Successor Liability in Section 363 Sales
The Third Circuit held that successor liability claims are interests in property within the meaning of §363(f) and that the claims were of the type that can be satisfied by monetary payment. However, although the claims were of the type that could be satisfied by monetary payment, they remained general unsecured claims with no priority claim to the sale proceeds. The Third Circuit determined that the phrase "any interest in such property" should be broadly construed to include interests that could otherwise travel with the property being sold even if the asserted interest is a general unsecured claim.
Thereafter, the Seventh Circuit cited Knox-Schillinger with approval for the proposition that the term "any interest in such property" should be given an expansive definition.4 Perhaps this signals that Knox-Schillinger will overcome the Seventh Circuit's earlier doubts as to whether the term "any interest in such property" would include unsecured claims, such as successor-liability claims.5 And perhaps Knox-Schillinger will be persuasive to the First Circuit, which, noting the Seventh Circuit's earlier doubts, declined to express an opinion as to whether successor claims would be included as "any interest in such property."6
Allowing sales free and clear of successor liability under §363(f) is important because that section is resorted to by most debtors who sell their ongoing businesses. Most debtors who need to sell their businesses are unable to keep their businesses going for the often lengthy periods required for reorganization plans or liquidation to be developed, negotiated and confirmed. While the bankruptcy court's power to sell assets free and clear of successor claims may be clearer when the sale is pursuant to a plan,7 that power is practically unavailing in most cases because of most debtors' need to sell quickly.
Types of Successor Liability Claims
There are two major categories of claims for which successor liability can be imposed on buyers. First are employee-related claims arising from federal statutes providing protection to employees and which are imposed on successors pursuant to federal common law.8 The other category are product liability claims that generally arise under state law and are imposed on successors pursuant to state law.9
There is a substantial similarity in one aspect of the tests that must be met in both categories—that the buyer must carry on substantially the same business as the seller. There are also similarities in the policy considerations that underlie successor liability in both categories. These similarities are that the claimant should be neither better nor worse off by the sale of the businesses. Thus, if the seller is failing financially, caution should be exercised in imposing successor liability against a purchaser, who may be driven away by the prospect of such liability.10 The judicial determination to impose successor liability is to be made after considering the facts of each case in light of the justifications for imposing successor liability.11 But there is at least one substantial difference, from a bankruptcy point of view, in the two categories of successor liability: Successor liability can be imposed with respect to federal employment claims only if the buyer has notice of the claims.12 Product liability claims, in contrast, can suddenly and seemingly randomly occur after the sale of assets to the successor. Thus, bankruptcy sales under §363(f) free and clear of product-liability claims raise issues not raised by federal employment claims regarding whether claims, arising after the bankruptcy case is over, can be dealt with by an order selling assets free and clear of successor liability claims.
Federal Statutory Claims
In U.S. v. Knox-Schillinger (In re Trans World Airlines Inc.),13 the successor liability issue was with respect to employee claims based on federal statutes. The issue arose in the context of Trans World Airlines' sale of assets as a going business to American Airlines. A condition of the sale was that the claim would be free of the claims of certain of Trans World Airlines' flight attendants for sex and age discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.
The bankruptcy court ordered that the sale would be free and clear of successor-liability claims. The bankruptcy court determined that Trans World Airlines's business was on the verge of collapse, that American Airlines's offer to purchase was the only viable offer, and that American Airlines would not purchase unless the sale was free and clear of the successor claims.14 The district court affirmed, noting that if the sale did not go forward, TWA would be liquidated, and the flight attendants appealing the sale order, as well as a large number of other employees, among many others, would thereby be harmed.
On appeal, the Third Circuit presumed that the claims were claims for which American Airlines would be liable as a successor to Trans World Airlines. In determining that such claims were "interests in such property" within the meaning of §363(f) and therefore subject to divestment in connection with a sale of assets free and clear of liens and interests, the Third Circuit adopted the Fourth Circuit's reasoning in United Mine Workers of America 1992 Benefit Plan v. Leckie Smokeless Coal Co. (In re Leckie Smokeless Coal Co.).15 In that case, the Fourth Circuit, affirming a sale of coal-mining assets free and clear of successor liability for premiums due by the debtor to employee benefit plans under federal legislation, analyzed the text of §363(f)(3) and determined that all general unsecured claims were not "interests," but that on the other hand, "interests" were not limited to in rem interests.16
There was no issue in Knox-Schillinger as to the adequacy of the notice provided to the successor liability claimants of the proposed §363(f) sale free and clear of their successor liability claims. The claimants were apparently identifiable, and in any event, issues as to the adequacy of notice usually arise after the sale free and clear of successor liability claims, when the purchaser seeks to have the bankruptcy court enjoin a claimant from suing the purchaser to establish successor liability.
