By Richard Levin of Jenner & Block
The bankruptcy courts and their appellate courts continue to explore issues of interest to practitioners and academics. This quarterly summary of recent developments in bankruptcy law covers cases reported during the second quarter of 2016.
Cases of note include the Supreme Court’s invalidation of Puerto Rico’s homegrown restructuring statute and its surprising conclusion that an individual debtor’s debt to his corporation’s creditor might be nondischargeable for “obtain[ing] money or property” by “actual fraud” where the corporation transferred away property in an actual fraudulent transfer.
The Second Circuit upset GM’s 2009 bankruptcy sale by granting some ignition switch plaintiffs an exemption from the free and clear ruling because they didn’t have a chance to participate in sale process negotiations. The debate over whether the Code’s financial contracts safe harbor preempts creditors’ claims under state fraudulent transfer laws continues with a Delaware decision ruling against preemption.
A Delaware bankruptcy court (following a recent Illinois decision) invalidated an LLC agreement provision that allowed a creditor to veto a bankruptcy filing. In a boost for litigation funding, a Florida bankruptcy court found that communications with the funder might be subject to the common interest privilege.
And in a decision that should send shudders down the spine of every consumer bankruptcy lawyer, the Ninth Circuit BAP held that a chapter 7 trustee may reject a debtor’s prepaid retainer agreement with his lawyer to defend dischargeability litigation and recover “unused” fees.
The full memo is available here.
We at the Bankruptcy Roundtable will take a break from posting for the next few weeks in August and hope that you too will be able to get away from your desk at work. We’ll be back after Labor Day.
By Richard Lear of Holland & Knight.
The Supreme Court held 7-1 in Husky Int’l Electronics v. Ritz that “actual fraud” under § 523(a)(2)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code does not require a false representation for a debt to be nondischargeable. In so holding, the Court resolved a split among the circuits.
Petitioner Husky International Electronics, Inc., argued that “actual fraud” under § 523(a)(2)(A) does not require a false representation, but instead encompasses other traditional forms of fraud, such as a fraudulent conveyance of property made to evade payment to creditors.
Acknowledging that “fraud” is difficult to define precisely, the Supreme Court nevertheless rejected the need to do so, stating that “[t]here is no need to adopt a definition for all times and all circumstances here because, from the beginning of English bankruptcy practice, courts and legislatures have used the term ‘fraud’ to describe a debtor’s transfer of assets that, like Ritz’s scheme, impairs a creditor’s ability to collect the debt.” The Supreme Court further recognized that the common law indicates that although fraudulent conveyances are “fraud,” fraudulent conveyances do not require a misrepresentation from a debtor to a creditor, because fraudulent conveyances are not “an inducement-based fraud.”
The full memo is available here.
On July 7, the House of Representatives passed an appropriations bill (H.R. 5485) that includes a revised version of H.R. 2947, the Financial Institution Bankruptcy Act (FIBA), which passed the House by voice vote earlier this year. This bill, which the Roundtable has covered previously (here and here), would add to Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code a “Subchapter V” to facilitate the bankruptcy resolution of troubled financial institutions. The inclusion of FIBA in the appropriations bill suggests there could be a substantial effort to pass the bankruptcy bill this year.
The version of FIBA included in the appropriations bill is largely the same as the bill that was introduced in the House last July. Importantly, however, the current version of the bill, which passed the House by voice vote this past spring, no longer allows the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (the Board) to force a financial institution into bankruptcy. The role of federal regulators in the initiation and conduct of bankruptcy proceedings has been a controversial issue in debates about how to adapt the Bankruptcy Code to handle failed financial institutions more effectively. As included in the appropriations bill, FIBA permits only the debtor to file for bankruptcy. At the same time, the current bill would still provide for federal financial regulators, including the Board, to appear and be heard in any case under Subchapter V.
