Aviation Chapter 11 Cases Take Flight

By Kelly DiBlasi and Jason George (Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP)

Kelly DiBlasi
Jason George

Increased competition, rising fuel costs, and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused financial distress for airlines and other aviation companies and led to an increase in their use of Chapter 11 to address these issues. Chapter 11’s many tools, including the automatic stay, DIP financing, and the ability to reject burdensome contracts or bind dissenting creditors, are available to both domestic and foreign companies. However, one underappreciated aspect of Chapter 11 is its flexibility in different stages of a restructuring with varying levels of stakeholder consent. For example, a company at imminent risk of running out of cash, defaulting on obligations, and/or confronting creditors collecting significant overdue payables can use Chapter 11 to prevent creditors from exercising remedies against the company and its property. Other companies may already have agreement with key stakeholders on the major components of a reorganization plan, only needing an in-court process to implement certain aspects of the plan that cannot be accomplished out of court, such as binding dissenting creditors. Chapter 11 can accommodate all such scenarios. This flexibility, combined with the tools and benefits described above, makes Chapter 11 an attractive option for airlines and other aviation companies in distress. As the aviation industry continues to experience financial distress, it is anticipated that more companies in the industry will look at Chapter 11 as a viable option to pursue a restructuring.

The full article can be found here.

Fifth Circuit Doubles Down on Right to Reject Filed-rate Contracts, but With an Exception

posted in: Bankruptcy, Chapter 11 | 0

By Ronald Silverman, John Beck and Katherine Lynn (Hogan Lovells)

Ronald Silverman
John Beck
Katherine Lynn

The Fifth Circuit recently issued an opinion, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission v. Ultra Resources, Inc., in which it relied on and affirmed its prior 2004 decision — In re Mirant — and held that bankruptcy courts have the authority — at least in many common contexts — to reject filed-rate contracts without the approval of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The court reasoned that rejection of such contracts only has an indirect effect on the filed-rate and is not a collateral attack, and therefore can be done without FERC’s approval.

Further, the Fifth Circuit held that rejection of a filed-rate contract does not violate 11 U.S.C. § 1129(a)(6) of the Bankruptcy Code because rejection does not change the rate itself, it merely ceases payment of the rate.  Thus, the decision further empowers debtors to reject filed-rate contracts in bankruptcy cases, so long as rejection does not amount to a rate change. 

However, the court did identify an exception to the general rule.  The opinion states that if a debtor seeks to reject a filed-rate contract, but still needs the capacity and seeks to secure a lower rate through rejection, such rejection would be impermissible without FERC’s approval, although that was not the situation in Ultra.  Left for future cases will be the determination of what particular circumstances will require FERC’s permission to reject a filed-rate contract.

Read the full article here.

Holdout Panic

By Stephen J. Lubben (Seton Hall Law School)

Stephen J. Lubben

It has been recognized that corporations themselves are designed to promote collective action, and thus “a primary function of corporate law is to coordinate and constrain individual behavior – even profit-motivated behavior.”  Given that corporate debt instruments largely serve a governance function amongst creditors, it is not surprising that they, like corporations themselves, tend to quash individual action in favor of the group.  But the divergence between individual and group interests comes to the fore in times of stress.

An individual creditor can be either an oppressed minority investor or a holdout.  Majority holders can be either the group seeking an efficient and beneficial restructuring, or effectively an insider group that collaborates with more formal insiders to extract value from minority creditors.  Which reality is genuine is highly dependent on the particular facts of the case at hand, and may be quite difficult for an outsider to discern.

Restructuring law attempts to balance this uncertainty by providing a series of checks and balances.  In general, restructuring law begins with a preference for the collective, but encircles the collective with a series of rules that protect individual creditors from abuse.  

Some of the balance comes from the agreements that create the creditor relationship or duties related to those agreements; however, other aspects of balance are external and come from outside structures like the Bankruptcy Code or the Trust Indenture Act.  In general, the basic challenge here is to find the point at which the illegitimate power of holdouts is reduced without trampling on the legitimate rights of minority creditors.  It is very easy to avoid holdouts if the majority always wins.

My paper explores the ways in which modern restructuring practice has moved toward that “majority always wins” extreme.  This change was not part of some grand plan, but rather the result of a series of incremental decisions, each reacting to perceived abuses by holdouts.  But in indulging our fears of holdouts, we have lost the essential balance of the system.

Take the example of the RSA – or restructuring support agreement – that, in a variety of ways, can represent a generalized assault on the requirement in section 1123(a)(4) that a chapter 11 plan must “provide the same treatment for each claim or interest of a particular class.”  RSAs achieve this end by providing for backstop fees paid to a select group that will never have to backstop anything or DIP loans that the debtor does not really need.

