Supreme Court Limits Bankruptcy Court Jurisdiction – Stern v. Marshall

In a decision that may create serious problems for bankruptcy case administration, the Supreme Court this morning invalidated part of the Bankruptcy Court jurisdictional scheme. Stern v. Marshall, No. 10-179, 564 U.S. ___ (June 23, 2011). Specifically, the Court held that the Bankruptcy Courts cannot issue final judgments on garden variety state law claims that are asserted as counterclaims by the debtor or trustee against creditors who have filed proofs of claim in the bankruptcy case.

Thus, while the Bankruptcy Court could issue a final order resolving the creditor’s claim against the estate, it could issue only a proposed ruling with respect to the counterclaim. Final judgment on the counterclaim could only be issued by the District Judge after de novo review of any matters to which a party objects. See 28 U.S.C. § 157(c).

In a five-to-four opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court affirmed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that had reversed an $88 million judgment in favor of Vickie Lynn Marshall (a/k/a Anna Nicole Smith) against E. Pierce Marshall for tortious interference with Vickie’s expectancy of a gift from her late husband J. Howard Marshall, Pierce’s father and one of the richest people in Texas.

The Court’s decision was based on constitutional principles defining the limits of Article III of the U.S. Constitution. Thus, it is likely to have implications that reach far beyond the narrow issue resolved in the instant case. The majority relies on the “public rights” doctrine to define the class of judicial matters that can be resolved by non-Article III tribunals like the Bankruptcy Courts. However, it adopts a narrower view of what constitutes “public rights” than was generally understood prior to this decision.

In addition, although earlier cases could be read to adopt a flexible pragmatic approach to Article III that focused only on significant threats to the Judiciary, Chief Justice Roberts takes a very firm approach, stating, “We cannot compromise the integrity of the system of separated powers and the role of the Judiciary in that system, even with respect to challenges that may seem innocuous at first blush.” Of particular interest, this case focuses on the nature of the Bankruptcy Judge as a non-Article III judge (i.e., no life tenure and no salary protection) and rejects the view that the Bankruptcy Courts are merely “adjuncts” of the Article III District Courts. Note that the “adjunct” construct was one of the foundations of the 1984 Act’s post-Northern Pipeline jurisdictional fix that created the core/non-core distinction. See Northern Pipeline Co. v. Marathon Pipe Line Co., 458 U.S. 50 (1982).

The narrow holding is that Bankruptcy Judges, as non-Article III judges, lack constitutional authority to hear and “determine” counterclaims to proofs of claim if the counterclaim involves issues that are not essential to the allowance or disallowance of the claim. Here, although the counterclaim was a compulsory counterclaim, it was a garden variety state law tort claim and did not constitute a defense to the proof of claim. Contrast this with the preference claim involved in Langenkamp v. Culp, 498 U.S. 42 (1990). The receipt of such an unreturned preference is a bar to the allowance of the claim. See 11 U.S.C. 502(d). The opinion also distinguishes Langenkamp (and the earlier pre-Code case of Katchen v. Landy, 382 U.S. 323 (1966)) on the ground that the preference counterclaims in those cases were created by federal bankruptcy law. It is unclear whether that reference establishes a second condition to Bankruptcy Court resolution of counterclaims — i.e., that the counterclaim be based on bankruptcy law in addition to its resolution being essential to claim allowance.

The Court begins its opinion by interpreting the “core” jurisdictional grant of 28 U.S.C. 157(b)(1). The Court finds the provision ambiguous, but rejects the view of the Ninth Circuit that the Bankruptcy Court’s jurisdiction to determine matters involves a two-step process of deciding both whether the matter is “core” and whether it “arises under” the Bankruptcy Code or “arises in” the bankruptcy case. The Court states that such a view incorrectly assumes there are “core” matters that are merely “related to” the bankruptcy case (and which cannot be “determined” by the Bankruptcy Court). The Court states that core proceedings are those that arise in a bankruptcy case or arise under bankruptcy law and that noncore is synonymous with “related.” Thus, since counterclaims to proofs of claim are listed as core in the statute, the Bankruptcy Court has statutory authority to enter final judgment. (Note that the opinion does not explain how a tort claim that arose before the bankruptcy and that was based on non-bankruptcy state law could be a claim “arising in” the bankruptcy case or “arising under” bankruptcy law. Possibly the fact that procedurally it arises as a counterclaim is sufficient to convert a “related” claim into an “arising in” or “arising under” claim. Cf. Langenkamp.)

The Court also rejects the argument that the personal injury tort provision of 28 U.S.C. 157(b)(5) deprives the Bankruptcy Court of jurisdiction to resolve the counterclaim. The Court holds that section 157(b)(5) is not jurisdictional and thus the objection was waived.

