Supreme Court: In a case were the Division Bench of Sanjay Kishan Kaul and M.M. Sundresh*, JJ., was sought to provide judicial interpretation of Section 29A(h) of the IBC, as amended by the Act, 2018, the Bench held that ineligibility has to be seen from the point of view of the resolution process. It can never be said that there can be ineligibility qua one creditor as against others. Rather, the ineligibility is to the participation in the resolution process of the corporate debtor. The Bench remarked,
“…what is required to earn a disqualification under the said provision is a mere existence of a personal guarantee that stands invoked by a single creditor, notwithstanding the application being filed by any other creditor seeking initiation of insolvency resolution process subject to further compliance of invocation of the said personal guarantee by any other creditor.”
An application was filed by RBL Bank under Section 7 of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 to initiate corporate insolvency resolution process (CIRP) against Respondent 1. Pursuant to which a resolution plan, after certain modifications was submitted by the respondent 3 on 22-11-2017. Meanwhile, by way of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Amendment) Ordinance, 2017, Section 29A was introduced to the Code. It was specifically under 29A (h) that the CoC held a meeting to deliberate upon the impact of the amendment qua the eligibility of the Respondent 3 in submitting a resolution plan in the CIRP proceedings.
It was in the above backdrop that respondent 3 approached the NCLT praying for a declaration that he was not disqualified from submitting a resolution plan under sub-section (c) and (h) of Section 29A of the Code. NCLT, vide its order held that the Respondent 3 was eligible to submit a resolution plan, notwithstanding the fact that he did extend his personal guarantees on behalf of the Respondent 1 which were duly invoked by some of the creditors, on it. It was against the order; the Punjab National Bank approached the NCLAT. However, the Bank later sought to withdraw its appeal to change in circumstances, i.e. the resolution plan gathered 78.50% vote share. The NCLAT allowed the withdrawal request without any liberty to challenge the same very impugned order.
Consequently, the NCLT approved the resolution plan submitted to it inter alia holding that there is a marked difference between extension and exclusion and therefore, the rigor of Section 12(1) of the Code would not get attracted on the facts of the case particularly when there were pending proceedings with interim orders, notably an interim order was issued by the NCLAT directing the adjudicating authority not to act on resolution plan until the final order of NCLAT. Further, the plan having received 75% vote share, having considered the techno-economic viability and feasibility of the plan, the application filed for approval of the resolution plan was allowed with a direction that the approved resolution plan shall come into force with immediate effect. The appeals against the said order of NCLT were dismissed on the ground that it cannot sit in appeal over the decision of the adjudicating authority or the CoC in the absence of any apparent discrimination.
Grounds for Challenge
Noticeably, the appellant had approached before NCLAT seeking to be impleaded as a party to the proceedings initiated by Punjab National Bank with an intention to continue the lis, however, the same was not favourably considered. The appellant even raised its objection to the withdrawal of appeal. The appellant had approached the Court with the following grievances:
- The respondent 3, a promoter of the corporate debtor, was ineligible to submit a resolution plan under Section 29A(h) of the Code, as several personal guarantees executed by the Respondent 3 in favour of various creditors of the Respondent 1-corporate debtor stood invoked, prior commencement of CIRP.
- The law which was prevailing on the date of the application has to be seen, therefore, the disqualification gets attracted on the date of filing of the application and on the same analogy not only Section 29A(h) but also Section 30(4) has to be interpreted.
- The approval of the resolution plan was made after the mandatory period of 270 days, i.e. after the expiry of the CIRP period. Since there is clear infraction of Section 12, the 12 orders passed are liable to be interfered with.
Hence, the instant case was filed for seeking judicial interpretation of Section 29A(h) of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016, as amended by the Act, 2018.
Interpretation of Section 29A (h) of the Code
The idea of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 being to facilitate a process of rehabilitation and revival of the corporate debtor with the active participation of the creditors, the Bench opined that there are two principal actors in the entire process, viz., (i) the committee of creditors and, (ii) the corporate debtor. Therefore, there can never be any other interest than that of the committee of creditors and the corporate debtor.
