Second Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Chapter 15 Appeal by Purported Shareholder on Standing Grounds

 

In a March 19, 2019 summary order, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of a purported shareholder’s appeal challenging the chapter 15 recognition of a Cayman Islands restructuring of an offshore drilling contractor. See In re Ocean Rig UDW Inc., No. 18-1374, 2019 WL 1276205 (2d Cir. Mar. 19, 2019). The Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s dismissal of that appeal for lack of appellate standing. An Orrick team handled the chapter 15 proceedings in the bankruptcy court, as well as the appellate proceedings in the district court and Court of Appeals.

Background

The appeal was brought by a self-described shareholder of debtor Ocean Rig UDW Inc. (“UDW”). The appellant sought review of an order issued by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Martin Glenn granting recognition of provisional liquidation and scheme of arrangement proceedings in the Cayman Islands of UDW and three of its subsidiaries as “foreign main proceedings” under section 1517 of the Bankruptcy Code. That recognition order gave rise to various forms of relief, including an automatic stay with respect to the Debtors and their property within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.

In the ancillary proceedings in the bankruptcy court, the appellant had opposed the Debtors’ petition for recognition on numerous grounds, including on the basis that venue was improper in the Southern District of New York, that the Debtors failed to meet their burden of proving that their center of main interests (“COMI”) was in the Cayman Islands, that the Debtors improperly manipulated their COMI, and that granting recognition would violate the public policy objectives of chapter 15. The bankruptcy court overruled those objections and granted recognition and other related relief under sections 1520 and 1521 of the Bankruptcy Code. See In re Ocean Rig UDW Inc., 570 B.R. 687 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. 2017).

Appellant timely noticed an appeal to the district court, but did not seek a stay of the recognition order. Thus, the Debtors moved forward with their restructuring via four interrelated schemes of arrangement under Cayman Islands law (the “Schemes”). The Schemes involved the exchange of more than $3.7 billion of existing financial indebtedness for $450 million in new secured debt, approximately $288 million in cash, and new equity in UDW. Under the Schemes, existing shareholders of UDW retained a nominal amount of equity in the reorganized UDW (0.02%), but this token amount was provided solely to facilitate UDW’s ability to maintain its NASDAQ listing and was not an indication of UDW’s solvency. In fact, the indicative value of the consideration distributed to the creditors under the Schemes was significantly less than the face amount of their claims.

Appellant did not object to the provisional liquidation proceedings or the Schemes, which were later sanctioned (i.e., approved) by the Grand Court of the Cayman Islands. Similarly, appellant did not object to a motion in the chapter 15 proceedings for entry of an order granting comity and giving full force and effect to the Schemes and Cayman court’s ruling in the United States, which the bankruptcy court subsequently granted. Promptly upon the bankruptcy court’s issuance of this “enforcement order,” the Debtors consummated the restructuring in accordance with the Schemes.

Thereafter, in the district court, before U.S. District Judge John G. Koeltl, the Debtors and their authorized foreign representative moved to dismiss the appeal, arguing that the appellant’s purported shareholder status was insufficient to give her appellate standing, and that in any event, her appeal had been rendered equitably moot by the consummation of the restructuring. The district court granted the motion on both alternative grounds. See In re Ocean Rig UDW Inc., 585 B.R. 31 (S.D.N.Y. 2018).

Appellant then sought review of the district court’s dismissal in the Second Circuit. While that appeal was pending, a third-party company (Transocean Ltd.) acquired UDW in a cash and stock transaction valued at approximately $2.7 billion.

The Second Circuit’s Ruling

The Second Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the appeal for lack of standing. The Court of Appeals began its analysis by reiterating the settled legal standard for bankruptcy appellate standing: “To have standing to appeal from a bankruptcy court ruling in this Circuit, an appellant must be an ‘aggrieved person,’ a person directly and adversely affected pecuniarily by the challenged order of the bankruptcy court.” 2019 WL 1276205 at *1 (quoting In re Gucci, 126 F.3d 380, 388 (2d Cir. 1997)). “The stringency of our rule,” the Court explained, “is rooted in a concern that freely granting open‐ended appeals to those persons affected by bankruptcy court orders will sound the death knell of the orderly disposition of bankruptcy matters.” Id.

