The Case for Bankruptcy Court Discretion to Shift Attorney’s Fees

By Daniel J. Bussel (Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law)

Daniel J. Bussel

Neither the “American Rule” (each party pays its own attorney) nor the “English Rule” (loser pays both parties’ attorneys) is the baseline principle in insolvency cases.  Most major parties do not bear their own attorney’s fees, win or lose.  Fee-shifting is pervasive; the bankruptcy court is directly involved in reviewing the fees; sometimes it’s almost impossible to figure who actually foots the bills.  This is true in US courts, which still generally purport to follow the “American Rule,” and courts in the UK, which generally purport to follow the “English Rule.”  In both countries, theory notwithstanding, equitable principles, born in England’s ancient chancery courts, permit discretionary fee-shifting in light of the collective nature of insolvency proceedings.

Unfortunately, some US courts, including the Supreme Court, disregarding this history and practice, anomalously cling to the American Rule, creating perverse incentives that disrupt the efficient functioning of the reorganization process.  Two leading examples are the Supreme Court’s decisions in Baker & Botts and Midland Funding, both critiqued in my paper, Fee-Shifting in Bankruptcy.  In Baker & Botts, the American Rule denies full compensation to the prevailing debtor’s attorney from any source, disincentivizing the pursuit of meritorious estate claims.  In Midland Funding, the American Rule rewards strategic manipulation by the holder of meritless claims, disincentivizing clearly valid objections.         

Abandoning the American Rule and authorizing a discretionary version of the English Rule as the default rule in bankruptcy for recovery of attorney’s fees is no radical step.  Empirical work is limited, but supports the conclusion that shifting from the American Rule to a discretionary version of the English Rule will have only a modest impact. In bankruptcy cases, an enormous amount of explicit and implicit fee shifting already occurs.  The bankruptcy courts have a well-developed set of procedures for regulating and allowing reasonable attorney’s fees.  They are well-positioned to exercise discretion in awarding attorney’s fees to control bullying and holdout tactics calculated to confer leverage by pressing weak claims and imposing costs on others.  

Several factors can appropriately guide court discretion to award fees in insolvency cases, including: 

  1. Whether the prevailing party or its adversary has a right to recover fees in nonbankruptcy litigation over the same issues. 
  2. Whether the bankruptcy code expressly contemplates recovery of fees as a component of damages. 
  3. The amount of fees and whether the stakes justify them. 
  4. The strength of the prevailing party’s merits case.
  5. Whether the nonprevailing party played the part of bully, holdout, or squeaky wheel. 
  6. Whether a systemic asymmetry exists between the parties allowing one party to implicitly shift fees whether it prevails or not and regardless of the court’s fee award. 
  7. Whether the prevailing party’s success in litigation will economically benefit others similarly situated or creditors generally. 
  8. Whether a fee award will advance the public interest in equitable administration of bankruptcy cases. 
  9. The extent to which a given fee award may be so onerous to the non-prevailing party that it would unreasonably deter access to the courts.
  10. Vexatious and unreasonable conduct by either (or both) of the litigants. 
  11. The extent to which the prevailing party incurred fees for considerations apart from the case at bar because of its status as a repeat player. 
  12. The extent to which the party seeking recovery of fees practically prevailed in the litigation.
  13. Whether the prevailing party is a natural person, a minor private party, a major party, the bankruptcy estate, or a governmental entity.
  14. Whether the non-prevailing party is a natural person, a minor private party, a major party, the bankruptcy estate, or a governmental entity.
  15. Assessing the practical economic incidence of fees initially borne by the estate.

The UK, starting from the English Rule, has created a discretionary fee-shifting regime in insolvency cases resembling the discretionary approach advocated here.  The English cases exhibit a continuing push-pull among (i) the desire to socialize costs of reorganizations that benefit third parties; (ii) concern about unduly discouraging participation by all affected constituents; and (iii) the problems posed by hold-outs, bullies and excessive litigiousness. See Matter of Virgin Active Holdings Ltd (Snowden, J.).  The realities of insolvency practice are impelling both the English and American systems towards court-supervised discretionary fee-shifting.

