Merit Management v. FTI: Law Firm Perspectives

On February 27, the Supreme Court decided Merit Management Group, LP v. FTI Consulting, Inc., holding unanimously that the § 546(e) safe harbor does not protect allegedly fraudulent transfers “in which financial institutions served as mere conduits.” The Court’s decision resolves a circuit split on the reach of § 546(e). In reaching its conclusion, the Court focused on the “end-to-end transfer” that the trustee seeks to avoid, rather than any “component parts of the overarching transfer.” In FTI, because the overarching transfer was made between two parties not otherwise shielded by the safe harbor, the transfer will now fall outside the safe harbor.

As many law firms recognize, this decision will have wide-ranging implications on the finality of securities transactions effected through financial institutions, especially leveraged buyouts. Mayer Brown notes that as the decision enhances a trustee’s ability to recover fraudulent transfers, it also increases the bankruptcy estate’s leverage against recipients of pre-petition transfers. Cleary observes that “debtors or trustees may strategically frame avoidance actions in order to limit the scope of the safe harbor.” Mayer Brown concludes that the decision may also expose investors, investment funds and similar entities to fraudulent transfer litigation risks.

The bottom line, as Davis Polk notes, is that the § 546(e) safe harbor is no longer a blanket safe harbor for the recipients of transactions that pass through financial institutions. But the safe harbor will still shield financial institutions operating as escrow agents or clearinghouses, as the Court expressly stated that a financial institution under § 546(e) is protected whether the institution acts as a principal or as an intermediary.

Firms have noted that the decision also left open some ambiguities. First, Schulte Roth & Zabel writes that the Court leaves open possible arguments that any “customer” of a “financial institution” is also itself a “financial institution” under § 546(e). Second, Mayer Brown points out that the Court did not address whether the transaction at issue actually qualified as a transfer that is a “settlement payment” or made in connection with a “securities contract” under § 546(e). These ambiguities will draw the attention of defendants in future fraudulent transfer litigation.

Finally, Weil notes that the decision raises the question of how the preemption of state-law creditor remedies under § 546(e) will be applied in light of the Supreme Court’s now-narrow construction of the safe harbor.

By Jianjian Ye, Harvard Law School, J.D. 2018.

The roundtable has posted on FTI before. Some of those posts are: an analysis of the FTI oral argument, the Amici Curiae Brief of Bankruptcy Law Professors, 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).

Momentive: Law Firm Perspectives

On October 28, 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit handed down its decision in In re MPM Silicones, L.L.C., holding that where an efficient market exists, the appropriate cram-down interest rate in Chapter 11 cases is the market rate, distinguishing the formula rate applied by the Supreme Court in Till v. SCS Credit Corp. in Chapter 13 cases. The Second Circuit wrote that “the market rate should be applied in Chapter 11 cases where there exists an efficient market. But where no efficient market exists for a Chapter 11 debtor, then the bankruptcy court should employ the formula approach endorsed by the Till plurality.” The Second Circuit also disallowed the senior creditors’ claim for a make-whole payment, although the Third Circuit had allowed such a claim in In re Energy Future Holdings Corp.

Law firms have so far reacted unanimously that this decision is a win for secured creditors as it ameliorates the risk that unsecured creditors could extract value from the debtor at the secured creditors’ expense. Weil writes that “it seems like the Bankruptcy Court, now freed from Till, will find that an efficient market exists, and will adjust the interest rate on the replacement notes accordingly.”

Nevertheless, some firms predict that there may still be areas future controversy. Davis Polk warns that this decision “could result in expensive litigations between debtors and secured creditors as to whether there exists an efficient market and, if so, what the efficient market rate should be.” Norton Rose Fulbright also emphasizes that the next step for secured creditors is to focus on when an efficient market exists.

Firms have also noticed the decision’s implication for debtor-side strategy. Baker McKenzie suggests the possibility that “a debtor may engage in forum shopping to file its case in a jurisdiction that applies the formula approach,” or “be even more sensitive to the potential for exit financing quotes to be used as evidence against [debtors] in establishing a market rate.”

On the issue of the make-whole premium, Davis Polk highlights that the circuit split may increase forum shopping for distressed issuers with potentially significant make-whole obligations. It expects future issuers to draft clearly around the issue of make-whole obligation to provide for future Chapter 11 cases.

(By Jianjian Ye, Harvard Law School, J.D. 2018.)