This week, a electricity supplier, Starion Energy, filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware and the case is pending before the Honorable Mary F. Walrath.

Electric Towers
 

The Debtor claims that it needs bankruptcy protection because of pending litigation that was brought by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts this fall alleging unfair and deceptive marketing practices, among other claims and seeking more than $30 million. In th action pending in state court, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts obtained an attachment and injunction on the Debtor’s cash, which the Debtor claims threatened its business and could put more than 20 people out of work.

In order to attempt to protect itself, the Debtor filed for chapter 11 and simultaneously brought an adversary proceeding in the Delaware Bankruptcy Court.  See Starion Energy, Inc. v The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Bankr. Del. Adv. No. 18-50932.  In this adversary case, the Debtor is seeking a temporary restraining order and an injunction barring the Commonwealth of Massachusetts from seizing its assets in connection with the pending litigation.

It will be interesting to see how this case proceeds as it is a bankruptcy case filed with the primary goal of halting a pending litigation.

 

The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Sixth Circuit recently held that a post-confirmation motion to dismiss a bankruptcy case is not a final order that is immediately appealable.

In this case, the appellants filed a judgment lien against debtor, who subsequently filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Debtor sought to avoid the judgment lien, and appellants filed an objection to the confirmation plan. Appellants and debtor resolved the majority of appellants’ objections. The court confirmed the debtor’s plan, and appellants did not appeal from the confirmation order. Instead, they filed a motion to dismiss, seeking dismissal of the bankruptcy case.

The Panel acknowledged that Six Circuit’s recently prescribed two-step approach to determining whether an order of a bankruptcy court is immediately appealable under 28 U.S.C. § 158(a)(1), which provides that a bankruptcy court’s order may be immediately appealed if it is (1) entered in a proceeding, and (2) final — i.e., terminating that proceeding.” The Panel also acknowledged the Cyberco factors, which the Sixth Circuit endorsed as useful determinants of the meaning of finality in the bankruptcy context: (1) the impact on the assets of the bankrupt estate; (2) the necessity for further fact-finding on remand; (3) the preclusive effect of [its] decision on the merits of further litigation; and (4) the interest of judicial economy.

Applying the Sixth Circuit’s approach, the Panel held:

[T]he order denying the Deans’ motion to dismiss resolved the contested matter, it is true, but it did not resolve the relevant judicial unit and certainly did not change the rights of the parties as they existed when the Deans filed their motion. . . . The order has no impact on assets or the status quo. Because the decision does not affect anyone’s substantive rights or the status quo, the remaining three Cyberco factors also suggest that the denial of the motion should not be subject to immediate appeal. . . . The order denying the Deans’ dismissal motion is not itself preclusive on any issues because it simply enforced the preclusive effect of the confirmation order, which was no longer appealable given the passage of time. And, for similar reasons, judicial economy is not served by allowing what amounts to an untimely appeal of the confirmation order by disappointed unsecured creditors.

Therefore, when the Bankruptcy Court entered its confirmation order, it fixed the rights and obligations of the Debtor and her creditors and altered the status quo and the legal relationships among the parties. This was the final order from which the Deans should have appealed. But when the court denied the Deans’ motion to dismiss, the relevant “judicial unit” remained pending, and the status quo and the legal relationships of the parties, established at confirmation, remained unchanged. Although this way of looking at finality may seem unsatisfying because intuitively litigants and courts tend to prefer the tidiness of symmetry (e.g., any decision on a motion to dismiss is appealable) to asymmetry (e.g., the finality of an order is dependent on the outcome), and we assume that every order may be reviewed on appeal, the Supreme Court sees finality differently. That said, asymmetrical or outcome-dependent appellate rights already exist in ordinary civil litigation, such as the asymmetrical review of rulings under Rule 56.

Read the full opinion here.

As I previously blogged about, there is a circuit split as to whether, when a trademark owner/licensor files for bankruptcy, the licensee of the trademark can legally continue use of the mark or whether the trademark owner/licensor can reject its obligations under the licensing agreement and effectively prohibit the licensee’s continued use of the mark.  A case arising from the First Circuit, Mission Product Holdings, Inc. v. Tempnology, LLC N/K/A Old Cold LLC, involves this precise question and has made its way to the United States Supreme Court.

At the end of last week, following the submission of briefs from the parties and others, the Supreme Court decided to grant certiorari in the case.  According to SCOTUS blog, the issue presented is: “Whether, under Section 365 of the Bankruptcy Code, a debtor-licensor’s “rejection” of a license agreement—which “constitutes a breach of such contract,” 11 U.S.C. § 365(g)—terminates rights of the licensee that would survive the licensor’s breach under applicable non-bankruptcy law.”

