Avoidance and Recovery
Property of the Estate
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Posts Tagged ‘Chapter 7 Title 11 United States Code’
Avoidance and Recovery
Property of the Estate
Many insolvency practitioners are familiar with the “high-asset” individual debtor – often a business owner or owner of rental property or other 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. These individuals typically have obligations matching the size of their assets: Their restructuring needs are too large for treatment through an “individual” 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. 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. 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.” But in Chapter 11 – at least until 2005 – the answer has historically been “no.” This is because Chapter 11, oriented as it is toward business reorganization, prohibits a reorganizing debtor from retaining any property while an objecting class of unsecured creditors is paid something less than the entirety of its claims. 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%. For instance, an individual debtor may retain certain wages and earnings earned after the commencement of the debtor’s case. 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). 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. 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).
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. 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. 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. And courts, though stopping short of prohibiting 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. It was essentially wholly owned by ICO Global, which sought to de-leverage DBSD through Chapter 11 – but who 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 estimated 4% – 46%. 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.” Both the Bankruptcy Court and the District Court found that that the holders of the second lien debt, who were senior to the unsecured creditors 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. 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. As a result, the Plan’s distribution of stock and warrants to ICO Global under the Plan was impermissible.
Nevertheless, the Second Circuit didn’t slam the door altogether on the “gifting” of stock from senior creditors to equity. 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. 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 behind it, the Second Circuit stopped short of precluding such gifts altogether:
This analysis suggests it may be possible to negotiate outside a Chapter 11 plan for the same economic result as that originally proposed (but rejected) in DBSD.
– A “consensual” foreclosure by a senior secured creditor. Along the way to its conclusion, the Second Circuit distinguished DBSD from another “gifting” case – 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. The bankruptcy court granted relief from the automatic stay and converted the case from Chapter 11 to a Chapter 7 liquidation. Id. at 1309. 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. Id. at 1310. 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.”
About a month ago, the Ninth Circuit clarified and restated the ability of individual creditors to pursue claims against debtors based on an 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. 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: During the 1990’s, the debtors established two separate and allegedly irrevocable trusts – the “Apartment Trust” (to hold the debtors’ stock in a corporation which owned and operated an apartment building) and the “Grove Trust” (to hold four plots of land containing avocado groves). 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. 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 family members. 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. The appointed Chapter 7 trustee filed an adversary complaint seeking to recover approximately $4 million from the trusts. 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 that under SEC v. Hickey, 322 F.3d 1123 (9th Cir. 2003), legal ownership is a prerequisite for such liability in California. 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 trustee 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. 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 all . . . and that, in any event, an equitable ownership interest is “traditionally sufficient to confer ownership rights” in the trust context.
Schwarzkopf‘s facts certainly suggest the Ninth Circuit was reaching to assist the trustee’s efforts to recover significant assets for the benefit of creditors. However, its relaxed treatment of the “ownership threshold” for alter ego liability may prove useful for trustees or creditors in other contexts.
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) is entitled to seek “avoidance” of a limited set of pre-bankruptcy “preference” payments, provided 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 “ordinary course of business” defense.
Though articulated slightly differently by different courts, 11 U.S.C. §547(c)(2) essentially provides that the “ordinary course of business exception” 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 “ordinary course of business” of the parties; and either (2) the transfers were made in the “ordinary course of business” of the parties; or (3) the transfers were made in accordance with “ordinary business terms.”
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 that the relevant payments did not differ from past payments in “amount” or “form,” were not the result of “unusual collection or payment activit[ies],” or did not come as a result of the “creditor [taking] advantage of the debtor’s deteriorating financial condition.”
Importantly, the emphasis is on the payments themselves – rather than on what the debtor and creditor may have otherwise considered or discussed. 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. (“DFI”) seeking to avoid as preferential six (6) transfers totaling $180,648.17. 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: 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 DFI’s CFO/Controller notifying the Debtors that no product would be shipped unless the accounts were current. 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.