Tequila Shots, Default Interest, and the 9th Circuit’s Reversal of In re Entz-White

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Friday night I hosted a Día de los Muertos party.  Naturally, I invited other bankruptcy attorneys. And when you mix lawyers and tequila, things can get pretty crazy.  It wasn’t long before someone was well into an animated story about his Absolutely Worst Day Ever as a Lawyer. Now that its Monday morning and we’ve all sobered up, here’s a recap of his Very Bad Day and the surprise reversal of In re Entz-White that caused it.

Last Week, Debtors Could Avoid Accrued Post-Default Interest in the 9th Circuit by Curing an Underlying Default…

My friend (let’s call him “Roberto”) was representing a debtor that had fallen behind on its loan and was facing insurmountable default interest.  If it could avoid the default interest and other late penalties, it could otherwise cure its defaults, restore its loan to its original terms, and successfully reorganize. “No problem!” Roberto had said. And he took the case on a contingency.

Roberto was right. In re Entz-White Lumber & Supply, Inc., decided back in 1988, held that when a debtor cures a default it may avoid all consequences of the default, including higher post-default interest rates. In other words, it may both repay arrearages at the lower, pre-default interest rate and return to pre-default conditions, including pre-default interest rates, for the remainder of the loan obligation.

Mechanically, it works like this. Section 1123(a)(5)(G) of the Bankruptcy Code requires that a debtor’s plan of reorganization adequately provide for its implementation, including by “curing” any default.  The Bankruptcy Code contains a long list of definitions. Oddly, “cure,” used throughout the Bankruptcy Code, is not one of them. To fill in that gap, the Ninth Circuit adopted the Second Circuit’s definition of cure, e.g., curing a default means taking care of the triggering event, thereby nullifying all of its consequences, including default penalties such as higher interest.

Roberto had relied on Entz-White in charting a path forward for his client. The case was on the verge of confirmation, and he was on the verge of earning his contingency fee.

…. But on Friday, the 9th Circuit Issued a New Opinion Overturning Its Prior Ruling

On Friday, instead of celebrating, Roberto was shooting tequila in my living room and crying into his cerveza.

In In re New Investments, decided earlier that day, the Ninth Circuit overturned its opinion in Entz-White, holding that Bankruptcy Code Section 1123(d) voided Entz-White’s rule that a debtor who proposes to cure a default may avoid a higher, post-default interest rate in the loan agreement.  The Ninth Circuit reversed the bankruptcy court’s underlying order, which had confirmed a Chapter 11 plan based on Entz-White… and simultaneously upended my friend’s pending case as well.

Section 1123(d), which was enacted in 1994, well after Entz-White was decided, states that:

Notwithstanding subsection (a) of this section and sections 506(b), 1129(a)(7), and 1129(b) of this title, if it is proposed in a plan to cure a default the amount necessary to cure the default shall be determined in accordance with the underlying agreement and applicable nonbankruptcy law.

Following is a brief summary of the case and the court’s rationale.

1. Evaluating Applicable (Washington State) Nonbankruptcy Law

In New Investments, the debtor had defaulted on a real estate loan, thereby triggering a default-interest provision. It then filed for bankruptcy protection to avoid foreclosure.  Its plan was to sell its property and then use the sale proceeds to payoff the loan – thus curing the default – at  the pre-default interest rate. The lender objected, pointing to its contractual rights under a promissory note that called for payment of a higher interest rate (equating to approx. $670,000) upon default. The loan agreement was governed by Washington state law. The Ninth Circuit concluded that Washington allows for a higher interest rate upon default when provided for in the loan agreement. See Wash. Rev. Code Ann. Section 61.24.090(1)(a). Thus, it held that cure, as determined under the parties’ contract and applicable state law, required payment of accrued default interest.

2. The Plain Language of Section 1123(d) Drives the Ninth Circuit’s Decision

The Ninth Circuit stated that the plain language of Section 1123(d) compelled its decision. As with all plain-language arguments, there is nothing to analyze here. You can read Section 1123(d) and decide for yourself whether you agree.

