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Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors of Cybergenics Corp., v. Chinery

May 29, 2003

THE OFFICIAL COMMITTEE OF UNSECURED CREDITORS OF CYBERGENICS CORPORATION, ON BEHALF OF CYBERGENICS CORPORATION, DEBTOR IN POSSESSION, APPELLANT
v.
KATHLEEN CHINERY*FN1, EXECUTRIX OF THE ESTATE OF SCOTT CHINERY; L&S RESEARCH CORPORATION; LINCOLNSHIRE MANAGEMENT INC.; LINCOLNSHIRE EQUITY FUND, L.P.



On Appeal From the United States District Court For the District of New Jersey (D.C. Civil Action No. 98-3109 (GEB)) District Judge: Honorable Garrett E. Brown, Jr.

Before: BECKER,*fn3 Chief Judge, Sloviter, SCIRICA,*fn4 Alito, Roth, McKEE, Rendell, Barry, Ambro, Fuentes and Smith, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Becker, Circuit Judge.

PRECEDENTIAL

Argued: February 19, 2003

OPINION OF THE COURT

I. Introduction

This is an appeal from an Order of the District Court, which set aside an Order of the Bankruptcy Court authorizing a creditors' committee ("the Committee") to sue on the estate's behalf to avoid a fraudulent transfer in a Chapter 11 proceeding. Before seeking derivative standing, the Committee had unsuccessfully petitioned the debtor-in-possession to pursue the avoidance claim. In granting derivative standing, the Bankruptcy Court determined that such a suit would be in the estate's best interest. The question on appeal is whether the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Hartford Underwriters Ins. Co. v. Union Planters Bank, 530 U.S. 1 (2000), a Chapter 7 case which interpreted the text of 11 U.S.C. § 506(c) to foreclose anyone other than a trustee from seeking to recover administrative costs on its own behalf, operates to prevent the Bankruptcy Court from authorizing the suit described above.

We conclude that it does not. While the question in Hartford Underwriters was one of a nontrustee's right unilaterally to circumvent the Code's remedial scheme, the issue before us today concerns a bankruptcy court's equitable power to craft a remedy when the Code's envisioned scheme breaks down. We believe that Sections 1109(b), 1103(c)(5), and 503(b)(3)(B) of the Bankruptcy Code evince Congress's approval of derivative avoidance actions by creditors' committees, and that bankruptcy courts' equitable powers enable them to authorize such suits as a remedy in cases where a debtor-in-possession unreasonably refuses to pursue an avoidance claim. Our conclusion is consistent with the received wisdom that "[n]early all courts considering the issue have permitted creditors' committees to bring actions in the name of the debtor in possession if the committee is able to establish" that a debtor is neglecting its fiduciary duty. 7 Collier on Bankruptcy ¶ 1103.05[6][a] (15th rev. ed. 2002).

Accordingly, we will reverse the judgment of the District Court and remit the case to the original Panel so that it may consider the other grounds for the District Court's reversal of the Bankruptcy Court's Order, which were not argued before the en banc Court.

II. Facts and Procedural History

Scott Chinery founded L&S Research Corporation ("L&S") in 1985. *fn5 L&S, with Chinery as its sole shareholder, marketed nutritional food supplements for bodybuilding and weight loss under the brand name "Cybergenics." In 1994, Lincolnshire Management, Inc. ("Lincolnshire") initiated negotiations with Chinery to buy L&S, and the parties reached an agreement for an aggregate consideration of approximately $110.5 million. *fn6 Lincolnshire established Cybergenics Acquisition, Inc., an equity investment affiliate, which later became Cybergenics Corporation ("Cybergenics"), to acquire substantially all of L&S's assets. Lincolnshire's equity investment affiliate provided the largest equity stake and became the majority shareholder in Cybergenics, although several banks and various other lenders ("the Lenders") helped to finance the asset purchase. These financiers also agreed to provide working capital for Cybergenics after the acquisition. The buyout was memorialized in a writing dated October 13, 1994.

