“We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.”
–From concurring opinion of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, in Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443 (1953), on role and function of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Structured dismissals are [correction: were] a rapidly developing field in today’s bankruptcy world. That all changed on March 22, 2017, when the U.S. Supreme Court puts the kibosh on structured dismissals in its In re Jevic ruling.
Negotiations in this rapidly developing field would be ripe for mediation. But, alas, that will not happen, because of the In re Jevic ruling. Now, the rule is simple: distribute sale proceeds through the Bankruptcy Code’s priority scheme.
Necessity Produces Creativity
Creative processes, like structured dismissals, arise out of a need in bankruptcy to maximize value and distribute proceeds in an efficient and prompt manner. Plan confirmation processes are, often, inefficient and expensive in the extreme. So, when an opportunity arises to maximize value and distribute proceeds in a way that is quick, efficient and effective, practitioners gravitate to that opportunity. Structured dismissals provide one of those opportunities.
Bankruptcy courts have been struggling for as long as I can remember with how to handle asset sales and the distribution of sale proceeds. My first recollection of a bankruptcy sale issue relating to today’s structured dismissals is from 1982:
–a bankruptcy judge rules in 1982 that a bankruptcy trustee may not “serve as the handmaiden” of secured creditors in liquidating collateral. Accordingly, a sale of assets should not occur in a Chapter 7 case, the judge says, when the only persons to benefit are secured creditors.
–The judge in 1982 explains: “Secured creditors by consent and the trustee by acquiescence cannot impose upon the [Bankruptcy] Court the duty to serve as a foreclosure or collection forum.”
The “handmaiden” phrase from 1982 stands the test of time. It’s still good law today, especially in Chapter 7 liquidation cases: if all debtor’s nonexempt assets are fully encumbered, the Chapter 7 trustee must issue a “no asset” report.
But a bankruptcy sale of fully-encumbered property can still provide benefits to the bankruptcy estate in a business reorganization. Such benefits might include keeping a business alive under new ownership, which will continue providing jobs and business activity and tax payments in the local community.
Additionally, parties in a bankruptcy often negotiate for ways to create benefits to the bankruptcy estate from a sale of fully-encumbered property. One way is to carve-out a portion of the funds the secured creditor would receive from a sale and then gift that portion to priority wage claims or to unsecured creditors.
A Long-Standing Precedent
That’s what happened, for example, in the case of In re SPM Manufacturing Corp., 984 F.2d 1305 (1st Cir. 1993).
–In the In re SPM case, a secured creditor would get all proceeds from the sale of debtor’s assets. So, the secured creditors enters into a pre-plan settlement agreement for distributing proceeds from a bankruptcy sale. The agreement would gift to unsecured creditors a portion of sale proceeds the secured creditor would otherwise receive.
–The bankruptcy court rejects this agreement because tax claims have a higher priority, aren’t receiving any of the gift, and remain unpaid. The District Court affirms, and the case is appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals.
–The First Circuit reverses and approves the agreement. Here is part of the First Circuit’s rationale:
The Bankruptcy Code’s distribution scheme “does not come into play until all valid liens on the property are satisfied. . . . Because [the secured creditor’s] claim absorbed all of SPM’s assets, there was nothing left for any other creditor in this case. . . . creditors are generally free to do whatever they wish with the bankruptcy dividends they receive, including to share them with other creditors.” [984 F.2d at 1312-13.]
This In re SPM ruling has been the law-of-the-land in the First Circuit for fourteen years. And the ruling makes sense, as reflected by this fact: an online research tool [Casemaker] says this In re SPM decision, (i) has been cited 183 times, and (ii) has been “criticized” only once on unrelated grounds.
So . . . did the U.S. Supreme Court decide to overrule this long-standing In re SPM rule in its In re Jevic decision . . . without even mentioning it?! Perhaps not: the In re SPM decision might be distinguishable (arguably, at least). But In re Jevic’s “simple answer” of “no” suggests otherwise.
This result is unfortunate in the extreme for bankruptcy practitioners and judges striving to maximize and distribute value in an efficient and effective manner!!