General Obligation Bonds

JUDGE BESOSA REFUSES TO STAY LEX CLAIMS COMPLAINT

 

 

On February 17, 2017, Judge Besosa decided important issues in the Lex Claims litigation. In this case, plaintiffs, a group of GO bondholders, seek an injunction against the use of the sales tax to pay COFINA bonds, claiming they have first lien on “available resources” as per the Puerto Rico Constitution.

 

Defendants included, inter alia, the Government of PR, COFINA and its Executive Director, who filed various motions to stay the litigation. In addition, Ambac, a monoline that insures COFINA senior bonds, COFINA Senior Bondholders, Puerto Rico based bondholders and Mayor COFINA Bondholders (subordinate COFINA bondholders) filed motions to intervene, as did the Board.

 

Judge Besosa reviewed all of defendants’ arguments for the stay in great detail and rejected all. Hence, the claims for injunction against the payment of COFINA bonds and violation of civil rights (42 U.S.C. § 1983) will go forward. In addition, Judge Besosa granted intervention to all that sought it, except for COFINA Senior Bondholders since their request was limited to claiming the stay was applicable.

 

What will happen now? It is clear Judge Besosa wants to resolve the GO/COFINA controversy, which makes it unlikely that he will send it to the PR Supreme Court. Moreover, the case is what we call paper litigation. The issues before the Court revolve around an interpretation of the PR Constitution, the Constitutional Convention, the 1961 Amendment to the Constitution and its legislative record, COFINA statutes, its legislative record and the bond documents. There is no need for a hearing since there would not be any testimony, expert or otherwise as happened in the previous litigation on the stay.

 

Can PR or other defendants “appeal” Judge Besosa’s decision? Not really. The Federal system is hostile to appeals where there is no final determination of the issues. For example, in the Peaje litigation that recently went to the First Circuit, there was a final order since once the decision favored the stay, “there was nothing left for the district court to do.” Here, however, there is much left to do. Of course, defendants may seek leave from the District Court to appeal and then seek appeal via 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b). The First Circuit, however, is very hostile to this type of appeal and rarely grants it. Hence, defendants will have to continue with this litigation.

 

How long can it take? I am sure plaintiffs are at this time preparing their motion for summary judgment to have the Court decide the issue quickly and I have no doubt he will do so. Remember that the First Circuit reminded Judge Besosa “In conducting such proceedings, the district court should be mindful of Congress’s explicit direction to ‘expedite’ its disposition of the matter ‘to the greatest possible extent.’” Section 106(d) of PROMESA.

 

What should PR and the Fiscal Supervisory Board do? Both the Board and PR have said they will not take sides on the controversy but I think they should. GO’s and COFINA amount to half of PR’s bond debt ($18 billion in GO related and $17 billion in COFINA) and there is no chance on voluntarily restructuring GO’s unless the issue is resolved since they will claim, with certain reason, Constitutional priority. A quick decision on the issue would not only resolve the issue but if COFINA is illegal, it would lose any claim to a stream of income from the sales tax, it would not have a pledge and lien and in a Title III proceeding would be an unsecured creditor. The Court could then reduce its indebtedness close to zero. Let’s see what happens.

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GO BONDHOLDERS SUE PUERTO RICO BASED ON PROMESA

 

 

Ever since President Obama signed PROMESA into law, Governor García Padilla crowed that now bondholders could not sue PR. Not only was he wrong, he was proven wrong today when a group of GO bondholders sued him for violating PROMESA.

 

The Group, that includes Lex Claims, LLC, Jacana Holdings (who also sued in NY Supreme Court), MPR Investors, Rolgs, RRW and SL Puerto Rico Fund, not Stone Lion and Aurelius as originally reported by Reuters. They claim, quite correctly in my view, that PROMESA prohibits the default of GO’s Governor García Padilla has done. Plaintiffs invoke section 204(c)(3) of PROMESA which states:

 

“During the period after a territory becomes a covered territory and prior to the appointment of all members and the Chair of the Oversight Board, such covered territory shall not enact new laws that either permit the transfer of any funds or assets outside the ordinary course of business or that are inconsistent with the constitution or laws of the territory as of the date of enactment of this Act, provided that any executive or legislative action authorizing the movement of funds or assets during this time period may be subject to review and rescission by the Oversight Board upon appointment of the Oversight Board’s full membership.”

