It’s been a few years since decisions from the United States Bankruptcy Courts for the Southern District of New York, and later from the Southern District of Texas, examined whether hedge funds and other investors could be required to disclose the details of their trades when they form an ad hoc committee or group in a Chapter 11 case. Last week, Judge Mary Walrath of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware issued a decision in the Washington Mutual, Inc. Chapter 11 case, for the first time giving us a Delaware bankruptcy judge’s views on the subject. Before turning to the new decision, a copy of which is available below, let’s first put the issue in context.
Ad Hoc Committees and Groups. In recent years, hedge funds and other investors in distressed debt or the equity securities of bankrupt companies have taken active roles in Chapter 11 bankruptcy cases. Often, these investors form unofficial or "ad hoc" committees.
- Much like official committees of unsecured creditors, equity security holders, retirees, or other constituencies, unofficial or ad hoc committees typically hire counsel and file motions and other pleadings during the course of a bankruptcy case.
- Sometimes these creditors call themselves a committee but more recently the more informal term "group" has been used.
- By acting as a committee or group, the creditors not only share the costs of participating in the bankruptcy case but also have the ability to wield greater influence by acting collectively instead of on an individual basis.
The Rule 2019(a) Statement. After making an appearance in a bankruptcy case, these groups or committees, their counsel, or both will typically file what’s known as a "Rule 2019(a) Statement." This is a public filing required by Rule 2019(a) of the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure, the set of procedural rules which, together with the United States Bankruptcy Code itself, govern the conduct of bankruptcy cases. Rule 2019(a) provides, in part, as follows:
[E]very entity or committee representing more than one creditor or equity security holder . . . shall file a verified statement setting forth (1) the name and address of the creditor or equity security holder; (2) the nature and amount of the claim or interest and the time of acquisition thereof unless it is alleged to have been acquired more than one year prior to the filing of the petition; (3) a recital of the pertinent facts and circumstances in connection with the employment of the entity . . . ; and (4) . . . the amounts of claims or interests owned by the entity, the members of the committee or the indenture trustee, the times when acquired, the amounts paid therefor, and any sales or other disposition thereof.
The Northwest Airlines And Scotia Pacific Decisions. In early 2007, first in the Northwest Airlines case, and then in the Scotia Pacific Company LLC ("Scotia Development") case, two bankruptcy judges reached opposite conclusions on the question of whether groups of investors had to comply with Rule 2019.
- In February and March of 2007, Judge Allan L. Gropper of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, presiding over the Northwest Airlines Chapter 11 case, required an ad hoc committee of hedge funds and other stockholders to disclose publicly full details of their trades in Northwest Airlines claims and stock. This was big news because hedge funds and other distressed debt investors carefully guard their trading data. Follow the links in this sentence for copies of Judge Gropper’s first decision requiring the disclosure and second decision ordering that the trading data not be filed under seal. You can find earlier posts on these decisions and their aftermath here, here, here, here, and here.
- Then in April 2007, Judge Richard S. Schmidt of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas issued an order denying Scopac’s motion to compel disclosure of the details of trades in Scotia Development’s secured timber notes. In his two-page order, Judge Schmidt ruled that a noteholder group that had formed in the Scopac case was not a "committee" within the meaning of Rule 2019 and, as such, the disclosure requirements of that rule did not apply. Following the links in this sentence will lead you to a copy of Judge Schmidt’s two-page order in the Scotia Development case and to an earlier post on the case.
The Delaware Bankruptcy Court’s Decision In The Washington Mutual Case. On December 2, 2009, more than two and a half years since the Scotia Development decision, Judge Walrath of the Delaware bankruptcy court faced the same issue in the Washington Mutual, Inc. case. J. P. Morgan Chase Bank moved to compel a group of creditors calling themselves the "Washington Mutual, Inc. Noteholders Group" ("WMI Noteholders Group") to provide trading and other information required by Rule 2019. The WMI Noteholders Group argued, among other points, that they were not an ad hoc committee but only a loose affiliation of creditors who came together on at at-will basis to share the cost of advisory services as a matter of efficiency.
In her decision, Judge Walrath rejected that argument, siding with Judge Gropper’s analysis in Northwest Airlines and declining to follow the two-page order issued by Judge Schmidt in the Scotia Development case. Specifically, she held:
Here, the WMI Noteholders Group possesses virtually all the characteristics typically found in an ad hoc committee, save the name. The WMI Noteholders Group consists of multiple creditors holding similar claims. The members of the WMI Noteholders Group filed pleadings and appeared in these chapter 11 cases collectively, not individually. The WMI Noteholders Group retained counsel, which takes its instructions from the Group as a whole. While counsel contends that it speaks only for the members of the WMI Noteholders Group that agree with the filing of each pleading or position taken in each appearance, counsel for the Group has never advised this Court that it is representing less than all the Group. Rather the pleadings and appearances by counsel demonstrate that the Group and counsel represent not each individual member in its individual capacity, but rather the Group as a whole. In fact, it is the collective $1.1 billion in holdings of the members of the Group that counsel uses to argue in favor of the Group’s position, not each individual’s separate holding.
Under the plain language of Rule 2019, therefore, the Court finds that although the WMI Noteholders Group call themselves a Group, they are in fact acting as an ad hoc committee or entity representing more than one creditor. The WMI Noteholders Group, therefore, must comply with Rule 2019.
Follow the link for a copy of Judge Walrath’s 20 page Washington Mutual decision.
Another Issue: Do Groups Owe Fiduciary Duties? One of the most interesting parts of Judge Walrath’s decision came in response to the WMI Noteholders Group’s argument that Rule 2019 was not intended to apply to the Group because it does not speak for other noteholders. Judge Walrath not only rejected this argument but in doing so also suggested that creditor or shareholder groups may owe fiduciary duties to others in the same class:
The WMI Noteholders Group contends, however, that the Rule was only intended to apply to ‘a body that purports to speak on behalf of an entire class or broader group of stakeholders in a fiduciary capacity with the power to bind the stakeholders that are members of such a committee.’ The WMI Noteholders Group’s argument is premised on the erroneous assumption that the Group owes no fiduciary duties to other similarly situated creditors, either in or outside the Group. The case law, however, suggests that members of a class of creditors may, in fact, owe fiduciary duties to other members of the class.
Judge Walrath, however, deferred any further decision on the issue, noting:
It is not necessary, at this stage, to determine the precise extent of fiduciary duties owed but only to recognize that collective action by creditors in a class implies some obligation to other members of that class.
With this decision, ad hoc committees and other groups are on notice that, at least in Delaware, they may be found to owe duties to other members of their respective class of creditors or investors.
Conclusion. This new decision means that Delaware now joins the Southern District of New York in holding that ad hoc committees and investor groups will be required to comply fully with Rule 2019, including the requirement to disclose details of their trades in the debtor’s claims or interests. In addition, the Washington Mutual decision goes another step and suggests that these groups may be held to owe fiduciary duties to other members of their class, whether or not they have joined the group or ad hoc committee. With judges in the two most active jurisdictions for Chapter 11 bankruptcy cases now applying Rule 2019 more broadly, it will be interesting to see how creditors, investors, and debtors react in future cases.