861 F.2d 1012 (7th Cir. 1988), 87-3004, Matter of Met-L-Wood Corp.

Docket Nº:87-3004, 88-1051.
Citation:861 F.2d 1012
Party Name:In the Matter of MET-L-WOOD CORPORATION, Debtor. Appeal of Constantine John GEKAS, Trustee. Constantine John GEKAS, Trustee, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Frederick L. PIPIN, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
Case Date:November 08, 1988
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

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861 F.2d 1012 (7th Cir. 1988)

In the Matter of MET-L-WOOD CORPORATION, Debtor.

Appeal of Constantine John GEKAS, Trustee.

Constantine John GEKAS, Trustee, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

Frederick L. PIPIN, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

Nos. 87-3004, 88-1051.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

November 8, 1988

Argued Sept. 16, 1988.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Constantine John Gekas, Harvitt & Gekas, Ltd., Chicago, Ill., for plaintiff-appellant.

Matthew F. Kennelly, Cotsirilos Crowley Stephenson Tighe & Streicker, Jeffrey C. Blumenthal, Foran, Wiss & Schultz, William Lynch Schaller, Francis D. Morrissey, William J. Linklater, Andrew J. Boling, Kathleen M. Dedmon, Baker & McKenzie, Chicago, Ill., for defendants-appellees.

Barry L. Kroll, Joseph M. Vallowe, C. Barry Montgomery, Williams & Montgomery, Ltd., Chicago, Ill., for Coffield, Ungaretti, Harris & Slavin.

Before CUMMINGS, POSNER, and MANION, Circuit Judges.

POSNER, Circuit Judge.

Constantine Gekas, the trustee in bankruptcy of Met-L-Wood Corporation, made sedulous but unavailing efforts in the bankruptcy court and the district court to set aside a judicial sale of the bankrupt's bulk assets, made before his appointment as trustee. He renews his efforts in this court.

A subsidiary of a corporation owned by Frederick Pipin, Met-L-Wood manufactured laminated panels, including the patented "Sea-Lok" door for truck trailers, which is designed to prevent leaks. In

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1984 Met-L-Wood began going downhill, and on November 27 and 28 of that year its two principal secured creditors informed it that it was in default and that they would conduct a public foreclosure sale on December 10. On November 28, Met-L-Wood admitted it could not cure the default and agreed to so notify its unsecured creditors, which it did by letters mailed the same day. The forthcoming sale was advertised in the Chicago Tribune and the Wall Street Journal on December 2 and 5, while on December 3 Met-L-Wood sent letters to at least 40 of its creditors announcing the date, time, and place of the sale. On December 6, having learned that a group of its unsecured creditors were planning to petition it into bankruptcy and seek to liquidate it, Met-L-Wood filed a petition for protection under Chapter 11. The petition was assigned that day (by lot) to Bankruptcy Judge McCormick. Upon the filing of the petition, the automatic-stay provision of 11 U.S.C. Sec. 362 had kicked in, preventing the secured creditors from proceeding with the scheduled foreclosure sale. Yet Met-L-Wood did not want to block the sale (why it wanted to beat the unsecured creditors to the bankruptcy court is therefore unclear). So the next day, Met-L-Wood, together with its principal secured creditors, asked Judge McCormick to allow them to solicit bids at the previously scheduled sale. The motion was hand-delivered to unsecured creditors holding approximately $1.8 million of Met-L-Wood's total unsecured debt of $2.2 million. Judge McCormick scheduled a hearing on the motion for the morning of December 10.

