Critics of last year’s decision on credit bidding by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in the Philadelphia Newspapers chapter 11 case welcomed the Seventh Circuit’s recent unanimous opinion in River Road Hotel Partners LLC. The Seventh Circuit expressly adopted the Judge Tom Ambro’s cogent analysis in his Philadelphia Newspapers dissent.   

In River Road, the debtors 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. The rationale in both cases rested on a formalistic reading of Section 1129(b)(2)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code. That section 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 River Road debtors asked the bankruptcy court to follow the Third Circuit’s conclusion 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.

The bankruptcy judge, Judge Bruce Black of the Northern District of Illinois, declined the invitation. Judge Black expressly rejected the reasoning of the Philadelphia Newspapers majority, stating that he found the dissent from Judge Ambro, “well-reasoned [and] more persuasive.” At the River Road debtors’ request, Judge Black certified an appeal directly to the Seventh Circuit. The court affirmed Judge Black’s decision, stating that “like the bankruptcy court, we find the statutory analysis articulated by Judge Ambro in his Philadelphia Newspapers dissent to be compelling.”

The Seventh Circuit decision first takes aim at the contention that there exists a single “plain meaning” interpretation of Section 1129(b)(2)(A) that directs the result. 

Nothing in the text of Section 1129(b)(2)(A) directly indicates whether Subsection (iii) can be used to confirm any type of plan or if it can only be used to confirm plans that propose disposing of assets in ways that can be distinguished from those covered by Subsections (i) and (ii). Hence, there are two plausible interpretations of the statute: one that reads Subsection (iii) as having global applicability and one that reads it as having a more limited scope.

The Seventh Circuit then considered whether Congress, having specified in Section 1129(b)(2)(A)(ii) the means by which a debtor could confirm a plan when proposing to sell a secured lender’s assets free and clear, i.e., by expressly protecting the lender’s right to credit bid, would then negate such protection in the immediately following subsection by permitting the debtor to conduct a “free and clear” sale without allowing for credit bidding. “The infinitely more plausible interpretation,” the court held, would only permit “free and clear” collateral sales as specified in subsection (ii). “Under such a reading, plans could only qualify as ‘fair and equitable’ under Subsection (iii) if they proposed disposing of assets in [a] way that [is] not described in [Subsection (ii)].”  

The Seventh Circuit’s vigorous seconding of Judge Ambro’s approach shows plainly why judges take the time to publish dissenting opinions. Judge Ambro, writing from a practitioner’s pragmatic viewpoint, clearly found it hard to accept the Philadelphia Newspapers majority’s refusal to look beyond what it viewed as the sole plausible reading of Section 1129(b)(2)(A) and consider any sense of Congressional purpose or the underlying principles of the Bankruptcy Code as evidenced by complementary Code sections. 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 Seventh Circuit’s decision in River Road vindicates Judge Ambro’s arguments.