We all know that when a business files bankruptcy, the impact on vendors, customers, and others can be immediate and disruptive. The In The (Red)® blog was launched in the summer of 2006 as a way for CEOs, CFOs, boards of directors, credit professionals, in-house counsel and others to stay informed about important business bankruptcy issues and developments.
The Tempnology Trademark Saga. When it comes to decisions on bankruptcy and trademark licenses, the In re Tempnology LLC bankruptcy case is the gift that keeps on giving.
The Original. It all started in November 2015. Following Tempnology’s rejection of an agreement containing a trademark licensee, the New Hampshire Bankruptcy Court ruled that the licensee could no longer use the licensed trademarks.
You might remember that it was in response to Lubrizol that Congress added Section 365(n) to the Bankruptcy Code to protect licensees of certain types of intellectual property — but not trademark licensees.
The Sunbeam court held that rejection is a breach by the debtor and does not terminate the agreement or “vaporize” the rights of the non-breaching party. Critically, the Seventh Circuit allowed the non-debtor trademark licensee to continue using the licensed trademarks despite the debtor’s rejection of the trademark license.
Keep reading for the juicy details but, to cut to the chase, the First Circuit unequivocally sided with Lubrizol on the impact of rejection, deepening the circuit split created by the Seventh Circuit’s Sunbeam decision.
Before turning to the First Circuit’s decision, let’s set the stage with a brief review of the underlying facts, a few more highlights from the Bankruptcy Court’s original decision, and the BAP’s subsequent take on these important issues.
The Bankruptcy Court’s Decision. In November 2015, the New Hampshire Bankruptcy Court issued a decision involving the effects of rejection by the debtor, Tempnology LLC, of a Co-Marketing and Distribution Agreement (“Agreement”). In re Tempnology, LLC, 541 B.R. 1 (Bankr. D.N.H. 2015). In the Agreement, Tempnology had granted Mission Product Holdings, Inc. (“Mission”) (1) a non-exclusive license to certain of Tempnology’s copyrights, patents, and trade secrets, (2) an exclusive right to distribute certain cooling material products that Tempnology manufactured, and (3) an associated trademark license. With one of its first motions in the bankruptcy case, Tempnology rejected the Agreement.
The Bankruptcy Court held that the non-exclusive license to Tempnology’s copyright, patent, and trade secret rights was a license of “intellectual property” as defined in Section 101(35A) of the Bankruptcy Code, and that Mission’s right to continue to use that IP was protected under Section 365(n). However, the Bankruptcy Court held that Mission’s exclusive distribution rights were not “intellectual property” under Section 101(35A) and were not protected under Section 365(n).
The Bankruptcy Court also held that because trademarks were not included in Section 101(35A)’s definition of intellectual property, Mission’s trademark license rights were not protected by Section 365(n).
On the impact of rejection, the Bankruptcy Court followed the Lubrizol decision and held that the rejection of the Agreement meant that Mission lost both the exclusive distribution rights and the trademark license rights.
The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel Decision. Mission appealed the Bankruptcy Court’s decision to the BAP. On November 18, 2016, the BAP issued a decision affirming in part and reversing in part the Bankruptcy Court’s decision. In re Tempnology LLC, 559 B.R. 809 (1st Cir. BAP 2016).
The BAP affirmed the Bankruptcy Court’s holding that the exclusive distribution rights in the Agreement were not intellectual property as defined in the Bankruptcy Code and were not protected by Section 365(n).
The BAP also agreed that Section 365(n) did not protect Mission’s rights as a trademark licensee, ruling that the Bankruptcy Court had correctly held that Section 101(35A)’s definition of “intellectual property” excludes trademarks.
On the trademark point, Mission urged the BAP to follow the equitable approach that Judge Ambro suggested in his concurring opinion in the Third Circuit’s decision in In re Exide Techs., 607 F.3d 957 (3d Cir. 2010). That would let bankruptcy courts fashion equitable protections for rejected trademark licensees.
The BAP then considered the Seventh Circuit’s Sunbeam decision and, in a major shift, followed its analysis on the effect of rejection on a trademark license agreement. It thus held that Mission could continue to use the licensed trademarks.
The Main Event: The First Circuit’s Decision. With the background covered, let’s dig into the First Circuit’s decision. The BAP made Sunbeam front and center, so a big question was whether the First Circuit would follow Sunbeam and affirm the BAP’s decision, follow Lubrizol and affirm the Bankruptcy Court’s decision, or perhaps go with the equitable approach discussed by Judge Ambro.
A Notable Section 365(n) Analysis. Before turning to Sunbeam, the First Circuit started with a fairly extensive Section 365(n) analysis, worth examining given how few circuit court decisions address Section 365(n) at all.
The Court first agreed with the BAP and the Bankruptcy Court that neither the exclusive distribution rights nor the trademarks are “intellectual property” under Section 101(35A) and therefore neither has Section 365(n) protections.
The First Circuit likewise concluded that the exclusivity rights protected by Section 365(n) are limited to IP license rights only and do not extend to distribution rights.
The Court also held that a licensee’s right to the “embodiment of such intellectual property” in Section 365(n)(1)(b) is a limited concept (and a term of art) that does not extend to all the goods Mission sought to distribute:
A few common themes appear in these explanations. First, the pre-petition agreement must give the licensee access to the embodiment of intellectual property. Second, an embodiment of intellectual property is a tangible or physical object that exists pre-petition. Third, an embodiment of intellectual property is something inherently limited in number — it is a prototype or example of a product, but does not include all products produced using the intellectual property. Finally, we can infer that the purpose of this provision is to allow the licensee to exploit its right to the underlying intellectual property.
The Negative Covenant Issue. The First Circuit dismissed Mission’s arguments that the case implicated the enforceability of all negative covenants. The Court commented that the Bankruptcy Code might protect from rejection some negative covenants such as confidentiality, but only if they do not materially restrict the debtor’s reorganization, are closely tied to the IP license, and are necessary to implement the terms of the IP license.
The Equitable Treatment Discussion. After agreeing with the BAP (and also Sunbeam) that Sections 101(35A) and 365(n) do not protect trademark licensees, the Court held that courts could not use equitable considerations to protect trademark licensees.
