Preference lawsuits are filed all the time in bankruptcy cases and the ordinary course of business defense is frequently asserted. Still, it’s the rare case that ends up with a federal court of appeals decision addressing jury trial rights and invalidating a bankruptcy court’s local rule. This post is about just such a case.

The Bankruptcy Preference. As a quick refresher, preferences are payments or other transfers made in the 90 days prior to a bankruptcy filing, on account of antecedent or pre-existing debt, at a time when the debtor was insolvent, that allow the transferee (the preference defendant) to be "preferred" by recovering more than it would have had the transfer not been made and the defendant instead had simply filed a proof of claim for the amount involved. The 90-day reachback period is extended to a full year prior to the bankruptcy petition for insiders such as officers, directors, and affiliates.

Jury Trials In Bankruptcy Cases? Preference defendants who do not file proofs of claim in the main bankruptcy case have the option to demand a trial by jury in the preference lawsuit. This is a right protected by the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution. The parties in the lawsuit can consent to having the bankruptcy court conduct the jury trial but this doesn’t happen very often. Why would a preference defendant make a jury demand? Here are three common reasons:

  • The defendant believes a jury would be more inclined to find in its favor than a bankruptcy judge;
  • The defendant wants the case moved to federal district court from the bankruptcy court, which some defendants perceive as more debtor-friendly; and
  • Jury trials are more expensive and complex, a fact the preference defendant may hope will translate into settlement leverage.

The Case. In a recent case, Sigma Micro Corporation, a company sued for an alleged preference by debtor, made just such a jury trial demand. It then filed a motion for certification before the bankruptcy court seeking to have its case moved to the district court, in accordance with Local Rule 9015-2(b) of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of California. That Local Rule, entitled "Certification to District Court," provides:

If the Bankruptcy Judge determines that [a] demand was timely made and the party has a right to a jury trial, and if all parties have not filed written consent to a jury trial before the Bankruptcy Judge, the Bankruptcy Judge shall certify to the District Court that the proceeding is to be tried by a jury and that the parties have not consented to a jury trial in the Bankruptcy Court. Upon such certification, [the jurisdictional] reference of the proceeding shall be automatically withdrawn, and the proceeding assigned to a Judge of the District . . . .

The Bankruptcy Court held that Sigma had a right to a jury trial but then stayed its order to retain jurisdiction for pre-trial matters. It later granted the debtor’s motion for summary judgment in the preference case, finding no genuine issue of material fact and rejecting Sigma’s ordinary course of business defense. On appeal, Sigma argued that the Bankruptcy Court did not have jurisdiction to enter summary judgment because it should have transferred the case to the District Court upon finding that Sigma was entitled to a jury trial. It also argued that it had raised genuine issues of material fact on its ordinary course of business defense, precluding summary judgment.

The Ninth Circuit’s Decision. On September 21, 2007, the Ninth Circuit issued its opinion in the case (available here).  In addressing the jurisdiction question, the Ninth Circuit confronted "an issue of first impression in this circuit, that is, the validity of Local Rule 9015-2(b)." After reviewing the right of courts to promulgate local rules, it came to the core of the issue:

Considering these rules we hold Local Rule 9015-2(b) to be invalid as it establishes a procedure for withdrawing the district court’s jurisdictional reference inconsistent with the Acts of  Congress and Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure. Cf. Coffey v. Marina Management Servs. (In re Kool, Mann, Coffee), 23 F.3d 66, 67-69 (3rd Cir. 1994) (finding local rule invalid because of inconsistency with Bankruptcy Code); In re Morrissey, 717 F.2d 100, 104-05 (3rd Cir. 1983) (same).

The Ninth Circuit noted that 28 U.S.C. § 157(d) provides that a "district court" may withdraw the reference of all or a part of a case or proceeding and that Federal Rule of Bankruptcy Procedure 5011(a) expressly states that a "motion for withdrawal of a case or proceeding shall be heard by a district judge." Putting these two provisions together, the Court of Appeals held:

After careful review we find the procedure established by Local Rule 9105-2(b) cannot be squared with the procedure established by 28 U.S.C. § 157(d), an “Act of Congress,” and Rule 5011(a), a “Federal Rule of Bankruptcy Procedure.” Fed. R. Bankr. Proc. 9029. At least two inconsistencies bear mentioning. First, Local Rule 9015-2(b) allows for the bankruptcy court to “withdraw[ ]” the jurisdictional reference, whereas 28 U.S.C. § 157(d) and Rule 5011(a) make it explicit that only a district court may “withdraw” the jurisdictional reference. See FTC v. First Alliance Mortg. Co. (In re First Alliance Mortg. Co.), 282 B.R. 894, 901 (C.D. Cal. 2001) (holding that “a motion [to withdrawal] is heard by the district court”) (emphasis added). Second, Local Rule 9015-2(b) permits a party to obtain a withdrawal of the reference upon a “Motion for Certification,” while 28 U.S.C. § 157(d) and Rule 5011(a) make it clear that a party may only obtain a withdrawal of the reference upon a “Motion for Withdrawal.” See Hawaiian Airlines, Inc. v. Mesa Air Group, Inc., 355 B.R. 214, 218 (D. Hi. 2006) (holding that “a litigant who believes that a certain [action] or portion of a [action] pending in the bankruptcy court should be litigated in the district court may make a motion to withdraw the reference”) (emphasis added).

Having invalidated the Local Rule, the Ninth Circuit found no error in the Bankruptcy Court’s decision not to adhere to it or to withdraw the reference. The Court of Appeal then considered whether the Seventh Amendment jury trial right itself required immediate transfer to the District Court, even for pre-trial proceedings. The Ninth Circuit agreed with courts outside the circuit that, it stated, had universally agreed that a jury trial right "does not mean that the bankruptcy court must instantly give up jurisdiction and that the case must be transferred to the district court."

Concluding that the Bankruptcy Court properly retained the case for pre-trial matters, the Ninth Circuit did ultimately reverse its grant of summary judgment. It found that Sigma had raised genuine issues of material fact on its ordinary course of business defense under the version of Section 547(c)(2) of the Bankruptcy Code in force prior to the amendments made by the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005.

What About Local Rules In Other Courts? It appears that the Northern District of California’s local bankruptcy rule on certification of a jury trial right and transfer to the District Court is unusual. Some bankruptcy courts, including the District of Delaware and the Southern District of New York, have no specific rule addressing withdrawal of the reference based on a jury demand. Others require a prompt motion for withdrawal of the reference to be filed with the District Court, as provided in Central District of California Local Bankruptcy Rule 9015-2(g)

Conclusion. Although it appears that the decision’s direct impact is limited to the Northern District of California and its jury demand procedures, this case proves that even well-established local rules will be struck down if inconsistent with governing statutes. That’s a pretty extraordinary outcome for an ordinary course of business preference case.