As originally enacted, the Act allowed certain small businesses with no more than approximately $2.7 million of debt to file for bankruptcy under a new subchapter V of chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code.
On January 12, 2019, a new ‘Code of enterprise crisis and of insolvency’ was adopted in Italy.
The qualifying aspect of the new law is its emphasis on early intervention. The early warning system is based on enhanced internal monitoring and a ‘duty to scream’ imposed on public creditors, if the company is delinquent on VAT or social security contributions. All business entities must set up adequate ‘organisational, management and accounting’ systems that allow early detection of a crisis and timely dealing with it. The law also creates a public office that should help debtors to find an agreement with creditors or induce them to file for a proper reorganisation procedure.
There are incentives for debtors and directors who tackle the crisis early (and for auditors who take the appropriate steps). On the other hand, undue delay is addressed in various ways. Among them, a new presumption regarding the quantification of damages in case of directors’ trading after the moment when the company is deemed dissolved, that will make it easier for trustees to hold directors liable.
The reform also brings in updates on international jurisdiction, now entirely based on centre of main interest (COMI) (however, there is no general cooperation obligation with regard to cross-border insolvency), and a comprehensive set of rules on group crisis (seemingly compliant with the UNCITRAL principles).
Finally, the law makes relevant changes regarding two of the three available restructuring instruments, while there is nothing new with regard to the very peculiar reading of the absolute priority rule (APR) according to Italian insolvency law.
The law broadens the scope of the cramming down on dissenting creditors (subject to a 75% supermajority in the relevant class) in out-of-court, but court-confirmed debt restructuring agreements: once restricted to financial creditors only, they are now available with respect to all creditors. The confirmation of the plan, which envisages only intra-class cram down, is possible irrespective of compliance with any priority rule (absolute or relative), with the only backstop of a ‘best-interest test’, now based on a comparison with a liquidation scenario. This makes the Italian ‘scheme of arrangement’ a very flexible and effective tool (confirmation rates are also very high, in practice).
Regarding judicial composition with creditors (concordato preventivo), the law confirms the controversial requirement (introduced in 2015) that a minimum 20% payment of unsecured creditors is ensured when a liquidation plan is proposed, and adds the requirement of some form of ‘external’ financial input. By contrast, there is no such a threshold when the business is due to continue under the plan: however, ‘business continuation’ is now defined more narrowly than in the past – it is such only if creditors are paid mainly out of proceeds of the ongoing business, rather than from asset sales, or, under a statutory definition, if the continued business employs at least one-half of the previous workforce. This requirement may exceedingly restrict access to reorganisation or transfer wealth from creditors to employees.
As mentioned, the APR conundrum – the matter is domain of case law – is not solved by the new law. While the discussion regarding APR among creditors is confined mainly to what constitutes ‘new value’ (thus evading the APR waterfall), APR still seems not to apply to equity holders, in case of business continuation.
Finally, the new law introduces very minor tweaks to ‘plain’ insolvent liquidation proceedings, solving some interpretive issues but without an innovative approach, and makes the ‘certified reorganisation plan’, an out-of-court restructuring framework, somewhat more stable in case things don’t work out and the debtor ends up insolvent.
Certain new measures are already in force, but the whole new Code will come into force on 15 August 2020. It should be noted that the new law fully applies – as the law it supersedes – only to enterprises with less than 200 employees. Enterprises exceeding that threshold are deemed ‘large’ and, while being able to access ordinary restructuring tools, if insolvent they are subject to ‘extraordinary administration’, a special going-concern liquidation regime that provides for broad discretion for governmental authorities and the pursuit of business continuity even at the expenses of creditors’ rights.
The paper offers a comprehensive review of the main features of the new law, setting it in the context of the current Italian insolvency law framework.
The Third Circuit, applying the Supreme Court’s decision in Stern v. Marshall, recently held that the Bankruptcy Court has the authority to confirm a chapter 11 plan containing nonconsensual, third-party releases when such releases are integral to the debtor’s successful reorganization.
In Stern, the Supreme Court examined the scope of the bankruptcy court’s constitutional authority and found, among other things, that the bankruptcy court can resolve a matter that is integral to the restructuring of the debtor-creditor relationship. Analyzing Stern, the Third Circuit in In re Millennium held that the Bankruptcy Court could confirm a plan that included non-consensual, third party releases because the releases were the result of “highly adversarial” and “extremely complicated” negotiations and without the releases, the debtor would not have been able to successfully reorganize.
