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YOUNG v. HIGBEE COMPANY ET AL.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES


decided: February 26, 1945.

YOUNG
v.
HIGBEE COMPANY ET AL.

CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT.

Stone, Roberts, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Murphy, Jackson, Rutledge

Author: Black

[ 324 U.S. Page 205]

 MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question of the accountability of stockholders who objected to the confirmation of a plan of reorganization under the Bankruptcy Act,*fn1 and abandoned their appeal for a consideration to themselves, where the basis of the appeal was that, if successful, it would benefit the entire class.

The Higbee Company, a department store with assets of more than six million dollars, filed a voluntary petition

[ 324 U.S. Page 206]

     for reorganization. It had three types of stocks: common, and first and second preferred. Two of its directors, Bradley and Murphy, claimed that they had acquired by purchase a junior debt against the company of $1,952,000.00. A plan for reorganization was presented under which the owners of this junior debt were to be awarded $600,000.00 in new notes and a large block of common stock. Potts and Boag, respondents here, and owners of some shares of first preferred, objected to confirmation of the plan. They contended, on several grounds, that unless the junior debt was subordinated to the preferred stock claims, the plan allotted that indebtedness too great a share in the distribution of the bankrupt's assets.*fn2 When the stockholders' committee of which they were members approved the plan, Potts and Boag resigned and announced the formation of a new committee to press their objections to the junior debt allowance. Notwithstanding these objections, the Securities & Exchange Commission recommended the plan's acceptance, 8 S. E. C. 777, and the District Court confirmed it. 50 F.Supp. 114. Potts and Boag appealed from the District Court's decree confirming the plan. Although appealing as individuals, their appeal was based almost entirely on objections to allowances for the junior indebtedness which left less for distribution among all the preferred stockholders. Their appeal sought no separate individual relief for themselves;

[ 324 U.S. Page 207]

     they appealed only to have the confirmation set aside. Had their appeal succeeded, the District Court would have been required to reduce the value of junior claims asserted by Bradley and Murphy, thereby increasing the value of the claims of the preferred stockholders as a class.

In this situation, Potts and Boag sold their stock and their appeal*fn3 to Bradley and Murphy, claimants under the junior debt; the consideration paid was $115,000.00. The par value of this stock was $26,000.00. Its admitted market value at the time, as the court below found, was $17,000.00. Pursuant to this contract for sale of the appeal a stipulation for dismissal was filed in the Circuit Court of Appeals. Petitioner Young, a preferred stockholder of the same class, sought to intervene and prosecute the appeal. His petition was denied and the case was dismissed without opinion. Young then, on behalf of himself and all other preferred stockholders, filed a petition in the District Court setting up these facts and praying that

[ 324 U.S. Page 208]

     he be authorized to employ counsel to compel Potts and Boag to account to the debtor for the difference between what they received and the fair value of their stock, or praying in the alternative that Potts and Boag be required to pay over that amount to the preferred stockholders.*fn4 After a hearing, a special master found as a fact that Potts and Boag had appealed in behalf of themselves only and had not acted as representatives of a class. The District Court approved this finding, thought it determinative of the case, and dismissed Young's petition. The Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. 142 F.2d 1004. Because considerations of substantial importance to the effective administration of corporate reorganizations are involved, we granted certiorari, 323 U.S. 689.*fn5

First. It is argued that since the Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal of Potts and Boag over Young's attempt to intervene, Young is estopped from prosecuting the present petition. This contention has no merit, for the reason, among others, that the determinative issues

[ 324 U.S. Page 209]

     in the two proceedings were not the same. The first petition did not pray for an accounting by Potts and Boag. The court only decided then that Young could not intervene and continue that appeal, and that the appeal should be dismissed. Now, accepting the court's dismissal of the appeal as final, Young seeks an accounting for the consideration paid Potts and Boag for agreeing to dismiss.

Second. It is argued that since Potts and Boag did not expressly specify that they appealed in the interest of the whole class of preferred stockholders, but appealed only in their own names, they owed no duty to any stockholders but themselves. The appeal here, however, was not from a denial of any individual claim of Potts and Boag. Its basis was that every other preferred stockholder, as well as themselves, would be injured by confirmation. So far as the issues raised by the appeal are concerned, the rights of Potts and Boag and the other preferred stockholders were inseparable. Thus, even though their objection to confirmation contained no formal class suit allegations, the success or failure of the appeal was bound to have a substantial effect on the interests of all other preferred stockholders. The liability of one who assumes a determining position over the rights of others must turn on something more substantial than mere formal allegations in a complaint.*fn6 Equity looks to the substance and not merely to the form.

Furthermore, the right of appeal granted by a statute should not be interpreted in such way as to defeat rights clearly granted in other parts of the same Act. Peck v. Jenness, 7 How. 612, 623. Potts and Boag appealed under

[ 324 U.S. Page 210]

     § 206 of the Chandler Act, which, contrary to the general bankruptcy procedure, grants any stockholder or creditor the right to be heard on all matters relating to corporate reorganizations. Courts have liberally construed this language as authorizing appeals.*fn7 We are now asked to say that the privilege of appeal granted to Potts and Boag by the Act vested them with an indefeasible right to sell the privilege to the disadvantage of all other stockholders in their class. But, historically one of the prime purposes of the bankruptcy law has been to bring about a ratable distribution among creditors of a bankrupt's assets; to protect the creditors from one another.*fn8 And the corporate reorganization statutes look to a ratable distribution of assets among classes of stockholders as well as creditors. There would be no ratable distribution of this bankrupt estate if Potts and Boag could utilize their statutory right of appeal to get for their preferred stock $7.00 for every $1.00 paid to other preferred stockholders. We are asked to say that Congress intended such a consequence, and to construe the right of a stockholder to be heard on a plan of reorganization as carrying with it the right to "sell" the very appeal which the Act grants him.