Not surprisingly, the Supreme Court did not provide any reasoning or insight into its decision to grant cert.  Nor did it directly respond to the parties’ positions regarding a recent order in Tempnology’s underlying bankruptcy case, which Tempnology argued (and Mission Product Holdings disagreed) may have a bearing on the Court’s decision to do so.

In a recent opinion, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas held that an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) action brought against an employer for alleged violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is excepted from the automatic stay by 11 U.S.C.§ 362(b)(4) (police and regulatory power exception).

The district court held that the whether the claim was excepted from the automatic stay depended upon, whether the EEOC’s primary purpose in bringing the action was to protect public policy and welfare, or whether the claim is based on the debts of private parties.

Acknowledging that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has not addressed whether an EEOC enforcement action under Title VII falls within Section 362(b)(4)’s exception to the automatic stay provision, the district court followed the Fourth Circuit’s reasoning in EEOC v. Mclean, 834 F.2d 398, 402 (4th Cir. 1987):

Of the relief sought by the EEOC in this case, first and foremost is its request for a permanent injunction, which is not limited in application to the individuals named in the EEOC’s pleadings. There is also no indication from the EEOC’s pleadings that it brought this action to protect a pecuniary governmental interest in Shepherd’s property, and, while the EEOC seeks monetary relief on behalf of specific individuals, it is also vindicating the public interest by seeking to prevent discrimination in the workplace under Title VII. In other words, there is no indication that the EEOC’s primary purpose in bringing this action was to recover property from Shepherd’s bankruptcy estate, whether on its own claim, or based on the debts of private parties.

Moreover, the EEOC is not seeking to enforce a money judgment; rather, it seeks to prosecute its Title VII claims against Defendant in this action for purposes of preventing Shepherd from engaging in religious discrimination in the future and to also obtain a money judgment on behalf of the named employees. The EEOC also acknowledges that it will not be able to use this proceeding to enforce any money judgment entered against Shepherd. Accordingly, the court determines that the public policy and pecuniary interest tests are satisfied, and that this action falls within the EEOC’s police and regulatory powers. Section 362(b)(4), therefore, applies, and the EEOC is entitled to prosecute its claims and requests for relief in this court notwithstanding Defendant’s bankruptcy proceeding.

Read the full opinion here.

In a recent opinion, the Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of New York concluded that the “law of the case” doctrine did not bind the court to its prior ruling that a trustee had adequately alleged claims against debtors for turnover, conversion, and violations of the automatic stay.

In Geltzer v. Brizinova, et al., the court considered a second attempt by the debtors to obtain an order dismissing the adversary proceeding filed against them based on the new theory that the property at issue was not property of the estate.  Adv. Pro. No. 15-01073-ess (Bankr. E.D.N.Y. Sept. 26, 2018).  The trustee had commenced an adversary proceeding against the debtors, who are husband and wife, alleging that the debtors improperly refused to turn over estate property in the form of post-petition sale proceeds (the “Post-Petition Sale Proceeds”) from an auto supply parts company (the “Company”) listed on the debtors’ schedules as owned one hundred percent by the wife.

The debtors initially filed a motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim (the “Motion to Dismiss”).  In Geltzer v. Brizinova (In re Brizinova), 554 B.R. 64 (Bankr. E.D.N.Y. 2016) (“Brizinova I”), the court denied the Motion to Dismiss and sustained the Trustee’s turnover and stay violation claims.  The court also dismissed the trustee’s conversion claim with respect to the Post-Petition Sale Proceeds on grounds that the Trustee did not adequately allege that the debtors converted specifically identifiable funds.

Soon thereafter, the trustee commenced a second adversary proceeding against the debtors’ daughter-in-law, (the “Soshkin Complaint”) seeking to recover the same Post-Petition Sale Proceeds. Once again, the trustee asserted claims for turnover, stay violations, and conversion of the Post-Petition Sale Proceeds. The daughter-in-law moved to dismiss the Soshkin Complaint, and arguing, for the first time, that the property at issue was property of the Company – not property of the estate.  On this theory, the court granted the motion and dismissed the Soshkin Complaint.

Following the court’s dismissal of the Soshkin Complaint, the debtors filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings and for the entry of an order dismissing the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction (the “Motion for Judgment”).  The debtors adopted the theory that the Company’s assets were not assets of the debtors and did not form any part of the estate.  Therefore, the debtors argued that they were entitled to judgment in their favor on the trustee’s claims and also that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the complaint.

In response, the trustee argued that in Brizinova I the court not only ruled that he had adequately pled that the Post-Petition Proceeds were property of the estate, but that the court explicitly held that it had jurisdiction over the trustee’s claims for turnover, conversion and violation of the automatic stay.  Such holdings, according to the trustee, constituted “the law of the adversary proceeding.”  Therefore, in light of the court’s decision in Brizinova I and the law of the case doctrine, the court should conclude that the trustee’s claims were adequately pled, and deny the Motion for Judgment.

