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Adelphia Settlement on Attorneys' Fees Sets "Troubling Precedent," According to ABI Journal

The Chapter 11 filing of Adelphia Communications Corp. was marred by disputes between creditors over how each would be paid. As far as the company, formerly the fifth-largest cable company in the U.S. before filing its case in 2002 as a result of internal corruption, was concerned, drastic measures were necessary.

An article in the May 2012 edition of the American Bankruptcy Institute (ABI) Journal discusses the "troubling precedent" set by Adelphia when it took an unorthodox step to shore up support for its reorganization plan: the debtor agreed to pay certain creditors their attorneys' fees if the creditors dropped their objections to the plan. "The Adelphia decision surely resulted from a genuine desire to conclude a contentious and difficult bankruptcy case under an unusual set of factual circumstances," said author John Sheahan, a trial attorney in the Office of the General Counsel in the Executive Office for U.S. Trustees, "but the practice of paying a creditor’s attorneys’ fees in exchange for plan support could quietly become more widespread after Adelphia."

In late 2010, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York issued a decision on the payment of non-fiduciary professional fees in Adelphia. The court allowed a number of distressed investors to be reimbursed for legal fees and other expenditures spent in competing for larger recoveries from the debtor's estate. Adelphia's confirmed plan included a provision that paid the legal fees of certain creditors who had settled their plan objections, and that the court approved the fees without requiring these creditors to prove that they had made a substantial contribution to the estate.

This departs from case law and a more literal interpretation of the statute because Section 503(b)(4) of the Bankruptcy Code permits the court to award "reasonable compensation" to the attorneys or accountants of entities who make substantial contributions to the case in specified ways, as long as they can prove such contributions. "The court reasoned that Section 503 'is [not] the only way' that professional fees can be paid by the estate and relied on a little-used provision of Chapter 11 to support its ruling: Section 1123(b)(6)," which Sheahan noted was "a catch-all clause authorizing plans to contain 'any other provision not inconsistent' with the Bankruptcy Code."

Though Sheahan noted that Adelphia was an especially unique and contentious case, and that the U.S. Trustee Program officially views the decision as one that should be conservatively applied in the future, the precedent set by such a "you support my plan, I'll pay your attorneys" approach could be troubling down the road. "Whatever the merits of this highly case-specific approach in Adelphia, it provides little guidance and less certainty in future cases that may follow Adelphia's precedent," he said.

To find out how to obtain a full copy of Sheahan's article, click here.

Jacob Barron, CICP, NACM staff writer