Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Random Thoughts From The National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges--Day 2

The most interesting programs I attended yesterday concerned consumer issues in the Post-BAPCPA world and real estate issues. I attended several other informative presentations (including a lunchtime history of the Constitution from former Judge Kenneth Starr), but will focus on these two in the interest of length.

Consumer Issues

I started Tuesday off with Post-BAPCPA Case Update for Consumer Practitioners. The two most interesting issues here were standing and the proposed amendments to the Bankruptcy Rules affecting claims. This one was enjoyable because there were many bankruptcy judges in attendance who contributed to the discussion, including the Hon. Eugene Wedoff, Joan Feeney, Keith Lundin, Brenda Rhoades, Eileen Hollowell and Sheri Bluebond. (They weren't all there at the same time. I repeated this program).

Standing Issues

The standing debate arises when a servicer, debt buyer or some other party files a proof of claim or motion to lift stay. As an initial matter, Sec. 501 provides that a creditor may file a proof of claim, while Sec. 362(d) provides that a party in interest may file a motion for relief from stay. Party in interest is broader than creditor, so that the party in interest language would allow a mortgage servicer to file a motion for relief. However, the disparity is equalled out by Rule 3001(b), which allows an authorized agent to file a proof of claim. A servicer would qualify as an agent.

The next issue is whether the person filing the motion or claim actually owns it. This issue applies to debt buyers and securitization trusts among others. Judge Wedoff argued that on a motion for relief from stay, it is the creditor's burden to show lack of equity. This entails showing that the person is the creditor and the amount of the debt. Not answered was what happens when the party in interest seeks relief for cause. Since the entire burden is on the debtor, does the movant have to prove that they are the actual creditor?

This gave rise to a vigorous debate in both iterations of this presentation that I attended. One view was that a motion for relief from stay is simply relief from an injunction, so that issues of standing could be determined in state court. The counter view was that especially in Western states with non-judicial foreclosure, there is no court review so that lifting the stay was tantamount to disposing of the property. This places the burden on the debtor to seek an injunction against foreclosure in state court.

Another debate had to do with assignees and proofs of claim. Whose interest should be protected when there is an issue regarding ownership of the claim? Is it the debtor or the original holder of the claim? If the original creditor is given notice of the bankruptcy case and a purported assignee files the only claim on that debt, it is safe to assume that the claimant actually holds the claim. On the other hand, when an assignee files a motion for relief from stay, the debtor has a direct interest in whether the person seeking relief is authorized to do so.

These issues are exemplified by cases involving MERS and securitization trusts. MERS is a national clearinghouse for mortgage assignments. The creditor names MERS as the nominee for the trustee under the deed of trust. Thus, if the mortgage is assigned, MERS continues to act as nominee for whoever the current trustee happens to be. The problem arises when MERS files a motion for relief from automatic stay. MERS does not hold the note. It is merely the nominee of the trustee under the deed of trust. Several courts have held that this does not give them standing to file a motion for relief from stay. Securitization trusts also give rise to a problem. Mortgages are put into pools with an indenture trustee. However, in one case which was mentioned, the entity contributing the mortgage loan to the trust was never the holder. There was simply a gap in title.

New Claims Opinion

One of the judges from New Hampshire mentioned the October 19 decision from the First Circuit BAP in In re Plourde, which can be found here. I have not had a chance to review this opinion in detail, but apprently it held that failure to file a claim in the proper form deprived it of prima facie validity, so that the creditor was only entitled to priority as a late filed claim. Not quite sure how they got to that result. It will likely go up to the First Circuit.

Proposed Rules Changes

The other interesting discussion concerned the proposed amendments to Bankruptcy Rule 3001(c) and Bankruptcy Rule 3002.1. The changes to Rule 3001(c) would require more documentation on a claim, including the most recent account statement on a credit card account, an itemized statement of interest, fees, expenses and charges, a statement of the amount necessary to cure an arrearage on a secured claim and an escrow account analysis if applicable. What is really significant about this amendment is that it states that the consequence of failing to provide this information on the claim is that the creditor would be precluded from using this information in any hearing "unless the court determines that the failure was substantially justified or is harmless." Furthere, the court may award sanctions in addition to or in lieu of exclusion of evidence. This is a huge change. Under the current rule, failure to properly document a claim deprives it of prima facie validity, but the creditor can still prove up its claim in a hearing. This rule would effectively provide that failure to properly document the claim means that it may be denied. Some of the speakers suggested that this was not too severe because the creditor could always amend the claim. However, in the Southern District of Texas, Judge Jeff Bohm has held that a creditor may not amend its claim without leave of court once it has been objected to. The rule is also huge because it allows sanctions for filing an improperly documented proof of claim. Under current law, sanctions may be awarded under Rule 9011 which has a safe harbor provision or under the court's inherent authority, which requires a finding of bad faith. Allowing sanctions for filing an improperly documented claim and nothing more is a quantum change.

