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Settlement Agreement with PBGC Did Not Violate Debtor's Collective Bargaining Obligations

Retiree pension and benefit plans have featured prominently in recent headlines as cash-strapped airlines such as United Airlines, US Air, Midwest Air and Delta struggle to manage skyrocketing retiree liabilities in an effort to emerge from or stave off bankruptcy.  United Airlines and US Air recently used chapter 11 as a means of jettisoning over $9.6 billion in employee pension liabilities by obtaining bankruptcy court approval to terminate their pension plans.  Delta and Northwest, both of which filed for chapter 11 protection on September 14, 2005, may seek to do the same.  Their pension plans are underfunded by an estimated $16.3 billion.

Moreover, the crisis is not limited to the airlines — traditional employer-paid pension plans that give retirees a fixed monthly amount based on salary and years of employment were recently estimated to be underfunded by as much as $450 billion, nearly a quarter of which may have to be assumed by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. ("PBGC"), whose current deficit was reported as of November 15, 2005 to be approximately $23 billion.  Congress is actively working on a legislative fix designed to stanch the outflow of PBGC assets, but it remains to be seen whether these measures can remedy a problem that runs so deep throughout the fabric of U.S. industry and would have such a marked impact on companies' profits.

These developments provoke questions concerning the effect of a bankruptcy filing upon a debtor employer's obligation to pay pension and benefits to retired employees under any pre-bankruptcy pension or benefit program.  It is widely recognized that the Bankruptcy Code can provide relief to a debtor struggling to regain profitability despite onerous labor contracts and escalating liabilities for retiree benefits by allowing the debtor to modify, or in some cases even terminate, the underlying agreements.  Less understood, however, are a debtor-company's options with respect to a pension plan that may be critically underfunded, particularly if the pension benefits are incorporated into a collective bargaining agreement.  Here, a debtor-employer's options and responsibilities implicate other federal laws governing the rights of retirees, such as the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA").

Collective Bargaining Agreementsand Retiree Benefits in Bankruptcy

Section 365 of the Bankruptcy Code allows a bankruptcy trustee or chapter 11 debtor-in-possession ("DIP") to assume or reject almost any contract or agreement that has not expired as of the bankruptcy filing date.  The court will authorize assumption or rejection if it is demonstrated that either course of action represents an exercise of sound business judgment.  Until 1984, courts struggled to determine whether the same standard or a more stringent one should govern a debtor's resolve to reject a collective bargaining agreement.  The U.S. Supreme Court answered that question in 1984, ruling in NLRB v. Bildisco & Bildisco that a bargaining agreement can be rejected under section 365 if it burdens the estate, the equities favor rejection and the DIP made reasonable efforts to negotiate a voluntary modification without any likelihood of producing a prompt satisfactory solution.

Congress changed that standard later the same year, when it enacted section 1113 of the Bankruptcy Code in response to a groundswell of protest from labor interests.  Section 1113 provides that the court "shall" approve an application to reject a bargaining agreement only if:  (i) the DIP makes a proposal to the authorized representative of the employees covered by the agreement; (ii) the authorized representative refuses to accept the debtor's proposal without good cause; and (iii) the balance of the equities clearly favors rejection of the  agreement.

The provision “ensures that a chapter 11 debtor-employer cannot unilaterally rid itself of its labor obligations, and instead, mandates good faith negotiations with the union before rejection may be approved.”  To that end, section 1113 carefully spells out guidelines for any proposal presented by the debtor to the authorized labor representative.  Underlying these guidelines is the premise that all parties must exercise their best efforts to negotiate in good faith to reach mutually satisfactory modifications to the bargaining agreement and that any proposal to modify fairly treats all creditors, the debtor and other affected parties.  Among other things, each proposal must be based on the most complete and reliable information available and must "provide for those necessary modifications in the employees' benefits and protections that are necessary to permit the reorganization of the debtor.”

Special protections for retiree benefits were added to the Bankruptcy Code in 1988.  As with the safeguards added four years earlier to protect current employees under collective bargaining agreements, the changes were deemed necessary because of widespread perception among labor advocates that a higher standard than the business judgment test governing the ability of a trustee or DIP to disavow the terms of most contracts should be applied to collective bargaining agreements and retiree benefit plans.  Section 1114 of the Bankruptcy Code prohibits a DIP or trustee from unilaterally terminating or modifying retiree benefits unless the bankruptcy court orders the modification, or the trustee and an authorized representative of retirees agree to the modification.  Section 1114's "clear purpose" is to give the bankruptcy court the ability "to resolve the competing interests of retirees, debtors and creditors, if agreement as to continuation and level of benefits cannot be reached."

