SC upholds applicability of SEBI Circular; but gives a green signal to Reliance Commercial Finance resolution to avoid “unscrambling of resolution process” 

Supreme Court: In the Reliance Commercial takeover dispute, the 3-judges Bench comprising Dr. D Y Chandrachud*, Surya Kant and A S Bopanna, JJ., gave a green signal to the voting process to implement the resolution plan. The Court, though upheld the applicability of SEBI circular, it opined that the different voting mechanism proposed under the SEBI Circular will further delay the resolution process and potentially disrupt the efforts undertaken by the stakeholders, including the retail debenture holders. The Court noted,  

“Such unscrambling of the resolution process will not only prove time-consuming, but may also adversely affect the agreed realized gains to the retail debenture holders, who have already consented to the negotiated settlement before the High Court.” 

Factual Matrix 

The instant case relates to takeover of Reliance Commercial Finance Ltd. (RCFL) by Authum Investment and Infrastructure Ltd.; where a dispute arose with regard to the applicability of two circulars issued by RBI and SEBI— Reserve Bank of India (Prudential Framework for the Resolution of Stressed Assets) Directions 2019 and SEBI Standardisation of procedure Circular (13-10-2020).   

RCFL had issued Non-Convertible Debentures to various persons and Vistra ITCL (India) Ltd. was the Debenture Trustee under three Debenture Trust Deeds. RCFL committed its first default under the Debenture Trust Deeds in March 2019. 

The dispute 

Seventeen debenture holders instituted a suit on the Original Side of the Bombay High Court for protection of their interests with respect to the amounts due to them by RCFL, alleging that certain funds available with the Bank of Baroda, were distributed amongst creditors without regard to their status as secured or unsecured creditors without their consent and that they had a first charge on the receivables of RCFL.  

The debenture holders further alleged that the RBI Circular permitted this illegal distribution of funds and hence they urged for setting aside of the RBI Circular as illegal and ultra vires. They also sought an injunction restraining RCFL, Bank of Baroda, and RBI from implementing the RBI Circular. 

Impugned Decision  

The Single Judge held that the SEBI Circular could not be permitted to operate retrospectively and did not govern the Debenture Trust Deeds.  However, opining that a mere reference to the SEBI Circular would not override the express terms of any of the Debenture Trust Deeds, the Single Judge allowed to proceed with the voting process for the takeover of RCFL according to Debenture Trust Deeds signed in compliance with the RBI circular. In appeal, the Division Bench affirmed the aforesaid order of the Single Judge. 

Issues  

Based on the submissions canvassed by the parties, the following issues arose for determination: 

  1. Whether the civil court had the jurisdiction to entertain the lis in this case; and 
  2. Whether the debenture holders and other parties in the present case were required to follow the procedure under the SEBI Circular. 

Issue 1: Jurisdiction  

On the first issue, the Court noted that Section 15Y of the SEBI Act imposes a bar on the civil court to entertain any suit in respect of any matter that an adjudicating officer appointed under the SEBI Act is empowered to determine; however, since the Adjudicating officer has no jurisdiction under the SEBI Act to grant the relief sought by the plaintiffs in the first instance, the bar in Section 15Y would not operate as against the suit in the instant case. 

Similarly, with regard to the bar under Section 430 of the Companies Act that no civil court shall have the jurisdiction to entertain any suit in respect of any matter which the National Company Law Tribunal or the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal is empowered to determine, the Court observed that since neither the NCLT nor the NCLAT has jurisdiction to adjudicate upon a challenge to the RBI Circular, the bar in Section 430 is not attracted in the case at hand. 

Therefore, the Court held that the Single Judge as well as the Division Bench of the Bombay High Court properly exercised jurisdiction over the subject matter of the suit. 

Issue 2: Applicability of the SEBI Circular  

The RBI Circular provided that certain lenders may opt for a resolution strategy available to them under the existing legal framework, including entering into a resolution plan or initiating legal proceedings for recovery or insolvency. If the lenders chose to implement a Resolution Plan, they were required to enter into an Inter-creditor Agreement (ICA). 

By issuing the SEBI Circular, SEBI subscribed to the overall framework of the RBI Circular and permitted debenture holders to participate in the process specified in the RBI Circular to enter into a Resolution Plan (RBI circular provides only lenders can participate). Under the RBI Circular, the Resolution Plan cannot come into existence without an ICA. The SEBI Circular does not disturb this position. Hence, both the RBI Circular and the SEBI Circular refer to one and the same ICA and Resolution Plan.  

Rejecting the RCFL’s argument that Clauses 22 and 23 of the Fifth Schedule to the Debenture Trust Deed(s) are not concerned with signing an ICA or with the subject matter of the SEBI Circular in general, the Court observed that RCFL’s suggestion that the ICA and the Resolution Plan are distinct and severable is an incorrect interpretation of the circulars in question. The ICA and the Resolution Plan are inextricably intertwined and the latter has its genesis in the former and flows from it. 

Hence, the Court held that any reference to an ICA in the SEBI Circular is also necessarily a reference to the Resolution Plan and vice versa. It is not open to debenture holders to participate in the implementation of the Resolution Plan without being involved in its genesis through the ICA. The Court remarked,  

“There is only one ―door, so to speak, through which debenture holders can gain entry into the Resolution Plan with the lenders and that is through the ICA. Therefore, while the SEBI Circular does not mandate the execution of an ICA as the only route to entering a compromise with the issuer company, it lays down a procedure in the event that debenture holders choose the route of implementing a Resolution Plan with the lenders. This procedure cannot be circumvented.” 

