While secured creditors are entitled to special rights in bankruptcy, those rights may differ depending on whether creditors have a statutory or consensual lien on their collateral. This is primarily because section 552(a) of the Bankruptcy Code provides, in part, that “property acquired by the estate or by the debtor after the commencement of the case is not subject to any lien resulting from any security agreement . . . .” In other words, consistent with the concept that a debtor receive a ‘fresh start’ following a bankruptcy discharge, section 552(a)* strips certain secured creditors of liens in the post-petition property received by a debtor. However, section 552(a) does not apply if a creditor is secured by a statutory lien; a statutory lien ‘flops over’ the petition date and attaches to post-petition receipts of a debtor.

In general, the Code contemplates three types of liens: (1) consensual liens (i.e. a lien created by a security agreement), (2) judicial liens and (3) statutory liens. The primary distinction is that consensual liens are created by a security agreement between a debtor and a creditor, while judicial and statutory liens are created by operation of law and/or an order of a judge and do not require a debtor’s agreement. As the name suggests, a statutory lien arises automatically by statute.

Most statutory liens are obvious; you ‘know ‘em when you see them’. Perhaps that is why caselaw on the subject is so limited. The most substantial analysis of the issue appears in two decisions from the Orange County, California chapter 9 bankruptcy case where noteholders sought continued post-petition payment of pledged taxes and other revenues of the debtor. The Bankruptcy Court concluded that the noteholders held a consensual lien which was cut-off by the bankruptcy filing. The District Court disagreed, finding that the noteholders were secured by a statutory lien. Despite the reversal, we think the Bankruptcy Court got it right.

The Bankruptcy Court enumerated the key characteristics of a statutory lien: “the lien is automatic, and there is no need for any consent by the borrower or designation of revenues.” For example, a statutory lien is created if a statute provides that debt issued pursuant to that statute shall be secured by a lien on property specified by that statute. The lien is automatic, there is no need for any consent of the borrower. If instead a statute provides that a borrower may borrow money and may pledge property to secure such borrowing, any lien granted by the borrower pursuant to the statute would be consensual.

One area where the consensual/statutory lien distinction may not be as significant is in a chapter 9 bankruptcy case when a creditor has a lien on ‘special revenues’ (as defined in section 902(2) of the Code). This is because, pursuant to section 928, a creditor’s consensual lien on special revenues ‘flops over’ the petition date and attaches to post-petition receipts—much like a statutory lien does in all instances. However, it may still be preferable to have a statutory lien on special revenues because, in addition to the ‘flop-over’ effect, section 928 also subordinates a creditor’s lien to “necessary operating expenses” of the project or system. Since by its terms it appears that only consensual liens are addressed in section 928 (referencing “any lien resulting from any security agreement. . .”), section 928(b)’s subordination mechanism may not affect statutory liens on special revenues.

* All section references are to the Bankruptcy Code.

By LEN WEISER-VARON and BILL KANNEL

At the end of “The Candidate”, Robert Redford’s title character, having won, famously asks, “What do we do now?”

A similar question can be asked now that the federal district court in Puerto Rico has struck down the Puerto Rico Public Corporation Debt Enforcement and Recovery Act.

In a February 6, 2015 opinion, Judge Besosa rejected enough of Puerto Rico’s ripeness and standing arguments to reach the merits of the plaintiffs’  challenges to the validity of the Recovery Act.  As we had anticipated, Judge Besosa held that the Recovery Act is preempted by Section 903(1) of the federal Bankruptcy Code, which provides that “a State law prescribing a method of composition of indebtedness of [a] municipality may not bind any creditor that does not consent to such composition.”  The Recovery Act contains provisions that purport to permit changes to the debt obligations of eligible Puerto Rico public corporations without the consent of all affected debtholders. The court held that Section 903(1) applies to Puerto Rico, and that it not only invalidates those provisions of the Recovery Act that purport to bind non-consenting creditors, but preempts the Recovery Act entirely.

Puerto Rico enacted the Recovery Act because the federal Bankruptcy Code precludes Puerto Rico’s public corporations from availing themselves of Chapter 9 of the federal Bankruptcy Code to restructure their debts. Puerto Rico’s public officers are now asking themselves the Spanish version of Redford’s question: “Y ahora que hacemos?” Certain creditors of PREPA and other overleveraged Puerto Rico issuers may be asking variations of that question.

Some potential answers:

1)      The Recovery Act may yet recover. In addition to the ripeness and standing issues, Judge Besosa’s opinion rests on a textual analysis of Section 903(1), including the definition of the word “creditor” as used therein and elsewhere in the Bankruptcy Code and its applicability to creditors of an entity that is not a debtor in a federal proceeding. Puerto Rico is likely to appeal the federal district court’s ruling, both as to the ripeness and standing analysis and as to the applicability of Section 903 to Puerto Rico and the Recovery Act. The ruling is certainly a victory for the plaintiff bondholders and takes the Recovery Act off the table for the near future. In addition, Judge Besosa’s discussions of the contract clause and taking clause issues with the Recovery Act highlight the obstacles the Recovery Act has faced from the beginning as legislation that does not benefit from the federal bankruptcy power’s override of the contracts clause. Accordingly, a resurrected version of the Recovery Act, if any, would continue to face substantial legal challenges. But the Recovery Act, or something like it, will remain hovering in the background of any restructuring discussions during the pendency of the likely appeal.

2)      The invalidation of the Recovery Act, whether or not it proves permanent, eliminates the only existing process under which those public entities that would have been eligible to restructure under that legislation could do so over the objections of holdouts.  Both for Puerto Rico and for those creditors who believe that PREPA and/or certain other Puerto Rico issuers are incapable of sustaining their existing debt and must restructure, the invalidation of the Recovery Act may provide additional impetus to try to persuade the U.S. Congress to amend the Bankruptcy Code to authorize Puerto Rico to authorize its public corporations, or certain of its public corporations, to file for bankruptcy under Chapter 9. Such legislation was filed in the prior session of Congress and its viability may be somewhat enhanced by Judge Besosa’s ruling.

3)      While any Recovery Act appeal wends its way through the higher courts, and while any  legislation to amend the federal Bankruptcy Code seeks to wend its way through Congress, PREPA and PREPA’s creditors, and any other Puerto Rico issuers who seek debt relief and their creditors, will need to negotiate without a forum, without a final arbiter, and without the ability to impose a majority or supermajority consensus on holdouts. That process can be a messy and difficult one, but not necessarily an impossible one. In contrast to Robert Redford’s most recent movie, the working title for the as-yet-unfinished movie about Puerto Rico and its creditors remains All Is Not Lost.