Applying that standard, the Second Circuit readily concluded that the appellant was not an “aggrieved person.” Although the appellant was subject to injunctions set forth in the bankruptcy court’s recognition order, she had not “pursued any action against UDW that has been stayed because of the injunctive relief, and her brief [did] not identify any action that she plans to pursue.” Id. Relatedly, the Second Circuit noted that the district court had found UDW was significantly insolvent at the time the Debtors initiated the Cayman proceedings, a finding which appellant had not challenged. Because Cayman Islands law provides that creditors must be made whole before shareholders can recover in a “winding up” proceeding, the Second Circuit concluded that shareholders, including appellant, lacked any pecuniary interest in those proceedings and the U.S. order recognizing those proceedings. Id. (citing Cayman Islands Companies Law § 140(1)).

The Second Circuit also treated as inapposite a prior chapter 15 decision invoked by appellant, Morning Mist Holdings Ltd. v. Krys (In re Fairfield Sentry Ltd.), 714 F.3d 127 (2d Cir. 2013). That decision arose from an appeal brought by shareholders of a feeder fund that invested in the Madoff fraud. The shareholders there challenged the bankruptcy court’s chapter 15 recognition of liquidation proceedings that were ongoing in the British Virgin Islands. But as the Second Circuit’s summary order here explained, standing was not at issue in that case, and the facts were distinguishable. The shareholders in Fairfield Sentry had filed a New York shareholder derivative suit that was stayed as a result of chapter 15 recognition, whereas here, the appellant could not identify any way that recognition caused her to be aggrieved.

The Second Circuit did not explicitly address the district court’s alternative basis for dismissal: i.e., that the consummation of the Debtors’ restructuring, combined with the appellant’s failure to seek a stay, rendered the appeal equitably moot. In re Ocean Rig UDW Inc., 585 B.R. at 39-41. Noting simply that it had considered the appellant’s remaining arguments and concluded that they were without merit, the Court of Appeals did not discuss the appellant’s contention that the equitable mootness doctrine is inapplicable to chapter 15 proceedings. The district court had previously rejected appellant’s arguments that equitable mootness did not apply under chapter 15, concluding that the same “principles of finality and fairness” that pertain to “domestic reorganizations” and the same “concerns of comity” that animated former section 304 of the Bankruptcy Code apply in the chapter 15 context. Id. at 41.


If you have any questions about any of the topics discussed in this opinion, please contact your Orrick attorney or any of the following attorneys:

Evan Hollander

Daniel Rubens

Emmanuel Fua

Update to Madoff

 

Following our post on the district court’s extraterritoriality decision, the bankruptcy court dismissed the actions against several defendants on the grounds that the presumption against extraterritoriality and international comity principles limit the scope of § 550(a)(2) such that the trustee of a domestic debtor cannot use it to recover property that the debtor transferred to a foreign entity that subsequently transferred it to another foreign entity. However, on February 25, 2019, the Second Circuit disagreed with the bankruptcy court’s decision and vacated the judgement and remanded the matter back to the bankruptcy court for further proceedings. More to come.

 

A Convergence of Insolvency Regimes – Europe in the Brexit Era

 

As part of a continued effort in Europe to reform insolvency legislation, the British government issued a paper in March 2018 as a response to a draft directive published by the European Commission in November 2016. The Response proposed highly significant reforms to the current insolvency legislation which–interestingly, in this era of Brexit–if adopted, would bring the British insolvency policies closer in line with the current policies of the European Union. Learn more about the proposed reform from this recent restructuring alert, which breaks down the new proposed restructuring plan, analyzes a possible implementation timeline and compares the potential legislation to the current policies in place in the European Union.

Mutuality – Irrefutable Requirement for Setoff Under Section 553

 

Another decision has been issued that reinforces that section 553 does not allow setoff without mutuality, or “triangular setoff.” On November 13, 2018, Judge Gross of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware denied a motion in In re Orexigen Therapeutics, Inc. to affect a triangular setoff under section 553 of the Bankruptcy Code due to the lack of mutuality.[1] The Court found that even though a contractual right allowing McKesson Corporation and its subsidiary corporation to affect a prepetition triangular setoff was enforceable under state law, the arrangement did not comport with the strict mutuality required under the Bankruptcy Code.

Section 553

Section 553 of the Bankruptcy Code provides, subject to certain exceptions, that the Bankruptcy Code “does not affect any right of a creditor to offset a mutual debt owing by such creditor to the debtor that arose before the commencement of the case under this title against a claim of such creditor against the debtor that arose before the commencement of the case.” The setoff provision of the Bankruptcy Code does not create right of setoff; it preserves for creditor’s benefit any setoff right that it may have under applicable non-bankruptcy law and imposes additional restrictions that must be met in order for the creditor to impose a setoff against a debtor in bankruptcy.[2] Specifically, the Bankruptcy Code requires that the debts and credits must both have arisen before bankruptcy and that there would be “mutuality” between the debiting and crediting parties.[3] While the Bankruptcy Code does not define “mutuality,”[4] courts interpreting this provision find debts to be mutual only where the debts exist between the “same parties” in the “same capacity.”[5] Mutuality is strictly construed against the party seeking setoff.

