By Jonathan C. Lipson (Temple University Beasley School of Law) and Melissa B. Jacoby (University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill School of Law)
Fair treatment of creditors is one of the first lessons of a law school bankruptcy course. Congress created detailed and deliberate rules governing the payment of creditors to resolve a bankruptcy case. When a creditor has a priority claim under the Bankruptcy Code, it must be paid in full before any more junior creditors receive anything at all. This principle is one of the elements of bankruptcy that also fosters predictability.
On the facts of Czyzewski v. Jevic Holding Corp., to be heard this term by the United States Supreme Court, the Bankruptcy Code’s priority structure entitled workers, whose jobs had been abruptly terminated, to an estimated $8.3 million. Instead, they received nothing. An agreement and dismissal order (known collectively as a “structured dismissal”) resolving litigation over a leveraged buyout that contributed to the company’s demise skipped the workers and provided payment to junior creditors because the LBO defendants so insisted. A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit approved this arrangement.
Our amicus brief illustrates that nothing in the Bankruptcy Code permits this kind of priority-skipping settlement in the absence of creditor consent. By blessing this arrangement, the Third Circuit majority opinion undercut the Bankruptcy Code’s priority rules and longstanding norms. Although the majority suggested it was limiting this result to rare cases, that majority decision contained neither a workable standard for determining what makes Jevic itself rare, nor guidance on what should trigger deviations in future cases—or how far such deviations may go. Left standing, the holding erodes the predictability and fairness of bankruptcy law and produces perverse incentives: powerful parties regularly will seek to write their own distribution rules through structured dismissal orders or other means.
The full amicus brief may be found here.