On November 5, 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit became the second court of appeals to answer the question left open in the U.S. Supreme Court’s March 2007 decision in Travelers Casualty & Surety Co. of America v. Pacific Gas & Electric Co., 549 U.S. 443 (2007): Can unsecured creditors recover post-petition attorney’s fees as part of their unsecured claims? For more on the Travelers decision, follow the link to this earlier post.

The Ninth Circuit’s Earlier SNTL Corp. Decision. In June 2009, the Ninth Circuit, in a per curiam decision in In re SNTL Corp., 571 F.3d 826 (9th Cir. 2009), held that post-petition attorney’s fees were allowable as part of an unsecured prepetition contract claim. The Ninth Circuit adopted the December 2007 opinion of the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel, In re SNTL Corp., 380 B.R. 204 (9th Cir. BAP 2007), which is available by following the link in this sentence. You may find this earlier post on the SNTL Corp. case of interest as well.

The Second Circuit’s New Decision. In its November 5, 2009 opinion in Ogle v. Fidelity & Deposit Company of Maryland, the Second Circuit held — as the Ninth Circuit did in the SNTL Corp. case — that an unsecured creditor can include post-petition attorney’s fees authorized under a prepetition contract valid under state law. In Ogle, the Second Circuit extended its holding in United Merchants & Manufacturers, Inc. v. Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States, 674 F.2d 134 (2d Cir. 1982), a case decided under the Bankruptcy Act, and concluded that United Merchants survived both the statutory revisions made by the Bankruptcy Code and the Supreme Court’s Travelers decision.

In reaching this result, the Second Circuit analyzed the issues presented, in part, as follows:

All of the fees at issue in Travelers were incurred post-petition; so the amount was necessarily unknown when the bankruptcy petition was filed. It follows that if an unsecured claim for post-petition fees was for that reason unrecoverable, the Travelers Court could have disposed of the claim on that simple, available ground alone. Travelers, therefore, proceeds along lines that, reasonably extended, would suggest (notwithstanding the Court’s express disclaimer) that section 502(b)’s requirement–that the court “shall determine the amount of such claim . . . as of the date of the filing of the petition”–does not bar recovery of post-petition attorneys’ fees.

In the present appeal, as in Travelers: The underlying contract is valid as a matter of state substantive law; none of the section 502(b)(2)-(9) exceptions apply; and the Code is silent as to the particular question presented–in Travelers, whether the Code allows “unsecured claims for contractual attorney’s fees incurred while litigating issues of bankruptcy law,” 549 U.S. at 453; and here, whether the Code allows unsecured claims for “fees incurred while litigating issues of” contract law more generally.

Accordingly, we hold that an unsecured claim for post-petition fees, authorized by a valid pre-petition contract, is allowable under section 502(b) and is deemed to have
arisen pre-petition.  Accord SNTL, 571 F.3d at 844 (“[W]e reject the position . . . that section 502(b) precludes such fees.”).

The Court then turned to the question of whether Section 506(b) of the Bankruptcy Code expressly disallows the recovery of attorney’s fees as part of an unsecured claim:

As Travelers makes clear, the question is whether the Code disallows post-petition attorneys’ fees, and does so expressly. It was therefore decisive in Travelers that “the Code says nothing about unsecured claims for contractual attorney’s fees incurred while litigating issues of bankruptcy law.” 459 U.S. at 453 (emphasis in original). And while Travelers declined to address section 506(b) (because the parties had not raised the issue below), see id. at 454-56, it is decisive here that the Code says nothing about such fees incurred litigating things other than issues of bankruptcy law. The teaching of Travelers is therefore fully consonant with our decision in United Merchants.

Accordingly, we hold that section 506(b) does not implicate unsecured claims for post-petition attorneys’ fees, and it therefore interposes no bar to recovery.

Finally, the Second Circuit rejected arguments that (1) Section 502(b)(2)’s disallowance of unmatured interest bars claims for post-petition attorney’s fees, (2) Section 502(e)(2) regarding claims for reimbursement or contribution implicitly forecloses post-petition attorney’s fees, and (3) as a policy matter it would be unfair to allow contract creditors to recover post-petition attorney’s fees when tort claimants and many trade creditors cannot.

Conclusion. We now have two U.S. Court of Appeals decisions this year holding that, after Travelers, post-petition attorney’s fees are allowable as part of an unsecured claim if otherwise recoverable under a prepetition contract. Particularly given the major bankruptcy cases filed in the Southern District of New York, within the Second Circuit, unsecured creditors may make a point of including post-petition attorney’s fees as part of their claims when their contracts so provide. This decision raises questions as well:

  • Will the potential allowance of post-petition attorney’s fees for bankruptcy-related issues impact a debtor’s reorganization prospects?
  • What procedures will debtors propose for managing the process as unsecured creditors amend their claims to add attorney’s fees incurred in protecting their rights during the course of a bankruptcy case?
  • Will individual unsecured creditors become more active in Chapter 11 cases, particularly in those cases in which a large distribution is likely?
  • What standards will bankruptcy courts use to assess the reasonableness of an unsecured creditor’s post-petition attorney’s fees for bankruptcy-related issues?
  • Will claims buyers pay more for unsecured claims based on contracts providing for recovery of post-petition attorney’s fees now that bankruptcy-related fees are recoverable?
  • Will creditors be more insistent on including attorney’s fees provisions in contracts?

Not every unsecured creditor will have the right to attorney’s fees, and most may not incur significant fees after a bankruptcy is filed. However, those that do now have another important arrow in their quiver when seeking to add those fees to their unsecured claims. It will be interesting to see how these issues play out in the months ahead.