Davidson County Chancery Court’s Zoom Trial Worked!

Last month, I told you Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Lyle had scheduled a business litigation trial to be conducted entirely via Zoom.

This was big news for laywers. After COVID-19 prevented most in-person court proceedings, many innovative courts began to conduct contested, non-evidentiary hearings via the phone or Zoom.

What was so interesting about this matter, however, was this was a full-blown trial, with witnesses and 61 exhibits. This required lots of advance planning, exchanging exhibits, and technical preparation (Does Zoom work? Can you share screens and jointly review exhibits?)

And, it worked. A link to the live-streams remains available at Part III’s YouTube channel. (What a crazy thing to type…”Part III’s YouTube channel.”)

It’s been an unprecedented time for our world, but it’s awesome to see our Tennessee Courts evolving to make sure matters get heard and also not being afraid to open up these news-worthy proceedings to the public.

Earlier this week, the Tennessee Supreme Court conducted a full day of hearings via Zoom, with the proceedings live-cast on the Court’s YouTube channel.

My office is just down the street from the Davidson County Courthouse and only a block or two from the Tennessee Supreme Court, so it’s no big deal for me to stop by and observe an interesting or newsworthy court proceeding.

But, for the average citizen, the barriers to seeing the justice system at work are staggeringly prohibitive. The average person probably doesn’t know where the courthouse is, how to get there, where to park, or whether they are even allowed to “pop in” and watch a proceeding.

Long story short, the Tennessee Courts have really done a great job during the pandemic; not only staying open, but expanding and innovating. Here’s hoping that the progress continues.

Davidson County Chancery Court has scheduled an actual trial that will be conducted via Zoom.

Mark your calendars: On April 28, 2020, Chancellor Lyle of the Davidson County Chancery Courts has scheduled a trial to be conducted via Zoom! (Full text: Lyle Order re Zoom trial).

For the past 5 weeks, Tennessee courts have been closed for most in-person proceedings, but, during that time, many courts have conducted telephonic or video “non-evidentiary” hearings. This is the first instance that I’m aware of that a civil court is conducting a real bench trial with witnesses and exhibits.

The underlying facts are interesting, from a creditor’s rights perspective.

The lawsuit seeks a declaration of the validity of a mechanic’s lien asserted on a Gulfstream GV  (a/k/a a “G5”) private jet, via both a recorded lien in the Davidson County Register of Deeds and with the Federal Aviation Administration Registry.  Per the Complaint, the plaintiff bought the jet from an actual Sheikh.

gulfstream g5(Note for the non-Sheikhs out there: Retail value for new G5s can be between $36MM and $48MM).

The Defendant / lien-claimant is a marketing firm in Kentucky that claimed a mechanic’s lien on the jet for sales marketing services provided to the Sheikh.

(I’ll reserve my thoughts on the validity of a mechanic’s lien when no actual physical improvements are provided, but I will note that, generally, the lien claimant has to show actual improvements to the property. Cases on aircraft liens have held that “gas for refueling” doesn’t even qualify, since gas doesn’t provide an actual improvement to the aircraft.)

This one will be really interesting, both substantively and procedurally.

 

 

Broadway Bar files first COVID-19 Insurance Coverage Lawsuit

What insurance companies do over the coming weeks in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is going to matter a lot to restaurants all across the country. Will insurance companies pay the claims, or will insurers use this this historically unprecedented situation as a way to poke holes in their customers’ coverage? (I’m betting on the latter.)

This question is of supreme importance to downtown Nashville, where the downtown honky tonks and restaurants stay jam packed 7 nights a week.

Except for, of course, the past 4 weeks.

undergroundToday, one of the downtown bars filed a lawsuit (full copy here: COVID Insurance lawsuit) against Nationwide Property and Casualty Insurance Company, challenging the denial of a coronavirus-related claim. The plaintiff is Nashville Undergound, described as “a seven-story restaurant, bar, nightclub and live music venue” and exactly the type of place that has never, ever practiced social distancing.

The lawsuit alleges that Nationwide denied the claim by citing policy “exclusions” for losses related to bacteria or virus and by arguing that there was no physical damage or physical loss to the restaurant. These are exactly the arguments that I told you they’d be making.

