Court OKs Lehman settlements to free up $15 billion for customers

A judge on Tuesday approved a set of settlements among Lehman Brothers entities that will allow the company's defunct brokerage to pay back about $15 billion in customer claims.

The intercompany claims had been the final obstacles keeping James Giddens, the trustee recovering money for the broker's customers, from making full payouts to brokerage customers.

While individual retail customers were made whole shortly after Lehman's collapse in 2008, hundreds of affiliate, institutional and hedge fund customers of the brokerage have been waiting for their money.

The settlements, reached last year, were greenlighted by Judge James Peck at a hearing in Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan. This was a "milestone" moment in a "complex" bankruptcy, Giddens said in a statement.

The deals resolve a pair of disputes, one between Lehman's brokerage and its parent entity, the other between the brokerage and the company's European arm. The parent will receive a $2.3 billion customer claim, down from the $19.9 billion it had originally sought, and a $14 billion lower-priority unsecured claims against the brokerage.

The European unit will receive a $9 billion customer claim, down from the $24 billion it initially asserted, and a $4 billion unsecured claim.

The deals free up about $15 billion for Giddens to pay back to customers. He said he expected payouts to begin as soon as the court's orders are final. The settlement with Lehman's European arm still needs approval from a British court, where a hearing is slated for May 1.

Holders of unsecured claims will be partially repaid from whatever is left after customer claims are paid out.

Lehman filed the largest-ever U.S. bankruptcy on September 15, 2008, with $639 billion in assets. It is in the midst of repaying about $65 billion to creditors under a liquidation plan approved in late 2011.

Its brokerage was liquidated separately under the Securities Investor Protection Act, or SIPA, which governs the wind-down of failed securities brokers. Most of its assets were sold to Barclays PLC.

"In the face of enormous complexity and unique legal challenges, the SIPA framework to protect customer's property worked as designed," Giddens said in the statement.

Spokeswomen for the Lehman parent and the European unit had no immediate comment on the ruling.

In a statement released earlier this week, Lehman's European unit credited the settlement as a main reason it is forecasting substantial or full repayment for its unsecured creditors.

"To be able to advise ordinary unsecured creditors that we now have a reasonable chance of eventually repaying their claims in full, marks a significant milestone," Tony Lomas, one of the administrators liquidating the European arm, said in the statement.

The brokerage liquidation is In re Lehman Brothers Inc, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Southern District of New York, No. 08-1420.

The Lehman bankruptcy is In re Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc, in the same court, No. 08-13555.

(Reporting by Nick Brown; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)