What Small Businesses Need Most Is A Little More Time

By Brook Gotberg (University of Missouri Law School; Chair, Small Business Committee of the Bankruptcy & COVID-19 Working Group)

Brook Gotberg

In the wake of the national shutdown of most commercial activity in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many small businesses are struggling with financial disruption, restrictions on reopening, and uncertainty regarding future business prospects.  Small businesses make up the vast majority of private firms in the United States, and provide nearly two-thirds of all new jobs.  These businesses have been the most visible economic casualties of the global pandemic, with many already closing for good, and many others reevaluating their prospects.  Certain industries, particularly dining and entertainment, have been particularly hard-hit, and could face large-scale obliteration.

A group of interdisciplinary scholars, the Small Business Committee of the Bankruptcy & COVID-19 Working Group, has been meeting regularly since March to discuss policy proposals for bankruptcy that would best protect viable small businesses from unnecessary death.  Although bankruptcy serves as a method to discharge debt, it also operates to stop collection efforts, which may be essential even for companies with little to no debt.  We fear that many formerly profitable small businesses will unnecessarily fail in the face of the current constraints on bankruptcy protection – constraints which assume a functioning economy, not the current reality.  Moreover, a mass filing of bankruptcies could overwhelm the bankruptcy system itself, particularly in light of the accelerated time frames currently designated for small businesses under the Bankruptcy Code.

We therefore recommend that the Code be temporarily adjusted to put a six-month freeze on most typical deadlines, affording debtors additional time to propose a plan of reorganization.  Furthermore, we recommend that debtors be allowed an amortized schedule to repay past-due rent.

Our reasoning for this proposal is simple.  While bankruptcy law in normal times can distinguish viable companies from non-viable companies and recommend reorganization or liquidation accordingly, these are not normal times.  Baseline assumptions for the value of businesses depend on revenues, which are now artificially constrained.  Creditors, trustees, and judges cannot make informed decisions on the viability of a given enterprise based on the recent past, and that uncertainty is unlikely to be resolved in the near future.  It is therefore essential to allow bankrupt firms more time to take advantage of the automatic stay while reassessing options for reorganization.

Furthermore, the hit to revenues will likely create debt overhang for otherwise profitable businesses that could prove impossible to overcome in the short run. This is particularly true for rental obligations.  For many small businesses, past-due rent is likely to be the primary obligation, but the law does not permit debtors to repay past-due rent over time, as is permitted for other forms of debt.  Current bankruptcy rules require a debtor to commit to its outstanding rental agreements within 60 days of filing, and then to repay all past-due rental obligations “promptly” (see 11 U.S.C. § 365(b) and (d)(4)(A)).  Our policy recommendation would permit small business debtors to repay rental obligations over the life of the plan – three to five years, under the Small Business Reorganization Act (SBRA).

Similarly, we also recommend that interest accumulated on oversecured collateral after the date of the national emergency proclamation, March 13, 2020, be disallowed in an effort to preserve the respective positions of all creditors.

Recognizing the burden placed on landlords and secured creditors by these recommendations, our proposed changes to deadlines do not interfere with swift cash collateral motions and motions to obtain alternative financing.  We also recommend that, although most motions to lift the stay would not be permitted, creditors should be allowed to lift the stay in circumstances where it can be shown that the debtor is wasting or spoiling the collateral.

A simultaneous permanent closure of small businesses would be catastrophic for the American economy, as hinted at by the surge in unemployment that followed the temporary closures.  Beyond the loss of jobs, closure of businesses would mean fewer services offered within the community, and closed storefronts would likely invite blight, particularly in already vulnerable communities.  This could erase years of hard-won economic and social progress.

The goal of the Bankruptcy & COVID-19 Working Group is to make workable policy recommendations that will have a meaningful impact in mitigating the harm caused by COVID-19 to the American economy.  The group continues to meet, gather data, and review additional policy recommendations.  The goal is to minimize the long-term damage caused by the global pandemic by exploring how bankruptcy policy can do the most good.

The full letter can be found 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.

COVID-19 and the Bankruptcy Court Workload

By Taylor Custer (Harvard Law School)

Taylor Custer

The United States’ response to COVID-19 has led to record levels of unemployment and a severe contraction in real GDP. The economic shock has already pushed companies such as J.C. Penney and J.Crew into bankruptcy. And many more, such as AMC and Hertz, may quickly follow. If that happens, the nation’s bankruptcy courts could soon face unprecedented levels of stress. There are at least four ways to address a potential surge.

First, Congress could authorize more permanent bankruptcy judges. It has currently authorized the federal courts of appeals to appoint 316 permanent bankruptcy judges throughout the country. But three years ago, when the economy was much stronger, the Judicial Conference argued that more judges were still needed.

Second, Congress could authorize more temporary bankruptcy judges. It has currently authorized about three dozen of them. Temporary bankruptcy judgeships expire when the occupant dies, retires, resigns, or is removed from office 5 years after the seat was created or extended. The most recent extension was in 2017, so the current temporary bankruptcy judgeships will remain vacant once occupants begin to depart after 2022 if the seats are not extended.

Third, the judicial council of each federal court of appeals could recall retired bankruptcy judges to serve.

Fourth, the judicial councils for the federal courts of appeals could agree to temporarily transfer bankruptcy judges around the country. Although this would do little to alleviate stress from an absolute rise in bankruptcies, it could help manage bottlenecks in places with disproportionate bankruptcy filings—such as Delaware, New York, and Texas. Under 28 U.S.C. § 152(d), “[w]ith the approval of the Judicial Conference and of each of the judicial councils involved, a bankruptcy judge may be designated to serve in any district adjacent to or near the district for which such bankruptcy judge was appointed.” And, under 28 U.S.C. § 155(a), “[a] bankruptcy judge may be transferred to serve temporarily as a bankruptcy judge in any judicial district other than the judicial district for which such bankruptcy judge was appointed upon the approval of the judicial council of each of the circuits involved.”

Bankruptcy and COVID-19 Working Group

An interdisciplinary group of bankruptcy scholars from the “Large Corporations Committee of the Bankruptcy & COVID-19 Working Group” recently sent an open letter to the United States Senate/House of Representatives on the potential impact of a sharp rise in bankruptcies on the bankruptcy court system. In the letter, the bankruptcy scholars pointed to the deteriorating market for corporate debt and the rising unemployment rate as likely to induce increased bankruptcies in the next months. If the economy does not prepare, the level of demand on the bankruptcy court system could become overwhelming. Accordingly, the scholars urge Congress to start planning and create additional resources to support the existing court system, such as adding temporary bankruptcy judges, recalling of retired judges, and moving judges from less-busy districts to busier districts.

The full letter can be found here.

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