The failure to provide an identifiable holder of a successor liability claim with adequate notice of the bankruptcy in which a sale purports to be free and clear of successor liability claims renders the sale subject to that successor liability claim. The lack of notice is a defect of constitutional dimensions.17 There is less of a bright line with respect to what constitutes adequate notice where the claimant is unidentifiable. Where the claimant is identified, service by mail might be required, but where the class of claimants is large or the claimants are unknown, notice by publication in print or broadcast media might be sufficient.18
With respect to product-liability claims, many states have adopted the product-line exception to the general rule that a purchaser is not liable for any seller's obligations that the purchaser did not assume. This exception allows persons injured by a product manufactured by the seller to assert the product-liability claim against the purchaser where the purchaser acquires the seller's manufacturing assets and undertakes essentially the same manufacturing operation as the selling corporation. The justifications offered for imposing successor liability in such cases are (1) the virtual destruction of the claimant's remedies against the seller because of the sale, (2) the purchaser's ability to spread the risk and (3) the fairness of requiring the successor to assume responsibility for defective products as a quid pro quo for enjoying the predecessor's good will.19
Thus, unlike successor liability for federal employment claims, where the buyer must have notice of the claims in order to be liable as a successor, the paradigm for successor liability for product-liability claims is when the injury occurs after the sale and after the assets of the selling corporation have been distributed. This structure is illustrated by the seminal case addressing a product-liability action brought against the purchaser of a business where the purchaser continued manufacturing and selling the same product that injured the plaintiff under the same name and where the seller has paid all known debts and distributed the remaining money to shareholders before the plaintiff was injured by the product manufactured by the seller.20
In the bankruptcy context, it may be that a sudden, unpredictable injury occurs after confirmation of a plan or, if no plan is confirmed, after distribution of the funds of the estate. In that situation, the product-liability claim is not a bankruptcy "claim" within the meaning of Bankruptcy Code §101(5), but rather it is what may be called a "future claim," even if the injury is caused by a product that was manufactured pre-petition. Such future claims are not discharged in the bankruptcy, and a sale of debtor's assets under the Bankruptcy Code, whether under §363(f) or a plan, cannot divest the right of holders of future claims to assert their claims against purchasers of debtors' assets.21 Although the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Texas suggested, in dicta, that the appointment of a legal representative for "future claims" could bind them to the treatment provided for them in a plan,22 the Eleventh Circuit undercut that suggestion by affirming the disallowance of future claims filed by such a legal representative.23
However, there is precedent for holding that successor liability may be precluded with respect to a sudden injury occurring after a sale under §363(f) but before confirmation of a plan, where the claim can be dealt with under the plan. In such a case, even though the injury occurred post-petition, the claim may be regarded as a pre-petition claim because it was caused by a defective product manufactured and sold pre-petition.24 Furthermore, where the claimant fails to receive timely notice of the time for filing claims and fails to assert the right to file a late claim that if allowed would have afforded a substantial distribution, the claimant will be precluded from seeking to enforce the claim against the successor.25 Indeed, even if the plan provided no special distribution for claimants who have notice of the bankruptcy and an opportunity to file a claim, the claimants may be prohibited from pursuing actions against the successor by virtue of the mere opportunity to file a claim.26 Thus, it has been held that a product-liability claim that arose suddenly after a sale free and clear of successor claims pursuant to §363(f), and before the closure of the bankruptcy estate, precludes the claimant from asserting successor liability even though there will be no distribution from the estate to unsecured creditors, where the claimant cannot show that he was prejudiced by lack of notice of the sale.27 The prejudice must be established by showing that the bankruptcy court would have been dissuaded from approving the sale because the sale price was not fair enough.28
