Buried in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (“CARES”) Act, which is expected to be passed by Congress and signed by the President today, are revisions to the Bankruptcy Code that are relevant to creditors dealing with distressed debtors. Most notably, the bill will impact the recently-enacted Small Business Reorganization Act of 2019 (the “SBRA”) by increasing the potential pool of qualified debtors.

The SBRA, which just went into effect in mid-February, adds to the Bankruptcy Code a subchapter V, which allows small business owners certain advantages to reorganize their debt. The current debt limit for eligibility for cases under the new subchapter V is $2,725,625. The CARES Act will increase the eligibility threshold to $7.5 million in total debt, but only for one year, at which time it will revert back to the present limit.
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The business, economic and financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be understated. While our families, friends, and clients are adjusting to these difficult, uncertain and stressful times – protecting our families, friends and communities from the spread of the virus, working from home, avoiding public spaces, and social distancing – businesses large and small are suffering from shutdowns, closures, breaks in supply chains, and the loss of business and revenue.

At a time when distressed situations will undoubtedly increase, it is logical, and reassuring, that Bankruptcy Courts will remain open for business in order to provide relief for troubled companies. The procedures may differ as many Bankruptcy Courts have implemented changes in order to address concerns raised by the potential spread of the virus. In this vital way, the Courts will continue to function uninterrupted.
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Over the years, much has been written about the Bankruptcy Code’s treatment of small businesses, and the American Bankruptcy Institute Commission’s testimony to Congress this summer made clear that the existing law fell short of providing necessary relief for small businesses. For example, of the 18,000 small business bankruptcy cases filed between 2008 and 2015, less than 27% of those cases resulted in confirmed plans of reorganization. And these numbers excluded countless small businesses that, for a variety of reasons, did not or could not seek bankruptcy relief. See Robert J. Keach, ABI Testifies on Family Farmers and Small Business Reorganizations, XXXVIII ABI Journal 8, 8-9, August 2019, available at https://www.abi.org/abi-journal/abi-testifies-on-family-farmers-and-small-business-reorganizations (subscription required). 
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Over the past several years, much has been written about how numerous bankruptcy courts have interpreted and enforced bankruptcy and insolvency-related provisions in intercreditor agreements, subordination agreements and other “agreements among lenders” when they may affect a debtor and its estate. Although the Bankruptcy Code itself provides little guidance, the emerging trend has been for bankruptcy courts to strictly enforce intercreditor agreements according to their clear and unambiguous terms, rather than allow for broader interpretations based upon the parties’ intent or other policy considerations.

Intercreditor agreements are commonplace in loan transactions that involve multiple lenders, and set forth the relative rights, priorities and obligations of senior lenders verses junior or subordinated lenders—including priority of payment—and as to their common borrower and its assets. Section 510(a) of the Bankruptcy Code provides that a subordination agreement is enforceable in a bankruptcy case to the same extent it would be under applicable nonbankruptcy law. But bankruptcy courts have not always enforced these agreements consistently; some courts have enforced them as written, while others have invalidated certain provisions. 
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Starting now, all creditors must exercise more caution when trying to collect against discharged bankruptcy debtors, because a creditor’s good faith belief that the discharge injunction did not apply is no longer a viable defense. On Monday, June 3, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the standard for awarding sanctions against a creditor for violation of the discharge injunction, unanimously holding that a court may hold a creditor in civil contempt for violating a discharge order if there is “no fair ground of doubt” that the discharge order barred the creditor’s conduct.  Taggart v. Lorenzen, 587 U.S. __ (2019).

Bradley Taggart (“Taggart”) owned an interest in an Oregon company called Sherwood Park Business Center (“Sherwood”). In 2007, Sherwood and some of the other owners filed a lawsuit against Taggart in state court, claiming that Taggart had breached Sherwood’s operating agreement. On the eve of the state court trial, Taggart filed a voluntary petition for relief under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code. At the conclusion of his bankruptcy case, Taggart received an order granting him a discharge under Section 727 of the Bankruptcy Code “from all debts that arose before the date of the order for relief” (subject to certain exceptions that are not relevant here). Section 524 of the Bankruptcy Code explains that a discharge order “operates as an injunction” that bars creditors from collecting any debt that has been discharged. In Taggart’s case, any damages that would have resulted from the state court litigation were subject to the discharge. 
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