Consider this scenario:
Critical Vendor (“Critical”) has been doing business with Great Expectations Theater of International Talent (“GETIT”) for over 20 years. Actually, Critical has been in the trenches with GETIT since its opening. Over the years, Critical has supplied dance shoes (i.e. ballet slippers, tap shoes, jazz shoes), leotards, tutus (similar to the multitude of taffeta and mesh skirts trending now), stage make-up, lighting, props and music (on cassette, CD and MP3 formats). There was never a time when Critical could not meet GETIT’s supply demands. For the first 15 years of the business relationship, GETIT timely paid every invoice and used Critical for all theater and production-related needs. GETIT provided Critical with so much business that GETIT was always Critical’s top customer and frequently its only customer. The owners of each operation also became close friends and often took family vacations together. Their children were around the same ages and attended the same schools.
The last five years, however, have not been as copacetic. You see, with the combination of in-home entertainment, the nearly bottomed-out economy and sundry reality TV options, audiences were no longer flocking to GETIT’s productions. Sales receipts and annual memberships were down. GETIT went from nightly shows and matinees on each weekend day to three shows per week. Then, eventually, one show per week. During that phase, Critical’s owner donated supplies, heavily discounted bills and offered to invest in GETIT, all to save the company she essentially helped to build for 15-20 years. Plus, she wanted to help her friend, to whom she attributed much faith and loyalty, and could not bare to see GETIT collapse. Even in light of her willingness to help, Critical’s owner was still a “savvy” businesswoman and often felt foolish for financially helping a friend’s company. She knew that could be a significant mistake and could negatively impact Critical. But she did it anyway, while periodically asking GETIT’s owner if she was contemplating bankruptcy. GETIT’s owner always shrugged off such inquiries, but offered a trifling bit of reassurance, saying, “If I do decide to file, you’ll be the first to know.”
Turns out, Critical’s owner was not the first to know. Indeed, she did not learn of GETIT’s Chapter 11 filing until she received a copy of GETIT’s petition and schedules in the mail. Critical was listed in GETIT’s schedules and a related motion as a critical vendor with a sizable prepetition unsecured claim. Although the practical benefits of retaining a critical vendor in restructuring and reorganization proceedings is to avoid the disruption of the debtor’s business, Critical wanted out. Critical’s owner knew that her prepetition unsecured claim could be zeroed out, or at best, receive only pennies on the dollar. If GETIT’s motion was granted, Critical would have to continue to meet GETIT’s supply demands.
Therein lied the dispute. Critical heavily objected to GETIT’s motion to approve its proposed critical vendor status, which led to thousands of dollars of motions practice and litigation. Prideful and equally humiliated, the parties refused to speak during the contentious time, but eventually agreed to mediation.
The bankruptcy court-approved mediator worked diligently with the parties to guide them to a resolution. Upon the parties’ impasse on several occasions, the mediator continued the mediation and followed up with the parties after the failed sessions, which brought the parties back to the table each time. Frustrations, anger and even rising prejudices by Critical’s and GETIT’s counsel, stalled each attempted mediation session. Not to be deterred, the mediator took one last shot at getting the parties to a potential resolution and pondered what method or tactic might work best. Finally, she believed she knew the true basis of the contention.
She went into a caucus, or private meeting, with each party. In the caucus with Critical’s owner and counsel, she looked Critical’s owner squarely in the eyes and said, “I think what you are seeking from this is something deeper yet more basic and personal than all of the legal issues you all have tossed back and forth for months. Tell me what that is.” Critical’s owner peered back at the mediator; her eyes revealed the competing emotions of perplexity, anger and relief. Finally, she said, “All this time, I just wanted GETIT’s owner to apologize. She never said, I’m sorry. She drug me into this. I asked many times if she was planning on a bankruptcy and she gave me no heads up. She told me she would. I took her word. Now, my business is on the brink of collapse, and she never even said, ‘I’m sorry.'”
At the end of the day, GETIT’s owner delivered the long-awaited words, “I’m sorry,” and the parties moved forward to an agreement.
So, what’s the moral of the story? Sometimes, the legalities, the substantive law, bankruptcy code and rules are not enough. Often, the “Golden Rule” wins out. When faced with these types of circumstances as a mediator, or practitioner representing emotionally torn, humiliated and embattled parties, start with that rule first. You’re likely to avoid the complexities of pride and prejudice. Get it?
Let me know how you would you have handled this situation.