Arbitration Agreements as Executory Contracts in Bankruptcy After Mission Products Holdings, Inc. v. Tempnology

(Forthcoming in the American Bankruptcy Law Journal)

52 Pages Posted: 21 Nov 2022 Last revised: 20 Dec 2022

See all articles by Stephen J. Ware

Stephen J. Ware

University of Kansas - School of Law

Date Written: November 8, 2022

Abstract

In 2021, a bankruptcy court refused to enforce an arbitration agreement because, among other reasons, the debtor rejected the contract containing the arbitration agreement under Bankruptcy Code § 365. In concluding that rejection meant the debtor was “no longer bound by the [contract]’s provisions that impose specific performance obligations on it—provisions such as the Arbitration Clause,” the bankruptcy court rightly found “support in” a 2014 federal district court decision refusing to enforce an arbitration agreement against a receiver who had rejected that agreement under receivership law similar to § 365. These two decisions conflict with a long line of cases enforcing executory arbitration agreements notwithstanding rejection under § 365. Moreover, the Supreme Court’s Mission Prod. Holdings, Inc. v. Tempnology decision supports this long line of cases, as another bankruptcy court recognized by citing Tempnology in holding that “the bankruptcy code does not render arbitration clauses in rejected executory contracts inoperative.”

Bankruptcy Code § 365 gives the trustee or debtor-in-possession representing a bankruptcy estate the power to choose whether the estate will assume or reject many of the executory contracts formed by the pre-bankruptcy debtor. Section 365 instructs courts to treat the estate’s rejection of an executory contract as though the pre-petition debtor had breached that contract. This treatment typically means that the non-debtor party to the rejected contract will collect no money from the estate or merely a small portion of the money damages a non-bankruptcy court would have awarded for the debtor’s breach of contract had the debtor stayed out of bankruptcy. In this sense, rejection of an executory contract typically weakens enforcement of that contract by the non-debtor party seeking money damages.

In contrast, the rejection of an executory arbitration agreement formed by the pre-bankruptcy debtor does not—except in the two outlier cases noted above—weaken the non-debtor party’s enforcement of that arbitration agreement. Notwithstanding rejection under § 365, nearly all courts enforce executory arbitration agreements against the estate with the remedy of specific performance that compels the estate to arbitrate. However, § 365 cases have been uneven in their handling of arbitration law’s separability doctrine, which holds that “arbitration clauses as a matter of federal law are ‘separable’ from the contracts in which they are embedded.” The separability doctrine may, at least initially, seem to conflict with § 365 cases stating that an executory contract must be assumed or rejected in its entirety under the “all-or-nothing rule.” Difficulties combining the separability doctrine with § 365 have produced erroneous statements by several courts, including the Third Circuit’s oft-cited decision in Hays and Company v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, & Smith, Inc.

This Article has two main parts. Part I begins with § 365 and the consequences of assumption and rejection, before exploring the implications of the United States Supreme Court’s statement in Mission Prod. Holdings, Inc. v. Tempnology, that “[a] rejection breaches a contract but does not rescind it. And that means all the rights that would ordinarily survive a contract breach . . . remain in place” after rejection. Consistent with this statement and its likely implications, Part I shows, many courts before, and one after, Tempnology have specifically enforced arbitration agreements against the estate, notwithstanding rejection of those arbitration agreements. Part I argues that these many cases are right rather than the two outlier cases identified at the start of this Article.

Part II of this Article explains arbitration law’s separability doctrine and integrates it with bankruptcy law. This analysis shows, contrary to the outlier cases and some commentators, that the separability doctrine is compatible with, and even further supports, courts’ conclusions that rejection under § 365 does not prevent specific enforcement of an arbitration agreement. The Article concludes that a pre-bankruptcy debtor’s arbitration agreement is specifically enforceable by or against the estate, regardless of whether the rest of the contract containing the arbitration agreement is executory. And either party is entitled to specific performance of the arbitration agreement regardless of whether the estate has rejected it and the broader contract containing it or rejected only the arbitration agreement while assuming the broader contract containing it.

Keywords: bankruptcy, arbitration, contracts, executory, specific performance

Suggested Citation

Ware, Stephen J., Arbitration Agreements as Executory Contracts in Bankruptcy After Mission Products Holdings, Inc. v. Tempnology (November 8, 2022). (Forthcoming in the American Bankruptcy Law Journal), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4271809 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4271809

Stephen J. Ware (Contact Author)

University of Kansas - School of Law ( email )

Green Hall
1535 W. 15th Street
Lawrence, KS 66045-7577
United States
785-864-9209 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://www.law.ku.edu/ware

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