The majority opinion rejected the dissent’s contrary view, which was based on Congress’s decision to defer action on trademark licenses in Section 365(n) “to allow the development of equitable treatment of this situation by bankruptcy courts,” as the Senate Report had stated.
The First Circuit held that when Congress intended courts to use equitable powers, it included specific language in the text of the relevant Bankruptcy Code section, and it had not done that in Section 365(n).
The Court also believed it would be difficult to weigh the equities, given the long-term nature of a trademark license relationship, and courts could misjudge how those burdens might play out in the future.
Taking On Sunbeam. The First Circuit’s biggest divergence from the BAP was on the issue of the effect of rejection under Section 365(g). The Court’s main rationale for following Lubrizol and not Sunbeam was its view that the Sunbeam approach would burden the debtor, as trademark owner, with monitoring and controlling the quality of the trademarked goods — duties imposed under trademark law — despite having already rejected the trademark license. It is worth reviewing the First Circuit’s analysis on this crucial point at some length:
Of course, to be precise, rejection as Congress viewed it does not “vaporize” a right. Rather, rejection converts the right into a pre-petition claim for damages. Putting that point of vocabulary to one side, and leaving open the possibility that courts may find some unwritten limitations on the full effects of section 365(a) rejection, we find trademark rights to provide a poor candidate for such dispensation. Congress’s principal aim in providing for rejection was to “release the debtor’s estate from burdensome obligations that can impede a successful reorganization.” Bildisco & Bildisco, 465 U.S. at 528. Sunbeam therefore largely rests on the unstated premise that it is possible to free a debtor from any continuing performance obligations under a trademark license even while preserving the licensee’s right to use the trademark. See Sunbeam, 686 F.3d at 377. Judge Ambro’s concurrence in In re Exide Technologies shares that premise. See 607 F.3d at 967 (Ambro, J., concurring) (assuming that the bankruptcy court could allow the licensee to retain trademark rights even while giving the debtor “a fresh start”).
Careful examination undercuts that premise because the effective licensing of a trademark requires that the trademark owner — here Debtor, followed by any purchaser of its assets — monitor and exercise control over the quality of the goods sold to the public under cover of the trademark. See 3 J. Thomas McCarthy, McCarthy on Trademarks & Unfair Competition § 18:48 (5th ed. 2017) (“Thus, not only does the trademark owner have the right to control quality, when it licenses, it has the duty to control quality.”). Trademarks, unlike patents, are public-facing messages to consumers about the relationship between the goods and the trademark owner. They signal uniform quality and also protect a business from competitors who attempt to profit from its developed goodwill. See Societe Des Produits Nestle, S.A. v. Casa Helvetia, Inc., 982 F.2d 633, 636 (1st Cir. 1992). The licensor’s monitoring and control thus serve to ensure that the public is not deceived as to the nature or quality of the goods sold. Presumably, for this reason, the Agreement expressly reserves to Debtor the ability to exercise this control: The Agreement provides that Debtor “shall have the right to review and approve all uses of its Marks,” except for certain pre-approved uses. Importantly, failure to monitor and exercise this control results in a so-called “naked license,” jeopardizing the continued validity of the owner’s own trademark rights. McCarthy, supra, § 18:48; see also Eva’s Bridal Ltd. v. Halanick Enters., Inc., 639 F.3d 788, 790 (7th Cir. 2011) (“[A] naked license abandons a mark.”); Restatement (Third) of Unfair Competition § 33 (“The owner of a trademark, trade name, collective mark, or certification mark may license another to use the designation. . . . Failure of the licensor to exercise reasonable control over the use of the designation by the licensee can result in abandonment . . . .”).
The Seventh Circuit’s approach, therefore, would allow Mission to retain the use of Debtor’s trademarks in a manner that would force Debtor to choose between performing executory obligations arising from the continuance of the license or risking the permanent loss of its trademarks, thereby diminishing their value to Debtor, whether realized directly or through an asset sale. Such a restriction on Debtor’s ability to free itself from its executory obligations, even if limited to trademark licenses alone, would depart from the manner in which section 365(a) otherwise operates.
The Court also raised the specter of a slippery slope:
And the logic behind that approach (no rights of the counterparty should be “vaporized” in favor of a damages claim) would seem to invite further leakage. If trademark rights categorically survive rejection, then why not exclusive distribution rights as well? Or a right to receive advance notice before termination of performance? And so on.
The First Circuit concluded its Sunbeam analysis this way:
In sum, the approach taken by Sunbeam entirely ignores the residual enforcement burden it would impose on the debtor just as the Code otherwise allows the debtor to free itself from executory burdens. The approach also rests on a logic that invites further degradation of the debtor’s fresh start options. Our colleague’s alternative, “equitable” approach seems similarly flawed, and has the added drawback of imposing increased uncertainty and costs on the parties in bankruptcy proceedings. For these reasons, we favor the categorical approach of leaving trademark licenses unprotected from court-approved rejection, unless and until Congress should decide otherwise. See James M. Wilton & Andrew G. Devore, Trademark Licensing in the Shadow of Bankruptcy, 68 Bus. Law. 739, 771-76 (2013).
Where Does Tempnology Leave Trademark Licensees? The First Circuit’s decision is bound to cause trademark licensees to worry anew about the risks of a licensor bankruptcy, after what had seemed to be a trend toward protecting trademark licensees. Although the circuit split remains, and at least two circuit judges have written separate opinions to argue for protecting trademark licensees through a court’s equitable powers, the First Circuit’s decision is a forceful endorsement of Lubrizol and the complete termination of a licensee’s trademark rights upon rejection.
Is there any hope for trademark licensees?
Other circuits, notably the Second and Third Circuits where many business bankruptcy cases are filed, have yet to weigh in.
With a now more prominent circuit split, the U.S. Supreme Court might consider taking up the issue, possibly even in the Tempnology case if a certiorari petition were filed. That said, cert petitions are rarely granted so the split could remain for some time.
Conclusion. The First Circuit’s decision to follow Lubrizol and reject Sunbeam reinforces the existing circuit split. Will its extensive trademark analysis be more persuasive to subsequent courts? It will be interesting to see how other courts, especially Courts of Appeals, come down on the effects of rejection and the rights of trademark licensees. Stay tuned.