Although the bill aims to make bankruptcy feasible for large financial institutions, Subchapter V has been designed to facilitate a two-day, single-point-of-entry (SPOE) resolution strategy. FIBA’s proposed changes to the Bankruptcy Code would not support financial institutions during a lengthier path through bankruptcy. As the two-day bankruptcy resolution of a large, complex firm has no precedent, it is unclear whether the resolution strategy contemplated by Subchapter V would prove workable in practice. Thus, FIBA may not go as far as its proponents claim in making bankruptcy feasible for systemically important financial institutions (SIFIs).
H.R. 5485 is now in the Senate, which will consider it after the summer recess.
For a link to the full text of H.R. 5485, click here.
(This post was authored by Rebecca Green, J.D. ’17.)
By Lee Harrington of Nixon Peabody.
Recently, in In re Physiotherapy Holdings Inc., the Bankruptcy Court in Delaware held that section 546(e) of the Bankruptcy Code did not preempt various state fraudulent transfer actions because the allegedly fraudulent transfers implicated neither the rationale for that section nor preemption generally. The decision is at odds with recent case law, notably: (i) the Tribune litigation, in which the Second Circuit concluded that state law constructive fraudulent transfer claims involving payments in LBO transactions are prohibited under section 546(e); and (ii) a proceeding in which the Southern District of New York concluded that the interest payment at issue, which did not retire the underlying debt, were not “settlement payments” and was thus outside section 546(e).
Section 546(e) precludes certain bankruptcy avoidance actions involving settlement payments made by or to a financial institution and transfers made by or to a financial institution in connection with a securities contract. It is intended to prevent litigation that might have a destabilizing “ripple effect” on the financial markets and provides a defense to constructive fraudulent transfer actions against shareholders receiving LBO payments.
Physiotherapy found that section 546(e) was not intended to shield “LBO payments to stockholders at the very end of the asset transfer chain, where the stockholders are the ultimate beneficiaries of the constructively fraudulent transfers, and can give the money back . . . with no damage to anyone but themselves” without the attendant destabilizing “ripple effect.”
The full memo is available here.
The Bankruptcy Roundtable has previously covered treatment of 546(e), most recently in our Tribune Fraudulent Conveyance Litigation Roundup.
Douglas G. Baird, University of Chicago School of Law
Over the last few years, reorganization practice has undergone a massive change. A new device—the restructuring support agreement—has transformed Chapter 11 negotiations. This puts reorganization law at a crossroads. Chapter 11’s commitment to a nonmarket restructuring with a rigid priority system requires bankruptcy judges to police bargaining in bankruptcy, but the Bankruptcy Code gives relatively little explicit guidance about how they should do this policing.
In the past, the debtor initiated multiple rounds of negotiations in which everyone participated. Each party would push back against the claims of the other, and a consensus eventually emerged that left things roughly in equipoise. This has now changed. Instead of bargaining in which everyone participates, there is now a sequence of two-party bargains, beginning with the key players.
Changing the structure of negotiations in this fashion would not matter much if there were not much to bargain over. If bankruptcy’s substantive rules allowed for little variation in what each party received or if the debtor had an incentive to limit what each creditor group received, changing the rules would not change outcomes. But neither is the case, at least not any more.
Priority rights in bankruptcy are sufficiently uncertain that there are a broad range of confirmable plans in any case, each with radically different distributional consequences for the various creditor groups. And modern debtors are interested in a speedy and successful exit from Chapter 11. They are relatively indifferent to how rights in the firm are divided among competing creditors.
These changes have become manifest only in the last few years, and there is little wisdom about how the bankruptcy judge should respond. This essay suggests that long-established principles inform how bankruptcy judges should go about this task. In assessing whether a plan is “fair and equitable” and whether it has been filed in “good faith,” judges should focus not on how the plan apportions rights in the reorganized firm, but whether the process that has led to the plan ensures that everyone’s cards are on the table.
In particular, judges should ensure that restructuring support agreements do not interfere with the flow of information to the judge. Negotiations that lead to a confirmable plan should be problematic to the extent, but only to the extent, that they keep the judge in the dark and limit her ability to ensure that the plan complies with the terms of the Bankruptcy Code.
