Category: Case Summaries
In January, we reported that the Supreme Court had resolved a split among the Circuit Courts of Appeals regarding property seized from a debtor pre-petition, holding that “merely retaining possession of estate property does not violate the automatic stay.” The underlying dispute in Fulton arose when individual debtors demanded that the City of Chicago return cars that were impounded for non-payment of various municipal parking and traffic violations immediately upon the filing of their bankruptcy petition, while the City maintained that debtors must seek turnover through an adversary proceeding.
In March, we reported on a brief filed by the Solicitor General recommending denial of a petition for certiorari filed by Tribune creditors seeking Supreme Court review of the Second Circuit ruling dismissing their state-law fraudulent transfer claims. This morning, the Supreme Court denied the petition, letting the Second Circuit decision stand.
Appeals Court Rules That a Discharge Injunction Bars a Fraudulent Transfer Claim Based on a Non-Dischargeable Debt
A discharge of debt in bankruptcy “operates as an injunction against the commencement or continuation of an action, the employment of process, or an act, to collect, recover or offset any such debt as a personal liability of the debtor. . . .” 11 U.S.C. § 524(a)(2). Certain debts, however, including debts “for violation of . . . any of the State securities laws,” are not subject to discharge. See 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(19). A discharge injunction does not bar the collection of such debts. Does a discharge injunction bar a fraudulent transfer action, when that action is brought based on an underlying non-dischargeable debt? In a recent decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit considered this issue, and concluded that the discharge injunction barred a fraudulent transfer action under the Alabama Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act (“AUFTA”), because the fraudulent transfer claim gave rise to a separate liability from the underlying non-dischargeable debt. SuVicMon Development, Inc. v. Morrison, 991 F.3d 1213 (11th Cir. March 25, 2021).
Debtor Alleges Thirteenth Amendment Violation; Court Says Debtor Has Standing to Assert the Claim; Decision on the Merits to Follow
It’s rare for a debtor in bankruptcy to raise allegations of involuntary servitude and a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment. But one debtor did just that in a recent chapter 11 case. The court had appointed a trustee to take over the debtor’s bankruptcy estate. This prompted the debtor to assert a violation of his constitutional rights, arguing that he would be involuntarily forced to work for his creditors.
It is well known in the restructuring world that a debtor in bankruptcy can’t get a PPP loan. But what if you’re a debtor and decide a PPP loan could save your business? Will a court dismiss the case so you can seek a loan?
In 2019, we began following a Circuit split regarding a secured creditor’s obligation to return collateral that it lawfully repossessed pre-petition after receiving notice of a debtor’s bankruptcy filing. In our prior posts, which you may wish to review and can find here and here, we explained that the Third Circuit, joining the minority of courts to have ruled on the issue, held in November 2019 that a creditor does not violate the stay if it retains estate property until the debtor seeks turnover of the seized property under Section 542. The Seventh Circuit had reached the opposite conclusion in June 2019, holding that the automatic stay “becomes effective immediately upon filing the petition” and requires the creditor to return property seized pre-petition: “[it] is not dependent on the debtor first bringing a turnover action.” In December, the Supreme Court granted certiorari and on Thursday adopted the minority view.
We have blogged previously about section 546(e), the Bankruptcy Code’s safe harbor for certain transfers otherwise subject to avoidance as preferences or fraudulent transfers. See 11 U.S.C. § 546(e). Among the transfers protected by the section 546(e) safe harbor are transfers by or to a “financial participant” made “in connection with a securities contract.” Id. The Bankruptcy Code in turn defines “financial participant” to mean an entity that has certain financial agreements or transactions of “total gross dollar value of not less than $1,000,000,000 in notional or actual principal amount outstanding” or “gross mark-to-market positions of not less than $100,000,000 . . . in one or more such agreements or transactions.” 11 U.S.C. § 101(22A)(A). In both cases, the “agreements or transactions” must be “with the debtor or any other entity.” Id. Since an entity cannot engage in an agreement or transaction with itself, does the language providing that such agreements and transactions must be “with the debtor or any other entity” mean that the debtor cannot be a financial participant”? On December 23, 2020, Judge Shannon of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware ruled that debtors could be financial participants, disagreeing with a previous decision from the Southern District of New York.
