[Texas Two-Step and the Future of Mass Tort Bankruptcy Series] A Qualified Defense of Divisional Mergers

By Anthony Casey and Joshua Macey (University of Chicago Law School)

Note: This is the fourth 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), and here (by Jared A. Ellias).

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Anthony Casey
Joshua Macey

One of the most important contexts in which Chapter 11 proceedings can facilitate the preservation of value is the resolution of financial distress related to mass tort claims. Over the last forty years, Chapter 11 has been invoked to facilitate settlement in dozens of large mass tort cases. Without Chapter 11, these value-preserving settlements would have never been possible.

Mass tort cases involve complex claims of multiple—often tens of thousands of—claimants looking to recover value from a business enterprise. The core provisions of Chapter 11, which are designed to coordinate behavior among claimants, address precisely these types of multilateral-claims situations. These provisions allow the quick, efficient, and fair resolution of claims and preserve value for the claimants and the other stakeholders of the business.

Providing a mechanism for the resolution of these mass tort cases is a quintessential function of bankruptcy law. Without bankruptcy resolution, the uncertainty of future liability in mass tort cases can prevent a debtor from productively carrying on its business and undertaking projects or asset sales that could create value and facilitate a cooperative resolution.

How do divisional mergers fit with this purpose? A divisional merger is a state-law transaction where a business entity divides itself into two new entities. It is attractive in some cases because it is simple and requires fewer steps than other methods for creating entity partitions. But the substantive outcome is no different. Any laws penalizing and prohibiting divisional mergers would therefore have little substantive effect. Rather they would simply channel transactions from one form of entity partitioning to another.

The important question, therefore, is whether a divisional merger—or any other form of entity creation—is being used to facilitate a socially valuable outcome consistent with the purpose of Chapter 11. When used appropriately, a divisional merger preceding a bankruptcy filing can facilitate a socially valuable resolution of mass tort claims, isolating (but not limiting) the mass tort liability for resolution independent of the other operations of the business.

To see why this is true, consider a large otherwise solvent business enterprise facing tens of thousands of potential tort lawsuits. One option would be for the entire enterprise to enter bankruptcy. But there are major costs to an enterprise-wide proceeding. The tools of Chapter 11 are blunt. The automatic stay applies across all creditors even those unrelated to the mass torts. Similarly, the filing triggers all sorts of enterprise-wide rules and restrictions. All creditors—including those with no connection to the mass tort litigation—must file their claims and can demand to be involved in the proceedings and in plan confirmation. The enterprise-wide filing brings extra parties and extra claims into the process and creates opportunities for those parties to take strategic litigation positions that can delay or prevent resolution.

The divisional merger structure reduces these enterprise-related complications. In the right situation, this structure can simplify the process and focus the proceedings on the specific mass tort resolution that is necessary for the preservation of value.

The proper way to address divisional mergers, in our view, is not to prohibit them altogether, but rather to make sure that they do not leave tort victims worse off. The transaction should therefore provide a source of adequate funding to resolve the tort liabilities. Consistent with this principle, recent cases that have utilized the divisional merger structure prior to a Chapter 11 petition have provided funding agreements that ensure that claimants have access to the same or more value in pursuing their claims against the business.

The bankruptcy proceedings that follow the merger should also provide meaningful disclosure and discovery about the merger, the funding agreement, and the underlying tort claims to allow a fair valuation of liability and a reasonable estimate of the number of claimants. Fortunately, bankruptcy judges are willing and able to provide these procedural safeguards.

The alternative of prohibiting divisional mergers will likely leave claimants worse off. Drawn out proceedings transfer value from tort claimants to bankruptcy professionals. It might also lead to unfair outcomes where some tort claimants receive large recoveries and others receive nothing at all. In turn, potential claimants will race to the courthouse chasing early judgments that leave the firm without funds to pay later claimants.

The purpose of Chapter 11 is not to reduce liability, but rather to reduce complexity and cost. And a well-designed divisional merger promotes that purpose while providing a fair and efficient system for resolving group claims.

 

[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).

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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.

[Texas Two-Step and the Future of Mass Tort Bankruptcy Series] Vertical Forum Shopping in Bankruptcy

By Jonathan C. Lipson (Temple University-Beasley School of Law)

Note: This is the second 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.

The first post in this series can be found here.

