Regulating Bankruptcy Bonuses

By Jared Ellias (University of California, Hastings)

In 2005, the perception that wealthy executives were being rewarded for failure led Congress to ban Chapter 11 firms from paying retention bonuses to senior managers. After the amendment became effective, Chapter 11 debtors could only pay executive bonuses through court-approved “Key Employee Incentive Plans,” which required managers to earn their pay by accomplishing specific performance goals, such as increasing revenue or moving the firm through the bankruptcy process.

In my article, I use newly collected data on the compensation practices of Chapter 11 debtors between 2002 and 2012 to examine how the reform changed bankruptcy practice. I find that relatively fewer firms used court-approved bonus plans after the reform, but the overall level of executive compensation appears to be similar. I hypothesize that three problems undermined the efficacy of the reform. First, the 2005 law asks bankruptcy judges to police the line between “incentive” bonuses and “retention” bonuses, which is extremely hard to do – judges are poorly equipped to assess the “challenging-ness” of a proposed performance goal. Second, creditors have limited incentives to police executive compensation themselves and help bankruptcy judges perform their inquiry, and the Department of Justice’s US Trustee program, while vigilant, lacks expertise in executive compensation. Third, gaps in the new regime make it easy for firms to bypass the 2005 law and pay managers without the judges’ permission. I support each of these hypotheses with empirical evidence. Further, there is also evidence that the reform significantly increased the litigation surrounding bonuses plans and, unsurprisingly, the attorneys’ fees associated with them. In many ways this paper examines what happens when Congress tries to change the balance of bargaining power between managers and creditors, and the result appears to be that firms found ways to get around a poorly written rule.

The full article is available here.

 

Bankruptcy for Banks: A Tribute (and Little Plea) to Jay Westbrook

By David A. Skeel, Jr. (University of Pennsylvania Law School)

Over the past several years, Congress has considered various versions of a legislative reform that would amend the Bankruptcy Code to facilitate the prompt reorganization of systemically important financial institutions (“SIFIs”). The reform would adapt the “Single Point of Entry” strategy devised for use under Title II of the Dodd Frank Act to bankruptcy. In each context, the assets, short term liabilities, and secured debt of the troubled SIFI would be transferred to a newly created bridge institution, leaving behind its stock and long-term debt. The newly recapitalized bridge institution would be fully solvent, and could contribute liquidity to the troubled subsidiaries as necessary. Although the bankruptcy for banks legislation appears to have strong support in Congress, its reception among bankruptcy scholars has been mixed.

In this short essay, I take the opportunity of a celebration of the work and influence of Jay Westbrook to explore his and his fellow critics’ opposition to bankruptcy for banks. I begin the essay by surveying Jay’s wide-ranging contributions to bankruptcy scholarship. Jay’s functional analysis has had a profound effect on scholars’ understanding of key issues in domestic bankruptcy law, and Jay has been the leading scholarly figure on cross-border insolvency. After surveying Jay’s influence, I turn to the topic at hand: bankruptcy for banks. Jay has been a strong critic of the proposed reforms, arguing among other things that financial institutions need to be resolved by regulators and an administrative process, not bankruptcy. After addressing these and other objections, I ask Jay if he might reconsider his opposition if the legislation were amended to respond to several of his primary concerns.

The essay is available here.

Horizontal Gifting Upheld in Chapter 11 Plan in the Third Circuit

posted in: Gifting | 0

By Rama Douglas (Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP)

In Hargreaves v. Nuverra Environmental Solutions Inc. (In re Nuverra Environmental Solutions Inc.), 17-1024 (D. Del. Aug. 21, 2018), a Delaware district court upheld a bankruptcy court’s ruling that the secured creditors’ “gift” of cash and stock to holders of unsecured claims pursuant to a Chapter 11 plan did not violate the confirmation standards for approving a plan under Chapter 11, even though certain classes of unsecured claims (trade and business-related unsecured claims) received larger distributions from the gift than another class of unsecured claims (noteholders). The decision focuses on the permissible effect of “horizontal” gifting whereby the disparate treatment is among separate classes of the same priority level of creditors — here, separately classified general unsecured claims.

Debtors looking to pursue a reorganization may seek to provide a recovery to certain types of creditors (such as trade) within a class, but not others. Such discrimination is not permissible for value distributed by the debtor’s estate under a plan. Gifting has been a technique — subject to criticism (especially when class skipping is involved) — to provide disparate treatment. While the Third Circuit has not ruled on gifting, this latest Delaware district court decision supports the use of horizontal gifting. Such a decision will certainly be the focus of attention by supporters and critics of gifting.

The full article is available here.

Fifth Circuit Rules That Corporate Charter Provision Requiring Shareholder Consent for Bankruptcy Filing Is Enforceable but Declines to Rule on Validity of “Golden Shares”

By Mark A. Cody and Mark G. Douglas (Jones Day).

In a highly anticipated decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a bankruptcy court order dismissing a chapter 11 case filed by a corporation without obtaining—as required by its corporate charter—the consent of a preferred shareholder that was also controlled by a creditor of the corporation. In Franchise Services of North America, Inc. v. Macquarie Capital (USA), Inc. (In re Franchise Services of North America, Inc.), 891 F.3d 198 (5th Cir. 2018), a Fifth Circuit panel ruled that: (i) state law determines who has the authority to file a voluntary bankruptcy petition on behalf of a corporation; (ii) federal law does not strip a bona fide equity holder of its preemptive voting rights merely because it is also a creditor; and (iii) the preferred shareholder-creditor was not a controlling shareholder under applicable state law such that it had a fiduciary duty to the corporation which would impact any decision to approve or prevent a bankruptcy filing.

However, to the disappointment of many observers, the Fifth Circuit declined to decide whether “blocking provisions” and “golden shares”—either generally or when wielded by a party that is both a creditor and an equity holder—are valid and enforceable. Such provisions have been increasingly relied upon by creditors, including private equity sponsors and other investors who take both equity and debt positions in a portfolio company, as a means of managing or limiting access to bankruptcy protection, but with mixed results in the courts. Franchise Services does little to remedy the unsettled state of bankruptcy jurisprudence regarding this important issue. Moreover, because the case involved a minority shareholder-creditor without any fiduciary obligations, the decision did not involve many of the more difficult questions posed by other cases involving these issues.

The article is available here.