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In re General Datacomm Industries

May 16, 2005; as amended May 19, 2005

IN RE: GENERAL DATACOMM INDUSTRIES, INC., DEBTOR
GENERAL DATACOMM INDUSTRIES, INC., APPELLANT
v.
JAMES R. ARCARA, FREDERICK R. CRONIN, ROBERT S. SMITH, AND THOMAS L. THOMPSON APPELLEES



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Delaware (Civ. A. No. 02-1373) District Judge: Honorable Kent A. Jordan

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

PRECEDENTIAL

Argued: December 15, 2004

BEFORE: NYGAARD and GARTH, Circuit Judges and POLLAK, District Judge.*fn1

OPINION

Both the Bankruptcy and District Courts here held that Appellees James R. Arcara, Frederick R. Cronin, Robert S. Smith and Thomas L. Thompson (collectively, the "Appellees") – former long-term senior executives of Appellant General Datacomm Industries Inc. and its affiliates ("DataComm") – were "retired employees" within the meaning of 11 U.S.C. § 1114 and were therefore entitled to their retiree benefits. Section 1114 of the United States Bankruptcy Code ("Bankruptcy Code") affords certain procedural protections to "retired employees" of Chapter 11 debtors. See 11 U.S.C. § 1114(a), (e). When applicable, these procedural protections are held to override the provisions of 11 U.S.C. § 365, which generally allow a debtor in possession, subject to the court's approval, to reject any executory contract of the debtor in order to relieve the estate of onerous and burdensome future obligations. See 11 U.S.C. § 365(a).

The questions presented in this appeal are: (1) whether the term "retired employees," as contemplated by § 1114, encompasses the concept of "forced retirement," at least in situations where, as here, employees on the verge of voluntary retirement are strategically and deliberately terminated without cause by a debtor; and (2) if so, may DataComm's executory agreement providing benefits for retirees be rejected pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 365. As stated, both courts rejected DataComm's attempt to terminate or otherwise modify the Appellees' retiree benefits without first complying with the mandates and procedural requirements of § 1114.

We hold that involuntary termination of employees on the verge of retirement cannot deprive such employees of the procedural protections of § 1114. Accordingly, the District Court did not err in affirming the Bankruptcy Court's order, which denied rejection of DataComm's agreement to provide such benefits.

I.

A.

The material facts on appeal are not in dispute. On or about September 4, 1997, the Board of Directors of DataComm approved a "Benefit Agreement for Long Term Senior Executive Officers and Other Senior Level Employees" (the "Benefit Plan"). DataComm originally entered into the Benefit Plan with Appellees Arcara, Cronin, and Smith. Thompson, the remaining Appellee, was added as an Eligible Executive*fn2 subsequent to the establishment of the Benefit Plan.

The Benefit Plan provided for two discrete forms of benefits. First, DataComm was required to pay the annual premiums of up to $7,000 for Long Term Care insurance coverage for the lifetime of each Eligible Executive and his spouse ("Long Term Care Benefits").*fn3 Second, the Benefit Plan also provided that, upon retirement, each Eligible Executive and his spouse would receive, at DataComm's sole cost, a lifetime continuation of the health insurance benefits that DataComm was then furnishing to the Eligible Executive ("Retirement Health Benefits").*fn4

The Benefit Plan listed at least five actions which, if taken by Eligible Executives, would lead to discharge and loss of all benefits. It essentially provided that DataComm, in its sole judgment, could effectively terminate all benefits thereunder if, among other things, the Eligible Executive violated any confidentiality agreement; disclosed any proprietary information; refused cooperation with DataComm in litigation; directly or indirectly became employed by, or purchased stock of a competitor; brought suit against DataComm (except as to claims relating to the Benefit Plan); or disparaged the company. Benefit Plan ¶ 6.*fn5 Aside from the grounds for terminating benefits specified in Paragraph 6 of the Benefit Plan, DataComm reserved no other right to rescind or amend the Benefit Plan.

B.

On November 2, 2001, DataComm filed for relief under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code, and pursuant to Sections 1107 and 1108 of the Bankruptcy Code, DataComm continued to possess its properties and manage its businesses as debtor(s) in possession. Thereafter, on November 19, 2001, DataComm advised the Appellees that they would be terminated on November 30, 2001, and that the Benefit Plan would be terminated on that same date.

Ten days later, on November 29, 2001, DataComm filed its motion with the Bankruptcy Court to reject the Benefit Plan pursuant to Section 365 of the Bankruptcy Code (the "365 Motion"). A day later, on November 30, 2001, the Appellees were formally terminated. DataComm concedes that the termination was without cause. At the time of their termination, the Appellees were all over 65 years of age: Thompson was 71, Cronin was nearly 70, Smith was over 68, and Arcara was near 67.

The Appellees objected to the 365 Motion, claiming that the Benefit Plan qualified for treatment under § 1114 of the Bankruptcy Code, and that DataComm was therefore required to comply with the procedural requirements of that statute before terminating or modifying the Benefit Plan. The Bankruptcy Court conducted a hearing on April 25, 2002 to determine whether § 365 or § 1114 governed the Benefit Plan. The Bankruptcy Court held that § 1114 governed, and entered an Order denying DataComm's motion to reject the Benefit Plan. The Bankruptcy Court stated that "[i]n the event... [DataComm] seek[s] to terminate or otherwise modify any of the benefits of [the Appellees] provided for in the [Benefit Plan]... [DataComm] shall be required to first comply with the mandates and procedural requirements of 11 U.S.C. § 1114."

The District Court affirmed the decision of the Bankruptcy Court, essentially holding that the Appellees were retirees within the meaning of § 1114 because DataComm's action in terminating the Appellees the day after it purported to reject the Benefit Plan constituted a "forced retirement". This timely appeal followed.

II.

The Bankruptcy Court had jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 157(b) and 1334. The District Court had appellate jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 158(a)(1), and we have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 158(d) and 1291. Exercising the same standard of review as the District Court, "[w]e review the bankruptcy court's legal determinations de novo, its factual findings for clear error and its exercise of discretion for abuse thereof." In re Trans World Airlines, Inc., 145 F.3d 124, 130-31 (3d Cir. 1998) (citing In re Engel, 124 F.3d 567, 571 (3d Cir. 1997); Fellheimer, Eichen & Braverman, P.C. v. Charter Techs., Inc., 57 F.3d 1215, 1223 (3d Cir. 1995)). Inasmuch as the parties agree that there are no relevant facts in dispute, our review is limited to the legal determinations of the Bankruptcy Court as affirmed by the District Court. We will thus employ a de novo review of those legal determinations.III.

Section 365(a) of the Bankruptcy Code provides: "Except as provided in sections 765 and 766 of this title and in subsections (b), (c), and (d) of this section, the trustee, subject to the court's approval, may assume or reject any executory contract or unexpired lease of the debtor." 11 U.S.C. ยง ...


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