Cybergenics's financial outlook soon worsened. Despite increased equity investments by Lincolnshire and the Lenders, in August 1996, Cybergenics filed a voluntary petition for relief under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code. As is customary in Chapter 11 reorganizations, the bankruptcy court allowed Cybergenics to remain in control of its assets as a debtor-in-possession, so that no bankruptcy trustee was appointed. As is also customary, the United States trustee appointed a creditors' committee ("the Committee") to represent the interests of Cybergenics's unsecured creditors.

Although the traditional Chapter 11 case involves a business reorganization rather than a liquidation, Cybergenics soon determined that its situation was unsalvageable, and it chose to sell its assets through a court-supervised auction. At the auction, a third party successfully bid $2.65 million for all of Cybergenics's assets, and the Bankruptcy Court approved the sale in October 1996. Cybergenics then moved to dismiss the bankruptcy case, but the Committee objected, asserting that certain transactions relating to the leveraged buyout could give rise to substantial fraudulent transfer actions and that a debtor-in-possession has a fiduciary duty to maximize the value of the estate.

In June 1997, Cybergenics notified the bankruptcy court that it would not pursue any fraudulent transfer claims, arguing that the probability of recovery was sufficiently low that the costs of litigation would likely outweigh any benefits. The Committee responded by volunteering to bear all of the costs so that the avoidance action would go forward, but when Cybergenics still refused to pursue the claims, the Committee sought leave from the Bankruptcy Court to bring a derivative action to avoid the transfers for the benefit of the estate. After a hearing, the Bankruptcy Court concluded that the fraudulent transfer claims were colorable and that Cybergenics's refusal to prosecute them was unreasonable given the Committee's offer to bear the litigation costs. It therefore authorized the Committee to proceed derivatively. The Committee filed its complaint in March 1998 under 11 U.S.C. § 544(b), seeking to avoid fraudulent transfers to the Lenders, Lincolnshire, L&S, and Chinery.

The defendants filed motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), arguing, inter alia, that the fraudulent transfer claims that the Committee asserted had been sold in the 1996 bankruptcy asset sale. The District Court granted the defendants' motions and dismissed the Committee's complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. It held that the fraudulent transfer claims were assets of the debtor, and that because the 1996 bankruptcy asset sale disposed of all of Cybergenics's assets, the claims were no longer property of the bankruptcy estate, so the Committee could not raise them on the estate's behalf. On appeal, we reversed and remanded, holding that while sections 544 and 1107 combine to give a debtor the power to pursue these remedies normally reserved for creditors, these causes of action are not "assets" of the debtor, and therefore were not transferred in a sale of the debtor's assets. In re Cybergenics Corp., 226 F.3d 237, 245 (3d Cir. 2000).

On remand, the defendants again moved to dismiss. They raised several grounds for dismissal that they had asserted in their previous motions to dismiss and that we had declined to reach in Cybergenics. 226 F.3d at 241 n.5. They also argued for the first time that, while fraudulent transfer claims technically "belong" to creditors, § 544(b) states only that "the trustee may" avoid fraudulent transfers -- it does not mention creditors' committees. They further argued that pursuant to the Supreme Court's reasoning in Hartford Underwriters Ins. Co. v. Union Planters Bank, N.A., 530 U.S. 1 (2000) (interpreting "the trustee may" in § 506(c) of the Bankruptcy Code to exclude all parties except the trustee), § 544(b)'s grant of standing is exclusive and does not extend to creditors' committees.

On October 31, 2001, the District Court granted the defendants' renewed motions to dismiss and held that the Committee could not bring suit under § 544(b). It concluded that the Supreme Court's interpretation of "the trustee may" in Hartford Underwriters governed the meaning of the same language in § 544(b). In so doing, it rejected the Committee's argument that the holding in Hartford Underwriters did not extend to analysis of derivative standing, even though the Supreme Court had explicitly noted that derivative standing was not at stake in that case. See Hartford Underwriters, 530 U.S. at 13 n.5 ("Whatever the validity of [derivative standing], it has no analogous application here . . . . Petitioner asserted an independent right to use § 506(c), which is what we reject today."). The District Court also provided several alternative grounds for dismissal. *fn7

The Committee timely appealed, and in an opinion dated September 20, 2002, a Panel of this Court affirmed the District Court's holding that § 544(b) did not authorize derivative standing for creditors' committees to sue to avoid allegedly fraudulent transfers. Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors of Cybergenics Corporation v. Chinery, 304 F.3d 316 (3d Cir. 2002). The Panel's analysis did not reach the District Court's alternate grounds for dismissal, as those rationales assumed the existence of derivative standing.