Observing that the objective behind Section 29A of the Code is to avoid unwarranted and unscrupulous elements to get into the resolution process while preventing their personal interests to step in, and to prevent certain categories of persons who may not be in a position to lend credence to the resolution process by virtue of their disqualification, the Bench relied on Ebix Singapore Pvt. Ltd. vs. COC of Educomp Solutions Ltd., 2021 SCC OnLine 707, to hold that the CoC even with the requisite majority, while approving the Resolution Plan must consider the feasibility and viability of the Plan and the manner of distribution proposed, which may take into account the order of priority amongst creditors as laid down in sub-section (1) of section 53 of the IBC. And that the CoC cannot approve a Resolution Plan barred under Section 29A of the IBC.
Rejecting the contention of the respondents that Section 29A(h) had to be literally interpreted to the extent that a personal guarantor is barred from submitting a resolution plan only when the creditor invoking the jurisdiction of the adjudicating authority has invoked a personal guarantee executed in favour of said creditor by the resolution applicant and no personal guarantee stood invoked by RBL Bank at the time of application to the adjudicating authority under Section 7 of the Code, the Bench emphasised that ineligibility has to be seen from the point of view of the resolution process. It can never be said that there can be ineligibility qua one creditor as against others. Rather, the ineligibility is to the participation in the resolution process of the corporate debtor. The manner of invocation can never be a factor for the adjudicating authority to adjudge, as against its existence. Adequate importance will have to be given to the latter part of the provision which also disqualifies a person whose liability under the personal guarantee executed in favour of a creditor, remains unpaid in full or in part for the amount due from him, upon invocation.
Difference between Extension and Exclusion
On the question of limitation, the Bench affirmed the views of adjudicating authority as confirmed by the appellate tribunal, noticing that there were earlier rounds of litigation with the interim orders. Therefore, the Bench held that delay of 106 days had been rightly condoned and excluded by the adjudicating authority by invoking Section 12(3) of the Code.
Hence, the Bench opined, the adjudicating authority was right in holding that there is a marked difference between extension and exclusion. Exclusion would come into play when the decision is challenged before a higher forum. Extension is one which is to be exercised by the authority constituted.
Admittedly, the Respondent 3 had executed personal guarantees which were invoked by three of the financial creditors even prior to the application filed. Therefore, the Bench held that rigor of Section 29A(h) of the Code obviously got attracted and the plan submitted by the Respondent 3 ought not to have been entertained. Accordingly, the Bench concluded, the adjudicating authority and the appellate tribunal were not right in rejecting the contentions of the appellant on the ground that the earlier appeals having been withdrawn without liberty, the issue qua eligibility cannot be raised for the second time, particularly when the appellant was not a party to the decision of the adjudicating authority on the first occasion.
Though the resolution plan submitted by the Respondent 3 was held ineligible and not maintainable, the Bench opined that much water had flown under the bridge as the requisite percentage of voting share had been achieve, majority of the creditors had given their approval to the resolution plan and the plan was also put into operation since 18-04-2018. The Bench remarked,
“We need to take note of the interest of over 23,000 shareholders and thousands of employees of the Respondent 1. Now, about Rs. 300 crores has also been approved by the shareholders to be raised by the Respondent 1. It is stated that about Rs. 63 crores has been infused into the Respondent No.1 to make it functional. There are many on-going projects of public importance undertaken by the Respondent No.1 in the nature of construction activities which are at different stages.”
Hence, considering the ultimate object of the Code, i.e. to put the corporate debtor back on the rails, and noticing that no prejudice would be caused to the dissenting creditors as their interests would otherwise be secured by the resolution plan itself, which permits them to get back the liquidation value of their respective credit limits, the Bench refused to disturb the resolution plan leading to the on-going operation of the Respondent 1. The appeal was dismissed.
[Bank of Baroda v. Mbl Infrastructures Ltd., 2022 SCC OnLine SC 48, decided on 18-01-2022]
*Judgment by: Justice M.M. Sundresh
For the Appellant: Tushar Mehta, Solicitor General and Bishwajit Dubey, Advocate
For Respondent 1: Ranjit Kumar, Senior Advocate
For Respondent 3: Parag P. Tripathi, Senior Advocate
Kamini Sharma, Editorial Assistant has put this report together