A 4-minute read by Arihant Jain, a fourth-year student of Nirma University
The National Company Law Appellate Tribunal (‘NCLAT’) on 18.12.20 in the case of Rajnish Jain v. BVN Traders and ors (‘Rajnish Jain’)held that the Committee of Creditors (‘CoC’) constituted under Section 21 of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy IBC, 2016 (‘IBC’) cannot determine the status of a creditor as a financial or an operational creditor. It is a matter of applying insolvency law to the facts of each case. The judgment clarified that only the adjudicating authority has power to adjudicate the status of a creditor as a financial or an operational creditor. The author hereinafter highlights the judiciousness of the Rajnish Jain judgment in the light of the principle of equality of similarly situated creditors, commercial wisdom of the CoC & limited rights of the CoC under the IBC.
The National Company Law Tribunal, Allahabad (‘NCLT’) admitted an application under Section 9 of the IBC to initiate Corporate Insolvency Resolution Process (‘CIRP’) against the corporate debtor, Jain Mfg (India) Pvt. Ltd. BVN Traders,the Respondent in this case had extended a loan of Rs. 80,00,000 to the corporate debtor having a secured title deed of the property of corporate debtor against the consideration of 18% per annum. BVN Traders had filed FORM C as financial creditors and the insolvency resolution professional (‘IRP’) admitted the claim of BVN Traders as a financial creditor.
Rajnish Jain, the promoter, stakeholder and managing director of the corporate debtor, filed an application for removal of BVN Traders from the status of financial creditor. The NCLT directed the resolution professional (‘RP’) of the corporate debtor to seek approval from the CoC to change the status of BVN traders from financial creditor. Pursuant to this, the CoC passed a resolution that BVN Traders is to be treated as financial creditors. In light of this resolution, the NCLT rejected the claim of the promoter via order dated 23.01.20.
Subsequently, in the 7th meeting of CoC, the RP again proposed the agenda to determine status of BVN Traders. The CoC passed a resolution with its majority that BVN Traders is not a financial creditor. The CoC also discussed the agenda regarding withdrawal of CIRP under Section 12A of the IBC and for the same, prior approval of 90% majority of voting shares of CoC is required. However, the withdrawal resolution did not attain the 90% majority and the same was not passed. In the 8th meeting of the CoC, withdrawal of CIRP process was again discussed and the same was passed by CoC without including BVN Traders in the CoC. An appeal was filed by Rajnish Jain against the order dated 23.01.20 of the NCLT.
Decision of the NCLAT:
The NCLAT observed that the CoC cannot determine the status of creditor. It is a matter of applying the applying the IBC laws to facts. It further held that CoC cannot use its commercial wisdom to determine the status of creditor. The NCLAT observed that despite the order being passed by the NCLT, the CoC proceeded to change its earlier stance and passed a resolution contrary to NCLT order, thereby undermining its authority. The NCLAT also held that the resolution passed in the 8th meeting was bad in law since it was passed after illegally reconstituting the CoC.
Current Position of Law
Financial creditor and Operational creditor are defined under Sections 5(7) and 5(20) of the IBC. Pertinently, the Supreme Court’s judgment in the case of Swiss Ribbons Pvt. Ltd v.UOI differentiated both the terms by relying on the recommendation of BLRC Report, 2015:
“Financial creditors are those whose relationship with the entity is a pure financial contract, such as a loan or a debt security. Operational creditors are those whose liability from the entity comes from a transaction on operations.”
Further, in Pioneer Urban Land and Infrastructure Ltd and ors v. UOI, the Apex Court observed that financial creditors owe financial debt to meet the working capital or requirement of corporate debtor. On the other hand, operational creditors provide goods and service to the corporate person. In the instant case, the loan extended to corporate debtor is a pure financial contract to meet the working requirement. Therefore, the NCLAT has rightly denied the arbitrary decision of CoC in determining the status of creditor.
