israel was, in itself, an â€śestablishment.â€ť Section 1502(2), however, defines an â€śestablishmentâ€ť as â€śany place of operations where the debtor carries out a nontransitory economic activity.â€ť
Unlike COMI, the existence of an â€śestablishmentâ€ť is a simple factual determination with no presumptions in anyoneâ€™s favor.Â However, one court has noted that â€śthe bar is rather highâ€ť to prove the debtor maintains an â€śestablishmentâ€ť in a foreign jurisdiction.
In essence, the Fifth Circuit found that in order to have an â€śestablishment,â€ť Ran must have had â€śa place from which economic activities are exercised on the market (i.e. externally), whether the said activities are commercial, industrial or professionalâ€ť at the time that Lavie filed the petition for recognition.
For the same reasons that gave rise to the Fifth Circuitâ€™s weight of the evidence in Ranâ€™s favor regarding the â€śmain proceeding,â€ť the Israeli proceeding was determined not to be a â€śnon-mainâ€ť proceeding â€“ and, therefore, not entitled to any recognition within the US.
In addition to being the first appellate decision addressing an individualâ€™s COMI, the Ran case is noteworthy for the proposition that the mere existence of an individualâ€™s 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 â€śestablishmentâ€ť 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 Circuitâ€™s general approach to COMI â€“ in particular, its observance that the debtorâ€™s 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.
Monday, May 17th, 2010
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.
Monday, March 22nd, 2010
A number of advanced commercial jurisdictions â€“ such as the US, the UK, Germany, and Japan â€“ permit a debtorâ€™s bankruptcy administrator or trustee to pursue and recover preferential or fraudulent transfers.Â Unwinding such transfers, typically made from the debtor to a third party located in the same country, is often an important source of recovery for creditors.
But what happens when the transfer crosses international borders?Â More specifically, which countryâ€™s avoidance law applies:Â The law of the jurisdiction where the transfer was initiated?Â Or the law of the â€śdestinationâ€ť jurisdiction?
An important decision issued last Thursday by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals provides a preliminary answer for at least a portion of this question.
Â â€śBeforeâ€ť Chapter 15.
Prior to the enactment of Chapter 15, US bankruptcy courts disagreed on whether â€“ and how â€“ the administrator of a foreign insolvency proceeding could pursue such transfers in the US.Â Some courts permitted non-US administrators to pursue such recovery efforts directly (through an ancillary proceeding), under the fraudulent transfer law of the debtorâ€™s home jurisdiction.Â Others permitted such recoveries only under US law, and only through a separately filed (and far more expensive and time-consuming) Chapter 11 or 7 bankruptcy case.
â€śAfterâ€ť Chapter 15.
Chapter 15 resolved at least a portion of this debate.Â Section 1521(a)(7) provides that upon recognition of a foreign proceeding, the court may grant â€śany appropriate reliefâ€ť including â€śadditional relief that may be available to a trustee, except for relief available under [the avoidance sections of the US Bankruptcy Code].â€ť Section 1523(b) authorizes the bankruptcy court to order relief necessary to avoid acts that are â€śdetrimental to creditors,â€ť providing that, upon recognition of a foreign proceeding, a foreign representative has â€śstanding in [the debtorâ€™s US bankruptcy] case . . . to initiate [avoidance] actions.â€ťÂ In other words, Congress appeared to clear up the question where recovery efforts are initiated under US law: Â A full Chapter 11 (or 7) case is required.
But what about recovery efforts commenced under nonÂ-US law?
Courts visiting this issue under Chapter 15 appear almost as divided as those who looked at it prior to the Bankruptcy Codeâ€™s 2005 amendments.
Two cases, both addressing the question in dicta, have gone in opposite directions.Â In one, the Bankruptcy Court forbade a sale â€śfree and clearâ€ť of an avoidable English lien on procedural grounds â€“ but along the way, acknowledged that avoidance actions under the US Bankruptcy Code are cognizable only if the debtor is the subject of a case under another chapter of the Bankruptcy Code.Â In another, the Bankruptcy Court denied a request by the administrator of a Danish insolvency proceeding for turnover of previously-garnished funds on the grounds that such turnover provisions were not applicable in Chapter 15 â€“ but nevertheless went out of its way to note that nothing in Chapter 15â€™s legislative history â€“ or in prior US cross-border law â€“ prohibited avoidance actions commenced under the law of the debtorâ€™s home jurisdiction.
To date, however, only one case has addressed the issue directly.
Condor Insurance and the Bankruptcy Codeâ€™s Deafening Silence.
Condor Insurance, Limited (â€śCondorâ€ť), a Nevis-incorporated insurer and surety bond issuer, was placed into a winding-up proceeding in its home jurisdiction in 2007.Â The following year, Condorâ€™s liquidators sought recognition in Mississippi â€“ in part, to pursue alleged fraudulent transfers aggregating more than $313 million to Condor affiliates and principals.
The Bankruptcy Court and District Court Decisions.
The Condor defendants moved to dismiss, claiming the Bankruptcy Court lacked jurisdiction to grant the relief requested. The Bankruptcy Court agreed, and â€“ on appeal, and in a published decision â€“ the District Court affirmed.Â Central to the District Courtâ€™s reasoning was the idea that, in US courts, â€śthe choice of law that is to be applied to a lawsuit is determined by a court having jurisdiction over the case, and the parties are not permitted to choose whatever law they wish when filing a lawsuit.â€ťÂ As a result, the District Court found it lacked jurisdiction to hear the avoidance action.Â Instead, it suggested that the liquidators commence and resolve the avoidance claims in Nevis â€“ and then, upon procurement of a judgment, seek enforcement under principles of international comity.
