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When Assigning the Right to Pursue Relief, Always Remember to Assign Title to, Or Ownership in, The Claim

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  • Posted on: Oct 4 2016

Whether a party has standing to bring a lawsuit is often considered through the constitutional lens of justiciability – that is, whether there is a “case or controversy” between the plaintiff and the defendant “within the meaning of Art. III.” Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 498 (1975). To have Article III standing, “the plaintiff [must have] ‘alleged such a personal stake in the outcome of the controversy’ as to warrant [its] invocation of federal-court jurisdiction and to justify exercise of the court’s remedial powers on [its] behalf.” Id. at 498–99 (quoting Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 204 (1962)).

To show a personal stake in the litigation, the plaintiff must establish three things: First, he/she has sustained an “injury in fact” that is both “concrete and particularized” and “actual or imminent.” Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992) (internal quotation marks omitted). Second, the injury has to be caused in some way by the defendant’s action or omission. Id. Finally, a favorable resolution of the case is “likely” to redress the injury. Id. at 561.

When a person or entity receives an assignment of claims, the question becomes whether he/she can show a personal stake in the outcome of the litigation, i.e., a case and controversy “of the sort traditionally amenable to, and resolved by, the judicial process.’” Sprint Commc’ns Co., L.P. v. APCC Servs., Inc., 554 U.S. 269, 285 (2008) (quoting Vt. Agency of Natural Res. v. United States ex rel. Stevens, 529 U.S. 765, 777–78 (2000)).

To assign a claim effectively, the claim’s owner “must manifest an intention to make the assignee the owner of the claim.” Advanced Magnetics, Inc. v. Bayfront Partners, Inc., 106 F.3d 11, 17 (2d Cir. 1997) (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted). A would-be assignor need not use any particular language to validly assign its claim “so long as the language manifests [the assignor’s] intention to transfer at least title or ownership, i.e., to accomplish ‘a completed transfer of the entire interest of the assignor in the particular subject of assignment.’” Id. (emphasis added) (citations omitted). An assignor’s grant of, for example, “‘the power to commence and prosecute to final consummation or compromise any suits, actions or proceedings,’” id. at 18 (quoting agreements that were the subject of that appeal), may validly create a power of attorney, but that language would not validly assign a claim, because it does “not purport to transfer title or ownership” of one. Id.

On September 15, 2016, the New York Appellate Division, First Department, issued a decision addressing the foregoing principles holding that one of the plaintiffs lacked standing to assert claims because the assignment of the right to pursue remedies did not constitute the assignment of claims. Cortlandt St. Recovery Corp. v. Hellas Telecom., S.à.r.l., 2016 NY Slip Op. 06051.

BACKGROUND:

Cortlandt involved four related actions in which the plaintiffs – Cortlandt Street Recovery Corp. (“Cortlandt”), an assignee for collection, and Wilmington Trust Co. (“WTC”), an indenture trustee – sought payment of the principal and interest on notes issued in public offerings. Each action alleged that Hellas Telecommunications, S.a.r.l. and its affiliated entities, the issuer and guarantor of the notes, transferred the proceeds of the notes by means of fraudulent conveyances to two private equity firms, Apax Partners, LLP/TPG Capital, L.P. – the other defendants named in the actions.

The defendants moved to dismiss the actions on numerous grounds, including that Cortlandt, as the assignee for collection, lacked standing to pursue the actions. To cure the claimed standing defect, Cortlandt and WTC moved to amend the complaints to add SPQR Capital (Cayman) Ltd. (“SPQR”), the assignor of note interests to Cortlandt, as a plaintiff. The plaintiffs alleged that, inter alia, SPQR entered into an addendum to the assignment with Cortlandt pursuant to which Cortlandt received “all right, title, and interest” in the notes.

The Motion Court granted the motions to dismiss, holding that, among other things, Cortlandt lacked standing to maintain the actions and that, although the standing defect was not jurisdictional and could be cured, the plaintiffs failed to cure the defect in the proposed amended complaint. Cortlandt St. Recovery Corp. v. Hellas Telecom., S.à.r.l., 47 Misc. 3d 544 (Sup. Ct., N.Y. Cnty. 2014).

The Motion Court’s Ruling

As an initial matter, the Motion Court cited to the reasoning of the court in Cortlandt Street Recovery Corp. v. Deutsche Bank AG, London Branch, No. 12 Civ. 9351 (JPO), 2013 WL 3762882, 2013 US Dist. LEXIS 100741 (S.D.N.Y. July 18, 2013) (the “SDNY Action”), a related action that was dismissed on standing grounds.  The complaint in the SDNY Action, like the complaints before the Motion Court, alleged that Cortlandt was the assignee of the notes with a “right to collect” the principal and interest due on the notes. As evidence of these rights, Cortlandt produced an assignment, similar to the ones in the New York Supreme Court actions, which provided that as the assignee with the right to collect, Cortlandt could collect the principal and interest due on the notes and pursue all remedies with respect thereto. In dismissing the SDNY Action, Judge Oetken found that the complaint did not allege, and the assignment did not provide, that “title to or ownership of the claims has been assigned to Cortlandt.” 2013 WL 3762882, at *2, 2013 US Dist. LEXIS 100741, at *7. The court also found that the grant of a power of attorney (that is, the power to sue on and collect on a claim) was “not the equivalent of an assignment of ownership” of a claim. 2013 WL 3762882 at *1, 2013 US Dist. LEXIS 100741 at *5. Consequently, because the assignment did not transfer title or ownership of the claim to Cortlandt, there was no case or controversy for the court to decide (i.e., Cortlandt could not prove that it had an interest in the outcome of the litigation).

The Motion Court “concur[red] with” Judge Oeken’s decision, holding that “the assignments to Cortlandt … were assignments of a right of collection, not of title to the claims, and are accordingly insufficient as a matter of law to confer standing upon Cortlandt.”  In so holding, the Motion Court observed that although New York does not have an analogue to Article III, it is nevertheless analogous in its requirement that a plaintiff have a stake in the outcome of the litigation:

New York does not have an analogue to article III. However, the New York standards for standing are analogous, as New York requires “[t]he existence of an injury in fact—an actual legal stake in the matter being adjudicated.”

Under long-standing New York law, an assignee is the “real party in interest” where the “title to the specific claim” is passed to the assignee, even if the assignee may ultimately be liable to another for the amounts collected.

Citations omitted.

Based upon the foregoing, the Motion Court found that Cortlandt lacked standing to pursue the actions.

The Appeal

Cortlandt appealed the dismissal. With regard to the Motion Court’s dismissal of Cortlandt on standing grounds, the First Department affirmed the Motion Court’s ruling, holding:

The [IAS] court correctly found that plaintiff Cortlandt Street Recovery Corp. lacks standing to bring the claims in Index Nos. 651693/10 and 653357/11 because, while the assignments to Cortlandt for the PIK notes granted it “full rights to collect amounts of principal and interest due on the Notes, and to pursue all remedies,” they did not transfer “title or ownership” of the claims.

Citations omitted.

The Takeaway

Cortlandt limits the ability of an assignee to pursue a lawsuit when the assignee has no direct interest in the outcome of the litigation. By requiring an assignee to have legal title to, or an ownership interest in, the claim, the Court made clear that only a valid assignment of a claim will suffice to fulfill the injury-in-fact requirement. Cortlandt also makes clear that a power of attorney permitting another to conduct litigation on behalf of others as their attorney-in-fact is not a valid assignment and does not confer a legal title to the claims it brings. Therefore, as the title of this article warns: when assigning the right to pursue relief, always remember to assign title to, or ownership in, the claim.

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