Protective Committee For Independent Stockholders of Tmt Trailer Ferry, Inc v. Anderson, 38

Citation88 S.Ct. 1157,20 L.Ed.2d 1,390 U.S. 414
Decision Date25 March 1968
Docket NumberNo. 38,38
PartiesPROTECTIVE COMMITTEE FOR INDEPENDENT STOCKHOLDERS OF TMT TRAILER FERRY, INC., Petitioner, v. C. Gordon ANDERSON, Trustee
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

See 391 U.S. 909, 88 S.Ct. 1649.

[Syllabus from pages 414-417 intentionally omitted] Irwin L. Langbein, West Palm Beach, Fla., for petitioner.

David Ferber, Washington, D.C., for the United States.

William P. Simmons, Jr., Miami, Fla., and M. James Spitzer, New York City, for respondent.

Mr. Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case involves a corporate reorganization under Chapter X of the Bankruptcy Act, 52 Stat. 883, 11 U.S.C. §§ 501—676. In the most recent proceedings1 the District Court approved an amended plan of reorganization and discharged the petitioner Committee.2 The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed, 364 F.2d 936 (1966). We granted certiorari, 387 U.S. 929, 87 S.Ct. 2048, 18 L.Ed.2d 989 (1967), because this case presents important questions under the bankruptcy laws. Since we believe the Court of Appeals erred in affirming the decision of the District Court, we reverse the judgment and remand for further proceedings consistent with the views expressed below.

I.

The debtor, TMT Trailer Ferry, Inc., was incorporated in 1954. Its principal business is transporting freight between Florida and Puerto Rico. It pioneered 'fishy-back' transport, the ocean-going equivalent of 'piggy-back' transport. Freight loaded into highway trailers is rolled on and off sea-going barges without rehandling. In its original operations TMT used rented tugs to tow converted Navy LST's loaded with such trailers and other freight. Later it undertook to convert a self-propelled Navy LSD for use in its business. Substantial debts and losses arose from the unsuccessful conversion and consequent failure in service of this ship, dubbed the Carib Queen.

In addition, between 1954 and 1957, more than 4,000,000 shares of TMT common stock were issued, many of them acquired at low prices by persons close to the company and disposed of to the public at relatively high prices. As a result of these transactions and others, TMT became unable to meet its obligations, and a reorganization proceeding was initiated against it by involuntary petition in June 1957. The debtor consented to reorganization, and C. Gordon Anderson was appointed trustee. The motion of the holders of preferred ship mortgages on the debtor's vessels (the Caplan mortgage) to foreclose their liens was denied by the trial court. On appeal from this order, it was pointed out that no plan of reorganization had yet been proposed, that the possibility of successful reorganization had not been explored, and that no evidence had been received to support any of the court's orders. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded with instructions that the holders of the Caplan mortgage be permitted to foreclose unless adequate provision was made to protect their interests or unless they would not be prejudiced by further delay.

Upon remand the trial court held appropriate hearings. It was determined that the debtor was being operated in a manner which would produce substantial profits. A plan of reorganization was proposed which would have given the Caplan mortgage group all the common stock in the reorganized company, a substantial portion of the preferred stock, and control of the board of directors. In February 1959, without a hearing called for that purpose and solely on the basis of documents and records, the trial court declared the debtor insolvent and held that the original stockholders had no further interest in the reorganized corporation. In March 1959 the plan of reorganization was confirmed, and Anderson resigned as trustee to become president of the reorganized company. A new trustee was appointed, and he sought in effect to vacate the order confirming the plan. His petition alleged that the holders of the Caplan mortgage and Merrill-Stevens Dry Dock & Repair Co. (M—S), another substantial creditor, had entered into an undisclosed agreement in violation of § 221 of Chapter X, 52 Stat. 897, 11 U.S.C. § 621, an agreement according to which the Caplan mortgage group would pay M—S in order to procure its consent to the plan of reorganization. This petition was denied, the successor trustee was removed, and Anderson was reinstated as trustee.

