Second Circuit Rules that Bankruptcy Courts May Award Appellate Legal Fees as Sanction for Contempt

By Charles M. Oellermann and Mark G. Douglas (Jones Day)

Charles M. Oellermann
Mark G. Douglas

Courts disagree whether a bankruptcy court, in exercising its broad equitable powers, has the authority to award appellate legal fees as a sanction for contempt. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently weighed in on this issue as an apparent matter of first impression. In Law Offices of Francis J. Reilly, Esq. v. Selene Finance, L.P. (In re DiBattista), 33 F.4th 698 (2d Cir. 2022), the Second Circuit held that a bankruptcy court erroneously concluded that it did not have the power to award attorney fees incurred on appeal by a debtor seeking to enforce a contempt order for violations of a bankruptcy discharge order.

The Second Circuit explained that it is well settled that a bankruptcy court, exercising its broad equitable powers under section 105(a), “may compensate a debtor for a creditor’s violation of [a] discharge order” entered under section 524(a). These provisions, the court wrote, which “‘bring with them the old soil that has long governed how courts enforce injunctions,’” authorize a court to impose civil contempt sanctions to coerce compliance with an injunction or to compensate a complainant for losses arising from noncompliance. “[I]n line with long-established practice,” the Ninth Circuit explained, a bankruptcy court’s contempt power includes the authority to compensate a party for damages arising from noncompliance with an injunction, “even if those losses take the form of appellate litigation fees.”

The Second Circuit rejected the argument that the “American Rule” precludes an award of appellate fees “absent explicit statutory authority.” According to the court, an exception to the American Rule has long been recognized that permits a court to award legal fees for willful disobedience of an order entered as part of a fine levied on a contemnor.

Click here to read the full article.

 

The Cannabis Conundrum: Can Cannabis Companies File Chapter 15?

By Colin Davidson and Catherine Jun (Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP)

Colin Davidson
Catherine Jun

Cannabis is now legal in 19 states and Washington D.C., driving the growth of a legal cannabis industry estimated to be valued at $33 billion this year—up 32% from 2021—and expected to reach $52 billion by 2026. This growth in the cannabis industry, of course, also means that operators and their investment partners face increased commercial risk, including insolvency. Cannabis companies have thus far been precluded from accessing federal bankruptcy protection—i.e., chapter 7 or chapter 11—largely due to the status of cannabis as an illegal substance under federal law. The legal framework used in the United States, where cannabis is illegal federally but has been legalized by many states, differs greatly from the framework in Canada. In Canada the federal Cannabis Act 2018 legalized cannabis nationwide, while the provinces maintain certain regulatory powers related to the distribution, sale and use of cannabis. This suggests that for cross-border operators one potential route to U.S. bankruptcy relief is for the company to first commence an insolvency proceeding in Canada and then seek recognition of that foreign proceeding in a U.S. bankruptcy court under chapter 15 of the Bankruptcy Code. We examine the viability of chapter 15 as an alternative avenue to the U.S. bankruptcy courts and the challenges that a cannabis company may face in an article originally published by Cannabis Business Executive.

Click here to read the full article.

 

The Fee Hike Dilemma: The U.S. Supreme Court Resolves Fee Dispute and Holds Fee Hike Unconstitutional

By Brigid K. Ndege (Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP) and Christian Conway (Clark Hill PLC)

Brigid Ndege
Christian Conway

Parties have long questioned whether the existence of two programs—the Bankruptcy Administrator program and the U.S. Trustee program—to administer bankruptcy cases fails to meet the U.S. Constitutional requirement for uniformity in bankruptcy law.  In 2017, an increase in quarterly fees by Congress brought this dormant constitutional issue to the forefront because it illustrated the lack of uniformity between these two programs. After the fee hike, debtors in regions administered by the U.S. Trustee program paid significantly more in quarterly fees than debtors in regions administered by the Bankruptcy Administrator program. The drastic difference in fees for debtors in the two programs resulted in legal challenges to the constitutional uniformity of the fee hike. This eventually led to a circuit split, with the Fifth and Fourth circuits holding that the fee increase was constitutional and the Second and Third circuits holding that the fee increase was not constitutional. Although the U.S. Supreme Court resolved this ensuing circuit split in Siegel v. Fitzgerald, by unanimously holding that the fee hike was unconstitutional, the Court declined to address whether the dual bankruptcy system was constitutional and the appropriate remedy for debtors who paid more fees under the fee increase.

