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).

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.

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/