In considering the trustee’s argument on the “law of the case” doctrine, the court relied on a recent Second Circuit case that noted “that [the doctrine of law of the case] is not a rule that bars courts from reconsidering prior rulings, but is rather ‘a discretionary rule of practice [that] generally does not limit a court’s power to reconsider an issue.’” Colvin v. Keen, 900 F.3d 63, 68 (2d Cir. 2018) (quoting In re PCH Assocs., 949 F.2d 585, 592 (2d Cir. 1991)).  The court acknowledged that courts generally consider a range of circumstances in determining whether to apply the law of the case doctrine, however, two such considerations stood out as fundamental: (i) whether there is identity of parties between the prior and subsequent matters; and (ii) whether the prior decision is a final one.

Applying those considerations to the case at hand, the court found that neither its prior decision in Brizinova I, nor the “law of the case” doctrine required it to deny the Motion for Judgment.  While there was an identity of parties, the decision in Brizinova I on the debtors’ Motion to Dismiss was not a final judgment.  Ultimately, the court agreed that the Post-Petition Sale Proceeds were not property of the estate and granted the debtors’ Motion for Judgment as to all claims.

In a recent an opinion, the Delaware Bankruptcy Court enforced the broad release language in a confirmation plan to release certain entities that were never intended to be released.

The debtors and the creditors’ committee engaged in hard-fought negotiations, and the committee supported confirmation of the plan in large part because the settlement trust, to be created under the plan, was to pursue post-confirmation litigation against individuals and entities related to the former owner of the debtors’ business. The plan as confirmed contained broad releases.

When an adversary proceeding was filed by the settlement trust against various entities related to the former owner, certain defendants promptly sought summary judgment on the ground that they are each “Released Parties” under the plan, and thus immune from suit. The trustee argued that the adversary proceeding against the former owner entities was central to the committee’s support of the plan, and thus the plan could not operate to release any of these defendants. The bankruptcy court disagreed.

Reviewing the release language in the plan, the bankruptcy court found it unambiguous and adopted its plan meaning. Applying the plain meaning of the release, the bankruptcy court found that at least one of the defendants was entitled to summary judgment on their contention that they were released from liability in the adversary by operation of the plan.

The bankruptcy court reasoned: “Courts have held that a plan is effectively a contract between a debtor and its stakeholders. Those stakeholders vote upon a plan based upon their assessment of what the plan will accomplish, and what they will receive under it. Once a plan is confirmed and the order becomes final, the parties’ rights, obligations and expectations are fixed. The Trustee’s argument – that plan treatment is driven not by reading the plan but by what may have been told to the bankruptcy judge during the case, or by prior plan provisions that were discarded in the final confirmed plan – is inconsistent with applicable law and contrary to sound policy. The Plan here was confirmed by an Order that has become final. Its provisions control.”

To read the full opinion here.

In ruling a motion to dismiss, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals considered whether the purchaser of the Debtors’ shares post-confirmation was bound by releases contained in the plan of reorganization (the “Plan”).  A copy of the opinion is available here.

The Plan included “broad releases of liability,” that protected the Debtor and its officers from claims related to or arising out of the bankruptcy, with exceptions for gross negligence and willful misconduct.  Id. at 4.  After creditors had been paid in full, a notice was provided that there would be a distribution of dividends to shareholders.

photo of glacierAfter these announcements, appellants purchased millions of shares in the Debtor, Arctic Glacier, assuming that they would be subject to FINRA rules and would receive the dividends.  However, the dividends were paid only to the original owners of the shares.  Appellants then sued Arctic Glacier and four of its officers.  The Delaware Bankruptcy Court dismissed the Complaint as barred by the Plan releases and by the res judicata effect of the Plan.  This decision was affirmed by the District Court.

Before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the appellants argued that plan releases “can never insulate a debtor from liability for post-confirmation acts.”  Id at 8.  The Third Circuit explained that a bankruptcy court order confirming a plan is a “final judgment,” and “like any other judgment, is res judicata. . . It bars all challenges to the plan that could have been raised.”  Id.  Thus, the Third Circuit found that the “entire Plan is res judicata, including its releases.”  Id. at 9.

Regarding whether the releases could preclude liability for acts that took place after confirmation of the plan, the Court explained that appellants’ argument was essentially based on a single sentence contained in a U.S. Supreme Court decision.  Given this, the Third Circuit reasoned that a plan can only be implemented after confirmation and if releases could not bar post-confirmation conduct, that would “nullify the res judicata effect of confirmed plans.”  Id. at 10.  Thus, the Court affirmed the lower court decisions dismissing the Complaint and found that the releases barred the appellants’ claims because the releases precluded claims arising out of the bankruptcy, including those based on to distributions under the Plan.

