Want to Take Control of Professional Fees in Large Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Cases? Talking with Your Client’s General Counsel is a Good First Step

By Professor Nancy Rapoport (William S. Boyd School of Law, University of Nevada, Las Vegas)

Nancy Rapoport

As someone who studies professional fees in large chapter 11 cases, I’ve thought a lot about how quickly those professional fees can escalate. Successful chapter 11 bankruptcies are expensive, though, in almost all cases, the end result—a successful reorganization—is a good result. But can the fees be controlled effectively?

I think that they can, although there are all sorts of reasons why, often, fees aren’t monitored very closely. There’s usually a disconnect between who’s paying those fees and who’s monitoring the work. In a non-bankruptcy context, a lawyer might bill a client on a monthly basis and get relatively fast feedback from the client regarding issues of reasonableness. The image that comes to mind is of a lawyer pushing a bill across a table and an experienced client pushing it back to request reductions for potentially unreasonable fees or expenses. But the process is different for fees paid to professionals in chapter 11 cases. Bankruptcy courts are charged with the responsibility of reviewing the fees and expenses for reasonableness, and the Office of the United States Trustee serves as another set of eyes, as would a fee examiner.

For estate-paid professionals, the bankruptcy court must first approve the fee applications, which then get paid either from a carveout of a secured creditor’s collateral or as administrative expenses. Imagine a typical list of estate-paid professionals: the debtor’s counsel (plus conflicts counsel and local counsel), the creditors’ committee counsel (plus conflicts counsel and local counsel), investment banks and financial advisors (often for both the debtor and the committee), along with other, more specialized counsel. All of those professionals are working at warp speed, because large chapter 11 cases are literally bet-the-company actions. The fee applications themselves can run into the thousands of pages, per professional, with the time entries showing who worked on what, and for how long, on a day-by-day basis. There’s also often a lag between the work done and the submission of the fee applications, and few actors—other than the professionals themselves and some large institutional creditors—are repeat players. If the client isn’t familiar with the rhythm of chapter 11 bankruptcies, then that client has to take the professionals’ word for whether the tasks were both reasonable and necessary. Parsing the fee applications is a complicated task.

Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that bankruptcy professionals try to gouge the estate by performing unnecessary tasks. Far from it. The professionals whose fees I’ve reviewed have genuinely been trying to work within the reasonableness guidelines. But the staffing choices that get made—which level of professional works on which tasks, how long it takes to do the work, how many people review that work, how often all of the professionals touch base on the case’s progress, and how a professional must react to actions taken by a different professional—often don’t have the luxury, on the front end, of data-driven planning to eke out the most efficient workflows. Add to that the fact that all of these professionals worry about missing something important, and it’s not hard to see how fees can mount up.

I’ve written a lot about how to think about fees in chapter 11 cases, including these articles (here, here, and here). Most recently, I’ve been working with a co-author, Joe Tiano of Legal Decoder, to imagine a world in which big data can help professionals perform more efficiently (here and here). (Full disclosure: Legal Decoder helped me review the fees and expenses in the Toys R Us cases.) In a recent piece for the American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review, I’ve taken what we know about how a company’s general counsel works with outside professionals outside bankruptcy and suggested that, in a chapter 11 context, many of those behaviors can help to control the size of the professional fees and expenses: by paying closer attention to staffing and monthly budget-to-actual reconciliations, by using legal analytics to measure efficiency, and by using artificial intelligence for certain types of tasks. The point is that paying attention to efficient behavior on the front end benefits everyone, including the professionals themselves, who won’t have to negotiate reductions of their already billed work. The ABI Law Review article is available here.

For a previous Roundtable post discussing fees in another context, please see Through Jevic’s Mirror: Orders, Fees, and Settlements.

Bankruptcy Claim Dischargeability and Public Externalities: Evidence from a Natural Experiment

By Michael Ohlrogge (New York University School of Law)

Michael Ohlrogge

In 2009, the Seventh Circuit ruled in U.S. v. Apex Oil that certain types of injunctions requiring firms to clean up previously released toxic chemicals were not dischargeable in bankruptcy.  The result of this was to expose lenders, even those with security interests, to larger losses in the event a firm they extended credit to entered bankruptcy with significant outstanding environmental cleanup obligations. I document that lenders tightened the covenants on loans they extended to firms impacted the decision. In particular, lenders added new requirements that borrowers’ facilities and operations be inspected by outside environmental engineering firms in order to assess the safety with which they handle toxic chemicals.