Just about every year amendments are made to the rules that govern how bankruptcy cases are managed — the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure. The amendments address issues identified by an Advisory Committee made up of federal judges, bankruptcy attorneys, and others. As the photo above reminds us, the rule amendments are ultimately adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court (and technically subject to Congressional disapproval).
Key Rule Amendments For Business Bankruptcy Cases. This year, the majority of rule amendments involve consumer cases. For example, one notable change should lead to the creation of a national form Chapter 13 plan whose use will be required — unless a local form Chapter 13 plan has been adopted in its place.
Since In The Red® is focused on business bankruptcy developments, this post will highlight only those rule amendments impacting business cases. Be sure to read all of the amendments (see link below) and, if relevant to you, review the changes affecting consumer bankruptcy cases, which are not discussed below.
With that caveat, these changes are of particular note for business bankruptcy cases:
Rule 1001 has been amended to note that the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedures are not just to be construed but also “administered” and “employed by the court and the parties” to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every case and proceeding. This is consistent with revisions previously made to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
Rule 3002 has been amended in several important ways.
First, a secured creditor is now required to file a proof of claim to have an allowed secured claim. Failing to do so will not alone lead to the lien securing the claim being deemed void.
Second, the deadline for filing a proof of claim in a voluntary Chapter 7, Chapter 12, or Chapter 13 case is not later than 70 days after entry of the order for relief (or the date of the order of conversion to a Chapter 12 or Chapter 13 case). In an involuntary Chapter 7 case, the proof of claim deadline is not later than 90 days after the entry of the order for relief. The old 90 days after the “first date set for the meeting of creditors” language has been jettisoned. These amendments leave unchanged how deadlines for filing proofs of claim in Chapter 11 cases under Rule 3003(c)(3) are established.
Third, Rule 3002 contains other provisions in recognition that the claim deadline will now be earlier in Chapter 7, 12, and 13 cases. The court, on motion filed before or after the deadline expires, may extend the time for filing a proof of claim for not more than 60 days following the date a motion seeking additional time is granted in certain circumstances. Those cover situations where (1) a debtor fails timely to file the required Rule 1007(a) list of creditor names and addresses or (2) the notice was insufficient to provide the creditor with a reasonable time to file a proof of claim but only if the notice was mailed to a foreign address.
Rule 3007 has been revised to clarify that Rule 7004’s specific service requirements do not apply to most claim objections. Instead, service of the claim objection by first-class mail on the person most recently designated to receive notices on the original or amended proof of claim will suffice. Exceptions apply to claims by the United States, its officers or agencies, or an insured depository institution. For those claimants, Rule 7004’s service requirements will continue to apply. Rule 3007 also more expressly permits giving notice and only an opportunity to request a hearing, rather than requiring an actual hearing, a practice that has become common in many districts.
Rule 3012 now permits determination not only of the amount of a secured claim under Section 506(a) but also of the amount entitled to priority under Section 507, and either by motion or claim objection. As amended the rule now provides that the amount of governmental unit’s secured claim can only be determined by motion or claim objection after the governmental unit has either filed a proof of claim or the time for doing so has expired.
Rule 7001 has been revised to reflect the changes made to Rule 3012.
Rule 9009 now more clearly requires the use of Official Forms and limits the types of acceptable alterations, essentially to only minor revisions to expand or delete spaces or delete items checked with “no” or “none.”
Evidence Please. Two Federal Rules of Evidence have been amended as well. First, the “ancient document” hearsay exception in Rule 803(16) has been changed to remove the “at least 20 years old” language and insert insert “prior to January 1, 1998.” The Advisory Committee’s concern is that going forward the old language could be used to admit “vast amounts of unreliable electronically stored information.” Other revisions, to Federal Rules of Evidence 902(13) and 902(14), create procedures for establishing the authenticity of electronic records without a testifying witness.
Just about every year changes are made to the rules that govern how bankruptcy cases are managed — the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure. The revisions address issues identified by an Advisory Committee made up of federal judges, bankruptcy attorneys, and others.
Key Rule Amendments. This year the rule amendments address the continuing impact of the Stern v. Marshall case on bankruptcy proceedings, the effect of electronic service on response deadlines, and certain Chapter 15 procedures. Be sure to read all the amendments (see link below), but here are the changes of particular note in business bankruptcy cases:
Rules 1010, 1011, and 2002 have been revised to improve procedures in cross-border Chapter 15 cases, with a new Rule 1012 added to govern responses to Chapter 15 petitions.
Rule 7008 has been amended to remove the requirement that a party in an adversary proceeding state whether the proceeding is core or non core, leaving instead the requirement to state whether the party does or does not consent to entry of final orders or judgment by the bankruptcy court.
Rule 7012 has been revised in a similar fashion as Rule 7008.
Rule 7016 governing pretrial conferences has been changed to add a requirement for the bankruptcy court, on its own motion or that of a party, to decide whether to hear and determine the adversary proceeding, to hear it and issue proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, or to take some other action.
Rule 9006(f) has been amended to remove service by electronic means, including ECF service, from the types of service allowing three added days to act or respond after being served. Put differently, if you’ve consented to electronic service, you no longer get to add three days for any response or action. Instead, the 7, 14, 21, and 28 day periods will apply directly.
Rule 9027 governing removal has been updated along the same lines as Rules 7008 and 7012 described above.
Finally, Rule 9033 has been amended to remove the core/non core language since even core proceedings may require a bankruptcy court to issue proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law in light of the Stern-related decisions.
Read All About It. So you can keep up-to-date, a copy of the amendments, in both clean and redline, is available by following the link in this sentence. (As a bonus, clean and redlines of the amendments to the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure are also included.) The amendments to the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure start at page 117 of the linked document.
Ready, Set, Go. The amendments take effect on December 1, 2016. They govern all proceedings in bankruptcy cases commenced after that and all pending proceedings “insofar as just and practicable.” I take that to mean they will govern virtually all bankruptcy cases and adversary proceedings, including those filed prior to December 1, 2016, so be ready to apply them right away.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a quick look back at the Bankruptcy Court’s decision.
