To start with fresh slate, extinguishment of liabilities after approval of Resolution Plan is necessary

[Ref: Ghanashyam Mishra and Sons Private Ltd v. Edelweiss Asset Reconstruction Company dated 13th April, 2021]

The Hon’ble Supreme Court in the matter of Ghanashyam Mishra and Sons Private Limited through the Authorized Signatory Vs. Edelweiss Asset Reconstruction Company Limited through the Director & Ors. has given its judgment dated 13th April, 2021 wherein it was directed that once a resolution plan is approved by the Adjudicating Authority under Section 31(1) of the of Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 all claims, which are not a part of resolution plan, shall stand extinguished and no person will be entitled to initiate or continue any proceedings in respect to a claim, which is not part of the resolution plan. The legislative intent behind this is, to freeze all the claims so that the resolution applicant starts on a clean slate and is not flung with any surprise claims. If that is permitted, the very calculations on the basis of which the resolution applicant submits its plans, would go haywire and the plan would be unworkable

Several Special Leave Petitions were filed before the Hon’ble Supreme Court, w.r.t. resolution of Electrosteel Steels Ltd., Binani Cement Ltd., Orissa Manganese & Minerals Ltd. and Monnet Ispat & Energy Ltd.  The short but important questions, that arise for consideration before the Apex Court, are as under:

(i) As to whether any creditor including the Central Government, State Government or any local authority is bound by the Resolution Plan once it is approved by an adjudicating authority under subsection (1) of Section 31 of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 (hereinafter referred to as ‘I&B Code’)?

(ii) As to whether the amendment to Section 31 by Section 7 of Act 26 of 2019 is clarificatory / declaratory or substantive in nature?

(iii) As to whether after approval of resolution plan by the Adjudicating Authority a creditor including the Central Government, State Government or any local authority is entitled to initiate any proceedings for recovery of any of the dues from the Corporate Debtor, which are not a part of the Resolution Plan approved by the adjudicating authority?

The primary issue for consideration before the Hon’ble Supreme Court was whether after approval of the resolution plan by Adjudicating Authority a creditor, including the Central Government, State Government or any local authority, is entitled to initiate any proceedings for recovery of any of the dues from the Corporate Debtor, which are not part of the resolution plan.

The Apex Court after go through case of Innoventive Industries Ltd. vs. ICICI Bank & Anr., considered that one of the dominant objects of I&B Code is to see to it, that an attempt has to be made to revive the Corporate Debtor and make it a running concern. For that, a resolution applicant has to prepare a resolution plan on the basis of the Information Memorandum. The Information Memorandum, which is required to be prepared in accordance with Section 29 of I&B Code along with Regulation 36 of the Regulations, is required to contain various details, which have been gathered by RP after receipt of various claims in response to the statutorily mandated public notice.

The resolution plan is required to provide for the payment of insolvency resolution process costs, management of the affairs of the Corporate Debtor after approval of the resolution plan; the implementation and supervision of the resolution plan. It is only after the Adjudicating Authority satisfies itself, that the plan as approved by Creditor of Committee (CoC) with the requisite voting share of financial creditors meets the requirement as referred to in subsection (2) of Section 30, grants its approval to it.

It is only thereafter, that the said plan is binding on the Corporate Debtor as well as its employees, members, creditors, guarantors and other stakeholders involved in the resolution Plan. The moratorium order passed by the Adjudicating Authority under Section 14 shall cease to operate, once the Adjudicating Authority approves the resolution plan. The scheme of I&B Code therefore is, to make an attempt, by divesting the erstwhile management of its powers and vesting it in a professional agency, to continue the business of the Corporate Debtor as a going concern until a resolution plan is drawn up. Once the resolution plan is approved, the management is handed over under the plan to the successful applicant so that the Corporate Debtor is able to pay back its debts and get back on its feet.

The Hon’ble Court mentioned that recently in the case of Kalpraj Dharamshi and another vs. Kotak Investment Advisors Ltd. and another has, in detail, considered the provisions of Sections 30 and 31 of I&B Code, the Bankruptcy Law Reforms Committee (BLRC) Report of 2015 and the judgments of this Court in the case K. Sashidhar, Committee of Creditors of Essar Steel India Limited through Authorised Signatory vs. Satish Kumar Gupta & Ors. and Maharashtra Seamless Limited vs. Padmanabhan Venkatesh and others.