The Fifth Circuit Decision.
In a decision issued last week, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals respectfully disagreed.Â Writing for a 3-judge panel, Judge Patrick Higgenbotham observed Chapter 15â€™s â€śinternational originsâ€ť to encompass â€śinternational law.â€ťÂ For the panel, Chapter 15 is not merely a procedural vehicle by which foreign administrators may cost-effectively protect assets domiciled, or control litigation originating, in the US.Â Instead, foreign administrators may import the substantive insolvency law of foreign jurisdictions into US courts, which have jurisdiction to apply such law to disputes pending in the US. Â See pp. 8-9 (â€śWhatever its full reach, Chapter 15 does not constrain the federal courtâ€™s exercise of the powers of foreign law it is to apply.â€ť).
As a result, the statuteâ€™s silence speaks volumes.Â Once recognized in the US court system through Chapter 15, foreign administrators have direct access to the panoply of federal judicial powers available to assist their administration of insolvency-related matters in the US, limited only by the specific â€ścarve-outsâ€ť for US avoidance actions reserved in Section 1521:
â€śThe structure of Chapter 15 provides authority to the district court to assist foreign representatives once a foreign proceeding has been recognized by the district court. Neither text nor structure suggests additional exceptions to available relief. Though the language does not explicitly address the use of foreign avoidance law, it suggests a broad reading of the powers granted to the district court in order to advance the goals of comity to foreign jurisdictions. Â And this silence is loud given the history of the statute including the efforts of the United States to create processes for transnational businesses in extremis.â€ťÂ Decision at pp. 9-10.
-Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â What About â€śSection Shopping?â€ť
The Fifth Circuit recognized the appelleesâ€™ concern over â€śsection shoppingâ€ť â€“ i.e., the strategic use of Chapter 15 (rather than Chapter 11 or Chapter 7) by foreign administrators to leverage the benefits of foreign avoidance law in US forums.Â But where Congress had not taken further steps to guard against this threat, the Fifth Circuit overruled the District Courtâ€™s own efforts to do so.Â In fact, Judge Higgenbotham and his colleagues did not appear bothered by the spectre of â€śsection shopping,â€ť noting that in the case before it â€“ that of a foreign insurance company â€“ Chapters 7 and 11 were not eligible relief.Â Moreover, the District Courtâ€™s suggestion that the foreign administrator should simply obtain an avoidance judgment in Nevis, then seek enforcement of that judgment in the US, was â€śno answer.Â Not all defendants are necessarily within the jurisdictional reach of the Nevis court.â€ťÂ Decision at p.14.
-Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â What Of â€śMixing and Matching?â€ť
Instead of â€śsection shopping,â€ť Judge Higgenbotham saw the danger of â€śmixing and matchingâ€ť foreign insolvency proceedings with US avoidance law, arising in connection with a Chapter 11 or Chapter 7 case.Â See p. 11 (â€śWhen courts mix and match different aspects of bankruptcy law, the goals of any particular bankruptcy regime may be thwarted and the end result may be that the final distribution is contrary to the result that either system applied alone would have reached.â€ť).Â The Fifth Circuit traced the development of the UNCITRALâ€™s efforts to address choice of law in avoidance actions while drafting the model law that forms the basis for Chapter 15, concluding:
â€śThe application of foreign avoidance law in a Chapter 15 ancillary proceeding raises fewer choice of law concerns as the court is not required to create a separate bankruptcy estate.Â It accepts the helpful marriage of avoidance and distribution whether the proceeding is ancillary applying foreign law or a full proceeding applying domestic lawâ€”a marriage that avoids the more difficult depecage rules of conflict law presented by avoidance and distribution decisions governed by different sources of law.â€ťÂ Decision at p.13.
The Fifth Circuit panel also found its own approach more consistent with that of US cross-border law that pre-dated Chapter 15, noting Bankruptcy Courts could â€“ and sometimes did â€“ apply either US avoidance law or foreign avoidance law to an action pending in an ancillary case under former Section 304.Â At least one court, however, had criticized this approach for the same â€śmixing and matchingâ€ť of foreign and domestic insolvency law noted by the Fifth Circuit.Â See p.16 (citing and discussing In re Metzeler, 78Â B.R. 674, 677 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. 1987)):
â€śIn sum, under section 304, avoidance actions under foreign law were permitted when foreign law applied and would provide for such relief.Â Congress essentially made explicit In re Metzelerâ€™s articulation of the bar on access to avoidance powers created by the U.S. Code by foreign representatives in ancillary proceedings.â€ťÂ Decision at p.16.
-Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Wholesale Importation of Foreign Avoidance Actions?
As for concerns that US insolvency courts â€“ and US businesses â€“ might find themselves awash in avoidance claims arising under non-US law, the Fifth Circuit again reverted to the international policies undergirding the legislation:
â€śProviding access to domestic federal courts to proceedings ancillary to foreign main proceedings springs from distinct impulses of providing protection to domestic business and its creditors as they develop foreign markets. Settled expectations of the rules that will govern their efforts on distant shores is an important ingredient to the risk calculations of lenders and corporate management. In short, Chapter 15 is a congressional implementation of efforts to achieve the cooperative relationships with other countries essential to this objective.â€ť
The Unanswered Question.
