Bankruptcy Court Rules That It Has Constitutional Authority to Grant Nonconsensual Releases in Chapter 11 Plan

By Charles M. Oellermann and Mark G. Douglas (Jones Day)

Many chapter 11 plans include nonconsensual third-party releases that preclude certain non-debtors from pursuing claims against other non-debtors as part of a restructuring deal in which such releases are a quid pro quo for financial contributions made by prepetition lenders or old equity holders. However, bankruptcy and appellate courts disagree as to whether such non-consensual plan releases should be permitted due, among other things, to concerns regarding the scope of a bankruptcy court’s subject matter jurisdiction and constitutional authority. Several court rulings handed down in 2017 addressed these concerns.

For example, In In re Midway Gold US, Inc., 575 B.R. 475 (Bankr. D. Colo. 2017), the court held that, although Tenth Circuit law does not categorically forbid third-party releases in chapter 11 plans, it lacked jurisdiction to “adjudicate” plan releases of claims against non-debtors because the underlying claims should not be considered as part of the proceedings to confirm the plan and were not within either its “core” or “related to” jurisdiction. In addition, in In re SunEdison, Inc., 2017 BL 401968 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. Nov. 8, 2017), the court ruled that, as a matter of contract law, merely implied consent for plan releases is insufficient, and it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to approve releases that were overly broad.

By contrast, in In re Millennium Lab Holdings II, LLC,  2017 WL 4417562 (Bankr. D. Del. Oct. 3, 2017), the court held that it had the constitutional jurisdiction to authorize nonconsensual releases, despite the existence of litigation in another forum to adjudicate one of the claims to be released. A discussion of the court’s ruling in Millennium is available here.