Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Two bankruptcy cases: what SCOTUS Won't Decide

The Supreme Court of the United States yesterday announced that it will not grant cert to bankrupt flatware maker Oneida, which sought to use its chapter 11 filing in 2006 to relieve itself of the obligation to make its payments to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.

The ERISA says simply: "[T]here shall be payable to the corporation [PBGC], with respect to each applicable 12-month period, a premium at a rate equal to $1,250 multiplied by the number of individuals who were participants in the plan immediately before the termination date.” But the bankruptcy court agreed with Oneida that this was a pre-petition claim under chapter 11, subject to relief. This is a matter of enormous concern to many companies who find, as the population of the US (like that of much of the rest of the industrialized world) ages, that pension obligations are a significant burden.

It is a burden they have largely brought upon themselves. I don't know anything of Oneida's specific situation, but many US companies have used the prospect of juicy pensions as a way of easing otherwise difficult labor negotiations. The unions representing their workers were also complicit in this game, because they could present higher pension promises as a negotiating victory to their rank-and-file, without worrying much about whether those promises were funded or just hot air. So the bill comes due, and the restaurant's diners keep passing it around the table.

The 2d Circuit has since overturned the bankruptcy court's discharge, though, preserving the ERISA obligation. And it was the 2d Circuit decision whence the company sought a writ of certiorari. Now SCOTUS has let that ruling stand, leaving the other circuits free to go their own ways without guidance. Of course, if those other circuits follow the 2d Circuit's precedent, there will never be a need for SCOTUS to weigh in. This is one of a class of cases in which SCOTUS prefers to wait until a split among the circuits develops.


Another decision-not-to-decide: the Chrysler bankruptcy. Yesterday the Justices dismissed an appeal brought by Indiana pension funds who objected to the ham-handed way in which the Obama administration pushed the old Chrysler through bankruptcy at their expense. The 2d Circuit in June had approved of the shotgun sale of most of Chrysler's assets to Fiat, but Justice Ginsberg stayed the sale soon thereafter. Now the Justices have sent the case back to the 2d Circuit with an order that the circuit dismiss the challenge to that sale as moot.

The state treasurer in Indiana says that he is happy with the high court's decision not to decide on mootness grounds. The manner in which it is done effectively erases the Second Court's decision as a precedent, and this means there is no precedent upholding the kind of emergency proceeding employed here. Its critics survive to fight another day.

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