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Jonathan C. Lipson

Forum shopping has long been an issue in chapter 11 reorganization, chiefly because liberal venue rules permit gamesmanship.  Section 1408 of the Judicial Code allows a corporate debtor to “bootstrap” into the bankruptcy court of any district where at least one entity in the group was formed.  If a forum is chosen “strategically,” Professors Lynn LoPucki and Bill Whitford first warned (in 1991), “the choice can have an important effect on the distribution of the losses emanating from a bankruptcy reorganization.”

They were describing what may be called “horizontal” forum shopping:  picking among the nation’s roughly 200 bankruptcy panels to find the one the debtor considers best for its situation.  Cases such as LTL Management and Purdue Pharma suggest there is another kind to think about, a variation on what proceduralists call “vertical” forum shopping.

Vertical forum shopping typically concerns competition between state and federal courts, and the rule of decision they apply (i.e., Erie v. Tompkins).  Bankruptcy has a similar state-federal dynamic, but also presents the potential for broader, and more problematic, competitions.

LTL involves the chapter 11 reorganization of Johnson & Johnson’s tort-feasing talc subsidiary.  The debtor had been formed shortly before bankruptcy in a controversial “divisive merger,” which many viewed as little more than a fancied-up fraudulent transfer.  Talc plaintiffs moved to dismiss the case on grounds that it was not commenced in good faith.

In a thorough and thoughtful opinion, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Michael Kaplan denied the motion because he believed the economic benefits of reorganization appeared to outweigh alternatives.  But, the motion to dismiss also raised “a far more significant issue: which judicial system—the state/federal court trial system,” or chapter 11 “serves best the interests of th[e] bankruptcy estate, comprised primarily of present and future tort claimants with serious financial and physical injuries.”

This question—which system?—is bankruptcy’s version of vertical forum shopping.

On one hand, Judge Kaplan is probably right about the economics:  chapter 11 is likely to pay more to more talc claimants than litigation in other courts.  Nonbankruptcy litigation might produce a few outsize winners—billion-dollar verdicts or multi-million-dollar settlements—but there may be little left for most judgment creditors to collect.

On the other hand, chapter 11’s distributive benefits can trade off against what we might call “dignitary” interests, including individual rights to a “day in court” and a jury trial.  Congress intended to preserve some dignitary protections in chapter 11 cases, including the right to a jury trial of contingent and unliquidated personal injury and wrongful death claims.  But the rise of channeling injunctions and nondebtor releases has undermined those protections.

In Purdue Pharma, for example, the debtor’s controversial plan would give personal injury creditors a bare right to a jury trial against the company, and cap recoveries at about $48,000—surely not enough to cover the cost of the trial.  Worse, it would eliminate the right entirely as to the Sackler family, which owned and controlled the company when it committed two sets of confessed drug crimes.  The viability of those releases is pending before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

Vertical forum shopping in chapter 11 can threaten not only the role of other courts, but also other branches of government.  Again, while LTL spotted the issue, Purdue crystallized it.

A supplemental injunction at the beginning of Purdue halted administrative and regulatory actions against Purdue and the Sacklers.  While this left the possibility of criminal prosecution, the U.S. Department of Justice negotiated deals with the Sacklers and Purdue that made it practically impossible for states to prosecute (and, of course, many preferred to settle with the Sacklers rather than fight, anyway).

Purdue Pharma and LTL are likely to be very different cases.  The bankruptcy judge and the debtors in Purdue resisted important efforts to vindicate dignitary concerns, such as a bellwether trial of allegations against the Sacklers or a fulsome examination of them.  Tragically, the lack of those efforts may have undercut the Sacklers’ proposed payout, leading the judge to declare himself “bitter.”

In LTL, by contrast, Judge Kaplan and the debtors have signaled a willingness to deploy these types of mechanisms, should the case remain in bankruptcy.

At this point, it is too early to know.  Angered by the brazen nature of the divisive merger, the talc plaintiffs have appealed to the Third Circuit.

I discuss dignitary issues implicated by vertical forum shopping in chapter 11 in a draft paper, The Problem of Social Debt, which I can share if you email me (jlipson [at] temple [dot] edu).

[Texas Two-Step and the Future of Mass Tort Bankruptcy Series] Introduction to LTL Management’s Bankruptcy

By Jin Lee and Amelia Ricketts (Harvard Law School)

Note: This is the first 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.

