Creditors often think that an involuntary bankruptcy petition is a great bargaining chip when faced with a recalcitrant debtor. However, the actual filing of an involuntary bankruptcy petition (when that petition is filed in “bad faith”) confers a considerable risk to the petitioning creditors.  Recently, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issued an opinion that re-emphasizes just how risky bad faith involuntary petitions can be for creditors.

In that non-precedential opinion authored by Circuit Judge Rendell, the Third Circuit weighed in on whether a creditor can set off damages imposed against it due to a bad faith involuntary bankruptcy petition against its claims against the debtor.  U.S. Bank, N.A. v. Maury Rosenberg, No. 18-1249, 2018 WL 3640987 (3d Cir. July 31, 2018).

Although this case has extensive procedural history the basic facts and procedural history are as follows: Maury Rosenberg established and owned a group of companies and partnerships operating as National Medical Imaging (“NMI”). NMI entered into equipment leases with U.S. Bank’s predecessors-in-interest. After NMI defaulted, U.S. Bank sued NMI and Rosenberg, which eventually settled (resulting in modified lease agreements under which NMI would continue to lease the equipment). As part of the settlement, Rosenberg would be personally liable if NMI again defaulted, which NMI did after twenty-one months.

After the default, entities related to U.S. Bank filed an involuntary bankruptcy petition against Rosenberg in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, which was transferred to the Southern District of Florida (where Rosenberg lived).  The involuntary bankruptcy petition was subsequently dismissed.  After the dismissal, Rosenberg filed an adversary proceeding against U.S. Bank under 11 U.S.C. § 303(i) seeking the recovery of costs, attorney’s fees, and damages resulting from a bad faith filing of an involuntary bankruptcy petition.  That adversary proceeding was removed to the District Court, and tried before a jury. The jury awarded Rosenberg over $6 million, including $5 million in punitive damages, which are only warranted when the evidence shows that a defendant acted “with intentional malice” or that its conduct was “particularly egregious”.  After an appeal to the Eleventh Circuit (which reinstated the jury’s punitive damage award that had been vacated by the District Court in Florida), a final judgment of $6,120,000 (including the $5 million punitive damage award) was entered against U.S. Bank and its related entities for filing a bad faith involuntary petition against Rosenberg (the “Florida Judgment”).

At the same time, U.S. Bank proceeded with an action in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for breach of contract against Rosenberg.  The District Court found in favor of U.S. Bank and awarded U.S. Bank approximately $6.5 million in damages, fees, and costs (the “Pennsylvania Judgment”).

Thereafter, U.S. Bank filed a motion with the Eastern District of Pennsylvania requesting that the District Court offset the Florida Judgment against the Pennsylvania Judgment. If such motion were granted, U.S. Bank would owe Rosenberg nothing and, importantly, would not have been required to come out of pocket for the Florida Judgment.  Reasoning that (i) the judgments lacked mutuality (because, among other things, the parties involved were not identical) and (ii) “equitable principles embodied in § 303 of the United States Bankruptcy Code preclude setoff”, the District Court, exercising its discretion consistent with Pennsylvania state law, denied the motion.  U.S. Bank appealed.

Determining that it need not reach the question of whether there was a lack of mutuality, the Third Circuit determined that the District Court did not abuse its discretion in denying U.S. Bank’s motion for mutual judgment satisfaction based on equitable principles.  Rosenberg, 2018 WL 3640987 at *2.  Accordingly, the Third Circuit affirmed the District Court.  In so doing, the Third Circuit cited with approval several other courts that have concluded that § 303(i)’s equitable purpose would be frustrated if bad faith filers were allowed to offset a § 303(i) judgment.  Citing In re Macke Int’l Trade, Inc., 370 B.R. 236, 255 (B.A.P. 9th Cir. 2007); In re Diloreto, 442 B.R. 373, 377 (E.D. Pa. 2010); In re Forever Green Athletic Fields, Inc., Bankr. No. 12-13888-MDC, 2017 WL 1753104, at *7 (Bankr. E.D. Pa. May 4, 2017); In re K.P. Enter., 135 B.R. 174, 185-86 (Bankr. D. Me. 1992); In re Schiliro, 72 B.R. 147, 149 (Bankr. E.D. Pa. 1987).

Setoff rights are an important remedy for creditors especially when a debtor becomes insolvent or files for bankruptcy. Frequently, it may be the only way a creditor can collect on such debt. However, under Pennsylvania law, “[s]etoff is an equitable right to be permitted solely within the sound discretion of the court.” Foster v. Mut. Fire, Marine & Inland Ins. Co., 531 Pa. 598, 614 A.2d 1086, 1095 (Pa. 1992). Therefore, courts may weigh whether setoff is equitable or if other equitable concerns are tantamount. Sanctions under § 303(i) seek to deter the improper filing of involuntary petitions. These sanctions play “a key role in deterring bad faith filing and remedying the negative effects of improperly-filed petitions.” Rosenberg, 2018 WL 3640987 at *2. The Third Circuit’s decision recognizes that permitting U.S. Bank to set off the § 303(i) award would severely undermine § 303(i)’s equitable purpose. Thus, it held that in light of U.S. Bank’s conduct and the equitable principles underlying § 303(i), the District Court did not abuse its discretion in denying U.S. Bank the equitable remedy of setoff.

This case is but another warning to creditors considering the use of an involuntary petition for a bad faith purpose.  In this case, U.S. Bank’s decision to commence an involuntary petition exposed it to a substantial award that made a bad situation worse – it must now write a large check and only hope that it can collect against a judgment debtor that may be judgment proof.   This is the quintessential lose/lose situation for any creditor.

 

On Jun 29, 2018, Judge Martin Glenn of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York issued an opinion in which he granted a motion for entry of default  judgment against foreign adversary proceeding defendants.  Peter Kravitz v. Deacons (In re Advance Watch Company, Ltd.), Case No. 17-01137 (MG). The plaintiff, a trustee of a creditor trust, sought to recover preferential transfers from three Hong Kong defendants pursuant to Sections 547 and 550 of the Bankruptcy Code.  The defendants were served personally with the summons and complaint at their Hong Kong address by a bailiff’s assistant of the High Court of Hong Kong.  The defendants’ secretary accepted service of process.  When none of the defendants answered or otherwise responded to the complaint, plaintiff moved for entry of default against each of them.  The certificate of default, the motion for entry of default and notice of presentment of default (the “Default Papers”) were served on each defendant in Hong Kong by U.S. Mail.  The defendants did not respond to or otherwise appear in connection with the Default Papers.  Accordingly, plaintiff moved for entry of default  judgment in accordance with Rule 55(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (the “Civil Procedure Rules”) and Rule 7055 of the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure.