The Fifth Circuitâ€™s Condor decision leaves unanswered the question of whether avoidance actions commenced under Section 544 of the Bankruptcy Code â€“ which itself references â€śapplicable [non-bankruptcy] lawâ€ť â€“ includes foreign law.Â Section 1521, by its terms, excludes avoidance actions predicated on this section.Â But the Bankruptcy Court, the District Court, and the Fifth Circuit all ducked this issue.
One Manhattan bankruptcy judge recently observed, in dicta, that Section 544(b) gives the trustee the standing of a judgment lien creditor.Â Because a preference action under foreign law would not appear to depend on status as a judgment lien creditor, this section would appear inapplicable to preference claims. A preference action under foreign law might therefore be available as â€śadditional assistanceâ€ť under Â§ 1507.Â See In re Atlas Shipping A/S, 404 B.R. 726, 744 at n.16 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. 2009).
But Condor’s briefÂ analysisÂ didnâ€™tÂ address preference claims.Â It addressed avoidance actions, which â€“ at least in the US â€“ do depend upon judgment lien creditor status.Â As a result, the availability of foreign avoidance actions, while resolved in the Fifth Circuit â€“ remains likely unanswered elsewhere.
Sunday, March 14th, 2010
In light of the tumultuous economic events of 2008 and 2009, a number of proposals for significant bankruptcy reform have surfaced – many of which have been summarized on this blog.
One of last year’sÂ posts focused on the ongoing debate over the impact of credit derivatives on failing companies, and on the continued usefulness of Bankruptcy Code provisions designed to insulate the financial markets from the bankruptcy process.
Last week, Harvard’s Mark Roe added to that discussion with a paper entitled “Bankruptcyâ€™s Financial Crisis Accelerator: The Derivatives Playersâ€™ Priorities in Chapter 11”
The essence of Professor Roe’s proposal is set forth at p. 3:
Although several of [the Bankruptcy Codeâ€™s safe-harbor super-priorities for derivatives and repurchase agreements] are functional and ought to be kept, the full range is far too broad. Most are more likely to destabilize financial markets than to stabilize them and most need to be repealed.
Professor Roe’s thoughtful analysisÂ is a worthwhile read.
Monday, March 1st, 2010
With both the global and regional Southern California economies showing early signs of life â€“ but still lacking the broad-based demand for goods and services required for robust growth â€“ opportunities abound for strong industry players to make strategic acquisitions of troubled competitors or their distressed assets.
Ray Clark, CFA, ASA and Senior Managing Director of VALCOR Consulting, LLC, is no stranger to middle-market deals.Â His advisory firm provides middle market restructuring, transactional and valuation services throughout the Southwestern United States from offices in Orange County, San Francisco, and Phoenix.
As most readers are likely aware, distressed mergers and acquisitions can be handled through a variety of deal structures.Â Last week, Ray dropped by South Bay Law Firm to offer his thoughts on a process commonly known in bankruptcy parlance as a â€śSection 363 sale.â€ť
In particular, Ray covers the â€śpros and consâ€ť of this approach.
The floor is yours, Ray.
Todayâ€™s economic environment has created an opportunity to acquire assets of financially distressed entities at deeply discounted prices, and one of the most effective ways to make those acquisitions is through a purchase in the context of a bankruptcy under Section 363 of the Bankruptcy Code (the â€śCodeâ€ť).Â When purchasing the assets of a failed company under Section 363, there are distinct advantages to being first in line.Â Depending on the circumstances, however, it may be best to wait and let the process unfold – andÂ then, only after surveying the entire landscape, submit a bid.
The 363 Sale Process
A so-called â€ś363 Saleâ€ť is a sale of assets of a bankrupt debtor, wherein certain discrete assets such as equipment or real estate â€“ or substantially all the debtor’s business assets â€“ are sold pursuant to Section 363 of the Bankruptcy Code (11 USC Â§363).Â Upon bankruptcy court approval, the assets will be conveyed to the purchaser free and clear of any liens or encumbrances. Those liens or encumbrances will then attach to the net proceeds of the sale and beÂ paid as ordered by the Bankruptcy Court.
A Section 363 sale looks much like a traditional controlled auction.Â Basic Section 363 sale mechanics include an initial bidder, often referred to as the â€śstalking horse,â€ť who reaches an agreement to purchase assets – typically from the Chapter 11 debtor, or “debtor-in-possession” (DIP). Â The buyer and the DIP negotiate an asset purchase agreement (APA), which rewards the stalking horse for investing the effort and expense to sign a transaction that will be exposed to â€śhigher and betterâ€ť or â€śoverâ€ť bids.Â The Bankruptcy Court will approve the bidding procedures, including the incentives, i.e., a â€śbust-upâ€ť fee, for the stalking horse bidder, and will pronounce clear rules for the remainder of the sale process. Â Notice of the sale will be given, qualified bids will arrive and there will be an auction. Â The sale to the highest bidder will commonly close within four to six weeks after the notice and the stalking horse will either acquire the assets or take home its bust-up fee and expense reimbursement as a consolation.Â
Advantages for the Stalking Horse Bidder
Bidding Protections - During negotiations with the debtor for the purchase of assets, the stalking horse will also typically negotiate certain protections for itself during the bidding process.Â These bidding protections, which include a bust-up fee and expense reimbursement, will be set forth in the 363 sale motion and are generally approved by the bankruptcy Court.Â As a result, stalking horse bidders seek to insulate themselves against the risk of being out-bid.Â To do so, proposed stalking-horse bidders commonly require that any outside bidder will typically have to submit not only a bid that is higher than that of the stalking horse, but will also need to include an amount to cover the stalking horse’s transactional fees and expenses.
