The Small Business Reorganization Act of 2019 (SBRA), effective February 19, 2020, has created timely opportunities for individuals to confirm a Chapter 11 plan. Prior to the enactment of this legislation, individuals who did not qualify for Chapter 13, generally because their debts exceeded statutory limits, were forced to use the business reorganization provisions in Chapter 11. These provisions subjected individuals to the cramdown requirements of the absolute priority rule and made it difficult for individual debtors to confirm a Chapter 11 plan of reorganization. Thankfully, however, mere months before the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress passed the SBRA and eliminated the absolute priority rule for qualifying small businesses, which can include individuals.
The absolute priority rule was derived under Chapter X of the Chandler Act, which was the predecessor to the Bankruptcy Code enacted in 1978. Under the Bankruptcy Code, the absolute priority rule generally applies when a class of unsecured creditors did not vote in favor of the plan treatment (cramdown) and required the debtor to pay in full the allowed unsecured claims of the rejecting class if any junior interests, such as equity holders, were retaining their interest. In the case of an individual, the Supreme Court held in Norwest Bank Worthington v. Ahlersthat the individual debtor should be regarded as an equity class, junior to unsecured creditors. This made it extremely difficult for an individual to confirm a Chapter 11 plan unless the creditors consented or the creditors were receiving full payment. Alternatively, the debtor could perhaps propose a new value plan to get around the absolute priority rule and retain their interest in their property, but such plans were difficult because the Supreme Court required significant new value and monies’ worth up front, and a promise to provide future labor was not enough to qualify as new value.
Congress confirmed that the absolute priority rule applied to individual debtors through the passage of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (BAPCPA). This legislation appeared to make significant changes for individuals in Chapter 11 cases by acknowledging that individuals were subject to the absolute priority rule, but it did provide an exception: “in a case in which the debtor is an individual, the debtor may retain property included in the estate under section 1115 . . . .” Section 1115, in turn, added to property of the estate in an individual Chapter 11 case income the debtor earned post-petition, thus making the individual Chapter 11 case similar to a Chapter 13 case. The big advantage was that there is no debt limit in Chapter 11; thus, the individual could confirm a plan by satisfying the requirements of section 1129(a)(15). This provision permitted a plan to be approved when the debtor paid his or her “projected disposable income” to be accumulated over a 60-month period.
Although insolvency professionals welcomed the new provisions under section 1129(a)(15), the confirmation requirements were still subject to the remaining confirmation requirements under section 1129(a), thus requiring the acceptance of creditors (contrary to Chapter 13), and when that acceptance was not forthcoming, the individual debtor was still subject to the absolute priority rule when a class of unsecured creditors objected to the plan. This would not have been a major obstacle, however, if the exception to the absolute priority rule that was added by BAPCPA had been interpreted broadly. Unfortunately for individual debtors, the failure of Congress to make it clear in any legislative history when BAPCPA was enacted that Congress intended the exception to be interpreted broadly (thus eliminating the absolute priority rule as it applied to individuals) created concerns among the circuit courts that the exception should be interpreted narrowly to only except the debtor’s post-petition income that was added by section 1115. Consequently, in a normal Chapter 11, individual debtors are unable to confirm a plan that allows them to retain their nonexempt property over the objection of unsecured creditors unless such objecting unsecured creditors are paid in full. Alternatively, individual debtors can retain their nonexempt property if they convince the court that they are able to provide “new value” that will circumvent the requirements of the absolute priority rule. Given that the requirements of the new value are rather stringent, this is rarely achieved.
Congress appears to have come to the rescue of individual debtors through the passage of the SBRA. This statute created a new Subchapter V within Chapter 11 that is available to electing small-business debtors who have secured and unsecured debts less than $2,725,625.00. Given that there is no exclusion for individuals, these provisions will apply to individuals, provided that their debts are primarily business debts, they otherwise fit within the debt limits, and they are “engaged in commercial or business activities.” In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress increased the debt limit for Subchapter V cases to $7,500,000.00 for one year, ending March 27, 2021.
Although there are many aspects of the new Subchapter V that are beneficial to an individual debtor, the most significant is the elimination of the absolute priority rule. The new Subchapter V does not include a limitation on equity retaining ownership if a class of allowed unsecured claims votes against the plan. A debtor may confirm a plan over the objection of an unsecured creditor class so long as (1) all “projected disposable income” of the debtor to be received in a three-year period, or such longer period as the court may approve but not to exceed five years, will be applied to the plan, or (2) the value of the property to be distributed under the plan in the three- to five-year period is not less than the “projected disposable income” of the debtor.