Judge Glenn’s analysis commenced with a review of his 2012 decision in Executive Sounding Board Assocs. v. Adv. Machine & Engineering Co. (In re Oldco M. Corp.), 484 B.R. 598 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. 2012).  There, he concluded that “the failure to respond to a properly served adversary complaint constitute[s] implied consent for the entry of a final judgment by a bankruptcy judge,” such that “a bankruptcy judge has the constitutional authority to enter a final default judgment when the defendant fails to respond to the complaint.”  Id. at 612.  Judge Glenn then held in Oldco M. that implied consent was based on language in the summons expressly advising of the consequences of failing to respond to the complaint.  Id. In Advance Watch, Judge Glenn validated the holding of Oldco M. notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s decision in Wellness Int’l Network, Ltd. v. Sharif, 135 S.Ct. 1432 (2015), saying he “continues to believe that the analysis in Oldco M. Corp. is correct, permitting the Court to enter default judgments in all adversary proceedings in which a defendant has failed to respond to a properly served summons and complaint.”

Judge Glenn then examined whether the defendants, who all are domiciled in Hong Kong, were served properly.  Civil Procedure Rule 4(f)(1) provides that service on an individual in a foreign country may be obtained “by any internationally agreed means of service that is reasonably calculated to give notice, such as those authorized by the Hague Convention on the Service Abroad of Judicial and Extrajudicial Documents.”  In turn, courts have held that service on a foreign defendant in a signatory country must be accomplished pursuant to the Hague Convention.  Because Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of China, and China and the U.S. are both signatories to the Hague Convention, the Hague Convention applies to the Hong Kong defendants.

Judge Glenn found that service of the preference complaints on the defendants at issue was effectuated in accordance with The Hague Convention and Hong Kong’s High Court rules.  He also determined that plaintiff correctly served the defendants with the Default Papers.  Judge Glenn concluded that because plaintiff did everything “by the book,” he would enter default judgment in the amount requested.

On April 17, 2018, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York (the “Court”) issued a decision requiring CohnReznick LLP (“CohnReznick”) to produce documents requested by the foreign representatives (the “Foreign Representatives”) in the chapter 15 case of Platinum Partners Venture Arbitrage Fund (International) Limited (in Official Liquidation) (the “International Fund”).  In re Platinum Partners Value Arbitrage Fund L.P. (in Official Liquidation), No. 16-12925, 2018 WL 1864931 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. Apr. 17, 2018).  In doing so, the Bankruptcy Court rejected CohnReznick’s arguments that it did not need to comply with the requests because (i) Cayman Islands law precludes the production of the requested documents; and (ii) the underlying subpoena impermissibly sought “pre-suit discovery” regarding potential claims that fell within the scope of the arbitration provision of CohnReznick’s engagement agreement.

Procedural History

In August 2016 the International Fund, Platinum Partners Value Arbitrage Fund L.P. (in Official Liquidation) (the “Master Fund”), and Platinum Partners Value Arbitrage Intermediate Fund L.P. (in Official Liquidation) (the “Intermediate Fund” and, together with the International Fund and the Master Fund, the “Funds”) were placed into liquidation by order of the Grand Court of the Cayman Islands.  Platinum Partners, 2018 WL 1864931, at *2.  In a Cayman liquidation proceeding, liquidators are appointed to “collect, realise, and distribute” the liquidating entity’s assets and are empowered to investigate the “promotion, business, dealings and affairs” of such entity, including the causes of its failure.  Id., at *3.  Prior to the liquidators’ appointment, the Funds were managed by Platinum Management (NY) LLC, which is headquartered in New York.

On October 18, 2016, the joint liquidators of the International Fund and the Master Fund filed petitions under chapter 15 of title 11 of the United States Code (the “Bankruptcy Code”) seeking recognition of the Cayman liquidation proceedings as “foreign main proceedings.”  Platinum Partners, 2018 WL 1864931, at *3.  On November 22, 2016, the Court entered an order (the “Recognition Order”) recognizing the Cayman proceedings as foreign main proceedings.  Id.  The Recognition Order authorized the Foreign Representatives to conduct discovery “within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States concerning the assets, affairs, rights, obligations or liabilities of the Funds, the Funds affiliates and the Funds,” including “upon written request, obtaining turnover of any and all documents . . . that are property of, concern or were made or issued on behalf of the Funds . . . .”  Id.  A chapter 15 petition subsequently was filed by the Intermediate Fund, and on October 12, 2017, the Court entered an order recognizing the Intermediate Fund’s liquidation proceeding as a foreign main proceeding.  The Funds’ chapter 15 cases are being jointly administered for procedural purposes only.  Id.

In connection with their investigation of the Funds, the Foreign Representatives informally sought certain documentation from CohnReznick, which had been retained by the Funds to provide audit services for calendar years 2014 and 2015.  Platinum Partners, 2018 WL 1864931, at *4.  Although CohnReznick produced copies of certain original documents that it maintained were property of the Funds, it did not provide other documentation in its audit file, including work papers, engagement documents and invoices, on the basis that such documents were not the Funds’ property.  Id.  As a result, on August 31, 2017, the Foreign Representatives served a subpoena on CohnResnick relating to its “auditing, accounting, or other services for, on behalf of or in relation to any Fund,” to which CohnReznick served written objections.  Id.  After the parties were unable to consensually resolve the objections, the parties both filed letters with the Court and, ultimately, the Foreign Representatives filed a motion to compel production pursuant to Rule 2004 of the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure (the “2004 Motion”).  Id.

The Court’s Decision

Prior to addressing CohnReznick’s argument, the Court reviewed Chapter 15 generally and other provisions of the Bankruptcy Code pertaining to discovery.  First, the Court noted that upon recognition of a foreign main proceeding, at the request of a foreign representative, a bankruptcy court can authorize discovery “concerning the debtor’s assets, affairs, rights, obligations or liabilities.”  Platinum Partners, 2018 WL 1864931, at *5; see also 11 U.S.C. § 1521(a)(4) and (a)(7).  Second, the Court observed that, consistent with the principles of comity, chapter 15 provides bankruptcy courts with “broad, flexible, and pragmatic rules” to fashion relief that is largely discretionary.  Platinum Partners, 2018 WL 1864931, at *5.  Finally, the Court discussed section 542(e) of the Bankruptcy Code, which allows a court to order an accountant to turn over documentation relating to the debtor’s property or financial affairs, and Bankruptcy Rule 2004, which allows a party in interest, such as a foreign representative, to subpoena documents relating to the “acts, conduct, or property or to the liabilities and financial conduction of the debtor.”  Id. at *6.

CohnReznick’s first main argument was that Cayman law does not permit the discovery of audit work papers or materials that are not a debtor’s property and, if the Court were to grant the 2004 Motion, its interests and the interests of comity would not be protected.  Platinum Partners, 2018 WL 1864931, at *7.  The Court dismissed this argument somewhat summarily, agreeing with the Foreign Representatives that the Cayman law was “unsettled” because Cayman courts have not clearly defined what portions of audit work papers constitute a debtor’s property.  Id. at *8.  Moreover, the Court noted that “it is well-established that comity does not require that the relief available in the United States be identical to the relief sought in the foreign bankruptcy proceeding; it is sufficient if the result is comparable and that the foreign laws are not repugnant to our laws and policies.”  Id.  at *10.  In limiting CohnReznick’s reliance on comity principles, the Court cautioned that “requiring this Court to ensure compliance with foreign law prior to granting relief sought pursuant to chapter 15 would require the Court to engage in a full-blown analysis of foreign law each and every time a foreign representative seeks additional relief in the United States, which may result in differing interpretations of U.S. law depending on where the foreign main proceeding was pending.”  Id. at *11.  Accordingly, the Court found that it was specifically authorized to order the requested discovery under section 1521 of the Bankruptcy Code.  Id. at *11-*12.