On November 18, 2002, we granted the Committee's timely motion for rehearing en banc and accordingly vacated the Panel decision. We have since accepted extensive supplemental briefing, including a number of amicus briefs, and heard oral argument by the parties and amicus curiae.

III. How Does Hartford Underwriters Affect this Case?

The District Court's conclusion that the Code does not permit creditors' committees derivatively to prosecute fraudulent transfer claims was grounded in its determination that the language in § 544(b) vests exclusive standing in the trustee. Section 544(b)(1) states that:

Except as provided in paragraph (2), the trustee may avoid any transfer of an interest of the debtor in property or any obligation incurred by the debtor that is voidable under applicable law by a creditor holding an unsecured claim that is allowable under section 502 of this title or that is not allowable only under section 502(e) of this title. 11 U.S.C. § 544(b) (emphasis added).

The District Court's determination of exclusivity relied critically on Hartford Underwriters, 530 U.S. 1 (2000), in which the Supreme Court determined that identical language in § 506(c) of the Code foreclosed the right of any nontrustee to prosecute that particular action. The District Court concluded that "there is no principled basis under which the Court can apply different meanings to the words 'the trustee may' in separate sections of the Code," so it considered Hartford Underwriters dispositive.

A. What happened in Hartford Underwriters?

In Hartford Underwriters, debtor Hen House Interstate, Inc. obtained workers' compensation insurance from petitioner Hartford Underwriters as part of its Chapter 11 reorganization strategy. Although Hen House repeatedly failed to pay its monthly premiums, Hartford, which knew nothing of Hen House's bankruptcy, continued to provide insurance. When the reorganization attempt fell through, Hen House converted its case to a Chapter 7 liquidation and a trustee was appointed. Hartford, alerted to the bankruptcy, sought to recover approximately $50,000 in overdue premiums from the bankruptcy estate but found it almost entirely without unencumbered assets.

Section 503(b)(1)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code provides that "the actual, necessary costs and expenses of preserving the estate" are treated as administrative expenses, and § 507(a)(1) provides that such administrative expenses are entitled to priority over pre-petition unsecured claims. Hartford and Hen House agreed that the overdue premiums constituted administrative expenses, but Hartford was nevertheless stymied, for virtually all of Hen House's assets were held by secured creditors, whose claims are superior to administrative claims. See 11 U.S.C. § 506. Hartford then looked to § 506(c), which provides an important exception to that priority. It states that "[t]he trustee may recover from property securing an allowed secured claim the reasonable, necessary costs and expenses of preserving, or disposing of, such property to the extent of any benefit to the holder of such claim." 11 U.S.C. § 506(c) (emphasis added). Hartford argued that this provision entitled it to recover the premiums even though it was an administrative claimant rather than a trustee. The bankruptcy court ruled in favor of Hartford, and the district court and an Eighth Circuit panel affirmed. In re Hen House Interstate, Inc., 150 F.3d 868 (8th Cir. 1998). The panel decision was subsequently vacated, and the Eighth Circuit, sitting en banc, held § 506(c) unavailable to an administrative claimant like Hartford. 177 F.2d 719 (8th Cir. 1999) (en banc).