Before seeking court authority to modify retiree benefit payments, the DIP is obligated to negotiate with the retiree's representative, accompanied by disclosure of the most complete and reliable information available, toward modifications "that are necessary to permit the reorganization of the debtor and assure[] that all creditors, the debtor and all of the affected parties are treated fairly and equitably."  If the authorized representative rejects a modification proposal that meets these requirements "without good cause," the bankruptcy court is empowered to authorize the modification, so long as it finds that it is "necessary to permit the reorganization of the debtor and assures that all creditors, the debtor, and all affected parties are treated fairly and equitably, and is clearly favored by the balance of the equities."  The court also has the power to order temporary modifications where such relief is "essential to the continuation of the debtor's business, or in order to avoid irreparable damage to the estate."

The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 added section 1114(l) to the Bankruptcy Code.  It provides that, if the debtor modified retiree benefits in the 180 days before the bankruptcy filing and while it was insolvent, the bankruptcy court shall reinstate such benefits as they existed before modification and retroactive to such date unless the court finds that the "balance of equities" clearly favors such prior modification.

ERISA and PBGC

The Bankruptcy Code does not contain special provisions governing the respective rights and obligations of employers and retirees vis-à-vis pension benefits.  Instead, ERISA provides the primary regulatory framework and protection for pension benefits.  Enacted in 1974, ERISA is a comprehensive regulatory scheme intended to protect the interests of pension plan and welfare benefit participants and beneficiaries and to preserve the integrity of trust assets.  On a basic level, it establishes minimum participation, vesting and funding standards and contains detailed reporting and disclosure requirements.  ERISA also created PBGC as the regulatory watchdog for the pension and related rights of the U.S. workforce.

Companies pay insurance premiums to the agency, and if an employer can no longer support its pension plan, PBGC takes over the assets and liabilities and pays promised benefits to retirees up to certain limits.  The maximum annual benefit for plans assumed by the agency in 2005 was $45,614 for workers who wait until 65 to retire.  PBGC self-finances payments to employees under terminated plans through four sources of income:  (i) insurance premiums paid by current sponsors of active plans (currently nineteen dollars per year per participant, although companies posing high risks of underfunding must pay an additional nine dollars per participant); (ii) assets from terminated plans taken over by PBGC; (iii) recoveries from former sponsors of terminated plans; and (iv) PBGC's own investments.

The PBGC insures "defined benefit" plans.  These are plans under which an employer determines the benefits it will pay its employees and contributes the necessary amount to a pension fund. The amount of retirement income an employee will receive generally depends on the employee's length of service.  ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) determine the amount of the required minimum premiums.  Not all plans are defined benefit plans.  Many employers have "defined contribution" plans instead.  In these plans, the employer contributes a certain amount for each participant, but makes no promise regarding the ultimate benefit or amount that each participant will receive.  Defined contribution plans, such as 401(k) plans, are not guaranteed by PBGC.

There are several ways in which pensions may terminate under ERISA.  In a "standard termination," an employer can voluntarily terminate its plan so long as the plan has sufficient assets to pay all future benefits.  The employer remains liable to PBGC for all plan benefit liabilities.  An employer can also voluntarily act to terminate its plan in a "distress termination."  This is possible under the following circumstances: (i) liquidation in bankruptcy; (ii) a reorganization in bankruptcy in which the court determines that termination is necessary to facilitate the reorganization; and (iii) a non-bankruptcy situation where termination is necessary.  Regardless of the particular circumstances, the employer must prove it will face financial difficulty if forced to continue the plan.  PBGC will assume responsibility for guaranteed benefits while attempting to collect funds from the employer.  An employer cannot effectuate either a standard or distressed termination if terminating the plan would violate the terms and conditions of an existing collective bargaining agreement.  Finally, PBGC itself can move to terminate a company's pension plan if the company defaults on its minimum funding requirements and PBGC determines that it will be exposed to unreasonable risk in the long run if the plan continues.  PBGC may terminate a plan regardless of any provision in a collective bargaining agreement prohibiting termination and without consulting with any union of affected employees.

The role of ERISA and PBGC in a bankruptcy case was the subject of a ruling recently handed down by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in In re UAL Corp.

The Seventh Circuit's Ruling in United Air Lines

United Air Lines and numerous affiliated entities filed for chapter 11 protection in 2002.  A major impediment to United's ability to reorganize successfully in chapter 11 was its pension liability, which amounted to approximately $4.5 billion for the period from 2005 to 2009.  Of United's aggregate pension liability, $625 million pertained to the pension plan for its flight attendants, which was established under a collective bargaining agreement with the Association of Flight Attendants ("AFA").  AFA and United negotiated for many months to effect a reduction in United's pension liability without terminating the bargaining agreement.  These efforts unavailing, United sought bankruptcy court authority to reject the bargaining agreement under section 1113 of the Bankruptcy Code and to terminate the pension plan under the relevant provisions of ERISA.

While United's rejection/termination motion was pending before the bankruptcy court, United and PBGC reached a settlement resolving several complex liability and collection disputes concerning United's future obligations to PBGC for the company's failed and failing pension plans.  The agreement gave PBGC a single unsecured claim for United's unfunded pension liabilities, as opposed to a myriad of joint and several claims against numerous United affiliates.  PBGC would also receive $1.5 billion of post-confirmation United's securities.  Finally, the settlement called for PBGC to begin evaluating whether it should terminate the flight attendant pension plan, although it did not obligate PBGC to do so.