CohnReznick’s second main argument was that the arbitration clause in its engagement agreement precluded the Foreign Representatives from seeking pre-litigation discovery because the pending discovery dispute was a “dispute, controversy, or claim” relating to CohnReznick’s accounting services that was required to by resolved by arbitration and not by a court of law.  Platinum Partners, 2018 WL 1864931, at *13.  The Foreign Representatives disagreed, arguing that they were merely seeking information essential to their investigation and that, in the absence of a pending “proceeding,” CohnReznick had no contractual right to limit the relief available under the Bankruptcy Code.  Id. at *14.  The Court agreed with the Foreign Representatives, stating that interpreting the arbitration clause so broadly that it eliminated the Foreign Representative’s right to seek discovery under section 1521 would run counter to one of the significant objectives of chapter 15 – “provid[ing] judicial assistance to foreign representatives in gathering information which will enable them to comply with their duties.”  Id.  Indeed, the Court noted that “chapter 15 proceedings cannot be held hostage by an arbitration clause when there is no dispute pending.”  Id.

Conclusion

Although CohnReznick’s reliance on Cayman law had some support in its submissions, the Court declined to deviate from the “broad, flexible, and pragmatic rules” governing the relief available to foreign representatives in chapter 15 cases.  Accordingly, parties seeking to thwart efforts by a foreign representative to carry out his or her duties on the basis of conflicting foreign law should be cognizant that such efforts may be unsuccessful unless the requested relief truly is contrary to the public policy of the foreign jurisdiction or does not sufficiently protect the debtor’s creditors and other parties in interest.  See 11 U.S.C. §§ 1521 (a) and (b), 1522.

The Bankruptcy Code gives a bankruptcy trustee, or the debtor in possession, the power to “avoid” certain transfers made by the debtor at various times before filing for bankruptcy relief.  Congress provided a number of limits on these significant avoidance powers, whether within the sections granting the powers themselves (e.g., in Section 547(c), which sets forth a number of transfers that a trustee or debtor may not avoid, and Section 547(b)’s statutory limitation with respect to potentially preferential transfers to non-insiders made beyond the 90 days preceding the bankruptcy filing) or in other sections of the Bankruptcy Code, such as Section 546, which is aptly entitled “Limitations on Avoiding Powers.”  Subsection “(e)” of Section 546, which limits a trustee’s avoiding powers with regard to certain securities related transactions, has been the subject of noteworthy debate.

The implementation of Section 546(e)’s “safe harbor” provision was the central issue in Merit Management Group, LP v. FTI Consulting, Inc.  In Merit, a racetrack casino, Valley View Downs, acquired another racetrack casino in Pennsylvania through a stock purchase transaction.  In order to complete the transaction, Valley View arranged for a portion of the purchase price to be wired into the account of a third party escrow agent.  Following closing, the third party escrow agent distributed funds as provided for by the parties’ purchase agreement, including to one of the seller’s shareholders, Merit Management Group.  However, despite the foregoing stock acquisition, Valley View and its parent company ultimately filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Following confirmation of the plan of reorganization in Valley View and its parent’s bankruptcy, FTI Consulting, as trustee of the litigation trust, attempted to avoid those payments made to Merit by the third party escrow agent.  FTI argued that such payments were constructively fraudulent.  In response to FTI, Merit argued that because the payment it received was transferred to it from a financial institution, acting as an intermediary escrow agent, the payment was protected under the safe harbor in Section 546(e).

Courts have interpreted the safe harbor’s reach differently, with a majority of Circuit Courts of Appeal—the Second, Third, Sixth, Eighth, and Tenth Circuits—holding that the presence of a qualifying financial institution in a securities related transaction, even if acting as an intermediary or a conduit, is sufficient to trigger the protections of Section 546(e) for the entire transaction.  A minority of Circuits that have addressed this issue—the Seventh and Eleventh Circuits—have held the opposite: that the mere presence of a qualifying financial institution in a securities related transaction, if only acting as a conduit or intermediary, is insufficient to trigger the safe harbor of Section 546(e).  The Supreme Court granted certiorari from the Seventh Circuit in Merit and resolved this split of authority.

The Supreme Court sided with the minority of Circuits and affirmed the Seventh Circuit.  In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court held “that the only relevant transfer for the purposes of the [Section 546(e)] safe harbor is the transfer that the trustee seeks to avoid.”  Said differently, the relevant transfer for the purposes of Section 546(e)’s safe harbor is the overarching transfer a trustee identifies for avoidance, rather than the intervening pass-through transfers that are part and parcel of that overarching transfer.

In reaching this conclusion, the Supreme Court began its analysis by looking at the statutory scheme of a trustee’s avoidance powers and the statutory history of Section 546, before turning to a textual analysis of the section.  There, the Court emphasized that the text of Section 546(e) creates an exception to a transfer that would otherwise be avoidable.  It reasoned that the “notwithstanding” clause, which lists each of the sections containing a trustee’s avoiding powers wholesale, signals that the safe harbor is intended to apply to the entirety of a trustee’s avoiding powers under such sections.  Thus, the Court concluded, the starting point for determining the scope of the safe harbor is the trustee’s substantive avoiding powers and, “consequently, the transfer a trustee seeks to avoid as an exercise of those powers.”

The Supreme Court went on to identify other portions of the text that supported its analysis, such as the exception contained within the safe harbor which prevents its application to actually fraudulent transfers.  The Court concluded that such an exception further signals Congress’ intent that the safe harbor applies to the overarching transfer, rather than a mere component part, by explicitly identifying an entire type of transfer that is outside the scope of the safe harbor.  Memorably, the Supreme Court concluded its textual interpretation of Section 546(e) by stating, “Not a transfer that involves.  Not at transfer that comprises.  But a transfer that is a securities transaction covered under §546(e).”

The opinion concludes by discussing the role of Section 546(e) within the statutory structure of the Bankruptcy Code as a whole and then addressing and dismissing Merit’s counter arguments.

To be sure, given that the Supreme Court sided with the minority of Courts, those circuits which were abrogated by Merit will have to adjust their case law going forward.  However, legal scholars are already speculating on the effect of the holding in Merit on leveraged-buyout transactions in bankruptcy and suggesting work-arounds.  Accordingly, the long term effects of Merit remain to be seen.

It’s no secret that Delaware, New York (Southern District), and Texas (at least since the oil and gas crisis) have become known as the “hotspots” for filing large chapter 11 bankruptcy cases.  Whether due to desirable precedent, well qualified judges, the responsiveness of the Courts to the need for prompt scheduling of hearings, or a sense of uniformity, most large companies have historically chosen to file in these venues. However, these popular venues appear to have a rival.  Recently, some large chapter 11 debtors— Gymboree and Toys “R” Us— have filed in the commonwealth that generally prides itself as being a place “for lovers.”  So, let’s explore why recent chapter 11 debtors have chosen to file in Virginia.