3 11 U.S.C. §363(f) (2000) provides, "The trustee may sell property under subsection (b) or (c) of this section free and clear of any interest in such property of an entity other than an estate only if...(3) such interest is a lien and the price at which such property is to be sold is greater than the aggregate value of all such liens on such property...or (5) such entity could be compelled, in a legal or equitable proceeding, to accept a money satisfaction of such interest." Return to article
4 Precision Industries Inc. v. Qualitech Steel SBQ LLC, 327 F.3d. 537, 545 (7th Cir. 2003) (holding that a sale free and clear of liens would divest the possessory interest of a real estate tenant whose lease was rejected and who elected to remain in possession as provided in 11 U.S.C. §365(h) (2000)). Return to article
5 See Zerand-Bernal Group Inc., 23 F.3d 159 (7th Cir. 1996) (citing with approval, in dicta, the discussion in Mooney Aircraft Inc. v. Foster (In re Mooney Aircraft Inc.), 730 F.2d 367 (5th Cir. 1984), to the effect that unsecured claims were not interests in property under the Bankruptcy Act). Return to article
6 See Western Auto Supply Co. v. Savage Arms (In re Savage Industries Inc.), 43 F.3d 714, 723 (1st Cir. 1994) (Cyr, C.J.) (cting Zerand-Bernal as generally contrary to the notion that §363 enables the extinguishment of state-law based successor product-line liability claims). Return to article
7 11 U.S.C. §1141 (2000) (providing that property dealt with by a reorganization plan can be "free and clear of all claims and interests of creditors); see, also, Piper Aircraft Corp. v. Calabro (In re Piper Aircraft Corp.), 169 B.R. 766, 779 (Bankr. S.D. Fla. 1994) (stating, in dicta, that a product liability claimant would be bound by a plan treating the claim and prohibiting the claimant from asserting successor liability against a purchaser that purchased the debtor's manufacturing assets pursuant to the plan); Volvo White Truck Corp. v. Chambersburg Beverage Inc. (In re White Motor Credit Corp.), 75 B.R. 944, 950-51 (stating that 11 U.S.C. §1141(c) (2000) can preempt successor liability claims against purchaser of debtor's manufacturing assets). Return to article P>8 See, generally, Steinbach v. Hubbard, 51 F.3d 843 (9th Cir. 1995) (collecting federal cases extending successor liability to almost every federal employment law statute in order to vindicate important statutory policies favoring employee protection). Return to article
9 See Ray v. Alad Corp., 560 P.2d 3 (Cal. 1977) (seminal case imposing successor liability for product liability); see, also, generally Conway v. White Trucks, a Division of White Motor Corp., 885 F.2d 90 (3d Cir. 1989) (describing development and parameters of successor liability in product liability cases) (cited with approval in Western Auto Supply Co. v. Savage Arms (In re Savage Industries Inc.), 43 F.3d 714, 717 n.4, 720 (1st Cir. 1994) (Cyr, C.J.)). Return to article
10 See Chicago Truck Drivers, Helpers and Warehouse Workers Union (Independent) Fund v. Tasemkin Inc., 59 F.3d 48, 51 (7th Cir. 1995) (quoting Musikiwamba v. ESSI Inc., 760 F.2d 740 (7th Cir. 1985) and citing with approval Steinbach v. Hubbard, 51 F.3d 843 (9th Cir. 1995)). Return to article
11 See Conway v. White Trucks, a Division of White Motor Corp., 885 F.2d. 90 (3d Cir. 1989) (product-liability claim); Musikiwamba v. ESSI Inc., 760 F.2d. 740 (7th Cir. 1985) (federal employment discrimination claim). Return to article
14 In re Trans World Airlines, No. 01-0056 2001, 2001 WL 1820325 (Bankr. D. Del. March 27, 2001) (Walsh, B.J.) (discussing merits in connection with denial of stay pending appeal of order for sale free and clear of successor claims). Return to article
15 99 F.3d 573 (4th Cir. 1996) (affirming bankruptcy court's power to sell coal-mining assets free and clear of claims of employee benefit plans, established pursuant to the federal Coal Industry Retiree Health Benefit Act of 1992, for premiums due from debtor-seller for health and death benefits for coal miners). Return to article