Using an array of statistical tests and data from federal environmental agencies, I show that firms impacted by the decision responded to these new pressures from lenders by taking meaningful steps to reduce their risks of causing catastrophic pollution spills. In particular, firms reduced volume of toxic chemicals they release on-site by approximately 15%. In place of these releases, firms substituted off-site treatment by specialized facilities generally considered to be safer for the environment.  These results point to important ways in which bankruptcy law and other legal rules that impact recovery for firms’ creditors can work to shape the positive or negative externalities those firms generate.

The full article is available here.

Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing Examined: La Paloma

By Ronit J. Berkovich and Fraser Andrews (Weil)

Ronit J. Berkovich
Fraser Andrews

On January 13, 2020, the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware issued an opinion in In re La Paloma Generating Company, LLC., Case No. 16-12700 [Adv. Pro. No.19-50110], which examined the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing in the context of an intercreditor agreement (ICA) governing the relationship between the First Lien Lender (First Lien Lender) and the Second Lien Lenders (Second Lien Lenders) to the Debtors.  The bankruptcy court held a party cannot be in breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing under New York law when merely enforcing a contractual right, in this case the First Lien Lender enforcing the ICA.

The full article is available here.

Estimating the Need for Additional Bankruptcy Judges in Light of the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Benjamin Iverson (BYU Marriott School of Business), Jared A. Ellias (University of California, Hastings College of the Law), and Mark Roe (Harvard Law School)

Ben Iverson
Jared A. Ellias
Mark Roe

We recently estimated the bankruptcy system’s ability to absorb an anticipated surge of financial distress among American consumers, businesses, and municipalities as a result of COVID-19.

An increase in the unemployment rate has historically been a leading indicator of the volume of bankruptcy filings that occur months later.  If prior trends repeat this time, the May 2020 unemployment rate of 13.3% will lead to a substantial increase in all types of bankruptcy filings.  Mitigation, governmental assistance, the unique features of the COVID-19 pandemic, and judicial triage should reduce the potential volume of bankruptcies to some extent, or make it less difficult to handle, and it is plausible that the impact of the recent unemployment spike will be smaller than history would otherwise predict. We hope this will be so.  Yet, even assuming that the worst-case scenario could be averted, our analysis suggests substantial, temporary investments in the bankruptcy system may be needed.

Our model assumes that Congress would like to have enough bankruptcy judges such that the average judge would not be pressed to work more than was the case during the last bankruptcy peak in 2010, when the bankruptcy system was pressured and the public caseload figures indicate that judges worked 50 hour weeks on average.

To keep the judiciary’s workload at 2010 levels, we project that, in the worst-case scenario, the bankruptcy system could need as many as 246 temporary judges, a very large number. But even in our most optimistic model, the bankruptcy system will still need 50 additional temporary bankruptcy judgeships, as well as the continuation of all current temporary judgeships.

Our memorandum’s conclusions were endorsed by an interdisciplinary group of academics and forwarded to Congress.

Bond Trustees, and the Rising Challenge of Activist Investors

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

Steven L. Schwarcz

Large financial institutions, such as U.S. Bank or Bank of NY Mellon, typically administer the governance of bond indentures—the contract under which bonds are issued—on behalf of the investors; in that role, they are called indenture trustees or, more colloquially, bond trustees. In Bond Trustees, and the Rising Challenge of Activist Investors, the 2020 TePoel Lecture at Creighton University School of Law, I examine how bond trustees should respond to this challenge.

Bondholders are the primary beneficiaries of indenture governance, just as shareholders are the primary beneficiaries of corporate governance. As beneficiaries, bondholders and shareholders have much different expectations. Indenture governance and corporate governance have evolved differently to meet those different expectations.

For example, because bondholders are only entitled to receive principal and accrued interest on their bonds, indenture governance has evolved to protect that recovery. In contrast, because shareholders, as residual claimants of the firm, are entitled to (and thus expect to receive) the firm’s surplus value, corporate governance has evolved to increase that value.

