The U.S. Supreme Court will rule this term in RadLAX Gateway Hotel Inc. v. Amalgamated Bank on whether the Bankruptcy Code permits a debtor in a chapter 11 case to sell encumbered assets without providing the secured lender an opportunity to credit bid its debt. Determination of this question will require the Court essentially to choose between two opposing approaches to statutory interpretation, and decide whether the so-called “plain meaning” of a highly formalistic reading of the Bankruptcy Code should trump decades of established commercial practice.   

A circuit split arose earlier this year, when the Seventh Circuit in River Road Hotel Partners, a companion case to RadLAX Gateway Hotel, declined to follow the Third Circuit’s 2010 decision in Philadelphia Newspapers, and instead expressly adopted the position set forth in the dissenting opinion from that case of Judge Tom Ambro. As previously described on this site, the debtor in River Road sought to rely on Philadelphia Newspapers in putting forward a plan of reorganization that proposed an auction of the secured lenders’ collateral, but would have expressly denied the lenders the right to credit bid their debt.  Section 1129(b)(2)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code describes three different means by which a plan of reorganization can be found to be “fair and equitable” and thus capable of being confirmed without the consent of a secured lender class (i.e., “crammed down”):

(i) lender retention of liens securing the obligations and receipt of the present value of its secured claim,

(ii) sale of collateral free and clear of liens but subject to credit bidding, or

(iii) the realization by the creditor of the “indubitable equivalent” of its secured claim.

Notwithstanding the express reference in subsection (ii) of Section 1129(b)(2)(A) to the right to credit bid in connection with a sale “free and clear” of liens, the Third Circuit in Philadelphia Newspapers held that a sale “free and clear” could also take place without allowing the lenders to credit bid under subsection (iii), the “indubitable equivalent” prong.  The Third Circuit concluded that the “plain meaning” of the use of the disjunctive “or” in the statute shows that subsection (ii) is not the “exclusive means” by which a secured lender’s collateral may be sold “free and clear” under a plan of reorganization and that, so long as the debtor or other plan proponent could show that the “indubitable equivalent” prong were being satisfied, the opportunity to credit bid need not be provided. 

Judge Ambro, a longtime bankruptcy practitioner before being named to the bench, castigated the majority’s refusal to look beyond what it viewed as the sole plausible reading of Section 1129(b)(2)(A).  In Judge Ambro’s view, the result flew in the face of both the established principle that property rights in bankruptcy look to applicable non-bankruptcy law, and the expectation that the Bankruptcy Code expressly protects such non-bankruptcy rights — particularly the right of a secured creditor to look to its collateral in the event of non-payment. As he wrote, “In effect, a single ‘or’ becomes the bell, book and candle that excommunicates Congressional intent from the Bankruptcy Code . . . [and] upset[s] three decades of secured creditors’ expectations[.]”

The bankruptcy judge in River Road expressly rejected the reasoning of the Philadelphia Newspapers majority. The Seventh Circuit unanimously agreed, stating that “like the bankruptcy court, we find the statutory analysis articulated by Judge Ambro in his Philadelphia Newspapers dissent to be compelling.” 

The RadLAX Gateway Hotel debtor sought a writ of certiorari from the Supreme Court. They were joined by the Loan Syndication and Trading Association (“LSTA”), a loan market participants’ industry group that has been strongly supportive of lenders’ credit bidding rights. The LSTA announced that it “decided to support the appeal to the Supreme Court because, although [RadLAX Gateway Hotel] is a favorable ruling, the benefit to the market of certainty on credit bidding is an opportunity that cannot be missed.” 

The Supreme Court has not been consistent in its approach to Bankruptcy Code interpretation. While it has strictly applied the “plain meaning” approach in several recent bankruptcy cases, at other times it has been willing to look to underlying Congressional purpose. The latter approach here will unquestionably result in an affirmation of the Seventh Circuit. The former will leave the LSTA regretting that it got what it asked for.