Judge Walrath (Bankr. D. Del.) Denies Motion to Transfer Venue of Preference Action Notwithstanding Defendant’s Forum Selection Clause

In Judge Walrath’s RCS Creditor Trust v. Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP (In re RCS Capital Corp.) opinion, the Court found that the presence of a forum selection clause (“FSC”) was not enough to trump the bankruptcy court’s ability to maintain venue for an avoidance action.  In so finding, the judge agreed with the Trustee-Plaintiff’s argument that the Debtors’ creditors were the ultimate parties-in-interest in the action, and thus were not bound by any FSC between the Debtors and Defendant (the Debtors and Defendant hereafter the “Parties”).  On that and other bases, the Court denied Defendant’s motion to transfer venue (the “Motion”) to the Southern District of New York (“SDNY,” the venue required by the FSC) under 28 U.S.C. § 1412 and Fed. R. Bankr. P. 7087.

Background and the Twelve Factor Jumara Test

Plaintiff sought to recover approximately $580,000 pursuant to 11 U.S.C. §§ 547 and 548(a)(1)(B).  Defendant, a law firm, responded by filing the Motion.

Courts in the Third Circuit consider a variety of factors in deciding whether to grant a motion to transfer venue, including:

(1) plaintiff’s choice of forum,

(2) defendant’s forum preference;

(3) whether the claim arose elsewhere,

(4) location of books and records,

(5) convenience of the parties based upon their relative physical and financial condition,

(6) convenience of the witnesses

(7) enforceability of the judgment,

(8) practical considerations that would make the trial easy, expeditious, or inexpensive,

(9) congestion of the courts’ dockets,

(10) public policies of the fora,

(11) familiarity of the judge with the applicable state law, and

(12) local interest in deciding local controversies at home.

 

See Jumara v. State Farm Ins. Co., 55 F.3d 873 (3d Cir. 1995) (the “Jumara Factors”).  The Court found only three Jumara Factors (2, 3, and 6) weighed in Defendant’s favor here, as briefly summarized in the chart below.

 

Factor Arguments Ruling
1

(P)

D: deference to a plaintiff’s choice of forum is lessened when suing in a representative capacity. The rationale for less deference to a representative plaintiff is inapplicable to a bankruptcy trustee.
2

(D)

D: prefers SDNY. True, but D’s preference given less weight than P’s.
3

(D/P)

D: all facts occurred in the SDNY.  Also, the Parties’ engagement letter (the “Agreement”) included the FSC, requiring resolution in the SDNY.

 

P: avoidance actions arise by statute and are separate from an underlying contract. Also, the Debtors’ creditors are the parties-in-interest in an avoidance action, and thus are not bound by the Parties’ FSC.

Performance of the legal services is not at issue, although payments made in SDNY militates towards transfer.

 

Regarding the FSC, the Court agreed with Plaintiff’s argument (derived from AstroPower Liquidating Trust v. Xantrex Tech. Inc. (In re AstroPower Liquidating Trust), 335 B.R. 309 (Bankr. D. Del. 2005) and Charys Liquidating Trust v. McMahan Sec. Co., L.P., (Charys Holding Co., Inc.), 443 B.R. 628 (Bankr. D. Del. 2010)).

4

(N)

D: Books and records are all in SDNY. Discovery in this case will be largely electronic.
5

(P)

D: D is based in NYC, plus P’s counsel has a NYC office as well.

 

P: D often travels to Delaware for other cases.

While transfer would be more convenient for D, pursuing actions in multiple fora creates temporal and financial burdens on P.  Also, Delaware is nearby, D often appears in Delaware, and Delaware counsel has already been retained by P.
6

(P)

D: all witnesses are in the SDNY, beyond the Court’s subpoena power.

 

P: avoidance actions rarely go to trial, are typically short.