This will be interesting to watch, and, of course, this lawsuit will be the first of many just like it. (Another free prediction? This will nearly instantly be removed to federal court.)

For more background, this article, titled Opposite Sides of the Table: Restaurants Seek Recovery From Insurers for Business Interruption in the Wake of COVID-19,  has a really good and comprehensive recap of the insurance issues facing restaurants.

“According to restaurant.org, since March 1, the industry has lost more than 3 million jobs and $25 billion in sales, and roughly 50% of restaurant operators anticipate additional layoffs in April.  The National Restaurant Association has predicted that the industry will suffer $225 billion in losses in the next few months, forcing the elimination of as many as 7 million industry jobs.”

 

COVID forces old-school lawyers to embrace new technology

Tennessee Courts get yanked into the 21st Century. This week, I’ve had two telephonic court hearings.  They’ve both been a little strange.

On one, I called the Clerk’s office, who then gave me the Judge’s cell phone number. When I called the Judge on her cell phone, she was pretty clearly on a walk outside.

On the other, the court set up a call-in line for the docket call, with about 25 attorneys waiting for their specific matter to be called. When my matter was called, about 6 attorneys all spoke at once.

When my matter was over, I stayed on the line and listened to the next argument (on mute) to see how it flows and to plan for when I have to conduct my own complicated hearing. I learned that there is definitely an art to effective presentation via a phone call.  Also, it was weird, just silently lurking. A Bloomberg news reporter listened in on a similar court hearing, and she described it as “uncomfortable and oddly voyeuristic.”

I think all this can be figured out, but there’s definitely going to be learning curve.  The Tennessee Supreme Court conducted oral arguments via video this past week, and those went well.

Although, if I were one of the lawyers arguing, I would have 100% had to stand up for my presentation.

tn sup cort

Personally, I’m not looking forward to more telephone or video hearings. I go to court a lot, and there’s so much you pick up by physically present in the courtroom, whether it’s a good read on the judge’s demeanor that day, on opposing counsel, or just the ability to be physically present when you’re making a huge argument for a client.

There is simply so much that goes into oral argument, and there’s so little of that in a phone call.

Zoom. Maybe we don’t need to see each other.  Speaking of how technology maybe doesn’t always make things better, when all this first hit, everybody wanted to do a Zoom call. But, then, after a week of seeing the decorations in everybody’s guest bedroom, we sort of figured out that all this could have been done via conference call.

Personally, I can’t decide where I look: at who is speaking; at myself (which I’m usually doing); or directly at the camera. Bonus points to the participants who just leave their camera off the whole time.

Either way, I guess I fall in the middle on this app. In some situations, it makes sense to be able to see the person and get a read of their social cues or to establish a rapport. For example, I represent a large class of clients on a matter, and I like to communicate with them via video so they can see me and my team.

Slack.  I acknowledge that I sound like a curmudgeon.  So, to counteract that, I’ll provide a whole-hearted endorsement of Slack, the real time messaging platform.  It seems like a really effective and well-done way to manage work teams.

Side-note: If you’re navigating all of this, I can’t recommend the Lawyerist website enough, as well as the Lawyerist podcast.  It’s run by a group of very smart lawyers, and they constantly talk about remote work, law firm management, and law tech and innovations.

I really enjoy all that they do on that site to educate lawyers.

New Developments versus Custom and Habit. It’s hard to tell how much of this is temporary or here to stay. Some part of that answer will depend on the Court leadership forcing all counties to fully embrace the new rules, policies, and technology.

Yesterday, we were figuring out how to get a garnishment form notarized with all of us spread out over town.  One of the lawyers on the e-mail chain correctly pointed out that Tenn. R. Civ. P. 72 and the brand new Supreme Court Orders allow for /e/-signatures and declarations in place of a notarized signature.

This was a garnishment, though, in a very small county, one that probably hasn’t read the Order from last week, and where the front desk clerk would take one look at the form, see the lack of a notarized signature, and potentially reject the filing.

This is what makes collections so different than other aspects of the law. Once you get the judgment, instead of dealing mainly with a judge, you’re mostly dealing with court clerk staff. You can be technically and legally correct, but, if you don’t follow their habit and custom?

Long story short, we got it notarized. Our goal wasn’t to be right. It was to get our garnishment issued.

