Courts As Institutional Reformers: Bankruptcy and Public Law Litigation

Kathleen G. Noonan (University of Pennsylvania), Jonathan C. Lipson (Temple University—Beasley School of Law), and William H. Simon (Columbia Law School)

Wags sometimes ask: What is chapter 11 good for?

In a new paper, we show that, among other things, it provides a template that both legitimates and explicates Public Law Litigation (PLL), civil class action suits against public agencies such as police departments and prison systems. These are among the most controversial disputes that courts face; often criticized, and widely misunderstood. Analogies to chapter 11 practice show how critics err, and how PLL works.

We make three basic points. First, we show that both bankruptcy and PLL, which share roots in the federal equity receivership, are judicial responses to collective action problems that other institutional mechanisms (e.g., markets or electoral politics) cannot or will not address.

Second, we show that courts in neither context “run” the organizations in question. In both types of case, management (of the debtor or agency) remains in possession and control, subject to judicial and stakeholder (e.g., creditor or plaintiff) oversight.

Third, chapter 11 and PLL both operate at the organizational level, through “restructuring.” For chapter 11, this will usually involve a plan of reorganization. The PLL analogue is a settlement agreement in a consent decree. Like plans, consent decrees typically reflect negotiated improvements in operations designed to increase the agency’s chances of success.

Critics of PLL sometimes claim that courts commandeer public instrumentalities, exceeding their expertise and authority. But this is no truer in PLL than it is in chapter 11 reorganization. Rather, judges in both spheres facilitate consensual resolutions that seek to balance stakeholder participation against managerial discretion.

This matters because the Trump Administration has vowed to “deconstruct the administrative state,” which implies a reduction in the amount and quality of public services. Increased PLL would be a plausible response.

If that happens, courts should focus not on whether they can supervise the restructuring of public agencies, but how to do so more effectively. We show that the chapter 11 system can provide helpful guidance.

The full article is available here.

The Pari Passu Fallacy – Requiescat in Pace

Lee C. Buchheit (Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP)

The pari passu fallacy, first uncloaked in 2000, posits that when a sovereign borrower promises to maintain the equal ranking of a debt with the borrower’s other senior indebtedness, it thereby implicitly promises to pay all of those debts on a ratable basis.  In its 18-year life span, the fallacy has caused considerable mischief in the sovereign debt market.  It even prompted a wholesale change in the drafting of the pari passu clause in sovereign bonds expressly to disavow the ratable payment interpretation of the provision.  Recent decisions of the US federal courts in New York have clarified the circumstances in which a sovereign borrower will be held to breach, and just as importantly when it will be held not to breach, a contractual pari passu undertaking.  These cases confirm that a sovereign borrower will not breach a pari passu covenant merely by paying one creditor while not paying another, equally ranking, lender.

The full paper can be found here.

The Year in Bankruptcy: 2017

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

In their annual chronicle of business bankruptcy, financial, economic, and related developments in the U.S., Charles M. Oellermann and Mark G. Douglas of Jones Day review the most significant events of 2017, including business bankruptcy filing statistics and industry trends; newsworthy developments regarding sovereign and commonwealth debt; the top 10 public-company bankruptcies of the year; notable private and cross-border bankruptcy cases; significant business bankruptcy and U.S. Supreme Court bankruptcy rulings; bankruptcy-related legislative and regulatory developments; noteworthy chapter 11 plan confirmations and exits from bankruptcy; and more.

The article is available here.

Secured Transactions and Financial Stability: Regulatory Challenges

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

Secured transactions traditionally are regulated to protect transacting parties and to increase transactional efficiency. This essay argues they should also be regulated to protect the stability of the financial system. This raises numerous challenges.

In our increasingly complex financial system, for example, regulation to control moral hazard in the originate-to-distribute model of secured loan origination faces the challenge that the relevant market failure is less likely to be asymmetric information than mutual misinformation—neither the originator (i.e., seller) of the loans nor the buyer may fully understand the risks. Non-traditional secured transactions, including securitization and other forms of structured finance, exacerbate the challenges of complexity and the limits of disclosure.

The regulation of collateralization levels and interconnectedness faces fundamentally different challenges than those underlying the (technically) analogous post-Depression regulation of “margin” lending to acquire publicly traded stock. The Fed’s Regulation U then required that stock pledged as collateral be worth at least twice the loan amount. Requiring overcollateralization of home-mortgage lending, however, could be highly regressive.

The potential for the widening gap between the rich and the poor to undermine stability also raises the challenge of whether to recognize de facto rights, in order to enable the poor to use their homes as collateral to raise capital. This challenge is itself partly informed by the Uniform Commercial Code’s innovative disentanglement of commercial and property law, which articulates the former to reflect commercial realities rather than the arbitrary shifting of rights based on property. Innovating secured transactions law to recognize those de facto rights could help to unlock a worldwide entrepreneurial potential.

