Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Lessons from Lockdown

Do you remember where you were when you learned that Covid was going to change your life? I was sitting in my office. A week or so before, the Mayor cancelled the South by Southwest Festival and everyone thought he had lost his mind. Then out of the blue came the news that we would have to close the office starting the following Monday. That was in mid-March 2020. I had just been in New York a few weeks earlier and was completely oblivious to the fact that a highly contagious virus was already causing people to fall ill and would ultimately kill over 600,000 people in this country. Now, in June 2021, the threat of Covid is receding but our lives have been changed. I would like to share a few of my experiences. If you would like to share your own, email them to ssather@bn-lawyers.com and I will add them to the end of this post.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Maryland Bankruptcy Court Opinion Shows Difficulty of Applying Arbitration in Bankruptcy Setting

Bankruptcy and arbitration are both intended to provide a quick and relatively efficient resolution to disputes between a debtor and his creditors. Both allow adjudication without a jury. Both systems should be able to move more swiftly than a court of general jurisdiction because there are no competing priorities, such as in criminal cases subject to the requirement of a speedy trial. Both are recognized by federal law, specifically the Federal Arbitration Act and the Bankruptcy Code. So what happens when a party to a bankruptcy proceeding requests permission to proceed with arbitration? The Court in In re McPherson, 2021 Bankr. LEXIS 1487 (Bankr. D. Md. 6/2/21) grappled this issue with frustrating results.

What Happened

The Debtor and Camac Fund, L.P. ("Camac") entered into a Litigation Funding Agreement (the "Funding Agreement"). Under the Funding Agreement, Camac would advance money to the Debtor in return for a percentage the debtor’s interest in any recoveries from certain whistleblower lawsuits.

Under the Funding Agreement, Camac was to extend financing to the Debtor in exchange for a percentage of the Debtor's interest in certain whistleblower litigation cases. Disputes arose between the parties under the Funding Agreement, and Camac invoked its rights under the Funding Agreement's arbitration clause. The Debtor filed a response disputing, among other things, the validity of the arbitration and asserting counterclaims against Camac. A hearing was scheduled in the arbitration proceeding but was stayed by the filing of this Chapter 11 case.

Opinion, pp. 3-4.

After the bankruptcy was filed, the lawyers got busy. Camac filed a Motion for Relief from Automatic Stay seeking to proceed with the arbitration. The Debtor filed an adversary proceeding against Camac. Camac filed an adversary proceeding to determine dischargeability against the Debtor. Camac asked the Court to abstain from hearing the Debtor’s suit.

The Bankruptcy Court found that there were several types of claims involved: (i) claims concerning the parties' performance under, and alleged breaches of, the Funding Agreement (the "Contract Claims"); (ii) claims under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act ("FDCPA") and state law allegedly governing the Funding Agreement (the "Non-Bankruptcy Claims"); and (iii) claims under sections 502, 510, 523, 543, 544, 547, and 553 of the Code (the "Bankruptcy Claims"

Who Gets to Decide?

The Bankruptcy Court is the gatekeeper which gets to decide where the ultimate issue will be decided. The automatic stay prevents actions in other forums absent bankruptcy court permission, while the broad grant of jurisdiction in 28 U.S.C. §1334 allows most disputes to be heard in the Bankruptcy Court. Thus, with limited exceptions, unless the Bankruptcy Court lifts the automatic stay and abstains from hearing the dispute itself, the matter will proceed in bankruptcy.

The Bankruptcy Court has a second gatekeeper function, which is to determine “arbitrability.” As the Bankruptcy Court explained:

[F]irst, it must determine whether the parties agree to arbitrate; second, it must determine the scope of that agreement; third, if federal statutory claims are asserted, it must consider whether Congress intended those claims to be nonarbitrable; and fourth, if the court concludes that some, but not all, of the claims in the case are arbitrable, it must then decide whether to stay the balance of the proceedings pending arbitration.