Venue in a bankruptcy case is governed by 28 U.S.C. § 1408, which provides that a debtor may file its bankruptcy case in any district where the debtor’s domicile, residence, principal place of business, or principal assets are located.  For the purposes of the statute, “domicile” indicates a corporation’s state of incorporation.  However, the debtor is not restricted to these locations.  Bankruptcy venue is also proper in a district where the debtor’s affiliate, general partner, or partnership already has a bankruptcy case pending, often times opening the door to a variety of venues.  In many cases, more than one venue will satisfy the statutory requirements, allowing the debtor to make a choice.

What is so appealing about the United States Bankruptcy Court, Eastern District of Virginia (Richmond Division)?  First, the two judges sitting in this district are well respected. Michael A. Condyles, a lawyer in the firm representing Gymboree as local counsel, was quoted in a recent article published in The Virginia Lawyers Weekly as saying, “I do think there is a definite trend.  I think it is a testament to the quality of the judges.”  “The attraction is the ‘quality and sophistication’ of the judges,” Condyles continued.  Judges Kevin R. Huennekens and Keith L. Phillips, who serve in Rich­mond, have a combined 15 years of experience on the bankruptcy bench.

However, this alone cannot answer the question of “why Virginia” in a particular case. Attorneys who have appeared before the bankruptcy courts in Delaware, New York, and Texas, are well aware of the proficiency of excellence and sophistication of the judges who sit there.  The judges’ experience and competency are driving factors that regularly motivate sophisticated attorneys to fly in from all over the country to present their cases in the sought after venues. Clearly, the skill-level of the judges cannot be the only draw to the recent filings in Virginia.

According to a recent article published in the New York Times, the Richmond bankruptcy court is also known to move cases along quickly. While this may be true, that is understandable due to the fact that Virginia courts are required to juggle only a small fraction of the large chapter 11 cases that some of the other venues regularly encounter. The overburdened dockets which many courts frequently face, especially those of the Southern District of New York and Delaware, are managed with ease. These judges commonly schedule multiple hearings in one day, and many of the hearings involve sophisticated, complex issues. Nonetheless, the overburdened dockets are defied by these Courts’ ability to handle the caseload in an efficient manner. Therefore, there still must be more behind this new trend.

The recent large-case filings in Virginia may also be due to another feature attractive to debtors’ counsel— the court is known for approving high professional fees. Nationally, professional fees for bankruptcies have been increasing about 9.5 percent a year, about four times the rate of inflation, according to Lynn LoPucki, a bankruptcy professor at the University of California, Los Angeles who was quoted in the New York Times. In 2014, The National Law Journal posted the results of an hourly billing survey from law firms. It showed the average hourly rate for partners was $604, and associates charged $307. Now, partners in the largest 50 firms charge a median hourly billing rate of $625 per hour, versus those in a second largest group who charge almost $180 less for every hour, coming in at $447. As law firm size increases, so does the median billing rate. Public company debtors typically are represented by the large firms with high billing rates.

Kirkland and Ellis, counsel to Toys “R” Us, disclosed to the bankruptcy judge in the Eastern District of Virginia that its lawyers were charging as much as $1,745 an hour in the case. According to an analysis by The New York Times, that is 25 percent more than the average highest rate in 10 of the largest bankruptcies this year. So far, the Richmond judges seem to accept that with the complexities of large chapter 11 cases, come high attorney rates.

This begs the question, now that the allure of filing in Virginia is known, will we see this trend continue to grow? Only time will tell.

 

 

In order to secure a real property owner’s payment obligation, contractors, mechanics, materialmen, and other workmen are often granted a lien referred to by a variety of names including, materialmen’s liens, workmen’s liens, and mechanic’s liens.  While the parlance varies by jurisdiction, they are generally referred to as mechanic’s liens in Texas—even in the context of real property.  Because a mechanic’s lien secures the real property owner’s obligation to the underlying real property, making sure that their mechanic’s lien is properly perfected should be in the forefront of all contractors’ minds.  The protection afforded by a mechanic’s lien becomes increasingly important for contractors if they encounter issues obtaining payment from the real property owner or if the real property owner files bankruptcy.

Texas has two types of mechanic’s liens for real property: constitutional and statutory.  Article XVI section 37 of the Texas Constitution expressly provides for a variety of mechanic’s liens, and states:

Mechanics, artisans and material men, of every class, shall have a lien upon the buildings and articles made or repaired by them for the value of their labor done thereon, or material furnished therefor; and the Legislature shall prove by law for the speedy and efficient enforcement of said liens.

Courts interpret this section of the Texas Constitution as providing for “self-executing” liens as between the lien claimant and the property owner; that is, these constitutional liens do not generally require a contractor to take any additional steps beyond furnishing materials or labor directly to the property owner in order to perfect their interest.  The ease with which protection is afforded is generally great news for contractors because they receive increased rights just by virtue of their labor.  There is also a second, and arguably superior, way to obtain a mechanic’s lien on real property.

The second way to create a mechanic’s lien on real property in Texas is by following the statutory procedures.  More particularly described in chapter 53 of the Texas Property Code, the statute generally requires the completion of an affidavit containing certain statutorily specified information including, among other information, the amount of the claim, the contact information of the claimant, and a description of the encumbered property.  The statute also requires recording the affidavit with the county clerk for the county in which the property is located within a statutory period, and then providing a copy of the notice to the property owner.

But why would anybody want to jump through all those additional hoops for a statutory lien when obtaining a constitutional lien is so easy?  The answer is simple: the statutory lien is more powerful, and in certain situations, including if the real property owner files bankruptcy, may mean the difference between getting paid in full and getting pennies on the dollar.  In the context of bankruptcy, the crucial difference between these statutory and constitutional liens is the type of notice each provides.

In Texas, a mechanic’s lien claimant must provide actual or constructive notice to third parties to be protected against the rights of those third parties.  Because they are not recorded, constitutional liens rely on actual notice and constructive notice via the third party’s knowledge.  On the other hand, properly perfected statutory liens provide constructive notice because they are recorded in the county’s real property records.

Section 544 of the Bankruptcy Code provides the so-called “strong arm powers” of the bankruptcy trustee, which may be used to avoid certain liens and interests in property of the bankruptcy estate.  More particularly, Bankruptcy Code section 544(a) provides that

The trustee shall have as of the commencement of the case, and without regard to any knowledge of the trustee or of any creditors, the rights and powers of, or may avoid any transfer of property of the debtor or any obligation incurred by the debtor that is voidable by . . .

(3) a bona fide purchaser of real property, other than fixtures, from the debtor, against whom applicable law permits such transfer to be perfected, that obtains the status of a bona fide purchaser and has perfected such transfer at the time of the commencement of the case, whether or not such a purchaser exists.

