Fiduciary Duties in Bankruptcy and Insolvency

By John A. E. Pottow (University of Michigan Law School).

Although discussed nowhere in the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, fiduciary duties play a central role in guiding the administration of an insolvent debtor’s assets. Regulatory oversight of trustees is only loosely circumscribed by statute, but significant lacunae exist regarding specification of the duties of loyalty.  In assessing what fiduciary obligations are owed to secured creditors, unsecured creditors, and debtors, some courts build upon the general principle that the trustee’s fiduciary duty of loyalty flows to all creditors. Other courts, though, work from the premise that secured creditors are better situated to look after themselves and that a trustee’s primary obligation is to unsecured creditors, perhaps especially non-priority general creditors. The Supreme Court has also weighed in, stating that a DIP’s fiduciary duties run directly (if somewhat delphically) to “the corporation.” How then does a trustee choose between beneficiaries of the estate, and what remedies are there for losing parties disappointed with this allegiance decision?  This book chapter explores the fiduciary obligations of trustees (including DIPs) under both statute and common law. There is a special focus on the intrinsic conflicts that arise within the “menagerie of heterogeneous creditors” that constitute the claimants of a bankruptcy estate.  A single normative theory seems unlikely to explain the results (so much for the “residual fiduciary beneficiary”!).  What does seem clear is that trustees are “more fiduciary” for some constituencies than for others.  Fortunately, U.S. bankruptcy courts are accustomed to shifting allegiances and disalignments of interest. Thus, the bankruptcy system may be well-suited to handle the endemic conflicts of interest between corporate constituencies through various bankruptcy-specific mechanisms, such as the institution of the Creditors Committee and the norm of engaged judicial oversight.

The full article is available here.

Equitable Mootness Doctrine Persists in Bankruptcy Appeals

By Shana A. Elberg, Amy Van Gelder, and Jason M. Liberi (Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP)

In recent years, some courts have become critical of the doctrine of equitable mootness, a judicially created abstention doctrine — unique to the corporate bankruptcy world — that allows appellate courts to dismiss appeals from a bankruptcy court’s confirmation order if the relief sought on appeal threatens to unwind a complex debtor reorganization previously approved by the bankruptcy court. The doctrine promotes finality of confirmation orders, encourages the global consensual resolutions often crucial to complex reorganizations, and protects third parties that have justifiably relied upon the bankruptcy court’s confirmation order or transactions effectuated pursuant to that order.

Despite significant concerns expressed by courts regarding the impact of the doctrine on parties’ fundamental appellate rights, equitable mootness persists in some form within every circuit that has jurisdiction over bankruptcy appeals. Thus, plan proponents and objectors alike must be aware of its implications on contested plan confirmation proceedings and prepared to act quickly to advance their interests following plan confirmation.

This article provides a brief overview of the doctrine of equitable mootness, its application by appellate courts, and key considerations for bankruptcy and non-bankruptcy practitioners faced with contested plan confirmations and subsequent appeals.

The article is available here.

Recent Developments in Bankruptcy Law October 2017

By Richard Levin (Jenner & Block LLP)

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 third quarter of 2017.

The Second Circuit adopted the use of a market rate to determine cram-down interest rates in a chapter 11 case. It also disallowed a secured lender’s make-whole, although without deciding whether a make-whole should be generally disallowed as unmatured post-petition interest. (In re MPM Silicones (Momentive)) In contrast, the Houston bankruptcy court allowed a make-whole in a solvent case, but also without reaching the post-petition interest issue. (In re Ultra Petroleum)

The Delaware bankruptcy court clarified its jurisdiction to approve a third-party release in a settlement implemented through a confirmed chapter 11 plan, holding that plan confirmation is a core proceeding, so Article III limits do not apply. (In re Millennium Lab Holdings II, LLC) The Delaware bankruptcy court also reconsidered, and disallowed, a merger agreement termination fee after termination of the agreement. (In re Energy Future Holdings, Inc.)

