Leiman v. Guttman/Opinion of the Court

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Leiman v. Guttman
Opinion of the Court by William O. Douglas
Court Documents
Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

336 U.S. 1

Leiman  v.  Guttman

 Argued: Dec. 13, 1948. --- Decided: Jan 17, 1949

Section 221 of Ch. X of the Bankruptcy Act, 52 Stat. 897, 11 U.S.C. § 621, 11 U.S.C.A. § 621, provides:

'The judge shall confirm a plan if satisfied that-* * *

'(4) all payments made or promised by the debtor or by a corporation issuing securities or acquiring property under the plan or by any other person, for services and for costs and expenses in, or in connection with, the proceeding or in connection with the plan and incident to the reorganization, have been fully disclosed to the judge and are reasonable or, if to be fixed after confirmation of the plan, will be subject to the approval of the judge * * *.'

The question presented by this case is whether that provision gives the bankruptcy court exclusive jurisdiction over petitioners' claim for services as attorneys in the reorganization of Pittsburgh Terminal Coal Corp., the debtor.

Petitioners were attorneys for a protective committee representing public holders of the preferred stock of the debtor. The committee had on deposit 584 shares of the preferred stock from four stockholders. The committee agreed to hold those shares in escrow for the purpose of affording petitioners 'additional compensation' for their services in the reorganization proceedings of the debtor. [1]

Petitioners rendered valuable service in connection with the reorganization. When the plan was confirmed, they applied to the bankruptcy court for an allowance. That court allowed them $37,500 out of the estate. It concluded that, while that amount was all the estate should bear, their services were worth more than the allowance. But it held that it had no jurisdiction to pass on the amount of the allowance which should be paid under the escrow agreement. In re Pittsburgh Terminal Coal Corp., D.C., 69 F.Supp. 656.

Since in their view that court did not have jurisdiction of the claim, petitioners did not appeal from that order but brought instead the present suit in the New York courts for specific performance of the escrow agreement and for delivery of the deposited stock in accordance with the terms of that agreement. The Court of Appeals answered in the negative the following certified question:

'Has the Supreme Court of the State of New York jurisdiction over the subject matter of this action to recover for legal services rendered to the stockholders committee which are not compensable out of the assets of the Debtor's estate, in a Chapter X reorganization proceeding under the United States Bankruptcy Act?' 297 N.Y. 201, at page 204, 78 N.E.2d 472, at page 473.

The case is here on a petition for certiorari which we granted because of the importance of the question in administration of the Act.

We reviewed in Woods v. City Nat. Bank & Trust Co. of Chicago, 312 U.S. 262, 61 S.Ct. 493, 85 L.Ed. 820, and Brown v. Gerdes, 321 U.S. 178, 64 S.Ct. 487, 88 L.Ed. 659, the design of Ch. X insofar as fees and allowances are concerned. There we were dealing with fees and allowances payable out of the estate. Here we are dealing with fees which are incident to the reorganization but not payable out of the estate. Under the less comprehensive language of § 77B the leading authority was that the bankruptcy court had jurisdiction over the latter claims as well. In re McCrory Stores Corp., 2 Cir., 91 F.2d 947. We would be unmindful of history and heedless of statutory language if we held that the power of the bankruptcy court in this respect had been contracted [2] as a result of Ch. X.

The control of the judge is not limited to fees and allowances payable out of the estate. Section 221(4) places under his control 'all payments made or promised' (1) by 'the debtor' or (2) 'by a corporation issuing securities or acquiring property under the plan' or (3) 'by any other person' for services rendered 'in connection with' the proceeding or 'in connection with' the plan and 'incident to' the reorganization. The services of petitioners concededly met those requirements; and the committee against whose stock a lien is sought to be asserted would plainly be included within the words 'any other person.' Moreover, these petitioners are included in the classes of claimants to whom the judge is empowered to allow reasonable compensation. [3] To lift petitioner's claim from § 221(4) would therefore be to rewrite it or to hold that when extended so far it was unconstitutional. The latter has not even been intimated. The former is not permissible.

The aim of the expanded controls over reorganization fees and expenses is clear. The practice had been to fix them by private arrangement outside of court. [4] The deposit agreement under which committees commonly functioned was viewed as a private contract, [5] which granted the committee a lien on the deposited securities for its fees and expenses. By terms of the agreement the committee was normally the sole judge of their amount. [6] This gave rise to serious abuses. There was the spectacle of fiduciaries fixing the worth of their own services and exacting fees which often had no relation to the value of services rendered. [7] The result was that the effective amount received by creditors and stockholders under the plan was determined not by the court but by reorganization manager and committees.

