In an important new ruling, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals declared that a debtor in Chapter 11 bankruptcy was entitled to court approval of its proposed going-concern sale, even though the terms of that sale meant extinguishing the debtor’s obligation to honor previously made promises to pay health care benefits for its retired employees for life. The ruling demonstrates that, even in the face of significant hurdles (including federal statutory ones), there may be a path forward for failing businesses through Chapter 11 bankruptcy. If your business is considering its options in bankruptcy, be sure you have a knowledgeable South Florida bankruptcy attorney on your side.
The debtor was a company that produced and exported coal from mines in Alabama, West Virginia, Canada and the United Kingdom. A downturn in the coal industry led prices to plummet in 2011. After the price fell, the debtor could not generate enough revenue to meet its obligations. Running out of cash, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in Alabama.
Through the bankruptcy process, the company attempted to sell nearly all of its assets as part of a going-concern sale. The sale price was $1.15 billion, and the buyer agreed to take on $115 million in the company’s liabilities. The buyer conditioned its purchase, however, on it not being obligated to meet the coal company’s collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) and not being required to pay health care benefits for the company’s retirees. (Previously, the coal company and the union had bargained for the company to continue paying health care benefits for workers even after they retired.)