The Bankruptcy Court’s Decision. Just about a year ago the New Hampshire Bankruptcy Court issued a decision involving the effects of rejection by the debtor, Tempnology LLC, of a Co-Marketing and Distribution Agreement (“Agreement”). In re Tempnology, LLC, 541 B.R. 1 (Bankr. D.N.H. 2015). In the Agreement, Tempnology had granted Mission Product Holdings, Inc. (“Mission”) (1) a non-exclusive license to certain of Tempnology’s copyrights, patents, and trade secrets, (2) an exclusive right to distribute certain cooling material products that Tempnology manufactured, and (3) an associated trademark license. With one of its first motions in the bankruptcy case, Tempnology rejected the Agreement.
The Bankruptcy Court held that the non-exclusive license to Tempnology’s copyright, patent, and trade secret rights was a license of “intellectual property” as defined in Section 101(35A) of the Bankruptcy Code, and that Mission’s rights to continue to use that IP was protected under Section 365(n). However, the exclusive distribution rights were not “intellectual property” under Section 101(35A) and the Bankruptcy Court held Mission’s distribution rights were not protected under Section 365(n).
The Bankruptcy Court also held that because trademarks were not included in Section 101(35A)’s definition of intellectual property, Mission’s trademark license rights were not protected by Section 365(n).
In Sunbeam, the Seventh Circuit expressly rejected the Lubrizol decision and its analysis of the effects of rejection (follow the link for a full discussion of the Sunbeam decision). In contrast to Lubrizol, the Sunbeam court held that rejection is a breach by the debtor and does not terminate the agreement or the rights of the non-breaching party.
As a result, the Seventh Circuit allowed the non-debtor trademark licensee to continue using the licensed trademarks despite rejection of the trademark license.
At the time I speculated that if the Bankruptcy Court in the Tempnology case had applied the Sunbeam decision, the result might have been different.
The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel Decision. Mission appealed the Bankruptcy Court’s decision to the BAP. On November 18, 2016, the BAP issued its decision, affirming in part and reversing in part the Bankruptcy Court’s decision. Follow this link for a copy of the BAP’s November 18, 2016 decision.
The BAP affirmed the Bankruptcy Court’s holding that the exclusive distribution rights in the Agreement were not intellectual property as defined in the Bankruptcy Code and were not protected by Section 365(n).
The BAP also affirmed the Bankruptcy Court’s decision that Section 365(n) did not protect Mission’s rights as a trademark licensee, ruling that the Bankruptcy Court had corrected held that Section 101(35A)’s definition of “intellectual property” excludes trademarks.
On the trademark point, Mission urged the BAP to follow the equitable approach that Judge Ambro had suggested in his concurring opinion in the Third Circuit’s decision in In re Exide Techs., 607 F.3d 957 (3d Cir. 2010), which would let bankruptcy courts fashion equitable protections for trademark licensees. The BAP declined to follow either that approach or the one taken by the New Jersey Bankruptcy Court in In re Crumbs Bake Shop, 522 B.R. 766 (Bankr. D.N.J. 2014), which had effectively applied Section 365(n) to trademarks.
The BAP Discusses, And Then Follows, Sunbeam. Had the BAP stopped there, it would have affirmed the Bankruptcy Court’s holding. The BAP, however, did not stop there. Instead, it considered the Sunbeam decision and ultimately followed its analysis on the effect of rejection on a trademark license agreement. In so doing, the BAP became the first appellate court outside the Seventh Circuit to adopt the Sunbeam decision’s rejection analysis.
The BAP turned to the Lubrizol decision first:
We must part company with the bankruptcy court, however, on the effect the Debtor’s rejection of the Agreement had on Mission’s licensee rights in the Debtor’s trademark and logo. The bankruptcy court ruled that, because the Debtor’s trademark and logo were not protected by Mission’s election under § 365(n), Mission did “not retain rights to the Debtor’s trademarks and logos post-rejection.” This conclusion endorses Lubrizol’s approach to the rejection of executory contracts, namely that rejection terminates the contract. Lubrizol, however, is not binding precedent in this circuit and, like the many others who have criticized its reasoning [footnote omitted], we do not believe it articulates correctly the consequences of rejection of an executory contract under § 365(g). We adopt Sunbeam’s interpretation of the effect of rejection of an executory contract under § 365 involving a trademark license.
The BAP went on with its analysis:
Applying Sunbeam’s rationale, we conclude that, while the Debtor’s trademark and logo were not encompassed in the categories of intellectual property entitled to special protections under § 365(n), the Debtor’s rejection of the Agreement did not vaporize Mission’s trademark rights under the Agreement. Whatever post-rejection rights Mission retained in the Debtor’s trademark and logo are governed by the terms of the Agreement and applicable non-bankruptcy law.
Thus, we conclude that the bankruptcy court did not err in ruling that Mission’s § 365(n) election failed to protect its rights under the Agreement as licensee of the Debtor’s trademark and logo, but it erred in ruling that Mission’s rights in the Debtor’s trademark and logo as set forth in the Agreement terminated upon the Debtor’s rejection of the Agreement.
Sunbeam, Now Joined By Tempnology, Raises A Number Of Questions. If followed by other courts, the Sunbeam and Tempnology decisions raise a variety of issues. These include the following:
Aside from the right to use the licensed trademarks, does the licensee keep other rights under the trademark license, such as exclusivity if applicable?
Does the licensee have rights to use the trademarks for the full term of the license agreement plus any extensions, or some shorter period?
If payment of royalties is required under a trademark license, must the trademark licensee continue to pay them post-rejection to use the licensed trademarks, as an IP licensee covered by Section 365(n) is required to do?
Can the trademark licensee instead argue that rejection is a material breach by the debtor and excuses the obligation to pay royalties?
Under Sunbeam and Tempnology, if rejection does not terminate trademark license rights, is the same true for intellectual property licenses other than trademarks, such as patents and copyrights, covered by Section 365(n)?
