On January 22, 2018, in an adversary proceeding arising within the Haggen bankruptcy (Adv. No. 16-51204), Judge Gross of the Delaware Bankruptcy Court issued a ruling against the Plaintiff, denying the relief requested in the complaint and dismissing the adversary proceeding. Judge Gross’s opinion is available here (the “Opinion”).
The Committee filed an adversary proceeding with a 78 count, 145 page Complaint making numerous allegations including, but not limited to, fraudulent transfers, breach of fiduciary duties, and unjust enrichment. The Defendants’ answer spanned 184 pages, denying the numerous allegations and laying out the groundwork for the intense legal battle that followed. Accordingly, it came as no surprise that the trial lasted five days and Judge Gross’s Opinion was 162 pages.
This Opinion follows on the heels of motions for summary judgment, which were previously discussed in this blog post: In Fact Intensive Issues, You Need a Trial to Provide the Court With the Facts.
As one could presume based on Judge Gross’s affable nature, both in the courtroom, in the public sphere, and in his rulings, Judge Gross has crafted this Opinion in a manner that clearly guides the reader through each issue and includes an easily understood summary. Judge Gross held that the Defendants were not so cavalier in planning and effecting the Project that they were grossly negligent nor that there was anything inherently wrong with the OpCo-PropCo structure.
“The Project failed but not because the Defendants did not care if it succeeded. Moreover, it is not uncommon for parties who are planning a transaction to make certain that they are protected in the event the transaction fails. Such protection from adverse results is one of the reasons for forming a corporation or other entity – to limit personal liability.
It is unnerving that the Project failed in a matter of months and certainly the Court had questions about how it happened. It turns out that the people in charge, the Individual Defendants, to some degree were not prepared. They were not, however, grossly negligent and they certainly meant for Haggen, Holdings and the OpCo to succeed. The Committee made a strong case but, at the end of the day failed to establish gross negligence or self-dealing or the existence of any fraudulent transfers. The Committee did establish that the leases between Spirit and GIG, and the OpCo’s, were above the market rate, but there is no liability. The Committee failed however, to establish the remaining counts of the Complaint.”
Opinion at *3. Judge Gross then cites to the Delaware Chancery Court for the proposition that “to allege that a corporation has suffered a loss as a result of a lawful transaction, within the corporation’s powers, authorized by a corporate fiduciary acting in a good faith pursuit of corporate purposes, does not state a claim for relief against that fiduciary no matter how foolish the investment may appear in retrospect.” Opinion at *4 (quoting Gagliardi v. TriFoods Int’l, Inc., 683 A. 2d 1049, 1052 (Del. Ch. 1996)).
This case arose from a buyout that was structured with separate entities having separate roles. The property owning entities have been successful – real estate is, after all, booming. The operating entities, however, have struggled like a large number of other retailers. Retail bankruptcy cases are at an all-time high and rents are higher than ever. As Judge Gross recognized in the Opinion, the corporate structure is meant to provide down-side protection to equity holders. In this instance (pending any possible appeals), the corporate form appears to have operated precisely as intended.