Although the statute authorized the Bankruptcy Court to determine the counterclaim, the Court holds that grant violates Article III. The Court rejects the view that the Article III problem was resolved by placing the Bankruptcy Judges in the judicial branch as an “adjunct” to the District Court. The Court focuses on the liberty aspect of Article III and its requirement of judges who are protected by life tenure and salary guarantees. After outlining the extensive jurisdiction of Bankruptcy Judges over matters at law and in equity and their power to issue enforceable orders, the Court states “a court exercising such broad powers is no mere adjunct of anyone.”

The Court then uses the “public rights” doctrine as the test for which matters can be delegated to a non-Article III tribunal. Although Granfinanciera v. Nordberg, 492 U.S. 33 (1989), suggested a balancing test that considered both how closely a matter was related to a federal scheme and the degree of District Court supervision (a test that arguably supports the Bankruptcy Court’s entry of a judgment on a compulsory counterclaim), the Court settles on a new test for public rights limited to “cases in which resolution of the claim at issue derives from a federal regulatory scheme, or in which resolution of the claim by an expert government agency is deemed essential to a limited regulatory objective within the agency’s authority.” The state common law tort counterclaim asserted here does not meet that test. Instead, adjudication of this claim “involves the most prototypical exercise of judicial power.”

Interpreted in the most restrictive fashion, this ruling might create serious problems for case administration. In proof of claim matters, the Bankruptcy Court would be limited to proposed findings on most counterclaims, with the District Court entering the final order after de novo review. Query whether the majority’s limited view of “public rights” would prevent the Bankruptcy Judge from entering final judgment in other disputes that involve the non-bankruptcy rights of non-debtor parties. Bankruptcy Courts regularly resolve inter-creditor disputes and resolve disputes regarding the non-bankruptcy rights of parties to the bankruptcy case in contexts other than claim allowance. Whether the Bankruptcy Court’s exercise of this power is constitutional may turn on how broadly the courts interpret the “cases in which resolution of the claim at issue derives from a federal regulatory scheme” prong of the “public rights” test.

Did I Really Sign That? When Signed Affidavits Are Altered Before Filing

Most law firm clients would assume that an affidavit, once signed, would remain unchanged when it is filed in court. Recently, however, certain affiants in Cook County would have been perfectly justified in asking, “Did I really sign that?”

This issue was brought to light by General Administrative Order No. 2011-01 (GAO 2011-01), entered in March 2011 by Judge Moshe Jacobius in the Chancery Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County. GAO 2011-01 illustrates the importance of a close working relationship between law firms and their clients. In particular, clients must know and understand the content of any affidavit they sign. Similarly, if an affidavit that was previously executed is changed, a law firm must make its client aware of the alteration, have the client approve it and execute the affidavit after the alteration is made. As can be seen from the synopsis that follows, failure to follow this protocol can have dire results for both the client and the attorney.

The entry of GAO 2011-01 came about because a well-known Chicago law firm that specializes in mortgage foreclosures informed Judge Jacobius that in certain instances it had filed affidavits that varied from what the affiant actually signed. According to GAO 2011-01, employees of the law firm would remove the signature page from the affidavit as executed by the affiant. They would then make changes to the document—by adding attorneys’ fees, insurance costs and preservation costs, among other things—and reaffix the original signature page to the altered affidavit. Upon receiving this information, Judge Jacobius felt he had to take steps to protect the integrity of the court, the Illinois Mortgage Foreclosure Law, the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure and the Illinois Supreme Court Rules. Because there were approximately 1,700 cases with questionable affidavits, he ordered specific procedures designed to ensure that the affidavits were true and correct when signed.

First, the court mandated a stay of all the cases in which the offending law firm was involved. After that, the court required the firm to file the following motions, at a minimum, in each of the cases:

  1. A motion to vacate judgment of foreclosure and sale;
  2. A motion for leave to file an amended affidavit;
  3. A motion to vacate judicial sale (if the sale had occurred);
  4. A motion to lift the stay, which at a minimum must verify that the most recent affidavit filed with the court was true and correct and based on the personal knowledge of the affiant;
  5. A motion to vacate confirmation of sale, if applicable.

Needless to say, the procedures mandated by GAO 2011-01 were time consuming and created a significant hardship for the law firm and its clients. GAO 2011-01 also sent a clear message to other law firms in Cook County: in addition to damaging a law firm’s reputation with its peers and the court, failure to properly prepare and execute affidavits can negatively affect an affiant’s credibility and give the court a basis to void or vacate a judgment. While it may seem like a needless and ministerial task, a client/affiant and its law firm should always review and re-sign an affidavit that has been modified since it was originally executed.

Collision Occurs Between Copyrights and Misappropriation in Electronic News Media Space

Despite winning in court to protect valuable copyrights, Wall Street firms are unable to protect their valuable trading recommendations as federal and state laws collide in Barclays Capital Inc. v., Inc.1 (pending any potential review on appeal). The electronic news media continues to lead the charge, and now the walls of exclusivity are beginning to crumble for these respected recommendations.