Is the Section 365(g) analysis of Sunbeam and Tempnology just limited to trademark license rights? Can a non-debtor party to an executory contract argue that other of its contract rights are also preserved, as long as they don’t impose affirmative performance obligations on the debtor? If so, in Tempnology, would that extend to Mission’s exclusive distribution rights?
Are licensees of patents, copyrights, or trade secrets, otherwise protected by Section 365(n), required to follow Section 365(n)’s statutory scheme to retain their rights, or can they rely on the analysis in Sunbeam and Tempnology as a complete alternative?
How will purchasers of trademarks and other assets react to the potential continued use of trademarks by licensees under rejected trademark licenses?
Conclusion. The BAP’s Tempnology decision marks the first time an appellate court other than the Seventh Circuit has applied the Sunbeam analysis to a trademark license.
It remains to be seen if other courts will start to follow suit or, alternatively, if the Lubrizol decision’s approach to the consequences of rejection will continue to hold sway.
If many courts followed the Sunbeam/Tempnology approach and rejected Lubrizol, the omission of trademarks from Section 365(n) protection could matter less than in the past. In addition, the license agreement’s provisions governing the licensee’s rights upon the licensor’s breach could become much more significant.
Given the broad implications of the Lubrizol/Sunbeam split on rejection of executory contracts, and especially on trademark licenses, be sure to stay tuned.
The dollar amount in the bankruptcy venue provision, 28 U.S.C. Section 1409(b), which requires that actions to recover for non-consumer, non-insider debt be brought against defendants in the district in which they reside, has increased to $12,850 from $12,475;
The minimum amount required to bring a preference claim against a defendant in a non-consumer debtor case, specified in Section 547(c)(9), rises to $6,425 from $6,225; and
The total debt amount in the definition of small business debtor in Section 101(51D) will rise to $2,566,050.
Other adjustments will affect consumers more than business debtors. For example, the debt limit for an individual to qualify for a Chapter 13 bankruptcy case will rise to $1,184,200 of secured debt, and certain exemption amounts will also increase.
Although the changes aren’t substantial, be sure to keep them in mind when assessing cases filed after April 1st.
Many start-up companies backed by venture capital financing, especially those still in the development phase or which otherwise are not cash flow breakeven, at some point may face the prospect of running out of cash. Although many will timely close another round of financing, others may not. This post focuses on options available to companies when investors have decided not to fund and the company needs to consider a wind down.
Fiduciary Duties And Maximizing Value. Let’s start with a refresher on the fiduciary duties of directors and officers of a Delaware corporation in financial distress. Please note that this high-level overview is no substitute for actual legal advice on a company’s specific situation.
Under Delaware law, directors and officers owe fiduciary duties of due care and loyalty. The duty of due care requires directors and officers to make fully-informed, good faith decisions in the best interests of the company. The duty of loyalty imposes on directors and officers the obligation not to engage in self-dealing and instead to put the interests of the company ahead of their own.
When a company is solvent, the directors and officers owe their fiduciary duties of due care and loyalty to the corporation and its stockholders. That remains true even if the company is in the so-called “zone of insolvency.”
When a company is insolvent and will not be able to pay its creditors in full, the directors and officers still owe their fiduciary duties of due care and loyalty to the corporation. However, upon insolvency, the creditors have the right to bring derivative (but not direct) claims for breach of fiduciary duty against directors and officers.
Remember, it can be challenging to determine whether a company is just in the zone of insolvency (meaning still solvent but approaching insolvency) or whether it has crossed the line into actual insolvency.
Discharging fiduciary duties when a company is insolvent means a focus on maximizing enterprise value. This is a highly fact-dependent exercise with no one-size-fits-all approach. In some cases, maximizing value may mean continuing operations — even though that burns dwindling cash — to allow the company to complete a sale that the directors believe is likely to close and produce significant value for creditors. In other cases, it may mean winding down (or even shutting down) operations quickly to conserve cash, especially if any asset sale is not expected to generate more than the cash required to pursue it.
These complexities make it critical for directors and officers of a company in financial distress to get legal advice tailored to the specific facts and circumstances at hand.
Legal Options For A Wind Down. When the board decides that the company needs to wind down, options range from an informal approach all the way to a public bankruptcy filing. Note that if the company owes money to a bank or other secured creditor, the lender’s right to foreclose on the company’s assets could become a paramount consideration and affect how the wind down is accomplished. Although beyond the scope of this post to analyze each wind down option in detail, the following is a brief overview of different approaches, together with links giving more information.
Informal wind down: In an informal wind down, the company typically tries to find a buyer for its assets, eventually lays off its employees, and shuts down any unsold business operations, but does not complete a formal end to the corporate existence. This lack of finality can leave legal loose ends, so alternatives should be carefully considered.
Corporate dissolution: A corporate dissolution is a formal process under Delaware law, typically managed by a company officer, for winding up the affairs of the corporation, liquidating assets, and ending the company’s legal existence. A company may choose to do a corporate dissolution when it doesn’t need bankruptcy protection (and prefers not to file bankruptcy) but wants a formal, legal wind down of the corporate entity. Follow this link for more details on corporate dissolution.
Assignment for the benefit of creditors: Many states, notably including California and Delaware, recognize a formal process through which a company can hire a professional fiduciary and make a general assignment of the company’s assets and liabilities to that fiduciary, known as the Assignee. In California, no court filing is involved. The Assignee in turn is charged with liquidating the company’s assets for the benefit of creditors, who are notified of the ABC process and instructed to submit claims to the Assignee. If a buyer has been identified, an Assignee may be able to close an asset sale soon after the ABC is made. Follow this link for a an in-depth look at the ABC process.
Chapter 7 bankruptcy: A Chapter 7 bankruptcy is a public filing with the United States Bankruptcy Court. A bankruptcy trustee is appointed to take control of all of the company’s assets, including the company’s attorney-client privilege, and the directors and officers no longer have any decision-making authority over the company or its assets. A Chapter 7 trustee rarely operates the business and instead typically terminates any remaining employees and liquidates all assets of the company. The filing triggers the bankruptcy automatic stay, which prevents secured creditors from foreclosing on the company’s assets and creditors from pursuing or continuing lawsuits. The trustee has authority to bring litigation claims on behalf of the corporation, often to recover preferential transfers but sometimes asserting breach of fiduciary duty claims against directors or officers. Unlike a dissolution or an ABC, the bankruptcy trustee in charge of the liquidation process is not chosen by the company.