Bidding Procedures – The stalking horse will also negotiate certain bidding procedures with the debtor, which will be set forth in the 363 sale motion that will be evaluated, and most likely approved, by the Court.Â The sale procedures generally include the time frame during which other potential bidders must complete their due diligence and the date by which competing bids must be submitted.
Other delineated procedures typically included in the motion include the amount of any deposit accompanying a bid and the incremental amount by which a competing bid must exceed the stalking horse bid. Â In addition, if the sale procedures provide for an abbreviated time frame in which to complete an investigation of the assets, a competing bidder will be at a distinct disadvantage and may be unable, as a result, to even submit a bid.
Deal Structure â€“ As the first in line, the stalking horse bidder will also negotiate all of the important elements of the transaction, including which assets to acquire, what contracts â€“ if any â€“ to assume, the purchase price and other terms and conditions.Â In doing so, it establishes the ground rules by which the sale process will unfold and the framework for the transaction, which will be difficult, if not impossible, for another outside bidder to change.Â
â€śFirst Moverâ€ť Advantage – The stalking horse bidder will typically be viewed by the Court as the favored asset purchaser in that it will have negotiated all of the relevant terms and procedures, and established its financial ability and intent to acquire the assets.Â As a result, short of an overbid by an outside party, which typically involves an additional amount to cover the stalking horseâ€™s bust-up fee and expenses, the stalking horse bidder will prevail.
Cooperation of Stakeholders â€“ As the lead bidder, the stalking horse also has an opportunity to negotiate with other key stakeholders in the process and establish a close relationship with those parties that may prove advantageous when all offers are evaluated.
Bust-up Fee and Expense Coverage â€“ Lastly, if an outside party happens to submit the high bid, the stalking horse will typically receive its bust-up fee and expense reimbursement. This generally includes items such as due diligence fees, legal and accounting fees, and similar expenses, but is limited by negotiation.Â
Disadvantages to the Stalking Horse Bidder
Risk of Being Outbid â€“ As noted, the stalking horse will expend a great deal of time, energy, and resources analyzing and negotiating for the purchase of the assets.Â All a competing bidder must do is show up to the sale and submit an over-bid.Â If the competing over-bidder prevails, the stalking horse runs the risk of walking away with only its bust-up fee and expense reimbursement.
Risk of Bidding Too High â€“ After negotiating the APA, the stalking horse then participates in the 363 sale process.Â If no other bidders materialize, it may be because the stalking horse effectively over-paid for the assets.Â
Inability to Alter Terms â€“ If some new information comes to light that would otherwise suggest a reduction in the price or alteration of the terms, the stalking horse may have difficulty altering either of these and may be locked in to the negotiated structure.
Contact email@example.comÂ or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meanwhile, happy hunting.
Sunday, January 31st, 2010
The market collapse of 2008 and resulting financial crisis have led to significant reflection on a number of systemic features of our financial markets and on the stability of institutions that play significant roles in their function.
That reflection has produced a fresh round of legal scholarship on what role – if any – the federal Bankruptcy Code should play in addressing the financial difficulties of these institutions.Â In a recent paper, Columbia’s Harvey R. Miller Professor of Law Edward R. MorrisonÂ asks, “Is the Bankruptcy Code an Adequate Mechanism for Resolving the Distress of Systemically Important Institutions?”
The issue, at least asÂ put by Professor Morrison in the opening paragraphs of his paper, is framed as follows:
The President and members of Congress are considering proposals that would give the government broad authority to rescue financial institutions whose failure would threaten market stability. These systemically important institutions include bank and insurance holding companies, investment banks, and other “large, highly leveraged, and interconnected” entities that are not currently subject to federal resolution authority.Â Interest in these proposals stems from the credit crisis, particularly the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers.
That bankruptcy, according to some observers, caused massive destabilization in credit markets for two reasons.Â First, market participants were surprised that the government would permit a massive market player to undergo a costly Chapter 11 proceeding. Very different policy had been applied to other systemically important institutions such as Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac.Â Second, the bankruptcy filing triggered fire sales of Lehman assets. Fire sales were harmful to other, non-distressed institutions that held similar assets, which suddenly plummeted in value. They were also harmful to any institution holding Lehman’s commercial paper, which functioned as a store of value for entities such as the Primary Reserve Fund. Fire sales destroyed Lehman’s ability to honor these claims.
Lehman’s experience and the various bailouts of AIG, Bear Stearns, and other distressed institutions have produced two kinds of policy proposals. One calls for wholesale reform, including creation of a systemic risk regulator with authority to seize and stabilize systemically important institutions.Â Another is more modest and calls for targeted amendments to the Bankruptcy Code and greater government monitoring of market risks.Â This approach would retain bankruptcy as the principal mechanism for resolving distress at non-bank institutions, systemically important or not.
Put differently, current debates hinge on one question: Is the Bankruptcy Code an adequate mechanism for resolving the distress of systemically important institutions? One view says “no,” and advances wholesale reform. Another view says “yes, with some adjustments.”
