The Honorable Laurie Selber Silverstein

On February 13, 2018, Judge Silverstein of the Delaware Bankruptcy Court granted a motion to dismiss the Rent-A-Wreck of America bankruptcy case (Bankr. D. Del. case 17-11592). Judge Silverstein’s opinion is available here (the “Opinion”).

In summarizing her holding, Judge Silverstein provides: These privately-owned debtors are not in financial distress (or at least they have not proven they are), and they seek to use 11 U.S.C. § 365 to redistribute value from a long-time adversary to enrich their ultimate shareholder.  The one entity that may be adversely affected by the Debtors’ bankruptcy filing is the Movant, David Schwartz.  Mr. Schwartz was held by the Maryland District Court, and affirmed by the Fourth Circuit, to be the the holder of an implied-in-fact royalty and fee-free franchise in West Los Angeles.  Opinion at *7.  He argues that the Debtors filed bankruptcy for the sole purpose of rejecting his franchise, and are not filed in good faith, but are instead a continuation of the Maryland District Court litigation.  Opinion at *12

The Debtors argued that they filed for bankruptcy protection to maximize the value of the Rent-A-Wreck trademark, to reject burdensome franchise agreements, and to relieve Debtors’ balance sheet of significant debt, all of which Debtors posit constitute valid reorganizational purposes. Opinion at *12.

Judge Silverstein began her analysis of this case by reviewing the inquiry of the Debtors’ good faith as directed by  precedential holdings of the Third Circuit.  Opinion at *14.  The Third Circuit considers two primary factors to determine good faith – first, whether the petition serves a valid bankruptcy purpose, second, whether the petition was filed to gain a tactical advantage.  Id.  The main precedential opinion cited by Judge Silverstein is In re Integrated Telecom Express, Inc., 384 F.3d 108 (3d Cir. 2004).

According to the Opinion, good faith is a predicate to a debtor’s ability to use provisions of the Bankruptcy Code, and financial distress is a part of if not itself a predicate to—a good faith analysis.  Opinion at *15.  Judge Silverstein continues: The ability to use the redistributive
provisions of the Bankruptcy Code assumes the existence of a valid bankruptcy, which, in turn, assumes a debtor in financial distress.  Id.  In this case, the Debtors never represented that they were insolvent, and Judge Silverstein, accordingly, determined that they were solvent.  Opinion at *18.  Neither did the Debtors provide evidence indicating that they were unable to pay their debts as they came due.  Opinion at *19.  Judge Silverstein determined that, in sum, the lack of credible facts demonstrating financial distress supports a finding that these cases were not filed in good faith.  Opinion at *26.

Pursuant to the Opinion, Judge Silverstein understood the Debtors’ argument that their filing was in good faith as follows: the rejection of the Schwartz franchise agreement maximizes Debtors’ assets thus permitting them to stay in business, satisfying both prongs of the bankruptcy purpose.  Opinion at *28.  Judge Silverstein disagreed, quoting Integrated Telecom:

To be filed in good faith, a petition must do more than merely invoke some distributional mechanism in the Bankruptcy Code. It must seek to create or preserve some value that would otherwise be lost—not merely distributed to a different stakeholder—outside of bankruptcy.

Opinion at *28 (quoting Integrated Telecom, 384 F.3d at 128-29) (emphasis in Opinion).  Judge Silverstein concludes my opining that the Debtors bankruptcy filing was made for the purpose of redistributing the value of the Rent-A-Wreck trademark in the Los Angeles territory from Mr. Schwartz to Bundy.  Opinion at *29.   Accordingly, the primary, if not sole, beneficiaries of that value would be the Debtors’ equity holders, not its creditors.  Judge Silverstein states that she has “no doubt these petitions were just another chapter in the attempt to terminate Mr. Schwartz’s franchise and obtain the benefits for JJFMS.”  Opinion at *36.

Judge Silverstein provides in the Opinion, that a financially distressed debtor’s recognition of the outcome of litigation and/or a desire to avoid future litigation may serve as a legitimate basis for the filing of a bankruptcy case. Opinion at *36.  I note, however, that the thread running throughout the Opinion is the requirement that a debtor be financially distressed in order to take advantage of the relief provided by the Bankruptcy Code.  Financial distress is a broad term, that can be applied to entities ranging from those suffering a liquidity crisis with substantial equity – to those suffering from over-leverage or long-term non-profitability.  In these situations, and countless others, the Bankruptcy Code can provide relief.  It is important, however, to ensure that your company can satisfy the Court’s scrutiny of whether a petition was filed in good faith – recognizing that the burden of proof is on the debtor.

