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In Re: Chapter 11 v. Office of the United States Trustee

November 17, 2011



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Anita B. Brody, J.


Appellant Paul J. Winterhalter, P.C. appeals the final order of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania disqualifying Appellant as counsel to the Debtor, The Harris Agency, LLC, as of March 10, 2009, partially disallowing fees and expenses sought by Appellant, and mandating disgorgement of fees received in excess of the allowable amount. I exercise jurisdiction over this appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 158(a)(1). For the reasons set forth below, I will affirm the bankruptcy court's order.


A. History of the Debtor and Its Affiliates

The Harris Agency, LLC ("Harris" or "Debtor") is an insurance company that was formed on July 1, 2005 by Nevada Investment Partners, LLC ("NIP"). The membership interests in NIP are held by Eric K. Bossard, Randall Siko, Debra Agnew, and Fred Milbert (collectively, the "Principals"). These individuals, or most of them, have also formed the following entities that are related to the Debtor: Alliance Insurance Services, LLC ("Alliance"), Archway Insurance Services, LLC ("Archway"), and Union One Insurance Group, LLC ("Union One").*fn1

In 2007, NIP negotiated a deal to purchase for Harris a book of business from Brown & Brown Insurance of Nevada, Inc. ("Brown & Brown"). NIP agreed to pay Brown & Brown $5,250,000 for the book of business, with half of the purchase price due upon signing the agreement, 25% due on January 23, 2008, and the final 25% due on July 23, 2008.

To make the first payment for the book of business, the Debtor, NIP, and Union One borrowed approximately $2.9 million on a secured basis. To make the second payment, Archway lent the Debtor and NIP approximately $1.3 million. The Debtor was unable to make the third payment to Brown & Brown because the volume of business was lower than expected.

During this time period, Alliance also lent the Debtor approximately $445,000 to help the Debtor cope with diminished cash flow and the need to maintain operating expenses. Additionally, Union One lent the Debtor approximately $180,000 for the same reason.

On December 3, 2008, Brown & Brown recorded a judgment against Harris in Nevada. This judgment precipitated Harris to file a Chapter 11 petition for bankruptcy on January 20, 2009.

B. The Appointment of Paul J. Winterhalter, P.C.

The same day that Harris filed a petition for bankruptcy, Paul J. Winterhalter, P.C. ("Winterhalter" or the "Firm") filed an Application for Employment of Counsel ("Application for Employment") pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 327. Along with the application, a Verified Statement of Counsel in Support of Application to Employ Counsel for Debtor was submitted pursuant to Bankruptcy Rule 2014. The verified statement from Winterhalter stated that the Firm did not have "any connection with any party in interest," and that it did not "represent[] an interest adverse to the Debtor herein or this Estate . . . ." R. 9.

The bankruptcy court conditionally approved the Firm's Application for Employment. Following this order, Winterhalter filed a Disclosure of Compensation pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 329(a) and Bankruptcy Rule 2016(b). This disclosure revealed that the Firm had agreed to accept $50,000 for legal representation of the Debtor, and that it had already received a $23,200 retainer paid by Harris and Alliance. Furthermore, the disclosure noted that Alliance or its affiliates would be the source of future compensation.

C. The Bankruptcy Court's First Disqualification Order

On January 7, 2010, Winterhalter filed its first interim application for compensation and reimbursement of expenses. In this application, the Firm sought payment for $113,515.75 in fees and $2,636.92 in expenses for the time period of January 20, 2009 through December 31, 2009. In response, Frederick Milbert and the United States Trustee (the "UST") objected to the fee application because Winterhalter had failed to disclose post-petition payments from third parties. Following these objections, Winterhalter filed an amended verified statement that disclosed, for the first time, that Winterhalter had received periodic payments since the commencement of the bankruptcy case totaling $77, 893.11 from Archway and Alliance. Specifically, the Firm received $40,393.11 from Archway, and $37,500 from Alliance. In light of the amended verified statement, the UST filed a motion requesting disqualification of Winterhalter and seeking disgorgement of the Firm's fees.

On March 10, 2010, the bankruptcy court held a hearing on the first interim fee application and the motion to disqualify. At the hearing, it was revealed, for the first time, that the Debtor owed Archway approximately $1.3 million for a pre-petition loan. Additionally, a manager of both Archway and Alliance testified that the "family of companies" - Archway, Alliance, and Union One- had agreed to pay the Firm's legal fees for representing the Debtor. Furthermore, the manager testified that it was understood that the Debtor would repay Archway and Alliance for any payments they made to Winterhalter.

On May 10, 2010, the bankruptcy court issued an order immediately disqualifying Winterhalter from any further representation of the Debtor due to an actual conflict of interest. According to the court:

Winterhalter's receipt of payments from Archway created an actual conflict of interest, at least, by the time the Plan was prepared, due to the following: (1) Archway is an unsecured creditor of the Debtor; (2) Archway was a proposed contributor to the Plan and would have been a 50% owner of the reorganized Debtor; (3) Archway is owed approximately $1.3 million by the Debtor on a pre-petition loan; (4) Archway has paid some of Winterhalter's fees; and (5) Mr. Agnew testified that Archway expected to be reimbursed by the Debtor for any payments made to the Debtor's counsel.

R. 27, p.10-11. Despite the UST's request, the court declined to disqualify Winterhalter from the inception of the case, and did not rule on the Firm's first interim fee application. No one appealed this disqualification order.

D. The Bankruptcy Court's Second Disqualification Order

On May 20, 2010, Winterhalter filed a second interim fee application seeking $62,518.50 in fees and $1,383.08 in expenses for the time period of January 1, 2010 through May 10, 2010. Following this, The UST filed objections to both the first and second interim fee applications. A primary reason the UST objected to Winterhalter's fee requests was the discovery it made in the summer of 2010 that Winterhalter had entered its appearance as counsel for Union One in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in the matter of Kendall State Bank, et al. v. Union One Insurance Group, LLC. (Civil Case No. 09-494) on March 10, 2009. Winterhalter's simultaneous representation of Union One and the Debtor troubled the UST because Union One was a co-obligor on the $2.9 million dollar loan that Harris obtained to make the first payment on the book of business, and it was also an unsecured creditor of the Debtor since it had loaned Harris approximately $180,000 prior to its filing for bankruptcy.

The court held hearings on Winterhalter's fee applications on January 5, 2011 and February 22, 2011. It was confirmed at the hearing that the plaintiffs in the district court case were the Consortium Banks who had acquired the interest in the $2.9 million loan given to the Debtor to make the first payment on the Brown & Brown book of business. This loan had been guaranteed by the Debtor, NIP, and Union One. Because Union One was a co-guarantor of the $2.9 million loan, the Consortium Banks brought suit against ...

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