Morrison’s paper sets out to assess this debate, and concludes by advocating [again, in his words]Â ”an approach modeled on the current regime governing commercial banks. That regime includes both close monitoring when a bank is healthy and aggressive intervention when it is distressed. The two tasks – monitoring and intervention – are closely tied, ensuring that intervention occurs only when there is a well-established need for it.” As a result of the close relationship between the power to intervene and the duty to monitor, however, any proposed legislation “is unwise if it gives the government power to seize an institution regardless of whether it was previously subject to monitoring and other regulations.”
Elsewhere in the Empire State, at the University of Rochester, Distinguished Professor Thomas H. Jackson proposes “Chapter 11F: A Proposal for the Use of Bankruptcy to Resolve (Restructure, Sell, or Liquidate) Financial Institutions.“Â According to Jackson:
Bankruptcy reorganization is, for the most part, an American success story. It taps into a huge body of law, provides certainty, and has shown an ability to respond to changing circumstances. It follows (for the most part) nonbankruptcy priority rules – the absolute priority rule – with useful predictability, sorts out financial failure (too much debt but a viable business) from underlying failure, and shifts ownership to a new group of residual claimants, through the certainty that can be provided by decades of rules and case law.
Notwithstanding its success, bankruptcy reorganization has a patchwork of exceptions, some perhaps more sensible than others.Â Among them are depository banks (handled by the FDIC), insurance companies (handled by state insurance regulators), and stockbrokers and commodity brokers (relegated to Chapter 7 and to federal regulatory agencies).Â In recent months, there has been a growing chorus to remove bankruptcy law, and specifically its reorganization process, from “systemically important financial in-stitutions (SIFIs),” with a proposed regulatory process substituted instead, run by a designated federal agency, such as the Federal Reserve Board or the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Putting aside political considerations, behind this idea lie several perceived objections to the use of the bankruptcy process.Â First, it is argued, bankruptcy, because it is focused on the parties before the court, is not able to deal with the impacts of a bankruptcy on other institutions – an issue thought to be of dominant importance with respect to SIFIs, where the concern is that the fall of one will bring down others or lead to enormous problems in the nation’s financial system.Â Second, bankruptcy – indeed, any judicial process – is thought to be too slow to deal effectively with failures that require virtually instant attention so as to minimize their consequences.Â Third – and probably related to the first and second objections – even the best-intentioned bankruptcy process is assumed to lack sufficient expertise to deal with the complexities of a SIFI and its intersection with the broader financial market.
Jackson’s response to this growing chorus of objections is to propose amending existing Chapter 11 legislation.Â Again, in his words:
The premise of [Jackson's] “Chapter 11F” proposal, which [he] flesh[es] out [in his paper], is that, assuming the validity of each of these objections, they, neither individually nor collectively, make a case for creating yet another (and very large) exception to the nation’s bankruptcy laws and setting up a regulatory system, run by a designated federal agency, that operates outside of the predictability-enhancing constraints of a judicial process. Rather, bankruptcy’s process can be modified for SIFIs – [Jackson's] Chapter 11F – to introduce, and protect, systemic concerns, to provide expertise, and to provide speed where it might, in fact, be essential. Along the way, there is probably a parallel need to modify certain other existing bankruptcy exclusions, such as for insurance companies, commodity brokers, stockbrokers, and even depository banks, so that complex, multi-faceted financial institutions can be fully resolved within bankruptcy.
With views as divergent as these, one might be tempted to look for a fundamental assessment of the differences between the banking regulatory system and the Chapter 11 process.Â And that assessment is, in fact,Â available from the Congressional Research Service – whichÂ last April provided its own comparison of “Insolvency of Systemically Significant Financial Companies: Bankruptcy v. Conservatorship / Receivership.“Â As summarized by its author, Legislative Attorney David H. Carpenter:
One clear lesson of the 2008 recession, which brought Goliaths such as Bear Sterns, CitiGroup, AIG, and Washington Mutual to their knees, is that no financial institution, regardless of its size, complexity, or diversification, is invincible. Congress, as a result, is left with the question of how best to handle the failure of systemically significant financial companies (SSFCs). In the United States, the insolvencies of depository institutions (i.e., banks and thrifts with deposits insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)) are not handled according to the procedures of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Instead, they and their subsidiaries are subject to a separate regime prescribed in federal law, called a conservatorship or receivership. Under this regime, the conservator or receiver, which generally is the FDIC, is provided substantial authority to deal with virtually every aspect of the insolvency. However, the failure of most other financial institutions within bank, thrift, and financial holding company umbrellas (including the holding companies themselves) generally are dealt with under the Bankruptcy Code.
In March of 2009, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner proposed legislation that would impose a conservatorship/receivership regime, much like that for depository institutions, on insolvent financial institutions that are deemed systemically significant. In order to make a policy assessment concerning the appropriateness of this proposal, it is important to understand both the similarities and differences between insured depositories and other financial institutions large enough or interconnected enough to pose systemic risk to the U.S. economy upon failure, as well as the differences between the U.S. Bankruptcy Code and the FDIC’s conservatorship/receivership authority.
