Bankruptcy schedule = judicial estoppel of FCA claim — UPDATED

Johnny Long, a former bankruptcy debtor, sought to bring FCA claims against his former employer.  The defendant successfully obtained dismissal on the ground of judicial estoppel  because the claim was not listed on Long’s bankruptcy schedules.  After reminding that judicial estoppel, as a flexible and equitable doctrine, does not automatically compel dismissal in such a situation, the Fifth Circuit affirmed.  The elements are that “(1) the party against whom judicial estoppel is sought has asserted a legal position which is plainly inconsistent with a prior position, (2) a court accepted the prior position, and (3) the party did not act inadvertently.”  The specific issue was the third element, and whether Long had a motivation to conceal.  The Court noted three advantageous features the payment terms in Long’s Chapter 13 plan, which disclosure could have endangered — and further noted that after judicial estoppel was raised, Long sought to reopen his case so “he may pay interest to his creditors” if he recovered on his FCA claim.  United States ex rel Long v. GSD&M Idea City, LLC, 798 F.3d 265 (5th Cir. 2015).  A later award to the defendant of roughly $200,000 in costs was substantially affirmed in United States ex rel Long v. GSDMidea City, LLC, No. 14-11049 (Dec. 1, 2015).

Golf Channel gets a mulligan.

mulliganAn earlier panel opinion found the Golf Channel liable for $5.9 million under the Texas Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act (“TUFTA”), even though it delivered airtime with that market value, because the purchaser was Allen Stanford while running a Ponzi scheme. Accordingly, the airtime had no value to creditors, despite its market value.  On rehearing, the Fifth Circuit vacated its initial opinion and certified the controlling issue to the Texas Supreme imageCourt: “Considering the definition of ‘value’ in section 24.004(a) of the Texas Business and Commerce Code, the definition of ‘reasonably equivalent value’ in section 24.004(d) of the Texas Business and Commerce Code, and the comment in the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act stating that ‘value’ is measured ‘from a creditor’s viewpoint,’ what showing of ‘value’ under TUFTA is sufficient for a transferee to prove the elements of the affirmative defense under section 24.009(a) of the Texas Business and Commerce Code?”  Janvey v. The Golf Channel, No. 13-11305 (June 30, 2015).

“Good faith”

A revised Templeton v. O’Cheskey did not alter the Fifth Circuit’s analysis about proof of a Ponzi scheme, but slightly clarified the scope of its holding about “good faith” under the fraudulent transfer provision of the Bankruptcy Code.  That holding was that the “good faith test under Section 548(c) is generally presented as a “two-step inquiry” into (1) whether the transferee had “inquiry notice” of the transferor’s possible insolvency or possible fraud and (2) if so, whether the transferee then satisfied a “diligent investigation” requirement.  No. 14-10563 (June 8, 2015).  (The Fifth Circuit addressed the related “good faith” requirement under TUFTA in GE Capital v. Worthington National Bank, 754 F.3d 297 (5th Cir. 2014)).

How not to reserve a claim in bankruptcy.

Adler, the distributing agent for a bankrupt business, sought to sue a law firm for allegedly mishandling its affairs and causing its financial problems.  The business’s Third Amended Plan of Reorganization had a provision that retained its standing to pursue avoidance and fraudulent transfer actions against a list of named defendants (which did not include the law firm).  The Plan also had a provision reserving “[a]ny and all other claims and causes of action which may have been asserted by the Debtor prior to the Effective Date.”  The Fifth Circuit held that this was “exactly the sort of blanket reservation that is insufficient to preserve the debtor’s standing.”  (citing Dynasty Oil & Gas LLC v. Citizens Bank, 540 F.3d 551 (5th Cir. 2008)). On waiver grounds, he Court declined to consider whether such a reservation would be sufficient if “(1) the defendant is a non-creditor [and thus not entitled to vote on the plan] and (2) the reorganization plan clearly identifies how the proceeds of the claim will be distributed.”  Adler v. Frost, No. 14-31109 (June 11, 2015, unpublished).