By go through the observation in the aforesaid judgement, the Hon’ble Supreme Court held that it could thus be seen, that the legislature has given paramount importance to the commercial wisdom of CoC and the scope of judicial review by Adjudicating Authority is limited to the extent provided under Section 31 of I&B Code and of the Appellate Authority is limited to the extent provided under subsection (3) of Section 61 of the I&B Code, is no more res integra.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court held that Bare reading of Section 31 of the I&B Code would also make it abundantly clear, that once the resolution plan is approved by the Adjudicating Authority, after it is satisfied, that the resolution plan as approved by CoC meets the requirements as referred to in subsection (2) of Section 30, it shall be binding on the Corporate Debtor and its employees, members, creditors, guarantors and other stakeholders. Such a provision is necessitated since one of the dominant purposes of the I&B Code is, revival of the Corporate Debtor and to make it a running concern.

The resolution plan submitted by successful resolution applicant is required to contain various provisions, viz., provision for payment of insolvency resolution process costs, provision for payment of debts of operational creditors, which shall not be less than the amount to be paid to such creditors in the event of liquidation of the Corporate Debtor under section 53; or the amount that would have been paid to such creditors, if the amount to be distributed under the resolution plan had been distributed in accordance with the order of priority in subsection (1) of section 53, whichever is higher. The resolution plan is also required to provide for the payment of debts of financial creditors, who do not vote in favour of the resolution plan, which also shall not be less than the amount to be paid to such creditors in accordance with subsection (1) of section 53 in the event of a liquidation of the Corporate Debtor. Explanation 1 to clause (b) of subsection (2) of Section 30 of the I&B Code clarifies for the removal of doubts, that a distribution in accordance with the provisions of the said clause shall be fair and equitable to such creditors. The resolution plan is also required to provide for the management of the affairs of the Corporate Debtor after approval of the resolution plan and also the implementation and supervision of the resolution plan. Clause (e) of subsection (2) of Section 30 of I&B Code also casts a duty on RP to examine, that the resolution plan does not contravene any of the provisions of the law for the time being in force.

Perusal of Section 29 of the I&B Code read with Regulation 36 of the Regulations would reveal, that it requires RP to prepare an information memorandum containing various details of the Corporate Debtor so that the resolution applicant submitting a plan is aware of the assets and liabilities of the Corporate Debtor, including the details about the creditors and the amounts claimed by them. It is also required to contain the details of guarantees that have been given in relation to the debts of the corporate debtor by other persons. The details with regard to all material litigation and an ongoing investigation or proceeding initiated by Government and statutory authorities are also required to be contained in the information memorandum. So also the details regarding the number of workers and employees and liabilities of the Corporate Debtor towards them are required to be contained in the information memorandum.

All these details are required to be contained in the information memorandum so that the resolution applicant is aware, as to what are the liabilities, that he may have to face and provide for a plan, which apart from satisfying a part of such liabilities would also ensure, that the Corporate Debtor is revived and made a running establishment. The legislative intent of making the resolution plan binding on all the stakeholders after it gets the seal of approval from the Adjudicating Authority upon its satisfaction, that the resolution plan approved by CoC meets the requirement as referred to in subsection (2) of Section 30 is, that after the approval of the resolution plan, no surprise claims should be flung on the successful resolution applicant. The dominant purpose is, that he should start with fresh slate on the basis of the resolution plan approved. This aspect has been aptly explained by this Court in the case of Committee of Creditors of Essar Steel India Limited through Authorised Signatory.

The Hon’ble Court mentioned that vide Section 7 of Act No.26 of 2019 (vide S.O. 2953(E), dated 16.8.2019 w.e.f. 16.8.2019), the following words have been inserted in Section 31 of the I&B Code.

“including the Central Government, any State Government or any local authority to whom a debt in respect of the payment of dues arising under any law for the time being in force, such as authorities to whom statutory dues are owed”

As such, with respect to the proceedings, which arise after 16.8.2019, there will be no difficulty. After the amendment, any debt in respect of the payment of dues arising under any law for the time being in force including the ones owed to the Central Government, any State Government or any local authority, which does not form a part of the approved resolution plan, shall stand extinguished. The only question, which remains is, what happens to such dues if they pertain to a period wherein Section 7 petitions have been admitted prior to 16.8.2019.