Section 544 causes major problems for the contractors that only have a constitutional lien because it makes actual knowledge or notice irrelevant.  Constitutional mechanic’s liens are not recorded and rely on actual notice or knowledge to be effective.  Without actual notice and knowledge, constitutional liens are ineffective and can be avoided by the trustee’s strong arm powers.  Absent another defense, section 544 leaves a contractor relying a constitutional mechanic’s lien no better off than another unsecured creditor.

The simple solution to the problems associated with constitutional liens in bankruptcy is for contractors to fulfill the requirements to obtain a statutory mechanic’s lien.  The constructive notice provided by recording a statutory mechanic’s lien with the county clerk’s office is not rendered ineffective by section 544.  As a result, contractors with properly perfected statutory mechanic’s liens generally cannot have their interest avoided by section 544.  While constitutional mechanic’s liens are of value in some contexts, a properly perfected statutory mechanic’s lien provides greater protection in the event the real property owner files bankruptcy.

History:  In a June 14, 2017, bankruptcy blog titled “Six Degrees of Separation: Use of Bankruptcy Rule 2004 Examination in Connection with Third-Party Litigation, we reported on what appeared to be a case of first impression that arose in a case pending before United States Bankruptcy Judge Stuart Bernstein in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York.  In the Chapter 11 case of In Re: Sun Edison Inc., et al., 16-109292(SMB), a dispute had arisen as to whether a debtor (“Sun Edison” or “Debtors”) and a related but non- debtor entity, TerraForm LLC (“TERP”) were entitled to Bankruptcy Rule 2004 discovery with respect to a pending state court litigation between TERP and a non-debtor third party plaintiff (“Plaintiff”).   The Debtors and TERP argued that the outcome of that litigation may have an effect on the value of a significant asset of the bankruptcy estate of the Debtors, being the Debtors’ equity interests in TERP.  In that earlier blog we noted that the Court at oral argument had stated: “You know, every piece of information and fact out there is within six degrees of separation of a Debtors’ assets and financial affairs. The question is where do you draw the line?” 4/2017 Transcript of Hearing, In Re: Sun Edison Inc., et al., Case No. 16-10992-SMB, page 30, lines 6-11.

The Decision:  As of the date of our earlier blog, the question posed by the Court remained unanswered. On June 16, 2017, however, the Court ruled in its fairly lengthy 16 page “Memorandum Decision and Order Denying Motion for a Rule 2004 Examination”. In re Sunedison, Inc., 572 B.R. 482 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. 2017) (the “Decision”).  First, Judge Bernstein reiterated his ruling from the bench at the hearing denying TERP’s request for Rule 2004 discovery based on the “pending proceeding” rule.  Decision at 490.  Under that rule, Judge Bernstein noted that once an adversary proceeding or contested matter is commenced, discovery should be pursued under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and not by Rule 2004, and that the principle also applies to pending state court litigation (in which the state court discovery rules would be applied).  Id.

Turning next to the Debtors, the Court noted that the pending proceeding rule did not apply because the Debtors were not a party to the state court litigation.  The Court then stated that the Debtors would be entitled to Rule 2004 discovery if they could establish cause.  Id.  But beyond this, Judge Bernstein noted, “[r]elevance, however, is not enough; the Debtors must show that they need the discovery for some appropriate purpose, or that the failure to get the discovery will result in hardship or injustice.”  Id.   Judge Bernstein ruled that the Debtors’ essential argument that that cause exists because the outcome of the state court action will have a material effect on the value of an important asset (the TERP shares) did not withstand scrutiny under the facts of this case.  Id. at 491.

Judge Bernstein noted that this was not a circumstance in which a debtor was seeking pre-litigation discovery for a legitimate and supportable basis, such as into claims that it owns, or examining into whether to take control of a subsidiary in order to sell or liquidate its assets.  Id.  The Court opined that “Rule 2004 does not reach so far as to allow a debtor to take discovery from participants in third-party litigation involving claims it does not own or defenses it will not assert simply because the outcome may affect the value of an asset the debtor does own.”  Id.    Judge Bernstein noted further that he had requested supplemental briefing on this point, but the Debtors were unable to cite any authority to support their use of Rule 2004 to discover the merits of claims asserted in third party litigation against a subsidiary in order to value its stock ownership.  Id.  Furthermore, Judge Bernstein stated that the Debtors failed to support their assertions that they needed the discovery to finalize a chapter 11 plan, ensure accurate disclosure, reassure lenders and secure exit financing, and confirm and implement a Plan.  Id.  [Note: With the benefit of the passage of time, it is now known that the Debtors were able, without the Rule 2004 discovery it sought, to procure replacement debtor in possession financing, obtain approval of their disclosure statement, confirm a plan and have the plan go effective.]

In addition, Judge Bernstein stated in his decision that the specific circumstances of the joint Rule 2004 request gave the Court pause.  More specifically, it appeared to Judge Bernstein that with the Debtors and TERP being “united in interest regarding the desired outcome of the [state court action between TERP and the Plaintiff], what was actually occurring was an effort by the Debtors to use Rule 2004 to help TERP get the discovery that should be sought by TERP in the [state court action].”  Id. at 492.

Judge Bernstein concluded that the Debtors “failed to show any necessity for the Rule 2004 discovery, or that they will suffer injustice or hardship if they don’t get it.”   Id.

So, while a Rule 2004 examination itself may be broad, designed to assist the trustee in revealing the nature and extent of the estate, ascertaining assets, and discovering whether any wrongdoing has occurred, there does not appear to be any clearly definable answer to the question of how many degrees of separation may exist before moving beyond examination pursuant to Bankruptcy Rule 2004.  It appears that the elements of “cause” that a debtor must satisfy will be guided by the specific facts underlying the discovery it seeks, and an unsupported general assertion of need, or of adverse effect in the absence of such examination, will be a degree too far.

 

Undersecured creditors face unique challenges because they are neither fully secured nor fully unsecured.  Beyond the obviously undesirable issue of being upside-down on their deal, undersecured creditors often are exposed to preference liability for those payments they received in the 90 days prior to the debtor filing bankruptcy.  This is especially true where an aggressive trustee is looking to create value or where an opportunistic trustee sees a chance to make a quick buck.

Bankruptcy Code section 506 states that a creditor with a claim that is secured by property of the estate has a secured claim up to the value of their collateral and an unsecured claim for the remaining portion of their claim.  Thus, an undersecured creditor’s claim is split, or bifurcated, into secured and undersecured portions.  Fully secured creditors enjoy protection from preference claims by virtue of the fact that payments received in the preference period do not allow them to receive more than they would in a hypothetical chapter 7 liquidation because their fully secured status allows them to get paid in full.

Undersecured creditors face an additional challenge from the unsecured portion of their claim because payments they receive in the preference period may allow them to recover more than they would have in a hypothetical liquidation chapter 7 liquidation.  While undersecured creditors have the same preference defenses available to them as an unsecured creditor, such as receiving payments in the ordinary course or that they provided new value, those defenses may not give quite the same level of comfort as a fully secured claim.  In applying the language of the Bankruptcy Code, the Fifth Circuit in El Paso Refinery provided a two part test for undersecured creditors.

