Wednesday, February 27, 2013

In Re Georges Marciano (9th Cir. - Feb. 27, 2013)

Both sides have decent arguments in this bankruptcy case.  But I think that Judge Hurwitz has the better position, and that the panel accordingly gets the decision right notwithstanding Judge Ikuta's dissent.

Again, both sides have reasonable positions.  The question is whether (three) creditors can force a debtor into involuntary bankruptcy when they've obtained judgments against that person but those (unstayed) judgments are on appeal.  On the one hand, since no bond has been posted, the creditors can start collection efforts, so it makes sense to allow the creditors to file an involuntary petition to prevent one creditor (amongst many) from potentially getting all the debtor's money.  On the other hand, since the judgments are on appeal, it's possible that they'll be vacated (or reduced), and so you might say that they're potentially subject to a "bona fide dispute" -- thereby requiring the bankruptcy court to take a look at the judgments and their viability on appeal.  Judge Hurwitz takes the former position, whereas Judge Ikuta takes the latter position.

You can see why the issue is complicated.  Add to the fact that, under Jduge Ikuta's view, you've got an Article I federal court prejudging the likely result of a state appeal -- with the resulting federalism implications -- and it gets even more complex.

Ultimately I think it makes sense to adopt Judge Hurwitz's per se rule, and to hold that since the claims have already been reduced to a judgment -- and one that can be currently enforced -- those contemporary claims are not subject to a bona fide dispute.  It's true that sometimes we'll be wrong as a result of this conclusive presumption.  That's always the case with per se rules.  But empirically, we are unlikely to be wrong much, since (1) the vast majority of judgments get affirmed, and (2) even in those relatively rare cases when a judgment is reversed, they're not all likely to be reversed (since involuntary bankruptcy petitions require three or more creditors), and so the total amount of the unreversed claims are still likely to justify an involuntary petition.  Moreover, even in those truly expectional cases where everything gets reversed, we can presumably unwind the bankruptcy petition in the same way we unwind normal unstayed judgments reversed on appeal that have already been collected in whole or in part.

Is that a perfect solution?  No.  There are still some harms to the debtor.  But I'm persuaded that the alternative approach (articulated by Judge Ikuta) has more pervasive harms and transaction costs not only in the extraordinary case, but in every case, since each would require an individualized inquiry regarding the probability of the debtor's success on appeal.

So both sides have tolerable interpretations of the statutory text.  But I think that, for policy as well as other reasons, Judge Hurwitz's view is the superior one.

Even if it does create a circuit split.  Which is undeniably does.