By Jay Rao (University of California, Berkeley, School of Law)
This Article examines the application of equitable subordination under Title 11 of the United States Code to bankruptcy claims purchasing transactions that transpire after the occurrence of inequitable conduct by a third party. Although a significant issue with practical consequences, it has drawn relatively scant commentary. To the author’s knowledge, no scholarship to date has attempted to comprehensively discuss the issue or describe the indirect cleansing and washing of tainted claims resulting therefrom. While analyzing and criticizing the current state of the law, this Article introduces the concepts of the “subordination benefit,” “subordination benefit elimination theory,” and “limited subordination benefit theory” to facilitate and further conversations related to the intersection of equitable subordination and bankruptcy claims trading.
This Article primarily aims to promote an active, fluid bankruptcy claims trading market to, on an ex post basis, benefit creditors and, on an ex ante basis, reduce the cost, and induce the extension, of credit in the primary capital markets, thereby supporting the broader economy. Additionally, this Article seeks to reduce indirect cleansing of tainted claims and indirect claims washing through the bankruptcy claims market.
The subject matter is particularly timely and relevant, given the recent publication of the Final Report and Recommendations of the American Bankruptcy Institute Commission to Study the Reform of Chapter 11, the significant growth of the claims trading market and increasing activity and sophistication of distressed investors, and the recent formation of the American Bankruptcy Institute’s Claims Trading Committee.
This Article argues that subordination benefit elimination theory, which represents the dominant theory propagated by courts and commentators, finds support in a misguided reading of caselaw and conflicts with sound economic policy and logic. Further, while acknowledging limited subordination benefit theory is a superior approach to subordination benefit elimination theory, this Article argues that limited subordination benefit theory also runs contrary to sound economic policy and logic. This Article requests commentators and courts halt and reverse the propagation of subordination benefit elimination theory and avoid disseminating limited subordination benefit theory. Instead, this Article proposes post-misconduct discounted claims purchasers be entitled to participate in the subordination benefit to the same extent as pre-misconduct claimholders.
If commentators and courts are unready to abandon both theories and if required to make a suboptimal binary choice, this Article suggests limited subordination benefit theory be propagated and utilized in lieu of subordination benefit elimination theory.
Coupled with continued efforts in financial deleveraging and industrial reorganization, China delivered a number of changes to its bankruptcy law in 2019 in an effort to further accommodate smooth market exits for non-profitable businesses and to provide greater opportunities for viable businesses that experience temporary liquidity issues to be restructured as going concerns.
Currently, a lack of detailed rules and practical solutions to issues arising out of bankruptcies often deters parties from initiating such proceedings in China. The new rules will provide further clarification on extensively litigated/disputed issues and enhance transparency and consistency in the bankruptcy courts’ handling of cases. The developments encourage more usage of restructuring and compromise proceedings to find market solutions to address insolvency of Chinese companies.
“China’s bankruptcy laws and practices will be more and more market-driven,” said Xu Shengfeng, a Shenzhen-based bankruptcy and restructuring partner of Zhong Lun Law Firm, notwithstanding perceptions among foreign investors that “China’s bankruptcy regime is rather bureaucratic and administrative, with a certain level of involvement by local governments.”
“The goal is to build an institution in which the government’s role can be minimized, until its complete exit,” Xu said. “It cannot be done within a year or two, but this is certainly where things are headed.”
Market players, in particular financial institutions and asset management companies, are becoming more active and playing a greater role in leading restructuring and compromise proceedings. “Right now, many of the restructuring cases need capital injection from outside investors, and it is a great time for asset management companies,” Xu said. The recent U.S.-China Trade Deal promises to open doors for U.S. firms to obtain asset management licenses to acquire Chinese NPLs – see Article 4.5 of the US-China Economic and Trade Agreement.
