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In re Franchise Services of North America, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

May 22, 2018

In Re: FRANCHISE SERVICES OF NORTH AMERICA, INCORPORATED, Debtor
v.
UNITED STATES TRUSTEE; MACQUARIE CAPITAL (USA), INCORPORATED; MICHAEL JOHN SILVERTON; DANIEL RAYMOND BOLAND; BOKETO, L.L.C., Appellees FRANCHISE SERVICES OF NORTH AMERICA, INCORPORATED, Appellant

          Appeal from the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Mississippi

          Before KING, JONES, and GRAVES, Circuit Judges.

          KING, Circuit Judge

         Under longstanding Supreme Court precedent, state law dictates the procedures a corporation must follow to authorize a bankruptcy filing. When those procedures place the decision in the hands of the corporation's creditors, some courts have allowed the bankruptcy to proceed even though the creditors withheld consent. This case presents a related but distinct question: when the certificate of incorporation requires the consent of a majority of the holders of each class of stock, does the sole preferred shareholder lose its right to vote against (and therefore avert) a voluntary bankruptcy petition if it is also a creditor of the corporation?

         In this case, the shareholder made a $15 million investment in exchange for 100% of the debtor's preferred stock. At the same time, the debtor reincorporated in Delaware and amended its certificate of incorporation. As a prerequisite to filing a voluntary bankruptcy petition, the amended certificate requires the consent of a majority of each class of the debtor's common and preferred shareholders. Following the ill-fated acquisition of a new subsidiary, the debtor filed for bankruptcy. Fearing that its shareholders might nix the filing, it never put the matter to a vote. The sole preferred shareholder filed a motion to dismiss the bankruptcy petition as unauthorized. But the debtor argued that the shareholder had no right to prevent the filing. The shareholder's parent company, explained the debtor, was an unsecured creditor by virtue of a $3 million bill the debtor refused to pay. The bankruptcy court disagreed and dismissed the petition. On appeal, the debtor asks us to reverse and to allow it to proceed with the bankruptcy.

         We decline to do so. Federal law does not prevent a bona fide shareholder from exercising its right to vote against a bankruptcy petition just because it is also an unsecured creditor.[1] Under these circumstances, the issue of corporate authority to file a bankruptcy petition is left to state law. The debtor is a Delaware corporation, governed by that state's General Corporation Law. Finding nothing there that would nullify the shareholder's right to vote against the bankruptcy petition, we AFFIRM.

          I.

         The debtor in this case is Franchise Services of North America ("FSNA")-once one of the largest car rental companies in North America. Among FSNA's competitors is the Hertz Corporation. In 2012, the Hertz Corporation was trying to consummate a merger with Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group, Inc. Antitrust concerns prompted Hertz to sell one of its subsidiaries, Simply Wheelz, LLC, better known under its trade name, Advantage Rent-A-Car ("Advantage").

         FSNA decided to buy Advantage. To do so, it enlisted the help of an investment bank, Macquarie Capital (U.S.A.), Inc. ("Macquarie"). Adreca Holdings Corporation ("Adreca"), one of Macquarie's subsidiaries, would first buy Advantage from Hertz and then merge into FSNA. Adreca bought Advantage in December 2012 and merged into FSNA in May 2013.

         Macquarie created another fully-owned subsidiary to help finance the transaction. Boketo, LLC ("Boketo"), was formed in 2012 to make a $15 million investment in FSNA. In exchange for the capital infusion, FSNA gave Boketo 100% of its preferred stock in the form of a convertible preferred equity instrument. Boketo's stake in FSNA would amount to a 49.76% equity interest if converted, making it the single largest investor in FSNA. As a condition of the investment, FSNA in May 2013 reincorporated in Delaware and adopted a new certificate of incorporation. The new certificate provides that FSNA may not "effect any Liquidation Event" unless it has the approval of both "(i) the holders of a majority of the shares of Series A Preferred Stock then outstanding, voting separately as a class . . ., and (ii) the holders of a majority of the shares of Common Stock then outstanding, voting separately as a class." Another section of the certificate clarifies that any "preparatory steps towards or filing a petition for bankruptcy" falls within the ambit of "Liquidation Event."