Click here to view the full article.
Timothy C.G. Fisher, University of Sydney
Ilanit Gavious, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Jocelyn Martel, ESSEC Business School & THEMA
Earnings management occurs when managers deliberately manipulate the company’s earnings either to mislead stakeholders about the underlying economic performance of the company or to influence contractual outcomes. We study the impact of earnings management prior to bankruptcy filing on the passage of firms through Chapter 11.
Using the UCLA-LoPucki Bankruptcy Research Database, we merge a sample of 261 U.S. public firms that filed for Chapter 11 between 1995 and 2009 with firm-level financial information. We construct three measures of earnings management, two of which are accounting (accrual) manipulation measures (discretionary accruals and abnormal working capital accruals) and one a real activities manipulation measure (abnormal operating cash flows).
We find that upward earnings management (more positive or less negative abnormal accruals/operating cash flows) prior to filing significantly reduces the likelihood of confirmation, while downward earnings management significantly increases the likelihood of confirmation. We also find that the likelihood of emerging from Chapter 11 is significantly lower with upward earnings management. The impacts on confirmation and emergence are primarily due to the influence of earnings management values that are one- and two-standard deviations above or below the mean. Thus, our findings are consistent with creditors rewarding unduly conservative earnings reports while punishing overly optimistic earnings reports. We also find that auditor choice (Big 4 vs. non-Big 4) directly affects the probability of confirmation and of emergence from bankruptcy.
Overall, we find that upward management of earnings destroys economic value by making the survival of the firm less likely, an effect that has not previously been uncovered in the literature.
To access the full article, please click here.
Vedran Capkun, Associate Professor, Accounting and Management Control, HEC Paris
Lawrence Weiss, Professor of International Accounting, The Fletcher School, Tufts University
We present new evidence on the violation of priority of claims in bankruptcy and recovery rates for secured creditors, unsecured creditors, equity holders using a sample of firms that filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy between 1993 and 2004. Our study reveals a number of new insights: First, we find a significant reduction in the violations of priority of claims compared to research on prior periods, with equity holders appearing to have lost their ability to extract concessions in violation to priority of claims. Second, the results are consistent with the hypothesis that unsecured creditors accept a violation to priority of their claims in order to obtain a faster resolution. Third, the results suggest that secured creditors are less likely, and unsecured creditors are more likely, to experience a violation to priority of their claims when secured creditors exercise increased control over the debtor (as proxied by debtor in possession financing). Finally, violations to secured creditors’ priority of claims are more likely when filings occur in Delaware and the Southern District of New York than elsewhere.
The full article is available here.
By Filiberto Agusti, Caroline H.B. Gaudet, and Steven Reed, Steptoe & Johnson LLP
The expansion of North American petroleum production in the past 15 years triggered the construction of many pipelines. Construction was financed largely through long-term Transportation Services Agreements (TSAs) whereby shippers committed to transport minimum volumes on the pipelines at specified tariff rates or make shortfall payments. The recent sharp drop in the world price of crude oil has led to bankruptcies. This article reviews whether, in shipper reorganizations, bankruptcy courts have jurisdiction to approve the rejection of TSAs for which the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) has approved the tariff rate structure.
No court has yet addressed this question, but there is guidance from cases addressing rejection of FERC-jurisdictional electric power agreements. The Fifth Circuit found that bankruptcy courts have jurisdiction to approve rejection where the reorganized debtor’s business purpose is to abandon the FERC-approved service altogether. In dicta, however, the Court noted that the bankruptcy court would have lacked jurisdiction to approve assumption of a modified contract without prior FERC approval of the modification. And in In re Calpine, the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York held that it lacked jurisdiction to approve rejection of a FERC-jurisdictional electric power agreement if the business purpose of the rejection was to obtain more favorable pricing for the estate. From a FERC standpoint, it is unclear whether a pipeline and a debtor shipper can modify a TSA to reduce pricing as a requirement for assumption.