The damage done by the American Rule is limited by how pervasive fee-shifting already is in bankruptcy.  Fully embracing discretionary fee-shifting in favor of prevailing parties, however, is low-hanging fruit we can promptly gather in to facilitate sound administration of insolvent estates.

The full paper is available here.

COVID-19 Debt and Bankruptcy Infrastructure

By Robert K. Rasmussen (USC Gould School of Law)

Robert Rasmussen

The COVID pandemic put unprecedented pressure on all economies around the world. Many predicted that this economic dislocation would lead to an unprecedented number of corporate bankruptcies. This did not happen. The American government and other governments responded with extraordinary measures. While these measures allowed companies to ride out the worst of the pandemic, they did have consequences. Many large companies were left with unprecedentedly large amounts of debt on their balance sheets.

 Perhaps a robust economy will allow companies to grow their way out from under their debt burden. But perhaps not. To prepare for the possible future increase in large companies filing for bankruptcy, Congress should act now to build up a bankruptcy infrastructure sufficient to handle an influx in cases. Specifically, Congress should require that every circuit create a “business bankruptcy panel” designed to administer the Chapter 11 filing of large companies. As is well-known, three bankruptcy districts currently serve as dominant venues for large cases – the District of Delaware, the Southern District of New York and the Southern District of Texas. It is by no means clear that these three courts could handle a significant increase in caseloads. Creating expertise across the country would help prepare the system for any future rise in cases. A secondary benefit of this reform is that it may also ameliorate some of the concerns that have been raised over the years by the dominance of a small number of venues for large corporate cases.

The full article is available here.

“Confessions” of a Forum Shopper – A Debtor’s View of Venue Choice

posted in: Bankruptcy, Bankruptcy Reform | 0

By Andrew Dietderich (Sullivan & Cromwell LLP)

Andrew Dietderich

Corporate debtors can decide if, when and how to file for chapter 11. Recently, there is a great deal of concern about their ability to decide where. In a series of two articles for the ABI Journal, I explain as debtor’s counsel the practice of responsible forum shopping and argues that it is, on balance, a social good.

 Motivated by recently introduced legislation that would force domestic debtors to file chapter 11 only in the jurisdiction of their headquarters, Part I warns that mandating a single venue for a corporate debtor will impede legitimate restructurings and hurt companies and workers. There are important reasons why a distressed domestic corporation may need to file away from its headquarters: examples from my own experience include the need to preserve critical corporate contractual assets and to protect rank-and-file employee severance.  

 Since U.S. bankruptcy law necessarily varies from place to place around the country, someone has to decide what particular version of bankruptcy law should apply to each case given its unique factual context and reorganization purpose.  As with many other chapter 11 decisions, the board of directors of the debtor is the least worst alternative.   

Of course, there are some legitimate concerns with the current system of modified venue choice.  But the venue reform legislation proposed in Congress is too blunt of an instrument.  It is uninformed by experience in the trenches reorganizing distressed business and, if passed, would hurt some of the people it aims to help. Part I appears in the September issue of the ABI Journal, available here.

Part II of the series addresses international forum shopping—specifically the use of chapter 11 by non-U.S. debtors with minimal U.S. contracts—appears in the October issue of the ABI Journal.

The Evolution of Corporate Rescue in Canada and the United States

By Jassmine Girgis (University of Calgary, Faculty of Law)

Jassmine Girgis

This chapter explores the evolution of corporate rescue in both Canada and the U.S. The timing and specific circumstances surrounding the legislation’s enactment were different in each country, but the underlying concepts and goals within the broader context of bankruptcy legislation were the same. Both countries had experienced the profound effects of business failure on directly impacted stakeholders, as well as on surrounding communities, and they recognized that saving companies would protect investments, preserve jobs, maintain the supplier and customer base, and prevent the wider impact of bankruptcy on society. To that end, both countries devised proceedings to restructure and rehabilitate financially distressed companies, allowing them to re-emerge with new debt or equity structures and continue operating as going concerns.