 

The complaint avers, quite correctly, that the PR Constitution guarantees the payment of GO’s as a priority, see Article VI, sections 2 and 8. Moreover, PR law prioritizes the payment of this Constitutional debt. Although Governor García Padilla justified his default on the GO debt on the power granted to him by the Moratorium law enacted by the PR legislature, the complaint points out that it is preempted not only by 11 U.S.C. § 903 but also by section 303 of PROMESA.

 

Plaintiffs also aver that not only is the default on GO’s a violation of the PR Constitution and hence PROMESA, but that the 2016-17 budget is a violation of both laws since it does not budget for the payment of the Constitutional debt. It cites Article VI, section 6 of the Puerto Rico Constitution, which states:

 

“If at the end of any fiscal year the appropriations necessary for the ordinary operating expenses of the Government and for the payment of interest on and`amortization of the public debt for the ensuing fiscal year shall not have been made, the several sums appropriated in the last appropriation acts for the objects and purposes therein specified, so far as the same may be applicable, shall continue in effect item by item, and the Governor shall authorize the payments necessary for such purposes until corresponding appropriations are made.”

 

Since the 2015-16 budget did include appropriations for GO’s, the Constitution requires that these appropriations be used for payment of the GO debt and plaintiffs in this case so demand. Again, the claim is that violating the Constitution’s provisions on payments also violates PROMESA.

 

Plaintiffs also aver that this complaint is not stayed by PROMESA. As I have discussed before, the stay in PROMESA applies to cases filed after December 18, 2015 and seek:

 

(1) the commencement or continuation, including the issuance or employment of process, of a judicial, administrative, or other action or proceeding against the Government of Puerto Rico that was or could have been commenced before the enactment of this Act, or to recover a Liability Claim against the Government of Puerto Rico that arose before the enactment of this Act;

(2) the enforcement, against the Government of Puerto Rico or against property of the Government of Puerto Rico, of a judgment obtained before the enactment of this Act;

(3) any act to obtain possession of property of the Government of Puerto Rico or of property from the Government of Puerto Rico or to exercise control over property of the Government of Puerto Rico;

(4) any act to create, perfect, or enforce any lien against property of the Government of Puerto Rico;

(5) any act to create, perfect, or enforce against property of the Government of Puerto Rico any lien to the extent that such lien secures a Liability Claim that arose before the enactment of this Act;

(6) any act to collect, assess, or recover a Liability Claim against the Government of Puerto Rico that arose before the enactment of this Act; and

(7) the setoff of any debt owing to the Government of Puerto Rico that arose before the enactment of this Act against any Liability Claim against the Government of Puerto Rico.”

 

The complaint states that it does not seek payment of the defaulted amounts and hence the stay is inapplicable. That argument has also been made in Brigade Leveraged Capital Structures Fund, Ltd. v. García Padilla, 16-1610; National Public Finance Guarantee Corporation v. García Padilla, 16-2101 and Trigo v. García Padilla,16-2257. I expect Judge Besosa to rule on this and other issues in these cases by August. Only in Ambac Assurance Corporation v. Puerto Rico Highway and Transportation Authority, 16-1893 has the plaintiff acquiesced to the stay since it is seeking a receiver for the defendant. No such receiver is sought by the GO plaintiffs and it is my opinion that the Court will rule that the stay is not applicable to the case.

 

In addition, plaintiffs point out that millions of dollars were clawed back by PR and that the only justification for such clawback would be to pay for the Constitutional debt but it has gone instead to debts of lesser priority. Again, this could be considered a violation of PROMESA since it violates the PR Constitution. Also “[a]dding insult to constitutional injury, the budget contemplates an increase of more than $500 in non-debt service spending.” Page 19, paragraph 54. This includes an increase of $150 million from the previous year’s contribution to the retirement funds. I can see the malevolent hand of the US Treasury helping its ally, organized labor.