Upholding the applicability of the SEBI circular, the Court pointed out the following: 

  • The purpose of the SEBI Circular is multi-fold – not only does it protect the interests of debenture holders at large (Clause 7), but it also protects the interests of any dissenting debenture holders (Clause 6.6).  
  • In the absence of Clause 7, debenture trustees would likely be unable to exit the ICA or the Resolution Plan even if they were not ―in the interest of investors or if the Resolution Plan was not finalized within 180 days from the end of the review period.  
  • Significantly, the absence of Clause 6.6 could mean that dissenting debenture holders would be bound by decisions taken even by way of a simple majority.  
  • We agree that the language in Regulation 15(7) of the 1993 Regulations and the SEBI Circular is facilitative and not mandatory. This is in recognition of the fact that debenture holders may opt to exercise their rights through mechanisms other than the execution of a Resolution Plan.  
  • The language cannot be construed to be facilitative in the sense of providing debenture holders with the option of by-passing the modalities prescribed by the SEBI Circular while accepting a Resolution Plan. The ICA continues to be the foundation or mother document for the Resolution Plan. 

Retroactive Application of the SEBI Circular  

Though RCFL issued the debentures and defaulted on the payments to the debenture holders prior to the issuance of the SEBI Circular, the Court culled out the following points to uphold the retroactive applicability of the SEBI Circular: 

  • On 13-10-2020 (when the SEBI Circular came into force), a compromise or agreement on the restructuring of the debt owed by RCFL did not exist. The debenture holders were not vested with any rights with respect to the resolution of RCFL‘s debt.  
  • The existence of the debt and the subsequent default by RCFL was the status of events, which existed prior to 13 October 2020. Once it came into force, the SEBI Circular applied to the manner of resolution of debt, as specified therein. 
  • Even assuming that debenture holders were vested with the right to sanction a compromise or arrangement in terms of the special majority in Clause 23 to the Fifth Schedule of the Debenture Trust Deed, they were divested of such a right upon the issuance of the SEBI Circular.  
  • Clause 59 of the Debenture Trust Deed stipulates that any provision in the Debenture Trust Deed which is in conflict with the 1993 Regulations is null and void.  
  • A contractually vested right may be taken away by the operation of a statutory instrument. The SEBI Circular owes its existence to statutory powers conferred by special legislation.  

Can SEBI Circular Bind Dissenting Debenture Holders 

SEBI contended that the compromise arrived at in terms of the direction of the High Court will also bind all the other debenture holders, who were not a party to the original suit before the High Court which will prejudice the dissenting debenture holders as they have to settle for a lesser amount – 24.96% of the principal among with a further 5% of the principal outstanding.  

Agreeing with SEBI‘s submission that the compromise arrived at the Debenture Trust Deed level among the consenting debenture holders should not bind the dissenting debenture holders, the Court directed that the dissenting debenture holders should be provided an option to accept the terms of the Resolution Plan.  

Alternatively, the Court held that the dissenting debenture holders have a right to stand outside the proposed Resolution Plan framed under the lender‘s ICA and pursue other legal means to recover their entitled dues. Hence, the Court disapproved the High Court’s interpretation of SEBI circular.  

Findings and Conclusion  

Though the Court upheld the applicability of the SEBI circular, it refrained from applying the same due to following findings:  

  • Under the present scheme of the Resolution Plan, retail debenture holders having exposure of up to INR 10 lakhs would stand to realize 100% of their principal dues. The secured retail debenture holders having an exposure of more than INR 10 lakhs would realize 29.69%. 
  • In comparison, the secured ICA lenders would receive 24.96% of their principal amount, which is lower than the recovery made by the debenture holders. It is also important to highlight that none of the debenture holders have raised any grievance with regard to the proposed compromise.  
  • The different voting mechanism proposed under the SEBI Circular will further delay the resolution process and potentially disrupt the efforts undertaken by the stakeholders, including the retail debenture holders.  
  • Such unscrambling of the resolution process will not only prove time-consuming, but may also adversely affect the agreed realized gains to the retail debenture holders, who have already consented to the negotiated settlement before the High Court. 

The Court observed,  

“In such a situation, application of the SEBI Circular, though right in law, may lead to unjust outcomes for the retail debenture holders if this court were to reverse the entire course of action which has occurred in the present case.” 

Relying on State v. Kalyan Singh, (2017) 7 SCC 444, the Court opined that the jurisdiction under Article 142 can be used to relax the rigors of law depending upon the peculiar facts and circumstances. Hence, considering that the compromise presently arrived at, which is in the interests of all the parties, will be disturbed if a new process is directed to be commenced in accordance with the SEBI Circular at the present stage, the application of the SEBI Circular will lead to a scenario where a Resolution Plan validly agreed upon by the ICA lenders under the RBI Framework will have to be unscrambled.  

Hence, the Court extended the benefit under Article 142 to the retail debenture holders by allowing the Resolution Plan to pass muster. The appeal was partly allowed and the Authum was allowed to process the takeover of RCFL.  

[SEBI v. Rajkumar Nagpal, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 1119, decided on 30-08-2022] 


*Judgment by: Justice Dr. D Y Chandrachud 


Appearance:  

For SEBI: N Venkataraman, Senior Counsel & Additional Solicitor General  

For RCFL: Darius Khambata, Senior Counsel 

For Bank of Baroda: KV Viswanathan, Senior Counsel  

For Authum Investment and Infrastructure Ltd.: Dhruv Mehta, Senior Counsel 


*Kamini Sharma, Editorial Assistant has put this report together.  


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