Key changes to China’s restructuring regime in 2019 included:
establishment of specialized bankruptcy courts in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Wenzhou and Hangzhou;
Supreme People’s Court’s Judicial Interpretation III on the Enterprise Bankruptcy Law (EBL);
joint announcement of the Plan for Accelerating Improvement of the System for Market Entity Exits by 13 major state departments;
further establishment of regional bankruptcy administrator associations, including those in Beijing and Shanghai;
comment solicitation and final issuance of the Minutes of Conference on National Courts’ Civil and Commercial Trial Work, which devoted a section specifically for amendment of bankruptcy rules and restructuring regimes; and
“It was definitely a year of highlights,” said Xu. “The professionalism of bankruptcy trial teams, the establishment of online bankruptcy information disclosure platform, the promotion of pre-packaged restructurings and so on. The Supreme People’s Court is also making headways in the areas of personal bankruptcy and cross-border bankruptcy.”
By Sara L. Chenetz and Tina N. Moss (Perkins Coie)
Reward Science and Technology Industry Group Co., Ltd. (“Reward”) joins a growing list of Chinese companies that have chosen to file a case in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in connection with their restructuring efforts under the People’s Republic of China’s Enterprise Bankruptcy Law (“EBL”). These U.S. cases are known as “Chapter 15” cases, in which the foreign representative of the debtor files a petition in a U.S. bankruptcy court seeking “recognition” of a foreign proceeding. Relief granted to Reward in its Chapter 15 proceedings included a stay of all efforts by Reward’s U.S. creditors to continue litigation and to commence any new lawsuits or other efforts to collect on claims in the United States. Additionally, the Reward foreign representative was granted the power to administer Reward’s U.S.-based assets for the benefit of its creditors and to gather evidence within the United States concerning Reward’s liabilities, assets, business affairs, and operations, including through examining witnesses under oath and issuing subpoenas to obtain documents. Reward’s Chapter 15 case demonstrates that companies that are the subject of EBL cases or are considering whether they could benefit from filing an EBL case may also be able to obtain protections from creditor action in the United States by commencing a Chapter 15 case. As part of a Chapter 15 case, U.S. bankruptcy courts may halt litigation and other collection efforts against the Chinese business (temporarily or permanently), limit the enforceability of certain contract provisions, and simultaneously facilitate the Chinese’s business’ efforts to reorganize or liquidate.
Two recent amendments to the U.S. Bankruptcy Code impose new hurdles for debtors and trustees to clear before filing an action against a creditor to recover the value of preferential transfers that the debtor made to the creditor prior to filing a bankruptcy petition. One amendment requires debtors and trustees to conduct a due diligence review of the circumstances surrounding a particular transfer and probable affirmative defenses before filing suit. The other amendment increases the amount that debtors and trustees must seek to recover in a preference action if they want to file the action in the court where the bankruptcy case is pending rather than in the court where the creditor is located. These creditor-friendly amendments will take effect in early 2020, and may discourage debtors and trustees from filing some preference actions.
By Jonathan Seymour, Steven L. Schwarcz (Duke University School of Law)
The European Union recently adopted a Restructuring Directive intended to facilitate the reorganization of insolvent and other financially troubled firms. Although the central goal of the Directive parallels that of Chapter 11 of U.S. bankruptcy law—to protect and maximize the value of financially distressed but economically viable enterprises by consensually reorganizing their capital structure—the Directive introduces an innovative but controversial option: that EU Member States can decree that reorganization negotiations should be subject to a relative priority default rule, as opposed to the type of absolute priority default rule used by Chapter 11.
The purpose of the default rule—whether relative or absolute priority—is to provide a mechanism whereby a plan of reorganization may be approved notwithstanding failure of the parties to reach a consensus. Such a “cram down” plan reflects that one or more classes of impaired creditors or shareholders dissents. In that case, the EU’s relative priority default rule would allow confirmation of the cram down plan so long as senior classes are treated more favorably than junior classes. In contrast, Chapter 11’s absolute priority default rule would require senior classes to be paid in full before junior classes receive any distribution under the cram down plan.
EU officials argue that relative priority would provide a fairer and more pragmatic default rule than absolute priority. We disagree. As explained below, we believe that a relative priority default rule would, perversely, make consensual reorganization plans less likely. We also illustrate why a relative priority default rule could produce unfair and economically undesirable outcomes.