Historically, traditional restructurings – that is, proceedings in which the debtor company engages in lengthy negotiations with its creditors to restructure its debt obligations and business operations, all under the supervision of the court – were used extensively, dissolving unsuccessful companies while allowing others to emerge and continue operating. But these proceedings were slow, expensive, and cumbersome, and as changes in technology, firm assets, the economy and financial instruments modified the ways companies operated, and globalization altered their business methods and interactions with the community, a different process emerged. Rather than rescuing companies, this new process liquidated or merged them with other companies, and though traditional restructurings continued to occur, they have largely given way to sales or liquidations. Importantly, these emerging liquidation proceedings did not occur under bankruptcy or receivership regimes, but under the statutes that governed restructurings. They also occurred without meaningful consideration as to how this shift affects the public interest goals of the legislation.

The first part of this chapter discusses what happened: the history of these statutes, the reasons traditional restructurings emerged, and the eventual move to liquidations. The second part explores the three broad reasons liquidation plans replaced restructuring. First, an increase in secured debt left secured creditors in control of the financially distressed debtor corporations, and secured creditors typically prefer liquidation over restructuring. Second, the decline in the manufacturing and industrial era and growth of a service-oriented economy impacted firm assets; assets became less firm-specific and more fungible. Finally, increasingly complex financial instruments altered the composition of creditors; creditors at the table now include hedge funds and other non-traditional lenders, and they may be motivated by factors beyond saving the distressed company or maximizing its asset value.

The third part of this chapter addresses the consequences of using rescue legislation to liquidate companies. First, the governing legislation was not meant to be used in this way, and stakeholders in these expedited sales do not have the benefit of the procedural and substantive safeguards that arise in restructuring proceedings. Second, it is arguable that these liquidation proceedings do not fulfil the public policy goals of restructuring legislation. Finally, embedded within public policy is the concept of value-maximization, but what ‘value’ means and how it can be maximized, is not static, and may have different connotations under traditional restructurings than under liquidations.

The last part considers the most feasible way forward for each country: where does corporate rescue go from here? This section examines whether the bankruptcy forum should be abandoned in favour of non-bankruptcy legislation or private contracts, or whether the answer lies in improving the current legislative schemes. Although many do not want to see restructuring legislation overhauled, they do recognize that this legislation was enacted under different circumstances, in a different market, when corporations looked vastly different than they do today, and that to remain relevant, it must come to reflect today’s society and corporations. Doing so requires reconceptualizing how liquidation fits into the public policy goals of the statute and reassessing the concept of value to determine what it should encompass. 

The full chapter is available here.

Mass Exploitation

By Samir D. Parikh (Lewis & Clark Law School; Fulbright Schuman Scholar; Bloomberg Law; Fulbright Commission)

Samir D. Parikh

Modern mass tort defendants – including Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma, USA Gymnastics, and Boy Scouts of America – have developed unprecedented techniques for resolving mass tort cases; innovation coupled with exploitation. Three weapons in this new arsenal are particularly noteworthy. Before a filing, divisive mergers allow corporate defendants to access bankruptcy on their terms. Once in bankruptcy, these mass restructuring debtors curate advantageous provisions in the Bankruptcy Code to craft their own ad hoc resolution mechanism implemented through plans of reorganization. This maneuver facilitates various questionable outcomes, including the third-party releases the Sackler family recently secured. Finally, in order to minimize its financial contribution to a victims’ settlement trust, a mass restructuring debtor can agree to convert its tainted business into a public benefit company after bankruptcy and devote future profits – no matter how speculative they may be – to victims.

The net effect of these legal innovations is difficult to assess because the intricacies are not fully understood. Debtors argue that these resolution devices provide accelerated and amplified distributions. And forum shopping has landed cases before accommodating jurists willing to tolerate unorthodoxy. The fear, however, is that mass tort victims are being exploited. The aggregation of these maneuvers may allow culpable parties to sequester funds outside of the bankruptcy court’s purview and then rely on statutory loopholes to suppress victim recoveries.  Mass restructuring debtors are also pursuing victim balkanization – an attempt to pit current victims against future victims in order to facilitate settlements that may actually create disparate treatment across victim classes.

This Essay is the first to identify and assess the new shadowed practices in mass restructuring cases, providing perspective on interdisciplinary dynamics that have eluded academics and policymakers. This is one of the most controversial legal issues in the country today, but there is scant scholarship exploring improvement of the flawed machinery. This Essay seeks to create a dialogue to explore whether a legislative or statutory response is necessary and what shape such a response could take.