Proofs of Claim: Don’t Rely on the Mailbox Presumption – Be Sure Claims are Filed by the Bar Date with the Court Clerk or the Claims Agent
The Bankruptcy Code enables a trustee to set aside certain transfers made by debtors before bankruptcy. See 11 U.S.C. §§ 544, 547, 548. These avoidance powers are subject to certain limitations, including a safe harbor in section 546(e) exempting certain transfers. Among other things, section 546(e) bars avoidance of a “settlement payment . . . made by or to (or for the benefit of) . . . a financial institution [or] a transfer made by or to (or for the benefit of) a . . . financial institution . . . in connection with a securities contract.” The Bankruptcy Code in turn defines a “financial institution” to include not only financial institutions as conventionally understood, such as “a Federal reserve bank, or an entity that is a commercial or savings bank, industrial savings bank, savings and loan association, trust company, federally-insured credit union, or receiver, liquidating agent, or conservator for such entity,” but also a customer of such institutions when such institutions are “acting as agent or custodian for [such] customer . . . in connection with a securities contract.” 11 U.S.C. § 101(22)(A). Because a transfer to a “financial institution” in connection with a securities contract is shielded by section 546(e) from avoidance, the question of which “customers” of financial institutions qualify as financial institutions under this definition has become highly litigated. On October 22, the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan issued a new decision on this question, ruling that the recipients of an alleged fraudulent transfer did not qualify as “financial institutions” under the Bankruptcy Code because the bank that transmitted the payments was not acting as an “agent or custodian” for the recipients.
Fox News: New Mexico Bankruptcy Court Reaffirms Committee Eligibility for Derivative Standing Despite Contrary Tenth Circuit B.A.P. Precedent
In an important affirmation of the rights and duties of a creditors’ committee, Bankruptcy Judge David T. Thuma of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Mexico has confirmed that a bankruptcy court may confer derivative standing on a committee to assert estate claims if a debtor in possession declines to assert them.
On September 29, 2020, the House Judiciary Committee advanced H.R. 7370, Protecting Employees and Retirees in Business Bankruptcies Act of 2020, a Democrat-sponsored bill, to the full chamber. If enacted into law, the bill would usher in considerable changes in commercial bankruptcy cases, including in the areas of executive compensation, employee and retiree benefits, and confirmation of a Chapter 11 plan. Some of the more salient provisions of the bill are listed below; for the complete text of H.R. 7370, click here.
Last February, we blogged about the Third Circuit’s decision in In re Energy Future Holdings Corp, No. 19-1430, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 4947 (Feb. 18, 2020). The Third Circuit approved a process for resolving asbestos claims in which a bar date was imposed on filing the claims, but late claimants who were unaware of their asbestos claims would be allowed to have the bar date excused through Bankruptcy Rule 3003(c)(3). (A bar date is a date set by the court by which all claims against the debtor must be filed. Rule 3003(c)(3) permits such time for filing to be extended “for cause shown,” and has been held, based on Rule 9006(b), to permit late filing upon a showing of “excusable neglect” by a claimant.) In a recent decision, the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware rejected an effort by two late claimants to make use of this process, reasoning that the claimants had failed to meet Rule 3003(c)(3)’s “excusable neglect” standard because they had participated in the bankruptcy case for years without seeking to file claims.
This post concerns computation of time under Bankruptcy Rule 9006. The specific issue addressed is whether a bankruptcy court — when computing a filing deadline — should count a day when its clerk’s office is closed, even if the electronic filing system is available. In a recent case, a federal district judge explained why in his view the day shouldn’t be counted. Labbadia v. Martin (In re Martin), No. 3:20-cv-939, 2020 WL 5300932, (SRU) (D. Conn. Sept. 4, 2020).
“Unfair discrimination is rough justice. It exemplifies the Code’s tendency to replace stringent requirements with more flexible tests that increase the likelihood that a plan can be negotiated and confirmed,” announced Judge Thomas Ambro of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on August 26, 2020. Though limited to an explication of Section 1129(b)(1)’s prohibition on unfair discrimination against a class of dissenting creditors, Judge Ambro’s “rough justice” remark will echo in all areas of bankruptcy law among practitioners who prioritize pragmatism over perfectionism.