Opinion, pp. 15-16. Although the Bankruptcy Court didn’t get there until page 15 of its opinion, the decision whether to allow arbitration is really a two-step process. First, the Court decides whether the parties intended this particular dispute to be subject to arbitration. Then it decides how to exercise its discretion as to whether to allow arbitration.

The Bankruptcy Court’s position as gatekeeper should provide the debtor with an important home field advantage in keeping the dispute in the debtor’s chosen forum. However, in Shearson/American Exp., Inc. v. McMahon, 482 U.S. 220, 226 (1987), the Supreme Court found that "the party seeking to prevent enforcement of an arbitration agreement [must] show that 'Congress has evinced an intention to preclude waiver of judicial remedies for the statutory rights at issue.'” Opinion. p. 9. Therefore, the rule is that the Court should allow arbitration unless there are important bankruptcy reasons not to.

Fortunately, Congress has provided guidance on what disputes are most important to the bankruptcy process. In 28 U.S.C. §157(b)(2)(B), Congress has defined certain bankruptcy disputes as “core” proceedings. These include such matters as allowing proofs of claim, selling property and deciding whether the stay should apply. The Supreme Court has further provided that some, but not all, core proceedings are “constitutional core” proceedings meaning that the Bankruptcy Court has authority to enter a final judgment without the consent of the parties. See Stern v. Marshall, 564 U.S. 462 (2011) and the Supreme Court’s subsequent decisions. Thus, if a decision is a “constitutional core” proceeding, there are good grounds for retaining the suit.

So, is there a hard and fast rule? No. As explained by the Bankruptcy Court:

If a claim is a constitutionally core proceeding, the bankruptcy court has the discretion to retain the proceeding and not enforce the terms of the parties' arbitration agreement. See, e.g.,Taylor, 420 F. Supp. 3d at 448 ("Arbitration of constitutionally core claims 'inherently conflict[s] with the purposes of the Bankruptcy Code,' and therefore a bankruptcy court is generally well within its discretion to refuse arbitration of constitutionally core claims.") (citation omitted). Again, this discretion arises from the inherent conflict in allowing an arbitrator to resolve proceedings that are grounded in the Code itself or that are integral to the debtor's reorganization efforts. A bankruptcy court's discretion is far more limited with respect to non-constitutionally core or non-core proceedings.

Opinion, p. 12. Essentially, the Bankruptcy Court has a lot of discretion to retain a constitutionally core matter and a little bit of discretion to retain anything else. While the “constitutional core” distinction is helpful, the decision still comes down to the Bankruptcy Court’s discretion.

The Bankruptcy Court was following Fourth Circuit precedent in Moses v. CashCall, Inc., 781 F.3d 63 (4th Cir. 2015), where the Court held that sending a constitutionally core proceeding to arbitration “would pose an inherent conflict with the Bankruptcy Code” while requiring arbitration of a claim which was not a constitutional core proceeding would not. Interestingly, the judge who wrote the opinion dissented from the court’s opinion as to the claims which were not constitutionally core. The judge found that the non-core claim was directly tied to the core claim and that it would be inefficient to have two tribunals adjudicate the identical issue. The Fifth Circuit, while relying on a similar standard, has concluded that dividing a case and sending some claims to arbitration “would be of disservice to the parties and defeat the purposes of the Bankruptcy Code.” Gandy v. Gandy (In re Gandy), 299 F.3d 489, 499 (5th Cir. 2002).  

The Court’s Ruling

The Court found that the parties agreed to arbitrate disputes arising under the Funding Agreement. For reasons that are unclear to me, the Court found it unnecessary to resolve whether the parties had agreed to arbitrate the specific disputes at issue. After an extensive discussion, the Court decided to bifurcate the claims. The claims arising under the Bankruptcy Code would not be subject to arbitration while the contract and non-bankruptcy claims would go to arbitration. This is a very unsatisfactory answer although it mirrors the result in CashCall. How could the Bankruptcy Court determine allowance of Camac’s claim (a bankruptcy claim not subject to arbitration) without determining the parties’ performance under the Funding Agreement (a non-bankruptcy claim subject to arbitration)? The only thing that makes sense is sending the FDCPA claim to arbitration since this is an independent claim between the two parties. However, was that even covered by the arbitration clause? As I mentioned above, I don’t think that the FDCPA claim arose under the Funding Agreement and therefore should not have been subject to arbitration at all.

