The Fourth Circuit’s unanimous published opinion today in Gentry v. Siegel looks to be important reading for bankruptcy lawyers and class action lawyers with putative class actions against a company that enters into bankruptcy before a class is certified. The decision arises out of notices of claim filed by lawyers who had filed putative wage-and-hour class actions against Circuit City. Judge Niemeyer wrote the opinion, in which Judge Shedd and Judge Davis joined.
I will leave it to subject-matter experts to digest the analysis, which begins with the following statement:
The Named Claimants’ efforts to pursue class actions in this bankruptcy case reveal gaps in the Bankruptcy Rules and raise some difficult procedural issues about the manner in which the Bankruptcy Rules provide for class actions in bankruptcy cases, as authorized by Rules 7023 and 9014.
The intrepid reader who continues onward will encounter some of these important-looking statements:
It is not completely clear that Civil Rule 23 could ever be applied to a contested matter. . . . For purposes of our holding, we assume, without deciding, that the Civil Rule 23 process could be applied to the resolution of a contested matter. [p. 8, n.1, emphasis in original]
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[T]he Trustee’s construction of the Bankruptcy Rules is unduly cramped and unsuited for application by a court in equity seeking, by application of the Bankruptcy Rules, to accomplish the purposes of the Bankruptcy Act. The Bankruptcy Rules are tools, which include Rule 7023 and derivatively Civil Rule 23, by which the bankruptcy court as a court of equity is to accomplish the Act’s purposes. In the absence of some prohibiting rule or principle, the Bankruptcy Rules should be construed to facilitate creditors’ pursuit of legitimate claims and to allow Civil Rule 23 to be applied if doing so would result in a more practical and efficient process for the adjudication of claims. 
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Because the Bankruptcy Rules accept the notion that class action rules may, in appropriate circumstances, be employed in a bankruptcy case, we conclude that they therefore necessarily embrace the notion that the proposal to represent a class is tentative pending approval. And with that notion comes the equally necessary propositions that if the proposal is approved, the approval relates back to when it was made, and if it is rejected, the putative class members must be given time after the court’s rejection to file individual proofs of claim. 
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For the most part, Civil Rule 23 factors do not become an issue until the bankruptcy court determines that Rule 7023 applies by granting a Rule 9014 motion. The issue on such a motion centers more directly on whether the benefits of applying Rule 7023 (and Civil Rule 23) are superior to the benefits of the standard bankruptcy claims procedures. While some Civil Rule 23 factors could be relevant to resolving a Rule 9014 motion, extensive discovery related to class certification is not necessary.
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In deciding the Rule 9014 motion, the bankruptcy court assumed that a class action could be certified, thus rendering discovery into certification irrelevant, and concluded nonetheless that the process of a certified class action would be more cumbersome and expensive than the bankruptcy process. Accordingly, the court found that in this particular case, class certification discovery was not necessary. It reached its decision on the Rule 9014 motion on the threshold question of whether the specific claims resolution process established in this bankruptcy case was superior to the resolution process in a class action, assuming that the proposed classes were to be certified. We conclude that this approach was not an abuse of discretion.
Distinct from the bankruptcy court’s denial of class action discovery, we cannot conclude that the court’s ruling on the merits of the Rule 9014 motion was an abuse of discretion. The court noted that approximately 15,000 claims had been filed against Circuit City as part of the claims process and that the structural mechanisms that the court had put in place to process claims were “well underway” and had been operating smoothly to date.
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Because the bankruptcy court denied the Rule 9014 motion to apply Rule 7023, there was no requirement that unnamed class members be notified in accordance with the procedures under Civil Rule 23. The bankruptcy court would have to grant the Rule 9014 motion before the requirements of Civil Rule 23 could apply. Thus, the only notice required was that given by Circuit City for giving notice of bankruptcy procedures and the bar date.