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Mission Product Holdings, Inc. v. Tempnology, LLC

United States Supreme Court

May 20, 2019


          Argued February 20, 2019


Petitioner Mission Product Holdings, Inc., entered into a contract with Respondent Tempnology, LLC, which gave Mission a license to use Tempnology’s trademarks in connection with the distribution of certain clothing and accessories. Tempnology filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and sought to reject its agreement with Mission. Section 365 of the Bankruptcy Code enables a debtor to “reject any executory contract”— meaning a contract that neither party has finished performing. 11 U. S. C. §365(a). It further provides that rejection “constitutes a breach of such contract.” §365(g). The Bankruptcy Courtapproved Tempnology’s rejection and further held that the rejectionterminated Mission’s rights to use Tempnology’s trademarks. The Bankruptcy Appellate Panel reversed, relying on Section 365(g)’s statement that rejection “constitutes a breach” to hold that rejectiondoes not terminate rights that would survive a breach of contract outside bankruptcy. The First Circuit rejected the Panel’s judgment and reinstated the Bankruptcy Court’s decision.


1. This case is not moot. Mission presents a plausible claim for money damages arising from its inability to use Tempnology's trademarks, which is sufficient to preserve a live controversy. See Chafin v. Chafin, 568 U.S. 165, 172. Tempnology's various arguments that Mission is not entitled to damages do not so clearly preclude recovery as to render this case moot. Pp. 6-7.
2. A debtor's rejection of an executory contract under Section 365 of the Bankruptcy Code has the same effect as a breach of that contract outside bankruptcy. Such an act cannot rescind rights that the contract previously granted. Pp. 7-16.
(a) Section 365(g) provides that rejection "constitutes a breach." And "breach" is neither a defined nor a specialized bankruptcy term-it means in the Code what it means in contract law outside bankruptcy. See Field v. Mans, 516 U.S. 59, 69. Outside bankruptcy, a licensor's breach cannot revoke continuing rights given to a counterparty under a contract (assuming no special contract term or state law). And because rejection "constitutes a breach," the same result must follow from rejection in bankruptcy. In preserving a counterparty's rights, Section 365 reflects the general bankruptcy rule that the estate cannot possess anything more than the debtor did outside bankruptcy. See Board of Trade of Chicago v. Johnson, 264 U.S. 1, 15. And conversely, allowing rejection to rescind a counterparty's rights would circumvent the Code's stringent limits on "avoidance" actions-the exceptional cases in which debtors may unwind pre-bankruptcy transfers that undermine the bankruptcy process. See, e.g., §548(a). Pp. 8-12.
(b) Tempnology's principal counterargument rests on a negative inference drawn from provisions of Section 365 identifying categories of contracts under which a counterparty may retain specified rights after rejection. See §§365(h), (i), (n). Tempnology argues that these provisions indicate that the ordinary consequence of rejection must be something different-i.e., the termination of contractual rights previously granted. But that argument offers no account of how to read Section 365(g) (rejection "constitutes a breach") to say essentially its opposite. And the provisions Tempnology treats as a reticulated scheme of exceptions each emerged at a different time and responded to a discrete problem-as often as not, correcting a judicial ruling of just the kind Tempnology urges.
Tempnology's remaining argument turns on how the special features of trademark law may affect the fulfillment of the Code's goals. Unless rejection terminates a licensee's right to use a trademark, Tempnology argues, a debtor must choose between monitoring the goods sold under a license or risking the loss of its trademark, either of which would impede a debtor's ability to reorganize. But the distinctive features of trademarks do not persuade this Court to adopt a construction of Section 365 that will govern much more than trademark licenses. And Tempnology's plea to facilitate reorganizations cannot overcome what Section 365(a) and (g) direct. In delineating the burdens a debtor may and may not escape, Section 365's edict that rejection is breach expresses a more complex set of aims than Tempnology acknowledges. Pp. 12-16.

879 F.3d 389, reversed and remanded.

          KAGAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and and THOMAS, GINSBURG, BREYER, ALITO, SOTOMAYOR, and KAVANAUGH, JJ., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a concurring opinion. GORSUCH, J., filed a dissenting opinion.


          KAGAN, JUSTICE

         Section 365 of the Bankruptcy Code enables a debtor to "reject any executory contract"-meaning a contract that neither party has finished performing. 11 U.S.C. §365(a). The section further provides that a debtor's rejection of a contract under that authority "constitutes a breach of such contract." §365(g).

         Today we consider the meaning of those provisions in the context of a trademark licensing agreement. The question is whether the debtor-licensor's rejection of that contract deprives the licensee of its rights to use the trademark. We hold it does not. A rejection breaches a contract but does not rescind it. And that means all the rights that would ordinarily survive a contract breach, including those conveyed here, remain in place.


         This case arises from a licensing agreement gone wrong. Respondent Tempnology, LLC, manufactured clothing and accessories designed to stay cool when used in exercise. It marketed those products under the brand name "Coolcore," using trademarks (e.g., logos and labels) to distinguish the gear from other athletic apparel. In 2012, Tempnology entered into a contract with petitioner Mission Product Holdings, Inc. See App. 203-255. The agreement gave Mission an exclusive license to distribute certain Coolcore products in the United States. And more important here, it granted Mission a non-exclusive license to use the Coolcore trademarks, both in the United States and around the world. The agreement was set to expire in July 2016. But in September 2015, Tempnology filed a petition for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. And it soon afterward asked the Bankruptcy Court to allow it to "reject" the licensing agreement. §365(a).

         Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code sets out a framework for reorganizing a bankrupt business. See §§1101- 1174. The filing of a petition creates a bankruptcy estate consisting of all the debtor's assets and rights. See §541. The estate is the pot out of which creditors' claims are paid. It is administered by either a trustee or, as in this case, the debtor itself. See §§1101, 1107.

         Section 365(a) of the Code provides that a "trustee [or debtor], subject to the court's approval, may assume or reject any executory contract." §365(a). A contract is executory if "performance remains due to some extent on both sides." NLRB v. Bildisco & Bildisco, 465 U.S. 513, 522, n. 6 (1984) (internal quotation marks omitted). Such an agreement represents both an asset (the debtor's right to the counterparty's future performance) and a liability (the debtor's own obligations to perform). Section 365(a) enables the debtor (or its trustee), upon entering bankruptcy, to decide whether the contract is a good deal for the estate going forward. If so, the debtor will want to assume the contract, fulfilling its obligations while benefiting from the counterparty's performance. But if not, the debtor will want to reject the contract, repudiating any further performance of its duties. The bankruptcy court will generally approve that choice, under the deferential "business judgment" rule. Id., at 523.

         According to Section 365(g), "the rejection of an executory contract[ ] constitutes a breach of such contract." As both parties here agree, the counterparty thus has a claim against the estate for damages resulting from the debtor's nonperformance. See Brief for Petitioner 17, 19; Brief for Respondent 30-31. But such a claim is unlikely to ever be paid in full. That is because the debtor's breach is deemed to occur "immediately before the date of the filing of the [bankruptcy] petition," rather than on the actual post-petition rejection date. §365(g)(1). By thus giving the counterparty a pre-petition claim, Section 365(g) places that party in the same boat as the debtor's ...

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