A unanimous Supreme Court affirmed the en banc decision. It began "with the understanding that Congress says in a statute what it means and means in a statute what it says there," Hartford Underwriters, 530 U.S. at 6 (quoting Connecticut Nat. Bank. v. Germain, 530 U.S. 249, 254 (1992)), and reiterated the longstanding maxim that, "when the statute's language is plain, the sole function of the courts -- at least where the disposition required by the text is not absurd -- is to enforce it according to its terms." Id. (citations omitted). Turning to § 506(c), the Court found that it "appears quite plain[ly]" to mean that only the trustee may recover administrative expenses ahead of secured claims. Id. Although it acknowledged that the statute does not expressly bar non-trustees from recovery, it had "little difficulty" in inferring that "exclusivity is intended." Id.

The Court's first rationale was contextual. A bankruptcy trustee's role in Chapter 7 liquidation proceedings is central by design, and this "unique role . . . makes it entirely plausible that Congress would provide a power to him and not to others." Id. at 7. The Court further reasoned that, "had no particular parties been specified [in § 506(c),] . . . the trustee is the most obvious party who would have been thought empowered to use the provision." Id. The Court therefore found little reason to doubt the maxim that "a situation in which a statute authorizes specific action and designates a particular party empowered to take it is surely among the least appropriate in which to presume nonexclusivity." Id. (citing 2A N. Singer, Sutherland on Statutory Construction § 47.23, p. 217 (5th ed. 1992)). Buttressing this conclusion was the logic that, "had Congress intended the provision to be broadly available, it could simply have said so, as it did in describing the parties who could act under other sections of the Code." Id.

Having determined from its textual inquiry that "by far the most natural reading of § 506(c) is that it extends only to the trustee," the Court declared that Hartford's "burden of persuading us that the section must be read to allow its use by other parties is 'exceptionally heavy.' " Id. at 9 (quoting Patterson v. Shumate, 504 U.S. 753, 760 (1992)). It then turned to Hartford's arguments based on pre-Code practice and policy considerations. Regarding pre-Code practice, the Court found that Section 506(c)'s provision for the charge of certain administrative expenses against lienholders continued a practice that existed under the Bankruptcy Act of 1898. Id. (citations omitted). Even then, however, "[i]t was the norm that recovery of costs from a secured creditor would be sought by the trustee," rather than by an administrative claimant. Id. (citations omitted). Still, Hartford cited "a number of lower court cases [ ] in which -- without meaningful discussion of the point --parties other than the trustee were permitted to pursue such charges under the Act [of 1898], sometimes simultaneously with the trustee's pursuit of his own expenses," id. (citing cases), and the Court recognized that some of its early decisions had allowed individual claimants to seek recovery from secured assets. See, e.g., Louisville, E. & St. L. R. Co. v. Wilson, 138 U.S. 501 (1891).

The Court nevertheless concluded that "[i]t is questionable whether these precedents establish a bankruptcy practice sufficiently widespread and well recognized to justify the conclusion of implicit adoption by the Code. We have no confidence that the allowance of recovery from collateral by nontrustees is the type of rule that . . . Congress was aware of when enacting the code." Id. (quoting United States v. Ron Pair Enterprises, Inc., 489 U.S. 235, 246 (1989)). Cf. Kelly v. Robinson, 479 U.S. 36, 46 (1986) (giving weight to pre-Code practice that was "widely accepted" and "established"). Indeed, the Court strongly implied that even a more convincing historical showing would not have carried the day for Hartford: "Where the meaning of the Bankruptcy Code's text is itself clear . . . its operation is unimpeded by contrary . . . prior practice. . . . In this case, we think the language of the Code leaves no room for clarification by pre-Code practice," for it "cannot transform § 506(c)'s reference to 'the trustee' to 'the trustee and other parties in interest.' " Id. at 11 (citations omitted).

Finally, the Court engaged Hartford's contention that its interpretation was necessary as a matter of public policy. Hartford argued that in some cases the trustee may lack an incentive to pursue payment for administrative expenses, so that if the Code is to encourage such lenders to finance a corporation's administrative needs throughout its bankruptcy, it must allow those lenders later to bring their own actions to recover their investments. Hartford also suggested that affording standing to administrative claimants might encourage the provision of post-petition services to debtors on more favorable terms, since such claimants would presumably always be willing vigorously to defend their financial interests whereas a trustee might be more reluctant. Id. at 11-12. The Court, however, determined that "it is far from clear that the policy implications favor petitioner's position," and even suggested that Hartford's interpretation might "itself lead to results that seem undesirable as a matter of policy." Id. at 12. It ultimately declined to weigh the competing concerns, explaining that "we do not sit to assess the relative merits of different approaches to bankruptcy problems. It suffices that the natural reading of the text produces the result we announce. Achieving a better policy outcome -- if what petitioner urges is that -- is a task for Congress, not the courts." Id. at 13-14.