The linchpin of FERC’s acceptance of specified TSA rates is that those rates must be offered through an “open season” to all potential shippers. A FERC proceeding may be necessary to clarify whether a pipeline has discretion to modify the TSA of a debtor shipper or if a post-open season modification reducing the shipper’s specified TSA rates would violate FERC’s non-discrimination requirements.
The full article is available here.
Stephanie Massman, J.D. 2015, Harvard Law School
In the wake of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, criticism surrounded not only the government bailouts, but also the decision to not bail out Lehman Brothers, which led to its lengthy and value-destructive chapter 11 bankruptcy. In response to this criticism, Congress enacted the Orderly Liquidation Authority (“OLA”), a regulatory alternative to bankruptcy for systemically important financial institutions (“SIFIs”), included as Title II of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. The OLA, although perceived to be a radical departure from traditional bankruptcy, incorporates many familiar resolution principles. The most significant departures from the Bankruptcy Code are those designed to ensure financial stability in the national and global economies in the event of a SIFI failure; because the Bankruptcy Code does not currently specifically provide for a SIFI failure, it does not address financial stability concerns at all. Furthermore, by banning future government bailouts and imposing new stays on qualified financial contracts, the OLA also seeks to correct skewed market discipline incentives surrounding SIFIs—including those arising due to the “Too Big To Fail” subsidy—which may have caused the “moral hazard” problems that were a contributing factor in the financial crisis. Unfortunately, the prescribed tactics for accomplishing a resolution under the OLA may in fact implicate new moral hazard concerns, which have yet to be addressed by regulators. What further remains to be seen is both the extent to which the regulatory agencies will assume their new statutorily ordained authority to regulate these SIFIs and the extent to which the market will find their regulations credible.
This article examines the current state of development of a resolution process for SIFIs under the OLA and evaluates how effective the OLA is likely to be in preserving financial stability and minimizing moral hazard.
To view the full article, click here.
By Andrea Pawliczek, Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado – Boulder
The structure of executive compensation will influence an executive’s behavior. For debt holders, this influence becomes especially important when a firm nears bankruptcy because this is when the debt holders’ value is at risk.
Consider the actions of an executive of a financially distressed firm depending on his compensation. As bankruptcy becomes likely, an executive with only equity compensation (i.e. stock and options) is likely to gamble for solvency as his wealth is entirely dependent on the firm’s stock price. For example, RadioShack, whose CEO had no debt-like compensation, undertook such a strategy, purchasing a 2014 Super Bowl ad for $4 million when the company was already in significant financial distress. Although the ad was popular and resulted in a 12% jump in the firm’s stock price the next morning, it did not help the fortunes of the company, which declared bankruptcy just over a year later on February 15, 2015. Alternatively, an executive with debt-like compensation (e.g., pensions and deferred compensation) does not lose everything in the case of bankruptcy. This executive would have incentives to preserve firm value (i.e. assets that have value in liquidation or more value to the reorganized firm) to generate higher recoveries for himself and other debt holders in the event of bankruptcy.
While this prediction is established theoretically, there is no prior empirical evidence supporting this idea. Using a sample of 104 Chapter 11 bankruptcies of large public firms, I find that debt-like compensation – specifically Supplemental Executive Retirement Plans (SERPs) – is associated with higher recoveries to unsecured debt in bankruptcy. (SERPs are in almost all cases a form of unsecured debt that is at risk in bankruptcy. The only exception is if SERP assets are held in a secular trusts. Secular trusts are rarely used in compensation of executives at large public firms, however, because they result in the loss of tax deferral.) Recoveries to unsecured debt are 22% higher for a firm whose CEO holds sample mean levels of debt-like compensation compared to a firm whose CEO holds no debt-like compensation. I also document that debt-like compensation is associated with efforts to preserve more liquid assets prior to bankruptcy (e.g., cuts to research and development expenses).
The complete paper can be downloaded here.