In a decision signed October 4, 2017 in an adversary proceeding arising within the Haggens bankruptcy (HH Liquidation, LLC, et al., case 16-51204), Judge Gross of the Delaware Bankruptcy Court denied a motion for summary judgment, holding that he Court and needs to see evidence at trial of why and how the Debtor failed while a related entity was flush with cash. Judge Gross’s opinion is available here (the “Opinion”).

By way of history, the Haggen family started operating a grocery in 1933, growing to operate thirty stores and a pharmacy by 2011.  In late 2014, the Safeway / Albertsons merger occurred, which required them to sell 146 stores.  In February 2015, Haggen (thanks in large part to the direction of Comvest Partners, a private equity firm who had purchased 80% of Haggen’s equity) purchased the 146 former Albertsons locations.  With a signature, Haggens grew to a size that was approximately 600% larger than it had ever been.  It is my opinion that growth at this pace either succeeds fantastically, or fails fantastically.  Unfortunately, this is a bankruptcy court opinion – so it’s clear this wasn’t a fantastic success.

Haggens split the acquisition into multiple pieces, segregating the operating and real property assets in different entities.  Those which held real property I will refer to collectively as PropCos, and those which operated stores and leased the real property for such a purpose I will refer to collectively as OpCos.  For those who have not followed the Haggens bankruptcy, it is important to recognize that OpCos were placed into bankruptcy and the PropCos were not.

The plaintiff in the adversary proceeding argued that the debtor and non-debtor related entities should be substantively consolidated and that the OpCos and PropCos were liable for fraudulent transfer.  Without consolidation or a fraudulent transfer ruling, the PropCos creditors will receive 100% of their claims while OpCos unsecured creditors will receive 0%.  If the plaintiffs are successful in their claims, the PropCos creditors and the OpCos creditors would all receive approximately 20% of their claims.  Opinion at *7.

Judge Gross was not sympathetic to the Debtors’ opining that:

Comvest created Holdings, the OpCo Entities and the PropCo Entities and formed them to hold separate assets. The OpCo Entities held operational assets and leased property from the PropCo  Entities which held the real property. Then, in a matter of a few months the OpCo Entities were bankrupt and are unable to pay unsecured creditors anything while the PropCo Entities are flush with money.  The Court and the OpCo Entities’ creditors need to see evidence at trial of why and how this happened.

Opinion at *7-8.  Of particular note, Judge Gross made repeated references to the Mervyn’s decision,  In re Mervyn’s Holdings, LLC, 426 B.R. 488 (Bankr. D. Del. 2010).  “In Mervyn’s, like here, the owner of real property (Target Corporation) sold its interest in Mervyn’s, LLC to a group of private equity firms who spun off real estate leaving the operational portion of Mervyn’s, LLC undercapitalized and paying rent to the real estate holding entity.”  Opinion at *9.  I have found that when a judge on the Bankruptcy Court makes repeated reference to another decision, particularly when it is a decision of that very judge, litigants should make every effort to differentiate, or analogize, the instant case.  The repeated reference to Mervyn’s by Judge Gross provides a clear picture of the issues he will need answered by the litigants here.  It’s his opinion, I’d expect it to be the first and last thing out of both litigants’ mouths.

John Bird practices with the law firm Fox Rothschild LLP and is resident in Portland, Oregon. You can reach John at 302-622-4263, or jbird@foxrothschild.com.