By Paul Hessler, Aaron Javian, and Robert Trust, Linklaters LLP
On June 9, 2014, in a highly anticipated decision Executive Benefits Ins. Agency v. Arkison, Chapter 7 Trustee of Estate of Bellingham Ins. Agency, Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court partially resolved the procedural uncertainty created by the Court’s decision in Stern v. Marshall. In Stern, the Supreme Court analyzed the constitutionality of 28 U.S.C. § 157, which in relevant part defines certain matters as “core” or “non-core,” and authorizes bankruptcy courts to finally adjudicate “core” matters, but only to issue findings and conclusions subject to de novo review in “non-core” matters. The Stern Court held that Article III of the U.S. Constitution prohibits Congress from vesting bankruptcy judges with the authority to finally adjudicate certain claims that it had statutorily designated as “core,” such as state law avoidance claims. The Stern Court did not, however, address how bankruptcy courts should proceed in such cases. The Supreme Court considered that procedural question in Executive Benefits and held that with respect to “core” claims that a bankruptcy judge is statutorily authorized but prohibited from finally adjudicating as a constitutional matter, the courts should deal with such claims as they would in “non-core” proceedings; that is, by issuing findings and conclusions subject to de novo review by district courts.
The Supreme Court’s holding makes clear that a wide-range of bankruptcy-related disputes that were previously heard and decided by bankruptcy courts must now be submitted for de novo review by district courts. This additional layer of judicial involvement could make bankruptcy litigation more cumbersome and casts doubt on the well-established expectation of the bankruptcy court system as the single, consolidated venue for adjudication of all matters related to a debtor’s bankruptcy case. Importantly, the Supreme Court did not decide, and it remains to be seen, whether parties can consent to a bankruptcy court’s final adjudication of core matters that otherwise fall outside of a bankruptcy court’s constitutional authority under Stern. The full memo can be read here.