That morning Met-L-Wood's counsel, together with the principal secured creditors and a lawyer representing a committee of unsecured creditors who held a total of $1 million of the company's unsecured debt, appeared before Judge McCormick and urged him to grant the motion, which he did. Although the record is unclear on the point, presumably he was acting under the authority of 11 U.S.C. Sec. 363(b)(1), which authorizes the trustee in bankruptcy (or, as was the case on December 10, the debtor in possession) to dispose of property of the bankrupt estate, other than in the ordinary course of business, "after notice and a hearing." Bids were solicited, received, and opened the same morning. The high bidder was Thomas Smith, acting as an undisclosed agent of Frederick Pipin. He bid $800,000 for the corporation's bulk assets plus its accounts receivable. Gerald Thompson bid $425,000 for the bulk assets alone. The unsecured creditors represented at the sale preferred Thompson's bid because they hoped that collection of the accounts receivable would yield enough money to leave something for them over and above the amount owed the secured creditors. The secured creditors agreed to the sale to Thompson and the next day urged Judge McCormick to approve it and he did. The accounts receivable when collected yielded a total of $800,000, but this amount plus the $425,000 that had been paid by Thompson for the bulk assets was barely sufficient to satisfy even the secured creditors' claims. The unsecured creditors were left to divide $100,000.

On June 26, 1985, six months after Judge McCormick had approved the sale, Met-L-Wood's Chapter 11 case was converted to a Chapter 7 liquidation on motion of the creditors' committee, which consisted of the eight unsecured creditors who had appeared through counsel at the hearings before Judge McCormick plus one additional unsecured creditor. Judge McCormick appointed an interim trustee pending the creditors' election of a permanent one. They elected Gekas on August 6. Gekas investigated the circumstances surrounding the judicial sale and eventually decided that there had been skullduggery of two kinds. First, Judge McCormick, who in an unrelated case had been reprimanded for an ex parte contact with a firm appearing before him (see In re Wisconsin Steel Corp., 48 B.R. 753 (N.D.Ill.1985); see also In re X-Cel, Inc., 61 B.R. 691 (N.D.Ill.1986)), had, Gekas believed, agreed to the December 10 hearing on the ex parte urging of a law firm representing Met-L-Wood (the Coffield firm--oddly, not the firm that had represented Met-L-Wood in the bankruptcy proceeding). Gekas's second charge was that the bidding had been

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rigged, in a scheme orchestrated by the Coffield firm to bail out Pipin and the secured creditors and leave the unsecured creditors out in the cold: Smith was a shill for Pipin, and his bid was phony because Pipin didn't have $800,000 with which to make good on it if it was accepted. How this might have helped Pipin and the secured creditors is unclear, but maybe the idea is that Smith's bid deterred others from bidding. Thompson, Gekas charged, was also in cahoots with Pipin--he was planning to sell him back the Sea-Lok operation, the only profitable part of Met-L-Wood's business. The unsecured creditors had insufficient notice and so weren't able to make their own bid or arrange for independent bidders. (We emphasize that all this is Gekas's version of the events; it is not established truth.) After the sale, Thompson did sell Pipin the Sea-Lok operation, for $120,000, and he in turn granted a security interest in the operation to Met-L-Wood's two principal secured creditors.

Armed with what he believed to be compelling evidence of the fraudulent character of the judicial sale, Gekas filed suit in federal district court against the corporation, Pipin, the Coffield firm, the two secured creditors, Thompson, and others, on April 25, 1986. The suit charged the defendants with having defrauded the unsecured creditors in violation of the RICO statute, other statutes, and Illinois common law. Three months later Gekas filed a motion in the bankruptcy court under Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b) (which Bankruptcy Rule 9024 makes applicable to bankruptcy proceedings, with immaterial exceptions) to vacate the judgment confirming the judicial sale of Met-L-Wood's bulk assets. The bankruptcy judge dismissed the motion, noting that motions to vacate a judgment on grounds of fraud (Rule 60(b)(3)) must be filed within one year of the judgment. Gekas appealed, and the district judge affirmed. 80 B.R. 912 (N.D.Ill.1987). A different district judge dismissed the fraud suit. The ground for that dismissal was collateral estoppel, based on the order confirming the judicial sale. Gekas appeals both from the dismissal of his fraud suit by the district court and from the district court's affirmance of the bankruptcy judge's dismissal of Gekas's Rule 60(b) motion.

Section 363 is a new provision of the Bankruptcy Code of 1978. Before then the bankruptcy court itself was conceived to be the seller when property of the bankrupt estate was sold. These judicial sales were subject to special rules and principles many of which...

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