United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Divison
April 8, 2003
CAPITAL FACTORS, INC., APPELLANT,
KMART CORPORATION, APPELLEE.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: John F. Grady, United States District Judge
Capital Factors, Inc. appeals from four final orders of the bankruptcy court that authorized Kmart to pay certain prepetition obligations. For the reasons explained below, the bankruptcy court's orders are reversed.
On January 22, 2002, Kmart Corporation and certain of its domestic subsidiaries and affiliates, debtors and debtors-in-possession (collectively, "Kmart") filed a voluntary petition for reorganization pursuant to Chapter 11 of the United States Bankruptcy Code. As part of its "first day motions" filed on that date, Kmart sought authority to pay prepetition obligations to certain "critical vendors" (the "Critical Vendors Motion") and certain foreign vendors (the "Foreign Vendors Motion"). Rinart contended that these payments were necessary to maintain relationships essential to its continued operation and reorganization, and it invoked the "doctrine of necessity" and 11 U.S.C. § 105 (a) for the bankruptcy court's authority to permit these payments.
The same day, the bankruptcy court held a hearing and heard evidence on these motions. Appellant Capital Factors, Inc. ("Capital") objected to both motions. (Capital is a factoring agent*fn1 for a number of Kmart's apparel suppliers, and it holds general unsecured claims against the bankruptcy estate of approximately $20 million.)
Regarding the Critical Vendors Motion, the court stated:
Motions to pay certain critical trade creditors always
present difficult questions for courts, We're seeing
more and more of them, and our problem is that we have
to stretch to find some authority to do them.
However, I, after hearing this testimony and reading
the affidavit [of Charles C. Conaway, [(mart's Chief
Executive Officer], am convinced that Fleming,
Handleman and the egg and dairy vendors — and I
would like a list of the specific vendors that you
would like included in this motion — as well as
the advertising concerns, are necessary to keep this
business going as a going concern.
(App. to Appellee's Brief, Ex. 4A, at 162.) Accordingly, the bankruptcy court granted the Critical Vendors Motion. Without reciting specific findings from the bench, the bankruptcy court also granted the Foreign Vendors Motion. (Id. at 173.) On January 25, the bankruptcy court entered written orders granting both motions.
On February 1 and 8, 2002, Kmart filed motions seeking authority to pay issuers of prepetition letters of credit (the "Letters of Credit Motion") and prepetition claims of certain liquor vendors (the "Liquor Vendors Motion"). On February 13, the bankruptcy court held a hearing on these motions, heard evidence, and granted both motions over Capital's objections. Regarding the Letters of Credit Motion, the court stated:
Because the foreign vendors are integral to the
reorganization of this Debtor and the Court already ruled
on the payment of certain foreign vendors as part of the
critical vendors motions and I believe that this is just
a component of that particular transaction, and further
finding that I may be inconsistent if I do not grant the
relief that is requested here, I am going to go ahead and
sign your order authorizing the reimbursement of the
obligations to the issuers of Letters of Credit.
(Id., Ex. 4B, at 251.) The bankruptcy court also granted the Liquor Vendors motion, "finding that there (was] a good business justification for it." (Id. at 269.) Written orders granting the motions were entered that same day.
Capital filed notices of appeal from each order, and we granted Capital's motion to consolidate the appeals. The parties' briefing is complete, and we heard oral argument on the appeals as well.
This court has jurisdiction over the instant appeals pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 158 (a)(1). On appeal from an order of the bankruptcy
court, we review the bankruptcy court's factual findings under a
"clearly erroneous" standard and its conclusions of law de novo. See In
re Smith, 286 F.3d 461, 464-65 (7th Cir. 2002); F.R.Bankr.P. 8013.
Capital raises the following issues on appeal: (1) whether 11 U.S.C. § 105 (a) or the "doctrine of necessity" provides a bankruptcy court with either statutory authority or equitable power to allow the payment of selected prepetition unsecured trade claims prior to confirmation of a Chapter 11 plan*fn2
; (2) whether there was a sufficient evidentiary basis for the bankruptcy court to allow payment of certain prepetition claims; and (3) whether state laws prohibiting liquor wholesalers from selling products to Chapter 11. debtors legally unable to pay their prepetition debt are invalid or unenforceable to the extent that they conflict with the Bankruptcy Code.*fn3
Kmart raises the additional issue of whether Capital's appeals are moot because Kmart has already paid a substantial portion of the prepetition claims.
A. The Bankruptcy Court's Power Under § 105
We first examine the question of whether the bankruptcy court had the power to authorize the pre-plan payment of prepetition claims. The court relied on 11 U.S.C. § 105 (a) to authorize the payments. Section 105(a) addresses the equitable powers of bankruptcy courts and provides:
The court may issue any order, process, or judgment that
is necessary or appropriate to carry out the provisions
of this title. No provision of this title providing for
the raising of an issue by a party in interest shall be
construed to preclude the court from, sua sponte, taking
any action or making any determination necessary or
appropriate to enforce or implement court orders or
rules, or to prevent an abuse of process.