Analysis

Here, McKesson sought to effectuate a triangular setoff by offsetting it’s almost $7 million debt to the Debtor against the Debtor’s approximately $9 million debt to McKesson’s subsidiary. McKesson argued that because the Debtor owed its subsidiary in excess of the amount owed to McKesson, section 553(a) enables McKesson to set off the subsidiary’s claim against McKesson’s payment.

The Court’s review of the relevant case law and underlying policies behind section 553 made it clear that “[m]utuality is the lynchpin of setoff under section 553(a).”[6] McKesson did not have a mutual debt under section 553(a) because the debt was owed to its subsidiary – a separate and distinct legal entity. Judge Gross found that McKesson ran into “fatal contrary bankruptcy precedent” that found triangular setoffs to be impermissible under section 553(a) without mutuality.[7] Without such mutuality between McKesson and the Debtor, the Court could not allow the setoff.

Judge Gross further explained that “section 553(a) aligns with the fundamental bankruptcy policy of ensuring similarly-situated creditors receive an equal distribution from the debtor’s estate.” The Court refused to read a contractual exception to the strict mutuality requirement of section 553 because that would create the situation where creditors could receive a greater distribution than other equal-footed creditors and thus dilute the bankruptcy estate to the detriment of all creditors.[8]

McKesson also tried to argue that the subsidiary was a third-party beneficiary under the contract between McKesson and the Debtor, and that the contractual third-party beneficiary doctrine provides the required mutuality.[9] The Court found this argument to be another attempt by McKesson to validate a contractual exception to mutuality. The Court found this “unavailing” because “if there w[as] a contractual third-party beneficiary status exception, parties would merely add language intending that a third-party be a third-party beneficiary of a contract allowing for triangular setoff.” The Court refused to provide an avenue for deliberate circumvention of the Bankruptcy Code.

Takeaways

The decision is another upset for the accessibility of triangular setoffs in bankruptcy. Setoff under section 553 of the Bankruptcy Code requires real mutuality; the Court’s decision makes it abundantly clear that mutuality requires the “same parties” in the “same capacity.” This case supports the trend that parent companies cannot simply argue triangular setoff to mix and match the debits and credits arising from discrete contracts held by the individual entities within its organizational structure.

[1] No. 18-10518 (KG), 2018 Bankr. LEXIS 3579, at *1 (Bankr. D. Del. Nov. 13, 2018).

[2] In re SemCrude, L.P., 399 B.R. 388, 393 (Bankr. D. Del. 2009), aff’d, 428 B.R. 590 (D. Del. 2010).

[3] The Court also discussed how section 553(a) requires the party seeking setoff to be a “creditor.” In re Orexigen Therapeutics, Inc., 2018 Bankr. LEXIS 3579, at *9. The Court found that McKesson was a creditor only because the parties treated McKesson as a creditor in its’ stipulations; the Court noted that it would not have otherwise deemed McKesson as a creditor because McKesson had paid off its debt to the Debtor, extinguishing its claim. Id.

[4] 5 Collier on Bankr. ¶ 553.03 (16th 2018).

[5] See In re SemCrude, 399 B.R. at 393 (“[T]he authorities are also clear that debts are considered ‘mutual’ only when ‘they are due to and from the same persons in the same capacity.’” (quoting Westinghouse Credit Corp. v. D’Urso, 278 F.3d. 138, 149 (2d Cir. 2002)).

[6] Id. at *24.

[7] In re Orexigen Therapeutics, Inc., 2018 Bankr. LEXIS 3579, at *9 (citing In re SemCrude, L.P., 399 B.R. 388, 393 (Bankr. D. Del. 2009) and In re Lehman Bros. Inc., 458 B.R. 134, 139 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. 2011)).

[8] Id.

[9] A third-party beneficiary to a contract is a party who directly or incidentally benefits from a contract between two other parties.

Plaintiffs Cannot Claim Creditor Status Retroactively

 

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reminded the plaintiff that standing is “determined as of the commencement of the suit” and post filing claims purchases will not suffice to establish standing. Here, the plaintiff, [also the debtor’s owner], sought to appeal appointment of special counsel. The Bankruptcy Court found that the plaintiff lacked standing to object because he was not a creditor and did not have a stake in the estate and then approved the Trustee’s application to employ SBPC over the improper objection. The plaintiff filed an appeal and then purchased a proof claim in order to obtain creditor status. The Fifth Circuit agreed with the Bankruptcy Court and noted that “[o]nly those directly, adversely and financially impacted by a bankruptcy order may appeal it.” Standing is “determined as of the commencement of the suit and a plaintiff cannot belatedly claim creditor status and establish standing retroactively.”