Hence Congress instituted controls, controls which became more pervasive as § 77B was evolved into Ch. X. Section 211 requires that a committee file with the court a statement disclosing specified information including the agreement under which it operates. [8] The scrutiny clause of § 212 gives the court power to set aside any of the provisions of such an agreement which it finds to be 'unfair or not consistent with public policy.' And § 221(4) is written in pervasive terms-it applies to 'all payments' for services 'in connection with' the proceeding or 'in connection with' the plan and 'incident to' the reorganization, whoever pays them. [9] A statute establishing such broad supervision over committees cannot be presumed to be niggardly in its grant of authority when it deals with the matter which of all the others has the most direct impact on those whom it aims to protect.

We can find in this language no exemption for the kind of committee that petitioners represented. The fact that the committee may have represented a smaller or more intimate group than a conventional committee is irrelevant. The statute was designed to police the return which all security holders obtain from reorganization plans. The net return cannot be kept under supervision if private arrangements expressed in escrow agreements are to control. For the impact of excessive fee claims is the same whether they are charged directly against the estate or against the claim which represents a proportionate interest in the estate.

Nor is it an answer to say that state courts can supervise allowances of this nature if the bankruptcy court is disallowed authority to do so. The happenstance of litigation in the state courts is not the equivalent of the administrative rule adopted by Congress when it asked that committee claimants submit their requests to the bankruptcy court. The incidence of fees on reorganization plans is so great that control over them is deemed indispensable to the court's determination whether the plan should be confirmed. Section 221(4) provides, indeed, one of the standards by which the court makes that determination. Since the determination of allowances has been made an integral part of the process of confirmation which is exclusively entrusted to the bankruptcy court, we cannot infer that it may be delegated to a state court. Moreover, it is the bankruptcy court that is in the best position to know what work was done by the fee claimant, how important and involved it was, how much it benefited the whole group of security holders and how much it benefited the one class alone, how much of it was necessary, how much of it was effective. That court has already determined what the estate should pay. The question that remains is how much of a charge should be made against the escrowed stock and whether the state court or the bankruptcy court should determine what that charge should be. Certainly where, as in this case, the services benefited in part the estate and in part one class of security holders, it is the bankruptcy court that is in the position to weigh the interrelated issues of fact and make a fair allocation between the two.

These practical considerations support the literal reading of § 221(4) that it is the bankruptcy court that has jurisdiction to pass on these fees. Its jurisdiction is therefore exclusive. See Brown v. Gerdes, supra.

Petitioners did not appeal from the order of the District Court holding that it had no jurisdiction over these claims. But no reason is apparent why the petitioners may not apply to the District Court for an allowance even at this date. We were advised during the course of argument that the final decree under § 228 has not been entered. [10] Yet though it has been, there is no reason in view of the special circumstances of this case why application cannot be made at the foot of the decree.


Mr. Justice JACKSON, dissenting in part.


^1  The relevant part of the escrow agreement provided:

'These shares are held in escrow by this Committee pending the termination of all proceedings in the matter of the Pittsburgh Terminal Coal Corporation.

'This Committee has secured these shares from the stockholders listed above for the purpose of affording to you additional compensation for your services in the above matter. They have been obtained and are held in escrow on the condition that they be delivered to you only at such time as the reorganization proceedings in the matter of Pittsburgh Terminal Code Corporation are finally terminated and a final settlement of all suits and claims made by this Committee in behalf of the preferred stockholders have been settled. It is further condtioned upon faithful and satisfactory performance of your duties as counsel to this Committee until the termination of all proceedings.'

^2  The indicated purpose was to strengthen not to impair the existing controls which § 77B, 11 U.S.C.A. § 207, established in regard to allowances. See Sen. Rep. No. 1916, 75th Cong., 3d Sess. 22 (1938); H.R. Rep. No. 1409, 75th Cong., 1st Sess. 45 (1937).

^3  Section 242, 11 U.S.C.A. § 642, provides:

'The judge may allow reasonable compensation for services rendered and reimbursement for proper costs and expenses incurred in connection with the administration of an estate in a proceeding under this chapter or in connection with a plan approved by the judge, whether or not accepted by creditors and stockholders or finally confirmed by the judge-

'(1) by indentu e trustees, depositaries, reorganization managers, and committees or representatives of creditors or stockholders;

'(2) by any other parties in interest except the Securities and Exchange Commission; and

'(3) by the attorneys or agents for any of the foregoing except the Securities and Exchange Commission.'