No indication that any witness won’t voluntarily appear.
7

(N)

Judgments in either court are entitled to full faith and credit.
8

(P)

P: keeping the avoidance action in the same venue as the main case is more economical due to the Court’s familiarity with the case and the other, similar actions taking place. Agreed with P.
9

(P)

This case does not overburden the Court.
10

(P)

P: transferring this case creates a slippery slope. Agreed with P, as P is pursuing multiple avoidance actions, and transfer of one could result in transferring hundreds of others.
11

(N)

No state law issues.
12

(P)

Purely federal bankruptcy issues predominate here, offsetting any potential interest the SDNY may have.

 

In sum, the Court found Defendant had not carried its burden to show that transfer was appropriate by a preponderance of the evidence.

Conclusion

The presence of the FSC in this case provides an interesting wrinkle, especially since the Jumara case itself instructs a court to “place considerable weight on the parties’ original choice of forum, as expressed in a contractual forum selection clause.” Jumara, 55 F.3d at 882.  The Jumara case, however, was a non-bankruptcy case brought under state law by insureds against an insurer.  Given that the instant case was (i) rooted in federal bankruptcy law, not the performance of the Agreement, and (ii) brought for the benefit of parties-in-interest who were not parties to the Agreement, the Court distinguished the FSC’s relevance here.  The extent to which this rationale could be used in the context of other types of clauses or agreements remains to be seen.  In addition, one wonders if the Court would find the “slippery slope” concerns of Factor 10 to be mitigated were the instant case the only one filed, and not one of “multiple actions” filed instead.

A copy of the Opinion can be found here.

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Delaware Bankruptcy Judge Addresses Issue of First Impression Regarding Section 547(b)(5): Must a Preference Defendant Be Secured on the Transfer Date or the Petition Date?

By Evan T. Miller, Esq.

In Stanziale v. Sprint Corp. (In re Simplexity, LLC), 578 B.R. 255 (Bankr. D. Del. 2017), Delaware Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Gross addressed an issue of first impression: which was the proper date for determining the secured status of a creditor in a preference dispute under 11 U.S.C. § 547(b)(5), the petition date or the transfer date?  Ultimately, Judge Gross decided that the petition date was most proper, at least with respect to creditors secured by a purchase money security interest (“PMSI”).  Nevertheless, this aspect of the analysis under section 547(b)(5) remains highly fact-specific.

Background

The Debtors, formerly independent online activators of mobile phones, filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11 on March 16, 2014.  Prior to that time, the Debtors and Defendant were parties to an agreement that let the Debtors solicit and subscribe customers to Defendant; to that end, the Debtors could either purchase products from Defendant and resell them to customers, or sell products directly from Defendant’s inventory.  Defendant received a PMSI in products the Debtors purchased on credit and proceeds from the sale of such products.  Following conversion to Chapter 7, the Chapter 7 Trustee (the “Trustee”) initiated the instant adversary proceeding to recover these payments to Defendant; the parties’ motions for summary judgment ultimately followed, raising section 547(b)(5) and subsequent new value arguments.

Must a preference defendant be secured on the transfer date or the petition date for section 547(b)(5) purposes?

In light of the PMSI, Defendant argued that the Trustee could not satisfy his burden under section 547(b)(5)’s hypothetical liquidation test.  The Trustee first countered that the burden was not on him to do so in this instance; rather, Defendant had to prove it was truly secured given its reliance upon state law.  The Court rejected this reasoning based upon the plain language of section 547(g) (placing the burden on the Trustee to establish the elements under section 547(b)).

The Court next addressed the issue of first impression referenced above and incidentally, one that had created a split among courts which had considered it—is secured status assessed at the time of the transfer or the petition date?  Defendant argued that it was entirely secured, notwithstanding that the Debtors kept their funds in commingled accounts which were swept only a few days prepetition.  Further, Defendant argued that a Supreme Court decision which had determined the petition date to be the proper date of reference (Palmer Clay Products Co. v. Brown, 297 U.S. 227 (1936)) was misplaced in the context of a secured creditor, as that case had been dealing with an unsecured creditor.  Thus, with that in mind and in reliance upon a decision by Delaware Bankruptcy Judge Peter Walsh (Forman v. IPFS Corp. of the South (In re Alabama Aircraft Indus.), 2013 WL 6332688 (Bankr. D. Del. Dec. 5, 2013) (holding the transfer date to be the proper one for assessing preference liability of a creditor pursuant to an insurance premium financing agreement), Defendant argued that the transfer date controlled.