[Carpenter's] report first discusses the purposes behind the creation of a separate insolvency regime for depository institutions. The report then compares and contrasts the characteristics of depository institutions with SSFCs. Next, the report provides a brief analysis of some important differences between the FDIC’s conservatorship / receivership authority and that of the Bankruptcy Code. The specific differences discussed are: (1) overall objectives of each regime; (2) insolvency initiation authority and timing; (3) oversight structure and appeal; (4) management, shareholder, and creditor rights; (5) FDIC “superpowers,” including contract repudiation versus Bankruptcy’s automatic stay; and (6) speed of resolution. This report makes no value judgment as to whether an insolvency regime for SSFCs that is modeled after the FDIC’s conservatorship/receivership authority is more appropriate than using (or adapting) the Bankruptcy Code. Rather, it simply points out the similarities and differences between SSFCs and depository institutions, and compares the conservatorship/receivership insolvency regime with the Bankruptcy Code to help the reader develop his/her own opinion.
Fascinating reading . . . and an awful lot of it.
Saturday, January 16th, 2010
Recent federal assistance to the banking sector has focused attention on how failing banks are regulated – and why.Â From the University of Virginia School of Law, professors Richard M. Hynes and Steven D. Walt visit this issue in their recent article entitled “Why Banks Are Not Allowed in Bankruptcy.”
Here’s the article – and the authors’ abstract:
Unlike most other countries, the United States uses different procedures to resolve insolvent banks and non-bank firms. When non-bank firms file for bankruptcy, the Bankruptcy Code divides control among the various claimants and a judge supervises the resolution process. By contrast, the FDIC acts as the receiver for an insolvent bank and has almost complete control. Other claimants can sue the FDIC, but they cannot obtain injunctive relief, and their damages are limited to the amount that they would have received in liquidation. The FDIC has acted as the receiver of insolvent banks since the Great Depression, and the concentration of power in the FDIC is traditionally justified by two arguments: i) the need for a timely disposition of the bank’s assets to maintain the liquidity of deposits and encourage faith in the banking system, and ii) the FDIC’s role as the largest creditor gives it an incentive to maximize the recovery from the assets. We revisit these arguments in light of the dramatic changes that have occurred in banking and ask whether they still (or ever did) justify FDIC control. We suggest that the first argument fails because it conflates the need for a timely satisfaction of the claims of insured depositors by the FDIC with the need to quickly dispose of the failed bank’s assets. As stated, the second argument does not justify FDIC control as one must generally ask whether the largest creditor will take actions that are harmful to the other claimants on the failed firm’s assets. However, if modified the second argument is much more persuasive. A detailed survey of the capital structure of failed banks reveals that the FDIC is usually the only major creditor and that the value of the FDIC’s claim nearly always exceeds the value of a failed bank’s assets. The FDIC is therefore the residual claimant and has the incentive to make the right decisions in disposing of the bank’s assets. We question whether this principle can justify recent proposals to extend FDIC control over the resolution of large bank holding companies. We further note that this principle limits the circumstances in which the FDIC should retain control over the resolution of the banks themselves. Four limits are considered: i) capital structure is endogenous – the absence of claims junior to the FDIC may reflect the lack of voice given to these claimants in a bank resolution process, ii) agency costs internal to the FDIC may prevent the FDIC from maximizing the recovery from the failed bank’s assets, iii) the FDIC may not be the residual claimant of extremely large banks with complex liability structures, and iv) debt conversion schemes which allow for automatic financial restructuring of a failed bank may render bank resolution procedures less necessary. The Article argues that these limits do not justify removing the FDIC from control in resolving most bank failures.
Monday, September 28th, 2009
The bankruptcy blogosphere is replete with commentary on Chrysler LLC’s sale, through Section 363 of the Bankruptcy Code,Â to a newly-formed entity.Â The sale, of substantially all of Chrysler’s assets for $2 billion, gave secured creditors an estimated $0.29 on the dollar.Â Other, unsecured creditors received more.Â Though challenged, the sale ultimately received the 2d Circuit’s approval in a decision issued August 5.
Was the Chrysler saleÂ proper?Â Â OrÂ did itÂ constitute an inappropriate “end run” around the reorganization provisions that ordinarily apply in a confirmed Chapter 11 plan?
Harvard Law’s Mark RoeÂ and Penn Law’s David Skeel tackle this question in a paper released earlier this month entitled “Assessing the Chrysler Bankruptcy.”Â Â Roe and Skeel argue, in essence,Â that there was no way to tell whether or not the sale was proper because the sale lacked valuation, an arm’s length settlement, or a genuine market test (i.e., an auction) – all traditional measures of whether or not secured creditors received appropriate value for their collateral.Â They then suggest that the Chrysler transaction may portend aÂ returnÂ of sorts to theÂ equitable receiverships used to reorganize the nation’s railroads at the end of the ninenteenth century.
Roe and Skeel follow two fundamental strands of thought.
First, they review the basic facts of the Chrysler sale against the context of other so-called “363 sales” and ask where Chrysler fits within this context.
Their answer is that it really doesn’t fit.
Most complex bankruptcy salesÂ (i.e., sales that effectively determine priorities and terms that the Code is structured to determine under Section 1129)Â are insulated from running afoul of the Code’s reorganization provisions through judicial innovations such as expert valuations or priority determinations, creditor consents, or competitive auctions.Â According to Roe and Skeel, the Chrysler sale had none of these.Â Instead,
“[Chrysler's] sale determined the core of the reorganization, but without adequately valuing the firm via [Section] 1129(b), without adequately structuring a . . . bargain [with creditors or classes of creditors], and without adequately market testing the sale itself.Â Although the bankruptcy court emphasized an emergency quality to the need to act quickly . . . there was no immediate emergency.Â Chrysler’s business posture in early June did not give the court an unlimited amount of time to reorganize, but it gave the court weeks to sort out priorities, even if in a makeshift way.”