A relative priority default rule would make consensual reorganization plans less likely because, unlike an absolute priority default rule, it would not function as a penalty default. Absolute priority functions as a penalty default because it would require a costly and contentious going-concern valuation of the debtor, in order to determine what share of the equity in the reorganized debtor is necessary to pay the claims of senior classes in full before any remaining value may be paid to junior classes. To avoid that cost and contention, the parties are motivated to negotiate a consensual plan, even if they would have to give up some value.
Relative priority, in contrast, would not operate effectively as a penalty default rule. A debtor could gain approval of a nonconsensual (i.e., cram down) plan without any valuation of the reorganized business. Even if a valuation is required, a simple and relatively inexpensive floor or ceiling valuation should suffice, rather than the precise valuation required under absolute priority. Parties therefore would have little incentive to compromise.
A relative priority default rule also would permit unfair outcomes. Our article shows how such a default rule would permit shareholders to retain much of the value in a reorganized business, while forcing creditors to accept significantly less than full payment. That could make debt investments less attractive in EU Member States that adopt a relative priority default rule. At the same time, relative priority would create incentives, as was the case in the early years of the U.S. bankruptcy laws, for senior and junior classes to collude to “squeeze” intermediate classes. Additionally, by reducing the risk of insolvency for shareholders and management, relative priority could operate as a subsidy for overleveraged businesses and encourage risky behavior.
For all of these reasons, we believe that EU Members States should avoid adopting a relative priority default rule. Our article also responds to potential defenses of that option. We demonstrate that relative priority is unnecessary to deter holdout creditors from obstructing the plan negotiation process. We additionally explain why relative priority is not needed to promote successful reorganizations of small and medium sized businesses. To the extent that traditional Chapter 11-style reorganization has not worked well for small businesses in the US, we suggest that the recent Small Business Reorganization Act provides a better restructuring model by permitting such businesses to reorganize on a “best efforts” basis.
By Jonathan C. Lipson (Temple University Beasley School of Law), Adam J. Levitin (Georgetown Law Center), Stephen J. Lubben (Seton Hall University School of Law)
Recently, we (along with colleagues at other law schools) asked that an examiner be appointed in the Purdue Pharma chapter 11 bankruptcy case, pending in the Southern District of New York. Although the Bankruptcy Court has not yet acted on that request (technically, it was in the form of a letter to the United States Trustee), it has generated controversy and media attention (e.g., WSJ, WaPo, Rachel Maddow), which will likely persist until there are credible answers to the questions that motivated our request:
What was the role of the Sackler family (the owners of Purdue) in Purdue’s role in the opioid crisis? and
To what extent did the Sacklers or other insiders strip assets out of Purdue in anticipation of bankruptcy?
Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code governs corporate reorganizations, such as Purdue Pharma’s, and provides that an examiner can be appointed if, among other things, it is in the interests of creditors and the debtor’s bankruptcy estate. Here, we argued that there is an overwhelming public interest which overlaps with the estate’s interest. This makes the need for an independent report on these two questions compelling.
As is well known, Purdue Pharma is at the center of the opioid crisis in America, having developed and marketed Oxycontin (among other drugs). This crisis has generated more than 2600 lawsuits against Purdue and the Sacklers, many brought by state and local governments that have had to bear the costs of drug addiction. The debtors and the Sacklers have proposed a settlement under which the Sacklers would cede the company to a “public trust” and make additional contributions, in exchange for releases. The settlement is alleged to be between $10 and $12 billion, with $3 billion of that coming from the Sacklers directly. While some plaintiffs have agreed to the settlement, others have not, and are fighting the bankruptcy process.
Like many mass tort debtors—from Johns-Manville to PG&E—Purdue seeks to channel and control its liability through bankruptcy reorganization. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain, of the Southern District of New York, has stayed the lawsuits, not just against Purdue, but also against the Sacklers, even though they are not debtors in bankruptcy—in order to permit the debtors to negotiate a plan of reorganization that would embody the proposed settlement.
We argued that an independent examination would answer the two key questions more credibly and efficiently than other mechanisms in bankruptcy for three reasons.
First, unlike many mass-tort bankruptcies, these cases appear to shield non-debtors (the Sacklers) from discovery and potential liability, even though there are credible allegations that they may have actively contributed to the opioid crisis and/or stripped assets from the debtors. The important question is not whether the Sacklers are making a contribution to a bankruptcy plan in exchange for a release from future liability, but whether their contribution is appropriate in light of the answers to our two questions. It will be very difficult to assess that without an independent examiner’s report.