Section 550 of the Bankruptcy Code provides that, when a transfer is avoided under one of several other sections of the Code, a trustee may recover “the property transferred, or, if the court so orders, the value of such property” from “the initial transferee of such transfer,” “the entity for whose benefit such transfer was made,” or “any immediate or mediate transferee of such initial transferee.” 11 U.S.C. § 550(a). (Transferees in the last category are known as subsequent transferees.) For example, if an entity receives a fraudulent transfer of cash, and then passes on the cash to a third party, the third party can be liable under section 550. But what if the transfer is of a non-cash asset? To qualify as an “immediate or mediate transferee” under section 550, is it necessary to receive the actual asset, or does it suffice to receive funds derived from the asset? The Tenth Circuit addressed this question in its recent decision in Rajala v. Spencer Fane LLP (Generation Resources Holding Company, LLC), 2020 WL 3887850 (10th Cir. July 10, 2020). The Tenth Circuit held that, to qualify as a “transferee” under section 550, a party must have received the actual “property transferred."
This post provides a quick primer on administrative expense claims. These claims are entitled to priority for actual and necessary goods and services supplied to a debtor in bankruptcy. For a claim to qualify for administrative expense status, a debtor must request that the claimant provide goods and services post-petition or induce the claimant to do so. The goods or services must result in a benefit to the bankruptcy estate. And the claimant bears the burden of proof that a claim qualifies for priority treatment under 11 U.S.C. § 503(b)(1)(A).
Courts reviewing a bankruptcy court’s decision to approve a chapter 11 reorganization plan over the objections of an interested party must consider not only the merits, but also (if implementation of the plan was not stayed) potential injury to the reliance interests of other parties relying on the plan. These issues are confronted in Drivetrain, LLC v. Kozel (In re Abengoa Bioenergy Biomass of Kansas), 2020 WL 2121449 (10th Cir. May 5, 2020), a recent Tenth Circuit decision holding, based on circuit precedent, that an objector’s challenge to a chapter 11 plan that had already been implemented was barred under the doctrine of equitable mootness. Nonetheless, the decision noted that the doctrine is controversial and open to question.
Bankruptcy Court Closes Chapter 11 Cases Even with an Appeal Pending and Over the Objection of the U.S. Trustee.
Debtors in chapter 11 cases are required to make quarterly payments to the United States Trustee’s Office. These fees support the UST Program that serves in all districts but those in two states. Quarterly fees must be paid until cases are closed. And cases are closed when they are “fully administered,” a term that isn’t defined in the Bankruptcy Code or Rules.
When there are large numbers of substantial individual tort claims against a debtor, potentially involving claimants unknowable to the debtor who themselves may not know they have a claim, the bankruptcy process faces special problems. One objective of bankruptcy is to afford final relief to the debtor from the debtor’s debts, but discharging the claims of those unknown claimants without notice and a hearing poses due process problems. A standard way to address this issue, which has arisen prominently in asbestos cases, is for the debtor to create and fund a trust to provide for tort claims brought in the future, with the court issuing an injunction channeling such claims to the trust rather than the reorganized entity. See, e.g., 11 U.S.C. § 524(g) (providing for such trusts for asbestos-related litigation). But are such trusts the only way to resolve such claims? This question is raised by the Third Circuit’s recent decision in In re Energy Future Holdings Corp, No. 19-1430, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 4947 (Feb. 18, 2020). The debtor instead devised a process reliant on Rule 3003(c)(3) of the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure, which authorizes a court to extend the time for filing a claim “for cause shown.” In the circumstances of that case, and with publication notice to potential claimants, the Third Circuit held that this approach comported with due process.
An appeal from a bankruptcy court’s final judgment must be filed within 14 days of when an appealable order is entered on the docket. Parties should not delay past the 14 days even if, for instance, the bankruptcy court must still decide a related request for an award of attorneys’ fees. Otherwise, an appeal will be untimely under Federal Rule of Bankruptcy Procedure 8002(a)(1).