This decision out of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals serves as a reminder of the nature of confirmation orders — and the releases contained therein — as final judgments that carry res judicata implications.

The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware is about to begin its annual process to review and consider comments to its local rules.

The comment period will continue from October 1 through October 31, 2018.  Here is a link to the instructions from the Court on how to provide comments, should you have any.  And, here is a link to the current version of the Local Rules.

 

In a suit by the trustee of the liquidation trust of Green Field Energy Services, a defunct oil services business, against the debtor’s former CEO and others, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware found that the trustee can recover almost $17 million.  See Halperin v. Moreno, et al. (In re Green Field Energy Services, Inc.), Bankr. D. Del. Adv. No. 15-50262(KG), D.I. 535.

Oil PlantIn a 126-page decision, Judge Kevin Gross found that the former CEO had caused entities he controlled to fail to make required payments under two Share Purchase Agreements (the “SPAs”) that resulted in damages to the debtor in the amount of $16.6 million (inclusive of prejudgment interest).  In particular, the SPAs required that entities controlled by the CEO make quarterly purchases of preferred stock.  Although the CEO was not a party to these SPAs, the trustee brought related claims against him for the entities’ failures to perform.

In the face of these contractual obligations for quarterly share purchases, and despite that the CEO / his entities had cash on hand to make the required payments, the Court found that the former CEO caused his controlled entities to fail to make the required purchases / payments which deprived the Debtor of much needed cash.  These failures eventually led to Green Field’s defaults on secured loans and resulted in its bankruptcy filing.  The Court found that the CEO had diverted funds that could be used for the share purchases.

Ultimately, the Court found that the entities controlled by the CEO had breached the SPAs and were liable for contract damages.  Further, the Court found that the former CEO “intentional and tortuously interfered with the obligations” under the SPAs.  Id. at 125.  Although the opinion is long, and a lot to take in, one thing is clear — preservation of litigation claims in liquidating or litigation trusts after plan confirmation remains a valuable asset and can substantially increase the recovery for unsecured creditors.  Read our prior blogs on Liquidation Trusts here.

 

In entertainment and bankruptcy news, the chapter 7 trustee for the bankruptcy filed by former celebrity couple Duane Daniel Martin and Tisha Martin Campbell (the “Debtors”), brought suit against Roxe, LLC (“Roxe”) and others claiming that Roxe was formed by Martin and his brother (also a defendant to this suit) to conceal Martin’s ownership of valuable real estate in Chatsworth, California.  See Gottlieb v. Roxe, LLC, et al. (In re Martin, et al.), Bankr. C.D. Cal. Adv. No. 18-ap-01106, Docket No. 1.  The Debtors are actors who rose to fame on sitcoms in the 1990s.

California

The property at issue was purchased by Duane Martin in 2006 for $900,000 with a $650,000 loan from IndyMac.  Thereafter, Duane Martin borrowed an additional $1,950,000 from IndyMac to construct the Martin family home – a 9,000 square foot luxury residence.

The Trustee alleges that in 2009, Duane Martin quitclaimed the property to the Campbell-Martin Family Trust and thereafter caused the IndyMac loans to go into default “in order to negotiate a short sale” of the property.  To effectuate this, the Trustee claims that Duane Martin negotiated the short sale of the property from Indymac directly to Roxe for a discounted amount of only $1,380,000.

Purchase of the property by Roxe was allegedly funded by a loan of approximately $1.4 million by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, through their company TB Properties, LLC (“TB Properties”).

The Trustee alleges that, all on the same day in November 2012, TB Properties recorded a deed of trust on the property in the sum of approximately $1.4 million with Roxe listed as borrower, the IndyMac loans used for purchase/construction of the home were satisfied and Roxe obtained title to the property from the Debtors.

Thereafter, the Debtors leased the mansion for $5,000 per month from Roxe.  The Trustee alleges that in July 2018, Duane Martin caused the property to be listed for sale in the amount of $2,695,000 and that the sale proceeds in excess of the TB Properties loans totaled $1.3 million. The Trustee further alleges that the lease was a sham, not intended to be performed.

In the adversary case, the Trustee seeks (i) to quiet title to the property, claiming that the Debtors are the true owners of the property and (ii) a turnover of the property from defendants under Bankruptcy Code Section 542, claiming that the property is estate property.

Both because of the celebrities involved and the bankruptcy litigation claims asserted, this will be an interesting case to follow.  Check back for further updates as the case progresses.