In Krafsur v. Scurlock Permian Corp. (In re El Paso Refinery), 171 F.3d 249 (5th Cir. 1999), the chapter 7 trustee sought to avoid payments made from the debtor to its supplier of crude oil.  The supplier of crude oil shared a floating lien on accounts receivable, inventory, contract rights, and proceeds with the debtor’s prepetition lender pursuant to an intercreditor agreement.  The bankruptcy court ruled that the intercreditor agreement worked as a partial assignment of approximately 55% of the prepetition lender’s interest in the collateral.  The bankruptcy court went on to rule that the same portion of the payments received in the preference period were proceeds from the oil supplier’s own collateral, and, therefore, 55% of the alleged preferential preference payments were unrecoverable.  The district court affirmed and both parties appealed.

The Fifth Circuit reversed and held that none of the payments the oil supplier received were preferential.  In reaching this conclusion, the Fifth Circuit utilized the “improvement in position” or the “greater percentage” test interpreting section 547(b)(5) of the Bankruptcy Code.  The goal of this test is to determine if, by virtue of the payments in the preference period, the creditor received a greater recovery on its debt than it would have otherwise received in a hypothetical chapter 7 liquidation.  While this test is well established for unsecured creditors, the Fifth Circuit conformed its application of the test for undersecured creditors.

The Fifth Circuit stated that for undersecured creditors, two issues need to be resolved: “(1) to what claim the payment is applied and (2) from what source the payment comes.”  The Fifth Circuit refers to these issues as the “Application Aspect” and the “Source Aspect,” respectively.  In order to satisfy the Application Aspect of the test, the payments must be applied to the secured portion of the undersecured creditors claim, and the undersecured creditor must correspondingly reduce the secured portion of its claim.  If the undersecured creditor does not correspondingly reduce the secured portion of its claim, the payment is considered a payment on the unsecured portion of the claim.  To satisfy the Source Aspect of the test, the payments the undersecured creditor receives must come from its own collateral.  The Fifth Circuit reasoned that a creditor which merely receives its own collateral cannot be receiving any more than it would have in a hypothetical liquidation, and creditors with an interest in accounts receivable or other cash equivalents are automatically receiving a payment from their own collateral.

As a result of the language referring to undersecured creditors generally, it was unclear whether this test was meant to replace or supplement the existing hypothetical liquidation analysis under section 547(b)(5) for undersecured creditors.  The Fifth Circuit addressed this ambiguity in Garner v. Knoll, Inc. (In re Tusa-Expo Holdings Inc.), 811 F.3d 786 (5th Cir. 2016).

In Tusa-Expo, a chapter 7 trustee brought an action to avoid payments made to an office furniture supplier by an office furniture dealer.  The office furniture supplier had first-priority lien on certain of the debtor’s accounts receivable and a second-priority lien on all other and after acquired property.  The bankruptcy court, in a belt and suspenders approach, punted on determining whether to conduct the analysis in El Paso Refinery or a section 547(b)(5) hypothetical chapter 7 liquidation analysis and conducted both.  The bankruptcy court subsequently found that under both analyses the payments received by the office furniture supplier in the preference period were not preferences.  The district court affirmed, albeit for different reasons.

The Fifth Circuit resolved the issue regarding the proper standard to apply by stating that  a court could alleviate the need to conduct a typical hypothetical liquidation analysis by conducting the analysis under El Paso Refinery first.  If under the El Paso Refinery analysis the payments are not found to be preferential, that analysis is dispositive of the preference issues.  In the event that the El Paso Refinery standard is not met, the trustee is still required to establish that the undersecured creditor received more than would have received in a hypothetical chapter 7 liquidation.  As a result, the Fifth Circuit made clear that the El Paso Refinery analysis is a threshold which is intended to aid a section 547(b)(5) analysis rather than replace it.  In so concluding, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the holdings of the bankruptcy and district courts.

Tusa-Expo addresses the issues left open by El Paso Refinery and makes clear that the analysis in El Paso Refinery is merely a shortcut to potentially avoid a hypothetical chapter 7 liquidation analysis.  While the test in El Paso Refinery and the clarifying holding in Tusa-Expo do not change the outcome for a hypothetical liquidation analysis under section 547(b)(5), they do provide an additional and valuable front on which to challenge a trustee’s preference claims.  For those undersecured creditors that do not have an interest in the debtor’s accounts receivable or other cash equivalents, Tusa-Expo makes clear that that they still have the same tools available as any other creditor accused of receiving preferential payments.  While this holding is not a boon for undersecured creditors without an interest in accounts receivable or the like, it does clear up any unnecessary confusion about the scope and applicability of the standard in El Paso Refinery.

Short Summary

In In re AE Liquidation, Inc., 866 F.3d 515 (3d Cir. 2017), the Third Circuit answered two important legal questions under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act of 1988 (the WARN Act).  First, the Third Circuit held that when a corporation is sold as a going concern, there is a presumption that the sale involves the hiring of the seller’s employees, “regardless of whether the seller has expressly contracted for the retention of its employees.”  Id. at 526.  Second, the Third Circuit held that, under the WARN Act, in determining whether a mass layoff was caused by “unforeseeable business circumstances,” a mass layoff is “reasonably foreseeable” only if it is “probable.”  Id. at 528.  The Court’s holding is more thoroughly examined below.

The WARN Act

The WARN Act “was enacted by Congress in 1988 to provide limited protections to workers whose jobs are suddenly and permanently terminated [and] generally precludes an ‘employer’ from ordering a ‘plant closing or mass layoff’ until the expiration of a sixty-day period after giving written notice.”  Laura B. Bartell, Why Warn?-the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act in Bankruptcy, 18 Bankr. Dev. J. 243, 243 (2002).

The WARN Act contains three exceptions to the this sixty-day notice period, but only one—the “unforeseeable business circumstances” exception—was presented to the Court in AE Liquidation.  29 U.S.C. § 2102(b)(2)(A) sets forth the “unforeseeable business circumstances” exception to the WARN Act’s notice requirements, and simply states that “[a]n employer may order a plant closing or mass layoff before the conclusion of the 60-day period if the closing or mass layoff is caused by business circumstances that were not reasonably foreseeable as of the time that notice would have been required.”  As the Third Circuit explained, this “exception must be offered by the employer as an affirmative defense” and “the employer must demonstrate (1) that the business circumstances that caused the layoff were not reasonably foreseeable and (2) that those circumstances were the cause of the layoff.”  AE Liquidation, 866 F.3d at 523.

The Code of Federal Regulations, at 20 C.F.R. § 639.9(b), provides additional guidance on this exception, explaining that (1) “[a]n important indicator of a business circumstance that is not reasonably foreseeable is that the circumstance is caused by some sudden, dramatic, and unexpected action or condition outside the employer’s control” and (2) “[t]he test for determining when business circumstances are not reasonably foreseeable focuses on an employer’s business judgment.”  Id. at § 639.9(b)(1)-(2).

