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In re Chrysler LLC

August 5, 2009

IN RE CHRYSLER LLC, DEBTOR.
INDIANA STATE POLICE PENSION TRUST, INDIANA STATE TEACHERS RETIREMENT FUND, AND INDIANA MAJOR MOVES CONSTRUCTION FUND, OBJECTORS-APPELLANTS, THE AD HOC COMMITTEE OF CONSUMER-VICTIMS OF CHRYSLER LLC, OBJECTOR-APELLANT, WILLIAM LOVITZ, FARBOD NOURIAN, BRIAN CATALON, CENTER FOR AUTO SAFETY, CONSUMER ACTION, CONSUMERS FOR AUTO RELIABILITY AND SAFETY, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF CONSUMER ADVOCATES, AND PUBLIC CITIZEN, OBJECTORS-APPELLANTS, PATRICIA PASCALE, OBJECTOR-APPELLANT,
v.
CHRYSLER LLC, AKA CHRYSLER ASPEN, AKA CHRYSLER TOWN & COUNTRY, AKA CHRYSLER 300, AKA CHRYSLER SEBRING, AKA CHRYSLER PT CRUISER, AKA DODGE, AKA DODGE AVENGER, AKA DODGE CALIBER, AKA DODGE CHALLENGER, AKA DODGE DAKOTA, AKA DODGE DURANGO, AKA DODGE GRAND CARAVAN, AKA DODGE JOURNEY, AKA DODGE NITRO, AKA DODGE RAM, AKA DODGE SPRINTER, AKA DODGE VIPER, AKA JEEP, AKA JEEP COMMANDER, AKA JEEP COMPASS, AKA JEEP GRAND CHEROKEE, AKA JEEP LIBERTY, AKA JEEP PATRIOT, AKA JEEP WRANGLER, AKA MOPER, AKA PLYMOUTH, AKA DODGE CHARGER, DEBTORS-APPELLEES,
INTERNATIONAL UNION, UNITED AUTOMOBILE, AEROSPACE, AND AGRICULTURAL IMPLEMENT WORKERS UNION OF AMERICA, AFL-CIO ("UAW"), APPELLEE, FIAT S.P.A. AND NEW CARCO ACQUISITION LLC, APPELLEES, CHRYSLER FINANCIAL SERVICES AMERICAS LLC, APPELLEE, THE OFFICIAL COMMITTEE OF UNSECURED CREDITORS, APPELLEE, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, APPELLEE, EXPORT DEVELOPMENT CANADA APPELLEE.*FN1



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Appeals from an order entered in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York (Gonzalez, J.) dated June 1, 2009, authorizing the sale of substantially all of debtor Chrysler LLC's assets to New CarCo Acquisition LLC. On June 2, 2009 we granted a motion for a stay and for expedited appeal directly to this Court, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 158(d)(2). On June 5, 2009, we heard oral argument, and ruled from the bench and by written order. We affirmed the June 1, 2009 order "for the reasons stated in the opinions of Bankruptcy Judge Gonzalez," stating that an opinion or opinions would follow. We now issue this opinion to further explain our affirmance.

AFFIRMED.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dennis Jacobs, Chief Judge

Argued: June 5, 2009

Decided: June 5, 2009

Before: JACOBS, Chief Judge, KEARSE and SACK, Circuit Judges.

The Indiana State Police Pension Trust, the Indiana State Teachers Retirement Fund, and the Indiana Major Moves Construction Fund (collectively, the "Indiana Pensioners" or "Pensioners"), along with various tort claimants and others, appeal from an order entered in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, Arthur J. Gonzalez, Bankruptcy Judge, dated June 1, 2009 (the "Sale Order"), authorizing the sale of substantially all of the debtor's assets to New CarCo Acquisition LLC ("New Chrysler"). On June 2, 2009 we granted the Indiana Pensioners' motion for a stay and for expedited appeal directly to this Court, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 158(d)(2). On June 5, 2009 we heard oral argument, and ruled from the bench and by written order, affirming the Sale Order "for the reasons stated in the opinions of Bankruptcy Judge Gonzalez," stating that an opinion or opinions would follow. This is the opinion.