How was the Chrysler sale deficient in these respects?
Though it involved a valuation presented by Chrysler, “the court did not give the objecting creditors time to present an alternative valuation from their experts . . . .Â Here, the judge saw evidence from only one side’s experts.”
For those who may protest that the Chrysler sale did, indeed, enjoy the consent of Chrysler’s secured lenders, Roe and Skeel argue that the largest of these lenders were beholden to the U.S. Treasury and to the Federal Reserve – not only as regulators, but as key patrons via the federal government’s rescue program.Â They were, therefore, willing to “go along with the program” – and the Bankruptcy Court was inclined to use their consent to overrule other objections from lenders not so well situtated.Â On this basis, Roe and Skeel contend that the secured lenders’ “consent” – such as it may have been – wasn’t independent “consent” at all.
Roe and Skeel also point out that the “market test” proposed as a means of validating the sale was, in fact, not a test of Chrysler’s assets, but of the proposed sale: “There was a market test of the Chrysler [sale], but unfortunately, it was a test that no one could believe adequately revealed Chrysler’s underlying value, as what was put to market was the . . . [sale] itself.”
The authors then go on to argue that the sale was mere pretense – and that, in fact,Â ”there was no real sale [of Chrysler],Â . . .Â at its core Chrysler was a reorganization”:
“Consider a spectrum.Â At one end, the old firm is sold for cash through a straight-forward, arms-length sale to an unaffiliated buyer.Â It’s a prime candidate to be a legitimate [Section] 363 sale.Â At the other end, the firm is transferred to insider creditors who obtain control; no substantial third-party comes in; and the new owners are drawn from the old creditors.Â That’s not a [Section] 363 sale; it’s a reorganization that needs to comply with [Section] 1129.
. . . .
[To determine where a proposed sale falls along this spectrum,]Â [a] rough rule of thumb for the court to start with is this stark, two-prong test: If the post-transaction capital structure contains a majority of creditors and owners who had constituted more than half of the old company’s balance sheet, while the transfer leaves significant creditor layers behind, and if a majority of the equity in the purportedly acquiring firm was in the old capital structure, then the transaction must be presumed to be a reorganization, not a bona fide sale.Â In Chrysler, nearly 80% of the creditors in the new capital structure were from the old one and more than half of the new equity was not held by an arms-length purchaser, but by the old creditors.Â Chrysler was reorganized, not sold.”
Was the Chrysler transaction – however it may be called – simply a necessary expedient, borne of the unique economic circumtsances and policy concerns confronting theÂ federal government during the summer of 2009?
Roe and Skeel argue that, in fact,Â theÂ government could have acted differently: It could have picked up some of Chrysler’s unsecured obligations (i.e., its retiree obligations) separately.Â It could have offered the significant subsidies contemplated by the deal to qualified bidders rather than to Chrysler.Â It could even have paid off all of Chrysler’s creditors in full.Â But it did none of this.
Second, Roe and Skeel consider that “[t]he deal structure Chrysler used does not need the government’s involvement or a national industry in economic crisis.”Â Indeed, itÂ has already been offered as precedentÂ for proposed salesÂ in the Delphi andÂ Phoenix Coyotes NHL team bankruptcies – and, of course, in the subsequent GM case.
One very recent case in which South Bay Law Firm representedÂ a significant trade creditor involved a similar acquisition structure, with an insider- and management-affiliatedÂ acquirer purchasing secured debt at a significant discount, advancing modest cash through a DIP facility to a struggling retailer, and proposing to transition significant trade debt to the purchasing entity as partial consideration for the purchase.
The deal got done.
What’s to become of this new acquisition dynamic?Â Employing a uniquely historical perspective, Roe and Skeel travel back in time to observe:
“The Chrysler deal was structured as a pseudo sale, mostly to insiders . . . in a way eerily resembling the ugliest equity receiverships at the end of the 19th century.Â The 19th century receivership process was a creature of necessity, and it facilitated reorganization of the nation’s railroads and other large corporations at a time when the nation lacked a statutory framework to do so.Â But early equity receiverships created opportunities for abuse.Â In the receiverships of the late 19th and early 20th century, insiders would set up a dummy corporation to buy the failed company’s assets.Â Some old creditors – the insiders – would come over to the new entity.Â Other, outsider creditors would be left behind, to claim against something less valuable, often an empty shell.Â Often those frozen-out creditors were the company’s trade creditors.”
They trace the treatment of equity receiverships, noting their curtailment in the US Supreme Court’s Boyd decision, the legislative reforms embodied in the Chandler Act of 1938, and the 1939 Case v. Los Angeles Lumber Products decisionÂ which articulated the subsequently-enacted “absolute priority rule” (but preserved the “new value exception”).Â Against this historical background,Â ”Chrysler, in effect, overturned Boyd.”
But with a twist.
“One feature of Chrysler that differed from Boyd may portend future problems.Â Major creditors in Chrysler were were not pure financiers, but were deeply involved in the automaker’s production.”Â In cases where the value of the assets is enhanced by the continued involvement of key non-financial creditors, “players with similar [legal] priorities will not . . . be treated similarly.”
Translation: When non-financial creditors are driving enterprise value, a Chrysler-style sale suggests that some will make out, and some creditorsÂ - even, on occasion,Â some secured lenders – will get the shaft.