Factual Background

The plaintiffs-appellants were former employees of the Debtor, Eclipse Aviation Corporation (Eclipse), who were laid off when the Eclipse’s § 363 sale to its largest shareholder fell through.  That sale, which would have allowed the Eclipse’s operations to continue as a going concern, was contingent upon funding from Vnesheconomban (VEB), a state-owned Russian Bank.  As the Third Circuit explained, “[f]or a month, Eclipse waited for the deal to go through with almost daily assurances that the funding was imminent and the company could be saved, but eventually, as those assurances failed to bear fruit, the time came when it was forced to cease operations altogether.”  AE Liquidation, 866 F.3d at 518.  As a result, on February 24, 2009—nearly two weeks after Eclipse had become administratively insolvent—Eclipse’s board of directors instructed Eclipse’s attorneys to file a motion to convert the case to a Chapter 7 liquidation.  Id. at 522.  As soon as the motion was filed, Eclipse emailed all of its employees and informed them that Eclipse was being liquidating and all employees were being laid off.  Id.

The Third Circuit’s Holding

The Third Circuit addressed two important legal questions left unresolved by the Code of Federal Regulations.  The first was the question of causation—what proof is needed to show that the “allegedly unforeseeable event was, in fact, the cause of the layoff”?  Id. at 525.  The second was the question of foreseeability—“what makes a business circumstance ‘not reasonably foreseeable’”?  Id. at 528.

The Court’s first ruling was simple—when a business is being sold as a going concern, the Court presumes that “that the sale ‘involves the hiring of the seller’s employees unless something indicates otherwise,’ regardless of whether the seller has expressly contracted for the retention of its employees.”  Id. at 526.  More importantly, the Court held that although the terms of the purchase agreement “freed ETIRC from any binding obligation to retain Eclipse’s employees and prevented it from incurring liabilities were it not to retain them,” this fact did not rebut the presumption.  Id. at 527.  As the Third Circuit explained, “[w]hile such boilerplate language perhaps signifies that the sustained employment of Eclipse’s workforce was not a foregone conclusion, it does not rebut the presumption in favor of continued employment in a going concern sale.”  Id.   By applying this presumption, the Third Circuit aligned itself with the Eighth and Ninth Circuit, which made similar holdings in Wilson v. Airtherm Prod., Inc., 436 F.3d 906 (8th Cir. 2006) and Int’l All. of Theatrical & Stage Employees & Moving Picture Mach. Operators, AFL-CIO v. Compact Video Servs., Inc., 50 F.3d 1464, 1468 (9th Cir. 1995).

The Court’s ruling on foreseeability similarly brought the Third Circuit in line with other Circuits.  Citing to the Fifth Circuit’s holding in Halkias v. Gen. Dynamics Corp., 137 F.3d 333, 336 (5th Cir. 1998), the Third Circuit explained that “anything less than a probability would be ‘impracticable.’”  AE Liquidation, 866 F.3d at 529.  The Third Circuit examined this proposition, and agreed with the Fifth Circuit, explaining that “there are significant costs and consequences to requiring these struggling companies to send notice to their employees informing them of every possible ‘what if’ scenario and raising the specter that one such scenario is a doomsday… premature warning has the potential to accelerate a company’s demise and necessitate layoffs that otherwise may have been avoided.”  Id.  By so holding, the Third Circuit joined the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Tenth Circuit in determining that “more probable than not” is the appropriate standard for foreseeability under the WARN Act.  See Halkias, 137 F.3d 333; Watson v. Michigan Indus. Holdings, Inc., 311 F.3d 760, 765 (6th Cir. 2002); Roquet v. Arthur Andersen LLP, 398 F.3d 589 (7th Cir. 2005); United Steel Workers of Am. Local 2660 v. U.S. Steel Corp., 683 F.3d 882 (8th Cir. 2012); Gross v. Hale-Halsell Co., 554 F.3d 870 (10th Cir. 2009).

Applying these holdings to the facts of the case, the Court found that Eclipse had met its burden of demonstrating the “unforeseeable business circumstances” exception to WARN Act liability.  As the Court explained, “[u]nder the circumstances, and taking account of the historical relationship between the [Eclipse and its majority shareholder], it was commercially reasonable for Eclipse to believe that the sale was still at least as likely to close as to fall through before February 24th, so that no WARN Act notice was required prior to that time.”  In re AE Liquidation, Inc., 866 F.3d 515, 533 (3d Cir. 2017).

Conclusion

WARN Act issues arise often during bankruptcy proceedings.  Although the facts of AE Liquidation present a rare scenario—where WARN Act liability arose as a result of a failed sale process—the Third Circuit’s holding in AE Liquidation addresses two fundamental issues in the “unforeseen business circumstances” exception to WARN Act liability—causation and foreseeability.  The Third Circuit’s holding brings needed certainty to these issues and therefore greater certainty to the bankruptcy process.

Delaware’s Bankruptcy Court has recently issued two insightful opinions that impact a creditor’s ability to establish the “receipt” element of a valuable 503(b)(9) administrative expense priority claim.

CASE 1: In re SRC Liquidation, LLC, Case No. 15-10541, 2017 WL 2992718 (Bankr. D. Del. July 13, 2017)

On July 13, 2017, Chief Judge Shannon of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware issued an opinion in the In re SRC Liquidation, LLC bankruptcy case regarding the ability of a creditor to assert a Section 503(b)(9) administrative claim for goods shipped by the vendor directly to a debtor’s customer in the 20 days before a debtor’s bankruptcy – referred to as “drop shipping.”

As discussed in prior posts on 503(b)(9) claims (Getting the Most Bang for Your 503(b)(9) Claims and Section 503(b)(9) Claims – What Does “Receipt” Really Mean?), to establish a 503(b)(9) claim, a creditor must demonstrate that:

  • goods were received by a debtor within 20 days before the petition date;
  • the goods were sold to the debtor; and
  • the goods were sold in the ordinary course of business.

The critical consideration in the SRC Liquidation decision was whether the creditor could establish that the debtor “received” the goods for purposes of establishing that its claim was entitled to administrative treatment pursuant to  Section 503(b)(9) of the Bankruptcy Code.  If not – the claim would be relegated to a non-priority, general unsecured claim (with little chance for recovery).  The creditor asserted that receipt occurred when the creditor-vendor delivered the product to a third-party shipper (UPS) for ultimate delivery to the debtors’ non-debtor customer.  By example, with most drop shipments, a debtor may directly place an order with a creditor-vendor, but the creditor-vendor may deliver the goods directly to a debtor’s customer, rather than the debtor itself.

In SRC Liquidation, the court’s analysis began with recognizing that “receipt” is not defined in the Bankruptcy Code and looking to the UCC for guidance.  Under the UCC, the term “receipt” can include physical possession (see § 2-103) or, in certain circumstances, constructive possession (i.e. § 2-705) when placed in the control of a bailee for the debtor.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in its recent opinion in In re World Imports, Inc., was also recently tasked with defining receipt for purposes of 503(b)(9) claims.  There, the Third Circuit, just days prior to Judge Shannon’s SRC Liquidation decision, held that receipt for purposes of 503(b)(9) claims required physical possession – and the Third Circuit looked to both its prior precedent in the case of Montello Oil Corp. v. Marin Motor Oil, Inc. (In re Marin Motor Oil, Inc.), 740 F.2d 220 (3d Cir. 1984) (where receipt for reclamation purposes was found to require physical possession) and the UCC.  The Third Circuit in In re World Imports, Inc. also noted that in analyzing shipping arrangements, placement of the goods into the possession of a common carrier (who was not the debtor’s bailee) did not establish “receipt” –instead observing it occurred when the debtor physically received the goods.