On February 21, 2017, Judge Silverstein of the Delaware Bankruptcy Court issued an opinion (the “Opinion”) in the Outer Harbor Terminal bankruptcy proceeding – Bankr. D. Del., Case 16-10283.  The Opinion is available here.  This Opinion decided the Debtor’s objection to a claim for breach of contract filed by Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha, Ltd. (“K Line”).  The claim objection objected both to the amount of the K Line claim, and to the very existence of the K Line claim.  The Opinion only addressed the claim’s validity and did not liquidate the claim.  That issue was reserved by Judge Silverstein for a later trial.  However, I’m of the opinion that the amount of the claim will be determined consensually, as most issues are in bankruptcy proceedings.

Background

In 2013, K Line entered into an agreement with the Debtor to provide stevedoring and terminal services at the Port of Oakland.  Opinion at *2.  Unfortunately, the Debtor was never profitable and, in 2016, declared bankruptcy.  With that action in mind, on January 21, 2016, the Debtor provided notice to K Line that it would be winding down operations and intended to cease handling vessels as of February 20, 2016 and cease handling gates as of March 19, 2016.  However, the Debtor serviced K Line through March 28, 2016.  In anticipation of the Debtor’s termination of services, on March 4, 2016, K Line found a new provider of services and entered an agreement accordingly.  K Line then filed a claim in this bankruptcy case, and the Debtor objected on November 4, 2016.  An evidentiary hearing was held January 12, 2017 and this Opinion followed.  Opinion at *2-4.

The Opinion

Judge Silverstein focused entirely on the Agreement and the actions of the parties, needing to look no further than the document and the testimony of the Debtor.  She cited to the following chain of logic in making her decision:  1) The Agreement allowed either party to terminate immediately upon certain events occurring, including bankruptcy, Opinion at *7; 2) The Agreement does not provide that termination is self-executing, Opinion at *8; 3) Neither Debtor’s counsel, nor the witness it presented at the hearing testified or argued that the Debtor communicated to K Line that the Agreement was terminated, Opinion at *8-9.

Judge Silverstein makes it clear that although the Bankruptcy Court is a court of equity, it will not rewrite contracts.  “Just as the Court cannot rewrite the Agreement to save ‘K’ Line from a bad bargain, it cannot rewrite the Agreement to save the Debtor from any perceived penalty resulting from its choice to be a good corporate citizen.”  Opinion at *10.  Judge Silverstein held that the announcements of upcoming work stoppage appear to have been a repudiation.  Opinion at *11.  Pursuant to California law, which controlled the Agreement, a party injured by repudiation can elect its remedy, either treating the repudiation as anticipatory breach and seek damages, or ignore the repudiation, await the time when performance is due and exercise remedies for the actual breach.  In this instance, however, neither party briefed the issue of anticipatory breach or damages.  Accordingly Judge Silverstein “grant[ed]” them the opportunity to brief the issue in connection with a damages trial.  Opinion at *12.

Contract law is a part of nearly every business transaction – from retaining employees, to selling goods or services, to finding ways to protect your assets and business opportunities.  While the Bankruptcy Court is a court of equity, at the end of the day, all of the judges have studied contract law (even if only in preparation for the bar), and will give parties to a contract the benefit (or loss) of their bargains.  It is my hope that all of you reading this post will not need to exercise contractual protections.  But in today’s volatile business environment, even if all the parties to a contract are acting in good faith, a good contract, and following it closely, is the best protection for your business.  Should you ever have a contract counter-party encourage you to push through an incomplete contract, it may do well to remind them, and yourself, that strong fences build strong neighbors.

On November 28, 2016, Judge Laurie Selber Silverstein of the Delaware Bankruptcy Court ruled on a motion for relief from the automatic stay (we she treated as a motion for relief from the discharge injunction) in the Altegrity bankruptcy, Case No. 15-10226.  The “Opinion” is available here.  The Opinion was issued following legal argument and, by agreement of the parties, based only upon undisputed facts.  Opinion at *1.

While various other arguments are addressed by Judge Silverstein, the primary issue within the Opinion boils down to two simple issues – (1) what is a “Claim” in bankruptcy, and (2) did all of the relief sought by the movant (who did not file a claim) constitute “Claims”.  Opinion at *11.

In the Opinion, Judge Silverstein adopts the broad interpretation of a Claim that is routinely used, any “right to payment” constitutes a Claim.  Holding that substantially all of the movant’s claims would be resolved through payment, and because the movant filed no claim in the bankruptcy case, Judge Silverstein denied the Motion in all respects but one – the movant can continue an existing suit to seek to obtain non-monetary relief, including the expungement of his commercial driving report (DAC Report).

A number of other interesting issues are briefly addressed in the Opinion, and I encourage you to follow the above link and read it for yourself.  It is an easy 19-page read.  I note that once again, the Delaware Bankruptcy Court continues to take an expansive view of “Claims” and would advise any party to a bankruptcy to take note of any claims bar date orders.  If a cash payment *could* resolve your grievance with the Debtor, it would be wise to file a claim out of an abundance of caution.