Sometimes a buyer is upset because he received less than he paid for. On the other hand, sometimes the buyer is upset because he received way more than he paid for. In a recent Texas Supreme Court decision, the buyer of contracts out of bankruptcy realized too late that it had purchased tens of millions in liability under an undisclosed indemnity agreement which had been dormant for years.
To understand what happened, it’s helpful to have a general understanding of two things. First, what is an executory contract. Second, how does a sale process work in bankruptcy.
An executory contract is any contract under which both sides still owe an obligation under the contract at the time of the bankruptcy filing of one of the parties.
In defining an executory contract, the US Supreme Court has stated:
“Congress intended the term to mean a contract on which performance is due to some extent on both sides.
The Fifth Circuit has said:
“an agreement is executory if at the time of the bankruptcy filing, the failure of either party to complete performance would constitute a material breach of the contract, thereby excusing the performance of the other party.”
The characterization of an executory contract is important because the bankruptcy code has special provisions on how they must be treated. One of the features of an executory contract is that it can be treated as an asset which can be “sold” to a third party; even over the objection of the contract counter-party.
Importantly, to sell an executory contract, the purchaser must take the contract subject to all of its terms. The process is referred to as the assumption/rejection process. (because the executory contract can also be rejected, which is a way to jettison liability on a bad contract).
As an asset of the bankruptcy case, an executory contract can be sold (technically assigned) either on its own or as part of a larger purchase. This can done in a couple of ways, but one of the safer ways to do it is in a chapter 11 plan. That was the case in Noble Energy v. ConocoPhillips in the Texas Supreme Court.
Noble purchased a slew of oil and gas properties and rights from a bankrupt debtor. Prior to bankruptcy, the Debtor had entered into a number of transactions with ConocoPhillips. One of the transactions included an environmental indemnity agreement which broadly and forever required ConocoPhillips and the Debtor to indemnify each other for environmental claims made against oil and gas properties they traded.
Unfortunately for Noble, those indemnity agreements were never disclosed in any way in the bankruptcy case – not even in the applicable purchase agreement. Fortunately for ConocoPhillips, when Noble purchased the assets from the Debtor:
The Plan provides that any executory contracts not specifically referenced were to be assumed and assigned to Noble unless rejected at closing. Noble agreed to the Plan and the APA has language that basically said “the assets and contracts we are purchasing includes, but is not limited to x y & z.”
Here was the error for Noble (in my humble opinion). Noble had no actual knowledge of the existing indemnity agreement. However, it agreed to assume – with all the burdens – ALL executory contracts unless specifically rejected. Noble did not know about the indemnity agreements, so it did not “specifically reject” the unknown contracts.
Now, fast forward 10 years and ConocoPhillips sues Noble for $63 million based on the dormant environmental indemnity provision.
In the case, the Texas Supreme Court holds (importantly for the bankruptcy folks), that the cross indemnity provision was legally an executory contract which could be “sold” in bankruptcy. The Texas Supreme Court holds (importantly for the transactional folks) that the unlimited scope of the purchase caused the unknown and undisclosed indemnity agreement to be part of the asset purchase agreement and bankruptcy plan thereby binding Noble to the terms. Interestingly the environmental claim arose prior to the bankruptcy case, but the claim for indemnity was not made until after the purchase by Noble was completed.
While there is some interesting points on bankruptcy law in the opinion, the larger lesson from this case is that the common desire in drafting APAs to capture as much as possible may backfire if the purchaser unknowingly captures an indemnity that is sleeping.
Noble Energy, Inc. v. ConocoPhillips Company, cause no. 15-0502, Supreme Court of Texas. June 23, 2017.