Jin Lee
Amelia Ricketts

Judge Kaplan’s recent decision not to dismiss the LTL Management (LTL)/Johnson & Johnson (J&J) bankruptcy has further stirred controversy about the hotly debated Texas Two-Step Maneuver, and put an end to speculation on how the bankruptcy court would rule on J&J’s Texas Two-Step bankruptcy filing.  (The decision has been appealed directly to the Third Circuit).

The court rejected tort claimants’ arguments that LTL’s filing violated the good faith requirement for Chapter 11 filings or warranted “for cause” dismissal under Section 1112.  Judge Kaplan held that the filing was an appropriate use of the Bankruptcy Code to maximize value available to creditors, commenting that the bankruptcy court would be the “optimal” venue to resolve tort claimants’ treatment.  The judge emphasized compliance with the terms of the Texas divisional merger statute as evidence of J&J’s good faith.  He also viewed the funding agreement among LTL, J&J, and J&J’s consumer division subsidiary as providing LTL with appropriate capitalization to meet the talc claimants’ needs.  As a result, Judge Kaplan concluded that the talc claimants’ interests would be best served by the bankruptcy process and denied their motion to dismiss.

The full post discussing the case is available here: Introduction to LTL Management’s Bankruptcy.

 

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.

Texas Two-Stepping Out of Bankruptcy

By Michael A. Francus (Harvard Law School)

Michael Francus

Johnson & Johnson’s use of the Texas Two-Step to manage its talc liabilities has put the company, and the Two-Step, front and center in the roiling debates over aggressive uses of the bankruptcy system. Those debates have led to scholarly criticism, congressional hearings, and proposed legislation that would curtail debtors’ ability to so use the bankruptcy courts.

My Essay details the mechanics of the Two-Step. Beginning with the Texas divisive merger, the funding agreement, and forum shopping for the Fourth Circuit, the Essay fleshes out precisely how the Two-Step boxes in tort claimants. Like other scholarship, this Essay identifies the risk that such maneuvering effects a fraudulent transfer. It also goes a step further, arguing that the point of the Two-Step is not to succeed, but to delay. Fraudulent-transfer litigation in a bankruptcy consumes time because it requires an adversary proceeding, and that delay pressures tort claimants to settle. So the Two-Step can succeed as long as claimants cannot wait out the course of the bankruptcy, even if a court never declares the particular Two-Step to be a proper use of divisive merger law rather than an improper fraudulent transfer.

Instead of playing into this delay game, this Essay argues, courts should evaluate the Texas Two-Step for good faith. Tort claimants can raise such challenges as a motion to dismiss (as some have) and thus avoid the need for a fraudulent-transfer adversary proceeding. And under current doctrine, the Two-Step likely qualifies as a bad-faith filing: In most cases, the Two-Step is a litigation tactic. And the Two-Step, invariably, is filed by an entity created solely to file for bankruptcy. Both of those are doctrinal hallmarks of bad-faith bankruptcies.

More broadly, the Essay explains, the Two-Step and good-faith challenges to it underscore the continuing role of common law in bankruptcy. The Code does not define good-faith filing, so courts have developed the doctrine case by case. They may yet find an acceptable form of Two-Step, one which yields tort claimants the rights they would receive in, say, a Johnson & Johnson bankruptcy, without hurting Johnson & Johnson’s ability to do business by forcing the whole company into bankruptcy. Along the way, though, a vigilant common-law gatekeeping is warranted, and judges should not hesitate to dismiss Two-Steps thinking that a later ruling on a fraudulent-transfer adversary proceeding can adequately safeguard tort claimants from an improper use of the bankruptcy system.

The full essay will be available at 121 Mich. L. Rev. Online __ (forthcoming 2022) and can be accessed here.

Mitigating Rejection of Midstream Agreements in Bankruptcy

By David H. Sweeney, Jason P. Rubin, and Laura P. Warrick (Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP), with Practical Law Oil & Gas

Producers of hydrocarbons generally require some level of gathering, processing, and other midstream services to monetize hydrocarbons. Midstream services are typically secured through contracts between the producers and the midstream providers. The fixed facilities that are required to perform those midstream services require significant investment by the midstream providers and have capacity constraints. To ensure producers’ performance and protect their investment, midstream providers often include in their contracts a dedication clause styled as a “covenant running with the land”. This clause purports to dedicate the land or reserves to the midstream infrastructure and is intended to bind third parties, including estates in bankruptcy, as an interest in real property. 

