It is very common for bankruptcy court orders to provide that the court retains jurisdiction to enforce such orders.  Similarly, chapter 11 confirmation orders routinely provide that the bankruptcy court retains jurisdiction over all orders previously entered in the case.  The enforceability of these “retention of jurisdiction” provisions, however, will not rest on the plain language in the order but on the bankruptcy court’s statutory jurisdiction.  Because no court can simply create its own jurisdiction, whether these provisions are enforceable hinges on whether the dispute in question “arises under”, “arises in” or “relates to” the bankruptcy case as set forth by statute at 28 U.S.C. §§ 1334 and 157.

Recently, the First Circuit opined that a dispute involving a provision in a chapter 11 sale order did not “arise in” the bankruptcy case merely because the sale was approved by the bankruptcy court and the sale order included a “retention of jurisdiction” provision.   Gupta v. Quincy Medical Center, 2017 WL 2389407, Case No. 15-1183 (1st Cir. June 2, 2017).  The First Circuit recognized that “retention of jurisdiction” provisions are not sufficient to establish “arising in” jurisdiction—instead the bankruptcy court must consider the nature of the proceeding to independently determine if the matter could arise only in the context of a bankruptcy case.

The facts underlying Gupta are relatively straightforward.  Quincy Medical Center (QMC) entered into an asset purchase agreement (APA) to sell substantially all of their assets to an entity created by Steward Health Care System (Steward).  The APA required Steward to offer new employment to all QMC employees that were employed immediately prior to the sale closing.  The APA also provided that if Steward terminated any employee after the sale closed, then Steward would be liable for severance pay.  Immediately after executing the APA, QMC filed for chapter 11 to consummate the sale and liquidate.    Both the sale order and the later order confirming the chapter 11 plan included provisions retaining the bankruptcy court’s jurisdiction to determine disputes arising under or relating to the APA.

Shortly after the sale closed, Steward terminated two senior executives.  When Steward failed to pay severance, the former executives sought enforcement of the APA in the bankruptcy court.  The bankruptcy court determined it had subject matter jurisdiction to hear the dispute pursuant to the retention of jurisdiction language in the sale order and found Steward liable for the severance pay.  On appeal, the district court reversed, finding that the bankruptcy court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the dispute.  The district court reasoned that the breach of contract claim fell outside the bankruptcy court’s subject matter jurisdiction – a contract dispute between two non-debtor parties – which could not be established by mere provisions in orders.   The First Circuit affirmed.

The First Circuit explained that the “jurisdiction of the bankruptcy courts, like that of all other federal courts, is grounded in, and limited by, statute.”  The scope of bankruptcy court jurisdiction is found at 28 U.S.C. § 1334.  Bankruptcy courts, by reference from the district courts, have jurisdiction over “cases under title 11”, and “proceedings arising under title 11, or arising in or related to cases under title 11.”  The statute provides no clear definition of “arising under”, “arising in” or “related to” and the First Circuit “observed that the boundaries between these types of proceedings are not always easy to distinguish from each other.”

The former executives did not assert “arising under” or “related to” jurisdiction; rather, they only argued that their severance claims “arise in” the bankruptcy case “because the APA was approved by the bankruptcy court in the Sale Order pursuant to [the bankruptcy code], and . . . . [the sale order] may ‘only be issued by a bankruptcy court.’”  In essence, the former executives asserted a “but for” causation:  “but for Debtors’ Chapter 11 case and the Sale Order approving the sale of Debtors’ assets to Steward in the APA, their claims for severance pay would not exist.”

The First Circuit rejected the “but for” test, instead holding that to establish “arising in” jurisdiction, the relevant proceeding must have “no existence outside of the bankruptcy[;]” “‘arising in’ jurisdiction exists only if Appellants’ claims are the type of claims that can only exist in a bankruptcy case.”   Examples of “arising in” proceedings are typically administrative in nature – orders to turn over property, dischargeability of debts and assumption or rejection of contracts.  Because the former executives’ claims were in the nature of a state law breach of contract claim, the First Circuit determined that the claims did not “arise in” the bankruptcy case and, therefore, the bankruptcy court did not have subject matter jurisdiction to determine the dispute.

