Lawyer for Nortel pensioners say former employee face 'significant losses'

TORONTO – A lawyer for former Canadian Nortel employees says tens of thousands of pensioners have faced “significant losses” since the former technology giant folded five years ago.

“From the point of view of the pensioners, this is an important issue,” Paul Steep told the two judges overseeing the cross-border bankruptcy trial on Tuesday.

The second day of opening arguments unfolded with representatives of bondholders and various international sections of Nortel’s now defunct operations stepping up to the podium to make their case for a share of US$7.3 billion earned in the sale of the former technology giant’s assets.

The judges will decide how the funds are divvied up between Nortel’s various international units, but will not determine how the money is then split among individual creditor groups in each location. Steep urged them not to “compartmentalize” their responsibilities and consider how their decision could also have a broader impact on each creditor groups.

The proceeding is a step towards determining the future of 20,000 Nortel pensioners in Canada who have seen their benefits dramatically reduced since the company filed for bankruptcy in 2009.

The impact on pensioners has varied, with the pensions of former employees in Ontario cut by 30 to 35 per cent while, outside the province, pensions have been cut by 45 per cent or more, said Anne Clark-Stewart, a spokeswoman for the Nortel Retiree and Former Employee Protection Canada, a group representing pensioners.

Health, dental and medical benefits, as well as life insurance, were all frozen in 2010, she added.

The trial, expected to last until the end of June, is being overseen at the same time by a judge in Toronto and another in a courtroom in Wilmington, Del., via closed-circuit video feed.

Lawyers for Nortel’s former U.S. operations have argued that assets should be distributed on a “fair market value” basis, which would send most of the money stateside where the majority of the revenues would have been recognized.

Steep disagreed with those suggestions, saying the US$4.5 billion from patent sales should go to the owners, the parent company.

“All of the employees of Nortel essentially collaborated across borders to create the IP (intellectual property),” he said.

“There were no freestanding silos in Nortel.”

Arguments from various parties suggested that Ernst & Young Inc., the court-appointed monitor which oversaw the restructuring of Nortel in Canada, didn’t tell the courts years ago that it intended to keep the money within Nortel Networks Inc., the parent company that was based in the Toronto area.

Lawyer Ken Coleman, who represented the parent company in Delaware, countered the argument by suggesting that the U.S. subsidiary didn’t disclose it’s belief of entitlement to 90 per cent of the proceeds from the patent sale until last year.

He asked the judges to put aside “the gamesmanship, the personal attacks and all the rest.”

At its height from 1999 to 2000, Nortel was worth nearly $300 billion, employed more than 90,000 people globally and was regarded as one of Canada’s most valuable tech companies.

In 2009, Nortel filed for bankruptcy in North America and Europe, shedding thousands of jobs. The company was felled by changing market conditions, economic upheaval and an accounting scandal that devastated its stock price.

Since its fall, Nortel broke apart and sold off various chunks of its business, including patents and wireless technology, the proceeds of which are now at issue.

The cost of Nortel’s demise has climbed above US$1 billion during the past five years, with legal expenses eating away at money that could be divided among the various parties.

On Monday, more than 25 pensioners watched the proceedings from an overflow room that beamed the video feed onto a large projection screen. During the lunch break many of them took to the sidewalk outside the court house wearing T-shirts that read: “Bondholders profit! Nortel pensioners suffer!”

On Tuesday, the group was noticeably smaller. A brief technical hiccup knocked out the streaming feed and left attendees staring at a blank screen.

The glitch was quickly fixed and the proceedings continued.