On Wednesday, March 26, 2008, the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Florida Dept. of Revenue v. Piccadilly Cafeterias, Inc. A link to the transcript of the oral argument can be found below. The case presents the following question:

Whether section 1146(a) of the Bankruptcy Code, which exempts from stamp or similar taxes any asset transfer “under a plan confirmed under section 1129 of the Code,” applies to transfers of assets occurring prior to the actual confirmation of such a plan?

With so many asset transfers in Chapter 11 cases taking place through Section 363 asset sales before plan confirmation, rather than when plans are consummated after confirmation, how the Supreme Court answers the question presented will have a significant impact on the extent to which debtors end up paying stamp and other transfer taxes as a practical matter.

The Eleventh Circuit’s Decision And Aftermath. The Supreme Court case results from a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit holding that pre-confirmation sales can be subject to the exemption under Section 1146(a) if followed by plan confirmation later in the case. Use the link in this sentence to read the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Piccadilly.

The Language of Section 1146(a). The one-sentence section, Section 1146(a), was previously numbered Section 1146(c) but its language has not changed. (Many court orders and opinions still use the old designation.) The statute provides as follows:

The issuance, transfer, or exchange of a security, or the making or delivery of an instrument of transfer under a plan confirmed under section 1129 of this title, may not be taxed under any law imposing a stamp tax or similar tax.

As discussed below, much of the dispute over the scope of this exemption is based on interpretation of the phrase "under a plan confirmed."

Section 363 Sales And Transfer Taxes. As bankruptcy professionals know, Section 363 asset sales often precede confirmation of a plan by months. When confirmed, the plan may simply distribute the cash generated from prior sales of the debtor’s assets or may enable a reorganized but smaller debtor to emerge from bankruptcy. Courts around the country have taken very different views on whether Section 1146(a)’s exemption should apply to these pre-confirmation transfers.

Some courts will include findings in Section 363 sale orders that the sale, even though prior to plan confirmation, is exempt from stamp and similar taxes. This sale order from the Southern District of New York illustrates that approach:

The sale of the Purchased Assets . . . is a prerequisite to the Debtors’ ability to confirm and consummate a plan or plans. The Sale Transaction is therefore an integral part of a plan or plans to be confirmed in the Debtors’ cases and, thereby, constitutes a transfer pursuant to section 1146(c) of the Bankruptcy Code, which shall not be taxed under any law imposing a transfer tax, a stamp tax or any similar tax.

Cases filed in Delaware will likely receive a very different response. In 2003, the Third Circuit in In re Hechinger Inv. Co. of Del., Inc., 335 F.3d 243 (3d Cir. 2003) — unlike the Eleventh Circuit in Piccadilly — held that the Section 1146(a) exemption does not apply to pre-confirmation transfers. (The Third Circuit’s opinion was authored by then Circuit Judge, and now Associate Justice, Samuel Alito.) Delaware’s new local rule governing Section 363 sales requires sale motions to make express disclosure of an effort to obtain such a provision in a sale order:

Tax Exemption. The Sale Motion must highlight any provision seeking to have the sale declared exempt from taxes under section 1146(a) of the Bankruptcy Code, the type of tax (e.g., recording tax, stamp tax, use tax, capital gains tax) for which the exemption is sought. It is not sufficient to refer simply to "transfer" taxes and the state or states in which the affected property is located.

Other courts have taken a similar view. The Section 363 sale guidelines adopted by the Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of California call out various provisions that the Bankruptcy Court generally will not approve in a sale order, including the following:

Any provision that purports to exempt the transaction from transfer taxes under section 1146(c). By its own terms, that section applies only to a sale pursuant to a plan of reorganization, not a sale outside of a plan under section 363(b).

The Supreme Court Oral Argument And Transcript. Against this background, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the Piccadilly case on March 26, 2008. A copy of the transcript of the oral argument is available by clicking on the link in this sentence.

It’s difficult to tell how the decision will come out based on the questions asked by the various Justices, but the questions are themselves quite interesting. Some focused on why Congress would want to exempt post-confirmation but not pre-confirmation transfers. Others implied that the plain language of the statute limited the reach of the exemption only to transfers made, literally, "under" a confirmed Chapter 11 plan of reorganization. Still others inquired about the administrative impact on states if pre-confirmation transfers were initially exempt but subsequently could be taxed in the event that no plan was ever confirmed. An additional topic raised was whether, if the statute were held to exempt pre-confirmation transfers, the exemption should cover only those transfers "necessary" for a later plan confirmation or also transfers merely "instrumental" to a later plan confirmation. 

The State’s Arguments. During the argument, the State of Florida contended that the statute was unambiguous and that the word "under" meant a transfer made at or following confirmation of plan. Arguing for this bright-line rule, the State asserted that if pre-confirmation transfers could also be exempt taxing authorities would not know, at the time a transfer was recorded, whether a Chapter 11 plan would in fact later be confirmed to validate the exemption. From a policy perspective, the State argued that tax exemptions should be narrowly construed, that stamp and other transfer taxes generate millions of dollars in revenues, and that it would be an administrative burden to require states to monitor Chapter 11 cases to see if plans were later confirmed to validate exemptions claimed on earlier asset transfers.

The Debtor’s Arguments. The debtor made both policy and statutory interpretation arguments. On the policy side, Piccadilly argued that a debtor cannot get a Chapter 11 plan confirmed without cash, debtors often make Section 363 asset sales to preserve value and raise funds needed to confirm a Chapter 11 plan later in the case, the exemption was designed to save cash for the benefit of creditors, and these pre-confirmation sales should receive the same benefit from the exemption. The debtor also asserted that the key phrase in Section 1146(a), "under a plan confirmed" appears in Section 365(g)(1). Section 365 was interpreted by the Supreme Court in N.L.R.B. v. Bildisco &. Bildisco, 465 U.S. 513 (1984), to require pre-confirmation, not post-confirmation, decisions on executory contracts. The debtor contended that because the phrase "under a plan confirmed" means before confirmation when used in Section 365(g)(1), it must mean before confirmation in Section 1146(a) as well. In contrast, the debtor argued, Congress used the different phrase "confirmed plan" in Sections 1142(b) or 511(b) when it intended to refer to a point after plan confirmation.

Conclusion. Whether Section 1146(a)’s exemption from transfer taxes applies to pre-confirmation transfers has split circuit and bankruptcy courts alike over the years. The questions asked during the Supreme Court’s oral argument in the Piccadilly case suggest a similar split among the Justices over how the statute should be interpreted. With the Supreme Court’s term ending in the next few months, however, debtors, creditors, and taxing authorities should not have to wait much longer for a definitive answer to this open issue.