To answer the said question, we will have to consider, as to whether the said amendment is clarificatory/declaratory in nature or a substantive one. If it is held, that it is declaratory or clarificatory in nature, it will have to be held, that such an amendment is retrospective in nature and exists on the statute book since inception. However, if the answer is otherwise, the amendment will have to be held to be prospective in nature, having force from the date on which the amendment is effected in the statute.

It will be relevant to refer to the “Statement of Objects and Reasons” (hereafter referred to as “SOR”) of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Amendment) Bill, 2019, which read thus:

“The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 (the Code) was enacted with a view to consolidate and amend the laws relating to reorganisation and insolvency resolution of corporate persons, partnership firms and individuals in a timebound manner for maximisation of value of assets of such persons, to promote entrepreneurship, availability of credit and balance the interests of all the stakeholders including alteration in the order or priority of payment of Government dues and to establish an Insolvency and Bankruptcy Board of India.

2. The Preamble to the Code lays down the objects of the Code to include “the insolvency resolution” in a time bound manner for maximisation of value of assets in order to balance the interests of all the stakeholders. Concerns have been raised that in some cases extensive litigation is causing undue delays, which may hamper the value maximisation. There is a need to ensure that all creditors are treated fairly, without unduly burdening the Adjudicating Authority whose role is to ensure that the resolution plan complies with the provisions of the Code. Various stakeholders have suggested that if the creditors were treated on an equal footing, when they have different pre insolvency entitlements, it would adversely impact the cost and availability of credit. Further, views have also been obtained so as to bring clarity on the voting pattern of financial creditors represented by the authorised representative.

3. In view of the aforesaid difficulties and in order to fill the critical gaps in the corporate insolvency framework, it has become necessary to amend certain provisions of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code. The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Amendment) Bill, 2019, inter alia, provides for the following, namely:–

(a) ……………………………………..;

(b) ……………………………………..;

(c) ……………………………………..;

(d) ……………………………………..;

(e) ……………………………………;

(f) to amend subsection (1) of section 31 of the Code to clarify that the resolution plan approved by the Adjudicating Authority shall also be binding on the Central Government, any State Government or any local authority to whom a debt in respect of payment of dues arising under any law for the time being in force, such as authorities to whom statutory dues are owed, including tax authorities;

(g) ………………………………..”

[emphasis supplied]

Perusal of the SOR would reveal, that one of the prime objects of I&B Code was to provide for implementation of insolvency resolution process in a time bound manner for maximisation of value of assets in order to balance the interests of all stakeholders. However, it was noticed, that in some cases there was extensive litigation causing undue delays resultantly hampering the value maximisation. It was also found necessary to ensure, that all creditors are treated fairly. It was therefore in view of the various difficulties faced and in order to fill the critical gaps in the corporate insolvency framework, it was necessary to amend certain provisions of the I&B Code. Clause (f) of para 3 of the SOR of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Amendment) Bill, 2019 would amply make it clear, that the legislative intent in amending subsection (1) of Section 31 of I&B Code was to clarify, that the resolution plan approved by the Adjudicating Authority shall also be binding on the Central Government, any State Government or any local authority to whom a debt is owed in respect of payment of dues arising under any law for the time being in force, such as authorities to whom statutory dues are owed, including tax authorities.

In the Rajya Sabha debates, on 29.7.2019, when the Bill for amending I&B Code came up for discussion, there were certain issues raised by certain Members. While replying to the issues raised by certain Members, the Hon’ble Finance Minister stated thus:

“IBC has actually an overriding effect. For instance, you asked whether IBC will override SEBI. Section 238 provides that IBC will prevail in case of inconsistency between two laws. Actually, Indian courts will have to decide, in specific cases, depending upon the material before them, but largely, yes, it is IBC. […]

There is also this question about indemnity for successful resolution applicant. The amendment now is clearly making it binding on the Government. It is one of the ways in which we are providing that. The Government will not raise any further claim. The Government will not make any further claim after resolution plan is approved. So, that is going to be a major, major sense of assurance for the people who are using the resolution plan. Criminal matters alone would be proceeded against individuals and not company. There will be no criminal proceedings against successful resolution applicant. There will be no criminal proceedings against successful resolution applicant for fraud by previous promoters. So, I hope that is absolutely clear. I would want all the hon. Members to recognize this message and communicate further that this Code, therefore, gives that comfort to all new bidders. So now, they need not be scared that the taxman will come after them for the faults of the earlier promoters. No. Once the resolution plan is accepted, the earlier promoters will be dealt with as individuals for their criminality but not the new bidder who is trying to restore the company. So, that is very clear ……………..