When a debtor files for bankruptcy, the Bankruptcy Code provides for an automatic stay of almost all proceedings to recover property from the debtor. See 11 U.S.C. § 362(a). A party in interest can seek an order exempting it from the automatic stay for cause. 11 U.S.C. § 362(d). A creditor that fails to obtain relief from the stay is limited to the claim-adjudication process in bankruptcy court. What happens if the bankruptcy court rules against a creditor seeking relief from the automatic stay, and the creditor seeks to appeal? Can the creditor appeal immediately or must it wait until its claim is fully adjudicated in bankruptcy court? The question turns on the interpretation of the federal statute governing bankruptcy appeals, which provides that appeals may be taken from “final judgments, orders and decrees . . . entered in cases and proceedings.” 28 U.S.C. § 158(a) (emphasis added). An automatic stay does not finally resolve a bankruptcy “case,” but does it finally resolve a bankruptcy “proceeding”? On January 14, the Supreme Court resolved that question affirmatively in an opinion by Justice Ginsburg, ruling that a creditor who is denied relief from the automatic stay may appeal immediately.
A Stern Rebuke: Bankruptcy Courts have Constitutional Authority to Confirm Plans Containing Nonconsensual Third-Party Releases
On December 19, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit became the first federal circuit court of appeals to hold that a bankruptcy court may confirm a plan containing nonconsensual third-party releases without exceeding the constitutional limits on its jurisdiction articulated in Stern vs. Marshall. The decision in In re Millennium Lab Holdings II, LLC is notable because it rejects a new line of attack on nonconsensual releases in a jurisdiction where they are regularly permitted.
Bankruptcy Courts Don’t Need to Hold an Evidentiary Hearing in Order to Appoint a Chapter 11 Trustee
The U.S. Bankruptcy Code allows debtors to stay in control of their businesses in chapter 11. But the Code also empowers bankruptcy judges to replace a debtor’s management in certain circumstances with an outside trustee. This will happen if either cause exists to expel management or appointing a trustee is in the best interests of creditors, any equity holders, and other interests of the estate. 11 U.S.C. § 1007. Judges don’t need to hold an evidentiary hearing to appoint a trustee, but the decision to do so must be based on clear and convincing evidence.
Section 303 of the Bankruptcy Code allows creditors to initiate an involuntary bankruptcy case against a debtor. The petition initiating the case must be filed by creditors holding claims aggregating to at least $10,000, and those claims must not be “contingent as to liability or the subject of a bona fide dispute as to liability or amount.” 11 U.S.C. § 303(b)(1). Courts have disagreed as to how this provision applies when a portion of a claim is undisputed. Some courts have held that, when the undisputed portion of a claim is sufficient for the aggregated claims to reach $10,000, a dispute about the remainder of the claim does not disqualify the claim as a whole. Other courts have held that any bona fide dispute about the amount of a claim is a “bona fide dispute as to liability or amount” that prevents a claim from being used to support an involuntary bankruptcy petition. On November 26, in Montana Department of Revenue v. Blixseth, 942 F.3d 1179 (9th Cir. 2019), the Ninth Circuit embraced the second position, ruling against a state tax agency that had a large tax claim against the debtor, most of which was subject to bona fide dispute but $200,000 of which was not.
The Solvent Debtor Exception Lives . . . Probably: Fifth Circuit Withdraws Controversial Ruling, but Key Holding Remains
Ultra Petroleum entered bankruptcy in significant financial distress, but then – thanks to a spike in oil prices – the debtor’s fortunes changed almost literally overnight. It is generally accepted that a solvent debtor must pay its creditors their complete contractual entitlement before any amount is paid to equity or retained by the debtor. So, in light of the debtor’s newfound solvency, bondholders and other lenders demanded payment of post-petition interest at the contract rate and payment of a “make-whole premium.” Anything less, they said, would render them “impaired” and entitled to vote on the proposed plan.
A recent decision in Delaware discussed the Barton doctrine and the application of the automatic stay in chapter 15 cases. McKillen v. Wallace (In re Ir. Bank Resolution Corp.), No. 18-1797, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 166153 (D. Del. Sept. 27, 2019).