Bankruptcy courts increasingly approve of the idea that under section 544(b), the trustee may use the longer reachback periods of the Internal Revenue Code and the Federal Debt Collection Procedures Act (In re CVAH, In re Alpha Protective Services). And the Ninth Circuit has ruled that for the trustee to pursue an avoidance claim against the United States, section 544(b) does not require a separate sovereign immunity waiver. (In re DBSI, Inc.) 

Finally, the courts have been sympathetic to attorneys in allowing their fees. (In re Stanton; In re Hungry Horse, LLC; In re CWS Enterps., Inc.) Less so for investment bankers. (Roth Capital Partners)

The full memo, discussing these and other cases, is available here, and the full (900-page) compilation of all prior editions is available here.

A Few Predictions for Justice Gorsuch’s Bankruptcy Jurisprudence

By Megan McDermott (University of Wisconsin Law School)

The confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice offers opportunities to speculate about how his judicial philosophy will impact various areas of the law. Bankruptcy is no exception. Justice Gorsuch’s presence on the high court could have major implications for bankruptcy law.

Using Gorsuch’s published Tenth Circuit bankruptcy decisions, my essay examines how closely Justice Gorsuch’s approach is likely to overlap with that of his predecessor, Antonin Scalia. As I show in a forthcoming Utah Law Review article (here), Justice Scalia played a leading role in the Supreme Court’s development of modern bankruptcy law during his three decades on the court. In this sequel essay, I explain why Justice Gorsuch is well-poised to play a similarly important role, with two highlights.

First, I predict that Gorsuch may push the Court to revisit Stern v. Marshall, the blockbuster 2010 decision in which the Court rejected Congress’s efforts to give bankruptcy courts judicial powers beyond the bounds of Article III. If Judge Gorsuch’s decision in In re Renewable Energy Development Corporation, 792 F.3d 1274 (10th Cir. 2015), is a reliable indication of where he and the other justices he cites are leaning, we may soon see a new approach to the many Stern problems that bankruptcy judges have faced during the last decade. Under this new approach, the focus will shift away from the public rights doctrine and toward the framework of summary and plenary jurisdiction employed by the eighteenth century English bankruptcy system.

Second, Justice Gorusch may be more open to considering legislative history arguments than his predecessor. Justice Scalia routinely urged his colleagues to avoid references to legislative history. In stark contrast to this dogmatic approach, Gorsuch’s Tenth Circuit bankruptcy writings suggest some willingness to indulge arguments about legislative history of the Bankruptcy Code. Because so many of the bankruptcy appeals that the Court hears are, essentially, statutory interpretation questions, even this slight shift in interpretive approach could have significant repercussions for the field.

The full paper can be found here.

Finding Acceptance: Using Strategic Impairment to Satisfy 1129(a)(10)

by David L. Curry, Jr. and Ryan A. O’Connor (Okin Adams LLP; Houston, Texas)

Section 1129(a)(10) of the Bankruptcy Code – requiring acceptance of a proposed plan from at least one impaired voting class – can often pose a unique challenge for single asset real estate debtors. Finding Acceptance: Using Strategic Impairment to Satisfy 1129(a)(10) (the “Article”), explores the potential use of “strategic” or “artificial” impairment as a means of achieving plan confirmation in contested cases where consensual restructuring of the secured creditor’s claim is not obtainable.  Whether such artificial impairment is permissible remains an open question, but the Article notes a growing majority of courts finding that impairment need not be economically driven. Yet, while artificial impairment may not be prohibited by § 1129(a)(10), courts have found that plans relying upon such may be subject to heightened scrutiny under § 1129(a)(3)’s good faith requirements. Thus, the Article goes on to contrast two recent circuit court opinions – Western Real Estate Equities, L.L.C. v. Vill. At Camp Bowie I, L.P. (In re Vill. at Camp Bowie I, L.P.), 710 F.3d 239, 244 (5th Cir. 2013) and Vill. Green I, GP v. Fannie Mae (In re Vill. Green I, GP), 811 F.3d 816 (6th Cir. 2016) – and their opposing outcomes in an effort to understand what factors a court may consider when determining whether a plan has been proposed in good-faith.  Ultimately, the Article concludes that while strategic impairment of insiders or other closely related parties may give rise to an inference of bad faith, the impairment of unrelated, minor creditors should be permissible.