The full article will be available at 170 U. Pa. L. Rev. Online ___ (forthcoming 2021) and can be accessed here.

The Time Has Come for Disaggregated Sovereign Bankruptcy

By Odette Lienau (Professor, Cornell Law School)

Odette Lienau

The ongoing economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has generated important proposals for addressing countries’ financial distress in the short to medium term. However, it has also made even more apparent the existing gaps in the global financial architecture writ large and highlighted the extent to which key actors pay closest attention to this infrastructure in situations of crisis. By then, of course, it is already too late.

This essay argues that the international community should use the energy generated in the current context to move toward ‘disaggregated sovereign bankruptcy’—which can be understood as a framework by which multiple processes at varying levels simultaneously support or instantiate a shared set of sovereign debt resolution principles and commitments. Such an approach moves beyond overly simplistic and binary framings of market-based versus statutory options, and instead conceives of improvements in the contractual realm, in the multilateral arena, and at the level of domestic legislation as complementary rather than competitive. The essay also clarifies that the explicit embrace of a more disaggregated framework for implementing debt resolution principles need not be disorganized. It argues in favor of establishing an international body purpose-built to recommend, coordinate, and facilitate steady, incremental progress in the architecture for dealing with sovereign debt across multiple vectors. Advocates of more rational debt restructuring should take steps now to adopt an infrastructure that would make future debt crises less severe and perhaps less likely—even when the spotlights are directed elsewhere.

The full article can be found here.

The Proceduralist Inversion – A Response to Skeel

By Edward J. Janger (Professor, Brooklyn Law School) and Adam J. Levitin (Professor, Georgetown University Law Center)

Edward J. Janger
Adam J. Levitin

In Distorted Choice in Corporate Bankruptcy, David Skeel offers a nuanced description of restructuring support agreements (RSAs) and how they can help a debtor to achieve the necessary consensus around a proposed Chapter 11 plan of reorganization. We take issue, however, with Skeel’s permissive view toward RSAs that permits provisions that would short circuit the “process” protections contained in Chapter 11. Such provisions include pre-disclosure lock-ups, milestones, and coercive deathtraps.

Chapter 11 contemplates bargaining in the shadow of certain basic statutory “distributional” entitlements: equal treatment, best interests, full cash payment of administrative expenses, and a guaranteed minimum-cramdown distribution. As such, RSAs can either reinforce the link between entitlement and distribution, or they can sever it.

In our view, Skeel insufficiently appreciates the purpose of process—how procedural protections such as classification, disclosure, and solicitation surrounding the vote forge the crucial link between bankruptcy bargaining and core principles of corporate governance and pre-bankruptcy entitlement. We offer, instead, an approach which sorts between process-enhancing RSAs and those that facilitate end-runs.

The article can be found here.

My Creditor’s Keeper: Escalation of Commitment and Custodial Fiduciary Duties in the Vicinity of Insolvency

By Amir Licht (Professor, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Israel)

Amir Licht

In several common law jurisdictions, creditors of corporate debtors enjoy legal protections through vicinity-of-insolvency fiduciary duties, beyond what their contracts with those companies afford them.  These duties form a notoriously murky area, where legal space warps.  The contours of this area are fuzzy.  Courts openly acknowledge that it is difficult to identify clear guideposts for its threshold—as to when exactly these duties are enlivened.  In a forthcoming article, I purport to make two main contributions.  First, the article expands the theoretical basis for a special legal regime in virtually insolvent firms by pointing out escalation of commitment as a potent and relevant factor that has been largely overlooked by insolvency scholars.  Second, this article addresses the substantive content of the duty to protect creditors where such duties are recognized.

The standard account that is usually invoked to explain and justify special fiduciary duties to consider creditors’ interest points to the danger of opportunistic high-risk behavior by managers on behalf of shareholders.  I argue that this account may be sound but is nonetheless lacking.  In addition to such risk-shifting opportunism, lawmakers should also be mindful of managers’ tendency to unjustifiably continue failing projects, known as escalation of commitment.  Escalation of commitment refers to a phenomenon, in which people tend to remain married to their original choices and to commit resources to them even when it is no longer rational to do so.  Escalation of commitment is ubiquitous.  It has been observed in organizations large and small, in business corporations and in the public sector.  Escalation of commitment is not only an irrational and emotional personal behavior.  More often than not, it takes place in a broader social context of one’s ingroup—in particular, the board of directors, the organization, and one’s community and culture.

