To paraphrase Count Ciano, Success has many fathers and failure has many targets.  You may recall a while back I wrote about how a loan to old General Motors (worth $1.5 billion) was accidentally rendered un-secured.  When GM entered bankruptcy, the loan was ultimately determined to be unsecured and lenders (presumably) lost billions.  As you might expect, some people were sued as a result.  One of those folks was the attorneys for GM.  Recently the 7th Circuit entered an opinion in their lawsuit.

By way of brief recap, prior to bankruptcy, GM had (among others) two secured loans.  The first was for $300MM and the other for $1.5B.  About a year prior to bankruptcy, the $300MM was up for maturity and GM was preparing to refinance.

In the $300MM refi GM was represented by Mayer Brown, LLP, a large and well respected law firm.  On the other side, JP Morgan was the agent for the lender syndicate and was represented by another well respected large law firm.

It turns out that at the same time, JP Morgan was also the agent for the $1.5B secured loan.  Both loans were perfected by separate UCC1.  Mayer Brown prepared the documents for the refi transaction.  Unfortunately, on the closing check list and closing documents sent to JP Morgan’s attorneys, the documents contained a release of the $1.5B UCC1.

In what might be the understatement of the year, the 7th Circuit writes:

“The big mistake was that the closing papers for the [$300MM] deal accidentally also terminated the lender’s security interest in the collateral securing the [$1.5B] loan.”

Apparently, all the parties missed the error (save one lone Mayer Brown paralegal, who was ignored).  The important part here is that JP Morgan’s attorney’s affirmatively approved the checklist and loan documents – which included the $1.5B release documents.  JP Morgan’s attorneys even went to far as to tell Mayer Brown “Nice job on the documents”.  (Again, a lesson on your emails being an exhibit).

Despite the colossal oversight and high stakes litigation that followed, no one bothered to tell the syndicate lenders until years later. At which time several brought their own lawsuits.

Strangely, despite the “easy to see” claims against JP Morgan and counsel (7th Circuit’s words, not mine), the lenders sued Mayer Brown.  The arguments are essentially 3 fold:

  • Mayer Brown was an attorney for JP Morgan in other matters, and therefore was acting as an attorney for JP Morgan in this matter,
  • Mayer Brown drafted the documents and therefore owed a duty to JP Morgan, and
  • Mayer Brown had an duty because the purpose of the documents were for JP Morgan’s loan.

In the recently released opinion by the 7th Circuit, Oakland Police, et al. v. Mayer Brown, LLP, the Court affirmed that all three arguments are not supportable and the claims must be dismissed.

There is a lot going on in the background of this case which makes it interesting, but the opinion is a great cite for the transactional lawyers who paper up complex transaction.  Specifically, the Court holds:

“By preparing the first draft, an attorney does not undertake a professional duty to all other parties in the deal”

The lender’s strongest argument (in my humble opinion) was that it relied on Mayer Brown not to misrepresent the effect of the documents.  While everyone seems to agree that the error was simply a mistake, the ruling appears to insulate a non-mistake from liability in exchanging documents.  This puts added pressure on all sides to review (and re-review) all turns of draft to ensure nothing new suddenly appears.

That lack of a complete review of a huge stack of documents on the 8th turn is usually a cost saving endeavor.  However, one should be mindful of such an argument.  The opinion points out that the original inclusion of the wrong release was based on an older UCC search which was used as a “cost-saving” measure by a Mayer Brown paralegal.  (on a $300MM refi).

As a side note, the Court also considers whether Mayer Brown became an “attorney of the transaction” similar to an attorney for a title company.  The Court found that was not the case, but it serves as a reminder that if the law firm holds money in “trust” as part of the transaction the law firm might inadvertently have became an “attorney of the transaction” and thus owe duties beyond its client.

In this case, for some reason, the lenders decided to sue a lawyer who didn’t represent them for malpractice without suing the actual attorneys representing them.  Surely something is going on in the background, but in this case, the alleged failure is on one party and the litigation target was on another.

Oakland Police & Fire Retirement Systems, et.al. v. Bayer Brown, LLP, cause no. 16-2983, In the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.  Decided June 28, 2017.