Decisions in recent Chapter 11 cases have challenged the notion that midstream services contracts containing purported covenants running with the land are not rejectable under section 365 of the Bankruptcy Code. The result is that a debtor may be able to reject a midstream contract containing a covenant running with the land, repudiate future performance of its duties, and a midstream service provider may find its claims reduced to a pre-petition unsecured claim for monetary damages. 

This article explores some recent case law regarding covenants running with the land in bankruptcy and offers practical suggestions for how producers and midstream providers might navigate the newly developing reality, including: 

  • Conducting diligence on midstream contracts to identify red flags and address potential issues before they become problems.
  • Addressing the shortcomings of covenants running with the land noted by bankruptcy courts.
  • Replacing covenants running with the land with a substitute, such as a presently possessory interest or a lien.

The full article is available here.

Are Judges Randomly Assigned to Chapter 11 Bankruptcies? Not According to Hedge Funds

By Niklas Hüther (Indiana University) and Kristoph Kleiner (Indiana University)

Niklas Hüther
Kristoph Kleiner

”The bankruptcy system is supposed to work for everyone, but in many cases it works only for the powerful.”  – House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, July 28th, 2021

Researchers have long recognized that judicial outcomes are subject to the biases of the ruling judge. To alleviate concerns of fairness, courts in both the U.S. and abroad claim to assign judges to individual court cases randomly. From a policy perspective, randomization promotes public confidence in the judicial process by limiting forum shopping and the individual influence of any individual judge. From an academic perspective, recent empirical research in economics and finance exploits the random assignment of judges to causally identify of a wide range of legal outcomes.

This paper revisits the claim of randomized judicial assignment in the context of U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Our research is motivated by legal scholarship arguing that debtors in recent cases are influencing judicial assignments (Levitin, 2021), as well as renewed interest in these issues from policy makers and the public (Merle and Bernstein, 2019; Randles 2020). Despite these arguments, there are reasons to believe assignment is random. For instance, after contacting all U.S. Bankruptcy Courts, Iverson et al. (2017) found that only one court (the Eastern District of Wisconsin) reports assigning cases to judges non-randomly. In addition, a range of research including Bernstein et al. (2019) provides convincing evidence that debtor characteristics fail to predict judicial assignments. Missing from this literature is any large-scale empirical evidence of non-random assignment.

Analyzing U.S. corporate bankruptcy filings between 2010 and 2020, we provide new evidence that assignment is not random, but predicted by the lending decisions of hedge funds. By focusing on investments made before the assignment of a bankruptcy judge, our technique is not suspect to standard critiques that predictability is merely an outcome of ex-post data mining; instead, in order for investors to systemically invest in firms that are later assigned a preferred judge, it must be possible to infer future judicial assignments. In addition, we focus on hedge funds, as they routinely influence a wide range of bankruptcy outcomes including emergence and debt restructurings.  The prevalence of these investors allows us to explore a new channel of activism in the distress debt market: activist influence in judicial assignment process prior to filing.

In our setting, judges can decide whether to convert a Chapter 11 bankruptcy to a Chapter 7 liquidation; while secured creditors may have a preference for liquidation, unsecured creditors recover more under reorganization.  Exploiting this distinction, we confirm unsecured hedge fund creditors (relative to secured hedge funds) are significantly less likely to be assigned a judge with a tendency to convert Chapter 11 cases.  We also extend our analysis to an alternate bankruptcy outcome measure: the unsecured creditor recovery rate according to the confirmed plan. We find unsecured hedge funds are far more likely to be assigned a judge with a high past unsecured recovery rate.

We next test whether these estimates differ across the filings in our sample. First, we find that unsecured hedge fund claimants are assigned a preferable judge more commonly when the hedge fund invested shortly before the bankruptcy filing, suggesting hedge funds choose to invest explicitly to influence the filing. Second, we show the effects are greatest when the hedge fund is on the board of directors of the debtor at the time of filing, providing further support for the role of communication between debtor and creditor.

Finally, we conduct three robustness tests. First, we find no evidence that a judge’s future conversion rate (after controlling for the past conversion rate) is predicted by hedge fund investment, suggesting hedge funds are explicitly influencing judicial assignment based on information regarding past information. Second, focusing on the subset of districts that explicitly state random assignment within their district, we continue to find hedge fund investments predict assignment. Third, we include district-office-year fixed effects in our analysis and continue to find a relationship between hedge fund investments and assignment.

Moving forward, we believe there are two potential policies that can alleviate these issues. The first, and simplest, is for policy makers to develop a truly randomized process. Alternatively, policy makers can instead increase the number of bankruptcy judges, leading to lower predictability even if assignment is not fully randomized. Policy makers intent on a fairer judicial system should consider both proposals.

