Nortel cleared to end bankruptcy, distribute $7 billion to creditors

WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) - Judges in Delaware and Canada approved on Tuesday a plan to pay more than $7 billion to creditors of Nortel Networks, ending years of litigation over the former telecommunications company that filed for bankruptcy in 2009.

The rulings by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Gross in Wilmington, Delaware and Frank Newbould of the Superior Court of Justice in Toronto ends one of the longest and most expensive Chapter 11 cases, marked by battles over funds raised by the company’s liquidation.

Newbould said it was unfortunate the “case wasn’t settled sooner without the added expense and delay caused by the litigation.”

The two courts were linked by video, as they have been throughout the proceedings. The coordinated ruling will allow repayment of vendors, retirees in Canada, government agencies and investment funds later this year.

Tuesday’s hearing was marked by a brief outburst by Gross directed at Mark Kenney, a lawyer for the U.S. Trustee, the government’s bankruptcy watchdog, as Kenney argued against the plan’s liability releases. Kenney initially refused to cede the podium and only relented when Gross shouted that he would call the guards.

Ontario-based Nortel Networks was once among the biggest makers of telecommunications equipment in the world, with 93,000 employees and a market capitalization of $250 billion at the height of the 1990s technology bubble.

After an accounting scandal and a series of management missteps, the company filed for bankruptcy in January 2009. Its global businesses were liquidated, raising $7.3 billion.

The money from the liquidation soon sparked years of court battles as Nortel businesses in Europe, Canada and the United States fought over the funds.

A Canadian judge, Warren Winkler, tried and failed to mediate a settlement in 2013 and called it “one of the most complex transnational legal proceedings in history.”

Gross and Newbould jointly oversaw a unique cross-border trial in 2014 to decide how to divide the liquidation funds.

The judges ruled in 2015 that creditors of every estate should get roughly equal repayment. That sparked appeals and a settlement last year.

The case has been one of the most expensive of its kind, with global fees for lawyers and advisers reaching nearly $1.9 billion, according to an analysis of court records by Canadian financial analyst Diane Urquhart.

Newbould opened the cross-border trial by saying he was “completely shocked” by the legal fees. “This case is so over-lawyered,” he said at the time.

Despite the cost, the value of Nortel bonds have roughly increased five-fold during the case as the liquidation generated far more than initially anticipated.

Some of the biggest bondholders include George Soros’ investment vehicle Quantum Partners LP and Elliott Management, according to court records.

Few bankruptcy cases have lasted as long. At around 2,930 days, the case is the sixth-longest U.S. Chapter 11 corporate bankruptcy, behind those of Ames Department Stores Inc and chemicals company W.R. Grace & Co, according to a database maintained by UCLA Law School professor Lynn M. LoPucki.

Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Andrew Hay