Ninth Circuit Holds Protecting a Claim To Its Fullest Extent Is Not Evidence of Bad Faith

 

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that a secured creditor’s purchase of general unsecured claims to block confirmation of a Chapter 11 plan did not in itself constitute bad faith. In In re Fagerdala USA, the debtor owned real property on which Pacific Western Bank held the senior secured claim. The debtor’s plan of reorganization sought to impair Pacific Western’s claim by using an interest rate lower than the penalty interest rate for its loan, and modifying the length of the term and other loan provisions. Under section 1129(a)(10) of the Bankruptcy Code, in order to approve a plan over the objections of impaired creditors, a debtor is required to obtain the consent of at least one impaired class. In order to ensure that this debtor would not receive such consent, Pacific Western attempted to strategically buy up a sufficient amount of general unsecured claims—the only other impaired class—to block the plan. While Pacific Western did not seek to buy every general unsecured claim, it was able to purchase “one-half in number” of the general unsecured class, and was thus able to block the approval of the plan.

After the plan vote, the debtor moved to designate the votes Pacific Western cast on behalf of its general unsecured claims, arguing that Pacific Western purchased those claims in bad faith. To “designate” means the votes for the claims will not be counted in voting to accept or reject the plan. The bankruptcy court granted the debtor’s motion, concluding that “designation is appropriate in this case because [Pacific Western] will have an unfair advantage over the unsecured creditors who did not receive a purchase offer and who hold the largest percentage of claims…in terms of amount.” The district court affirmed this ruling, but the Ninth Circuit reversed it and remanded the case to the bankruptcy court.

The Ninth Circuit reasoned that “merely protecting a claim to its fullest extent cannot be evidence of bad faith. There must be some evidence beyond negative impact on other creditors.” Looking to case law, the court enumerated several clear examples of bad faith such as where a competitor purchases claims to destroy the debtor’s business or further its own or a non-preexisting creditor purchasing claims only to block the plan and then stated “[d]oing something allowed by the Bankruptcy Code and case law, without evidence of ulterior motive, cannot be bad faith. Not offering to purchase all the claims in a class (to later use those claims to block a plan) is not—alone—sufficient to evidence the bad faith necessary to designate votes under § 1126(e).”

Diligence Deferred Is A Transfer Denied

The Delaware Bankruptcy Court recently voided the transfer of bankruptcy claims where the seller failed to obtain the debtor’s prior written consent, as required by the underlying promissory notes.

Both the promissory notes and the related loan agreement included anti-assignment language providing that any transfer would be null and void unless the debtor provided its prior written consent. In spite of this restriction, the note holders transferred the notes to buyer without obtaining the debtor’s consent. When buyer filed a proof of claim based on the transferred notes, the debtor objected, arguing that the transfer was null and void because the debtor never consented.

Buyer first argued that the anti-assignment clause could not invalidate the transfer as a matter of Delaware law. In holding to the contrary, the court distinguished between anti-assignment clauses that merely limit a party’s “right” to assign from clauses that limit a party’s “power” to assign. Delaware courts will invalidate transfers under a contract where such contract includes an anti-assignment clause that provides any assignment made in violation of the clause will be null and void (e.g. limitation of “power” to assign), but will not invalidate transfers where the contract’s anti-assignment clause does not so provide (e.g. limitation of “right” to assign). The court held that the anti-assignment clauses in Woodbridge properly restricted the noteholders’ power to assign the notes because they provided for voiding any transfer made in violation thereof. Thus, invalidation of the transfers pursuant to the anti-assignment clauses was proper.

Buyer next argued that the anti-assignment clauses unenforceable either because of debtor’s breach of the agreement or because of UCC §9-408. The court disagreed holding “it is axiomatic that a non-breaching party may not emerge post-breach with more rights than it had pre-breach.” Accordingly, the anti-assignment clause remained attached to the promissory notes because “neither the [assignors] nor any assignee were able to emerge post-breach with more rights than they had pre-breach.” The Court then found UCC §9-408, which invalidates provisions restricting assignment in grants of security interests, inapplicable because Contrarian was not granted a security interest in the promissory notes.