Going forward, parties seeking to have their issues heard by a bankruptcy court should note that “retention of jurisdiction” provisions are not determinative.  Bankruptcy courts must look beyond the “retention of jurisdiction” language and determine whether the proceeding meets the statutory test of “arising under”, “arising in” or “relating to” the bankruptcy case.

As noted in a recent Distressing Matters post, the United States Supreme Court in In re Jevic Holding Corp. held that debtors cannot use structured dismissals to make payments to creditors in violation of ordinary bankruptcy distribution priority rules.  The Jevic dissent complained that the majority avoided the more general question presented—whether a bankruptcy settlement can violate the statutory priority scheme.  The bankruptcy court for the Eastern District of Tennessee has addressed that complaint, holding that priority-altering settlements must be “fair and equitable” and promote a significant Code-related objective.

In In re Fryar, the bankruptcy court reviewed a settlement involving the sale of the debtor’s equity interests in two private ventures.  The IRS had a lien on the debtor’s equity interests.  The settlement proposed using the sale proceeds to pay off a bank lien on certain real estate, rather than using the proceeds to satisfy the IRS.  In exchange for the sale proceeds, the bank would release its lien on the real estate and retain a subordinated deficiency claim.  The IRS would then receive a lien on the now unencumbered real estate.  The bank acknowledged that if the sale proceeds were distributed according to the statutory priorities and the bank merely foreclosed on the real estate, its recovery would be less than half of what it stood to receive under the settlement.

Three unsecured creditors and the United States Trustee objected to the settlement on the basis that it reordered distribution priorities for the benefit of the bank. The bankruptcy court agreed, noting that the settlement allowed the bank to jump “to the head of the line.”  Absent the settlement, the proceeds would have gone first to the IRS to satisfy its lien on the equity, then to the estate for distribution to priority unsecured creditors (e.g., other unpaid tax claims) and finally to general unsecured creditors on a pro rata basis.

The bankruptcy court cited dicta from Jevic while considering the merits of the proposed settlement:

We recognize that Iridium is not the only case in which a court has approved interim distributions that violate ordinary priority rules. But in such instances one can generally find significant Code-related objectives that the priority-violating distributions serve. . . .  In doing so, these courts have usually found that the distributions at issue would “enable a successful reorganization and make even the disfavored creditors better off.” [Citations omitted].

Applying such guidance, the bankruptcy court determined that the settlement was more of a preamble to a conversion or structured dismissal than an anticipated reorganization and that the debtor did not prove that the settlement promoted a significant Code-related objective. Accordingly, the bankruptcy court sustained the objections to the settlement.

The bankruptcy court’s holding essentially establishes a new requirement for acceptance of any priority-altering settlement—post-Jevic, debtors wishing to consummate such settlements must now prove not only that the settlements are “fair and equitable” but also that the settlements promote a significant Code-related objective.  It remains to be seen whether other courts will demand that debtors meet similar standards for priority-altering settlements.

In Nortel Networks, Inc., Case No. 09-0138(KG), Doc. No. 18001 (March 8, 2017), the Delaware Bankruptcy Court ruled on the objections of two noteholders who asked the Court to disallow more than $4.4 million of the $8.1 million of the fees sought by counsel to their indenture trustee.  Given the detailed rulings announced by the Court, the decision may establish a number of guidelines by which future fee requests made by an indenture trustee’s professionals will be measured.

Matters Handled by the UCC

The noteholders’ objection asserted that the trustee had breached its fiduciary duties because it had permitted its counsel to rack up millions of dollars of unnecessary fees during litigation that was being adequately handled by the Unsecured Creditors Committee (UCC). As proof, the noteholders pointed to the fact that the litigation was ultimately settled by counsel to the UCC pursuant to a global settlement which resulted in a resolution of the entire bankruptcy case.  In response, the Court noted that the trustee’s fiduciary duties with respect to the direction of counsel are governed by the “prudent person” standard, but that that standard cannot be applied through the 20/20 lens of hindsight.  Instead, the trustee’s actions must be analyzed in the context of the facts known at the time of the direction.