Today, leave NOT needed to sue bankruptcy trustee

As a counterpoint to the recent case of Alonso v. Abide — which required leave of court to sue a bankruptcy trustee for alleged negligence in handling a claim against a debtor’s insurer — in Carroll v. Abide, the Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal of a claim against a trustee because leave was not required.  No. 14-31230 (June 11, 2015). The debtors sued, alleging that the trustee violated their Fourth Amendment rights in seizing a computer.  Again applying Barton v. Barbour, 104 U.S. 126 (1881), the Court concluded: “[B]ecause the [debtors] complain of the bankruptcy trustee’s conduct while carrying out district court orders, we conclude that the plaintiffs were not required to seek permission from the bankruptcy court before filing suit in the district court regarding the challenged conduct.”  (emphasis added).

Suit against bankruptcy trustee dealt with Stern-ly.

justicewoodsFormer bankruptcy debtors sued their trustee, alleging that he failed to sue an insurer who could have satisfied many creditors’ claims.  The district court dismissed because the plaintiffs did not first get leave from the bankruptcy court that appointed the trustee, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed under Barton v. Barbour, 104 U.S. 126, 128 (1881) (an opinion by the otherwise unmemorable William Burnham Woods, right).

The debtors contended that Stern v. Marshall implicitly overruled Barton, in part, because the bankruptcy court would lack final adjudicative authority over their state law tort claims.  The Fifth Circuit disagreed, holding that under Barton: “If a bankruptcy court concludes that the claim against a trustee is one that the court would not itself be able to resolve under Stern, that court can make the initial decision on the procedure to follow.  Once a bankruptcy court makes such a determination, this court can review the utilized procedure.”  Villegas v. Schmidt, No. 14-40423 (May 28, 2015).

SCOTUS: Postpetition wages escape the trustee

In Harris v. Viegelahn, No. 14-400 (May 18, 2015), the Supreme Court resolved a split between the Third and Fifth Circuits and held 9-0 (contrary to the Fifth’s position) that “by excluding postpetition wages from the converted Chapter 7 estate (absent a bad-faith conversion), 11 U.S.C. § 348(f) removes those earnings from the pool of assets that may be liquidated and distributed to creditors.”

Not Ponzi Enough — UPDATED

ponziAmong several issues addressed in the complicated bankruptcy appeal of Templeton v. O’Cheskey, the Fifth Circuit considered whether the “ordinary course of business” defense applied to alleged preferential transfers. The Court noted that a “true” Ponzi scheme is one with “operations build on the collection of funds from new investments to pay off prior investors.”  Here, “only a portion of the funds controlled by [Debtor] ([Creditor] estimates 9%) was used to pay Ponzi-like returns to investors,” and the image“record is clear that [Debtor] engaged in substantial legitimate business–owning or controlling approximately 14,000 housing units.”  Therefore, the defense could apply, and these transfers were remanded for further consideration. No. 14-10563 (revised May 12, 2015).

Does it belong to the estate?

The Cantus filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and after their case was converted to Chapter 7, sued their bankruptcy attorney for malpractice.  That suit settled for roughly $300,000, leading to a dispute between the Cantus and the Chapter 7 Trustee as to who should receive the proceeds.  The Fifth Circuit found that the estate suffered pre-conversion injury as a result of the alleged misconduct, including diversion of assets, time wasted with an unconfirmable Chapter 11 plan, and additional attorneys fees.  Therefore, the causes of action against the attorney “accrued prior to conversion and belong to the estate.”  Cantu v. Schmidt, No. 14-40597 (April 17, 2015).

Goodbye, Pro-Snax.

prosnaxA law firm sought $130,000 in fees for representing a bankruptcy debtor; the bankruptcy court awarded $20,000, noting the firm’s lack of success in delivering a measurable benefit to the estate.  While a Fifth Circuit panel affirmed, citing the test in In re: Pro-Snax Distributors, Inc., 157 F.3d 414 (5th Cir. 1998), all three judges called for en banc reconsideration of that opinion.  That request was granted unanimously in Barron & Newburger, P.C. v. Texas Skyline, Ltd., which recognized that the “retrospective, ‘material benefit’ standard enunciated in Pro–Snax conflicts with the language and legislative history of § 330, diverges from the decisions of other circuits, and has sown confusion in our circuit.”  Accordingly, the full Court overturned Pro–Snax’s attorney’s-fee rule to “adopt the prospective, ‘reasonably likely to benefit the estate’ standard endorsed by our sister circuits.”  While the division of some en banc votes can offer insight on subtle aspects of judges’ philosophies, this unanimous decision shows that sometimes, the full court will simply fix what it regards as an earlier mistake, if that mistake has sufficiently far-reaching consequences within the Circuit.

