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Third Circuit: Bankruptcy Court Has Jurisdiction to Interpret Its Own Orders

August 7, 2013


On July 30, 2013, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Bankruptcy Court can interpret its own orders. The Court issued a precedential decision concerning a bankruptcy court’s jurisdiction to reopen a bankruptcy case in order to interpret an order entered during the case.  The case, In re Lazy Days’ RV Center, Inc., No. 12-4047, 2013 WL 3886735 (3d Cir. July 30, 2013) (“Lazy Days”), involved the interpretation of the terms of a settlement agreement approved by order of the Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware.  Under the agreement, the Debtor, Lazy Days, assigned its interests in a leased parcel of land to a third party, with the consent of its landlord, I-4 Land Holdings Limited Co. (“I-4”) who was a party to the agreement.  The original lease contained not only a purchase option, but also an anti-assignment provision prohibiting Lazy Days from assigning or transferring its interests in the lease without the prior consent of I-4.  The bankruptcy settlement agreement that authorized the assignment left intact all provisions of the lease and stated that the Bankruptcy Court would abstain from lease interpretation issues except in connection with the assumption and assignment of the lease.  A  year later, the assignee sought to enforce the purchase option.  I-4  refused relying in part, on the anti-assignment provision to invalidate that portion of the lease.   Law suits were filed in the Florida State Court seeking interpretation of the parties’ rights under the lease at state law.  Lazy Days, as a reorganized debtor, also filed a motion to reopen the bankruptcy case asking the Bankruptcy Court to find the anti-assignment clause unenforceable under Bankruptcy Code section 365(f)(3), which renders such clauses unenforceable if they modify or terminate a right under the lease because of the assignment.

The Bankruptcy Court determined that the anti-assignment clause was invalid.  It found that I-4’s refusal to honor the purchase option violated the terms of the settlement agreement it previously approved in conjunction with Lazy Days’ plan of reorganization and directed I-4 to comply with the purchase option.  The District Court, however, reversed finding that the Bankruptcy Court decree and order was merely an advisory opinion to the Florida State Court with respect to the matters pending before it.  Thus, the District Court determined that the Bankruptcy Court lacked jurisdiction to reopen the bankruptcy case for the purpose of rendering an advisory opinion.

The Third Circuit reversed.  After noting that federal courts in general could not issue advisory opinions or which don’t actually affect the litigants’ rights, the Circuit Court found that the two page decree entered by the Bankruptcy Court had the opposite effect because it invalidated the anti-assignment clause and compelled I-4 to honor the purchase option under the settlement agreement.  Accordingly, there was no question that the order affected the litigants’ rights and was therefore not advisory.  The Court also rejected I-4’s reliance on prior case law to support its argument that Lazy Days use of the Bankruptcy Court decree amounted to an advisory opinion because its purpose was to influence the state court litigation.  The Court determined that regardless of Lazy Days’ intentions with respect to the pending Florida litigation, the Bankruptcy Court opinion clearly affected the parties’ rights and therefore it could not be considered advisory.

With respect to I-4’s arguments that the Bankruptcy Court lacked jurisdiction over the motion to reopen the bankruptcy case, the Court cited to Bankruptcy Code section 350(b) which gave the Bankruptcy Court broad discretion to reopen a case even if state cases raising similar issues were pending.  Relying on prior Third Circuit precedent, it found that Bankruptcy Court was “well suited to provide the best interpretation of its own order” because the Bankruptcy Court was asked to resolve a dispute over a settlement agreement that it approved.  Id. at *3.  The Court also rejected arguments that the Bankruptcy Court was prohibited from, or should have abstained from, issuing the decree because it was a ruling on a state law claims.  Rather, the Circuit Court found the issue required a determination under federal bankruptcy law as to whether the anti-assignment clause was invalid under Bankruptcy Code section 365(f)(3).  As a final parting shot, the Third Circuit rejected all of I-4’s attack on the Bankruptcy Court’s order on the merits and remanded the case for further consideration.

The decision further solidifies bankruptcy court jurisdiction to resolve disputes over matters that have been previously adjudicated by the bankruptcy court, without regard to a party’s intention or motive with respect to pending litigation on the same or similar issues when an issue of federal law is involved.  It should be noted, however, that without such a federal law issue present a bankruptcy court may not have jurisdiction to proceed since any opinion or ruling it issues may be considered advisory, because it is not determining litigants’ rights under federal law.  Before proceeding to bankruptcy court, aggrieved parties need to keep this in mind to avoid potential costly litigation over jurisdictional issues before reaching the actual merits of a dispute.