The creditor in In re SRC Liquidation argued that receipt for purposes of 503(b)(9) should be interpreted to include constructive receipt – including by a debtor’s customers.  The creditor argued that the court should interpret the term “received” differently when considering it under 503(b)(9) as opposed to reclamation because the commercial realities and the remedies are different.  The creditor argued that for reclamation, because the remedy is recovery of actual goods delivered, physical possession of the goods would understandably be a prerequisite, while in contrast for a 503(b)(9) claim, a creditor is asserting a claim for the value of the goods – not for the actual goods – and thus constructive possession should be permitted.  A focal point of the creditor’s argument was that “receipt” for 503(b)(9) purposes should be determined when title passed from the seller – i.e. when placed with the third-party shipper.

The bankruptcy court disagreed finding that the term “received” should mean the same for reclamation as for 503(b)(9) purposes because they arise in similar circumstances and concern related issues.  The court further held that the passing of title was not the only concern – particularly under the UCC – for establishing rights of buyers and sellers – noting that “possession is the key.”   Judge Shannon cited the Third Circuit’s decision just days in In re World Imports, Inc.   My recent prior post provides a more in-depth analysis of that decision, where the Third Circuit held that physical possession by the debtor was determinative of whether the debtor “received” goods for 503(b)(9) purposes, as opposed to the when title or of loss of product passed.    

Judge Shannon’s decision was not appealed and appears to follow the majority of other courts that have addressed the drop shipment issue (including Judge Shannon’s prior findings in the SRC case).  The majority of courts hold that unless the actual debtor-customer (as opposed to another party) received the goods, the claim for such goods is not entitled to administrative expense priority treatment under Section 503(b)(9) of the Bankruptcy Code.  See, e.g., In re SRC Liquidation Co., No. 15-10541(BLS) (Bankr. D. Del. Oct. 15, 2015) (transcript of bench ruling) (“[W]hile it may be a business relationship developed of long practice and, frankly, for the benefit and at the direction of the Debtor, nevertheless, the circumstances of that business relationship and the way product was moved from one party to another is such that it takes it outside of the scope of Section 503(b)(9).”); In re Plastech Engineered Prods., Inc., No. 08-42417, 2008 WL 5233014, at *1 (Bankr. E.D. Mich. Oct. 7, 2008) (sustaining debtors’ objection to 503(b)(9) claim for goods delivered directly to debtor’s customer); Ningbo Chenglu Paper Prods. Manuf. Co., Ltd. v. Momenta, Inc. (In re Momenta, Inc.), No. 11-cv-479-SM, 2014 WL 3765171, at *7 (D.N.H. Aug. 29, 2012) (same).  The ultimate implication of this ruling is best considered in the context of the In re ADI Liquidation, Inc., et al. decision issued in June 2017 and discussed below.

CASE 2: In re ADI Liquidation, Inc., et al., Case No. 14-12092, 2017 WL 2712287 (Bankr. D. Del. June 22, 2017)

Last month, on June 22, 2017, Judge Carey of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware issued an opinion in the In re ADI Liquidation, Inc., et al. cases addressing what “received” means in the context of a Section 503(b)(9)  claim derived from a wholesale arrangement – which he analogized to a drop shipment arrangement.   Wholesale/cooperative arrangements are prevalent in and outside of the grocery industry.  In cooperatives, typically member-participants collectively order through a centralized billing system and typically the orders are all made by and through one entity to vendors (and that entity also pays for the goods), but the shipments are often made directly to the member-participants (as opposed to the ordering party), who then pay the ordering party after the fact.  Cooperatives often arise where buyers, who purchase the same products or purchase from the same vendors, pool their buying power to negotiate more favorable rates.

In the ADI Liquidation case, creditor Bimbo Bakeries USA, Inc. (“BBU”) supplied baked goods to AWI (f/k/a Associated Wholesalers, Inc.) and to its cooperative members (which included non-debtor entities).  The ordered goods were delivered directly to AWI as well as directly to the non-debtor cooperative members.  AWI would typically pay vendors for all of the purchased goods (by both AWI and its cooperative members).  There was a separate purchase and supply agreement between the members and AWI, pursuant to which AWI acted as a wholesaler to the members.  BBU as a vendor was not a party to the purchase agreement.

When BBU asserted its Section 503(b)(9) claims, it included goods delivered directly to debtor AWI and goods that BBU delivered to the non-debtor AWI Members (that were ordered and paid for by AWI).  As discussed above and in my prior posts on 503(b)(9) claims, to establish a 503(b)(9) claim, a creditor must demonstrate, among other things, that the goods were received by a debtor within 20 days before the petition date.

The central focus of the court’s opinion in In re ADI Liquidation was whether or not BBU established that the AWI debtors “received” the goods that BBU delivered to the non-debtor cooperative members.  BBU argued that the goods in question were constructively received by debtor AWI (and thus entitled to administrative expense treatment under Section 503(b)(9) because debtor AWI and the non-debtor receiving members/customers were so related and indivisible, that the receipt by the customer was the equivalent of the debtor receiving it.  The court’s instant decision did not address BBU’s other claims – including administrative expense claims for goods delivered to other debtors, but ordered by AWI.

Recognizing (as referenced above) that the term “received” is not defined by the Bankruptcy Code, the court looked to the UCC for guidance and found that for constructive receipt to be established (often considered in the context of reclamation), the receiving party must be a bailee of the debtor.  The court held that the receiving members were not bailees of debtor AWI and notwithstanding that the UCC contemplates that constructive receipt can occur by a buyer-representative who is a “sub-purchaser” (like in a drop ship context), the court held that the “buyers” were the non-debtor members and not debtor AWI.  In so finding, the court determined that the claims for the goods that BBU delivered to the non-debtor members were non-priority, general unsecured claims (which would receive little, if any distribution).

On July 5, 2017, BBU appealed the Delaware Bankruptcy Court’s June 2017 decision to the District Court (assigned Case No. 17-903).   Given the prevalence of cooperative buying arrangements, in and outside of the grocery context, and the importance of “receipt” in establishing the very valuable 503(b)(9) claims, creditors and debtors alike will be carefully monitoring the developments of this case.

CONCLUSION

As discussed in prior posts, Section 503(b)(9) claims are very valuable to creditors (with the likelihood of providing a dollar for dollar return) as opposed to other general unsecured claims which often times provide speculative, if any, return.  These recent decisions on the receipt element for establishing a Section 503(b)(9) claim provide helpful guidance so that debtors, creditors and their respective professionals can better understand the prospects for establishing these administrative claims, and in particular for debtors, the cost of confirming a bankruptcy case – which requires payment in full for such claims.