Most people would consider corporate governance as more important than indenture governance. In part, that’s because corporations and stock markets are highly visible to the average person. Also, a corporate manager’s job—to try to increase shareholder value—involves more judgment and discretion, and thus can be more interesting (and more desirable of scholarly study), than an indenture trustee’s job of merely protecting bondholder recovery.

Still, indenture governance is critically important. Domestically and worldwide, the amounts invested in bonds dwarfs the amounts invested in stock. Recent data show, for example, that global bond issuance is almost 30 times greater than global equity issuance.

An indenture trustee’s governance duties turn on whether the trustee is acting pre-default, or post-default. Once an indenture defaults, the law requires the indenture trustee to act on behalf of the bondholders as would a prudent person in similar circumstances regarding its own affairs. Many post-default decisions—such as whether to accelerate the maturity of the bonds or to liquidate collateral—involve difficult judgment calls. These decisions are made more difficult by what I have called a “protection gap”: when things go wrong, investors often blame parties with deep pockets, especially indenture trustees, for failing to protect them. Post-default indenture governance becomes even more complicated when the bondholders themselves have conflicting interests, caused, for example, by conflicting payment priorities or conflicting sources of payment.

Notwithstanding its complexities, post-default indenture governance is informed by case law. And perhaps because of its complexities, post-default indenture governance is also informed by legal scholarship. In contrast, pre-default indenture governance is not yet well informed by either case law or legal scholarship. The rising challenge of activist investors is now making it critical to also understand what an indenture trustee’s pre-default duties should be.

Historically, an indenture trustee’s pre-default duties have been seen as ministerial and limited to the specific terms of the indenture, such as selecting bonds for redemption and preparing and delivering certificates. Since the financial crisis, some investors argue that indenture trustees of securitized bond issues, in which investors are paid from collections on underlying financial assets such as mortgage loans, should have pre-default fiduciary duties. Indeed, complaints in recent lawsuits allege that those indenture trustees should “police the deal” for the investors.

These allegations are not compelling. Indenture trustees receive relatively tiny fees and don’t even negotiate the terms of the indentures. In contrast, the institutional investors in securitized bond issues, including activist investors, are highly sophisticated. Indenture trustees could not understand complex securitized bond issues better than those investors.

Furthermore, parties other than indenture trustees are assigned monitoring duties to protect the investors. Notably, securitized bond issues require a party, usually called a servicer, to service and collect payment on the underlying financial assets. In litigation following the financial crisis, which caused widespread defaults on residential mortgage loans, some investors argued that indenture trustees in mortgage securitization transactions should have monitored or supervised the performance of the mortgage-loan servicer.

Imposing such duties on the indenture trustee would be duplicative and expensive. Rather, an indenture trustee that actually becomes aware of servicing problems should act in a common sense and practical manner. For example, it might enter into conversations with the servicer about its performance and communicate the results of those conversations to the investors. It also might seek, or request the investors to provide, formal investor directions.

Typically, indentures allow investors with at least 25-50 percent of voting rights to direct the indenture trustee to act.

The full TePoel Lecture is available here: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3543656.

For a related Roundtable post, see Steven L. Schwarcz, Indenture Trustee Duties: The Pre-Default Puzzle.

More Clarity on What Constitutes a Final, Appealable Order in Bankruptcy After Ritzen Group Inc. v. Jackson Masonry, LLC

By Charles Tabb and Carly Everhardt (Foley & Lardner)

Charles Tabb
Carly Everhardt

In Ritzen Group Inc. v. Jackson Masonry, LLC, the Supreme Court unanimously held that a bankruptcy court’s order denying relief from the automatic stay constituted a final order, and thus that order may­—and must—immediately be appealed if so desired.  The holding regarding finality is important, because parties normally only have an absolute right to appeal when an order is final, not when an order is interlocutory.  In Ritzen, the Court announced a clear blueprint for gauging the finality of any bankruptcy order.