We are well out of the .com bubble, but tech companies still form and fail.  For the lenders brave enough to lend to the tech companies developing software, the collateral is often the source code which is the nuts and bolts of an application or “app”.  While the source code is actually a written text written in some development code, it exists in the abstract and it thus an intangible in that sense.  However, unlike most collateral intangibles, this type often requires the original developer to make the source code worth anything more than a line item on a security agreement.

leyser-soze

Consider for a moment the case of Aereo, Inc., which filed bankruptcy is late 2014.  It was a company which developed a web based app which allowed users to watch TV on mobile devices or over an internet connection at home.  Basically, Aereo, Inc. received the cable/TV signal from the normal sources, e.g., cable and antenna, and then converted the signal to be routed through the internet to the subscribers.

In the course of developing this technology, Aereo raised about $250 million in equity from inventors.  So, presumably someone believed in the product.  (Admittedly, there was no secured debt).  Additionally, Aereo listed its assets as worth $20 million when it filed bankruptcy in November 2014.

So why did Aereo end up in bankruptcy? Basically all the old guard TV networks sued Aereo for providing their content to Aereo subscribers.  Much could be written about the underlying litigation in which Aereo essentially claimed it did nothing wrong by re-broadcasting the network’s programming verbatim.  However, this post is to discuss the value of the underlying source code of the app.

Putting the lawsuit aside, the technology was worth $250 million to someone.  However, in a recent decision by the bankruptcy court hearing the case the bankruptcy court approved a sale of the source code for $125,000.00.

Obviously, the sale price of what was essentially the heart and soul of Aereo seems low when considering the equity investment.  One of the main reasons is the lawsuit by the networks.  However, I would also propose that the ultimate sale price was also driven by the fact that the value of the source code is also driven by the individual developer’s involvement.  If the programmers leave, then the value drops a precipitously. Why would that be?

The simple answer is that source code is not a straight forward fait accompli, but rather it is usually a patchwork of fixes, updates, modifications and short term solutions.  It’s basically as if you are selling the rights to the sewer system of Rome – its complex, it’s been modified as the generations have progressed, and the original guy who designed it is gone.

So, if you are the secured creditor, how do you monetize the source code collateral to recover on the debt?  The short answer is that you likely won’t.  Most lenders discount the various types of collateral based on their collectability after default.  In the case of source code, the recent Aereo sale should be of some indication of the value of source code without the developers.  Understanding that the Aereo lawsuits played an impact in the sale, a lender should not ignore the total loss in value because the source code did not come with its original developers.

The take home message is this – the true value of source code is often with the developers and not with the intangible code.

In re Aereo, Inc. case no. 14-13200-shl, pending in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, Manhattan Division.

Claim subordination is the opposite of alchemy.  In most bankruptcy cases, creditors might look for ways to improve their treatment.  Claim subordination in the bankruptcy code provides a mechanism to force a creditor to receive worse treatment (relative to other non-subordinated claims which is, admittedly, not that great of treatment).

alchemy_lab

In bankruptcy, there are a few ways for a claim to be subordinated.  A claim could be subordinated because you did something bad.  A claim could be functionally subordinated by having debt determined to be equity.  Or, among others, a claim could arise as a result of a transaction involving the sale of stock of the bankrupt debtor or its affiliate.  It is the last one that has come up recently in a Fifth Circuit opinion in a way I thought was interesting because it deals with guaranties.

 I. The Underlying Case

The underlying bankruptcy case involves the debtor American Housing Foundation (“AHF”) which, prior to entering bankruptcy, operated to promote and develop low income housing and obtain Low Income Housing Tax Credits (known as “LIHTC”).  Each actual housing project was operated out of a specific single purpose entity (“SPE”) which was controlled by AHF.

In the course of its operations, AHF would form limited partnerships with AHF as general partner.  AHF would then solicit and obtain investors to put money into the LPs in exchange for limited partnership interests.  That money invested into the LP was then supposed to be put into a specific SPE (which actually held the asset) as unsecured debt to cover pre-financing costs.

Other than the opportunity to receive a distribution from the LP, inventors would also be able to claim a LIHTC.  But to sweeten the deal even more, AHF provided a guaranty of the money invested into the LP to each investor.  Some the guaranty agreements even provided for interest.

To make a long story short, AHF acquired property too quickly and exhausted capital needed for operations of existing projects.  This apparently caused AHF to use some new cash to fund operations, pay dividends and fraudulently divert some of the cash to the principal of AHF.   This proved untenable and AHF was put into an involuntary bankruptcy case.  As is usually the case, after the bankruptcy filing everyone got sued.