Proposed Rule 3002.1 would require creditors with a security interest in the debtor's principal residence to file notice of certain charges and changes in payment amounts. If the payment amount changes post-petition due to an adjustment in the interest rate or the escrow amount, notice must be filed 30 days before the payment amount changes. The notice must be given in the same form applicable under non-bankruptcy law. Additionally, a creditor must file a notice of all fees, expenses or charges incurred post-petition as a supplement to its proof of claim. This notice must be filed within 180 days after the charges are incurred. The debtor and the trustee would then have one year to object to the charges. Additionally, the trustee would be required to file a statement indicating that the final payment necessary to cure an arreage on the mortgage has been made. All of these notices can be challenged in court. Failure to give the required notice would bar the charges.

These rules changes are open for comment at until February 16, 2010. If approved, they will go into effect on December 1, 2011.

Real Estate Issues

From there, I went on to the panel discussion on real estate issues moderaed by Prof. Mechele Dickerson from the University of Texas Law School. First up, was a summary of the state of the market from Ronald Greenspan with FTI Consulting. The residential real estate market has hit bottom and is on the upswing in all major markets except Detroit and Las Vegas. However, it had a steep decline, going from 1.7 million housing starts in 2005 to only 500,000 in 2009. Part of the reason that homes sales are recovering is the fact that the government is guarantying 80% of the new mortgages being made. One note of concern is that the level of vacant homes has risen from its typical rate of 1.0% to 2.5%, meaning that houses are sitting empty and subject to vandalism, blight, etc.

The outlook for commercial real estate is much darker. Commercial real estate did not peak until the first quarter of 2008 and has dropped precipitously. Sales ae down by 75%. Default rates have increased from 0.5% to 4.0%. Mr. Greenspan indicated that the commercial fundamentals could continue to go down for another three years.

The panel highlighted three recent real estate cases of interest. In Tousa, Inc., the bankruptcy court recently held that encumbering the property of one group of subsidiary companies to pay off the debts of a different subsidiary was a fraudulent conveyance. The opinion is some 180 pages long.

The panel opined that the Ninth Circuit BAP's opinion in Clear Channel has proven to be less problematic than anticipated. The Clear Channel opinion overruled approval of a Sec. 363 sale over the objection of a dissenting junior lienholder. It held that Sec. 363(f)(3), which allows sales free and clear of liens if the sales price exceeds the aggregate value of all liens refers to the total dollar amount of the lien, not the Sec. 506(b) value. Thus, you could not cut off the junior lienholder based on the argument that the lien was completely underwater. One case subsequent to Clear Channel allowed a sale under similar circumstances based on Sec. 363(f)(5) which allows sale free and clear of liens if the creditor could be forced to accept a monetary satisfaction "in a legal or equitable proceeding." In the specific case, Washington law allows a junior lienholder to be cut off in a foreclosure action, thus satisfying the section. The panel speculated about whether cramdown under chapter 11 would be "a legal or equitable proceeding" under the section.

The recent case of General Growth Properties illustrates what happens when you have a large number of single purpose entities with a central cash management system. The lenders required that each entity have an independent director to keep them bankruptcy remote. However, the debtor simply replaced the independent director on the eve of bankruptcy without notice to the lender or the independent director being replaced. The court noted that the independent director's duty was to the entity rather than to the lender. The court refused to dismiss the bankruptcy cases of solvent debtors who were current upon their debts. The lenders argued that the cases had been filed in bad faith because the debtors were current and had not sought to negotiate with the creditor. The creditor also argued that reorganization was futile because they would not agree to any reorganization plan proposed by the debtor. Of course, this undercut their argument that the debtors should have negotiated with them. The court rejected the motions to dismiss.

The case also raised the issue of whether you could use income from one debtor to pay the expenses of another pursuant to a central cash management system. The court analyzed the issue as one of adequate protection and found that the creditor was adequately protected by the value of the collateral. The panel raised the question of whether the lending could have been challenged as a transaction not in the ordinary course of business. If the cash negative debtors were having to borrow money from the cash positive debtors and were not able to get DIP financing, then the financing would presumably be on less than market terms. Thus, the transaction would not be in the best interest of the lending entity regardless of whether the lender was adequately protected.

Another issue raised by aggregations of single asset real estate debtors is whether there must be an impaired accepting class in each case or simply one impaired accepting class under the plan. Sec. 1129(a)(10) references the plan. An unreported opinion in the Enron case says that you need one impaired accepting class overall rather than in each case.

Another interesting isssue discussed was a springing guaranty. This is a guaranty which only comes into force if the debtor files bankruptcy. Obviously, it is intended as a poison pill to deter bankruptcy filings. The question raised was whether this violated public policy by giving principals of the debtor an incentive to violate their fiduciary duty by not filing bankruptcy to protect their personal financial interest.

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