Second, because Purdue Pharma is privately held, it is hard to know what happened at the company before bankruptcy. The debtors have appointed a special committee of the board to look into the pre-bankruptcy transfers, but because the Sacklers apparently still control the debtors, it is hard to know how independent this committee was, or can be. The committee is, for example, represented by the same counsel as Purdue Pharma, which may hamper the committee’s independence. In any case, even where other high profile debtors, such as Enron, have used independent committees to investigate allegations of wrongdoing, courts have nevertheless appointed bankruptcy examiners to assess, verify, and supplement the work of those committees. It is hard to see why Purdue should be different.
Third, and perhaps most important, the opioid crisis is not like other mass torts because it has generated extraordinary public interest. Victims of the opioid crisis understandably want their day in court—which is something that bankruptcy tends to eliminate. While thousands of lawsuits would be wasteful, failing to take seriously the dignitary interests of victims of the opioid crisis could threaten the legitimacy and integrity of the bankruptcy system. At the same time, if an independent examiner exonerates the Sacklers, this may help provide the redemption that they presumably want.
Although the United States Trustee has not yet sought an examiner, there have been three interesting developments since we sent the letter:
On November 6, 2019 Marshall Huebner, counsel to the debtor in possession, emailed us to say that “the Debtors (likely along with other core stakeholders) intend to strongly oppose the request, which, with apologies to its authors, contains many misstatements of fact.” However, Huebner identified no “misstatements of fact” (much less “many”).
On November 15, 2019, ten days after we sent the letter, the debtors filed a stipulation with counsel to the creditors committee and certain members of the Sackler family. The debtors and the Sacklers agreed to produce certain information to the committee (on a “professional eyes’ only basis”) that may respond to certain of the questions we asked, but in exchange the committee relinquished its right to seek an examiner until mid-April 2020. It is not clear how estate fiduciaries can properly cede such rights.
On December 16, 2019, the debtors filed a redacted version of the “independent” report noted above. It indicates that the Sacklers took about $10 billion in cash out of the debtors since 2008. This is not surprising, since the total value of the proposed settlement would have a face amount of about $10 billion (but a substantially lower present value given its payment schedule, and would not cover interest on the $10 billion).
The takeaway seems to be that, even though no examiner has been appointed, the Sacklers and the debtors in possession have begun to produce some information that may help to answer the questions we believe are central to this case. In this regard, the mere threat of an examiner might be having an effect. However, the ability to assess and verify this information is limited, at least for the time being.
That no one has actually requested an examiner is, at one level, not surprising. It is easy to imagine that managing this case is exceedingly difficult. The insiders in the case—especially counsel to the debtors and the official committee, and Judge Drain—may view an examiner as a wrench in the delicate machinery of the proposed settlement. Parties might therefore prefer to maintain the threat of an examiner, even as they are reluctant to pull the trigger on a motion.
The Purdue bankruptcy is, however, bigger than the financial claims of any of Purdue’s creditors. Purdue is a not a case that can be run like a standard chapter 11 because there is a strong public interest in establishing a clear and independent record of what Purdue and the Sacklers knew and did about the dangers of opioids, and the extent of the Sacklers’ transactions with Purdue. Establishing these facts credibly is important not just for the dignitary interests of opioid victims and their families, but also so that creditors can properly evaluate any settlement that emerges as part of the reorganization process.
Without credible answers to the questions we asked, there will be a shadow over these cases, one that may ultimately threaten the integrity of the reorganization process.
In In re Energy Future Holdings Corp., 773 Fed. Appx. 89, 2019 WL 2535700 (3d Cir. June 19, 2019), a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that adequate protection payments made during a bankruptcy case and distributions under a chapter 11 plan are not distributions of collateral for purposes of a “waterfall” provision in an intercreditor agreement. The ruling is a reminder that intercreditor agreements will apply only in accordance with their terms.Although the parties could have drafted the intercreditor agreement to apply to any consideration received from the debtor by the noteholders, they did not. Therefore, the intercreditor agreement did not apply to the adequate protection payments and plan distributions made to the noteholders.Creditors have recently learned similar lessons in other cases. Because the ruling was unpublished, the decision is not binding on courts in the Third Circuit.