Don’t “dismiss” to the bankruptcy court

In Wellness Wireless, Inc. v. Infopia America, LLC, the district court dismissed a suit on a note for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, noting the potential effect on the estate of a company in bankruptcy.  The Fifth Circuit faulted this reasoning as “plainly wrong,” noting that Article III courts have jurisdiction over bankruptcy matters and simply refer them to bankruptcy courts as a matter of course. The Court also disagreed as to an alternative ground for dismissal, based on the debtor being a necessary party under Fed. R. Civ. P. 19, noting that the debtor had disclaimed any interest in the funds at issue during the bankruptcy case.  No. 14-20024 (March 24, 2015, unpublished).

Bankruptcy “gotcha” on notice of appeal

Satterwhite appealed an adverse ruling from the bankruptcy court, and then to the district court.  In the district court, after judgment, he filed a motion for new trial, to modify the judgment, and for findings of fact and conclusions of law.  After the trial court denied those motions, he filed a notice of appeal that would have been timely in an “ordinary” appeal under Fed. R. App. P. 4.  Unfortunately, this bankruptcy appeal fell under Fed. R. App. P. 6, which only allows a motion for rehearing filed within 14 days of judgment to extend the appellate deadline.   Satterwhite v. Guin, No. 14-20430 (March 31, 2015, unpublished).

Ponzi scheme puts Golf Channel in the rough.

Bad Golfer Looking in WeedsAllen Stanford spent close to $6 million advertising his investment firm on the Golf Channel.  After his empire collapsed, the receiver sued the Golf Channel under the Texas fraudulent transfer statute.  The Channel successfully defended in the district court on the ground that it gave reasonably equivalent value.  Janvey v. The Golf Channel, No. 13-11305 (March 11, 2015). Unfortunately for the Channel, because the receiver proved Stanford was running a Ponzi scheme, the question was whether it gave value from the perspective of the creditors, not whether it provided quality advertising from the perspective of Stanford’s business operation.  “Golf Channel argues that its advertising services did not further the Stanford Ponzi scheme and that the $5.9 million reasonably represents the market value of those services. . . . TUFTA makes no distinction between different types of services or different types of transferees, but requires us to look at the value of any services from the creditors’ perspective. We have no authority to create an exception for ‘trade creditors.'”  Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit reversed.

En banc review of standard for bankruptcy fee applications

This summer, in the panel opinion of  Barron & Newburger, P.C. v. Texas Skyline, Ltd., No. 13-50075 (July 15, 2014), the Fifth Circuit affirmed the partial denial of a fee application based on its earlier opinion of  In re: Pro-Snax Distributors, Inc., 157 F.3d 414 (5th Cir. 1998). That earlier opinion rejected a “reasonableness” test in the application of Bankruptcy Code § 330 — which would have asked “whether the services were objectively beneficial toward the completion of the case at the time they were performed” — in favor of a “hindsight” approach, asking whether the professionals’ work “resulted in an identifiable, tangible, and material benefit to the bankruptcy estate.”  All three panel members joined a special concurrence asking the full Court to reconsider Pro-Snax en banc, and that invitation was recently accepted by a majority of active judges.  Law360 provides some good additional commentary about the en banc vote.

Yankee Doodle went to town, filing an interpleader.

cagneyEnCana Oil & Gas hired Seiber as a general contractor, who in turn hired Holt and TAUG as subcontractors.  Seiber failed to make timely payments.  EnCana interpleaded the funds at issue, and Seiber then filed for bankruptcy — before entry of a final order in the interpleader case. Holt Texas, Ltd. v. Zayler, No. 13-41153 (Nov. 3, 2014).

Holt and TAUG alleged that they had materialmen’s liens under Texas law that removed the funds from Seiber’s bankruptcy estate; Seiber’s bankruptcy trustee argued that the filing of the interpleader action “automatically satisfied its liability to Seiber, thus transferring legal possession of the funds to Seiber and the bankruptcy estate.”

The Fifth Circuit disagreed with the trustee and reversed the bankruptcy court, reasoning: “If this were so, the interpleader would be the final judge of its own legal obligations relative to the dispute, by depositing a sum solely determined by it, washing its hands of any relationship to the dispute and walking away whistling Yankee Doodle.”