Read the full article here.

 

The Unwritten Law of Corporate Reorganizations

Note: The Harvard Law School Bankruptcy Roundtable is pleased to resume regular weekly posts for the academic year.

By Douglas G. Baird (University of Chicago Law School)

Negotiations are the lifeblood of Chapter 11, and a large part of the bankruptcy judge’s job is to police them. Bankruptcy judges are not dispensers of Solomonic wisdom. They are referees who ensure a level playing field. They insist that the parties follow the rules, but they do not enforce rules for their own sake nor do they allow their oversight to interfere with the flow of play. Their job is to give parties a chance to work together on equal terms to find a path forward.

Notwithstanding the centrality of negotiations, little of the written law says much about how bankruptcy judges should oversee them. The few explicit statutory mandates are pitched at a high level of abstraction. They require little more than that judges ensure that bargains be proposed in “good faith” and meet certain substantive conditions to be considered “fair and equitable,” without defining how the bargaining process could meet these standards.[1] Precedent is similarly unhelpful. One can exhaust virtually all the guidance the Supreme Court has offered over the last century and a half in a few sentences: The judge cannot be a “silent registrar of agreements.”[2] Nor can the judge approve deals that “alter the balance” of substantive rights set out in the statute.[3] At the same time, the judge should not come to the aid of a creditor who declines a “fair offer.”[4] Lower courts are similarly silent. Among the many hundreds of volumes of reported opinions, few provide much guidance.

Much less is up in the air than it first seems, however. The judge is bound by a coherent set of unwritten principles that derive from the Statute of 13 Elizabeth and fraudulent conveyance law as it was received in this country in the late eighteenth century. Over the course of the nineteenth century, judges drew on this uncodified power to craft an approach to policing negotiations between creditors and a financially distressed debtor. The legal reforms of the 1930s and the 1970s drew again on these same principles. This unwritten law remains central to modern reorganization practice.

The Unwritten Law of Corporate Reorganizations traces this long arc of reorganization law in the United States. It uncovers a history rich with interesting characters, including Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, corporate law giant Paul Cravath, and SEC chairman and Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas. Their stories illuminate the way bankruptcy judges have long used a set of unwritten rules, derived from fraudulent conveyance principles, to oversee the reorganization process.

The book can be purchased here.

[1] 11 U.S.C. §1129.

[2] See Louisville Trust Co. v. Louisville, New Albany & Chicago Railway Co., 174 U.S. 674, 688 (1899).

[3] See Czyzewski v. Jevic Holding Corp., 137 S. Ct. 973, 987 (2017).

[4] Northern Pacific Railway Co. v. Boyd, 228 U.S. 482, 508 (1913).

 

Who’s Down with OCC(‘s Definition of “Banks”)?

By Matthew A. Bruckner (Howard University School of Law)

Matthew A. Bruckner

The number and importance of fintech companies, such as Venmo, CashApp, SoFi, Square, PayPal, and Plaid, continue to rise. As they’ve expanded, some fintech companies have considered it useful to pursue bank charters. For example, Figure, Varo and SoFi have all received at least preliminary approval for a traditional national bank charter.

However, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (the OCC) has decided to offer a more limited form of bank charter—a special purpose national bank charter. And it’s been offering these so-called fintech charters to entities that are, at best, bank-like.

Other regulators, such as the New York State Department of Financial Services and the Conference of State Bank Supervisors, have been none too happy about this development. Both have repeatedly sued the OCC, claiming that the charter oversteps the OCC’s authority. That litigation has centered on whether these fintech companies are sufficiently bank-like to obtain an OCC charter. So far, the OCC has successfully fended off litigation because of plaintiff’s lack of standing, but further substantive litigation seems exceedingly likely.

