South Bay Law Firm | Finding New Ways to Sell Troubled Assets “Free and Clear” of Liens
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Finding New Ways to Sell Troubled Assets “Free and Clear” of Liens

Finding New Ways to Sell Troubled Assets “Free and Clear” of Liens

One of the most effective vehicles for the rescue and revitalization of troubled business and real estate to emerge in recent years of Chapter 11 practice has been the “363 sale.”

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Named for the Bankruptcy Code section where it is found, the “363 sale” essentially provides for the sale to a proposed purchaser, free and clear of any liens, claims, and other interests, of distressed assets and land.

The section has been used widely in bankruptcy courts in several jurisdictions to authorize property sales for “fair market value” . . . even when that value is below the “face value” of the liens encumbering the property.

In the Ninth Circuit, however, such sales are not permitted – unless (pursuant to Section 363(f)(5)) the lien holder “could be compelled, in a legal or equitable proceeding, to accept a money satisfaction of such interest.”

A recent decision issued early this year by the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Panel and available here) provides a glimpse of how California bankruptcy court are  employing this statutory exception to approve “363 sales.”

East Airport Development (EAD) was a residential development project in  San Luis Obispo which, due to the downturn of the housing market, never came completely to fruition.

Originally financed with a $9.7 million construction and development loan in 2006, EAD’s obligation was refinanced at $10.6 million in mid-2009.  By February 2010, the project found itself in Chapter 11 in order to stave off foreclosure.

A mere  two weeks after its Chapter 11 filing, EAD’s management requested court authorization to sell 2 of the 26 lots in the project free and clear of the bank’s lien, then to use the excess proceeds of the sale as cash collateral.

In support of this request, EAD claimed the parties had previously negotiated a pre-petition release price agreement.  EAD argued the release price agreement was a “binding agreement that may be enforced by non-bankruptcy law, which would compel [the bank] to accept a money satisfaction,” and also that the bank had consented to the sale of the lots.  A spreadsheet setting forth the release prices was appended to the motion.  The motion stated EAD’s intention to use the proceeds of sale to pay the bank the release prices and use any surplus funds to pay other costs of the case (including, inter alia, completion of a sewer system).

The bank objected strenuously to the sale.  It argued there was no such agreement – and EAD’s attachment of spreadsheets and e-mails from bank personnel referencing such release prices ought to be excluded on various evidentiary grounds.

The bankruptcy court approved the sale and cash collateral use over these objections.  The bank appealed.

On review, the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellant Panel found, first, that the bankruptcy court was within the purview of its discretion to find that, in fact, a release price agreement did exist – and second, that such agreement was fully enforceable in California:

It is true that most release price agreements are the subject of a detailed and formal writing, while this agreement appears rather informal and was evidenced, as far as we can tell, by only a few short writings. However, this relative informality is not fatal. The bankruptcy court is entitled to construe the agreement in the context of and in connection with the loan documents, as well as the facts and circumstances of the case. Courts seeking to construe release price agreements may give consideration to the construction placed upon the agreement by the actions of the parties. . . . Here, the parties acted as though the release price agreement was valid and enforceable and, in fact, had already completed one such transaction before EAD filed for bankruptcy. On these facts, [EAD] had the right to require [the bank] to release its lien on the two lots upon payment of the specified release prices, even though [the bank] would not realize the full amount of its claim. More importantly, [EAD] could enforce this right in a specific performance action on the contract. For these reasons, the sale was proper under § 363(f)(5).

The Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel‘s East Airport decision provides an example of how bankruptcy courts in the Ninth Circuit are creatively finding ways around legal hurdles to getting “363 sales” approved in a very difficult California real estate market.  It likewise demonstrates the level of care which lenders’ counsel must exercise in negotiating the work-out of troubled real estate projects.

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