Potts and Boag, by appealing from a judgment which affected a whole class of stockholders, owed an obligation to them, the full extent of which we need not now delineate. Certainly, at the very least they owed them an obligation to act in good faith. If Potts and Boag had declined to accept this plan in bad faith, the court, under

[ 324 U.S. Page 211]

     § 203,*fn9 could have denied them the right to vote on the plan at all. The history of this provision makes clear that it was intended to apply to those stockholders whose selfish purpose was to obstruct a fair and feasible reorganization in the hope that someone would pay them more than the ratable equivalent of their proportionate part of the bankrupt assets.*fn10 If Potts' and Boag's opposition to confirmation sprang from such a purpose (and Potts and Boag did obstruct confirmation until they were able to "sell"

[ 324 U.S. Page 212]

     their appeal) they were acting in bad faith within the statutory meaning of that term. And accepting money as the end result of such a statutory violation cannot vest them with a right to keep it. Payment to them of this money simply meant that the distribution of bankrupt assets to the junior debt claimants, who paid Potts and Boag, would represent a smaller net value. The statute contemplates, and the appeal was taken on the assumption, that the less the junior claimants were awarded the more all the preferred stockholders would receive. Therefore, the consideration of the sale which Potts and Boag made was not merely their own interest in the bankrupt estate, but the interest of all the preferred stockholders. The situation which enabled them to traffic in the interests of others was created by a statute passed to protect the interests of all of them.*fn11 The statute neither compels them to appeal nor to prosecute an appeal already taken contrary to their own interests; it does impose upon them the duty of good faith to all other stockholders whose interests they temporarily control because they are necessarily involved in the appeal. This control of the common rights of all the preferred stockholders imposed on Potts and Boag a duty fairly to represent those common rights.*fn12 This representative responsibility is emphasized

[ 324 U.S. Page 213]

     by the fact that they might have been awarded compensation for their services had they succeeded in reducing the claim of the junior indebtedness to the advantage of all the preferred stockholders. § 243; cf. § 249. In re Keystone Realty Holding Co., 117 F.2d 1003, 1006. They cannot avail themselves of the statutory privilege of litigating for the interest of a class and then shake off their self-assumed responsibilities to others by a simple announcement that henceforth they will trade in the rights of others for their own aggrandizement. To hold that the Chandler Act permits this, would be to say that Congress, which sought more effectively to accomplish fair and equitable treatment of investors, had, by granting a right of appeal to stockholders, defeated its purpose, and had substantially modified the whole body of law imposing the most rigorous responsibilities for fair dealing upon those who represent the rights of others.*fn13

[ 324 U.S. Page 214]

     The money Potts and Boag received in excess of their own interest as stockholders was not paid for anything they owned. It came to them in settlement of litigation which if carried to a successful conclusion would have added to the value of other preferred stockholders of the common debtor. That the suit was settled and dismissed does not alter the rights of parties as to distribution of the fruits of the settlement. A distinction as to rights arising from litigation, which rests upon the difference between a judgment and a settlement of a lawsuit, under these circumstances, as in others, is "too formal to be sound." Lyeth v. Hoey, 305 U.S. 188, 195, 196; Helvering v. Safe Page 214} Deposit & Trust Co., 316 U.S. 56, 63-67. The appeal of Potts and Boag was alleged to be for the benefit of all preferred stockholders. In the contemplation of the statute which authorized the appeal, its fruit properly belongs to all the preferred stockholders. One creditor, therefore, cannot make that fruit his own by a simple appropriation of it. Cf. Terry v. Little, 101 U.S. 216, 218.

Third. It is argued that even though the money paid in excess of the stock value does in equity and good conscience belong to the stockholders, the bankruptcy court is without power to award the relief prayed. Courts of bankruptcy are courts of equity and exercise all equitable powers unless prohibited by the Bankruptcy Act. Securities & Exchange Comm'n v. United States Realty Co., 310 U.S. 434, 455. The District Court still has jurisdiction to exercise its powers under the Act both because of its express reservation and because of the provisions of § 222.*fn14 That power is ample to authorize the court to order an accounting for the funds in dispute here. Pepper v. Litton, 308 U.S. 295, 303-310; American United Ins. Co. v. Avon Park, 311 U.S. 138, 145-147; Consolidated Rock Co. v. DuBois, 312 U.S. 510, 521-523.

Nor can we sustain the contention that relief should be denied on the allegations that Young's motive in bringing the proceeding is an unworthy one. His petition sought relief for the benefit of all the stockholders. The rights of these stockholders are not to be ignored because of some motive attributable to Young.

Reversed.

The CHIEF JUSTICE and MR. JUSTICE JACKSON concur in the result.

MR. JUSTICE ROBERTS dissents.

Disposition

142 F.2d 1004, reversed.


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