Chapter 11 bankruptcy: A Chapter 11 bankruptcy is also a public filing with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, and it similarly triggers the bankruptcy automatic stay. Unlike a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, in Chapter 11 — often known as a reorganization bankruptcy — the board and management remain in control of the company’s assets (at least initially) as a “debtor in possession” or DIP. Business operations often continue and funding them and the higher cost of the Chapter 11 process require DIP financing and/or use of a lender’s cash collateral. One primary use of Chapter 11 by a venture-backed company is to sell assets “free and clear” of liens, claims and interests through a Bankruptcy Court-approved sale process under Section 363 of the Bankruptcy Code. Follow this link for a discussion of how a Section 363 bankruptcy sale in the right circumstances can maximize value for creditors and shareholders.
Conclusion. When a company’s cash is running out and investors have decided not to provide additional financing, the board may conclude that a wind down is required to fulfill fiduciary duties and maximize value. The discussion above is a general description of certain wind down options. Determining whether any of these paths is best for a particular company is fact-specific and dependent on many factors. Be sure to get advice from experienced corporate and insolvency counsel when considering wind down or other restructuring options.
A decision last month by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Hampshire serves as a good reminder that, although helpful, Bankruptcy Code Section 365(n)’s protection for intellectual property licensees definitely has its limits. That’s especially true for a commercial agreement whose central purpose is something other than as a technology license. Since we don’t get many Section 365(n) cases, let’s examine this one more closely.
Distribution And License Rights. In In re Tempnology, LLC (use link to access decision), the Debtor had entered into a Co-Marketing and Distribution Agreement (“Agreement”) with Mission Product Holdings, Inc. (“Mission”) for the sale and distribution of certain cooling material products developed by the Debtor. The Agreement granted Mission “exclusive distribution rights” in the United States and an opportunity to obtain similar rights in other countries. The Debtor agreed not to “license or sell” the products involved to others during the term of the Agreement. In another section of the Agreement the Debtor agreed not to take actions that would “directly or indirectly frustrate its exclusivity obligations” and agreed to enforce the Debtor’s “intellectual property rights and contractual rights against third parties.”
Another section of the Agreement addressed intellectual property. “Intellectual Property Rights” were defined to include, among others, the Debtor’s copyrights, patentable and unpatentable inventions, discoveries, designs, technology, trademarks, and trade secrets.” In addition, the Debtor granted Mission the following “Non-Exclusive License”:
Excluding those elements of the CC Property consisting of Marks, Domain Names, [the Debtor] hereby grants to [Mission] and its agents and contractors a non-exclusive, irrevocable, royalty-free, fully paid-up, perpetual, worldwide, fully-transferable license, with the right to sublicense (through multiple tiers), use, reproduce, modify, and create derivative work based on and otherwise freely exploit the CC Property in any manner for the benefit of [Mission], its licensees and other third parties.
The “CC Property” covered all products developed or provided by the Debtor and all IP rights with respect to those products. The Debtor also granted Mission “a non-exclusive, non-transferable, limited license . . . to use its Coolcore trademark and logo (as well as any other Marks licensed hereunder) for the limited purpose of performing its obligations hereunder” during the Agreement’s term. If the Agreement were terminated, it would trigger a two-year wind down period during which Mission would retain the right to purchase, distribute, and sell the relevant products, including use of the trademark rights.
Feeling Rejected. On September 1, 2015, the Debtor filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy case and the next day moved to reject the Agreement. The court approved the rejection subject to Mission’s election to retain its rights under Section 365(n). With a sale also taking place, the Debtor then filed a second motion seeking a determination that Mission’s Section 365(n) rights were limited only to the grant of the Non-Exclusive License and not the exclusive distribution rights or the trademark license. Mission argued that Section 365(n) also extended to its exclusive distribution rights because Section 365(n)(1)(B) permits a licensee to enforce “any exclusivity provision of such contract.” Citing to the In re Crumbs Bake Shop case (follow link for full discussion of that case), Mission also argued that under Section 365(n) and the court’s equitable authority, it should be allowed to use the Debtor’s trademarks during the remainder of the wind down period expiring in July 2016.
The Court Rules Mission’s Section 365(n) Rights Are Limited. In issuing its decision, the court ruled in favor of the Debtor and did not accept either of Mission’s arguments.
First, the court concluded that the exclusivity and other protections of Section 365(n) extend only to the intellectual property rights in the Agreement. The court held that the exclusive distribution rights granted to Mission were not a right to intellectual property, even if the products were patented. Instead, they were unrelated to the Non-Exclusive License, which gave Mission the right, directly or through sublicensees,to exploit the underlying intellectual property free of distribution of the Debtor’s products. Although the Non-Exclusive License was protected under Section 365(n), the distribution rights were not. As a result, the court held that the exclusive distribution rights did not survive rejection of the Agreement.
A Few Observations. The In re Tempnology, LLC decision is interesting for what it does and does not do.
The court’s holding that Section 365(n) extends only to non-trademark IP license rights, and not to exclusive rights to distribute products, serves as a good reminder that Section 365(n) protection is limited principally to the continued right to use intellectual property.
The court’s rejection of the In re Crumbs Bake Shop case applying Section 365(n) to trademarks is not a surprise. The overwhelming majority of cases likewise hold that the absence of trademarks in Section 101(35A)’s definition of “intellectual property” means no Section 365(n) protection for trademarks.
Perhaps the Tempnology court had no interest in following Sunbeam over Lubrizol and perhaps Mission chose not to advance Sunbeam’s analysis for other reasons. In any event, if the Tempnology court had followed Sunbeam’s analysis of the impact of rejection (and, for our purposes, if courts in the future decide to follow Sunbeam), the result might have been different.