Pre-Bankruptcy Seizure: Recent Third Circuit Decision Widens Circuit Split Regarding Obligations of Secured Creditors in Respect of Collateral Seized Pre-Petition
In July 2016, Joy Denby-Peterson purchased a Chevrolet Corvette. When she defaulted on one of her car payments a few months later, the Corvette was repossessed by her lender. Denby-Peterson then filed a voluntary petition under Chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Jersey and demanded the lender return the Corvette. When the lender refused, she filed a motion for an order compelling turnover of the Corvette and imposing sanctions for an alleged violation of the automatic stay.
Bankruptcy Court Addresses Standard For Recovery Of An Alleged Fraudulent Transfer From A Subsequent Transferee
The Bankruptcy Code gives a trustee powers to avoid certain pre-bankruptcy transfers of the debtor’s property to other entities. For example, a trustee can avoid transfers made with the intent to impair the ability of creditors to collect on their debts. 11 U.S.C. § 548(a)(1)(A). The Code gives the trustee the power to recover the transferred property from the initial recipient, and also from subsequent recipients, “to the extent the transfer is avoided.” 11 U.S.C. § 550(a). Courts have split on whether this language requires a trustee to get a judgment avoiding a transfer prior to recovering from a subsequent transferee, or whether a trustee can simply show that the transfer is avoidable as part of the action against the subsequent transferee. A related question, however, concerns what happens when a trustee has gotten a judgment avoiding a transfer, and then seeks to recover from subsequent transferees. Can those transferees challenge whether the original transfer was avoidable? This question is the central issue in a recent decision from the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Florida. Yip v. Google LLC (In re Student Aid Ctr., Inc.), Adv. Proc. No. 18-1493, 2019 Bankr. LEXIS 3310 (Bankr. S.D. Fla. Oct. 22, 2019).
A Bankruptcy Code Chapter 15 Primer: Decision in New York Addresses Key Issues of Jurisdiction, Recognition, Public Policy, and More
Judge Martin Glenn last week issued a decision in two related chapter 15 cases, In re Foreign Econ. Indus. Bank Ltd. “Vneshprombank” Ltd., No. 16-13534, and In re Larisa Markus, No. 19-10096, 2019 Bankr. LEXIS 3203 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. Oct. 8, 2019). The decision is chock full of case citations and offers a tutorial on chapter 15. Practitioners should refer to the decision as a helpful, up-to-date resource.
Two insolvency proceedings had been filed in Russia. One debtor was a bank and the other was an individual. The chapter 15 cases that followed were initially assigned to Bankruptcy Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil. She issued orders recognizing both Russian cases as foreign main proceedings. An attorney who was involved in the cases filed a motion to vacate the recognition orders. Six days later the cases were transferred to Judge Martin Glenn. The opinion doesn’t say why the transfer occurred.
Close Enough: Fifth Circuit Holds That Section 510(B) of the Bankruptcy Code Requires Subordination of Payments That “Look a Lot like” Dividends
In 1930, Clarence Bennett’s wealthy uncle died. He left behind shares in Berry Holding Company ("BHC") that were subdivided into three groups. Bennett was the beneficiary of dividends paid out of one of these groups and, for many years, received his share of dividends from BHC. In 1986, BHC became Berry Petroleum Company ("BPC"), a publicly traded company, and Bennett’s interest changed. In order to preserve the intent of the wealthy uncle’s bequest, that his heirs receive income on the shares of his company, and because of an unrelated dispute with a third-party that resulted in certain of the shares being retired, BPC agreed to pay Bennett “deemed dividends” each time BPC paid an actual dividend to its shareholders.
Section 548 of the Bankruptcy Code enables trustees to avoid certain pre-bankruptcy transfers of “an interest of the debtor in property,” where the transfer was intended to defraud creditors or where the transfer was made while the debtor was insolvent and was not for reasonably equivalent value. 11 U.S.C. § 548(a). Section 544 of the Bankruptcy Code enables trustees to avoid a transfer of “property of the debtor” where a creditor of the debtor would have such a right under state law. 11 U.S.C. § 544(a). The statutory requirement that the transfer be “of an interest of the debtor” or “property of the debtor” (emphasis added) has important implications for claims brought under sections 544 and 548 in the aftermath of a merger or acquisition. This point is illustrated by a recent decision from the District Court of Delaware, affirming the dismissal of fraudulent transfer claims brought under sections 544 and 548 for failure to allege transfer of property by a debtor. Miller v. Matco Electric Corp. (In re NewStarcom Holdings), Civ. No. 17-309 (D. Del. Sept. 6, 2019).
