Exercising Rights to Setoff and Recoupment in Bankruptcy

Current market conditions are straining business relationships in the oil and gas industry. In a growing number of cases, distressed companies are seeking chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In that event, a creditor-debtor relationship is formed between the bankrupt company and the performing partner. For example, in the context of a joint operating agreement, an operator (the performing partner) may seek to recapture drilling costs from a non-operator (the bankrupt company). In these bankruptcy cases, the performing partner should consider its ability to offset debts with the bankrupt company through “setoff” or “recoupment”.

Setoff is simply a creditor’s right to offset mutual debts. Setoff is captured in Section 553(a) of the Bankruptcy Code, which preserves a creditor’s right to offset the mutual debts of the creditor and debtor provided that both debts (the debt owed by the creditor to the debtor and the debt owed by the debtor to the creditor) 1) arose before commencement of the bankruptcy case and 2) are mutual, meaning that both parties owe a debt to the other.1 The mutual debt need not, however, arise out of the same transaction in order for setoff to be available under the statute. 2 In fact, debts subject to setoff generally arise from different transactions.3

For example, A and B are jointly developing two wells and A is the operator of the wells. One well, called Boom, is producing, but the other, called Bust, is not. Boom generates $500,000 a month in revenue, but B owes A $1 million for B’s share of operating costs on Bust. In this case, setoff may allow A to withhold B’s share of revenue from Boom and credit it to B’s unpaid costs from Bust. This is because the purpose of setoff is to avoid “the absurdity of making A pay B when B owes A.”4

Setoff is limited in three ways. First, setoff is not a right created by the Bankruptcy Code.5 While Section 553(a) preserves a right to setoff, that right must first exist under “applicable non-bankruptcy law” (e.g. state law).6 Second, unlike recoupment (discussed below), a creditor can only offset pre-bankruptcy (pre-petition) debts. In other words, a creditor cannot use setoff to recover a pre-bankruptcy debt out of post-bankruptcy (post-petition) payments owed to the debtor.7 Third, a creditor’s right to setoff is automatically stayed (i.e. suspended) when a debtor files for bankruptcy protection.8 Creditors seeking to setoff must first obtain relief from the automatic stay imposed by Section 362(a) of the Bankruptcy Code and should consult bankruptcy counsel to assist in that effort.

Recoupment is similar to setoff in that it recognizes the basic inequities of allowing a debtor to enjoy the benefits of a transaction without also meeting its obligations.9 But, recoupment only permits a creditor to withhold funds to offset debts arising from the same transaction.10 Claims arise from the “same transaction” when both debts arise out of a single, integrated contract or similar transaction, such as a joint operating agreement.11

For example, A operates a well and B is a non-operator with an obligation to reimburse A for 25% of the drilling costs. A incurs $1,000,000 in costs and B fails to pay its $250,000 share. If B files for bankruptcy protection, then A has a $250,000 claim against the bankruptcy estate. In this case, recoupment may allow A to withhold B’s revenues from the well and credit the revenues against the costs incurred by A. This example illustrates how recoupment functions like a security interest in that it grants priority to a creditor’s claim in the bankruptcy estate, provided that the estate has a claim against the creditor arising from the “same transaction” as the creditor’s claim.12

Recoupment has certain benefits that are unavailable under setoff. First, a creditor can exercise its right to recoupment without regard to the timing and other requirements of Section 553 of the Bankruptcy Code.13 Second, recoupment allows a creditor to recover a pre-bankruptcy debt out of post-bankruptcy payments owed to the debtor.14 Third, a creditor who properly exercises its right to recoupment will not violate the automatic stay imposed by Section 362(a) of the Bankruptcy Code.15 However, a creditor may wish to seek relief from stay to clarify its right to exercise recoupment and to avoid any uncertainty about the amount the creditor can recoup. Bankruptcy counsel can help a creditor analyze its right of recoupment and assist in seeking relief from the automatic stay.

111 U.S.C. § 553(a).
2In re Davidovich, 901 F.2d 1533, 1537 (10th Cir. 1990).
3Conoco, Inc. v. Styler (In re Peterson Distrib.), 82 F.3d 956, 959 (10th Cir. 1996).
4Citizens Bank v. Strumpf, 516 U.S. 16, 18 (1995).
7See 11 U.S.C. § 553(a).
811 U.S.C. § 362(a)(7).
9Peterson Distrib., 82 F.3d at 960.
10In re Adamic, 291 B.R. 175, 181-82 (Bankr. D. Colo. 2003).
11Davidovich, 901 F.2d at 1538.
12Peterson Distrib., 82 F.3d at 960.
13Davidovich, 901 F.2d at 1537.
14Beaumont v. VA (In re Beaumont), 586 F.3d 776, 780 (10th Cir. 2009).
15Id. at 777.