On another note, in this case the core IP rights apparently involved patented products, not copyrighted works. When the products at issue are copyrighted works, however, the licensee might be able to argue that exclusive distribution rights are part of the licensed intellectual property rights. The Copyright Act, specifically 17 U.S.C. Section 106(3), includes among the exclusive rights of the copyright owner (subject to being licensed) the right to “distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending.” It’s not a certainty, but a licensee granted the exclusive right to distribute copyrighted works might be able to argue that its exclusive distribution rights are part of IP (copyright) rights protected under Section 365(n).
Conclusion. The Tempnology decision underscores the limits of Section 365(n), particularly in commercial agreements with essentially only a back-up IP license. The decision has been appealed so it’s possible we may get an opinion in the months ahead from an appellate court. With Section 365(n) decisions about as rare as hen’s teeth, be sure to stayed tuned.
Almost every year, changes are made to the set of rules that govern how bankruptcy cases are managed — the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure. The changes address issues identified by an Advisory Committee made up of federal judges, bankruptcy attorneys, and others. Often there are revisions to the official bankruptcy forms as well.
One Little Rule Amendment? This year’s amendments impact only one rule, Federal Rule of Bankruptcy Procedure 1007. On the surface, the change is only a small revision to a reference to one of the official bankruptcy schedules. A link to a copy of the amendment, including the transmittal correspondence and a clean and redline version, can be found using the link in this sentence (and if you keep reading you will get the amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure as a bonus).
Big Changes Are Coming To The Bankruptcy Forms. Don’t let the minor rule amendment fool you. As one presidential candidate these days might put it, the changes coming to the official bankruptcy forms are “huge.”
As part of a modernizing of the official forms, virtually every bankruptcy form is being substantially revised.
Many forms, including the bankruptcy petition, list of 20 largest creditors, bankruptcy schedules, and statement of financial affairs, will now have customized versions for cases involving individual and non-individual debtors. The non-individual voluntary petition form pictured at the beginning of this post gives you an idea of how different the new forms look.
Going forward, business bankruptcy cases filed by corporations, LLCs, and partnerships will use a set of forms designed specifically for businesses instead of having to respond to questions meant for individuals.
The numbering system for the official bankruptcy forms is also changing. For example, forms bearing numbers in the 100 sequence will be reserved for individual debtors while those in the 200 sequence will apply to non-individual and business debtors.
Read All About It: Access The Revised Bankruptcy Forms. The U.S. Courts system has made the revised bankruptcy forms available now so you can get ready for the changes.
The Big Picture: The Stern v. Marshall Decision. In its 2011 summer blockbuster Stern v. Marshall, decided by a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court held that even though Congress designated certain state law counterclaims as “core” proceedings, Article III of the U.S. Constitution prohibits bankruptcy courts from finally adjudicating those claims. Like a good cliffhanger, Stern v. Marshall left a number of questions unanswered, including the following:
Can a bankruptcy court enter a final judgment on “Stern claims” with the parties’ consent?; and
Can a bankruptcy court treat a “core” Stern claim as “non-core” under 28 U.S.C. Section 157 and follow the statutory procedures for submitting proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law to the district court for de novo review, even though there appears to be a gap in the statute and it does not expressly provide for that approach?
A Limited Sequel: The Arkinson Decision. In a narrow 2014 decision in Executive Benefits Insurance Agency v. Arkinson, the Court answered only the second question, unanimously ruling that when hearing core Stern claims, bankruptcy courts can follow the non-core statutory procedure of submitting proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law to the district court for de novo review. However, the Court did not address the first question, leaving the issue of consent to live or die “another day.”
“Another Day” Finally Arrives: The Wellness Decision. With this week’s decision in Wellness, that other day arrived. In a 6-3 decision written by Justice Sotomayor, the Court held that parties to a Stern claim can constitutionally consent to having final judgment issued by a non-Article III bankruptcy judge. The Court further held, with the support of only five justices, that the requisite consent can be implied and need not be express as long as it’s “knowing and voluntary.”
The Wellness case involved an adversary proceeding by a creditor seeking declaratory relief on alter ego and other grounds, among other claims, that certain trust assets were property of the estate. In its decision, the Court apparently assumed without deciding that this presented a potential Stern claim.
The lesson of Schor, Peretz, and the history that preceded them is plain: The entitlement to an Article III adjudicator is ‘a personal right’ and thus ordinarily ‘subject to waiver,’ Schor, 478 U. S., at 848. Article III also serves a structural purpose, ‘barring congressional attempts ‘to transfer jurisdiction [to non-Article III tribunals] for the purpose of emasculating’ constitutional courts and thereby prevent[ing] ‘the encroachment or aggrandizement of one branch at the expense of the other.” Id., at 850 (citations omitted). But allowing Article I adjudicators to decide claims submitted to them by consent does not offend the separation of powers so long as Article III courts retain supervisory authority over the process.
The question here, then, is whether allowing bankruptcy courts to decide Stern claims by consent would ‘impermissibly threate[n] the institutional integrity of the Judicial Branch.’ Schor, 478 U. S., at 851.
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[W]e conclude that allowing bankruptcy litigants to waive the right to Article III adjudication of Stern claims does not usurp the constitutional prerogatives of Article III courts. Bankruptcy judges, like magistrate judges, ‘are appointed and subject to removal by Article III judges,’ Peretz, 501 U. S., at 937; see 28 U. S. C. §§152(a)(1), (e). They ‘serve as judicial officers of the United States district court,’ §151, and collectively ‘constitute a unit of the district court’ for that district, §152(a)(1). Just as ‘[t]he ‘ultimate decision’ whether to invoke [a] magistrate [judge]’s assistance is made by the district court,’ Peretz, 501 U. S., at 937, bankruptcy courts hear matters solely on a district court’s reference, §157(a),which the district court may withdraw sua sponte or at the request of a party, §157(d). ‘[S]eparation of powers concerns are diminished’ when, as here, ‘the decision to invoke [a non-Article III] forum is left entirely to the parties and the power of the federal judiciary to take jurisdiction’ remains in place. Schor, 478 U. S., at 855.
Importantly, the Court distinguished and limited Stern:
Our recent decision in Stern, on which Sharif and the principal dissent rely heavily, does not compel a different result. That is because Stern—like its predecessor, Northern Pipeline—turned on the fact that the litigant “did not truly consent to” resolution of the claim against it in a non-Article III forum. 564 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 27).
