Amicus Brief on the Scope of the Bankruptcy Safe Harbor for Securities Settlement Payments Filed in Merit Mgmt. v. FTI Consulting

By Ralph Brubaker (University of Illinois College of Law), Bruce A. Markell (Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law), Charles W. Mooney, Jr. (University of Pennsylvania Law School), and Mark Roe (Harvard Law School).

Bankruptcy Code § 546(e) contains a safe harbor that prevents avoidance of a securities settlement payment, e.g. as a preferential or constructively fraudulent transfer. This amicus brief was filed in Merit Management Group, LP v. FTI Consulting, Inc., No. 16-784 (U.S.). The brief explains how § 546(e) rationally constrains its scope via the statutory specification that the safe harbor only applies (because it need only apply) if the “transfer” sought to be avoided was allegedly “made by or to (or for the benefit of)” a protected securities market intermediary, such as a stockbroker or a financial institution.

Ascertaining the meaning and function of that determinative scope language requires an understanding of (1) the concept of a “transfer” as the fundamental analytical transaction unit throughout the Code’s avoidance provisions, and (2) the relationship between that avoidable “transfer” concept and the inextricably interrelated concepts of who that “transfer” is “made by or to (or for the benefit of).” By its express terms, § 546(e) only shields a challenged “transfer” from avoidance if (1) that transfer was “made by” a debtor-transferor who was a qualifying intermediary, “or” (2) a party with potential liability—because the challenged transfer allegedly was made “to or for the benefit of” that party—was a protected intermediary. Thus, the transfer of cash to a stock seller and of the stock back to the buyer is not safe-harbored. The delivery of the cash (and the stock) through financial intermediaries, however, is.

The full amicus brief may be found here.


Oral argument took place on November 6, 2017. The transcript is available here. The roundtable previously posted an article by Ralph Brubaker on the meaning of § 546(e) and a roundup of law firm perspectives on the Seventh Circuit’s decision in FTI Consulting, Inc. v. Merit Management Group, LP, 830 F.3d 690 (7th Cir. 2016). The Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the decision on May 1, 2017. Petitioner Merit Management Group, LP’s opening brief was subsequently filed, along with the Respondent’s brief, and Petitioner’s reply. Additional amicus curiae briefs were filed by Opportunity Partners, L.P.Various Former Tribune and Lyondell Shareholders, Tribune Company Retirees and Noteholders, and the National Association of Bankruptcy Trustees.

Understanding the Scope of the § 546(e) Securities Safe Harbor Through the Concept of the “Transfer” Sought to Be Avoided

By Ralph Brubaker (University of Illinois College of Law)

Bankruptcy Code § 546(e) contains a safe harbor that prevents avoidance of a securities settlement payment. To date, pleas for sane limits on the scope of the § 546(e) safe harbor have focused upon what kinds of transactions should be considered a “settlement payment.” That language, however, is not the primary means by which § 546(e) both reveals its manifest object and correspondingly limits its reach thereto. Section 546(e) rationally constrains its scope via the statutory specification (the meaning of which the Supreme Court will consider in the pending case of Merit Management Group v. FTI Consulting) that the safe harbor only applies (because it need only apply) if the “transfer” sought to be avoided was allegedly “made by or to (or for the benefit of)” a protected securities market intermediary, such as a stockbroker or a financial institution.

Ascertaining the meaning and function of that determinative scope language requires an understanding of (1) the concept of a “transfer” as the fundamental analytical transaction unit throughout the Code’s avoidance provisions, and (2) the relationship between that avoidable “transfer” concept and the inextricably interrelated concepts of who that “transfer” is “made by or to (or for the benefit of).” By its express terms, § 546(e) only shields a challenged “transfer” from avoidance if (1) that transfer was “made by” a debtor-transferor who was a qualifying intermediary, “or” (2) a party with potential liability—because the challenged transfer allegedly was made “to or for the benefit of” that party—was a protected intermediary.

The full article is available for download here.


The roundtable previously posted a roundup of law perspectives on the Seventh Circuit’s decision in FTI Consulting, Inc. v. Merit Management Group, LP, 830 F.3d 690 (7th Cir. 2016). The Supreme Court granted certiorari to review that decision on May 1, 2017. Petitioner Merit Management Group, LP has filed its opening brief, and amicus curiae briefs have been filed by Opportunity Partners, L.P. and Various Former Tribune and Lyondell Shareholders. Argument has been scheduled for November 6, 2017.

FTI Roundup

The Seventh Circuit held last July in FTI Consulting, Inc. v. Merit Management Group, LP, 2016 BL 243677 (7th Cir. July 28, 2016), that § 546(e) of the Bankruptcy Code is not a safe harbor for “transfers that are simply conducted through financial institutions.” This decision deepens a circuit split on this issue. While the Second, Third, Sixth, Eighth, and Tenth Circuits have held that the plain language of § 546(e) protects transfers through financial institutions as settlement payments, the Seventh Circuit’s interpretation agrees with the Eleventh Circuit’s older decision in In re Munford, 98 F.3d 604, 610 (11th Cir. 1996). The legislative purpose of § 546(e) was to prevent the insolvency of one financial institution from causing systemic harm to the market as a whole. However, its text also has deep implications for leveraged buyouts that might render target corporations insolvent because payments to selling shareholders almost invariably pass through brokers and clearinghouses that are covered by the safe harbor.