The opinion comes just a few years after the Supreme Court decided Bullard v. Blue Hills Bank, in which the Court held that an order denying confirmation of a plan was not final, because the plan confirmation process could continue notwithstanding the denial.  In Ritzen, the Court distinguished Bullard, explaining that the stay relief proceeding constituted its own complete procedural unit, separate and apart from any claims resolution issues.  Ritzen puts to rest the view that Bullard signaled relaxed finality in the context of bankruptcy.

The article analyzes Ritzen and how it will impact strategic decisions by creditors regarding stay relief and other forms of bankruptcy litigation.  The article considers open questions left by the Court, including the impact on the finality of an order which states it was entered “without prejudice,” and whether res judicata may apply in cases where creditors make multiple requests for relief.

The full article is available here.

Congress is ignoring the best solution for troubled companies: bankruptcy

By Jared A. Ellias (University of California Hastings College of the Law), George Triantis (Stanford Law School)

Jared A. Ellias
George Triantis

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress has moved quickly to get trillions of dollars of emergency relief to consumers, small businesses, and large firms. These efforts aim to rescue millions of American consumers and businesses from insolvency.

It is troubling, though, that the federal government is ignoring the law that already exists for cushioning the blows associated with financial distress: the bankruptcy system. In its strategy to provide relief and stimulus, the government is in effect offering roadside emergency assistance when the infrastructure and expertise of a hospital is easily accessible.

Because the bankruptcy system entails a detailed restructuring process, it forces companies to think hard about how they’ve been doing things and whether it makes sense to continue doing them that way. Cash infusions from programs like those in the CARES Act, on the other hand, are only designed to keep businesses’ heads above water. That’s all that some companies need, but for others that were already struggling before the crisis hit, such as J.Crew and Neiman Marcus, bankruptcy can encourage them to focus on their long-term health.

Our existing bankruptcy system isn’t only crucial for helping companies move past their immediate crisis of zero revenue and illiquidity, it will also be essential in helping entire industries adapt to a prolonged period of uncertainty created by the coronavirus pandemic.

For the full opinion piece, click here.

For other Roundtable posts relating to the Covid-19 crisis, see Andrew N. Goldman, George W. Shuster Jr., Benjamin W. Loveland, Lauren R. Lifland, “COVID-19: Rethinking Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Valuation Issues in the Crisis.”

A Guide to the Small Business Reorganization Act of 2019

By Hon. Paul W. Bonapfel (U.S. Bankruptcy Judge, N.D. Ga.)

Hon. Paul W. Bonapfel

A Guide to the Small Business Reorganization Act of 2019 is a comprehensive explanation of the new subchapter V of chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code that qualifying debtors may elect and other changes to the Bankruptcy Code that the Small Business Reorganization Act of 2019 (“SBRA”) enacted.  The Guide also covers related changes to title 28 of the U.S. Code (Judiciary and Judicial Procedure) and the promulgation of Interim Bankruptcy Rules and revised Official Forms.

Among other things, the Guide discusses the new definition for ”small business debtor;” the role and duties of a subchapter V trustee; changes in procedures; provisions for the content and confirmation of a subchapter V plan (including elimination of the “absolute priority rule”); and new provisions for discharge after confirmation of a “cramdown” plan.

Since the distribution of earlier versions of the Guide prior to SBRA’s effective date (February 19, 2020) and its publication at 93 Amer. Bankr. L. J. 571, the paper has been revised and updated to include discussion of: the increase in the debt limits for eligibility for subchapter V under the CARES Act; how courts are implementing procedures for subchapter V cases; and early case law dealing with retroactive application of subchapter V, its availability in a chapter 11 case filed prior to its enactment, and the exception in new § 1190(3) to the antimodification rule in § 1123(b)(5), which prohibits the modification of a claim secured only by the debtor’s principal residence.

The latest Guide is available here. (Revised July 2020 to include Summary Comparison of U.S. Bankruptcy Code Chapter 11, 12, & 13, Key Events in the Timeline of Subchapter V Cases, and additional sources and discussion.)

Bankruptcy Venue Reform

By Nicholas Cordova (Harvard Law School)

Nick Cordova

Although the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is headquartered in Texas, it filed for chapter 11 in Delaware in February. That was permissible under existing bankruptcy venue rules because the BSA had created an affiliate in Delaware seventh months earlier. Unsettled by this apparent forum shopping, the Attorneys General of 40 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico sent a letter to Congress expressing their support for H.R. 4421, the Bankruptcy Venue Reform Act of 2019. It would have prevented the BSA’s conduct. Ten state Attorneys General did not sign the letter: New York, Delaware, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, New Jersey, North Carolina, Montana, Virginia, and Wyoming.

