Judge Jed S. Rakoff this week denied the request of Irving Picard, the trustee of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC (“BLMIS”), to pursue an immediate appeal of Judge Rakoff’s recent decision to dismiss most of the counts set forth in Picard’s adversary proceeding against Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz, the owners of the New York Mets, and their families and affiliated enterprises (the “Wilpon/Katz Group”). He reaffirmed that the trial on Picard’s claims against the Wilpon/Katz Group will begin on March 19, 2012.   

In his earlier ruling, Judge Rakoff held that the “safe harbor” provisions in Section 546(e) of the Bankruptcy Code limit Picard’s power to recover any transfer from a “stockbroker” that was a “settlement payment” made “in connection with a securities contract”. Crucially, this interpretation of 546(e) only permits a recovery of intentionally fraudulent transfers pursuant to Section 548(a)(1)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code, which has a two-year look back period.  It completely eliminates Picard’s ability to rely on the six-year look back period under New York state law fraudulent transfer provisions, and reduces the maximum amount that Picard could possibly recover from the Wilpon/Katz Group from nearly $1 billion to approximately $384 million.        

In yesterday’s opinion, Judge Rakoff held that Picard had failed to show the necessary “extraordinary circumstances” which would warrant the “interlocutory” appeal and justify the indefinite delay of the pending trial. He directed Picard to wait until after the trial, when “an appellate court will be able to review, on a full record, not just [the] rulings of which the Trustee now complains, but all relevant rulings in this [complicated] proceeding[.]” Judge Rakoff disregarded Picard’s contention that the Second Circuit’s recent opinion, rejecting customer claims based upon Madoff’s fabricated BLMIS account statements, should prevent Ponzi scheme transfers from qualifying for “safe harbor” protection under Section 546(e), because no stocks or securities were actually ever sold. Judge Rakoff noted that the extent of the Wilpon/Katz Group defendants’ knowledge of Madoff’s activities, “one of the key issues in the forthcoming trial,” could be highly relevant to the question of whether transfers made as part of a Ponzi scheme should qualify for “safe harbor” treatment, and that “the factual record thus developed will be useful for assessing [those] issues now raised by the Trustee.”   

Judge Rakoff’s earlier decision also set a very high standard for Picard to meet in order to recover any distributions to the Wilpon/Katz Group other than “fictitious profits”.  As previously discussed on this site, while amounts paid out by BLMIS to investors such as the Wilpon/Katz Group as part of the Ponzi scheme can satisfy the requirement of actual fraud under Section 548(a) of the Bankruptcy Code, under Section 548(c) the Wilpon/Katz Group defendants can defeat Picard’s efforts to recover such distributions to the extent that they can show that they provided value, such as invested principal, in exchange for such distributions. Judge Rakoff has not yet ruled on the key question of how much of the $384 million in aggregate distributions during the two-year look back period should constitute “fictitious profits” and how much should be deemed to be the return of invested principal. He requested the parties to brief this issue following his earlier decision. Insofar as Judge Rakoff noted in the earlier decision that Picard “might very well prevail on summary judgment seeking recovery of the [fictitious] profits”, his ruling on the method for the calculation of such profits will likely be the determinative issue in this case.