Escalation of commitment poses an equal, if not greater, challenge than risk shifting does to optimal regulation of companies in looming or virtual insolvency.  Being largely detached from rational calculations, escalation of commitment presents a more compelling justification for legal regulation, and a more interventionist one at that.  In this view, managers—especially owner-managers—of virtually insolvent firms may not enjoy the usual level of deference that the law affords to their business judgment in regular times, as their discretion at that point is prone to be clouded by a misplaced motivation to stay the course, weather the storm, and similarly-spirited no-quitting notions.  

Factors that could facilitate de-escalation include better information on costs and benefits of the project, regular evaluation and monitoring of projects, clear criteria for success and minimum target performance levels, and clear feedback about underperforming projects.  Such measures will have limited efficacy, however, if the information they generate is interpreted and acted on by decision-makers who have initiated the failing project and even by different persons who are nonetheless related to those decision-makers.  Change in management is thus essential.

While Delaware law rejects the idea of a pre-insolvency creditor-focused fiduciary duty, several jurisdictions do recognize duties to protect creditors, either as a duty to consider creditors’ interests or as the rule against wrongful (or insolvent, or reckless) trading.  I argue that these duties should be enlivened at the very edge of the zone of insolvency, close to the latter.  At that point, the mission of directors should transform from entrepreneurial to custodial.  That is, they should implement strategies that aim to preserve the firm—in working condition, to the extent possible, with a view to resuming regular business—but avoid seeking new projects with a view to maximizing profits.  This could mean that the shield of the business judgment rule may not be available to the same extent as in regular circumstances.  The Covid-19 pandemic that swept the globe in 2020 provides a fresh context for this approach and underscores the need to implement such a regime sensibly, with high deference to business decisions even if outside the scope of the business judgment rule.  The article concludes with a comparative analysis of creditor-oriented duties in several common law jurisdictions and examines how they could implement a custodial approach.

Bankruptcy & Bailouts; Subsidies & Stimulus: The Government Toolset for Responding to Market Distress

By Anthony J. Casey (The University of Chicago Law School)

Anthony J. Casey

In the spring of 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic shut down economies around the world, pressure arose for governments to respond to the growing threat of pandemic-related market distress. In the United States, the initial proposals for government action varied in nature and focus. Some proposals targeted the financial system while others targeted small businesses and individuals. Others were intended to bail out large businesses and specific industries. Still other proposals took a more institutional focus. In the context of bankruptcy law, many imagined building up the bankruptcy system as a primary bulwark against a seemingly imminent wave of economic and financial distress.

With the exception of measures related to financial markets, the actual responses formed a chaotic mix of disconnected half-measures that neither stabilized the economy nor provided meaningful relief to those most affected. While that failure may be attributed in part to general government dysfunction and legislative gridlock, a large part of the problem arises from the lack of a clearly identified framework to guide government responses.

The main lesson here is that the appropriateness of tools deployed to alleviate a crisis depends on the nature of the specific problem at hand, and scattershot approaches are unlikely to work. As obvious as that principle may seem, it was largely ignored in 2020. Much of the confusion in the pandemic responses is attributable to using the wrong tools and implementing measures that lacked any clear purpose.

In particular, governments and commentators lost sight of two important distinctions in deciding how to act. The first is the distinction between tools appropriate for addressing economic distress and those appropriate for addressing financial distress. The second is the distinction between a systemic crisis where distress is spreading and an instance of firm-specific distress where the harm—though perhaps large—is contained.

These distinctions present four types of market distress: specific economic, systemic economic, specific financial, and systemic financial. Each type is distinct from the others, and for each there is a category of appropriate government responses (respectively): direct subsidies, general stimulus, bankruptcy proceedings, and financial bailouts. We thus have this matrix:

Systemic Specific
Economic General Stimulus Direct Subsidies
Financial Financial Bailouts Bankruptcy Proceedings

(Chapter 11)

 

The importance of understanding these classifications is most evident in the flawed proposals for pandemic-related fixes to bankruptcy law and in the lack of a centralized economic plan to support failing small businesses around the country.