3. Surprise! The Legislative History Indicates This Result May Be Unexpected

In case you disagree with the Court’s plain reading of the statute, the Ninth Circuit also looked to the statute’s legislative history and stated it would not help New Investments. Essentially, the Ninth Circuit concluded that Congress had a very particular, and different, purpose in mind when it enacted Section 1123(d) and that it may not have anticipated all of the statute’s consequences. But that, it said, is not a good enough reason to ignore the statute’s plain meaning.

What was Congress trying to do when it enacted Section 1123(d)? The legislative history indicates Congress was primarily concerned with overruling the Supreme Court’s decision in Rake v. Wade, which had stated that, in order to cure a default, a Chapter 13 debtor would have to pay interest on his arrearages even if the underlying loan agreement did not provide for it. Congress was concerned that Rake v. Wade provided an unbargained-for windfall for creditors and enacted Section 1123(d) to “limit the secured creditor to the benefit of the initial bargain.” Congress, the Ninth Circuit acknowledged, may not have anticipated how Section 1123(d) would be interpreted in other contexts.

But the Ninth Circuit felt that its holding, if unanticipated, would not be inconsistent with Congressional intent. In holding the secured creditor to the benefit of its bargain, Congress had said that a cure pursuant to a plan should “put the debtor in the same position as if the default had never occurred.” That, it said, is consistent with holding both parties to the benefit of their bargain and with the concept of cure generally (which it conceeded Section 1123(d) did not alter or attempt to define).

The Ninth Circuit tacitly recognized that its holding will make it more difficult for some debtors to reorganize, undermining the Bankruptcy Code’s goals of offering a fresh start to honest debtors. But it felt that its decision strikes an appropriate balance between the interest of debtors and creditors.

4. The Interpretation of Cure in Section 1123 is Consistent With the Concept of Unimpairment

The Ninth Circuit also stated that its ruling in New Investments would be consistent with the concept of unimpairment under the Bankruptcy Code.  To render a creditor “unimpaired” such that it cannot object to a debtor’s plan, the debtor must cure defaults and may not “otherwise alter the legal, equitable, or contractual rights” of the creditor. One of these rights is post-default interest.

Future Default Interest Differentiated

It is worth noting that the New Investments decision focuses on the treatment of accrued, default interest when a debtor is calculating required cure amounts.  But once default interest or other penalties are paid and a default is therefore cured, the debtor can still return to pre-default conditions as to the remainder of the loan obligation.

Judge Berzon’s Dissenting Opinion

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Marsha S. Berzon wrote that neither Section 1123(d) nor any other provision of the Bankruptcy Code provides a definition of “cure” contrary to the one announced in Entz-White.

As for the majority’s conclusion that Congress displaced Entz-White when it passed Section 1123(d)? Judge Berzon argues at length that this conclusion is not supported by either the plain language of the statute or its legislative history. Instead, Judge Berzon argues that the Court should not read the Bankruptcy Code to erode past bankruptcy practice absent a clear indication that Congress intended such a departure.

My friend Roberto would certainly agree.

Download the Case Here

Pacifica L 51, LC v. New Investments Inc. (In re New Investments, Inc.) No. 13 -36194 (9th Cir.) 2016.

 

 

 

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SCOTUS Sets Oral Argument in Jevic For Nov. 28, 20016

For those of you watching for a ruling from the Supreme Court in In re Jevic, mark your calendars! Oral argument has been set for Monday, November 28, 2016.

44303734_l.jpgIf you haven’t been tracking the case, this is an excellent time to get up to speed.

Simply put, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Czyzewski v. Jevic Holding Corp. to decide whether “structured dismissals” can be used to wrap up a Chapter 11 bankruptcy case.  A structured dismissal is a creative (or, depending on your perspective, inappropriate) solution that bankruptcy lawyers have come developed to resolve a case–often following a sale of substantially all of the company’s assets–without the delay and expense of a formal chapter 11 plan process but with more elegance and closure than creditors would have if the case were simply dismissed. The problem? Nothing in the Bankruptcy Code contemplates “structured dismissals.” And often they include “gifting” of assets from a secured creditor’s collateral to various unsecured creditors. Unhappy creditors who are left empty-handed have complained that these agreements violate the priority of creditor distributions called for under Section 507 of the Bankruptcy Code.