In a nutshell, Chrysler LLC and its related companies (hereinafter "Chrysler" or "debtor" or "Old Chrysler") filed a pre-packaged bankruptcy petition under Chapter 11 on April 30, 2009. The filing followed months in which Chrysler experienced deepening losses, received billions in bailout funds from the Federal Government, searched for a merger partner, unsuccessfully sought additional government bailout funds for a stand-alone restructuring, and ultimately settled on an asset-sale transaction pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 363 (the "Sale"), which was approved by the Sale Order. The key elements of the Sale were set forth in a Master Transaction Agreement dated as of April 30, 2009: substantially all of Chrysler's operating assets (including manufacturing plants, brand names, certain dealer and supplier relationships, and much else) would be transferred to New Chrysler in exchange for New Chrysler's assumption of certain liabilities and $2 billion in cash. Fiat S.p.A agreed to provide New Chrysler with certain fuel-efficient vehicle platforms, access to its worldwide distribution system, and new management that is experienced in turning around a failing auto company. Financing for the sale transaction---$6 billion in senior secured financing, and debtor-in-possession financing for 60 days in the amount of $4.96 billion--would come from the United States Treasury and from Export Development Canada. The agreement describing the United States Treasury's commitment does not specify the source of the funds, but it is undisputed that prior funding came from the Troubled Asset Relief Program ("TARP"), 12 U.S.C. § 5211(a)(1), and that the parties expected the Sale to be financed through the use of TARP funds. Ownership of New Chrysler was to be distributed by membership interests, 55% of which go to an employee benefit entity created by the United Auto Workers union, 8% to the United States Treasury and 2% to Export Development Canada. Fiat, for its contributions, would immediately own 20% of the equity with rights to acquire more (up to 51%), contingent on payment in full of the debts owed to the United States Treasury and Export Development Canada.

At a hearing on May 5, 2009, the bankruptcy court approved the debtor's proposed bidding procedures. No other bids were forthcoming. From May 27 to May 29, the bankruptcy court held hearings on whether to approve the Sale.*fn2 Upon extensive findings of fact and conclusions of law, the bankruptcy court approved the Sale by order dated June 1, 2009.

After briefing and oral argument, we affirmed the bankruptcy court's order on June 5, but we entered a short stay pending Supreme Court review. The Supreme Court, after an extension of the stay, declined a further extension. The Sale closed on June 10, 2009.

The factual and procedural background is set out in useful detail in the opinions of Bankruptcy Judge Gonzalez. This opinion is confined to a discussion of the arguments made for vacatur or reversal. The Sale Order is challenged essentially on four grounds. First, it is contended that the sale of Chrysler's auto-manufacturing assets, considered together with the associated intellectual property and (selected) dealership contractual rights, so closely approximates a final plan of reorganization that it constitutes an impermissible "sub rosa plan," and therefore cannot be accomplished under § 363(b). We consider this question first, because a determination adverse to Chrysler would have required reversal. Second, we consider the argument by the Indiana Pensioners that the Sale impermissibly subordinates their interests as secured lenders and allows assets on which they have a lien to pass free of liens to other creditors and parties, in violation of § 363(f). We reject this argument on the ground that the secured lenders have consented to the Sale, as per § 363(f)(2). Third, the Indiana Pensioners challenge the constitutionality of the use of TARP funds to finance the Sale on a number of grounds, chiefly that the Secretary of the Treasury is using funds appropriated for relief of "financial institutions" to effect a bailout of an auto-manufacturer, and that this causes a constitutional injury to the Indiana Pensioners because the loss of their priorities in bankruptcy amounts to an economic injury that was caused or underwritten by TARP money. We conclude that the Indiana Pensioners lack standing to raise this challenge. Finally, we consider and reject the arguments advanced by present and future tort claimants.

DISCUSSION

We review a bankruptcy court's conclusions of law de novo, and its findings of fact under the clearly erroneous standard. See Babitt v. Vebeliunas (In re Vebeliunas), 332 F.3d 85, 90 (2d Cir. 2003).

I.