 II. Guaranty Subordination

Templeton was an investor in several of the LIHTC LPs.  As was typical, Templeton received LP interest in exchange for his investment and also received a guaranty from AHF.

While the notion of a guaranty of an investment might not seem too far off mark, the careful lender will recall that a guaranty is a contract for the repayment of debt. In contrast, an equity investment is not debt.  The Fifth Circuit touches on this issue in its opinion.  However, what is ultimately the legal reason for subordinating the guaranty obligation is section 510(b) of the Bankruptcy Code.

I would commend to you the actual text of 510(b), but the Fifth Circuit summarizes the section as such:

“Accordingly, this provision makes clear that claims arising from equity investments in a debtor’s affiliate should be treated the same as equity investments in the debtor itself–i.e., both are subordinated to the claims of general creditors.”

So, because Templeton’s “guaranty” from AHF arose from the sale of the LP interest, any recovery on account of the guaranty was automatically subordinated to the other creditors of AHF for the purposes of distribution.  In this case, Templeton is projected to receive nothing if subordinated as opposed to ~40% as a general unsecured creditor.

III. Things to Consider

Regardless of whether a guaranty of an equity investment is enforceable as such (notwithstanding the lack of actual debt), the guaranty will be subject to mandatory subordination if the guarantor files bankruptcy and the equity company is an affiliate of the guarantor.

This particular type of subordination puts the claim below general unsecured creditors, which puts any chance of recovery in the “very unlikely” category.

By the same token, if you are a lender and your collateral is a lien in such guaranty, then you face the same prospect of subordination as the borrower.

Finally, the opinion discusses other issues of some note, which did not make it into this post because of length.  The opinion discusses preference ordinary course defense, and valuation for the purposes of fraudulent transfers.

Templeton v O’Cheskey (In the Matter of: American Housing Foundation), case no. 14-10563, in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.  Opinion revised June 8, 2015.

Opinion is here.

I have been told that in a traffic jam ambulance drivers are taught to move to the first opening available in traffic and figure out where to go after that.  Sometimes legal strategy takes that same philosophy.  In a recent 2nd Circuit Case, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, LLP (“PwC”) asserted in pari delicto to avoid immediate liability in a MF Global, Inc. (“MF Global”) related lawsuit.  What happens next, I assume has already been figured out by their very capable lawyers.

PP 68 PONTIAC AMBULANCE

It is helpful to know what the legal doctrine of in pari delicto means, if you do not already know.  The doctrine is “an affirmative defense which mandates that the courts will not intercede to resolve a dispute between two wrongdoers.”  In essence, if two wrongdoers come to court, the court will not resolve who is at fault.  More simply, if a party asserts they are not liable on a theory of in pari delicto, they are necessarily claiming to be a wrongdoer.

Following the collapse of MF Global a lot of people got sued.  Among the people who were sued were the D&Os of MF Global and PwC on behalf of MF Global.  PwC is alleged to have conducted audits of MF Global during the time in which MF Global is alleged to have “raided” (not my word) the commodities customers’ accounts in an attempt to keep MF Global afloat.   Stated in a broad stroke, the plaintiffs assert that PwC should have caught the alleged violations of the various securities laws, but did not.  The damages were asserted to be in the billions of dollars.

Here is where another legal concept comes into play – a derivative lawsuit:

In simple terms, a derivative lawsuit is where a third party brings a lawsuit on behalf of the primary party against a second party.

In this case, the aggrieved commodities customers filed a derivative lawsuit on behalf of MF Global against PwC claiming that PwC has violated securities laws when it raided the accounts.  Among PwC’s responses (of which, I presume there were many), PwC asserted the  affirmative defense of in pari delicto because the true party was MF Global (because it was a derivative lawsuit), and thus they were both wrongdoers.

Personally, I think it takes a lot of confidence on the part of PwC’s attorneys to assert the affirmative defense of in pari delicto in this, or any case.  In doing so, the client is being advised to assert that is a wrongdoer.

The case itself has been up and down the system.  However, it’s the recent ruling on May 22, 2015 which affirmed that PwC would not be liable to the commodities customers because PwC had prevailed on its affirmative defense of in pari delicto.  (The 2nd Cir. affirmed that there could be no professional negligence claim because PwC never worked for the plaintiffs).

What to take away from this decision and fact pattern for a lender?

  • Consider the true sources of recovery. If you are banking on a third party liability policy, then it might not be there.
  • Sometimes accountants might not act properly, and if they do, the lender might not be able to recover from them.