Chapter 15 of the Bankruptcy Code, added in 2005, provides a route for debtors to obtain US recognition of their insolvency proceedings in other countries. A foreign proceeding can be recognized under chapter 15 as either a “foreign main proceeding” or a “foreign nonmain proceeding.” 11 U.S.C. § 1517. Recognition as a foreign main proceeding entitles a debtor to certain rights, such as the automatic stay of actions against the debtor that would normally be imposed in a bankruptcy case filed in the United States. 11 U.S.C. § 1520. To obtain recognition of a foreign proceeding as a foreign main proceeding, the foreign proceeding must be pending in the country where the debtor has the “center of its main interests” (usually abbreviated “COMI”). The precise meaning of this somewhat elusive phrase is still being worked out by judicial decision. On August 12, 2019, the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York issued another entry in the body of case law concerning this provision, ruling that an investment fund organized under Cayman Islands law, and involved in a liquidation proceeding there, had its COMI in the Cayman Islands rather than New York.
We previously discussed Bankruptcy Judge Martin Glenn’s analysis of the Wagoner Rule in the Feltman v. Kossoff & Kossoff LLP (In re TS Empl., Inc.) case. The bankruptcy trustee (the “Trustee”) had asserted a fraud claim against the debtor’s outside accountant and its principal (the “Defendants”). The Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, citing the Wagoner Rule. Judge Glenn held that the Trustee’s assertion of the adverse interest exception to the Wagoner Rule did not apply, but allowed the Trustee to amend the complaint to strengthen allegations concerning the insider exception. In a recent decision, Judge Glenn denied the Defendants’ motion to dismiss the amended complaint, concluding that the Trustee alleged sufficient facts concerning application of the insider exception.
We’ve focused a lot on third-party releases lately, as bankruptcy courts across the country continue to evaluate whether and under what circumstances they are permissible. But, as a recent opinion of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit demonstrates, bankruptcy courts are not the only courts grappling with this issue.
Delaware Bankruptcy Judged Brendan Shannon granted mechanic’s lien claimants $1.6 million for making a substantial contribution in a case by “demonstrably and materially facilitating the process of reorganization.” In re M & G USA Corp., No. 17-12307, 2019 Bankr. LEXIS 1398 (Bankr. D. Del. May 6, 2019).
Successful bankruptcy cases typically end with a court order releasing a debtor from liability for most pre-bankruptcy debts. This order, generally known as a “discharge order,” prohibits the debtor’s creditors from trying to collect on those now-discharged debts. See 11 U.S.C. § 524(a)(2). But it is not always clear which debts are covered by a discharge order. Some pre-bankruptcy debts are exempted from discharge by the Bankruptcy Code. For example, section 523 of the Bankruptcy Code exempts certain debts of individual debtors from discharge, and section 1141 exempts certain debts of corporate debtors from discharge under chapter 11. See 11 U.S.C. §§ 523(a), 1141(d)(6). For other debts, it may be unclear whether they arose before or after the bankruptcy. See In re Ybarra, 424 F.3d 1018 (9th Cir. 2005) (considering under what circumstances a discharge order covers an attorney’s fee award for fees incurred post-petition in an action brought before the bankruptcy petition). Courts enforcing a discharge order’s prohibition on debt collection have thus struggled with the appropriate standard for holding a person in contempt for attempting to collect on a discharged debt. Does it require that the person knew that the discharge applied to the debt, or is it sufficient that the discharge did in fact apply to the debt?
Creditors’ recoveries often hinge on claw-back lawsuits that trustees bring under bankruptcy law and non-bankruptcy law. Trustees can file claims based on non-bankruptcy law because Bankruptcy Code section 544(b) allows them to assert claims that creditors have standing to file outside of bankruptcy. This powerful tool enables trustees to challenge transactions that date back years before a bankruptcy filing.