In a new article, I explore the question of whether the OCC’s decision to grant bank charters to fintech companies makes them banks for bankruptcy purposes. The question matters because banks are ineligible for bankruptcy relief. This Article considers the legal and policy arguments that are likely to be presented to bankruptcy judges about whether special purpose national banks are banks within the meaning of the Bankruptcy Code. I conclude that bankruptcy judges are likely to disregard the OCC’s interpretation and conclude that special purpose national banks are not banks for bankruptcy purposes.

As non-banks, special purpose national banks are bankruptcy-eligible. This raises a host of issues that I address in this Article. These include that, in some cases, a special purpose national bank will be able to rush to bankruptcy court to take advantage of the automatic stay if the OCC tries to revoke its charter. Also, the bankruptcy process may supersede the OCC’s newly-created (and never yet used) special purpose national bank liquidation proceedings.

These and other issues are explored in more detail in the Article, which can be found here.

***

Note: This is the Harvard Law School Bankruptcy Roundtable’s last scheduled post for the summer of 2022.  The BRT intends to resume posting around mid-September.  The BRT wishes all its readers an enjoyable remainder of the summer!

 

Third-Party Releases Under Continued Fire in E.D. Va. Decision

By Adam C. Harris, Douglas S. Mintz, Abbey Walsh, and Kelly (Bucky) Knight (Schulte Roth & Zabel)

Adam C. Harris

Douglas S. Mintz

Abbey Walsh

Kelly (Bucky) Knight

Earlier this year, a District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia vacated a Bankruptcy Court order confirming a plan that provided non-consensual third-party releases to certain of the debtor’s prepetition executives. This reversal followed on the heels of the Southern District of New York’s reversal of the Purdue Pharma plan, also on account of the inclusion of non-consensual third-party releases. As discussed in this article, these decisions may presage a growing willingness by Courts to curb the granting of these releases. The authors also provide practical considerations and takeaways from the decision for debtors, creditors and other estate constituents that are noteworthy.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia vacated the confirmation order in the Mahwah Bergen Retail Group, Inc. (f/k/a Ascena Retail Group, Inc.) Chapter 11 cases on the grounds that the plan contained impermissible non-consensual third-party releases. While the Court did not find that non-consensual third-party releases are prohibited per se, it imposed stringent limitations on their availability and on the Bankruptcy Court’s ability to grant such releases if the scope of the release extends to non-bankruptcy claims. The Court attributed its ruling, in part, to the fact that the “ubiquity of third-party releases in the Richmond Division demands even greater scrutiny of the propriety of such releases.” The decision holds that third-party releases should be granted only “cautiously and infrequently” and sets up an onerous process for their consideration and approval, which may make many third-party releases practically unavailable, particularly if a plan seeks to release non-core claims.

Read the full article here.

[Texas Two-Step and the Future of Mass Tort Bankruptcy Series] The Texas Two-Step and Mandatory Non-Opt-Out Settlement Powers

By Ralph Brubaker (University of Illinois College of Law)

Note: This is the sixth in a series of posts on the Texas Two-Step, the bankruptcy of LTL Management, and the future of mass tort bankruptcies.  Check the HLS Bankruptcy Roundtable throughout the summer for additional contributing posts by academics from institutions across the country.

Earlier posts in this series can be found here (by Jin Lee and Amelia Ricketts), here (by Jonathan C. Lipson), here (by Jared A. Ellias), here (by Anthony Casey and Joshua Macey), and here (by David Skeel).

***

Ralph Brubaker

All of the posts in this series have been incredibly thoughtful and incisive in illuminating what’s at stake with the innovative new Texas Two-Step bankruptcy strategy.

As Professors Casey and Macey point out, by isolating and separating Defendant’s mass-tort liability (in a new BadCo) from its business operations (in a new GoodCo) and subjecting only the former to the bankruptcy process, the value of Defendant’s business (which must ultimately pay the mass-tort obligations, under a funding agreement between GoodCo and BadCo) is enhanced by avoiding all of the direct and indirect costs that a bankruptcy filing would entail. At the same time, though, Defendant can nonetheless take advantage of bankruptcy’s beneficial claims resolution process, which consolidates all of the mass-tort claims, both present and future claims, in one forum—the Bankruptcy Court.