In a new article, I lay out this framework for identifying the right tools for responding to different forms of market distress.  I describe the relationship between the category of tools and the type of distress. Having presented the framework, I then use it to closely examine the interaction between pandemic responses and bankruptcy law. This analysis is particularly important because efforts to understand the bankruptcy system’s role during the pandemic provide the starkest example of confused analysis of appropriate responses to systemic crises, and because a striking decline in bankruptcy filings in 2020 has puzzled many commentators.

Singapore Schemes of Arrangement: Empirical and Comparative Analysis

By Wai Yee Wan (City University of Hong Kong), Casey Watters (Bond University), and Gerard McCormack (University of Leeds)

Wai Yee Wan
Casey Watters
Gerard McCormack

The scheme of arrangement, brought to Singapore through a transplantation of English law, provides one of the most flexible debt restructuring tools for companies. In 2017, Singapore enacted substantial reforms to its insolvency laws, transplanting elements of US Chapter 11, including a moratorium, rescue financing, and cross-class cramdown, into the flexible Singapore restructuring regime. Our paper (published recently in the American Bankruptcy Law Journal) addresses the effectiveness of English-modelled schemes as debt-restructuring tools in Singapore, both pre-2017 reforms and as a hybrid with elements of Chapter 11.

The English scheme of arrangement has been spoken of as a model for ‘early stage’ restructuring procedures. Although the scheme functions as Singapore’s de facto debtor-in-possession restructuring regime, it does not have any bankruptcy or insolvency stigma since it is a procedure based on company law rather than insolvency law. It is activated by the filing of documents with the court and an application to the court to convene meetings of relevant creditors to approve the scheme. The meeting of creditors under schemes is substantially similar to those conducted in Chapter 11 cases under § 341 of the US Bankruptcy code. Creditors whose rights are altered by the scheme are grouped into classes with creditors holding similar legal rights.

This is the first empirical study to date that comprehensively examines schemes of arrangement, including non-reported schemes, over a period. To this end, it employs a mixture of quantitative and qualitative data. To assess the schemes framework in Singapore, we conducted a study of schemes in three parts based on data availability. First, we examine the filings in court-sanctioned schemes of arrangement for the period 1996–2004 (with reported judgments). This period covers the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and includes private and publicly traded companies. Second, similarly, we examine the filings for schemes of arrangement with reported judgments for the period 2006–2015. This period covers the global financial crisis of 2008. We extended the database by including filings in court-sanctioned schemes of arrangement for SGX-listed companies, including non-reported judgments. Third, we examined the filings in court-sanctioned schemes between January 1, 2016 and May 22, 2019. May 22, 2019 was selected as it is the second anniversary from the date that the 2017 reforms came into force. We are able to have a wider sample size because cases during the latter period were tracked by the Supreme Court Registry. On examining the filings, we coded a number of variables related to the schemes of arrangement, including financial information related to the companies, class composition and outcomes of the schemes. Such data were manually collected and coded from all the filings, which were provided by the Singapore Supreme Court.

From our analysis of the data, we identified multiple characteristics of successful schemes, the most significant of which are controlling shareholder support and availability of new financing, often provided by the controlling shareholder. When present, disputes have centred on insufficient disclosure, with informational asymmetry a substantial concern identified in the study. Liquidation values were often missing and, when present, lacked a detailed bases for the stated values.

The results of the empirical study demonstrate the effectiveness of schemes as a debt restructuring tool for large insolvent companies. The scheme reforms, along with other insolvency reforms in Singapore, including adoption of the UNCITRAL Model Law on Cross-Border Insolvency, recent common law developments, and removing a ring-fencing provision that protected domestic creditors at the expense of foreign creditors, provide additional tools and lower barriers to restructuring in Singapore. The flexibility of schemes coupled with Chapter 11 tools make schemes an attractive debt restructuring option for many insolvent companies.

The full article is available here.

For related Roundtable posts, see Gerard McCormack and Wai Yee Wan, Transplanting Chapter 11 of the US Bankruptcy Code into Singapore’s Restructuring and Insolvency Laws. 

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