Under the Act, a corporation could only establish venue in three places. First, the district where its “principal assets” were located for the 180 days before filing. Second, the district where it maintains its “Principal Place of Business.” Third, and only for controlled subsidiaries, any district where a case concerning an entity controlling 50 percent or more of its voting stock is pending. Changes of control or in the Principal Place of Business in the year before filing or conducted “for the purpose of establishing venue” would be disregarded. Corporations could thus no longer manufacture venue in a preferred jurisdiction by simply creating an affiliate there.

H.R. 4421 would also require the Supreme Court to promulgate rules allowing “any attorney representing a governmental unit” to appear in any chapter 11 proceeding without paying a fee or hiring local counsel. This provision likely factored heavily into the Attorneys General’s support for the Act. Their support letter emphasizes that the resulting rule would help them enforcers consumer protection and environmental laws by reducing the costs of defending their states’ interests in chapter 11 cases filed in distant jurisdictions.

The letter offered two reasons why corporations should not be able to manufacture venue in districts with seemingly favorable judges just by creating an affiliate there. First, it is costly for creditors (particularly small creditors) because they must either travel long distances or forgo face-to-face participation as well as hire local counsel in expensive legal markets. Second, it may cause the public to perceive the bankruptcy system as unfairly advantaging large corporations. H.R. 4421 would solve these problems by “ensur[ing] that bankruptcies are filed in jurisdictions where debtors have the closest connections and filings will have the largest impacts.” The letter notes the Southern District of New York and the District of Delaware as two currently attractive districts. But the Attorneys General argue that other district and bankruptcy judges have similar expertise.

Academics largely agree that 28 U.S.C. § 1408’s permissive venue rules encourage competition among bankruptcy courts to attract high profile cases, but opinion is split on whether this competition improves or degrades bankruptcy law.

Lynn LoPucki and William Whitford argue that venue choice degrades bankruptcy law by pressuring judges to exercise their discretion to favor debtors and their attorneys because these are the actors who usually choose where to file. They suggest, for example, that bankruptcy judges of the Southern District of New York misuse discretion by freely granting extensions of the 120-day exclusivity period during which only the debtor may propose a reorganization plan. Debtors can then agree to move toward confirmation of a plan in exchange for concessions from creditors.

David Skeel, on the other hand, argues that at least one of the venue choices that the proposed Bankruptcy Reform Act would eliminate—the district where the entity is incorporated—improves bankruptcy law by encouraging states to compete for incorporation fees by offering increasingly efficient bankruptcy rules in the multiple areas where federal bankruptcy law defers to state law.

On April 29, 163 current and retired bankruptcy judges sent a letter to members of the House Committee on the Judiciary expressing support for H.R. 4421’s proposed reforms. The letter stresses the preference for eliminating state of incorporation as a basis for venue.

COVID-19: Rethinking Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Valuation Issues in the Crisis

By Andrew N. Goldman, George W. Shuster Jr., Benjamin W. Loveland, Lauren R. Lifland (Wilmerhale LLP)

Andrew N. Goldman
George W. Shuster Jr.
Benjamin W. Loveland
Lauren R. Lifland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Valuation is a critical and indispensable element of the Chapter 11 bankruptcy process. It drives many aspects of a Chapter 11 case, from petition to plan confirmation, in all circumstances. It may be obvious that the COVID-19 crisis has added a layer of complexity—and volatility—to bankruptcy valuation issues with respect to valuing assets, liabilities, and claims, both in and outside the Chapter 11 context.  But the crisis may also change the way that courts look at valuation determinations in Chapter 11—both value itself, and the way that value is measured, may be transformed by the COVID-19 crisis.  While the full extent of the pandemic’s effect on valuation issues in bankruptcy has yet to be seen, one certainty is that debtors and creditors with a nuanced and flexible approach to these issues will fare better than those who rigidly hold on to pre-crisis precedent.

The full article is available here.

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