11 U.S.C. § 105 (a). Although the bankruptcy court did not refer specifically to the equitable "doctrine of necessity" when ruling on the motions in open court or in its written orders,*fn4
Kmart relies on the doctrine. It is derived from the "necessity of payment rule," which was developed and used in railroad reorganizations "as justification for the payment of pre-petition debts paid under duress to secure continued supplies or services essential to the continued operation of the railroad." B & W Enters, Inc. v. Goodman Oil Co. In re B & W Enters, Inc.), 713 F.2d 534
, 537 (9th Cir. 1983). The rule has subsequently evolved into the "doctrine of necessity," which has been applied in non-railroad reorganizations to justify the pre-plan payment of prepetition claims of creditors who threaten to withhold goods or services believed critical to the debtor's continued viability and reorganization.*fn5
The doctrine is not codified anywhere in the Bankruptcy Code, so the only way to apply it is through § 105.
The Seventh Circuit has stated that the grant of equitable power in § 105 is limited in that it "allows [bankruptcy] courts to use their equitable powers only as necessary to enforce the provisions of the Code, not to add on to the Code as they see fit." In re Fesco Plaistics Corp. 996 F.2d 152, 156 (7th Cir. 1993); see also Gouvia v. Tazbir, 37 F.3d 295, 300 (7th Cir. 1994) ("The Supreme Court has taught that any grant of authority given to the bankruptcy courts under § 105 must be exercised within the confines of the bankruptcy code.") (citing Norwest Bank Worthington v. Ahlers, 485 U.S. 197 (1988)).
The Bankruptcy Code sets forth a priority scheme for the payment of claims. See 11 U.S.C. § 503, 507. The Code does not carve out priority or administrative expense status for prepetition general unsecured claims based on the "critical" or "integral" status of a creditor. But the effect of the bankruptcy court's orders was to elevate the claims of the "critical" vendors over those of other unsecured creditors and to subordinate the claims of non-"critical" unsecured creditors. The bankruptcy court altered the priority scheme set forth in the Bankruptcy Code.
There is a split in the courts regarding whether § 105 authorizes bankruptcy courts to permit pre-plan payment of prepetition unsecured claims. As set forth in Kmart's briefs, many bankruptcy courts and a handful of district courts have held that bankruptcy courts do in fact have this power. See, e.g., In re Just For Feet, Inc., 242 B.R. 821 (D. Del. 1999); Michigan Bureau of Workers' Disability Comp. v. Chateaugay Corp. (In re Chateaugay Corp.), 80 B.R. 279 (S.D.N.Y. 1987); In re CoServ, L.L.C., 273 B.R. 487 (Bankr. N.D. Tex. 2002); In re Wehrenberg, Inc., 260 B.R. 468 (Bankr. E.D. Mo. 2001).
On the other hand, as Capital points out, a number of courts of appeals and a few lower courts have held just the opposite. See, e.g., Official Comm. of Equity Sec. Holders v. Mabey, 832 F.2d 299 (4th Cir. 1987); B & W Enters., Inc. v. Goodman Oil Co. (In re B & W Enters., Inc.), 713 F.2d 534 (9th Cir. 1983); Chiasson v. J. Louis Matherne & Assocs. (In re Oxford Mgmt. Inc.), 4 F.3d 1329 (5th Cir. 1993); In re FCX, Inc., 60 B.R. 405 (E.D.N.C. 1986); In re Timberhouse Post & Beam, Ltd., 196 B.R. 547 (Bankr. D. Mont. 1996).*fn6 We agree with the latter courts view that we cannot ignore the Bankruptcy Code's statutory scheme of priority in favor of "equity," especially in light of the Seventh Circuit's admonition that "[t]he fact that a [bankruptcy] proceeding is equitable does not give the judge a free-floating discretion to redistribute rights in accordance with his personal views of justice and fairness, however enlightened those views may be." In re Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pac. R.R. Co., 791 F.2d 524, 528 (7th Cir. 1986).
We acknowledge that the application of the "doctrine of necessity" through § 105 in this situation is well-intended and may even have some beneficial results, in that pre-plan payment of certain prepetition claims allows the debtor to minimize disruptions in doing business, and thus may further reorganization. Nevertheless, it is clear that however useful and practical these payments may appear to bankruptcy courts, they simply are not authorized by the Bankruptcy Code. Congress has not elected to codify the doctrine of necessity or otherwise permit pre-plan payment of prepetition unsecured claims.
