Leiman v. Guttman

Decision Date17 January 1949
Docket NumberNo. 88,88
Citation69 S.Ct. 371,336 U.S. 1,93 L.Ed. 453
PartiesLEIMAN et al. v. GUTTMAN et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Samuel Marion, of New York City, for petitioner.

Messrs. Barney Rosenstein and Leo Praeger, both of New York City, for respondent.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

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 contracted2 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.

I agree with the opinion of the Court insofar as it holds that a committee of stockholders constituted under the Bankruptcy Act may not disburse or commit fiduciary funds in its own hands under general deposit agreement, nor funds of the estate, to pay attorneys' fees except as allowed by the federal court, and a contract to pay more from such funds would not be enforceable. But the opinion goes beyond that. As to agreements between stockholders and counsel which do not affect funds of the estate or of the...

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    ...worth of their own services and exacting fees which often had no relation to the value of services rendered,' Leiman v. Guttman, 336 U.S. 1, 7, 69 S.Ct. 371, 373, 93 L.Ed. 453. Section 77B, among other significant reforms, created important new judicial powers to regulate the payment of com......
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