Buyer then asserted that even if the anti-assignment clauses were both valid and enforceable they did not apply because the noteholders only transferred their rights under the notes and not the notes themselves. The court disagreed holding that “[t]he language of both the Anti-Assignment Clause and the Loan Agreement manifests both a clear intention to forbid the assignment of the Promissory Note itself, and any rights thereunder.”

While not breaking new ground, the case reinforces the court’s view that “claim purchasers are sophisticated entities that are capable of both assessing the risk of disallowance through due diligence, and mitigating that risk through contractual provisions, such as indemnities.” It also serves as a reminder that reviewing the underlying documents for transfer restrictions is a critical part of a claim purchaser’s due diligence. While not clear from the decision whether settling the transfer via participation would have overcome the disability, it is good practice to include a “participation savings clause” that takes effect if an assignment is deemed invalid. Finally, what is also not clear is whether the result would have been different if the seller had filed a proof of claim before or in conjunction with the transfer.

Ocean Rig Team Continues To Be Recognized for Groundbreaking Work

Raniero D’Aversa and Evan Hollander accepting the Large ($1-5 billion) Turnaround of the Year Award at the Turnaround Atlas Awards on July 19, 2018.

The London-based members of the Ocean Rig team attending the second annual GRR Awards on June 26, 2018.

The Ocean Rig team accepting their awards at the gala hosted by M&A Advisor on June 18, 2018 in New York.

Our Ocean Rig team continues to garner recognition for our precedent-setting work on the transaction.

Most recently, the Ocean Rig transaction was named Large ($1-5 billion) Turnaround of the Year at the Turnaround Atlas Awards.

Last month, our Ocean Rig team was recognized with the Innovation in Cross-Border Insolvency and Restructuring Award during the second annual GRR Awards, hosted by Global Restructuring Review in London. The award highlights the deal’s precedent-setting pre-appointment CoMI shift.

Also in June, the restructuring of the Cayman Islands-based offshore drilling contractor won two awards at the M&A Advisor’s 2018 International M&A Awards: Restructuring of the Year ($1 – $5 billion) and Energy Deal of the Year.

Ocean Rig: Charting a Course Through Chapter 15 Provisional Relief, Recognition, and Appeals

Evan Hollander and Emmanuel Fua co-authored an article for the August 2018 issue of The Review of Banking & Financial Services about the unique issues involved in the recent chapter 15 bankruptcy proceedings of offshore drilling contractor Ocean Rig UDW. The proceedings produced precedent setting rulings regarding the scope of provisional relief available prior to a recognition hearing, the steps necessary to establish a debtor’s COMI prior to the commencement of a foreign proceeding, and the applicability of appellate standing and equitable mootness doctrines to appeals from recognition orders. Evan and Emmanuel, members of the Orrick team that acted as lead counsel to Ocean Rig in the proceedings, discuss these issues and provide useful insights for parties involved in cross-border restructurings.

Second Circuit Affirms Sabine: New Focus on Horizontal Privity Requirement May Affect Oil and Gas Gathering Agreement Terms

The Sabine Oil & Gas Corp. chapter 11 bankruptcy has been closely watched by many for guidance on how to structure midstream gathering agreements between upstream producers and midstream gatherers (who gather, transport and process oil and gas after it has been extracted from the land). On May 25, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that the debtor, Sabine, had the right to reject gathering agreements with two midstream companies. In re Sabine, 2018 WL 2386902 (2d. Cir. May 25, 2018). In the Sabine agreements, Sabine had agreed to dedicate all of the gas produced from a designated area for processing by one of the midstream gatherers.

Looking to Texas law, the Second Circuit ruled that for the agreements to be treated as covenants “running with the land” immune from such rejection by the debtor, there would have to be horizontal privity relating to the land. For horizontal privity to exist, there must be a common interest in the land in addition to the applicable covenant at the time of the agreement. For example, horizontal privity exists where Party A conveys a fee interest in real property in fee to Party B, if as part of the same transaction Party B grants Party A a leasehold interest over the conveyed real property. Because, in the view of the Second Circuit, there was no such privity in the Sabine case, the agreements were subject to rejection.

The Second Circuit’s rationale surprised some because the district court had relied on a different theory in allowing the rejection of the agreement. Because the Second Circuit’s ruling was made by summary order and was not intended to have precedential effect, and because it speaks to Texas law, the decision will have limited, if any, precedential value. Nonetheless, this Second Circuit ruling will be looked at by other courts facing similar issues, and may have some persuasive value. As a result, practitioners may want to examine their approach to midstream gathering and services agreements and whether their agreements should be structured to ensure that horizontal privity exists between the parties.

Case History and Differing Grounds for Decisions READ MORE