In March 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the so-called Fobian rule in the Travelers Casualty & Surety Co. of America v. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. decision. (Click here for a copy of the decision.) That rule, named for the decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in a case called In re Fobian, 951 F.2d 1149 (9th Cir. 1991), had barred unsecured creditors from recovering as part of their unsecured claim attorney’s fees incurred post-petition litigating bankruptcy issues.
The Open Question. As discussed in an earlier post, although the Supreme Court dispatched the Fobian rule, in Travelers it did not decide whether an unsecured creditor could actually recover its attorney’s fees. Among other issues, it left for another day the issue of whether Section 506(b) of the Bankruptcy Code, which expressly allows attorney’s fees to oversecured creditors, precludes recovery of post-petition attorney’s fees as part of an unsecured claim.
A New Decision From Florida. Jordan Bublick has an interesting post on his Miami Florida Bankruptcy Law blog about a July 6, 2007 decision in the In re Electric Machinery Enterprises, Inc. Chapter 11 case. In the decision, the court held that an unsecured creditor is not permitted to add post-petition attorney’s fees and costs to its unsecured claim. A copy of the decision, by Judge Michael G. Williamson of the the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Middle District of Florida, is available here. As Jordan points out, the Florida bankruptcy court held that the pre-Travelers majority rule denying unsecured creditors post-petition attorney’s fees was still good law. Among the reasons the court cited:
- Section 506(b)’s language permits only oversecured creditors to receive interest and fees, and this effectively excludes recovery by unsecured creditors.
- The reasoning of the Supreme Court’s decision in United Savings Ass’n v. Timbers, 484 U.S. 365 (1988), that post-petition interest can only be paid to secured creditors with the benefit of an equity cushion, applies to attorney’s fees as well.
- Section 502(b) requires the amount of a claim to be determined "as of the date of the filing of the petition," before post-petition fees have accrued.
- Allowing fees to contract creditors would be inequitable because tort and many trade creditors, who lack the ability to recover attorney’s fees, would have their relative recovery diminished.
Judge Williamson called out another reason for his decision:
Furthermore, the Court is particularly mindful of the practical impact a contrary ruling would have on the administration of a bankruptcy case. There would be no finality to the claims process as bankruptcy courts would constantly have to revisit the issue of the amount of claims to include ever-accruing attorneys’ fees. The ‘cash registers’ would ring on a daily basis, as attorneys for unsecured creditors that were active in the case would continually be filing new claims or seeking to reconsider previously allowed claims in order to add post-petition attorneys’ fees and costs. Essentially, there could be no finality to the claims resolution process if the ever-accruing fees and costs attendant to the representation of unsecured creditors were allowed as part of an unsecured claim.
An Earlier California Bankruptcy Court Decision. Interestingly, the Florida bankruptcy court did not cite to the In re Qmect, Inc. decision, issued by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of California in May 2007 and discussed in this earlier post. In that decision, the California bankruptcy court took the opposite view. It held that an unsecured creditor could recover, as part of its unsecured claim, post-petition attorney’s fees if its contract with the debtor provided for recovery of such fees. Adopting a different view of the bankruptcy policies at issue, that court held:
The strongest rationale for implying a prohibition on the inclusion of post-petition attorneys’ fees in a unsecured creditor’s pre-petition claim is that, unless the debtor is solvent, the unsecured creditor’s augmented claim will diminish the dividend to other unsecured creditors. However, a similar effect flows from allowing secured creditors to include their post-petition attorneys’ fees in their secured claims. While equality of distribution is one of the basic tenets of bankruptcy law, another important policy in bankruptcy is the preservation of nonbankruptcy legal rights except to the extent necessary to facilitate the purpose of the bankruptcy proceeding. Absent a clear provision of the Bankruptcy Code modifying a creditor’s nonbankruptcy legal rights, the Court concludes that those rights should be deemed to be left intact.
More Decisions To Follow. Bankruptcy courts are now beginning to address whether unsecured creditors can recover post-petition attorney’s fees in the wake of the Travelers decision. These two early decisions have reached completely different conclusions. More decisions will undoubtedly follow as creditors with attorney’s fees provisions in their contracts seek to include post-petition fees in their unsecured claims. With the issue far from settled, be sure to stay tuned.