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Because Stern was premised on non-consent to adjudication by the Bankruptcy Court, the ‘constitutional bar’ it announced, see post, at 14 (ROBERTS, C. J., dissenting), simply does not govern the question whether litigants may validly consent to adjudication by a bankruptcy court.
An expansive reading of Stern, moreover, would be inconsistent with the opinion’s own description of its holding. The Court in Stern took pains to note that the question before it was ‘a ‘narrow’ one,’ and that its answer did ‘not change all that much’ about the division of labor between district courts and bankruptcy courts. Id., at ___ (slip op., at 37); see also id., at ___ (slip op., at 38) (stating that Congress had exceeded the limitations of Article III ‘in one isolated respect’). That could not have been a fair characterization of the decision if it meant that bankruptcy judges could no longer exercise their longstanding authority to resolve claims submitted to them by consent. Interpreting Stern to bar consensual adjudications by bankruptcy courts would ‘meaningfully chang[e] the division of labor’ in our judicial system, contra, id., at ___ (slip op., at 37).
Reacting to Chief Justice Roberts’s dissent predicting future encroachment by Congress on Article III courts, the Court responded with a memorable phrase:
To hear the principal dissent tell it, the world will end not in fire, or ice, but in a bankruptcy court.
(Some debtors and creditors might agree — great plot for a movie?)
On whether express consent is required, the Court stated:
Nothing in the Constitution requires that consent to adjudication by a bankruptcy court be express. Nor does the relevant statute, 28 U. S. C. §157, mandate express consent; it states only that a bankruptcy court must obtain“the consent”—consent simpliciter—“of all parties to the proceeding” before hearing and determining a non-core claim. §157(c)(2).
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It bears emphasizing, however, that a litigant’s consent—whether express or implied—must still be knowing and voluntary. Roell [v. Withrow, 538 U. S. 580 (2003)] makes clear that the key inquiry is whether ‘the litigant or counsel was made aware of the need for consent and the right to refuse it, and still voluntarily appeared to try the case’ before the non-Article III adjudicator.
The Critics. In a vigorous dissent, Chief Justice Roberts, the author of the Court’s Stern decision, accused the Wellness majority of “an imaginative reconstruction” of Stern:
As the majority sees it, Stern ‘turned on the fact that the litigant ‘did not truly consent to’ resolution of the claim’ against him in the Bankruptcy Court. Ante, at 15 (quoting 564 U. S., at___ (slip op., at 27)). That is not a proper reading of the decision. The constitutional analysis in Stern, spanning 22 pages, contained exactly one affirmative reference to the lack of consent. See ibid. That reference came amid a long list of factors distinguishing the proceeding in Stern from the proceedings in Schor and other ‘public rights’ cases. 564 U. S., at ___–___ (slip op., at 27–29). Stern’s subsequent sentences made clear that the notions of consent relied upon by the Court in Schor did not apply in bankruptcy because ‘creditors lack an alternative forum to the bankruptcy court in which to pursue their claims.’ 564 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 28) (quoting Granfinanciera, 492 U. S., at 59, n. 14). Put simply, the litigant in Stern did not consent because he could not consent given the nature of bankruptcy.
There was an opinion in Stern that turned heavily on consent: the dissent. 564 U. S., at ___–___ (opinion of BREYER, J.) (slip op., at 12–14). The Stern majority responded to the dissent with a counterfactual: Even if consent were relevant to the analysis, that factor would not change the result because the litigant did not truly consent. Id., at ___–___ (slip op., at 28–29). Moreover, Stern held that ‘it does not matter who’ authorizes a bankruptcy judge to render final judgments on Stern claims, because the ‘constitutional bar remains.’ Id., at ___ (slip op., at 36). That holding is incompatible with the majority’s conclusion today that two litigants can authorize a bankruptcy judge to render final judgments on Stern claims, despite the constitutional bar that remains.
Chief Justice Roberts’s comment that it was the Stern dissent that relied heavily on consent highlights that two members of the Stern majority, Justices Kennedy and Alito, joined the four dissenting Justices in Stern to form the 6-3 majority in Wellness. Perhaps with practical considerations in mind, Justices Kennedy and Alito voted in Wellness to limit Stern’s constitutional bar to situations in which the parties do not consent to entry of a final judgment by the bankruptcy court.
Justice Thomas filed his own dissenting opinion, raising interesting questions he believed both the majority and Chief Justice Roberts overlooked. These included the nature of consent, separation of powers issues, and historical exceptions in which non-Article III adjudications have been permitted.
Bankruptcy Courts In A Leading Role. Together, Wellness and Arkinson mean that bankruptcy courts will continue to land a big part in hearing all types of bankruptcy matters, including Stern claims, despite the fears of some following the Stern decision.
For a Stern claim, if the parties give “knowing and voluntary” consent, even if not express consent, the bankruptcy court will have constitutional authority to enter a final judgment. (As the Court noted in footnote 13 of the Wellness decision, if proposed revisions to Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure 7008 and 7012 take effect, a statement giving or withholding express consent will be required by rule in adversary proceedings.)
For a Stern claim, if the parties do not consent, the bankruptcy court will still be able to follow the non-core statutory procedure and submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law to the district court for de novo review.
For core claims that are not Stern claims, as before, the bankruptcy court can enter a final judgment without consent of the parties.
For non-core claims, as before, the bankruptcy court can enter final judgment if the parties consent and, if not, will submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law to the district court for de novo review.
Conclusion. In what will likely be a box office hit with bankruptcy attorneys, the Supreme Court in Wellness substantially limited the impact of the Stern v. Marshall decision, allowing bankruptcy courts to enter final judgments, even on Stern claims, with consent of the parties. Consent has to be knowing and voluntary, but as often happens with non-core claims, parties may well choose to buy a ticket and have the bankruptcy court enter final judgment on Stern claims. Had Wellness gone the other way, the already overloaded district courts could have been faced with many more de novo review proceedings. The prospect of such coming attractions has likely been averted with the Wellness opinion, written — perhaps not coincidentally — by the only former district court judge on the Supreme Court, Justice Sotomayor.