The petitioner Committee appealed from the order confirming the reorganization plan. Objection was made to the failure of the trial court to order an investigation into the claims of certain creditors and to the failure to conduct a hearing on insolvency. While that appeal was pending, the Caplan group, supported by Anderson, petitioned the trial court to consummate the confirmed plan. The Securities and Exchange Commission, however, filed a petition in the trial court seeking an investigation.3 It alleged that an investigation would disclose that the plan was unfair because it turned the corporation over to persons who had dealt extensively in the stock of the debtor in transactions which were probably illegal. It was agreed among the parties that an investigation should be made.

Anderson, in his re-established role as trustee, conducted the investigation. Fourteen days of hearings were held, 2,200 pages of testimony transcribed, and some 60 exhibits collected. Anderson's report from this investigation covers 40 pages in the original record. He concluded that the debtor's business had been 'wrecked by gross mismanagement, by unwise and unsound expansion financed primarily through the sale of securities in disregard of the protective provisions of the Securities Act of 1933,' and that the debtor had substantial causes of action against holders of the Caplan mortgage. Upon the recommendation of Anderson, the trial court vacated its order confirming the 1959 plan, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.4

Early in 1962 two new plans of reorganization were proposed. The 'internal plan,' recommended by Anderson, provided for reorganizing the debtor by issuing new common stock to creditors and involved 'compromises' of the Caplan mortgage and M—S claims. The 'cash plan' entailed similar 'compromises' as well as selling the debtor's assets for cash to persons unconnected with the company and distributing the cash to creditors. Neither plan provided for any participation by stockholders. The Committee, supported by the SEC, objected to the exclusion of stockholders from both plans, and opposed the internal plan because it contemplated that Anderson would become president of the reorganized company. After hearings on valuation, the District Court found the debtor insolvent and approved both plans as fair, equitable, and feasible. A majority of all classes of creditors other than the United States accepted the internal plan, and the District Court confirmed it in February 1963. The Committee appealed, supported by the SEC, arguing that the plan wrongly excuded stockholders and improperly contemplated that Anderson would become president. The Court of Appeals ruled, without reaching the other contentions, that it was permissible for the plan to contemplate that Anderson would become president, 5 but it held in a separate appeal that the plan was defective for not giving priority to the Government's nontax claims.6 The case was accordingly remanded to the District Court for determination of whether the plan would be feasible if the Government's claims were given full priority.

On remand further hearings were held, the District Court found that if the Government's nontax claims were given priority the plan would be feasible, and amendments were authorized which provided for immediate cash payment to the Government. The court regarded the failure of the Court of Appeals to reverse its other orders as in effect an affirmance of them, and it refused to consider again the contentions of the Committee and the SEC. The creditors accepted the amended plan and, over the objections of the Committee and the SEC that the plan was not fair or equitable, the District Court affirmed it. The Committee again appealed, and the Court of Appeals ruled that its earlier decision had left open all issues not in terms discussed and decided.7 Passing over the fact that the District Court had considered the case in erroneous legal perspective, and emphasizing that its obligation was to determine whether the trial judge had 'abused his discretion' or reached conclusions which were 'clearly erroneous,' the Court of Appeals refused to remand the case. Stating that '(t)his * * * litigation must at long last be brought to an end,' the Court of Appeals affirmed all judgments and orders of the District Court. The Committee, again supported by the SEC, has presented a number of questions on certiorari to this Court.8 Because of the view we take of this case, it is necessary to consider only the questions of whether it was error to affirm the District Court's approval of compromises of substantial claims against the debtor, and whether it was error to affirm the District Court's judgment that the debtor was insolvent, when that judgment was rendered without considering the future estimated earnings of the reorganized company.

II.

Compromises are 'a normal part of the process of reorganization.' Case v. Los Angeles Lumber Prods. Co., 308 U.S. 106, 130, 60 S.Ct. 1, 14, 84 L.Ed. 110 (1939). In administering reorganization proceedings in an economical and practical manner it will often be wise to arrange the settlement of claims as to which there are substantial and reasonable doubts. At the same time, however, it is essential that every important determination in reorganization proceedings receive the 'informed, independent judgment' of the bankruptcy court. National Surety Co. v. Coriell, 289 U.S. 426, 436, 53 S.Ct. 678, 682, 77 L.Ed. 1300 (1933). The requirements of §§ 174 and 221(2) of...

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