The full article is available here.

This piece previously appeared on the Oxford Business Law Blog.

The Importance of Being Bound: Bondholders’ Vote and Workouts in the U.S. and in Italy

By Francesca Prenestini (Bocconi University, Milan)

Francesca Prenestini

Most legal systems follow one of two rules for regulating the capacity of an issuer to renegotiate the terms of the bond loan to avoid insolvency or to accommodate changing capital needs. The first rule requires the individual consent of every bondholder while the second one permits the proposed agreement to be approved upon a majority decision which also binds dissenting bondholders.

This article analyzes the desirability of adopting a regulatory approach that allows a binding vote of bondholders on amendments of the core terms of the loan and other restructuring measures, including the conversion of bonds into shares. In doing so, this article examines the drawbacks of the prohibitive approach, which requires consent from all bondholders, with particular regard to the judicial cases and business practices of two major legal systems (the U.S. and Italy).

In the U.S., the Marblegate and Caesars cases have reignited the debate on out-of-bankruptcy restructurings of bond issues. In 2015, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York reaffirmed that coercive exit consent transactions which force bondholders into questionable restructurings are prohibited by § 316(b) of the Trust Indenture Act of 1939 (“TIA”). Then, in January 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeal for the Second Circuit adopted a narrower interpretation, holding that § 316(b) only prohibits formal non-consensual modifications of an indenture’s core payment terms.
The district court’s interpretation, though broad, is more coherent with the text, the legislative history, and the purpose of the TIA. Section 316(b) provides that the individual right of each bondholder to receive payment of the principal of and interest on their indenture security on the due dates cannot (with a few minor exceptions) be impaired without the bondholder’s consent. This section was enacted to protect bondholders from insider abuses by giving individual bondholders the power to veto proposed amendments in an out-of-court restructuring. However, this individual veto power often precludes even fair renegotiation agreements between the issuer and the bondholders.

Under Italian law, the meeting of bondholders may approve “amendments of the terms of the loan” by majority vote. Nevertheless, in the light of quite restrictive interpretations of such a rule, those modifications may not change the structural characteristics of the bond loan.

This article suggests that governments should adopt rules that allow a majority bondholders’ vote to accept out-of-bankruptcy restructurings of bond issues. Currently two different solutions may be implemented in the U.S. and Italy: in the U.S., until § 316(b) can be reformed, the Securities and Exchange Commission could exercise its power to grant exemptions to authorize transactions and agreements otherwise banned; and in Italy, in the absence of a statutory prohibition, the contract governing the loan could include a provision allowing the meeting of bondholders to vote upon amendments of the core terms of the loan and other restructuring measures, such as the conversion of bonds into shares.

This article first examines the two different approaches to bond loans restructuring in various legal systems and in the context of sovereign debt, and considers why allowing a binding vote of the bondholders in workouts is so important given the rationales for and against this rule. Then it focuses on the U.S. legal system, and discusses the statutory provision that bans the majority rule, how the jurisprudence and business practices have evolved, and recent proposals for reform. The article also considers the Italian system, its rules and business practices, and how to overcome its limits. In the end, this article suggests an alternative rule and proposes interim solutions to the problem while awaiting statutory reform.

The full article is available here.

For previous Roundtable posts on § 316(b) of the TIA and Marblegate, see William W. Bratton, The New Bond Workouts; Out-of-Court Restructurings After Marblegate: Trust Indenture Act Section 316(b) and Beyond; Benjamin Liu, Exit Consents in Debt Restructurings; Second Circuit Rules on § 316(b) in Marblegate; Mark Roe, The Trust Indenture Act of 1939 in Congress and the Courts in 2016: Bringing the SEC to the Table; National Bankruptcy Conference Proposed Amendments to Bankruptcy Code to Facilitate Restructuring of Bond and Credit Agreement Debt; David A. Brittenham, Matthew E. Kaplan, M. Natasha Labovitz, Peter J. Loughran, Jeffrey E. Ross, and My Chi To, 28 Law Firms Publish White Paper Addressing Trust Indenture Act Complications In Debt Restructurings; Carlos Berdejó, Revisiting the Voting Prohibition in Bond Workouts (providing evidence related to argument made in Mark Roe, The Voting Prohibition in Bond Workouts, 97 Yale L.J. 232 (1987)).

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