The Indiana Pensioners characterize the Sale as an impermissible, sub rosa plan of reorganization. See Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. Braniff Airways, Inc. (In re Braniff Airways, Inc.), 700 F.2d 935, 940 (5th Cir. 1983) (denying approval of an asset sale because the debtor "should not be able to short circuit the requirements of Chapter 11 for confirmation of a reorganization plan by establishing the terms of the plan sub rosa in connection with a sale of assets"). As the Indiana Pensioners characterize it, the Sale transaction "is a 'Sale' in name only; upon consummation, new Chrysler will be old Chrysler in essentially every respect. It will be called 'Chrysler.' . . . Its employees, including most management, will be retained. . . . It will manufacture and sell Chrysler and Dodge cars and minivans, Jeeps and Dodge Trucks. . . . The real substance of the transaction is the underlying reorganization it implements." Indiana Pensioners' Br. at 46 (citation omitted).

Section 363(b) of the Bankruptcy Code authorizes a Chapter 11 debtor-in-possession to use, sell, or lease estate property outside the ordinary course of business, requiring in most circumstances only that a movant provide notice and a hearing. 11 U.S.C. § 363(b).*fn3 We have identified an "apparent conflict" between the expedient of a § 363(b) sale and the otherwise applicable features and safeguards of Chapter 11.*fn4 Comm. of Equity Sec. Holders v. Lionel Corp. (In re Lionel Corp.), 722 F.2d 1063, 1071 (2d Cir. 1983); cf. Braniff, 700 F.2d at 940.

In Lionel, we consulted the history and purpose of § 363(b) to situate § 363(b) transactions within the overall structure of Chapter 11. The origin of § 363(b) is the Bankruptcy Act of 1867, which permitted a sale of a debtor's assets when the estate or any part thereof was "of a perishable nature or liable to deteriorate in value." Lionel, 722 F.2d at 1066 (citing Section 25 of the Bankruptcy Act of 1867, Act of March 2, 1867, 14 Stat. 517) (emphasis omitted). Typically, courts have approved § 363(b) sales to preserve "'wasting asset[s].'" Id. at 1068 (quoting Mintzer v. Joseph (In re Sire Plan, Inc.), 332 F.2d 497, 499 (2d Cir. 1964)). Most early transactions concerned perishable commodities; but the same practical necessity has been recognized in contexts other than fruits and vegetables. "[T]here are times when it is more advantageous for the debtor to begin to sell as many assets as quickly as possible in order to insure that the assets do not lose value." Fla. Dep't of Revenue v. Piccadilly Cafeterias, Inc., 128 S.Ct. 2326, 2342 (2008) (Breyer, J., dissenting) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also In re Pedlow, 209 F. 841, 842 (2d Cir. 1913) (upholding sale of a bankrupt's stock of handkerchiefs because the sale price was above the appraised value and "Christmas sales had commenced and . . . the sale of handkerchiefs depreciates greatly after the holidays"). Thus, an automobile manufacturing business can be within the ambit of the "melting ice cube" theory of § 363(b). As Lionel recognized, the text of § 363(b) requires no "emergency" to justify approval. Lionel, 722 F.2d at 1069. For example, if "a good business opportunity [is] presently available," id., which might soon disappear, quick action may be justified in order to increase (or maintain) the value of an asset to the estate, by means of a lease or sale of the assets. Accordingly, Lionel "reject[ed] the requirement that only an emergency permits the use of § 363(b)." Id. "[I]f a bankruptcy judge is to administer a business reorganization successfully under the Code, then . . . some play for the operation of both § 363(b) and Chapter 11 must be allowed for." Id. at 1071.

At the same time, Lionel "reject[ed] the view that § 363(b) grants the bankruptcy judge carte blanche." Id. at 1069.*fn5 The concern was that a quick, plenary sale of assets outside the ordinary course of business risked circumventing key features of the Chapter 11 process, which afford debt and equity holders the opportunity to vote on a proposed plan of reorganization after receiving meaningful information. See id. at 1069-70. Pushed by a bullying creditor, a § 363(b) sale might evade such requirements as disclosure, solicitation, acceptance, and confirmation of a plan. See 11 U.S.C. §§ 1122-29. "[T]he natural tendency of a debtor in distress," as a Senate Judiciary Committee Report observed, is "to pacify large creditors with whom the debtor would expect to do business, at the expense of small and scattered public investors." Lionel, 722 F.2d at 1070 (quoting S. Rep. No. 95-989, 2d Sess., at 10 (1978), as reprinted in 1978 U.S.C.C.A.N. 5787, 5796 (internal quotation marks omitted)).