The full article is available to download here.

David L. Curry, Jr. is a partner, and Ryan A. O’Connor is an associate, in the Houston office of Okin Adams LLP. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors, and not Okin Adams.

 

Non-Article III Adjudication: Bankruptcy and Nonbankruptcy, With and Without Litigant Consent

By Ralph Brubaker (University of Illinois College of Law)

This article explores the diverse and intriguing implications of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Wellness International Network, Ltd. v. Sharif, both from an “internal” bankruptcy perspective and as a very important and revealing component of the Court’s still-evolving general jurisprudence of non-Article III adjudications.

In that larger jurisprudence, the contrast between Wellness and the Stern v. Marshall decision prominently highlights a seemingly schizophrenic admixture of formal (Stern) and functional (Wellness) analytical methods. This article maintains, however, that what Stern and Wellness reveal and confirm is a coherent and consistent jurisprudence of non-Article III adjudications with a bifurcated analytical methodology that is a logical corollary of (and that facilitates a complex interaction between) the dual interests protected by Article III, § 1 — both nonwaivable structural separation-of-powers values and the waivable personal right of individual litigants to an Article III adjudication.

In the bankruptcy context, Wellness provides further evidence that the Supreme Court is, over a long run of decisions, simply confirming the constitutional significance of its extensive summary-plenary jurisprudence (taken from established English bankruptcy practice prevailing at the time of the Founding) as the operative constitutional boundary for the adjudicatory powers of non-Article III bankruptcy judges. This article uses the Wellness litigation to demonstrate how that summary-plenary jurisprudence can directly inform the core-noncore distinction drawn by the current jurisdictional statute (which codifies constitutional constraints). The Court’s existing and extensive summary-plenary jurisprudence provides a highly developed analytical framework for resolving even the most nuanced and difficult core-noncore determinations.

The full article is available here.

Chapter 11 Bankruptcy and Loan Covenant Strictness

By Garence Staraci (Yale University, School of Management) and Meradj Pouraghdam (Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po))

In syndicated loan contracts, a borrower’s failure to comply with a covenant restriction triggers a default, and as such the lender’s right to terminate the loan (or foreclose on assets which are serving as collateral). The likelihood that such a covenant violation would occur depends on the loan covenant strictness, which measures how stringent covenant restrictions are on the borrower. Rationales for creditors to demand strict covenants include the pricing of default risk and the allocation of bargaining power in more frequently triggered renegotiations.

In this paper, we propose a new determinant of covenant strictness: the degree of creditor friendliness in Chapter 11 bankruptcy practices. This new determinant dictates that the more debtor(creditor)-friendly the bankruptcy practice is, the more creditors will seek to increase(decrease) their level of loan monitoring outside of bankruptcy through an adjustment in covenant strictness. Borrowers would agree on stricter covenants in exchange for a lower loan spread, and vice-versa. We demonstrate that covenants are not only included in order to shift the governance from debtors to creditors once they are breached, but to also potentially address the concern creditors might have about how the bankruptcy law is practiced if the borrowing firm goes bankrupt.

This paper finally relates to the recent recommendations of the American Bankruptcy Institute Commission to Study the Reform of Chapter 11, which has investigated the creditor friendliness of the corporate bankruptcy practice. Our results imply that any amendment to the Code that would limit the creditors’ rights during bankruptcy would have an impact on the pricing of syndicated debt through a modification of the covenant structure of loan contracts.

The full paper is available here.

Debt Structure as a Strategic Bargaining Tool

By Yue Qiu, University of Minnesota (will join Temple University as Assistant Professor of Finance on August 1st, 2017)

In this paper, I study the strategic role of debt structure in improving the bargaining position of a firm’s management relative to its non-financial stakeholders. Debt structure is essential for strategic bargaining between management and non-financial stakeholders because it affects the ease of renegotiating debt contracts and thus the credibility of bankruptcy threats. Debt structure, not necessarily debt level, is shown to be adjusted as a response to an increase in non-financial stakeholders’ negotiation power.