That mandatory, universal consolidation of all mass-tort claims, which is entirely unique to the bankruptcy process, is tremendously powerful and is a huge boon to facilitating an aggregate settlement of Defendant’s mass-tort exposure. Indeed, bankruptcy can produce aggregate settlement of mass tort obligations much more effectively and efficiently than the only available nonbankruptcy alternative, so-called multi-district litigation (MDL) under the federal MDL statute.

Professors Casey and Macey acknowledge that the Texas Two-Step bankruptcy is an unalloyed good, however, only if it does not leave tort victims worse off. I share the fear of many that it will, though, and my concern derives from one of the most fundamental differences between the bankruptcy and nonbankruptcy systems for aggregate resolution of mass torts, giving rise to the vertical forum shopping that Professor Lipson highlights.

The due process clauses of the Constitution give an individual tort victim a property right in a cause of action against Defendant. Consequently, that individual must consent to a settlement of that tort claim (i.e., a voluntary transfer or sale of the claim to Defendant). The only circumstance in which a mandatory “settlement” of a damages claim can be imposed upon a nonconsenting claimant (i.e., the claimant’s property can be involuntarily expropriated) is when there is sufficient danger of a common-pool problem, or so-called “tragedy of the commons,” of the kind extremely familiar to bankruptcy scholars and professionals.

Outside bankruptcy, that common-pool problem is the impetus for a so-called “limited fund” class action, which takes away claimants’ unfettered control over their individual claims (i.e., their property) by allowing a fiduciary representative to assert and settle in the aggregate all of the common claims against a limited fund, whether or not individual claimants consent to that aggregate settlement. As the Supreme Court made clear in its Ortiz v. Fibreboard decision, though, if a mass-tort defendant’s resources do not constitute a limited fund that is insufficient to fully satisfy its mass-tort obligations, individual claimants retain an absolute constitutional right to opt out of any aggregate resolution process, as part of their due process property rights in their individual claims.

Bankruptcy, of course, is also designed to address such a common-pool problem, and the binding distribution scheme effectuated by a confirmed plan of reorganization is functionally identical to the mandatory non-opt-out settlement at issue in Ortiz. Both systems enable a mass-tort defendant to impose a judicially-approved hard cap on their aggregate mass-tort liability, without any opt-outs by nonconsenting claimants. That mandatory non-opt-out settlement power works a dramatic change in a mass-tort defendant’s ultimate aggregate liability and the complex bargaining dynamics by which that ultimate liability is determined.

I thus share the concern expressed by Professor Ellias about the prospect of solvent mass tort defendants using Texas Two-Step bankruptcies to resolve their mass-tort liability. And Professor Skeel is right to point out that Judge Kaplan’s LTL Management decision gives too much encouragement to that strategy, for example, by opining that “[t]here is nothing to fear in the migration of tort litigation out of the tort system and into the bankruptcy system” and “maybe the gates indeed should be opened.” Bankruptcy poses a substantial risk of systematically undercompensating mass-tort claimants relative to a nonbankruptcy baseline, particularly for future claimants. Perhaps that risk is acceptable when the debt overhang from massive disputed obligations presents a clear and present threat to entity viability and full payment of all claimants, problems that bankruptcy is designed to address. Absent that, however, the bankruptcy gates should not simply be swung open wide in an attempt to “fix” the mass-tort system, however “broken” it may or may not be. The mass-tort bankruptcy system itself could use some fixing.

If you would like to receive a copy of my current work-in-progress exploring these issues, email me at rbrubake [at] illinois [dot] edu.

 

[Texas Two-Step and the Future of Mass Tort Bankruptcy Series] Upending the Traditional Chapter 11 Bargain

By Jared A. Ellias (University of California, Hastings College of the Law; Harvard Law School)

Note: This is the third in a series of posts on the Texas Two Step, the bankruptcy of LTL Management, and the future of mass tort bankruptcies.  Check the HLS Bankruptcy Roundtable throughout the summer for additional contributing posts by academics from institutions across the country.

Earlier posts in this series can be found here (by Jin Lee and Amelia Ricketts) and here (by Jonathan C. Lipson).