- Principle of Equality – Similarly situated creditors should be treated alike
Article 14 of Constitution of India provides that equals should be treated equally and unequal should be treated unequally. Further, in CoC of Essar Steel Limited through Authorised Signatory v. Satish Kumar Gupta and ors., the Apex Court observed that similarly situated creditors should be treated equally. Empowering the CoC to determine the status of a creditor will create inequality amongst the same class of creditors as other creditors of the CoC would determine the status of a creditor of the CoC who is in pari passu with them. In the instant case, the NCLT failed to consider the principle of equality by authorizing the CoC to determine the status of BVN Traders.
- Commercial wisdom of the CoC – Not an absolute power
Commercial wisdom of the CoC is not an absolute power. The Apex Court in CoC of Essar Steel Limited through Authorised Signatory v. Satish Kumar Gupta and ors has observed that commercial wisdom must be in consonance with the basic aims and objectives of IBC. Decision of the CoC is subject to checks and balances of the IBC. In Swiss Ribbons Pvt Ltd. v. UOI, the Supreme Court has observed that the primary objective of the IBC is to balance the interests of all stakeholders. Under the IBC, an aggrieved person has the authority to challenge the constitution of CoC or categorization of creditors before the adjudicating authority. In the instant case, reclassifying the status of creditor by CoC is beyond the scope of commercial wisdom since it is in the hands of adjudicating authority to adjudicate the claims of categorization of creditors. Under Section 61(1) of the IBC, aggrieved party may challenge the order passed by NCLT before the NCLAT. However, in the instant case, the CoC sat in the position of NCLAT and gave a resolution contrary to the order passed the NCLT, which is beyond the aims and objectives of the IBC.
- The IBC is a complete code in itself
Section 28(1) of the IBC which enumerates the conditions where prior approval of the CoC is required does not provide for seeking it for the determination of the status of a creditor during CIRP. Moreover, no provision under the IBC empowers the CoC to determine the status of a creditor. It is also pertinent to mention that the IBC is complete in itself. It has unambiguously laid down the powers of the CoC.
Further, an aggrieved party dissatisfied with the status of a creditor can submit an application to the NCLT through RP with the approval of 90% voting share of the CoC for the withdrawal of CIRP. However, in the 7th meeting of CoC in the instant case, only 66% of the CoC approved the withdrawal of CIRP. Further, a financial creditor, being a part of the CoC, cannot be excluded from taking part in the voting process of withdrawal of CIRP process. It would be violation of legal right of creditor of CoC mentioned under Section 12A of IBC. However, in the 8th meeting of the CoC in the instant case, BVN Traders was not allowed to vote for the withdrawal of CIRP. Hence, the legal right of BVN Traders to vote under Section 12A is being defeated.
Judgment of Adjudicating Authority: It is a matter of applying law to the facts of each case
It is pertinent to mention that it is the statutory duty of court to deliver any judgment based upon the law. For clarifications, the court has the authority to take the opinion of experts. However, the judgment cannot be based solely on the expert opinion. The judgment has to be delivered by applying the law to the facts. In the instant case, the NCLT had delivered its judgment based solely on the decision of the CoC, however, the status of a creditor needs to be determined by the NCLT by applying the IBC to the facts of each case. The NCLAT has rightly clarified that the status of creditor could be determined only by applying the IBC to the facts of each case.
The NCLAT has rightly adjudicated the matter by removing the flaws of NCLT’s decision which would have led toimbalance by going against the purpose of commercial wisdom of the CoC. CIRP being the collective resolution process seeks parity amongst similarly situated creditors. Preference cannot be given to any similarly situated creditors. The adjudicating authority, by not providing legal reasoning for empowering the CoC to determine the status of creditor failed to consider that legal reasoning is the core of any judgment. The NCLAT has rightly adjudicated that empowering the CoC with such rights would have completely disabled the intent and purpose of the CIRP under the IBC.