 

The complaint also seeks, similar to the complaint in the aforementioned Brigade case, the lifting of the stay if the Court believes it is necessary. Clearly an averment made in an abundant of caution. Not a bad idea.

 

The complaint, at pages 25-26, seeks a judgment:

 

“A. Declaring that the Commonwealth’s post-PROMESA measures permitting

transfers outside the ordinary course of business or in violation of Puerto Rico’s Constitution and laws to the detriment of holders of Puerto Rico’s Constitutional Debt are invalid under Section 204(c)(3) of PROMESA.

 

  1. Enjoining enforcement or implementation of certain of those measures until the

Oversight Board has made a determination as to their propriety, with such injunction:

(1) requiring the Defendants, in their official capacities as Commonwealth

officers, to segregate and preserve all funds clawed back, to be clawed back, or available to be clawed back under contractual and legal provisions expressly acknowledging that those funds are subject to turnover for purposes of paying of Constitutional Debt;

(2) prohibiting the Defendants, in their officials capacities as Commonwealth officers, from implementing the outsized transfers to the public employee pension funds contemplated in the Fiscal Year 2017 budget and limiting the Commonwealth to the contribution it made in Fiscal Year 2016; and

(3) prohibiting the Defendants, in their official capacities as Commonwealth officers, from implementing the diversion to the insolvent GDB the approximately $250 million contemplated by the Fiscal Year 2017 budget, or such other amounts (such as

those allocated in pending legislation).

 

In synthesis, it is a well-written complaint with a good chance of being granted the remedies it seeks. There is, however, one concern. Section 204(c)(3) mentions the Board but does not specifically state that those affected by these violations would have a cause of action. Clearly, GO bondholders have standing since they have not been paid but the question really is whether they have a cause of action. This question, I believe, is ruled by Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe , 536 U.S. 273 (2002) and that plaintiffs do have a cause of action if not under PROMESA, definitely pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. We shall soon find out.

THE JULY 1st 2016 DEFAULT

 

 

Yesterday governor Alejandro García Padilla, just a day after PROMESA became law, and in cahoots with the US Treasury and President Obama, defaulted on the payment of the General Obligations bonds guaranteed by the Constitution in excess of $800 million. This was not coincidence. I have time and again mentioned that the struggle over the payment of PR’s debt is the spearhead of a greater struggle over the sanctity of these GO bonds that has great repercussions over such Democrat strongholds as Illinois, California and New York.

 

By defaulting on these GO bonds, formerly considered sacred and protected by the PR Constitution, the Governor not only violates his oath to protect and defend the Constitution, but also frightens away future holders of PR bonds. He did it under the theory that PR cannot be sued during the stay provided by PROMESA (section 405). But as usual, the governor misunderstands the stay. PR cannot be sued for collection of moneys during the stay, but it expires on February 15, 2017 and it is only extendable for 75 more days, to wit, May 2017 (section 405(d)). Also, the stay may be lifted after a notice and a hearing for cause shown (section 405(e)).

 

In addition, GO bondholders may go to Federal Court in a declaratory judgment requesting a declaration that the governor’s actions violate the Constitution, 11 U.S.C. § 903 (section used by the Federal Courts to invalidate the Recovery Act) without seeking collection of money and at the same time request the lifting of the stay. We must remember that section 405(k) of PROMESA says that “[t[his section does not discharge an obligation of the Government of Puerto Rico or release, invalidate, or impair any security interest or lien securing such obligation.” Finally, la section 405(l) states:

 

Nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit the Government of Puerto Rico from making any payment on any Liability when such payment becomes due during the term of the stay, and to the extent the Oversight Board, in its sole discretion, determines it is feasible, the Government of Puerto Rico shall make interest payments on outstanding indebtedness when such payments become due during the length of the stay.

 

In other words, the governor’s actions are not necessarily protected by PROMESA. Let’s see what happens.