If accurate, Roe’s and Skeel’s Chrysler analysis raises some significant considerations about access to and pricing of business credit.Â It raises new concerns for trade creditors.Â It likewise presents the possibility that the Chapter 11 process – which has, in recent years, tilted heavily in favor of secured lenders – may not be quite as predictable or uniformly favorable as in the past.
Meanwhile . . .Â it’s back to the future.
Monday, August 31st, 2009
Chrysler’s and GM’s recent sales through the Bankruptcy Courts of New York’s Southern DistrictÂ have raised the question of whether some jurisdictions provide more receptive forums than others for getting a “distressed M&A” transaction accomplished.Â This sort of “forum shopping” is both a well-established concept inÂ commercial insolvency practice and an integral part of reorganization planning.
Last week, a 7th Circuit decision highlighted another area where geography – at least as it concerns the choice of a Bankruptcy Court – canÂ have an important effect on the outcome of a Chapter 11 case, as well as on a reorganized debtor’s post-confirmation operations: The resolution of environmental liabilities.
U.S. v. Apex Oil Company involved an environmental injunction obtained against Apex Oil, successor-by-merger to Clark Oil and Refining Corporation.
Clark Oil, its corporate parent, and a number of affiliates filed related Chapter 11 cases 12 years ago, in 1987.Â Clark was subsequently merged into Apex,Â and a Chapter 11 Plan confirmed in the debtors’ related Chapter 11 cases.Â Nearly two decades later, in 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency sought an injunction requiring Apex to clean up a contaminated site in Hartford, Illinois, which housed an oil refinery once owned by Clark.
Chief US District Court Judge David Herndon of Illinois’ Southern District conducted a 17-day bench trial in early 2008 and, in July 2008, issued a 178-page decision finding that, in fact, contamination was present at the site andÂ that it was Apex’s responsibility to clean it up.
Apex appealed, arguing that confirmation of the Chapter 11 Plan and discharge obtained in Clark Oil’s Chapter 11 case 2 decades earlier precluded enforcement of the more recent federal injunction.Â In essence, Apex argued that Section 101 of the Bankruptcy Code defines a “claim” as a “right to an equitable remedy for breach of performance if such breach gives rise to a right to payment.”Â SinceÂ cleaning up the contaminatedÂ Hartford,Â Ill.Â refinery siteÂ in response to the federal injunction would obviously require the significant expenditure of money, Apex reasoned that this obligation was effectively a “claim” subject to the earlier Chapter 11 discharge, and could not be enforced.
Judges Posner, Cudahy, and Kanne of the 7th Circuit were not persuaded.Â Judge Posner’s comparatively brief, 12-page decision issued last week heldÂ that the EPA’s federal injunction at issue did not give rise to a “claim” as that term is defined by the Bankruptcy Code . . . and, therefore, could not be discharged by means of Clark Oil’s Chapter 11 Plan.
Consequently, Apex now holds the clean-up tab for the old Clark refinery.
In order to hand Apex that tab, Judge Posner and his colleagues distinguished Apex’s case from a 1985 Supreme Court decision – Ohio v. Kovacs, 469 U.S. 274Â - which involved Ohio’s appointment of a receiver to remediate environmental claims after the debtor failed to abide byÂ a state court consent decree requiring him to do so.Â The Supreme Court found that these enforcement efforts constituted a dischargeable “claim” in Kovacs’ bankruptcy.
The result in Apex was different because, in Judge Posner’s view, the receiver inÂ Kovacs sought money for clean-up, whereas the EPA in Apex merely sought clean-up . . . from Apex.Â And, in fact, the federal statute under which the EPA sought remediation (the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act – “RCRA”) affords only this relief – and nothing more.
Juge Posner’s analysis of RCRA relies in part on earlier 7th Circuit precedent (AM Int’l. v. Datacard Corp., 106 F.3d 1342) -Â which itself reliesÂ on other Supreme Court precedent (Meghrig v. KFC W., Inc., 516 U.S. 479) – toÂ hold that RCRA doesn’t allow a party obtaining a “clean-up” order to clean up a contaminated site itself, then sue for response costs in lieu of seeking an injunction.Â For this reason, he held, RCRA cannot “give rise to a right to payment” for purposes of a bankruptcy discharge.
The 7th Circuit panel acknowledged that Apex’s caseÂ is similar toÂ U.S. v. Whizco, 841 F.2d 147Â - in which the 6th Circuit reachedÂ a conclusion opposite from Judge Posner and his 7th Circuit colleagues.Â Â But where Apex is concerned, that is no matter.Â As Judge PosnerÂ sees it, the 6th Circuit’s rationale “cannot be squared with . . . [7th Circuit] decisions [such as Datacard] which hold that cost incurred [to comply with an equitable order] is not equivalent to the ‘right to payment’ . . . .”
Though the 7th Circuit’s understanding of RCRA is based in part on Supreme Court precedent, few decisions outside either the 6th or 7th Circuit appear to discuss its application in the bankruptcy context.Â Moreover, other Supreme Court precedent (such as Kovacs) holds that, at least in certain circumstances, equitable remedies (such as appointment of a receiver)Â are, in reality, “claims” within the meaning of the Bankruptcy Code – and, therefore, can be discharged.
As a result, the resolution of environmental claims in bankruptcy appears to turn not only on the “clean-up” statute at issue – or, more specifically, its remedies – but also on the jurisdiciton where the debtor’s bankruptcy case is filed.
So who’s gonna clean up this environmental mess?
That depends, at least in part, on which court first decides the claims resolution mess.