***

In October 2021, Johnson & Johnson (“J&J”) executed a strategy to use the bankruptcy system to resolve a massive flood of personal injury lawsuits.  In doing so, J&J found a way to obtain the benefits of Chapter 11 without accepting the burden of operating a business under court oversight.  J&J achieved this outcome by executing a corporate law move dubbed the “Texas Two-Step.”  The Two-Step split J&J’s consumer division into two entities: (1) LTL Management LLC, which was allocated all of J&J’s baby powder-related tort liability; and (2) a second entity that contained the assets of its consumer businesses.  LTL Management subsequently filed for bankruptcy without the assets of the consumer business.  In a landmark recent opinion, Judge Michael B. Kaplan of the Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Jersey held that these maneuvers were not a bad faith bankruptcy filing.  As I argue below, Judge Kaplan’s ruling, which attempts to use bankruptcy law to ameliorate weaknesses in tort law, may inspire other wealthy firms to emulate J&J’s tactics.  It may also feed a potential backlash from higher courts and Congress that may make the bankruptcy system less useful to large firms.

In short, J&J’s bankruptcy strategy upends the traditional bargain that Chapter 11 offers to distressed corporations and their creditors.  Congress designed a bankruptcy system that provides companies with powerful protections, such as an automatic stay of non-bankruptcy litigation.  In exchange, companies must submit their assets to court oversight.  To be sure, a bankruptcy filing always undermines some of the bargaining power that mass tort claimants have outside of bankruptcy, such as the ability to bring many individual lawsuits.  However, the burden of court oversight also gives creditors bargaining power, as companies seek to exit bankruptcy quickly to escape the expense and distraction of a bankruptcy proceeding.  J&J argues it has found a better way of using the bankruptcy system: J&J would use a contract to make the assets of the consumer division available to pay any amounts owed to tort victims and its procedural machinations meant that those assets would not be depleted by wasteful court oversight.

As Michael Francus recently argued, J&J’s strategy is best understood as the latest move in the long-standing chess game of hardball bankruptcy tactics between the lawyers who represent tort victims and the lawyers who advise large companies with tort liability.  For example, in 2003, Pfizer resurrected a dead subsidiary and caused it to file for bankruptcy to obtain a judicial order halting all litigation against Pfizer, which potentially had its own liability associated with the subsidiary’s products.  Pfizer’s strategy involved taking a corporation that had been defunct for over a decade, giving it an “independent board of directors,” employees and office space.  By doing so, Pfizer was able to benefit from a bankruptcy court injunction for several years before reaching a settlement after a decade of scorched earth litigation.  Other high-profile companies, most prominently Purdue Pharma, have also tried to stretch bankruptcy law to resolve claims against third parties without those entities filing for bankruptcy themselves.

The “Texas Two-Step” strategy deployed by J&J takes these existing strategies a step further by surgically separating assets from liabilities to create a favorable bargaining environment.  In holding that this maneuver was not a bad faith use of the bankruptcy system, Judge Kaplan opens the door to other wealthy firms to engage in similar maneuvering to resolve mass torts problems. For example, will the next company with headline-grabbing tort liability, such as an unexpected oil spill, respond by “spinning off” its liabilities into a bankruptcy filing?  In the past, this only would have happened if the resulting liability rendered the polluter insolvent, but now even wealthy and solvent firms may decide that their fiduciary duty requires them to use the bankruptcy system to deal with their liability.

In his ruling, Judge Kaplan overruled the arguments of, among others, a group of bankruptcy scholars (including myself) that worry that the complexity of J&J’s maneuvers will undermine public confidence in the integrity of the bankruptcy system. To be sure, Judge Kaplan’s opinion makes persuasive arguments about the limits of the tort system.  The question, though, is whether the ultimate outcome of Judge Kaplan’s attempt to use bankruptcy law to rectify problems in the tort system will be to create new problems for the bankruptcy system as Congress explores new legislation and appellate courts issue rulings that respond to perceived overreach by reducing the power of bankruptcy judges and, as a result, the usefulness of bankruptcy law.

Due Process Alignment in Mass Restructurings

By Sergio J. Campos (University of Miami School of Law) and Samir D. Parikh (Lewis & Clark Law School)

Sergio J. Campos
Samir D. Parikh

Mass tort defendants have recently begun exiting multi-district litigation (MDL) by filing for bankruptcy. This new strategy ushers defendants into a far more hospitable forum that offers accelerated resolution of all state and federal claims held by both current and future victims.

