When a Discharge Isn't

Posted on March 8, 2010 by Brian Rosenthal

For all environmental lawyers and especially for business advisors and bankruptcy lawyers, a very important case was decided by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in fall 2009. The case concerns the effect of a bankruptcy discharge from a 1986 bankruptcy filing versus an affirmative Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (“RCRA”) clean-up injunction. The question is whether the injunction is a discharged claim in bankruptcy. The Court of Appeals concludes a mandatory injunction to perform clean-up does not equate to an equitable remedy giving rise upon breach to a right to payment, which is the covered equitable remedy subject to discharge.

 

Here, the formerly bankrupt company’s reorganization left it no choice but to have this particular clean-up conducted by a third party at an estimated cost of $150,000,000. The Court found, however, the clean-up order did not result in a right to payment because RCRA does not allow either a demand for clean-up costs or any monetary relief. 

 

Finding that all equitable orders will inevitably require the ordered party to spend money to comply, the Court concludes discharges are limited to matters where the claim gives rise to a right to payment.  Such situations arise where an equitable decree can not be executed and results in a right to seek money damages and not merely those that impose a cost on the defendant.  

 

This case reaches a conclusion contrary to a 6th Circuit case and is distinguishable from the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Ohio v. Kovacs.  In Kovacs a receiver was appointed to take possession of the debtor’s assets so it could obtain money to pay for an ordered clean-up, and the Supreme Court found the receiver, therefore, was seeking money rather than an order that the debtor clean up the contaminated site. 

 

The holding in this 7th Circuit case is certainly one that will likely reverberate around the country for years to come. United States v. Apex Oil Co., Inc., 579 F.3d 734 (7th Cir. 2009).