For a more detailed discussion, you might want to read Rochelle’s Daily Wire, published by the American Bankruptcy Institute.  Or if you want to go really crazy, you can read all the pleadings on the Supreme Court’s blog.

Mette H. Kurth

When is a Settlement Not a Settlement? When It Is an Asset Sale.

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For business people, whether you are settling a dispute or selling an asset may seem obvious. But for lawyers, the distinction can be surprisingly tricky, and it has serious ramification for our clients.

The confusion arises because the Bankruptcy Code allows you to either sell or settle a claim that a debtor has against someone else. What happens if the trustee settles a claim against a defendant in exchange for a cash payment, and a creditor objects because it believes the claim is worth more than is being paid? What if a trustee wants to sell claims that the debtor has against third parties? Whether these transactions are treated as settlements or sales matters quite a bit.

When selling an asset under Bankruptcy Code section 363, you must demonstrate that you have maximized the asset’s value. To settle a claim, the bar is much lower. Bankruptcy Rule 9019 requires that you show that the settlement is fair and equitable, which generally means that it does not fall below the “lowest point in the range of reasonableness.” Moreover, you cannot appeal a bankruptcy sale to a good faith purchaser unless you obtain a stay. (This is meant to encourage bidding in bankruptcy sales by protecting good faith purchasers). A settlement, in contrast, can be appealed without a stay.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently adopted the BAP’s earlier reasoning in Mickey Thompson (decided in 2003) and the reasoning of the Fifth and Third Circuits, holding that a bankruptcy court has the discretion to apply the more stringent standards and procedures for sales to a settlement agreement in order to maximize value.

In Adeli v. Barclay, the bankruptcy trustee had entered into a settlement agreement with a creditor under which the creditor would purchase the estate’s claims against it in exchange for both cash and a waiver of the creditor’s claims against the estate. The trustee filed a motion to approve the settlement under Rule 9019 and presented evidence regarding the settlement’s reasonableness. It also noticed the matter as a sale subject to overbidding under Section 363. Nobody submitted an overbid. The debtor then appealed the settlement to the district court—but without seeking a stay pending appeal. The Ninth Circuit concluded that, because the bankruptcy court determined that the creditor/buyer was a good faith purchaser of the potential claims, and the debtor did not seek a stay pending appeal, the appeal was moot under Bankruptcy Code section 363(m) and was properly dismissed.

While the Ninth Circuit’s decision adopted Mickey Thompson’s reasoning and does not appear to significantly change current practice, it does serve as a stark reminder of the very real differences between sale and settlement procedures. Meanwhile, its time for the lawyers to update their form files to replace references to Mickey Thompson with a citation to Adeli v. Barclay.

Adeli v. Barclay (In re Berkeley Delaware Court, LLC), No. 14-55854 *10 (9th Cir. August 23, 2016). Download in PDF

Mette H. Kurth

Help! I Can’t Afford a Bankruptcy Lawyer.

Going broke is not free.  The Bankruptcy Court charges a fee of $355 or more to file your case.  Bankruptcy cases involve a lot of paperwork, statutes, rules, deadlines, and legal jargon.  If you can afford to hire a reputable lawyer to help you, that is generally the best option. If you can’t, there are some alternatives that could be right for you.

There are many self-help websites that are just a Google search away.  Noll Press, for example, has been publishing  do-it-yourself legal guides since  1971.  They cover a range of topics from debt management, bankruptcy planning, costs, whether you need a lawyer, the types of bankruptcy cases, and how to file them.  They have books, forms, and free on-line articles.  They also have a referral service.   Nolo Press

The American Bankruptcy Institute also offers self-help resources. The ABI is an organization dedicated to research and education on bankruptcy matters.  Their materials are free!  They have a more academic tone, so you might find them a little less user-friendly than Nolo Press.   ABI Bankruptcy Resources

If the idea of a DIY bankruptcy is daunting , you can also find help at free legal societies and legal clinics, or a pro bono attorney might take your case free of charge.  Justia.com lists a number of legal aid societies in the Los Angeles area, including the Legal Aid Foundation, Public Counsel, Bet Tzedek, and others.   Justia.com

Outside the Los Angeles area, try a Google search like “free bankruptcy resources Chicago” to locate similar legal clinics.

Mette H. Kurth