Wall Street firms have for long provided detailed research reports and trading recommendations—exclusively to firm customers—to drive order flow with the recommending firm, thereby generating commission revenue. Storming the walls, however, are those in the electronic news media blasting the once-exclusive information to all corners of the Internet, immediately upon its release by Wall Street. But for Wall Street, this widespread, uncontrolled dissemination has cut into profitability and has wreaked havoc on traditional business models for market research.

Although the electronic news media scored a fresh victory, Wall Street has not suffered a devastating loss. The copyrightable aspects of Wall Street research—the published models, insights, and facts, for example, are often more valuable to institutional customers than the basic recommendation itself (e.g., Buy, Sell, or Hold). These copyrightable aspects, of course, remain protected by federal copyright law.2 Outside the realm of finance, however, this case may signal much broader implications for any business with both feet in the Information Age.

The appeals court received this case after the District Court for the Southern District of New York granted injunctive relief to plaintiffs Barclays Capital Inc.; Merrill Lynch; Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc.; and Morgan Stanley & Co. Inc. (“the Firms”), which prohibited, Inc. (“Fly”) from publishing information about the Firms’ recommendations, within certain parameters.3 The issue presented on appeal was whether Fly could be enjoined from publishing “news,” i.e., bare facts, that the Firms [had] made certain recommendations.4 The appeals court vacated the injunction, paving the way for the electronic news media to publish Wall Street recommendations far and wide, and of course, to direct profits to publishers and sponsors, away from the recommending firm. In the wake of this decision, Wall Street firms must now reconsider business models built upon the value of their proprietary information.

Without further recourse from federal copyright law, which does not protect bare “facts” alone, the Firms sought relief under New York tort law through the doctrine of “hot news” misappropriation of information. The appeals court was bound to consider, however, whether federal copyright law preempted the applicability of state law in these circumstances. To survive preemption, Firms were required to prove that Fly’s use of the information constitutes “free riding” on the Firms’ efforts.5 By concluding that there was no “free riding,” the appeals court significantly narrowed the circumstances in which similar state law misappropriation claims can survive preemption by federal copyright law. Accordingly, this case signals a broader victory for electronic publishers hoping to widely distribute, and to profit from, factual information created by others.

In determining whether Fly engaged in “free riding,” the court looked to precedent in National Basketball Association v. Motorola, Inc.6 (“the NBA Case”). In the NBA Case, the NBA collected and broadcast information, based on live sports games, over a communication network; and likewise, a competitor collected and broadcast its own information, based on live sports games, over a competing communication network. The appeals court noted that, in the NBA Case, there was no free riding, in part, because Motorola was bearing its own costs of collecting factual information.

In the present case, the appeals court’s ultimate inquiry was whether any of the Firms’ products enabled Fly “to produce a directly competitive product for less money because it has lower costs.”7 Extending the reasoning from the NBA Case to cover Fly’s actions, the appeals court concluded that that there was no “free riding” because approximately half of Fly’s twenty-eight employees were involved in the collection and distribution of Firms’ recommendations.8 According to the appeals court, Fly “is reporting financial news—factual information on Firm Recommendations—through a substantial organizational effort.”9

The appeals court, however, did not consider it important that the Firms had incurred substantial costs in research and analysis (i.e., acquiring and creating information) as the basis for their recommendations, whereas Fly’s only costs were in collecting and reporting the recommendations. The appeals court discarded the relevance of these basis costs—even though they provide an arguable distinction over the NBA Case—stating that although the Firms “may be ‘acquiring material’ in the course of preparing their reports . . . that is not the focus of this lawsuit. In pressing a ‘hot news’ claim against [Fly], [Firms] seek only to protect their Recommendations, something they create using their expertise and experience rather than acquire through efforts akin to reporting.”10 The appeals court concluded that there was no meaningful difference between “taking material that a Firm has created . . . as the result of organization and the expenditure of labor, skill, and money . . . and selling it by ascribing the material to its creator” and the “unexceptional and easily recognized behavior by members of the traditional news media [reporting on] winners of Tony Awards . . . with proper attribution of the material to its creator.”11 We expect that the contours of these differences to be a key issue if this case [is] heard on appeal, either at the Second Circuit en banc or at the United States Supreme Court.

Absent any legal recourse to ensure the exclusivity of their recommendations, Wall Street firms must now scramble to implement even greater security and counter-intelligence measures. After all, publishers such as Fly rely on information leaks and intelligence to timely obtain the recommendations in the first place. More likely, however, is that Wall Street firms will soon refine their business models to otherwise adequately monetize, or else reduce expenditures in, their intensive research and analysis efforts.

The broader implications of this case—that the “ability to make news . . . does not give rise to a right for it to control who breaks that news and how”12—will bear critically on the development, funding, and overall power of rapidly-advancing electronic information sources. In particular, businesses providing information aggregation services of all stripes—including, for example, those provided by Google, Inc. and Twitter, Inc.—will rejoice in the ability to gather and publish information from multiple sources across the entire nation with a lower risk of encountering divergent legal standards for misappropriation, on a state-by-state basis.