My hope for all of this is that the Administrative Office of the Courts establishes a commission to look at all these issues and to anticipate as many of these issues that could arise in the future. And I hope that they don’t just pick the usual same people from the usual same big law firms to participate. Those lawyers don’t talk to clerks. They don’t file e-file documents. They don’t go to court on all kinds of matters.

The decisions that are being made today may set the policies and procedures across the state for years, and it’ll be interesting to see what changes implemented during this pandemic become the new custom and practice.

The CARES Act’s Exclusion of Debtor-in-Possession may be a death sentence to pending bankruptcy cases.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act of 2020 is a great legislative response in helping thousands of struggling businesses navigate the financial disaster presented by the coronavirus pandemic.  The response to COVID-19’s spread has shut down thriving businesses, put people out of work, and is having ripples throughout the economy.

Despite the intent to provide wide and sweeping economic relief to affected businesses, Congress made an ill-advised exclusion when determining what businesses can be an eligible participant in the CARES Act loan program:

“(V) the recipient is not a debtor in a bankruptcy proceeding…” 

As the plain language indicates, any business that is a debtor-in-possession in an active Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization is ineligible for relief under the CARES Act.

This is a terrible oversight.

When a business files for relief under chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code, it then operates as a “debtor-in-possession,” continuing its pre-bankruptcy operations under the oversight and subject to the approval of the Bankruptcy Court.

The goal for the debtor-in-possession is to address, correct, and overcome whatever financial or operational issues that caused the bankruptcy and then reorganize its operations, finances, or governance structure in a way that a more successful business will result.

So, in short, a business operated by a debtor-in-possession operates like any other business. It has employees. It pays rent. It pays taxes. It buys goods and inventory.

If the DIP struggles and can’t pay employees, rent, taxes, and other operational costs, it fails.  Just like any other business.

And, just like any other business, a global pandemic has a catastrophic impact on its operations.

The exclusion of CARES Act financial relief to a debtor-in-possession in a chapter 11 reorganization is, in essence, a death sentence to that debtor’s ability to reorganize. It lays off employees. It can’t pay rent. It can’t pay taxes. It can’t confirm a plan of reorganization. It simply figures out a way to survive, without any help, or close.

Here, I’m guessing that Congress wanted to exclude the shutting down or liquidating bankruptcy debtor’s ability grab some cash. But, by including a broad exclusion, they’re hurting legitimate businesses that may already be on a path to survival.

With this exclusion, the Act forces the debtor to ponder a strange choice: Whether to voluntarily dismiss an otherwise viable bankruptcy proceeding in order to apply for federal relief.

 

 

Prediction: Tennessee Bankruptcy Filings will hit all time in June 2020

About two weeks ago–about 6-7 days into the COVID-19 shut down–I had a work call with a debtor’s bankruptcy attorney.

After we briefly talked business, we talked about how everything else was going. I asked him if he was swamped with anxious debtor phone calls. He said he wasn’t, which surprised me. During that first week, the news was full of businesses closing and mass layoffs.

In fact, he wasn’t even at his office. As we talked, I could hear that he was at the store, buying groceries and navigating an entirely separate conversation with the check-out clerk.

As he was loading the groceries in his car, he clarified: “It’ll be busy, like 20 hour a day work-days. But not yet. Right now, nobody knows what tomorrow looks like. Right now, people are worried about survival, not about their bills. Starting in April, maybe early May, that’s when it’ll start. It’ll be when they finally realize that Bankruptcy is their only option.”

I’ve thought about that call in all my conversations with bankers and small business owners navigating financial relief under the CARES Act (the Small Business Stimulus loans, the Paycheck Protection Program, or the expansion of the EIDLP programs), under their business interruption insurance, or calling their lenders for help.

This sense that a bankruptcy filing isn’t the first choice, but, for so many people, it’s inevitable.

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an article, Bankruptcy Lawyers Gear Up for Surge in Filings Due to Coronavirus Fallout, which previews this potential explosion in bankruptcy filings.  “The spike hasn’t caused an immediate jump in corporate bankruptcies, which require financing and—absent an emergency—usually take weeks or months to prepare.”

