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Bankruptcy Asset Sales: What Parties With Contracts Should Watch For

In many corporate bankruptcy cases, the debtor will use the bankruptcy process to sell its assets and to assume and assign valuable leases, executory contracts, and licenses (see earlier posts on what happens to leases in bankruptcy, to executory contracts, and to intellectual property licenses, a special type of executory contract). 

This post discusses some mechanics of the bankruptcy sale process and points out how parties to executory contracts and leases can protect their rights. (A discussion of the sale process from the buyer’s perspective can be found here.)

The Section 363 sale.  A bankruptcy asset sale often will happen in the first few weeks or months of a Chapter 11 case, rather than as part of a plan of reorganization. Frequently this will involve a sale of all or substantially all of a debtor’s business as a going concern. You may hear the sale referred to as a "Section 363 sale" because Section 363 is the key Bankruptcy Code section that governs a debtor’s sale of assets in bankruptcy. Regardless of what is being sold, the debtor must seek bankruptcy court approval of the sale and of any effort to transfer executory contracts, licenses, and leases to the buyer. 

Sales "free and clear" of liens. When the debtor files a motion seeking to sell its assets, it usually will ask to do so free and clear of liens. The term "lien" includes everything from UCC security interests filed by banks or other secured lenders taking the debtor’s assets as collateral for loans to judgment and other types of liens. In a Section 363 sale, a debtor may propose to sell the assets and hold the sale proceeds in a separate account, with the secured creditors’ liens being transferred over to those funds. Debtors ask for authority to sell the assets "free and clear" of liens because the buyer wants clear title to the assets, unencumbered with any of the debtor’s old debts and liens.

Motion to assume and assign executory contracts and leases. The debtor will typically file another motion (or may combine it with the motion to sell free and clear) seeking authority to assume and assign to the buyer certain executory contracts and leases.  If you are a party to an executory contract or lease, you should follow the sale process closely because your rights could well be affected. 

  • The debtor will likely send out a notice to parties to executory contracts and to landlords with a list of the contracts and leases proposed to be assumed and assigned. This is a very important document and you or your counsel should review every page carefully. 
  • The notice typically will list the amount the debtor proposes to pay to “cure” any defaults. The debtor must cure any defaults in cash before the contract or lease can be assumed and assigned to the buyer. Very often the notice will indicate that the proposed cure amount for some contracts or leases is zero or it may leave the amount blank with an asterisk stating that the debtor believes that no cure amount is owed. 
  • Here’s an example of a notice, with a fairly typical multi-page chart listing scores of contracts to be assumed and assigned as part of the sale and indicating proposed cure amounts. 

Scream or die. This isn’t a warning in a horror film but a phrase bankruptcy lawyers have coined to describe a creditor’s requirement to file an objection by the stated deadline or face the loss of your rights. (You have to admit it’s catchy.) To put it in less vivid terms, if you want to object (1) to the assignment of your executory contract, license, or lease at all, (2) to its assignment to the particular buyer proposed, or (3) even to the amount proposed to be paid to cure defaults, you have to file a written objection by the deadline listed in the notice. If you don’t, the debtor will ask the bankruptcy court for an order approving the transfer of your contract, license, or lease, and that may well involve no cure payment at all. Because bankruptcy cases move quickly by necessity, "screaming" after the deadline will generally be too late.

Got counsel?  If you have an important executory contract, intellectual property license, or commercial lease with a debtor, having your counsel monitor the bankruptcy case and review any sale motions and assumption and assignment notices is the best way to protect your rights. Otherwise, you may miss an opportunity to receive a cure payment, to object to an assignment of an intellectual property license, or otherwise to exercise your rights in the bankruptcy case.