B. Did Hartford Underwriters take place in an analogous context?

Based on the above reasoning, the Hartford Underwriters Court interpreted "the trustee may" in § 506(c) to mean that only the trustee may bring an action. In the case at bar, the District Court concluded that, faced with the same language in § 544(b), the same conclusion must there obtain. But the Hartford Underwriters Court expressly reserved the question before us today. In a footnote critical to understanding the scope of that decision, the Supreme Court stated:

We do not address whether a bankruptcy court can allow other interested parties to act in the trustee's stead in pursuing recovery under § 506(c). Amici American Insurance Association and National Union Fire Insurance Co. draw our attention to the practice of some courts of allowing creditors or creditors' committees a derivative right to bring avoidance actions when the trustee refuses to do so, even though the applicable Code provisions, see 11 U.S.C. §§ 544, 545, 547(b), 548(a), 549(a), mention only the trustee. See, e.g., In re Gibson Group, Inc., 66 F.3d 1436, 1438 (CA6 1995). Whatever the validity of that practice, it has no analogous application here, since petitioner did not ask the trustee to pursue payment under § 506(c) and did not seek permission from the Bankruptcy Court to take such action in the trustee's stead. Petitioner asserted an independent right to use § 506(c), which is what we reject today. Id. at 13 n.5.

The District Court nevertheless concluded that the Committee failed sufficiently to distinguish Hartford Underwriters's method of interpretation, which it found to yield equally compelling results when applied to § 544(b).

We agree that Hartford Underwriters is most useful for the interpretive methodology it offers, but it is critical to note the context in which that decision arose, for it is materially unlike the one before us today. The petitioner in Hartford Underwriters was an insurer who, by continuing coverage despite Hen House's failure to pay its premiums, became an administrative lender with claims subordinate to those of the secured creditors. When it learned of Hen House's bankruptcy, it attempted to use § 506(c) to recover the premiums it was owed, but it did so in a strikingly unilateral fashion. The insurance premiums were not costs incurred by the trustee that, if recovered, would have yielded a common benefit. Instead, they would have satisfied only Hartford's outstanding claim. Nor did Hartford seek the court's or the trustee's permission to recoup the expense, but rather it sued in its own name and for its own direct benefit.

The situation at bar is markedly different. When the Committee discovered that certain transfers made by Cybergenics were potentially avoidable as fraudulent, it first petitioned the Cybergenics management to file an avoidance action under § 544(b). *fn8 But management refused to file that action, claiming that the costs would likely outweigh the benefits, and it maintained this position even after the Committee volunteered to bear all litigation costs. The Committee, finding management's stance unreasonable, petitioned the bankruptcy court for permission to prosecute a § 544(b) avoidance action in Cybergenics's name and on its behalf -- any recovery would go not to the Committee, but to the estate itself. The Bankruptcy Court concluded that the fraud claims were colorable, and that the Committee's offer to bear the litigation costs insulated the estate from risk. Noting that the debtor-in-possession has a duty to maximize the value of the estate, the court concluded that management's refusal to act was unreasonable even given the usual judicial deference to business judgment, and it authorized the Committee to sue in Cybergenics's name.

This difference in contexts is crucially important, for while the question in Hartford Underwriters was one of a nontrustee's right unilaterally to circumvent the Code's remedial scheme, the issue before us today concerns a bankruptcy court's equitable power to craft a remedy when the Code's envisioned scheme breaks down. With this perspective in mind, we turn to the question whether derivative suits may be maintained under § 544(b) after Hartford Underwriters.