19 See, generally, Conway v. White Trucks, a Division of White Motor Corp., 885 F.2d 90 (3d Cir. 1989) (describing the development and parameters of successor liability in product-liability cases) (cited with approval, Western Auto Supply Co. v. Savage Arms Inc. (In re Savage Industries Inc.), 43 F.3d 714, 717 n.4, 720 (1st Cir. 1994) (Cyr. C.J.)). Return to article
21 Cf. Epstein v. Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors (In re Piper Aircraft Corp.), 58 F.3d 1573 (11th Cir. 1995) (holding that the bankruptcy court properly disallowed a claim filed by court-appointed representative of future claimants for injuries expected to the caused by future crashes of defective airplanes manufactured pre-petition by debtor); Lemelle v. Universal Mfg. Corp., 18 F.3d 1268 (5th Cir. 1994) (holding that the district court erred in enjoining product-liability claim against successor, notwithstanding that the product was manufactured pre-petition, where the sudden injury occurred years after debtor sold its manufacturing assets to successor and confirmed a plan); Zerand-Bernal Group Inc. v. Cox, 23 F.3d 159 (7th Cir. 1994) (holding bankruptcy court lacked jurisdiction to enjoin injured party from seeking to impose successor liability on purchaser where the injury occurred suddenly after the sale, after confirmation of the plan, and after the estate had been fully administered); Fairchild Aircraft Inc. v. Campbell, 184 B.R. 910 (Bankr. W.D. Tex. 1995) (holding that the executors of persons killed in airplane crash held "future claims" that did not qualify as bankruptcy claims and that therefore were not precluded from seeking to impose successor liability on purchaser of aircraft manufacturer's assets, where the sale was pursuant to a plan, where the crash occurred after confirmation of the plan and where no legal representative was appointed to represent the interests of persons who would be injured in the future); Mooney Aircraft Inc. v. Foster (In re Mooney Aircraft Inc.), 730 F.2d 367 (5th Cir. 1984) (holding under the Bankruptcy Act that the bankruptcy court lacked ancillary jurisdiction to enjoin executors of persons killed in airplane crash from suing purchaser of aircraft manufacturer's assets where the crash occurred years after the sale free and clear of claims and after the estate was closed); Schweitzer v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 758 F.2d. 936 (3d Cir. 1985) (holding under former §77(b) of Bankruptcy Act of 1898 that FELA claims against railroad by employees who manifested asbestosis after consummation of plan were not discharged). Return to article
24 Cf. Piper Aircraft Corp. v. Calabro (In re Piper Aircraft Corp.), 169 B.R. 766 (Bankr. S.D. Fla. 1994) (holding that product-liability claim for personal injuries caused by defective airplane that was manufactured by debtor pre-petition and that crashed post-petition but before the anticipated confirmation of a plan selling the manufacturing assets was a pre-petition claim stayed by the automatic stay and stating that the claim could be dealt with by the anticipated plan so as to preclude its assertion against the prospective purchaser); Volvo White Truck Corp. v. Chambersberg Beverage Inc. (In re Volvo White Truck Corp.), 75 B.R. 944 (Bankr. N.D. Ohio) (enjoining product liability claimant from asserting successor liability claim against purchaser that purchased manufacturing assets during the chapter 11 before confirmation of a plan, where the injuries occurred after the sale of assets and before a plan had been confirmed dealing with product liability claims); Conway v. White Trucks, a Division of White Motor Corp, 885 F.2d 90, 94 (3d Cir. 1989) (describing the plan of White Motor Corp. as providing insurance coverage and a special fund for product-liability claimants and holding that a person who was injured pre-petition and notified of the bankruptcy after the bankruptcy sale and after the deadline for filing claims and who failed to file a late proof of claim and seek to participate in the plan would be precluded from seeking to impose successor liability on the purchaser); Zerand-Bernal Group v. Cox, 23 F.3d 159, 163 (7th Cir. 1994) (stating in dicta that the successorship doctrine does not apply where a claimant "had a chance to obtain a legal remedy against the predecessor, even so limited a remedy as filing a proof of claim"). Return to article
26 See Zerand-Bernal Group v. Cox, 23 F.3d 159, 163 (7th Cir. 1994) (stating, in dicta, that the successorship doctrine does not apply where a claimant "had a chance to obtain a legal remedy against the predecessor, even so limited a remedy as filing a proof of claim"). Return to article