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Sino Clean Energy, Inc. v. Seiden

United States District Court, D. Nevada

January 23, 2017

SINO CLEAN ENERGY INC., acting by and through BAOWEN REN, PENG ZHOU, WENJIE ZHANG, ZHIXIN JING, and PAUL CHUI; and HUIQIN CHEN, LI HAN, GUANGJON HUANG, XIAODONG JIANG, XUELING JING, YUFENG LI, HAICHO LI, LANYING LI, LIANG WANG, ZHEN WU, TING XTE, HESHUN YANG, CHUNYUN ZHANG, TIEKUAN ZHANG, Appellants
v.
ROBERT W. SEIDEN, ESQ., in his capacity as Receiver over Sino Clean Energy Inc., Appellee Bankruptcy No. BK-S-15-14261-BTB

          ORDER AFFIRMING BANKRUPTCY COURT DECISION

          Jennifer A. Dorsey United States District Judge

         Appellants are former directors of Sino Clean Energy Inc. They filed for bankruptcy on behalf of Sino, the bankruptcy court dismissed their petition, and they now appeal. In dismissing, the bankruptcy court reasoned that only a corporation's current board of directors can file for bankruptcy-and here, at the time the appellants filed, a state-appointed receiver had already removed them from their director positions for mismanaging the company. Because Sino's new board of directors had not authorized the filing, the bankruptcy court dismissed its petition. On appeal, the appellants contend that federal law preempts any state law (including a state receiver) that restricts a company's directors from filing for bankruptcy-and that Sino's former directors therefore retained the ability to file despite their ousting by the receiver.

         The appellants' argument blurs the line between two related-but distinct-rules: the rule preventing states from barring corporations from filing for bankruptcy, and the longstanding rule empowering states to bar certain individuals from making that decision for a corporation. I decline their invitation to extend the rule that states cannot bar corporations from the bankruptcy courts to also mean that states cannot prevent certain individual directors from being the ones who decide whether the corporation may file-a question that has always been left to the states. The bankruptcy system is just as available to Sino now as it was before the receiver was appointed; only the identity of the person making that decision for Sino has changed. I thus affirm the bankruptcy court's dismissal.[1]

         Background

         A. Sino was forced into receivership, and the receiver replaced the appellants with new board members.

         Sino is a holding company for various entities in China that produce coal-water slurry-an alternative fuel that it claims burns cleaner than traditional coal. Starting in 2011, Sino became embroiled in sundry U.S. litigations (including at least a defamation case and a class action).[2] Sino's shareholders eventually asked a Nevada court to appoint a receiver to take over Sino's affairs, fearing that the appellants would mismanage the company into insolvency.[3]

         Although they were served with the shareholder's complaint, the appellants never responded to the state action. The state court entered an order (1) appointing a receiver and (2) finding that the appellants were liable for grossly mismanaging Sino.[4] The state court's order empowered the receiver to pick a new board of directors for Sino and to take control of Sino's property.[5]

         The receiver attempted to work with the appellants, but to no avail. In 2014, the receiver replaced the appellants in their board positions with a new board of directors.[6] It does not appear that the appellants have cooperated with Sino's new board or the receiver since.[7]

         Then in the summer of 2015-more than a year after the receiver took over (and seven months after the new board was in place at Sino)-appellants filed a bankruptcy petition on behalf of Sino.[8] Sino's then-current board passed a resolution directing that the bankruptcy petition be withdrawn.[9]

         B. The bankruptcy court dismissed this case because appellants were no longer Sino's directors, and thus they lacked authority to file for bankruptcy on behalf of the company.

         Shortly after the bankruptcy case started the receiver moved to dismiss, arguing that the appellants had no authority to file for bankruptcy on behalf of Sino because they were no longer its directors. After a lengthy oral argument, the bankruptcy judge provided a thorough decision from the bench, granting the receiver's motion to dismiss.[10]

         The bankruptcy court held that Sino's board of directors had in fact been replaced before the appellants filed their bankruptcy petition.[11] The court concluded that the case must be dismissed because only a corporation's current directors can act on its behalf, and the appellants (as former directors) therefore had no authority act for Sino. The court relied heavily on the Ninth Circuit case of Oil & Gas Co. v. Duryee, 9 F.3d 771 (9th Cir. 1993). The ousted board appeals.

         Discussion

         A. Standard of Review

         I review a bankruptcy court's decision to dismiss for abuse of discretion and apply a two-part test.[12] I consider de novo whether the court applied the correct legal standard.[13] But I review the bankruptcy court's findings of fact for clear error.[14] A fact finding is only clearly erroneous “if it was without adequate evidentiary support or was induced by an erroneous view of the law.”[15] I “may not simply substitute [my] view” for that of the bankruptcy court.[16] Finally, I may affirm on any basis supported by the record.[17]

         B. The bankruptcy court properly dismissed this case because the appellants had no authority to file for bankruptcy on behalf of Sino.

         This case turns on a single issue: Do the appellants have authority to file for bankruptcy on Sino's behalf? An important starting principle is that state law-not federal law-governs whether a person is authorized to file a bankruptcy petition on behalf of a corporation.[18] This fact reflects a preference for allowing states to make judgments about who should, and who should not, make the important decision of whether a corporation should for bankruptcy. Indeed, the Supreme Court has been clear on this point: “If the District Court finds that those who purport to act on behalf of the corporation have not been granted authority by local law to institute the proceedings, it has no alternative but to dismiss the petition.”[19] Bankruptcy courts have no jurisdiction to “determine that those who in fact do not have the authority to speak for the corporation as a matter of local law are entitled to be given such authority and therefore should be empowered to file a petition on behalf of the corporation.”[20]

         Appellants do not meaningfully dispute that Nevada law precludes them from filing for bankruptcy on behalf of Sino.[21] After all, Nevada law vests the authority to make important decisions (including whether to file for bankruptcy) in a corporation's current board of directors. And at the time the appellants filed their bankruptcy petition in this case, the state-appointed receiver had ousted them from their board positions and installed a new board for Sino. Nor do the appellants dispute that Sino's new board (in power at the time of the bankruptcy filing) opposed the filing. This would thus seem an easy case: Sino's new board was the only one under Nevada law who could decide whether to file bankruptcy; Sino's old board (the appellants) were powerless to file their petition and it was properly dismissed.

         But appellants contend that federal bankruptcy law preempts a state-appointed receiver from preventing a corporation's directors from filing for bankruptcy by replacing them with new directors. The appellants primarily rely on a single bankruptcy case from the District of Arizona, In re Corporate and Leisure.[22] And indeed, in a lengthy decision, the Arizona bankruptcy court held that federal law preempts a “receivership order that attempts to preclude any of the original constituents of the organizational entity from filing a petition on its behalf”-including by, as ...


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