To balance the competing concerns of efficiency against the safeguards of the Chapter 11 process, Lionel required a "good business reason" for a § 363(b) transaction*fn6:

[A bankruptcy judge] should consider all salient factors pertaining to the proceeding and, accordingly, act to further the diverse interests of the debtor, creditors and equity holders, alike. [A bankruptcy judge] might, for example, look to such relevant factors as the proportionate value of the asset to the estate as a whole, the amount of elapsed time since the filing, the likelihood that a plan of reorganization will be proposed and confirmed in the near future, the effect of the proposed disposition on future plans of reorganization, the proceeds to be obtained from the disposition vis-a-vis any appraisals of the property, which of the alternatives of use, sale or lease the proposal envisions and, most importantly perhaps, whether the asset is increasing or decreasing in value. This list is not intended to be exclusive, but merely to provide guidance to the bankruptcy judge. 722 F.2d at 1071.

After weighing these considerations, the Court in Lionel reversed a bankruptcy court's approval of the sale of Lionel Corporation's equity stake in another corporation, Dale Electronics, Inc. ("Dale"). The Court relied heavily on testimony from Lionel's Chief Executive Officer, who conceded that it was "only at the insistence of the Creditors' Committee that Dale stock was being sold and that Lionel 'would very much like to retain its interest in Dale,'" id. at 1072, as well as on a financial expert's acknowledgment that the value of the Dale stock was not decreasing, see id. at 1071-72. Since the Dale stock was not a wasting asset, and the proffered justification for selling the stock was the desire of creditors, no sufficient business reasons existed for approving the sale.

In the twenty-five years since Lionel, § 363(b) asset sales have become common practice in large-scale corporate bankruptcies. See, e.g., Robert E. Steinberg, The Seven Deadly Sins in § 363 Sales, Am. Bankr. Inst. J., June 2005, at 22, 22 ("Asset sales under § 363 of the Bankruptcy Code have become the preferred method of monetizing the assets of a debtor company."); Harvey R. Miller & Shai Y. Waisman, Does Chapter 11 Reorganization Remain A Viable Option for Distressed Businesses for the Twenty-First Century?, 78 Am. Bankr. L.J. 153, 194-96 (2004). A law review article recounts the phenomenon:

Corporate reorganizations have all but disappeared. . . . TWA filed only to consummate the sale of its planes and landing gates to American Airlines. Enron's principal assets, including its trading operation and its most valuable pipelines, were sold within a few months of its bankruptcy petition. Within weeks of filing for Chapter 11, Budget sold most of its assets to the parent company of Avis. Similarly, Polaroid entered Chapter 11 and sold most of its assets to the private equity group at BankOne. Even when a large firm uses Chapter 11 as something other than a convenient auction block, its principal lenders are usually already in control and Chapter 11 merely puts in place a preexisting deal.

Douglas G. Baird & Robert K. Rasmussen, The End of Bankruptcy, 55 Stan. L. Rev. 751, 751-52 (2002) (internal footnotes omitted). In the current economic crisis of 2008-09, § 363(b) sales have become even more useful and customary.*fn7 The "side door" of § 363(b) may well "replace the main route of Chapter 11 reorganization plans." Jason Brege, Note, An Efficiency Model of Section 363(b) Sales, 92 Va. L. Rev. 1639, 1640 (2006).

Resort to § 363(b) has been driven by efficiency, from the perspectives of sellers and buyers alike. The speed of the process can maximize asset value by sale of the debtor's business as a going concern. Moreover, the assets are typically burnished (or "cleansed") because (with certain limited exceptions) they are sold free and clear of liens, claims and liabilities. See infra (discussing § 363(f) and tort issues). A § 363 sale can often yield the highest price for the assets because the buyer can select the liabilities it will assume and purchase a business with cash flow (or the near prospect of it). Often, a secured creditor can "credit bid," or take an ownership ...


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