         FSNA agreed to pay Macquarie a $2.5 million "arrangement fee" and a $500 thousand "financial advisory fee" for its services. Macquarie billed FSNA for the arrangement fee in March 2013, shortly before the merger closed. That fee remains unpaid and is the subject of litigation between the parties in other forums.[2]

         Matters quickly took a turn for the worse. It turned out that FSNA had bought a lemon. Advantage went into bankruptcy within a year, and FSNA followed just a few years later. Advantage filed its petition under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code just six months after the acquisition. A sale of substantially all of Advantage's assets ensued, and the case was dismissed in January 2016. In June 2017, FSNA filed its own voluntary petition under Chapter 11. It did so without requesting or securing the consent of a majority of its preferred and common shareholders.

         Therein lies the rub. Macquarie and Boketo filed a motion to dismiss the bankruptcy petition, citing FSNA's failure to seek shareholder authorization. FSNA countered that the shareholder consent provision was an invalid restriction on its right to file a bankruptcy petition. It also asserted that the provision violated Delaware law. The bankruptcy court held an evidentiary hearing on the matter during which it heard live testimony from two witnesses. Because Boketo was an owner, rather than creditor, of FSNA, the bankruptcy court determined that conditioning FSNA's right to file a voluntary petition on Boketo's consent was not contrary to federal bankruptcy policy. The court likewise declined to deem the shareholder consent provision contrary to Delaware law. It instead opted to leave that issue for the Delaware courts to decide in the first instance. As a result, the court granted Boketo's motion to dismiss.

         On FSNA's motion, the bankruptcy court certified a direct appeal of its order to this court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 158(d)(2)(A). After finding that FSNA's proposed questions were too narrow to warrant certification of a direct appeal, the bankruptcy court certified the following three questions to this court:

1.Is a provision, typically called a blocking provision or a golden share, which gives a party (whether a creditor or an equity holder) the ability to prevent a corporation from filing bankruptcy valid and enforceable or is the provision contrary to federal public policy?
2.If a party is both a creditor and an equity holder of the debtor and holds a blocking provision or a golden share, is the blocking provision or golden share valid and enforceable or is the provision contrary to federal public policy?
3.Under Delaware law, may a certificate of incorporation contain a blocking provision/golden share? If the answer to that question is yes, does Delaware law impose on the holder of the provision a fiduciary duty to exercise such provision in the best interests of the corporation?

         This court authorized the appeal. See 28 U.S.C. § 158(d)(2)(A).

         II.

         We review a bankruptcy court's findings of fact for clear error and its conclusions of law de novo. Ad Hoc Grp. of Timber Noteholders, LLC v. The Pac. Lumber Co. (In re Scotia Pac. Co., LLC), 508 F.3d 214, 218 (5th Cir. 2007).

         III.

         Before moving to the merits of this case, we must first narrow the questions presented. The bankruptcy court certified three broad questions to this court, each of them involving the enforceability of "a provision, typically called a blocking provision or a golden share." As an initial matter, these terms are not synonymous, nor have they been precisely defined. Courts appear to use the term "blocking provision" as a catch-all to refer to various contractual provisions through which a creditor reserves a right to prevent a debtor from filing for bankruptcy. See, e.g., In re Squire Court Partners Ltd. P'ship, 574 B.R. 701, 706-07 (E.D. Ark. 2017); cf. In re Lake Mich. Beach Pottawattamie Resort LLC, 547 B.R. 899, 911 (Bankr. N.D.Ill. 2016) (describing "blocking director" structures whereby secured creditors appoint directors with the ability to veto a voluntary bankruptcy petition).

         Generally speaking, a "golden share" is "[a] share that controls more than half of a corporation's voting rights and gives the shareholder veto power over changes to the company's charter." E.g., SHARE, Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014); see also Mariana Pargendler, State Ownership and Corporate Governance, 80 Fordham L. Rev. 2917, 2967 (2012) (noting that in the context of formerly stated-owned entities, "[g]olden shares are essentially a special class of stock issued to the privatizing government that grants special voting and veto rights that are disproportionate to, or even independent of, its cashflow rights in the company"). As used in the bankruptcy context, the term generally refers to the issuance to a creditor of a trivial number of shares that gives the creditor ...


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