Several law firms have now written memos on the FTI decision. Schiff Harden postulates that debtors will be more likely to forum shop when filing for bankruptcy when they have recently undergone a leveraged buyout. Jones Day makes clear that shareholders selling into a leveraged buyout face differing levels of risk depending on which forums the corporation could legally avail itself of in a bankruptcy proceeding. And Dechert argues that FTI Consulting will result in different treatment for parties selling identical securities in leveraged buyouts: financial institutions, stockbrokers, and the like will remain protected by the safe harbor when they are beneficial owners of stock, but other shareholders will be subject to avoidance action.

Bankruptcy Court Disagrees with Second Circuit’s Holding in Tribune

By Lee Harrington of Nixon Peabody.

Recently, in In re Physiotherapy Holdings Inc., the Bankruptcy Court in Delaware held that section 546(e) of the Bankruptcy Code did not preempt various state fraudulent transfer actions because the allegedly fraudulent transfers implicated neither the rationale for that section nor preemption generally. The decision is at odds with recent case law, notably: (i) the Tribune litigation, in which the Second Circuit concluded that state law constructive fraudulent transfer claims involving payments in LBO transactions are prohibited under section 546(e); and (ii) a proceeding in which the Southern District of New York concluded that the interest payment at issue, which did not retire the underlying debt, were not “settlement payments” and was thus outside section 546(e).

Section 546(e) precludes certain bankruptcy avoidance actions involving settlement payments made by or to a financial institution and transfers made by or to a financial institution in connection with a securities contract. It is intended to prevent litigation that might have a destabilizing “ripple effect” on the financial markets and provides a defense to constructive fraudulent transfer actions against shareholders receiving LBO payments.

Physiotherapy found that section 546(e) was not intended to shield “LBO payments to stockholders at the very end of the asset transfer chain, where the stockholders are the ultimate beneficiaries of the constructively fraudulent transfers, and can give the money back . . . with no damage to anyone but themselves” without the attendant destabilizing “ripple effect.”

The full memo is available here.

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The Bankruptcy Roundtable has previously covered treatment of 546(e), most recently in our Tribune Fraudulent Conveyance Litigation Roundup.

Practitioners, Academics, and a Judge Testify about Safe Harbors before Congress

Author: Stephen D. Adams

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial, and Antitrust Law has held two sets of hearings in recent months on the bankruptcy safe harbors for repos and derivatives from the automatic stay, from preference and fraudulent conveyance law, and from the limitations on ipso facto clauses.

This past Wednesday, March 26, Judge Christopher Sontchi, Seth Grosshandler, Jane Vris, Thomas Jackson, and Michelle Harner testified. Last December, Jeffrey Lacker, Donald Bernstein, and Mark Roe testified.

Judge Sontchi argued that the 546(e)’s exception for all settlement transactions is too broad and also urged Congress to narrow the safe harbors for repos. Seth Grosshandler, of Cleary Gottlieb, reported on the work of the ABI safe harbors advisory committee (which includes both Judge Sontchi and Prof. Roe) and warned that the safe harbors are complex and potentially costly to alter.  Jane Vris, representing the National Bankruptcy Conference (NBC), and Thomas Jackson, professor at the University of Rochester, testified on bankruptcy of SIFIs as an alternative to Dodd Frank resolution of bail-out.  Michelle Harner, professor at University of Maryland School of Law, testified in her role as the Reporter to the ABI Commission on Bankruptcy Reform about the Commission.

Mark Roe, professor at Harvard Law School, testified that the safe harbors facilitate excessive short-term funding of financial institutions and impede effective resolution of large financial failures, like that of Lehman in 2008.  Donald Bernstein, of Davis Polk, a member of the ABI bankruptcy commission, testified about the bankruptcy adjustments needed to adapt bankruptcy law to the FDIC’s Single Point of Entry resolution mechanisms.  Jeffrey Lacker, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, testified about the importance of bankruptcy reform to reduce the problem of too-big-to-fail and reduce reliance on short-term debt.

The written testimonies are linked above, and the video of the oral testimonies for the March 26th hearing will be found here once it has been posted, and is here for the December 3rd hearing.

For more on the bankruptcy safe harbors for derivatives and repurchase agreements, please see the post by Steven L. Schwarcz and Ori Sharon summarizing their recent paper, The Bankruptcy-Law Safe Harbor for Derivatives: A Path-Dependence Analysis, and the post by Kathryn Borgeson, Mark Ellenberg, Lary Stromfeld, and John Thompson, entitled Lehman Bankruptcy Court Issues Safe Harbor Decision, summarizing a recent Lehman case decision on the safe harbors, both published Tuesday.