The Delaware Bankruptcy Court recently voided the transfer of bankruptcy claims where the seller failed to obtain the debtor's prior written consent, as required by the underlying promissory notes.
Both the promissory notes and the related loan agreement included anti-assignment language providing that any transfer would be null and void unless the debtor provided its prior written consent. In spite of this restriction, the note holders transferred the notes to buyer without obtaining the debtor's consent. When buyer filed a proof of claim based on the transferred notes, the debtor objected, arguing that the transfer was null and void because the debtor never consented.
Buyer first argued that the anti-assignment clause could not invalidate the transfer as a matter of Delaware law. In holding to the contrary, the court distinguished between anti-assignment clauses that merely limit a party's "right" to assign from clauses that limit a party's "power" to assign. Delaware courts will invalidate transfers under a contract where such contract includes an anti-assignment clause that provides any assignment made in violation of the clause will be null and void (e.g. limitation of "power" to assign), but will not invalidate transfers where the contract's anti-assignment clause does not so provide (e.g. limitation of "right" to assign). The court held that the anti-assignment clauses in Woodbridge properly restricted the noteholders' power to assign the notes because they provided for voiding any transfer made in violation thereof. Thus, invalidation of the transfers pursuant to the anti-assignment clauses was proper.
Buyer next argued that the anti-assignment clauses unenforceable either because of debtor's breach of the agreement or because of UCC §9-408. The court disagreed holding "it is axiomatic that a non-breaching party may not emerge post-breach with more rights than it had pre-breach." Accordingly, the anti-assignment clause remained attached to the promissory notes because "neither the [assignors] nor any assignee were able to emerge post-breach with more rights than they had pre-breach." The Court then found UCC §9-408, which invalidates provisions restricting assignment in grants of security interests, inapplicable because Contrarian was not granted a security interest in the promissory notes.
Buyer then asserted that even if the anti-assignment clauses were both valid and enforceable they did not apply because the noteholders only transferred their rights under the notes and not the notes themselves. The court disagreed holding that "[t]he language of both the Anti-Assignment Clause and the Loan Agreement manifests both a clear intention to forbid the assignment of the Promissory Note itself, and any rights thereunder."
While not breaking new ground, the case reinforces the court's view that "claim purchasers are sophisticated entities that are capable of both assessing the risk of disallowance through due diligence, and mitigating that risk through contractual provisions, such as indemnities." It also serves as a reminder that reviewing the underlying documents for transfer restrictions is a critical part of a claim purchaser's due diligence. While not clear from the decision whether settling the transfer via participation would have overcome the disability, it is good practice to include a "participation savings clause" that takes effect if an assignment is deemed invalid. Finally, what is also not clear is whether the result would have been different if the seller had filed a proof of claim before or in conjunction with the transfer.
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