Two weeks ago, we discussed asset sales under Bankruptcy Code section 363. As that post noted, section 363 requires court approval for asset sales outside the ordinary course of business, with courts ensuring that sales reflect a reasonable business judgment and have an articulated business justification. Debtors may choose to sell assets via a public auction or through a private sale. In our last post, we considered a case where a debtor initially arranged for a public auction and then decided to sell the property via a private sale. What about the reverse case—what if a debtor agrees to sell property to a particular entity via a private sale, but then changes course and decides to hold a public auction instead? On Wednesday, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals considered such a case in In re VCR I, LLC, No. 18-60368 (May 1, 2019). The Fifth Circuit held that the prior agreement did not bar the change of course.
We now address assets sales under Bankruptcy Code section 363. The statute allows debtors to use, sell, or lease their property in the ordinary course of business without court permission. But a debtor’s use, sale, or lease of property outside the ordinary course of business requires court approval. And courts will usually approve a debtor’s disposition of property if it reflects the debtor’s reasonable business judgment and an articulated business justification.
Bankruptcy Court Applies Automatic Stay to Continuation of Removed State-Court Action Against Debtor
When a debtor files for bankruptcy, almost all proceedings to recover property from the debtor are automatically stayed by force of law. See 11 U.S.C. § 362(a). This provision, known as the automatic stay, is a central feature of the bankruptcy process, but uncertainty remains about aspects of its scope. Last month, we wrote about a decision from a New Mexico bankruptcy court holding that the automatic stay was not applicable to the removal of a state court action to bankruptcy court and to the continuation of that there. Earlier this week, in response to a motion for reconsideration, the court partially reversed itself, again holding that the automatic stay is not applicable to removal or to motions to remand the action back to state court, but holding that continuation of the action, beyond mere consideration of a motion to remand, was barred by the automatic stay. In re Cashco Inc., No. 18-11968-j7 (Bankr. D.N.M. March 26, 2019).
It’s time for a primer on the Wagoner rule and the in pari delicto defense, two concepts that arise when a debtor’s fraud leads to bankruptcy. Trustees who replace a debtor’s management often sue those involved in the corporation’s misdeeds. But the Wagoner rule and the in pari delicto defense can shield third-party defendants from liability.
When a party files for bankruptcy, the Bankruptcy Code imposes an automatic stay of litigation against a debtor for claims arising prior to the commencement of the bankruptcy case. See 11 U.S.C. § 362(a). Where there is a basis for bankruptcy jurisdiction in federal court, federal law also permits parties to a state court action to remove the state court action to the federal district court for the district in which the state court action is pending. See 28 U.S.C. § 1452(a). (Usually, the action will then be automatically referred to a bankruptcy court in that federal judicial district.) Absent court action to modify the automatic stay, does the automatic stay block parties from carrying out such removal of state court actions against a bankruptcy debtor? In In re Cashco Inc., No. 18-11968-j7 (Bankr. D.N.M. December 12, 2018), a bankruptcy court considered an objection to removal on this ground by a chapter 7 trustee (“the Trustee”). While noting that courts have split on this issue, the bankruptcy court ruled that the automatic stay does not apply to removing a case to the bankruptcy court where the bankruptcy case is pending, nor to other proceedings in that court, including continuation of the removed action.
A court in New York has allowed offshore debtors to take control of an investment account in the U.S. over the objection of a shareholder. At stake was the court’s discretion to permit chapter 15 debtors to access the funds and to transfer them outside the U.S. The shareholder asserted that its interests weren’t fully protected, but the court ruled that on balance the debtors’ need for the money outweighed the shareholder’s concerns.
Fraudulent transfer law allows creditors and bankruptcy trustees, under certain circumstances, to sue transferees to recover funds received where a debtor’s transfers to the transferees actually or constructively defrauded its creditors. Under both the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act adopted by most states and the fraudulent transfer action created by federal bankruptcy law, a transferee of an alleged fraudulent transfer may assert a defense from such liability by establishing that it received the transfer in good faith and for reasonably equivalent value. See 11 U.S.C. § 548(c); Tex. Bus. & Com. Code § 24.009(a). Many courts have held that a transferee lacks good faith if it has “inquiry notice,” that is, if it has knowledge that would make a reasonable person suspicious and suggest a need for further investigation, even if it lacks actual knowledge of the fraudulent nature of the transfer. But some courts have held that even a transferee with inquiry notice can maintain a good faith defense if it establishes that an investigation into the facts would have been futile because it would not have revealed the fraud. In Javney v. GMAG, L.L.C., No. 17-11526, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 759 (Jan. 9, 2019), the Fifth Circuit held that such a futility defense was not available under the Texas Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act (“TUFTA”).
