Romance and “Insider” Status, with Other Oddities, at U.S. Supreme Court (U.S. Bank v. Village at Lakeridge)

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An Oddity

By Donald L. Swanson

On March 27, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court grants certiorari in the case of U.S. Bank N.A. v. Village at Lakeridge, LLC, U.S. Supreme Court Case No. 15-1509.

The Facts

Kathie Bartlett is one of five owners of a company that owns the Debtor. So, both Kathie Bartlett and her company are “insiders” of the Debtor under § 101(31).

The bankruptcy Debtor proposes a plan of reorganization. The plan identifies only two impaired claims: (i) U.S. Bank’s $10 million, fully-secured claim, and (ii) a $2.76 million unsecured claim of the Debtor’s owner—i.e., Kathie Bartlett’s company. A problem for plan confirmation is the requirement that at least one impaired class of claims must vote to accept the plan – and insider claims aren’t counted in the vote (see § 1129(a)(10)). Since U.S. Bank opposes confirmation and the $2.76 million claim is held by an insider, the § 1129(a)(10) requirement for one-consenting-class is an impediment.

To get around this impediment, Kathie Bartlett’s company assigns its $2.76 million claim to Dr. Robert Rabkin for a payment of $5,000. This assignment gets dicey because Kathie Bartlett and Dr. Rabkin “share a close business and personal relationship.” Dr. Rabkin says he made this small, speculative investment for business reasons: for the chance to get a big payoff, since the plan provides a $30,000 dividend on this claim.  But U.S. Bank isn’t buying this reason: they think he’s conspiring with his girlfriend to evade a confirmation requirement.

From the Debtor’s perspective, the assignment to Kathie Bartlett’s close friend is a creative-but-legitimate way to satisfy a plan confirmation requirement. From the opposing creditor’s perspective, the assignment is the same as cheating—and the question is whether they’ll get away with it.

An Oddity

You’d think the primary issue discussed by the courts in this case would be:

Can an insider do that? Can an insider actually evade the non-insider acceptance requirement by assigning its claim to a friend who is not an insider?

As a bankruptcy practitioner, I want to know the answer to this question. I want to know how aggressive a debtor and its insiders might be in addressing plan confirmation requirements.

And you’d think we’d get a direct and clear explanation and answer for such a question in this case. But think again. Believe it or not, we probably won’t. Here’s why:

First, both the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and its Bankruptcy Appellate Panel focus on two questions in this case: (i) is Dr. Rabkin an insider, and (ii) did Dr. Rabkin act in good faith. They find in favor of Dr. Rabkin on both issues. And that, according to such courts, is the end of the inquiry and discussion.  But what about the good faith of the Debtor and the insider?

Second, in its Petition for a Writ of Certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, Appellant identifies three questions to be resolved. But the Supreme Court limits its grant of certiorari “to Question 2 Presented by the Petition.” And here is what Question 2 asks:

Whether the appropriate standard of review for determining non-statutory insider status is the de novo standard of review applied by the Third, Seventh and Tenth Circuit Courts of Appeal, or the clearly erroneous standard of review adopted for the first time by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal in this action?

Say what?! The Supreme Court is going to decide, in this case, only a “standard of review” question for determining who is/isn’t an insider?! Isn’t that question too narrow?  Now . . . I understand that standards for resolving insider/non-insider distinctions are important in a variety of contexts: as in the 90-days vs. one-year reach-back for preference liability. But still . . . I want a direct and clear explanation and answer on the how-aggressive-can-a-debtor-be question!!

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had a clear opportunity to take on this how-aggressive question directly. In fact, the Ninth Circuit previously addressed this very question — and did so directly:

“[D]ebtors unable to obtain the acceptance of an impaired creditor simply could assign insider claims to third parties who in turn could vote to accept. This the court cannot permit.’”

Wake Forest Inc. v. Transamerica Title Ins. Co. (In re Greer West Inv. Ltd. P’ship), 81 F.3d 168, 1996 WL 134293, at *2 (9th Cir. Mar. 25, 1996) (unpublished) (emphasis added).

Instead of addressing the issue directly, however, the Ninth Circuit Court in the present case merely scolds the Appellant (in footnote 10) for citing an unpublished opinion.

Another Oddity

The courts in this case are struggling with how a romantic relationship fits into the insider v. non-insider analysis. The Ninth Circuit courts decide that Dr. Rabkin is NOT an insider, despite his romantic relationship with Kathie Bartlett. Here are details of their relationship, enumerated by the courts in this case and used to reach the non-insider decision:

–they see each other “regularly” but don’t “cohabitate”
–they pay their own bills and living expenses
–they’ve “never purchased expensive gifts” for each other
–she doesn’t “exercise control over” him
–he had “little knowledge of, and no relationship” with her business interests before the Debtor’s bankruptcy

Here’s hoping the courts can devise a better way to scrutinize romantic relationships for insider status, than trying to distinguish between “seeing regularly” vs. “cohabitating” or trying to decide if one party “exercises control” over the other. If they can’t, deposition and trial testimonies on the “insider” question could start resembling episodes of Seinfeld or Big Bang Theory.

A Third Oddity

One standard for evaluating an “insider” status is whether the transaction in question occurred at arms-length.

Dr. Rabkin testifies that his reasons for purchasing the $2.76 million claim are strictly business. However, the Bank believes his motives include helping his girlfriend. In an effort to prove as much, the Bank makes an offer—in its deposition of Dr. Rabkin—to purchase the same claim from him for a payment of $50,000. And then, in the same deposition, they increase the offer amount to $60,000. Dr. Rabkin doesn’t accept either offer or attempt any negotiations with the Bank—either during or after the deposition.

Here’s the oddity:

–The Bankruptcy Court apologizes to Rabkin “on behalf of the legal profession” for the “offensive conduct” of the Bank’s attorney in the deposition (see footnote 7 in BAP opinion).

–And the Bankruptcy Judge’s Order describes the conduct for which he apologized as an “offensive offer” to purchase Dr. Rabkin’s claim during his deposition “for twice as much as Dr. Rabkin could recover under the Debtor’s Plan.”

Seriously?! Offering twice-as-much is conduct worthy of an apology “on behalf of the legal profession”?! There must be something more about the manner-of-delivery – although none is identified. Otherwise, the twice-as-much offer seems like a clever attempt at exposing the existence of ulterior motives.

Conclusion

Here’s hoping that the U.S. Supreme Court will find a way to address the how-aggressive-can-a-debtor-be question in this case, despite its professed limitation to Question 2.

**  If you find this article of value, please feel free to share.  If you’d like to discuss, let me know.

For a follow-up article, see “Oddities at U.S. Supreme Court Continue in Oral Arguments on U.S. Bank v. Lakeridge.

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