In one recent case, pre-bankruptcy the debtor contracted with a sub-group of its secured noteholders to have those noteholders make an interest payment on the notes.   That is, some of the secured noteholders paid the interest payment due to all the secured noteholders.

In exchange, these distinctive noteholders received new “super-priority secured notes” secured by a lien that surpassed the old secured notes’ liens, while also carrying a hefty 10% coupon.  When the debtor filed for chapter 11 later that same year, to implement its own RSA-driven plan, the new super-priority notes were paid in full, with interest and “make whole call” fees.  In short, the select lenders made a small, six-month loan for a very high return at low risk.  This opportunity was not available to everyone in the original class of noteholders.

In short, I conclude that the modern American restructuring system has evolved to favor the interests of the majority to the point where a debtor and a majority of its lenders can inflict serious harm on minority creditors.  At some point, this reality is bound to have consequences for both the debt markets and the utility of chapter 11.

The full article is available here.

Texas Two-Stepping Out of Bankruptcy

By Michael A. Francus (Harvard Law School)

Michael Francus

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

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

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

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

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

Mitigating Rejection of Midstream Agreements in Bankruptcy

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

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

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

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

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

The full article is available here.

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

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

Niklas Hüther
Kristoph Kleiner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The full article is available here.

This piece previously appeared on the Oxford Business Law Blog.

Corporate Bankruptcy Has Lasting Effects on CEO Careers through Frictions in Executive Labor Market

By Andreas Kostøl (Arizona State University – W.P. Carey School of Business; Norges Bank), Morten Grindaker (Norwegian Business School; Norges Bank), and Kasper Roszbach (Norges Bank; University of Groningen)

Andreas Kostøl
Morten Grindaker
Kasper Roszbach

Policymakers have long been concerned about the potential negative effects of bankruptcy for CEOs and business dynamics. Fear of reputational scarring caused by bankruptcy could lead managers to take less risk than desired by owners, which could manifest in lower performance and lower rates of entrepreneurship and job growth.

 

CEOs influence a wide range of decisions, such as organizational practices, debt financing and whether to file for corporate bankruptcy or not. Empirical studies of Chapter 11 bankruptcy show that CEOs of large bankrupt firms suffer significant financial losses. The prospect of individually-borne income loss due to a corporate bankruptcy carries in it a risk that CEOs take decisions that are not aligned with the interest of the owners.

It remains an open empirical question, however, whether the observed personal costs should be attributed to the selection of CEOs with lower managerial skills, firm-specific human capital, or stigma in the executive labor market.

Our analysis attempts to answer this question by disentangling the stigma and skill effects by examining the causal effects of corporate bankruptcy on the personal income and career of CEOs in small and medium-sized companies in Norway. To this end, we exploit that bankruptcy petitions in Norway are randomly assigned to judges who have different degrees of strictness in their approval of bankruptcy filings. This institutional feature generates variation in firms’ likelihood of being declared bankrupt that is unrelated to firm or CEO characteristics. We use administrative panel data that identifies CEO’s sources of wealth and income and corporate positions to examine the effects of bankruptcy on their careers.

Two broad conclusions emerge from our empirical analysis.

First, we find that corporate bankruptcy has a long-lasting impact on CEOs’ careers. CEOs whose firms are declared bankrupt are 25 percentage points more likely to exit the executive workforce. Displaced CEOs find new employment quickly but do so by moving to lower-ranked positions in new firms. Bankruptcy also has an economically significant impact on CEO remuneration; we document an annual fall in capital income equal to about five percent of annual gross income. While the net present value of the average decline in capital income over the remainder of a CEO’s working-age career is equal to 60 percent of pre-bankruptcy annual income, we find no enduring effect on CEOs’ labor income after five years.

Second, our analysis shows that the displacement effects are much larger when default rates in the firms’ industry are low. For example, a CEOs is five times less likely to remain in the executive workforce if her/his firm experiences a bankruptcy while the bankruptcy frequency in the same industry is low. By contrast, variation in CEO wages is not driven by industry conditions. Post-bankruptcy, we find a greater mobility of CEOs between industries and an increased tendency to move to more productive firms with a higher-paid workforce, suggesting that managerial skills are portable.

Taken together, our findings suggest that negative career effects of bankruptcy can be attributed to stigma. When we eliminate the risk of low-skilled CEOs sorting into bankrupt firms, we find that the executive labor market interprets bankruptcy as a signal of lower managerial talent. This stigma effect is greater during better economic times. More details can be found in the full paper that is available here.