The Court disagreed, finding the fact-specific distinctions in Defendant’s “transfer date” cases and the instant case to be determinative; i.e., the Court distinguished between a PMSI case and cases dealing with premium financing arrangements or cases with liens of diminishing value.  This was so because a PMSI is a decidedly limited and better defined interest compared to a floating lien; moreover, the collateral at issue here (headsets and proceeds from selling the same) was unlikely to undergo stark changes in valuation.  Thus, while the Court envisioned a factual scenario that may warrant deviating from the petition date analysis, the instant case did not contain such facts.  The PMSI vs. floating lien distinction likewise underpinned the Court’s holding on the propriety of the Trustee’s tracing method—i.e., the “add-back” method, used for determining a defendant’s position on the petition date in a hypothetical liquidation.

Does an earlier-than-usual payment by a preference defendant to a debtor constitute subsequent new value?

The Court also ruled upon part of Defendant’s subsequent new value argument under section 547(c)(4).  Specifically, Defendant argued that a payment it made to the Debtors two days before the petition date qualified as subsequent new value, as it was commission money not yet owed to the Debtors under any of their agreements; ergo, it augmented the estate.  The Trustee opposed this defense on the grounds that it was a seemingly random payment made in Defendant’s capacity as a debtor, not a creditor, and that in any event, Defendant merely substituted one asset of the Debtor for another (i.e. an A/R for cash).  To the latter point, Defendant argued that the Trustee ignored the fact that Defendant would never have paid the A/R due to Defendant’s rights under various agreements and section 553 (setoff).

The Court agreed with Defendant, finding the issue centered around determining the purposes of Defendant’s payment.  To that end, Judge Gross found that the underlying agreements and the parties’ course of dealing demonstrated that Defendant’s commission payments to the Debtors were due at the end of the month, whereas the instant payment was made mid-month; as such, Defendant was not yet a debtor, nor were the Debtors creditors of Defendant.

Furthermore, the Court found that Defendant did not merely substitute Debtor’s A/R for cash.  For one thing, the commission payment was an (out of the ordinary) advance, not a regularly scheduled payment.  For another, the A/R would have been uncollectable for the reasons argued by Defendant.  At bottom, Judge Gross found Defendant’s commission payment personified section 547(c)(4)—a “beacon of light in a dark time” that decisively enhanced the Debtors’ estate.

Conclusion

The Court’s opinion in Simplexity sheds light on how the analysis under section 547(b)(5) changes where a creditor is secured.  Particularly, the Court makes clear that the type of security interest at play will likely impact the Court’s analysis.  In that sense, the Court seemingly harmonized its opinion here with earlier, seemingly conflicting decisions, including those from the same jurisdiction.  Perhaps the greater point, however, is that these analyses will remain highly contextual determinations.

The opinion also provides support for interesting subsequent new value arguments, and incidentally, strategic considerations for defendants dealing bilaterally (i.e., relationships where the defendant may be acting as both a creditor and a debtor at times) with companies on the verge of bankruptcy.  Specifically, making a payment earlier than contractually obligated can inure to Defendant’s benefit, as the advance potentially prevents the creation of an A/R—and concurrently may prevent the bankrupt company becoming a creditor of the defendant.  This argument becomes stronger if the defendant likewise maintains setoff rights, as Defendant did here.

A copy of the Opinion can be found here..

D.C. Bankruptcy Court Finds Pillowtex Analysis Not Required for Retaining Section 327(e) Professional

By Evan T. Miller, Esq.