Bankruptcy’s resolution promise is alluring, but the process relies on a very large assumption: future claimants can be compelled to relinquish property rights – their cause of action against the corporate defendant – without consent or notice. Bankruptcy builds an entire resolution structure on the premise that the Bankruptcy Code’s untested interest representation scheme satisfies Due Process strictures. This Article questions that assumption, and identifies two compromised pillars. Primarily, the process for selecting the fiduciary that represents future victims’ interests (FCR) is broken. Further, the process by which courts estimate the value of thousands of mass tort claims places too much pressure on a jurist unfamiliar with personal injury claims. These compromised pillars raise the risk that the settlement trust will be underfunded and fail prematurely. In this outcome, future victims would have no recourse but to argue that the process did not satisfy Due Process, and the settlement should be unwound.

This Article proposes that the risk of a prematurely insolvent victims’ trust can be reduced considerably by making two adjustments. Our proposal seeks to (i) rebuild the FCR construct in order to ensure that future victims’ interests are effectively represented, and (ii) recalibrate the claim estimation process by facilitating coordination between the bankruptcy court and nonbankruptcy trial courts.

The full article is forthcoming in the Fordham Law Review and is available here.

 

Holdout Panic

By Stephen J. Lubben (Seton Hall Law School)

Stephen J. Lubben

It has been recognized that corporations themselves are designed to promote collective action, and thus “a primary function of corporate law is to coordinate and constrain individual behavior – even profit-motivated behavior.”  Given that corporate debt instruments largely serve a governance function amongst creditors, it is not surprising that they, like corporations themselves, tend to quash individual action in favor of the group.  But the divergence between individual and group interests comes to the fore in times of stress.

An individual creditor can be either an oppressed minority investor or a holdout.  Majority holders can be either the group seeking an efficient and beneficial restructuring, or effectively an insider group that collaborates with more formal insiders to extract value from minority creditors.  Which reality is genuine is highly dependent on the particular facts of the case at hand, and may be quite difficult for an outsider to discern.

Restructuring law attempts to balance this uncertainty by providing a series of checks and balances.  In general, restructuring law begins with a preference for the collective, but encircles the collective with a series of rules that protect individual creditors from abuse.  

Some of the balance comes from the agreements that create the creditor relationship or duties related to those agreements; however, other aspects of balance are external and come from outside structures like the Bankruptcy Code or the Trust Indenture Act.  In general, the basic challenge here is to find the point at which the illegitimate power of holdouts is reduced without trampling on the legitimate rights of minority creditors.  It is very easy to avoid holdouts if the majority always wins.

My paper explores the ways in which modern restructuring practice has moved toward that “majority always wins” extreme.  This change was not part of some grand plan, but rather the result of a series of incremental decisions, each reacting to perceived abuses by holdouts.  But in indulging our fears of holdouts, we have lost the essential balance of the system.

Take the example of the RSA – or restructuring support agreement – that, in a variety of ways, can represent a generalized assault on the requirement in section 1123(a)(4) that a chapter 11 plan must “provide the same treatment for each claim or interest of a particular class.”  RSAs achieve this end by providing for backstop fees paid to a select group that will never have to backstop anything or DIP loans that the debtor does not really need.

In one recent case, pre-bankruptcy the debtor contracted with a sub-group of its secured noteholders to have those noteholders make an interest payment on the notes.   That is, some of the secured noteholders paid the interest payment due to all the secured noteholders.

In exchange, these distinctive noteholders received new “super-priority secured notes” secured by a lien that surpassed the old secured notes’ liens, while also carrying a hefty 10% coupon.  When the debtor filed for chapter 11 later that same year, to implement its own RSA-driven plan, the new super-priority notes were paid in full, with interest and “make whole call” fees.  In short, the select lenders made a small, six-month loan for a very high return at low risk.  This opportunity was not available to everyone in the original class of noteholders.

In short, I conclude that the modern American restructuring system has evolved to favor the interests of the majority to the point where a debtor and a majority of its lenders can inflict serious harm on minority creditors.  At some point, this reality is bound to have consequences for both the debt markets and the utility of chapter 11.

The full article is available here.

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