Another Court of Appeals Broadly Reads Settlement Payment Safe Harbor

By Michael L. Cook, Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP

The Courts of Appeals, with few exceptions, have broadly read the safe harbor defense contained in Bankruptcy Code §546(e) over the past 24 years.  It insulates a “settlement payment” or “margin payment” on a “securities contract,” “commodity contract” or “forward contract” from a trustee’s fraudulent transfer or preference claims unless the debtor makes the payment with “actual intent to hinder, delay or defraud creditors.”  Despite policy arguments by lower courts, trustees, creditors and commentators, the appellate courts have claimed to rely on the Code’s “plain language” to deny recovery.  In this Article, we discuss a recent Seventh Circuit decision that (a) reversed a district court’s “policy” decision purporting to divine Congress’s intent as to the proper application of the safe harbor provision; (b) rejected decisions by the Fifth and Ninth Circuits that refused to apply the safe harbor in the context of a Ponzi scheme; and (c) followed recent decisions of the Second and Fourth Circuits.

We discuss the Seventh Circuit’s close reading and application of the statutory language, “clearly and predictably using well established principles of statutory construction.”  Citing Supreme Court precedent, the court refused to rely on legislative history that was “neither passed by a majority of either House nor signed into law.”  Instead, the court explained why the safe harbor in the case before it yielded a sensible result, avoiding instability and uncertainty in the securities business.

We also review recent conflicting decisions in the lower courts that have resulted from imaginative attempts by lawyers to avoid application of the safe harbor defense.  Finally, we discuss another case pending in the Second Circuit that pushes the safe harbor defense to its outer limits.  That case asks (a) whether an intermediary is required in a safe harbor case, and (b) whether the defendant must show an adverse effect on financial markets.

Schulte Roth & Zabel Client Alert, April 3, 2014:  http://www.srz.com/Seventh_Circuit_Reads_Bankruptcy_Safe_Harbor_Broadly_to_Insulate_Preferential_Settlement_Payment_to_Commodity_Broker/