Happy New Year to everyone. I’m back from a holiday blogging break with a report on the first appellate decision to address the question left open in last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Travelers Casualty & Surety Co. of America v. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. — whether post-petition attorney’s fees can be added to unsecured claims. Although unrelated, this new decision also tackles the interesting question of whether a guarantor of a debt can become liable if the payment of the debt by the primary obligor later is returned in a preference settlement.

The Travelers Case. As a brief refresher, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the Ninth Circuit’s so-called Fobian rule in the Travelers Casualty & Surety Co. of America v. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. decision (available here) in March 2007. However, it did not decide whether unsecured creditors could recover, as part of their unsecured claims, post-petition attorney’s fees incurred during the course of the bankruptcy case. For more on the Travelers decision, you may find this earlier post of interest.

A Developing Split. Since the Travelers decision, two bankruptcy courts issued decisions on the open issue, coming to different conclusions. 

  • In May 2007, in the In re Qmect, Inc. decision (available here), the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of California held that unsecured creditors could recover post-petition attorney’s fees. For more on that decision, see this earlier post on the case and its analysis. 
  • In July 2007, in the In re Electric Machinery Enterprises, Inc. case (available here), the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Middle District of Florida came to the opposite conclusion, following a majority of courts that had addressed this issue unrestrained by the Ninth Circuit’s Fobian decision. See this previous post for more on the Florida decision.
  • Commentators, including with the recent article written by the American Bankruptcy Institute‘s Scholar in Residence Professor Mark Scarberry, have joined the fray as well.

The SNTL Corp. Ruling. On December 19, 2007, the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel ("BAP") issued its decision in the In re SNTL Corp. case (available here). After carefully reviewing both the Qmect and Electric Machinery decisions, as well as pre-Travelers case law, the BAP chose to follow Qmect, holding that "claims for postpetition attorneys’ fees cannot be disallowed simply because the claim of the creditor is unsecured." Judge Dennis Montali, writing for the unanimous BAP panel, first explained its analysis of the interplay between Sections 502 and 506(b):

We are not persuaded by the approach of the Electric Machinery court and, like Qmect, we reject the argument that section 506(b) preempts postpetition attorneys’ fees for all except oversecured creditors. While we cannot predict how the Ninth Circuit will decide this issue in Travelers, we do find a clue in Joseph F. Sanson Inv. Co. v. 268 Ltd. (In re 268 Ltd.), 789 F.2d 674, 678 (9th Cir. 1986), where the Ninth Circuit observed that section 506(b) defines secured claims and does not limit unsecured claims:

When read literally, subsection (b) arguably limits the fees available to the oversecured creditor. When read in conjunction with § 506(a), however, it may be understood to define the portion of the fees which shall be afforded secured status. We adopt the latter reading.

268 Ltd., 789 F.2d at 678.

Next, the BAP discussed Section 502(b)(1)’s requirement that the court determine the amount of an unsecured claim as of the petition date: 

The Electric Machinery court, like the bankruptcy court here and many of the pre-Travelers majority courts, disallowed the postpetition fees of an unsecured creditor because section 502(b)(1) provides that a bankruptcy court  “shall determine the amount of such claim . . . as of the date of the filing of the petition” and the postpetition fees did not exist as of that date. Elec. Mach., 371 B.R. at 551; Pride Cos., 285 B.R. at 373. Because the amount of fees incurred postpetition cannot be determined or calculated as of the petition date, section 502(b) purportedly precludes their allowance. Id. We disagree with this approach, as it is inconsistent with the Bankruptcy Code’s broad definition of “claim,” which — as discussed previously — includes any right to payment, whether or not that right is contingent and unliquidated. See 11 U.S.C. § 101(5)(A); Qmect, 368 B.R. at 884.

The BAP then held that the Supreme Court’s 1988 Timbers decision did not apply:

We believe that Electric Machinery’s reliance on Timbers is misplaced. Timbers provided that an undersecured creditor could not receive postpetition interest on the unsecured portion of its debt. Timbers, 484 U.S. at 380. This holding is consistent with section 502(b)(2), which specifically disallows claims for unmatured interest. Inasmuch  as section 502(b) does not contain a similar prohibition against attorneys’ fees, the comparison between the current issue and that presented in Timbers is not persuasive.

Finally, the BAP held that it was unnecessary to reconcile the competing public policy considerations advanced by the Electric Machinery and Qmect decisions:

Because we find that the Bankruptcy Code itself provides the answer to this issue (by not specifically disallowing postpetition fees), we do not attempt to reconcile these policy concerns. In the end, it is the province of Congress to correct statutory dysfunctions and to resolve difficult policy questions embedded in the statute.

A Ninth Circuit Decision To Come? In the first quote above, you may have picked up the BAP’s reference to the Ninth Circuit having this issue before it in the Travelers case. That case, on remand from the Supreme Court, appears to have been fully briefed. Any decision from the Ninth Circuit itself on the issue would, of course, supersede this BAP decision and be controlling authority in the circuit, but it may be months before such a ruling comes down.

A Bonus Issue: Guarantor’s Liability Revived After A Preference Settlement. The facts of the SNTL Corp. case are complex, but the key facts are fairly straightforward. In short, one of the debtor’s insurance company subsidiaries owed money to the creditor and the debtor guaranteed the debt. Although the subsidiary paid the creditor, the subsidiary was later placed into state insolvency proceedings. The state insurance commissioner sued the creditor for return of the payment on preference grounds. The creditor settled the preference case and returned most of the payment ($110 million of a $163.4 million original payment). The creditor thereafter amended its proof of claim in the debtor’s Chapter 11 case, seeking recovery under the guaranty of the returned preference.

  • After first determining that the guaranty’s language permitted the creditor to assert a claim to the extent provided by law, the BAP next held, "[w]hile we located no Ninth Circuit or California case precisely on point, we agree that the return of a preferential payment by a creditor generally revives the liability of a guarantor."
  • The BAP cited to various case and restatement authority for the proposition that although a guarantor is discharged on payment of a debt, a preferential payment is deemed to be no payment at all.
  • The BAP also held that repayment of a preference in a settlement, following a preference lawsuit, is not a voluntary payment that would avoid the guarantor’s liability.
  • Given the risk of a preference recovery, the creditor’s revival claim under the guaranty was a contingent claim as of the petition date and became allowable once the contingency occurred following the petition. As a result, the creditor’s claim for the full $110 million of the preference settlement was an allowed claim.

An Important Decision. BAP decisions are not binding precedent in the Ninth Circuit, but this first appellate decision on the open, post-Travelers question may encourage unsecured creditors to include post-petition attorney’s fees as part of their allowed unsecured claims when their contracts or a statute provides for them outside of bankruptcy.  We may see creditors begin to include such amounts in unsecured claims at an increasing pace, while we wait for the Ninth Circuit’s decision on this issue in the remanded Travelers case. The added bonus of the SNTL Corp. court’s guaranty analysis and holding makes this decision an even more interesting, and important, read.