Because we hold that the bankruptcy court did not have either the statutory or equitable power to authorize the pre-plan payment of prepetition unsecured claims, we need not address the second and third issues Capital raises on appeal.
B. "Equitable Mootness"
Kmart does not persuade us that Capital's appeals are moot due to the fact that the prepetition claims have been substantially paid. Kmart makes much of the fact that Capital did not seek a stay of the bankruptcy court's orders. It is highly unlikely, however, that a motion to stay would have been successful. It would be inconsistent for the bankruptcy court to enter the orders on the theory that prompt payments were necessary to keep Kmart operational, and then turn around and stay those orders.*fn7 In any event, Capital was not required to seek a stay of the orders in order to preserve its appellate rights.
Kmart also argues that the appeals are "equitably moot" because effective relief on appeal has become imprudent and inequitable. The term "equitable mootness" was "anathematized by Judge Easterbrook"*fn8 in the case of In re UNR Industries, Inc., 20 F.3d 766, 768 (7th Cir. 1994). The Seventh Circuit in UNR "banish[ed] the term `equitable mootless' from the (local) lexicon," 20 F.3d at 769, because it is misleading: "[t]here is a big difference between inability to alter the outcome (real mootness) and unwillinness to alter the outcome (`equitable mootness')." Id. Nonetheless, the "now nameless doctrine" lives on and "is perhaps best described as merely an application of the age-old principle that in formulating equitable relief a court must consider the effects of the relief on innocent third parties." Envirodyne, 29 F.3d at 304. The basic questions under the doctrine, then, are these: is it prudent and fair to undo what the bankruptcy court did?*fn9 See UNR, 20 F.3d at 769; Envirodyne, 29 F.3d at 304.
Kmart argues that we should not reverse the orders allowing payment of the prepetition claims because the parties receiving the payments have already acted in reliance on them. As noted supra note 9, however, this is not a situation where there has been confirmation of a bankruptcy plan. Accordingly, it is not too late to order that the monies paid be returned. Kmart also claims that undoing the bankruptcy court's orders would "paralyze" [(mart by forcing it to "undergo the Herculean task of immediately commencing thousands of lawsuits to collect hundreds of millions of dollars from thousands of vendors." (Appellee's Brief at 45-46.) We are not persuaded by Kmart's doomsday speculations. it is not evident that Kmart will have to sue to recover the payments, and in fact, Kmart cites no cases indicating that the bankruptcy court would not have the power to order the return of the monies paid.
C. J.P. Morgan Chase's Brief
J.P. Morgan Chase ("JPM"), which is an "administrative agent for the lenders under various pre-petition credit agreements among such lenders and [(mart" (JPM Brief at 1), has filed a supplemental brief regarding the Letters of Credit Motion. JPM contends that, even if the bankruptcy court did not have the authority under § 105 to authorize [(mart to pay the prepetition claims of the issuers of the letters of credit, the court "properly allowed those payments [pursuant to § 361 of the Bankruptcy Code] on the basis that such payments constituted adequate protection for the Issuers' secured reimbursement claims under the Letters of Credit." (JPM Brief at 2.) According to JPM, the issuers had statutory liens in the documents and the proceeds thereof presented by the foreign vendors to obtain payment under the letters of credit, and the issuers were entitled to adequate protection of those liens under § 361 of the Code.*fn10
In authorizing the payments to the issuers of the letters of credit, the bankruptcy court did not rely on § 361. We may affirm the bankruptcy court's decision on an alternative ground, but that ground must have been adequately presented in the bankruptcy court. See Anderson v. U.S.F. Logistics (IMC), Inc., 274 F.3d 470, 478 (7th Cir. 2001) (citing Logan v. Caterpillar, Inc., 246 F.3d 912, 924 (7th Cir. 2001)). Neither Kmart nor the issuers raised the adequate protection issue at the hearing on the Letters of Credit Motion. The bankruptcy court was not presented with evidence on whether the issuers held valid security interests nor whether they were entitled to adequate protection. There is an insufficient basis in the record to allow a finding that the payments to the issuers constituted adequate protection under § 361 of the Bankruptcy Code.
For the foregoing reasons, the following orders of the bankruptcy court are reversed: (1) Order Under 11 U.S.C. § 105 (a) Authorizing the Payment of Prepetition Claims of Certain Critical Trade Vendors; (2) Order Pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 105 (a) and 363 Authorizing Payment of Prepetition Obligations Necessary to Obtain Imported Merchandise; (3) Order Pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 105 (a) and 363 Authorizing the Debtors to Honor Reimbursement Obligations to Issuers of Pre-Petition Letters of Credit Issued for the Benefit of the Debtors' Foreign Vendors; and (4) Order Under 11 U.S.C. § 105 (a) Authorizing the Payment of Prepetition Claims of Certain Liquor Vendors.
The case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.