Using NLRB labor union elections as a laboratory setting and employing a regression discontinuity design, I find that passing a labor union election leads to larger creditor dispersion in a firm’s outstanding debt. In particular, union certification leads to an increase in the ratio of public debt to total assets and a decrease in the ratio of bank debt to total assets in the following three years after elections, whereas there is no significant change in the level of total debt. Moreover, the syndication size of newly issued bank loans increases while creditor ownership concentration decreases once the vote share for unions passes the winning threshold.

Further analyses confirm that the debt structure adjustments after union certification are more likely driven by strategic concerns of management rather than more constrained access to bank loans. Finally, I also show that the degree of wage concessions is strongly related to a firm’s debt structure using the airline industry as an empirical setting.

The full paper is available here.

Sovereign Debt Restructuring and English Governing Law

By Steven L. Schwarcz (Duke University School of Law)

This Roundtable post is based on the author’s forthcoming article, Sovereign Debt Restructuring and English Governing Law, scheduled for publication in a symposium issue of the Brooklyn Journal of Corporate, Financial and Commercial Law (available at http://ssrn.com/abstract=2952776).

Unsustainable sovereign debt is a serious problem for nations as well as their citizens and creditors. It also is a threat to global financial stability. The existing “collective action clause” contractual approach to restructuring that debt is inadequate. At the same time, a multilateral framework, such as a convention or treaty, is not currently politically feasible. Recent research shows a drastic rise in sovereign debt litigation by holdout creditors, suggesting the urgency of finding solutions.

This article proposes a novel legal framework, focusing on governing law, for restructuring unsustainable sovereign debt. Because a significant percentage of sovereign debt is governed by English law, the UK Parliament has a unique opportunity to modify that law to include the legislative equivalent of perfect aggregate-voting collective action clauses in all English-law governed sovereign debt contracts. That not only would facilitate the fair and equitable restructuring of unsustainable sovereign debt; it also should ensure the continuing legitimacy and attractiveness of English law as the governing law for future sovereign debt contracts.

The article also proposes and examines the text of a model law that Parliament could consider as a basis for its legislation. Additionally, the article explains why, even absent Parliamentary enactment, a model-law approach could contribute to the incremental development of sovereign-debt-restructuring norms.

The full paper is available here

Recent Trends In Enforcement of Intercreditor Agreements and Agreements Among Lenders in Bankruptcy

By Seth Jacobson, Ron Meisler, Carl Tullson and Alison Wirtz (Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP)*

Over the last several decades, the enforcement of intercreditor agreements (“ICAs”) and agreements among lenders (“AALs”) that purport to affect voting rights and the rights to receive payments of cash or other property in respect of secured claims have played an increasingly prominent role in bankruptcy cases. On certain of the more complex issues that have arisen in the context of a bankruptcy, there have been varying interpretations and rulings by the bankruptcy courts. Some courts have enforced these agreements in accordance with their terms, while others have invalidated provisions in these agreements on policy and other grounds. Still others seem to have enforced agreements with a results-oriented approach.

In this article, we examine three recent leading cases: Energy Future Holdings (“EFH“), Momentive, and RadioShack. These cases addressed whether the bankruptcy court was the proper forum for intercreditor disputes, the ability of junior creditors to object to a sale supported by senior creditors, and whether an agreement providing only for lien subordination restricts a junior creditor’s ability to receive distributions under a plan of reorganization.

These leading cases illustrate three trends. First, bankruptcy courts are increasingly willing to insert themselves with respect to disputes among lenders that affect a debtor’s estate, thereby establishing that the bankruptcy court is the proper forum for interpreting ICAs and AALs. Second, the courts are applying the plain language of ICAs and AALs to the facts of the case to reach their conclusions. And, finally, senior creditors appear to continue to bear the risk of agreements that do not limit junior creditors’ rights in bankruptcy using clear and unambiguous language.

The full article is available here.

*Seth Jacobson is a partner and global co-head of the banking group at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP. Ron Meisler is a corporate restructuring partner, Carl Tullson is a corporate restructuring associate and Alison Wirtz is a banking associate at Skadden. They are all based in the firm’s Chicago office. The opinions expressed in this article are solely the opinions of the authors and not of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.

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