In a helpful reminder for professionals regarding the nuances of 11 U.S.C. § 327 and its intersection with preference law, the Bankruptcy Court for the District of Columbia recently overruled a creditor’s objection to a debtor’s application (the “Application”) to retain special counsel under section 327(e).  The objection, filed in In re Core Communications, Inc., Case No. 17-00258, was based in part upon the fact that the debtor and proposed counsel (the “Professional”) had not provided a “Pillowtex Analysis” in support of the Application – i.e., an analysis disclosing any debtor payments made to the Professional in the 90 days prior to the Petition Date (the “Preference Period”).  The creditor maintained this assertion, notwithstanding the fact that the Professional had waived any claims it had against the estate.

The Court rejected the creditor’s argument.  Judge S. Martin Teel began with a recitation of professional retention guidelines and jurisprudence, noting that “[a] court authorizing the retention of professionals under 11 U.S.C. § 327(a) must determine whether the professional is disinterested, including whether the professional is the recipient of a preferential transfer.” In re Core Commc’ns, Inc., 2017 WL 5151674, at *3 (Bankr. D.D.C. Nov. 5, 2017) (citing In re Pillowtex, Inc., 304 F.3d 246 (3d Cir. 2002)).  While the Application did not disclose whether the debtor made any payments to the Professional during the Preference Period, the Court found the Application was made pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 327(e), and as such, “adverse interests that would disqualify an attorney from being retained under § 327(a) are distinguishable from adverse interests that would disqualify an attorney from being retained under § 327(e).” Id. (quoting Giuliano v. Young (In re RIH Acquisitions NJ, LLC), 551 B.R. 563, 569 (Bankr. D. N.J. 2016).  Under section 327(e), “the attorney being retained only needs to be disinterested with respect to the matter on which such attorney is to be employed.” Id. (internal quotations omitted).  As a result, there was no need to “disclose the existence of any preferences incident to the Application.Id.

A copy of the Opinion can be found here.

 

 

 

Defining Ordinary: Judge Walrath (Bankr. D. Del.) Surveys Ordinary Course of Business Methodologies in In re Powerwave Technologies

By Evan T. Miller, Esq.

Determining the proper bookends when establishing a Historical Period for an ordinary course of business defense (“OCOB”) can be highly contentious in preference litigation.  The same can be said for determining which methodology is most appropriate for analyzing preference period transfers and even when to apply a given defense. Continue reading

Are Customer Funds Held by Debtor Logistics Company Property of the Debtor’s Estate? Chief Judge Ferguson (D.N.J.) Addresses Multiple Avoidance Issues in TransVantage Solutions

By Evan T. Miller, Esq.

Bankruptcies involving logistics management companies inherently involve unique issues with respect to avoidance actions, be it the tripartite nature of the transactions (customer/debtor/carrier), the contentious dispute over what constitutes property of the estate, and so on. Continue reading

Can an Administrative Claim Be Used to Offset Preference Liability? Judge Carey (D. Del.) Addresses an Issue of First Impression in Quantum Foods

By Evan T. Miller, Esq.

Addressing an issue of first impression, Judge Kevin Carey (Bankr. D. Del.) ruled that a preference action defendant could use their allowed administrative expense claim as a setoff against any preferential transfer exposure. Continue reading

Are Invoice Terms Alone Sufficient to Establish Contemporaneous Exchange for New Value or Ordinary Course of Business Defenses? In Cousins Fish Market, Second Circuit Offers Guidance

By Evan T. Miller, Esq.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (the “Second Circuit”) recently affirmed the judgment of the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (the “District Court”) in John Nagle Co. v. McCarthy (In re The Cousins Fish Market, Inc.), 2016 WL 3854277 (2d Cir. July 12, 2016), which in turn had affirmed a decision of the district’s bankruptcy court (together with the District Court, the “Lower Courts”), finding the Lower Courts properly ruled that the defendant (“Defendant”) had not established its affirmative section 547(c) defenses. Continue reading