In bankruptcy, prepetition loans made by insiders are often investigated, and sometimes challenged, by debtors, creditors’ committees, or trustees. The two most frequent challenges brought are that (1) the loans in question are not really debt and should be recharacterized as equity, and (2) the debt should be equitably subordinated below the claims of all or some other creditors. Recharacterization focuses on the intent of the parties (e.g., did the parties intend for the debt to be repaid or treated like equity) and the characteristics of the alleged debt instrument. Equitable subordination, on the other hand, generally requires, among other facts, a showing of inequitable conduct on the insider’s part. A successful challenge on either basis usually means the insider receives nothing on its claim since most debtors cannot pay all creditors in full. 

The Ninth Circuit BAP Had Rejected Recharacterization Claims. For the past 27 years, although recharacterization challenges have been advanced in cases elsewhere around the country, lower courts in the Ninth Circuit have largely rejected them. Instead, they have tended to follow the holding of a 1986 decision by the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel, In re Pacific Express, Inc., 69 B.R. 112 (B.A.P. 9th Cir. 1986), which shut the door on recharacterization claims.

  • In Pacific Express, the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel held that the characterization of claims as equity or debt was governed exclusively by equitable subordination principles under Section 510(c) of the Bankruptcy Code.
  • This meant that no separate challenge based only on recharacterization of debt as equity could be pursued. 

The Ninth Circuit Opens The Door.  With a decision issued last week by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, made at the Circuit level and not by the lower BAP court, those days are over. In its April 30, 2013 opinion in In the Matter of: Fitness Holdings Int’l, the Ninth Circuit held that recharacterization and equitable subordination address distinct concerns, and a recharacterization challenge separate from equitable subordination is permissible. (Follow the link in the prior sentence to read the opinion.) The Fitness Holdings court stated that recharacterization determines whether there is a claim to be paid at all while equitable subordination considers whether an allowed claim should be subordinated to other claims. The Ninth Circuit held that the Pacific Express court erred in holding that the characterization of claims as equity or debt is governed solely by Bankruptcy Code Section 510(c).

  • The case arose in the context of a fraudulent transfer claim originally brought on behalf of the bankruptcy estate by the creditors’ committee. The committee alleged that the debtor’s pre-bankruptcy repayment of a loan made by its sole shareholder was a constructively fraudulent transfer, a transfer made at a time when the debtor was insolvent or otherwise financially impaired and for which it did not receive "reasonably equivalent value."
  • Normally, repayment of a loan provides a debtor with reasonably equivalent value because it discharges an equal amount of debt owed by the debtor. However, the complaint sought to recharacterize the loan itself as an equity interest.  If recharacterized, the repayment would be treated as a distribution to equity for which the debtor received no value in return. 
  • In a footnote, the Ninth Circuit also called out the district court for erroneously holding that it, an Article III court, was bound by a decision of the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel.

State Law Applies To Recharacterization Claims. Having opened the door, the Ninth Circuit then determined how recharacterization claims should be considered. Specifically, the Court ruled that bankruptcy courts should look to state law to determine whether a challenged debt claim should be characterized as debt or equity. The Ninth Circuit followed the Fifth Circuit’s decision in In re Lothian Oil Inc., 650 F.3d 539 (5th Cir. 2011), which applied state law, rejecting the approach used in the Third and Sixth Circuits, which have developed their own set of factors based on a bankruptcy court’s general equitable authority under Section 105(a) of the Bankruptcy Code. This widened a split among the circuits but the Ninth Circuit held that Supreme Court authority, including Travelers Cas. & Sur. Co. of Am. v. Pac. Gas & Elec. Co., 549 U.S. 443 (2007), requires state law to govern the substance of claims and, as a result, also the characterization of a claim as debt or equity. (Read this prior post for more information on the Travelers case.)  In Fitness Holdings, the Ninth Circuit did not reach the issue of whether the loan should actually be recharacterized, instead sending the case back to the lower courts for further proceedings.

Conclusion. The Fitness Holdings decision aligns the Ninth Circuit with most other courts around the country in permitting a claim to be challenged on grounds that it should be recharacterized as equity instead of a true debt. Although the case arose in the context of a fraudulent transfer claim, the holding that recharacterization claims may be made separately from equitable subordination claims seems likely to be applied outside of that context. That said, a recharacterization claim is not easy to establish, and not every insider loan will be susceptible to such a challenge. Also, recharacterization claims have not typically been brought in state court. It remains to be seen how application of state law, as opposed to the well-developed factors used by bankruptcy courts in other circuits, will impact the viability of recharacterization claims. Nevertheless, given Fitness Holdings, recharacterization is now an issue that major shareholders and other insiders, as well as debtors, creditors’ committees, and trustees, will need to keep in mind in bankruptcy cases in the Ninth Circuit.