The full paper can be found here.

Debt Priority Structure, Market Discipline and Bank Conduct

By Piotr Danisewicz (University of Bristol), Danny McGowan (University of Nottingham), Enrico Onali (Aston University; University of Wales System – Bangor University), and Klaus Schaeck (University of Bristol).

This article explores how changes in debt priority structure affect banks’ funding costs and soundness. We exploit the staggered introduction of depositor preference laws across 15 U.S. states between 1983 and 1993 which confer priority to deposit claims in case of bank liquidation. The laws are exogenous with respect to the outcomes of interest and apply to state-chartered banks but not to nationally-chartered banks, allowing us to isolate causality using difference-in-difference methods.

We document changes in monitoring intensity by various creditors depending on whether creditors move up or down the priority ladder. Enactment of depositor preference reduces deposit interest rates, consistent with the fact that deposit claims are protected in case of bankruptcy thereby reducing depositors’ monitoring incentives. However, non-deposit interest rates increase as these creditors are exposed to greater losses in bankruptcy which leads them to more intensively monitor banks’ conditions.

Subordinating non-depositor claims also reduces banks’ risk-taking and leverage, consistent with market discipline. For example, non-depositors who receive negative signals about project returns may refuse to roll over funds which motivates banks to improve soundness to maintain access to key funding sources such as Fed Funds.

These insights highlight a role for debt priority structure in the regulatory framework, and support recent innovations in banking regulation that reallocate monitoring incentives towards non-depositors.

The full paper can be found here.

Recent Rulings Deepen the Divide on Whether the Bankruptcy Code’s Avoidance Provisions Apply Extraterritorially

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

The ability to avoid fraudulent or preferential transfers is a fundamental part of U.S. bankruptcy law. However, when a transfer by a U.S. entity takes place outside the U.S. to a non-U.S. transferee—as is increasingly common in the global economy—courts disagree as to whether the Bankruptcy Code’s avoidance provisions apply extraterritorially to avoid the transfer and recover the transferred assets.

Several bankruptcy courts have addressed this issue in recent years, with inconsistent results. For example, in In re Ampal-Am. Israel Corp., the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that the avoidance provisions of the Bankruptcy Code do not apply outside the U.S, disagreeing with other courts both within and outside its own district. The Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware, however, held to the contrary in In re FAH Liquidating Corp., where it held that the presumption against territoriality did not prevent a trustee from avoiding an overseas transfer.

More recently, in a pair of adversary proceedings commenced in the chapter 11 case of Arcapita Bank, the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York held that the “presumption against extraterritoriality” did not defeat claims against foreign banks under sections 362 and 542 (while also ruling it need not decide whether sections 547 and 550 apply extraterritorially because it concluded that the challenged transfers occurred within the U.S.).

Taken together, these recent decisions further muddy the waters on an issue that has become increasingly prominent as the volume of cross-border bankruptcy cases continues to grow.

The article is available here.

A Few Predictions for Justice Gorsuch’s Bankruptcy Jurisprudence

By Megan McDermott (University of Wisconsin Law School)

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

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

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

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

The full paper can be found here.

Amicus Brief on the Scope of the Bankruptcy Safe Harbor for Securities Settlement Payments Filed in Merit Mgmt. v. FTI Consulting

By Ralph Brubaker (University of Illinois College of Law), Bruce A. Markell (Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law), Charles W. Mooney, Jr. (University of Pennsylvania Law School), and Mark Roe (Harvard Law School).

Bankruptcy Code § 546(e) contains a safe harbor that prevents avoidance of a securities settlement payment, e.g. as a preferential or constructively fraudulent transfer. This amicus brief was filed in Merit Management Group, LP v. FTI Consulting, Inc., No. 16-784 (U.S.). The brief explains how § 546(e) rationally constrains its scope via the statutory specification that the safe harbor only applies (because it need only apply) if the “transfer” sought to be avoided was allegedly “made by or to (or for the benefit of)” a protected securities market intermediary, such as a stockbroker or a financial institution.

Ascertaining the meaning and function of that determinative scope language requires an understanding of (1) the concept of a “transfer” as the fundamental analytical transaction unit throughout the Code’s avoidance provisions, and (2) the relationship between that avoidable “transfer” concept and the inextricably interrelated concepts of who that “transfer” is “made by or to (or for the benefit of).” By its express terms, § 546(e) only shields a challenged “transfer” from avoidance if (1) that transfer was “made by” a debtor-transferor who was a qualifying intermediary, “or” (2) a party with potential liability—because the challenged transfer allegedly was made “to or for the benefit of” that party—was a protected intermediary. Thus, the transfer of cash to a stock seller and of the stock back to the buyer is not safe-harbored. The delivery of the cash (and the stock) through financial intermediaries, however, is.

