May 22, 2017

Tenth Circuit: Cases Properly in Federal Court but Arising Under State Law Trigger Article III Protections

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in In re Renewable Energy Development Corp.: Loveridge v. Hall on Friday, July 10, 2015.

Renewable Energy Development Corporation (REDCO) entered into Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings and attorney George Hofmann was appointed the bankruptcy trustee. Hofmann consulted with Summit Wind Power, LLC, to determine the value of REDCO’s wind leases on private properties, and eventually discovered that REDCO had failed to pay consideration for some of the leases. Hofmann concluded REDCO’s options were unenforceable and encouraged Summit to pursue its own leases with the private property owners, which it did. Later, Hofmann decided the property owners could not cancel their leases with REDCO in favor of Summit without first offering REDCO the opportunity to cure, so he asked Summit to forgo its leases, but Summit refused. Eventually Hofmann brought adversarial claims in bankruptcy on behalf of REDCO against his other client, Summit. Summit responded with state law claims against Hofmann and his firm for malpractice, breach of fiduciary duty, and more. Hofmann was replaced as REDCO’s bankruptcy trustee. Summit filed suit against Hofmann in federal district court, alleging diversity jurisdiction and the right to have the case resolved in an Article III court. Hofmann argued the case should be resolved in an Article I bankruptcy court, and the district court agreed, removing the case to the bankruptcy court but certifying its decision for immediate appeal.

The Tenth Circuit evaluated Article III jurisdiction under the test articulated in Stern v. Marshall, 131 S. Ct. 2594 (2011) and the public rights doctrine. The Tenth Circuit recognized the conflict between the public rights doctrine and bankruptcy cases, noting that the Supreme Court has suggested certain aspects of public rights may properly find resolution in Article I courts. The Tenth Circuit analyzed Stern‘s holding that when a claim is a state law action not necessarily resolvable by a ruling on the creditor’s claim in bankruptcy, it implicates private rights and thus cannot be finally resolved in bankruptcy court. The Circuit found this scenario present, since the Summit’s claims against Hofmann were far removed from the bankruptcy proceeding. The Tenth Circuit recognized that perhaps cases involving similar factual scenarios should create a new exception to Article III, but declined to issue such a rule. The Tenth Circuit also found that the bankruptcy court could hear the case but not decide the issues, acting as a sort of magistrate or special master, and then deferring to the district court for decisionmaking. The Tenth Circuit also found that the district court retained diversity jurisdiction over the case.

The Tenth Circuit remanded the case to district court.

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