Till v. SCS Credit Corp.
541 U.S. 465 (2004)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the seventh circuit

No. 02–1016. Argued December 2, 2003—Decided May 17, 2004

Under the so-called “cram down option” permitted by the Bankruptcy Code, a Chapter 13 debtor’s proposed debt adjustment plan must provide each allowed, secured creditor both a lien securing the claim and a promise of future property disbursements whose total value, as of the plan’s date, “is not less than the [claim’s] allowed amount,” 11 U. S. C. §1325(a)(5)(B)(ii). When such plans provide for installment payments, each installment must be calibrated to ensure that the creditor receives disbursements whose total present value equals or exceeds that of the allowed claim. Respondent’s retail installment contract on petitioners’ truck had a secured value of $4,000 at the time petitioners filed a Chapter 13 petition. Petitioners’ proposed debt adjustment plan provided the amount that would be distributed to creditors each month and that petitioners would pay an annual 9.5% interest rate on respondent’s secured claim. This “prime-plus” or “formula rate” was reached by augmenting the national prime rate of 8% to account for the nonpayment risk posed by borrowers in petitioners’ financial position. In confirming the plan, the Bankruptcy Court overruled respondent’s objection that it was entitled to its contract interest rate of 21%. The District Court reversed, ruling that the 21% “coerced loan rate” was appropriate because cram down rates must be set at the level the creditor could have obtained had it foreclosed on the loan, sold the collateral, and reinvested the proceeds in equivalent loans. The Seventh Circuit modified that approach, holding that the original contract rate was a “presumptive rate” that could be challenged with evidence that a higher or lower rate should apply, and remanding the case to the Bankruptcy Court to afford the parties an opportunity to rebut the presumptive 21% rate. The dissent proposed a “cost of funds rate” that would simply ask what it would cost the creditor to obtain the cash equivalent of the collateral from another source.

Held: The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded.

301 F. 3d 583, reversed and remanded.

   Justice Stevens, joined by Justice Souter, Justice Ginsburg, and Justice Breyer, concluded that the prime-plus or formula rate best meets the purposes of the Bankruptcy Code. Pp. 7–18.

   (a) The Code gives little guidance as to which of the four interest rates advocated by opinions in this case Congress intended when it adopted the cram down provision. A debtor’s promise of future payments is worth less than an immediate lump sum payment because the creditor cannot use the money right away, inflation may cause the dollar’s value to decline before the debtor pays, and there is a nonpayment risk. In choosing an interest rate sufficient to compensate the creditor for such concerns, bankruptcy courts must consider that: (1) Congress likely intended bankruptcy judges and trustees to follow essentially the same approach when choosing an appropriate interest rate under any of the many Code provisions requiring a court to discount a stream of deferred payments back to their present dollar value; (2) Chapter 13 expressly authorizes a bankruptcy court to modify the rights of a creditor whose claim is secured by an interest in anything other than the debtor’s principal residence; and (3) from a creditor’s point of view, the cram down provision mandates an objective rather than a subjective inquiry. Pp. 7–10.

   (b) These considerations lead to the conclusion that the coerced loan, presumptive contract rate, and cost of funds approaches should be rejected, since they are complicated, impose significant evidentiary costs, and aim to make each individual creditor whole rather than to ensure that a debtor’s payments have the required present value. Pp. 10–12.

   (c) The formula approach has none of these defects. Taking its cue from ordinary lending practices, it looks to the national prime rate, which reflects the financial market’s estimate of the amount a commercial bank should charge a creditworthy commercial borrower to compensate for the loan’s opportunity costs, the inflation risk, and the relatively slight default risk. A bankruptcy court is then required to adjust the prime rate to account for the greater nonpayment risk that bankrupt debtors typically pose. Because that adjustment depends on such factors as the estate’s circumstances, the security’s nature, and the reorganization plan’s duration and feasibility, the court must hold a hearing to permit the debtor and creditors to present evidence about the appropriate risk adjustment. Unlike the other approaches proposed in this case, the formula approach entails a straightforward, familiar, and objective inquiry, and minimizes the need for potentially costly additional evidentiary hearings. The resulting prime-plus rate also depends only on the state of financial markets, the bankruptcy estate’s circumstances, and the loan’s characteristics, not on the creditor’s circumstances or its prior interactions with the debtor. The risk adjustment’s proper scale is not before this Court. The Bankruptcy Court approved 1.5% in this case, and other courts have generally approved 1% to 3%, but respondent claims a risk adjustment in this range is inadequate. The issue need not be resolved here; it is sufficient to note that courts must choose a rate high enough to compensate a creditor for its risk but not so high as to doom the bankruptcy plan. Pp. 12–14.

   Justice Thomas concluded that the proposed 9.5% rate will sufficiently compensate respondent for the fact that it is receiving monthly payments rather than a lump sum payment, but that 11 U. S. C. §1325(a)(5)(B)(ii) does not require that the proper interest rate reflect the risk of nonpayment. Pp. 1–7.

   (a) The plain language of §1325(a)(5)(B)(ii) requires a court to determine, first, the allowed amount of the claim; second, what is the property to be distributed under the plan; and third, the “value, as of the effective date of the plan” of the property to be distributed. This third requirement, which is at issue here, incorporates the principle of the time value of money. Section 1325(a)(5)(B)(ii) requires valuation of the property, not valuation of the plan. Thus, a plan need only propose an interest rate that will compensate a creditor for the fact that had he received the property immediately rather than at a future date, he could have immediately made use of the property. In most, if not all, cases, where the plan proposes simply a stream of cash payments, the appropriate risk-free rate should suffice. There may be some risk of nonpayment, but §1325(a)(5)(B)(ii) does not take this risk into account. Respondent’s argument that §1325(a)(5)(B)(ii) was crafted to protect creditors rather than debtors ignores the statute’s plain language and overlooks the fact that secured creditors are compensated in part for the nonpayment risk through the valuation of the secured claim. Further, the statute’s plain language is by no means debtor protective. Given the presence of multiple creditor-specific protections, it is not irrational to assume that Congress opted not to provide further protection for creditors by requiring a debtor-specific risk adjustment under §1325(a)(5). Pp. 2–6.

   (b) Here, the allowed amount of the secured claim is $4,000, and the property to be distributed under the plan is cash payments. Because the proposed 9.5% interest rate is higher than the risk-free rate, it is sufficient to account for the time value of money, which is all the statute requires. Pp. 6–7.

   Stevens, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. Scalia, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O’Connor and Kennedy, JJ., joined.

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