The Court observed that Nortel was an unusually long, complex and contentious proceeding in which the trustee and its counsel were required to protect the noteholders’ rights during a number of hotly contested proceedings, any one of which might have significantly and adversely affected the noteholders’ recoveries.  Thus, during the case, it would not have been prudent for the trustee to rely solely upon counsel to the UCC to protect the interests of the noteholders.  The fact that the case was ultimately resolved by the efforts of the UCC was not dispositive since, at the time, the trustee could not have prudently assumed that result.  The Court did, however, contrast the litigation issues which might have directly affected noteholders with matters, e.g., attendance at regular meetings of the UCC, which only affected general unsecured creditors as a whole.  Those latter issues were in fact being adequately handled by counsel to the UCC, and fees for more than one counsel representing the trustee at regular meetings of the UCC would be disallowed.

Transition Fees

The noteholders objected to fees charged by the trustee’s predecessor counsel for time spent transitioning the representation to the trustee’s current counsel. The Court found, as an evidentiary matter, that predecessor counsel had been uncooperative during the transition process, thereby necessitating more work by successor trustee counsel.  Accordingly, it sustained the noteholders’ objection based upon predecessor counsel’s “nonfeasance.”

Fees for Defending Fees

The noteholders objected to fees incurred by the trustee in defending the fee objection, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ASARCO case which stands for the proposition that lawyers cannot recover fees for defending their own fees in a bankruptcy proceeding.  The Bankruptcy Court noted, however, that ASARCO allowed an exception where one party had contractually agreed to pay the fees of the other party.  The Bankruptcy Court ruled that the indenture was such a contract because it required the debtor to pay the fees of trustee’s counsel and, in any event, granted the trustee a charging lien on any recovery owed to the noteholders.

All told, of the $8.1 million in asserted fees, the Bankruptcy Court sustained the noteholder’s objections to the extent of $913,936.70. The Court specifically remarked that it was generally unsympathetic to the noteholders’ complaints in light of the fact that the noteholders had never objected to counsels’ fees until near the end of the case.

In general, Nortel is a favorable decision for indenture trustees and their counsel, which stands for the proposition that fees should not be second-guessed with hindsight so long as there is a reasonable need to protect the specific interests of the noteholders.

One of the most powerful and oft used devices in bankruptcy is the sale of assets “free and clear” of liens, claims and interests. One issue a buyer at a bankruptcy sale must consider, however, is whether due process has been met with respect to parties whose liens, claims and/or interests are released through such sale.  Indeed, a lack of due process could foil a “free and clear” sale, leaving a buyer with an encumbered purchase and nowhere to turn for recourse.

In In re Olsen, a Wisconsin bankruptcy court considered whether the failure to provide formal notice to a party with a right of first refusal (ROFR) on certain of the debtor’s real estate (Property) voided the court’s “free and clear” sale order. The court held that the sale process did violate due process and that the effective remedy was honoring the ROFR in a subsequent (post bankruptcy) sale of the Property.

In order to maximize the going concern value of its grain facility business, the debtor sought to sell substantially all of its assets in conjunction with its plan of reorganization. Archer-Daniels-Midland (Purchaser) purchased the assets, including the Property.  Subsequent to the conclusion of the bankruptcy case, the Purchaser sold the Property to a third party.  Country Visions Cooperative (Objector), the holder of the ROFR, sued the Purchaser in state court and asserted its ROFR.  The Purchaser countered by moving to reopen the bankruptcy case to enforce the confirmation order and bar the Objector’s state court proceeding.

In upholding the ROFR, the bankruptcy court found three important undisputed facts: (i) the Objector was not listed as a creditor of the debtor, and did not receive formal notice of the bankruptcy case, (ii) the Objector never received formal notice that the Property was to be sold free and clear of the ROFR, and (iii) the Objector never received the contractual notice that the Property was being sold as required by the ROFR.

Notably, the Objector did receive informal notice of the bankruptcy case and may have even learned about the sale shortly before closing. However, such notice was not “notice reasonably calculated, under all the circumstances, to apprise interested parties of the pendency of the action and afford them an opportunity to present their objections”—as due process requires.  Thus, the bankruptcy court concluded that the Objector did not receive sufficient notice before its ROFR was purportedly extinguished.