Fraudulent Transfer Risks in Oil and Gas Transactions

Over the past few months, the economics of the oil and gas industry have changed dramatically. As oil and gas prices have fallen, so too have profit margins and working capital. Many companies will weather this storm. A fortunate few will expand their positions and acquire additional assets, some of which will be purchased from distressed companies. In dealing with these distressed companies and their assets, landmen and other oil and gas industry professionals will need to have a working-knowledge of select bankruptcy-related laws and concepts to protect their company’s assets. In this article, we will discuss one aspect of relevant bankruptcy law: fraudulent transfers and how they may affect property transactions.1

What is a fraudulent transfer?

When a company files for bankruptcy, the bankruptcy trustee may avoid any fraudulent transfer of property made within four years of filing in most states, if certain conditions are met. Fraudulent transfers occur when: (1) there was an intent to hinder, delay, or defraud creditors; or (2) the debtor transfers property without receiving “reasonably equivalent value” in exchange for the transfer and is insolvent at the time of the transfer, becomes insolvent as a result of the transfer, or is left with an unreasonably small amount of capital to operate its business as a result of the transfer.2 If a transaction is deemed to be a fraudulent transfer, the bankruptcy trustee can recover the property or obtain a judgment for the value of the property.

The first type of fraudulent transfer involves an actual intent to defraud and is more easily identified. For example, in In re Tronox, a court found that a debtor transferred property with environmental liabilities with an intent to hinder, delay, or defraud creditors through a spinoff.3 In another case, In re ASARCO, a court found that the debtor hindered and delayed creditors by directing all of the consideration from a sale of a majority of a mining entity to one of the Debtor’s creditors, to the detriment of other creditors.4 These situations usually involve related parties.

The second type of fraudulent transfer, commonly referred to as a constructively fraudulent transfer, occurs when a company purchases an asset without paying reasonably equivalent value. This can occur when purchasing assets from a third party or, more commonly, when buying-out a partner to resolve a debt or other obligation. If the seller files for bankruptcy subsequent to the transaction, there is a risk that the bankruptcy trustee could seek to have the transaction declared to be a fraudulent transfer.

In determining “reasonably equivalent value” a bankruptcy court looks at the totality of the circumstances. Fraudulent transfer laws are designed to preserve the assets of the debtor for the benefit of creditors. When carrying out this intent, courts disregard the form of a transaction and look “instead to its substance.”5 Fraudulent conveyance law is “designed to protect creditors’ rights” and looks at transactions from “the perspective of creditors.” 6 Whether a purchaser paid reasonably equivalent value is a subjective question that depends on the facts of each individual situation.

What does this mean for landmen?

Oil and gas professionals should be aware of the risks of acquiring property from distressed companies. To avoid constructively fraudulent transfers, a purchaser should ensure that they are giving “reasonably equivalent value” for the asset. This can be difficult. Under certain circumstances, when the value of the property is enhanced by the buyer after the sale closes (through drilling or other development) the debtor may later contend that the buyer failed to pay reasonably equivalent value.

The best way to determine “reasonably equivalent value” when dealing with a distressed company is to obtain an appraisal from an independent third party. If an appraisal is not cost-effective or is impractical, the risk of a fraudulent transfer can be mitigated by conducting proper due diligence.

An awareness of the financial health of the companies you are doing business with is as important as ever. By evaluating the transaction now, you can avoid problems down the road.

1There are many tools that an oil and gas company can use to mitigate its exposure to bankruptcy risks. A full discussion of all the tools is beyond the scope of this article. If you have questions on how to mitigate bankruptcy risks, or if a business partner files for bankruptcy, we advise you to contact a bankruptcy expert immediately to protect your assets.
2 See 11 U.S.C. § 548.
3 In re Tronox Inc., 429 B.R. 73 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. 2010).
4 See In re ASARCO, L.L.C, 702 F.3d 250 (5th Cir. 2012).
5 In re HBE Leasing Corp. v. Frank, 48 F.3d 623, 638 (2d Cir.1995) (construing the New York’s fraudulent conveyance statute).
6In re Crowthers McCall Pattern, Inc., 129 B.R. 992, 998 (S.D.N.Y.1991).