IV. Do Derivative Suits under § 544(b) Survive Hartford Underwriters?

A. The Code Itself

As did the Court in Hartford Underwriters, "we begin with the understanding that Congress says in a statute what it means and means in a statute what it says there." Hartford Underwriters, 530 U.S. at 6 (quoting Connecticut Nat. Bank., 503 U.S. at 254). When "the statute's language is plain, the sole function of the courts -- at least where the disposition required by the text is not absurd -- is to enforce it according to its terms." Id. (citations omitted). Chinery and Lincolnshire ("Lincolnshire") contend that, as the same language is used in §§ 544(b) and 506(c), there is a presumption that it means the same thing in each instance: "Undoubtedly, there is a natural presumption that identical words used in different parts of the same act are intended to have the same meaning." Atlantic Cleaners & Dyers, Inc. v. United States, 286 U.S. 427, 433 (1932). That presumption may be overcome only when "there is such variation in the connection in which the words are used as reasonably to warrant the conclusion that they were employed in different parts of the act with different intent." Id. Lincolnshire therefore submits that the Committee's "burden of persuading us that the section must be read to allow its use by other parties is exceptionally heavy." Hartford Underwriters, 530 U.S. at 9 (citation omitted).

The Committee does not dispute this assessment -- it concedes that, as in Hartford Underwriters, "the trustee may" cannot be read to mean "the trustee and other parties in interest may." But it submits that this point is neither here nor there, for it does not seek to "use" § 544(b) in that sense. In its estimation, § 544(b) is important only insofar as it does not preclude the bankruptcy court from authorizing the Committee to sue derivatively when the trustee, the party explicitly empowered to use § 544(b), improperly refuses to exercise its power. Of course, even under this view we must determine whether such an equitable remedy is consistent with the Bankruptcy Code's statutory scheme, of which § 544(b) is a part. We are satisfied that it is.

1. The Need to Interpret Chapter 11 as a Whole

As the Supreme Court has often noted, "[s]tatutory construction [ ] is a holistic endeavor," United Savings Assn. of Tex. v. Timbers of Inwood Forest Associates, Ltd., 484 U.S. 365, 371 (1988), and this is especially true of the Bankruptcy Code. In United States v. Kelly, a case interpreting § 523, the Court stated that "we must not be guided by a single sentence or member of a sentence, but look to the provisions of the whole law, and to its object and policy." 479 U.S. 36, 43 (1986) (citations omitted). The Hartford Underwriters Court interpreted the Code holistically in determining that "the trustee may" in § 506(c) is exclusive, but in that case, there was no "whole law" to interpret, for § 506(c) is effectively self-contained. This is evident in two ways. First, there is no other provision in Chapter 7 of the Code that even arguably authorizes a party to "recover [administrative expenses] from property securing an allowed secured claim," so the Court saw no need to look beyond § 506(c) to understand the mechanics of the cause of action. Second, the Court concluded that "the fact that the sole party named -- the trustee -- has a unique role in bankruptcy proceedings makes it entirely plausible that Congress would provide a power to him and not to others." Hartford Underwriters, 530 U.S. at 7. It therefore saw no reason to look beyond § 506(c) to determine standing to bring that cause of action.

In contrast, reading § 544(b) in isolation leads immediately to incoherence. While, as the Court explained, the trustee serves a "unique role" in Chapter 7, nothing could be further from the truth in Chapter 11, where trustees rarely exist. See In re Sharon Steel Corp., 871 F.2d 1217, 1226 (3d Cir. 1989) ("It is settled that appointment of a trustee should be the exception, rather than the rule."); 7 Collier on Bankruptcy ¶ 1104.02[1] (15th rev. ed. 1998) (noting that appointment of a trustee in a Chapter 11 case is an "extraordinary" remedy). Reading § 544(b) alone would lead to the fatuous conclusion that Congress vested its cause of action exclusively in a party that usually does not exist. Only by looking beyond § 506(c) can one make sense of this situation, in that § 1107(a) gives a Chapter 11 debtor-in-possession (here, Cybergenics) the rights and powers of a trustee in the event that no trustee is appointed.