^4  See Part VIII, Protective Committee Report, Securities and Exchange Commission (1940), pp. 232 et seq.

^5  See Habirshaw Electric Cable Co. v. Habirshaw Electric Cable Co., Inc., 2 Cir., 296 F. 875, 879, 43 A.L.R. 1035.

^6  See Part I, Protective Committee Report, Securities and Exchange Commission (1937), pp. 642, 644, 645, 646-647: 'An examination of the 846 deposit agreements received with replies to the Commission's questionnaire reveals that 841 agreements, or 99.4 percent, provided that the committee should be entitled to fees or expenses or both. Of those 841 deposit agreements, 672 agreements, or 79.9 percent, gave the committee an express lien upon the deposited securities, for expenses or compensation, or both. 742, or 88.2 percent, clothed the committee with power to pledge deposited securities to secure loans to finance its activities. These powers commonly may be exercised by the committee in its sole discretion free from supervision by any independent agency or by the depositors.

'The deposit agreements provide little check upon the amounts the committees may charge for fees and expenses. As we have stated above, 841 of the 846 deposit agreements that we examined provided that the committee should be entitled to payment of its fees or expenses or both. In 469 the amount of compensation and expenses which the committee might charge against the deposited securities was unlimited. That is to say, in 55.4 per cent of the cases neither the aggregate amount nor the amount per unit of securities which committees could claim for their expenses and services was limited.

'in the 705 cases not associated with Section 77 or Section 77B proceedings machinery was provided for having some independent person or agency review the amount of the fees and expenses of these committees in only 2.13 percent of these cases. In the balance of the cases, numbering 690, the committee had reserved to itself the right to determine, within the limits prescribed by the agreement, the amount which it could charge for fees and expenses. And in 403 of these 690 cases, the agreements prescribed no limitations. These fiduciaries, therefore, had in the vast majority of the cases provided machinery whereby they became the sole arbiters of the worth of their own services and of the propriety of their expenses. As we have pointed out, it was usually provided that the compensation to be fixed by the committee must be 'reasonable.' But this restriction in and of itself would mean little, since the committee and the committee alone was to determine what was 'reasonable.' And it is no answer to say that a court of equity would review these fees on complaint of a depositor and disallow sums beyond a 'reasonable' amount or disallow improper items of expense. Such relief would necessitate litigation by the depositors. Considering the time, expense, and difficulty of legal questions involved, such a remedy would for all practical purposes furnish no check whatsoever on the extravagance of committee members.'

^7  See Part II, Protective Committee Report, Securities and Exchange Commission (1937), pp. 351 et seq.

^8  It is to be noted that while this provision only applies to committees representing more than twelve creditors or stockholders, the scrutiny clause contained in § 212 and the power to control allowances contained in § 221(4) is not so restricted. 11 U.S.C.A. §§ 611, 612, 621(4).

^9  Sen. Rep. No. 1916, supra, note 2, at 36, explains § 221(4) as follows:

'Subsection (4) of section 221, derived from section 77B(f)(5), requires full disclosure and the approval by the judge of all payments for services, and for costs and expenses, in connection with the plan or the proceedings, whether such payments are made or promised by the debtor, or by any corporation succeeding to it, or by any other person.'

Section 77B(f)(5) provided that 'the judge shall confirm the plan if satisfied that * * * (5) all amounts to be paid by the debtor or by any corporation or corporations acquiring the debtor's assets, and all amounts to be paid to committees or reorganization managers, whether or not by the debtor or any such corporation for services or expenses incident to the reorganization, have been fully disclosed and are reasonable, or are to be subject to the approval of the judge * * *.'

^10  Section 228, 11 U.S.C.A. § 628, provides:

'Upon the consummation of the plan, the judge shall enter a final decree-

'(1) discharging the debtor from all its debts and liabilities and terminating all rights and interests of stockholders of the debtor, except as provided in the plan or in the order confirming the plan or in the order directing or authorizing the transfer or retention of property;

'(2) discharging the trustee, if any;

'(3) making such provisions by way of injunction or otherwise as may be equitable; and

'(4) closing the estate.'

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).