Section 365(h) of the Bankruptcy Code provides considerable protection to a tenant in the event of a bankruptcy filing by its landlord. Despite rejection of its lease, the tenant can elect to retain its rights, including the right to possession, for the balance of the term of the lease, including any renewal or extension period. This is black-letter bankruptcy law reflecting a sound policy judgment: it would be ruinous to business (not to mention an individual or family) if a landlord could upend a tenant’s possession whenever economic circumstances made a bankruptcy filing necessary or desirable.
Defendants in a lawsuit didn’t waive their right to arbitrate even after moving to dismiss and answering a complaint, a court held last week. Arbitration wasn’t waived because the defendants hadn’t filed affirmative defenses or counterclaims and had taken no discovery. Trevino v. Select Portfolio Servicing, Inc. (In re Jose Sr. Trevino), Adv. Pro. No. 16-7024, 2018 Bankr. LEXIS 3605 (Bankr. S.D. Tex. Nov. 14, 2018).
Bankruptcy Court Finds Arbitration Clause in Consumer Loan Contract to be Sufficient Cause to Grant Relief from Automatic Stay
When a bankruptcy petition is filed, an automatic stay comes into effect staying proceedings against the debtor or the debtor’s property. 11 U.S.C. § 362(a). The stay centralizes litigation regarding the debtor and its property in the debtor’s bankruptcy case. When contract entered into pre-bankruptcy contains an arbitration clause, a bankruptcy court will consider if the stay should be enforced or if the parties can resolve the matter in arbitration. In In re Argon Credit, LLC, No. 16-39654 (Bankr. N.D. Ill. Sept. 21, 2018), a bankruptcy court considered this question in a dispute between two non-debtor parties concerning the validity of loans issued by the debtor and part of the debtor’s estate. The bankruptcy court ruled that the arbitration clause was binding and ordered the stay lifted to permit arbitration to go forward.
The Third Circuit denied a $275 million break-up fee to a bidder that was unsuccessful in its attempt to buy the crown-jewel assets in the high-profile EFH bankruptcy case. In re Energy Future Holdings Corp., No 18-1109, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 25945 (3rd Cir. Sept. 13, 3018). The court held that the bidder’s efforts didn’t result in a benefit to the debtors’ estates. Therefore, the bidder’s request for an administrative expense in the form of the fee was rejected.
We generally advise clients to think carefully before commencing an involuntary bankruptcy petition against an alleged debtor. One of the primary reasons for our caution is section 303(i) of the Bankruptcy Code, which provides that “(i) If the court dismisses [an involuntary] petition under this section other than on consent of all petitioners and the debtor, and if the debtor does not waive the right to judgment under this subsection, the court may grant judgment—(1) against the petitioners and in favor of the debtor for—(A) costs; or (B) a reasonable attorney’s fee; or (2) against any petitioner that filed the petition in bad faith, for—(A) any damages proximately caused by such filing; or (B) punitive damages.” A recent unreported decision of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals underscores the serious consequences that can flow from an adverse judgment under this section of the Code.
Third Circuit Enforces Plan Releases Against Later-Purchasing Shareholders Bringing Claims Concerning Post-Confirmation Conduct
Bankruptcy plans often include provisions releasing debtors and their officers and directors from certain potential liability. In Zardinovsky v. Arctic Glacier Income Fund, No. 17-2522 (3d Cir. Aug. 20, 2018), the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that such a provision bound shareholders who purchased the shares after confirmation, as to post-confirmation claims including securities fraud and breach of fiduciary duty. Because this decision was at the motion to dismiss stage, what follows are the court’s characterization of the facts as alleged in the complaint.
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