As a legal matter, this dispute is likely not over any time soon.  By essentially asserting wrongdoing, PwC has prevented liability from the derivative claimants, but has not addressed the potential for liability from other claimants.  Nevertheless, the tactic worked and now PwC is on to the next fight, having avoided liability at the first. In effect, PwC has gone for the first opening in heavy traffic and will figure out where to go after that.

Bearing Fund, LP., et al. v. PriceWaterhouseCoopers, LLP (In re MF Global Holdings Ltd. Investment Litigation), case no. 14-1249-cv, In the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, opinion issued May 22, 2015.

The Order is here.

Unexpected things happen in bankruptcy.   Some debts can be restructured, some debts can be reduced and some debts the debtor is just stuck with.  In contrast, outside of the bankruptcy ecosystem, economic interests are treated normally.  Because of the difference, a creditor’s activities for recovery in bankruptcy will, at times, seem at odds with their economic interests if viewed through the lens of a normal collection matter.

Credit:Paramount Pictures
Credit:Paramount Pictures

A currently pending adversary proceeding in the Energy Futures bankruptcy case is a good example of a creditor taking a somewhat counter-intuitive path to seek recovery.

As you may know, the bankruptcy case of Energy Future Holdings Corp. (“EFH”) is currently pending in Delaware.  As the name implies, EFH is an energy company.  The adversary I cite revolves around an affiliate of EFH who issued about $2 billion in notes under an indenture which contained a “make whole” provision.

As you may know, a “make whole” provision in a loan agreement basically provides that a borrower will need to pay some or all of the anticipated interest recovery to the creditor if the borrower pays the debt early.

In this case, the “make whole” provision was part of a large indenture issued by an affiliate of EFT on 2.18 billion in notes. For the purposes of the current litigation, a few of the provision are relevant:

  • First: Under the indenture, it was a default to file bankruptcy.
  • Second: Upon default by filing bankruptcy, the debt would automatically accelerate.
  • Third: Under any non-bankruptcy default, the acceleration would be permissive.
  • Fourth: If the borrower defaulted (other than filing bankruptcy), and tried to pay the debt back it would trigger the make whole provision, which amounts to approximate $13 million per month in interest costs.

So what happened?  The affiliate filed bankruptcy.  The bankrupt borrower asserted that the “make whole” provision was not triggered.  Realizing that this would be an issue, the indenture trustee attempted to deaccelerate the loan and assert the full “make whole” provision post-bankruptcy.

Based on the indenture, the bankruptcy court determined that the filing of the bankruptcy automatically accelerated the loan, which made the “make whole” provision inapplicable.

What is a creditor to do when faced with the consequences of an automatically triggered acceleration when, unexpectedly, it is not in the economic interest of the creditor?  Simple; try to deaccelerate the debt to be able to then trigger the “make whole” provision.  Well, not so simple.

As you may know, most bankruptcy courts have held that accelerating a debt post-bankruptcy is a violation of the automatic stay.  As it turns out, the opposite is also true.  In the recent order, the Bankruptcy Court held that attempting deaccelerate the loan was also a violation of the automatic stay.

As a result, the creditor (an indenture trustee) is now locked in an epic legal struggle to seek authority to deaccelerate a loan, which accelerated by the terms of the indenture upon the bankruptcy filing.  In contest is hundreds of millions of dollars under the “make whole” provision.

According to the Bankruptcy Court, there is nothing wrong with the “make whole” provision and it would normally be enforceable under state law.  The only issue is that the terms which caused the automatic acceleration preclude the “make whole” provisions and unwinding that automatic trigger would violate the automatic stay of the bankruptcy code.

Whereas most creditors would assume that the acceleration of debt and the collection options afforded by that act would be the logical next step in collection, the indenture trustee in the lawsuit must now fight to walk back those heavily negotiated provisions in the hopes of collecting on the debt is thought it bargained for under the indenture.

The take home message is be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.  In this case, the indenture called for an automatic acceleration of the debt upon bankruptcy filing. However, the effect of that acceleration precluded the make whole provision. In this case, it will cost the creditors hundreds of millions of dollars.

Delaware Trust Co. as Indenture Trustee v. Entergy Future Intermediate Holding Company, LLC and EFIH Finance, Inc. (In re Energy Future Holdings Corp.), Adversary No. 14-50363(CSS), pending in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware

 

(Apologies for the delay is writing.  Things are getting  little busy.)