Another Way to Look at This Case

I found this opinion to be very confusing and the outcome to be arbitrary. I would like to suggest a simplified approach. First, decide if the contract requires arbitration. If the contract does not require arbitration, that is the end of the inquiry. If the contract does require arbitration, then consider the impact on the bankruptcy process and other parties. For example:

  • If a contract requires arbitration of any attempt to restructure a debt, that interferes with the Court’s ability to confirm a plan and arbitration should not be allowed.
  • If a contract requires arbitration of disputes as to lien priority and validity and there are three parties asserting a lien, two of whom do not have arbitration clauses, arbitration should not take place.
  • If the bankruptcy case cannot proceed without resolution of the dispute and the arbitration clause refers disputes to the Mongolian Arbitration Forum which requires a minimum of three years and two gallons of yak milk to decide, arbitration should not be granted.

I offer impact on the bankruptcy process and other parties as an alternate test because the whole constitutional core test doesn’t really work. Most arbitration clauses are going to decide claims between the parties. The Supreme Court has said that the authority of bankruptcy courts is greatest when “the action at issue stems from the bankruptcy itself or would necessarily be resolved in the claims allowance process.” Stern v. Marshall, 564 U.S. at 499. Since most arbitration clauses apply to deciding who owes what to whom, they are always likely to involve constitutionally core claims (unless it is purely a matter of a claim by the debtor against the contract counter-party). If constitutionally core claims are the norm, it doesn’t make much sense to use this as the basis for a decision. Additionally, as shown by this case and CashCall, bifurcating claims between those that are subject to arbitration and those which are not can lead to twin forums deciding the same issues which should be a real problem. Thus, impact on the process and other parties is a much more workable test.

If I were to apply my test to the case, I would probably have denied arbitration in its entirety. The parties agreed to arbitrate claims “arising under” the Funding Agreement. The FDCPA claims do not appear to arise under the Funding Agreement since the FDCPA will only apply when a debt collector is attempting to collect a debt. In Bankruptcy Court, we know the difference between “arising under” and “relating to” and these claims do not appear to “arise under” the Funding Agreement. I would also have found that the preference and fraudulent transfer claims did not arise under the Funding Agreement, since they arise under the Bankruptcy Code.  If the parties had agreed to arbitrate disputes “related to” the Funding Agreement, the result might have been different.

The disputes concerning performance under the Funding Agreement certainly arise under the Funding Agreement. However, they are part and parcel of claims allowance process which arises under the Bankruptcy Code. That would take us to the second level of my analysis: what is the impact on the bankruptcy process and other parties? The opinion doesn’t really answer these questions, and in fairness, the parties may not have raised them.

What I would like to have learned is how long the arbitration process would last and how would the allowance or denial of claims have affected other creditors and parties in interest. This was a Chapter 11 case. The Debtor has an exclusive period to propose a plan (or if it was a SubChapter V case, an absolute deadline to propose a plan). Would arbitration interfere with that process? How would determination of who did what to whom affect other creditors? If the only issue was how much Camac would owe the Debtor, then there probably would not have been much of an impact on other creditors. Similarly, if all the other creditors were secured creditors and Camac was the only unsecured creditor, then maybe allowance of Camac’s claim would not have affected other creditors. However, if Camac was one of several unsecured creditors and the amount payable to each unsecured creditor would depend on whether Camac had a big claim or a small claim, it might have had a lot of impact on other creditors.

If there is a law professor looking for his next article, I suggest this would make a great subject.