The full amicus brief may be found here.


Oral argument took place on November 6, 2017. The transcript is available here. The roundtable previously posted an article by Ralph Brubaker on the meaning of § 546(e) and a roundup of law firm perspectives on the Seventh Circuit’s decision in FTI Consulting, Inc. v. Merit Management Group, LP, 830 F.3d 690 (7th Cir. 2016). The Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the decision on May 1, 2017. Petitioner Merit Management Group, LP’s opening brief was subsequently filed, along with the Respondent’s brief, and Petitioner’s reply. Additional amicus curiae briefs were filed by Opportunity Partners, L.P.Various Former Tribune and Lyondell Shareholders, Tribune Company Retirees and Noteholders, and the National Association of Bankruptcy Trustees.

Momentive: Law Firm Perspectives

On October 28, 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit handed down its decision in In re MPM Silicones, L.L.C., holding that where an efficient market exists, the appropriate cram-down interest rate in Chapter 11 cases is the market rate, distinguishing the formula rate applied by the Supreme Court in Till v. SCS Credit Corp. in Chapter 13 cases. The Second Circuit wrote that “the market rate should be applied in Chapter 11 cases where there exists an efficient market. But where no efficient market exists for a Chapter 11 debtor, then the bankruptcy court should employ the formula approach endorsed by the Till plurality.” The Second Circuit also disallowed the senior creditors’ claim for a make-whole payment, although the Third Circuit had allowed such a claim in In re Energy Future Holdings Corp.

Law firms have so far reacted unanimously that this decision is a win for secured creditors as it ameliorates the risk that unsecured creditors could extract value from the debtor at the secured creditors’ expense. Weil writes that “it seems like the Bankruptcy Court, now freed from Till, will find that an efficient market exists, and will adjust the interest rate on the replacement notes accordingly.”

Nevertheless, some firms predict that there may still be areas future controversy. Davis Polk warns that this decision “could result in expensive litigations between debtors and secured creditors as to whether there exists an efficient market and, if so, what the efficient market rate should be.” Norton Rose Fulbright also emphasizes that the next step for secured creditors is to focus on when an efficient market exists.

Firms have also noticed the decision’s implication for debtor-side strategy. Baker McKenzie suggests the possibility that “a debtor may engage in forum shopping to file its case in a jurisdiction that applies the formula approach,” or “be even more sensitive to the potential for exit financing quotes to be used as evidence against [debtors] in establishing a market rate.”

On the issue of the make-whole premium, Davis Polk highlights that the circuit split may increase forum shopping for distressed issuers with potentially significant make-whole obligations. It expects future issuers to draft clearly around the issue of make-whole obligation to provide for future Chapter 11 cases.

(By Jianjian Ye, Harvard Law School, J.D. 2018.)

Don’t Bank on Bankruptcy for Banks

By Mark Roe (Harvard Law School)

In the next month, the US Treasury Department is expected to decide whether to seek to replace the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act’s regulator-led process for resolving failed mega-banks with a solely court-based mechanism. Such a change would be a mistake of potentially crisis-size proportions.

Yes, creating a more streamlined bankruptcy process can reduce the decibel level of a bank’s failure, and bankruptcy judges are experts at important restructuring tasks. But there are critical factors that cannot be ignored. Restructuring a mega-bank requires pre-planning, familiarity with the bank’s strengths and weaknesses, knowledge of how to time the bankruptcy properly in a volatile economy, and the capacity to coordinate with foreign regulators.

The courts cannot fulfill these tasks alone, especially in the time the proposal under consideration has allotted – a 48-hour weekend. Unable to plan ahead, the courts would enter into the restructuring process unfamiliar with the bank. Moreover, the courts cannot manage the kind of economy-wide crisis that would arise if multiple mega-banks sank simultaneously. And they cannot coordinate with foreign regulators.

The rest of the article is available here.

Recent Roundtable coverage of this subject includes a round-up of op-eds; a summary of a letter submitted to Congress by financial scholars; a summary of a White House memorandum calling for reconsideration of the OLA; and an analysis of recent legislative efforts to address bankruptcy for banks.

The Roundtable has also published commentary on the treatment of insolvent financial institutions; see Jackson & Massman, “The Resolution of Distressed Financial Conglomerates” and Lubben & Wilmarth, “Too Big and Unable to Fail.”

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