United sought bankruptcy court approval of the settlement agreement.  AFA objected, claiming that United violated its collective bargaining responsibilities by entering into the settlement.  Overruling the objection, the court approved the settlement agreement.  Thereafter, United withdrew its rejection/termination motion.

AFA appealed the order approving the settlement.  It also sued PBGC in an effort to enjoin the plan termination evaluation process.  After the district court denied AFA's motion for injunctive relief, PBGC conducted an exhaustive review of the administrative record and concluded that termination of the pension plan was in the best interests of the pension system as a whole.  It accordingly took over the plan from United.  Shortly afterward, the district court affirmed the bankruptcy court order approving the settlement.  AFA appealed to the Seventh Circuit.

AFA fared no better with the Court of Appeals.  The Seventh Circuit rejected AFA's contention that the settlement was improper because AFA was not party to the agreement.  The settlement agreement, the Court explained, did not pertain to United's rejection/termination motion, to which AFA had objected, but dealt with United's obligations to PBGC for unfunded pension liabilities.

The Seventh Circuit was likewise unreceptive to AFA's argument that United abrogated its collective bargaining obligations by settling with PBGC.  It emphasized that ERISA provisions authorizing PBGC to terminate a pension plan provide an alternative to the collective bargaining framework in Bankruptcy Code section 1113 and ERISA's employer initiated distress termination provisions.  In fact, the Court noted, nothing precludes an employer from pursuing a distress termination at the same time that the employer petitions PBGC to consider terminating a plan on its own initiative.

Given the clear permissibility of the settlement agreement under ERISA, the Seventh Circuit ruled, AFA's claim that United abrogated its collective bargaining obligations was baseless — United neither bargained with PBGC as if PBGC were a labor representative of the flight attendants nor did it establish an agreement to rival the existing collective bargaining agreement.  Moreover, the settlement merely obligated PBGC to consider terminating the pension plan, a course of action that PBGC could readily have rejected after it conducted an analysis of the circumstances.

Finally, the Seventh Circuit observed, AFA was not left without recourse to remedy what it perceived to be an improper termination.  ERISA allows retirees covered by a terminated plan to challenge the termination in court, where PBGC's decision to take over a plan may be reversed.  Based upon these deliberations, the Court affirmed the decisions below.

Outlook

Lawmakers have been grappling for months with an overhaul of the rules governing company pension plans to tighten controls over employers with underfunded plans and shore up the PBGC's finances.  Democrats generally oppose legislation that passed the Senate in mid-November of 2005.  They say it could lead some employers to drop their pension plans or switch from traditional defined-benefit plans to less costly defined-contribution programs, such as 401(k) plans, in which employers contribute to a retirement fund and workers receive only what the investments have earned.  In fact, many companies are replacing defined-benefit pension plans with defined-contribution plans.  As noted, PBGC only insures defined-benefit plans, which are most prevalent in older industries, such as the automotive, steel and airline industries.

Whether or not a legislative fix can adequately address PBGC's immediate woes, the problems that spawned pension underfunding in the first place are not likely to go away any time soon.  Pension underfunding is only part of the cost-infrastructure malaise plaguing U.S. industries.  Escalating healthcare and retiree benefit costs, environmental compliance costs and fuel prices and a chronic U.S. trade deficit with many emerging markets (such as China and India) are also significant problems.  Given the enormous funding costs associated with traditional defined-benefit pension plans already, adding to the burden by requiring employers to up the ante can only lead to wholesale departure from the traditional pension paradigm.

It is happening already.  On December 5, 2005, Verizon Communications, Inc. announced that it was terminating contributions to the pension plan of 50,000 managerial personnel and shifting its retirement strategy to 401(k) plans.  IBM Corp. reported on January 5, 2006 that it will freeze the pension plans of about 120,000 employees in the United States at the end of 2007 and will offer instead a more generous 401(k) plan.  Members of the Air Line Pilots Association ratified an agreement on January 12, 2006 with Northwest Airlines to freeze the traditional pension plan of some 4,500 pilots and launch a new defined contribution retirement plan.  Motorola, Sears and Hewlett-Packard also recently froze their pension plans.  Other companies are likely to follow suit in anticipation of passage of stricter pension funding requirements.

The Seventh Circuit's ruling in United Airlines illustrates the dynamic between ERISA and chapter 11 as a vehicle for a financially-overburdened debtor-employer to manage its labor costs and deal with related liabilities in an effective way.  As those liabilities pertain to pensions, ERISA describes the universe of a debtor-employers options.  Still, because the Bankruptcy Code allows employers to deal with not only related collective bargaining and retiree benefit claims but also liabilities (individual or joint) created in connection with a terminated pension plan, bankruptcy may be the preferred forum for dealing with these issues collectively.

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In re UAL Corp., 428 F.3d 677 (7th Cir. 2005).

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