The Purchaser argued that notwithstanding the faulty notice, the court should enforce the confirmation order to strip the ROFR because the Purchaser was a bona fide purchaser that acquired the Property in good faith under section 363(m) of the Bankruptcy Code. The court rejected this argument, explaining that a bona fide purchaser cannot have notice of a prior adverse claim.

Here, the Purchaser did have prior notice of the ROFR (even if the notice was constructive) because the ROFR was properly recorded. The Purchaser also had received an email indicating that someone had a ROFR on the Property.  The court explained that the Purchaser easily could have commissioned a title report and ensured that all parties in interest received due notice.   The court acknowledged that the debtor should have properly noticed all parties in interest, including the Objector, but also found that the Purchaser could not “cloak itself with the mantle of a bona fide purchaser when it ignored information suggesting the [Objector’s] rights were not addressed in the sale.”  Thus, the court approved the Objector’s request to enforce its ROFR in the Purchaser’s post-bankruptcy sale of the Property.

In sum, a buyer in bankruptcy should consider independently ensuring that all parties with purported liens, claims or interests in the sale assets receive proper notice of the sale; hoping that the debtor provides proper notice may not be sufficient.  A little effort up front can save time, money and aggravation in the end.

In a recent decision (“Energy Future Holdings”) poised to have wide-reaching implications, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decisions of the Bankruptcy and the District Courts to hold that a debtor cannot use a voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing to escape liability for a “make-whole” premium if express contractual language requires such payment when the borrower makes an optional redemption prior to a date certain. In so doing, the Third Circuit expressly rejected the reasoning of the Southern District of New York in the Momentive decisions, which reviewed similar language and held that no “make-whole” was due. The Momentive decisions are under advisement by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, setting the stage for a potential circuit split.

In Energy Future Holdings, the debtor (“EFIH”) filed for bankruptcy for the explicit purpose of refinancing the debt at favorable interest rates (saving over $13 million per month) and avoiding its obligation to pay the make-whole premiums to both its first and second lien noteholders.  Several weeks after the bankruptcy filing, EFIH executed this strategy and the noteholders objected.  Both lower courts approved of EFIH’s actions, finding that the section of the indenture that accelerated the debt upon bankruptcy did not mention the make-whole payment, therefore none was due.

The Third Circuit took a different view of the two relevant provisions in the indentures: Section 3.07, which provided that at any time before December 1, 2015 the notes could be redeemed for 100% of the principal amount plus, inter alia, the make whole payment, and Section 6.02, which provided that upon a bankruptcy filing, all outstanding notes are due and payable immediately.

The Third Circuit found that these two provisions are not at odds with each other, and that New York law requires that that both provisions be given effect. The concept of “redemption” (as opposed to prepayment), under both New York and federal law, is not limited to only repayments of debt that predate its maturity; rather, redemption includes both pre-and post-maturity repayments of debt.  The redemption by EFIH was optional, despite the automatic acceleration of the debt under Section 6.02, as (i) EFIH voluntarily filed for bankruptcy, (ii) EFIH could have reinstated the accelerated notes’ original maturity date, and (iii) EFIH redeemed the notes over the noteholders’ objections.  To the Third Circuit, after reviewing the relevant indentures and the facts of the payments, “Redemptions, not prepayments, occurred here, they were at the election of EFIH, and they occurred before the respective dates [in the indentures].”

It remains to be seen whether the Second Circuit will agree with the analysis of the Third Circuit concerning almost identical operative sections of the respective indenture agreements, or whether it will uphold the lower courts’ decisions in Momentive. Under the Third Circuit’s holding, however, borrowers in that jurisdiction seeking the ability to avoid payment of the make whole upon acceleration of the debt need to make that expressly clear in the governing contract.

Mintz Levin was recently honored at the 10th Annual M&A Advisor Awards dinner with the Restructuring Community Impact Award in connection with the Acquisition of Assets of Alsip Acquisition, LLC by Paper Mill Acquisition LLC.  Mintz Levin’s Richard Mikels, Kevin Walsh, Charles Azano and Eric Blythe served as debtor counsel during the transaction.

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