It is therefore clear that § 544(b) must be viewed as merely a part, albeit an important part, of the Chapter 11 framework that is designed to help debtors reorganize while continuing as viable concerns. *fn9 The Committee submits that, just as one must read § 1107(a) in conjunction with § 544(b) to understand who "the trustee" is for § 544(b) purposes, one must consider three other Chapter 11 sections -- 1109(b), 1103(c)(5), and 503(b)(3)(B) -- to determine whether derivative standing is a permissible equitable remedy in cases where the court determines that the trustee has unreasonably refused to bring an avoidance claim under § 544(b). These sections shed light on the role Congress intended creditors' committees to play in the reorganization process, and we will examine each in turn.

2. Section 1109(b)

Section 1109(b) provides that:

A party in interest, including the debtor, the trustee, a creditor's committee, an equity security holder's committee, a creditor, an equity security holder, or any indenture trustee, may raise and may appear and be heard on any issue in a case under [Chapter 11]. 11 U.S.C. § 1109(b) (emphasis added).

The Committee submits that, "[a]lthough 1109 would not provide an independent right for the Committee to initiate a suit, absent bankruptcy court approval, it does support the authority of bankruptcy courts to permit creditors' committees to bring claims on behalf of the debtor in possession for the benefit of the estate." (Committee's Reply Brief at 7.) There is precedent for this view. Collier explains that, "consistent with the broad right of participation conferred by § 1109(b), the court may authorize a party in interest to commence litigation on behalf of the estate if certain conditions are satisfied." 7 Collier on Bankruptcy ¶ 1109.05 (citing Fogel v. Zell, 221 F.3d 955, 965-66 (7th Cir. 2000)) ("If a trustee unjustifiably refuses a demand to bring an action to enforce a colorable claim of a creditor, the creditor may obtain the permission of the bankruptcy court to bring the action in place of, and in the name of, the trustee.").

Lincolnshire contends that, whatever the theoretical appeal of this position, it does not survive Hartford Underwriters, where Hartford argued "that § 1109(b) evidences the right of a nontrustee to recover under § 506(c)." Hartford Underwriters, 530 U.S. at 8. While noting that § 1109(b) was "by its terms inapplicable" because it applied only to Chapter 11 reorganizations, and the debtor had previously converted its case to Chapter 7, id., the Court nonetheless stated in dictum that "we do not read § 1109(b)'s general provision of a right to be heard as broadly allowing a creditor to pursue substantive remedies that other Code provisions make available only to other specific parties." Id. Cf. 7 L. King, Collier on Bankruptcy ¶ 1109.05 (15th rev. ed. 1999) ("In general, section 1109 does not bestow any right to usurp the trustee's role as representative of the estate with respect to the initiation of certain types of litigation that belong exclusively to the estate."). In Lincolnshire's view, § 1109(b) allows a committee to intervene in an adversary proceeding initiated by a trustee, but it does not allow a committee to initiate or prosecute an action independent of the trustee.

The Committee responds that § 1109(b) must mean something more than a right to intervene, for "a general right to be heard would be an empty grant unless those who had such right were allowed to act when those who should act did not." (Committee's Brief at 26) (quoting 5 Collier on Bankruptcy § 1109.02[3] (15th ed. 1986)). It submits that we should not give great weight to the Supreme Court's interpretation in dictum of a provision that the Court itself noted was "by its terms inapplicable," especially since the Committee here does not assert an independent right of the sort the Hartford Underwriters Court considered.

Although the Committee is doubtless correct that the Supreme Court's dicta are not binding on us, we do not view it lightly. As we have stated:

[W]e should not idly ignore considered statements the Supreme Court makes in dicta. The Supreme Court uses dicta to help control and influence the many issues it cannot decide because of its limited docket. "Appellate courts that dismiss these expressions [in dicta] and strike off on their own increase the disparity among tribunals (for other judges are likely to follow the Supreme Court's marching orders) and frustrate the evenhanded administration of justice by ...


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