(emphasis supplied)”

It could thus be seen, that in the speech the Hon’ble Finance Minister has categorically stated, that Section 238 provides that I&B Code will prevail in case of inconsistency between two laws. She also stated, that there was question about indemnity for successful resolution applicant and that the amendment was clearly making it binding on the Government. She stated, that the Government will not make any further claim after resolution plan is approved. So, that is going to be a major sense of assurance for the people who are using the resolution plan. She has categorically stated, that she would want all the Hon’ble Members to recognize this message and communicate further that I&B Code gives that comfort to all new bidders. They need not be scared that the taxman will come after them for the faults of the earlier promoters. She further states, that once the resolution plan is accepted, the earlier promoters will be dealt with as individuals for their criminality but not the new bidder who is trying to restore the company.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court mentioned that as discussed hereinabove, one of the principal objects of I&B Code is, providing for revival of the Corporate Debtor and to make it a going concern. I&B Code is a complete Code in itself. Upon admission of petition under Section 7, there are various important duties and functions entrusted to RP and CoC. RP is required to issue a publication inviting claims from all the stakeholders. He is required to collate the said information and submit necessary details in the information memorandum. The resolution applicants submit their plans on the basis of the details provided in the information memorandum. The resolution plans undergo deep scrutiny by RP as well as CoC. In the negotiations that may be held between CoC and the resolution applicant, various modifications may be made so as to ensure, that while paying part of the dues of financial creditors as well as operational creditors and other stakeholders, the Corporate Debtor is revived and is made an ongoing concern. After CoC approves the plan, the Adjudicating Authority is required to arrive at a subjective satisfaction, that the plan conforms to the requirements as are provided in subsection (2) of Section 30 of the I&B Code. Only thereafter, the Adjudicating Authority can grant its approval to the plan. It is at this stage, that the plan becomes binding on Corporate Debtor, its employees, members, creditors, guarantors and other stakeholders involved in the resolution Plan. The legislative intent behind this is, to freeze all the claims so that the resolution applicant starts on a clean slate and is not flung with any surprise claims. If that is permitted, the very calculations on the basis of which the resolution applicant submits its plans, would go haywire and the plan would be unworkable.

We have no hesitation to say, that the word “other stakeholders” would squarely cover the Central Government, any State Government or any local authorities. The legislature, noticing that on account of obvious omission, certain tax authorities were not abiding by the mandate of I&B Code and continuing with the proceedings, has brought out the 2019 amendment so as to cure the said mischief. We therefore hold, that the 2019 amendment is declaratory and clarificatory in nature and therefore retrospective in operation.

Conclusion:  In the result, we answer the questions framed by us as under:

(i) That once a resolution plan is duly approved by the Adjudicating Authority under subsection (1) of Section 31, the claims as provided in the resolution plan shall stand frozen and will be binding on the Corporate Debtor and its employees, members, creditors, including the Central Government, any State Government or any local authority, guarantors and other stakeholders. On the date of approval of resolution plan by the Adjudicating Authority, all such claims, which are not a part of resolution plan, shall stand extinguished and no person will be entitled to initiate or continue any proceedings in respect to a claim, which is not part of the resolution plan;

(ii) 2019 amendment to Section 31 of the I&B Code is clarificatory and declaratory in nature and therefore will be effective from the date on which I&B Code has come into effect;

(iii) Consequently, all the dues including the statutory dues owed to the Central Government, any State Government or an local authority, if not part of the resolution plan, shall stand extinguished and no proceedings in respect of such dues for the period prior to the date on which the Adjudicating Authority grants its approval under Section 31 could be continued.

*****

Disclaimer: Nothing contained in this document is to be construed as a legal opinion or view of either of the authors whatsoever and the content is to be used strictly for educative purposes only.                 

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