The reasoning, there, is that a really complex corporate bankruptcy isn’t something that you can rush into. It takes internal planning,  a massive review of financial records, and, in many cases, advance negotiation with essential creditors. In a different time, that process can take 6 months. The coronavirus hit us like a tidal wave, taking us from healthy to destroyed (financially) in a week.

But, what about the average consumer? Well, as a result of quick action by the Tennessee court administrators and Tennessee Supreme Court, most in-person court proceedings are suspended through the end of April.  As a result, even the most aggressive landlord can’t evict a tenant, because there’s no court to sign the order.  Plus, there’s a good legal reason to avoid conducting a foreclosure in Tennessee during this time.  There’s a good chance these suspensions are extended more as this situation develops.

Many debtors file Bankruptcy directly in response to a financial distress, often to stop a pending credit rights action (a foreclosure, a court date, a deadline in a lawsuit). Without these prompts, will there be an urgency for a debtor to call a bankruptcy attorney? Maybe not.

Are bankruptcy attorneys even meeting with potential clients during all this? Most of the ones I’ve talked to aren’t.

Also, as a matter of timing, what’s the benefit of filing early? Right now, many people are out of work and don’t have regular income. A filing now would draw a line in the sand of their debts at a time when their finances are most uncertain. Candidly, their debts will most likely extend far beyond that line. Why not wait and see if you’re forced to go deeper in debt before you file?

As strange as it sounds, it’s likely that bankruptcy filings will not spike until the economy starts to recover, when businesses start to reopen and people begin to go back to work. That’ll be when people can stop worrying about survival and start worrying about digging themselves out a financial hole.

So, yes, Tennessee bankruptcy lawyers are going to be busy and, if 2008 is any indication, Nashville bankruptcy lawyers may end up being some of the busiest in the country.

I think that happens in June.

341: Rent is Due Tomorrow; Lawyer Webinars

Rent is Due Tomorrow, and It’s Going to be Bad. Tomorrow is going to be a terrifying day for lots of people across the country.  That’s because it’s the first of the month, and  rent and mortgage payments will be due for millions of families, and a good number of those people are out of work.

Clients in all types of industries are scared. They’re scared for their business. For their employees. For their personal finances.

cheesecake

Some businesses are taking aggressive action to preserve/conserve cash, but that’s a bold move and beyond what most small businesses or individuals can envision.  Who on earth imagined a future where “I’m not paying my mortgage next month” is a valid financial planning option?

It’s important that we, as lawyers, figure out how to help. This article in the Wall Street Journal, Bankruptcy Law Needs a Boost for Coronavirus, suggests that our financial and restructuring bar is thinner than it should be.

This is a real concern that I’ve heard from bankruptcy lawyers for about a year, even before people had any idea that a global pandemic was possible. There aren’t many bankruptcy lawyers under the age of 40. It’s because, basically, in the last 10 years, the economy has been strong enough that there hasn’t been growth in new practitioners.

This Bloomberg News article, Bankruptcy Phones Ring Off the Hook; Firms Prep for Deluge,  suggests that there will be big time growth in the practice area.

So, we get our coronavirus updates whereever we can, right?

Tony Roma Covid

COVID-19 Webinars are the real fast spreading virus. Ok, so what role can lawyers play?

First off, slow down with the webinars. There are so many lawyer webinars right now.

I loved this tweet from @catmoon:

cat moon tweet

This is great advice, and it’s a good reminder to judge your client marketing first from a place of “Is this Useful to the Client?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I have watched a fair share of coronavirus webinars, and I’ve learned a lot about the state of the economy and business interruption insurance. I even taught one (see below).

(Side Note: I’ve also learned that lawyers should do a test run before going live on a webinar. “I just heard someone grimace.”)

My advice? I agree with Cat 100%. Don’t make me listen to an hour-long webinar, when you could put that together in an article that I scan in 5 minutes. Everybody is busy, so let’s get to the point.

Also, maybe just call the clients and see what they need.  Again, handing the mic to Cat Moon:

2nd cat moon tweet

Call. E-mail. Text. Check in.

Separately, I taught a webinar.  Ok, ok, I know. Webinars.

Mine was a CLE for the Tennessee Bar Association. It was titled “Navigating Client Financial Issues During the Pandemic,” and I hope it gave good, practical advice for both creditors and debtors.

But, yeah, do what I say, not what I do.

tba cle